Naming the Desert

Figurines in the Lexington Avenue Baptist Church’s Godly Play set.

There are moments in ministry when I feel marvelously competent: when a child interrupts my Sunday School lesson to make a connection to something we learned weeks or months ago, when I preach a sermon that I know said what needed saying, when the kids I work with lead such a great Ash Wednesday worship experience that my not-so-liturgical church gladly embraces it.

And then there are moments when I know I have no idea what the heck I’m doing.

This year has been full of the latter kind of moments.

Two years ago, when I was asked to serve as moderator of my state denominational organization, I was flattered. I would be added to the list of great people who’ve come before me in that position. It would look awesome on my resume. And I was assured it wasn’t too big a thing. Over the course of the three years of service, I’d plan our annual meeting once (a lot of work, but doable work), lead coordinating council and business meetings (a bit out of my comfort zone as a minister to children and families who seldom uses those skills in the local church, but still doable), and eventually recruit a dozen or so people to rotate onto the council (children’s minister = volunteer recruiting champion). So I said yes.

Little did I know.

During my moderator-elect year, the organization dealt with a difficult situation that landed me in hours and hours of tense and frustrating meetings and didn’t end in a way that made anyone particularly happy; a fairly contentious council meeting just before I took over as moderator made the general discontent abundantly clear. Then, just as my moderator year began last April, the organization found itself without a staff at all, barring an administrative assistant who’d begun work the same day the last of our former staff departed.

The good news was that there were transition guidelines already in place. I just had to follow the directions for appointing committees, hiring an interim, and operating in the meantime, plus do a fair amount of guessing and hunting down answers about how things were normally done in the office. It was a time-management challenge, but it was mostly okay. Follow the rules as they’re laid out. Ask questions. Figure out who has what pieces of the institutional memory.

The bad news was that I also had to lead a fall council meeting for a group of people who were frustrated with one another and with the position we were in as an organization. There was nothing in the transition plan about how to deal with that. I’m a nine on the enneagram. I hate conflict. I want everyone to be happy. Gulp. Read more

Green emergency exit graphic sign with human figure running through a door and an arrow pointing left

Emergency! …But Whose?

Green emergency exit graphic sign with human figure running through a door and an arrow pointing left

There are some emergency-like situations that don’t need to be escalated and intensified by the pastor.

“Doesn’t it suck,” my colleague commented to me, “when people call us in a panic because they didn’t read their email from weeks ago and now they want us to fix their problem?”

Yes, it does suck. One of my growing edges as a pastor is learning how to prevent other people’s anxiety from engulfing my day. One of the unspoken and unrealistic expectations placed on a pastor is that a parishioner’s predicament should automatically become the pastor’s. Of course, we have many real and pressing crises in pastoral ministry, such as someone moving to hospice, getting into a car accident, receiving a grim diagnosis, etc. But I’m discovering there are also situations facing folks that don’t need to be escalated and intensified by the pastor.

In this identified growth area, I draw inspiration from my sister. This spring, my niece, who is 9 years old, wanted greater independence. She was tired of her mom telling her what to do. My sister and niece agreed to a week-long trial in which my sister would refrain from giving directives, which ranged from feeding the cat to taking a bath. Before the experiment began, my sister said, “Just so we’re clear: with this arrangement, your emergency doesn’t have to become my emergency.” For example, if my niece forgot to pack her lunch the night before school, she might be in a panic in the morning and go to her mom, expecting her to be similarly panicked and hence find correct change so that she could purchase a school lunch. But no, my sister said:  the consequence would be that my niece wouldn’t eat lunch that day. Happily, my niece never neglected to pack her lunch; it seems that she had sufficient internal motivation. My sister is not ready to endorse this parenting method to anyone else: there were pros and cons to letting a 9-year-old completely determine her priorities in homework, chores, and personal hygiene. Nevertheless, my niece’s attitude improved substantially, and my sister was pleased by how much their mother-daughter relationship improved.   Read more

4 pictures of white birds with blue and pink coloration each flying in a different direction

Fight, Flight, or…What?

4 pictures of white birds with blue and pink coloration each flying in a different direction

“Different Actions”

My latte is mostly gone. I’ve done as much work as I can do at the coffee shop. I look at my day planner as I prepare to head to the church. And there, scrawled neatly in my own handwriting, in blue ink, is a reminder of my 2:00 p.m. meeting.

I see it, and I want to crawl under the table.

It is just a meeting, of course. Just a conversation with a congregation member who wants to share some thoughts and concerns. Just a chance for me to listen and to love.

But there it is again, welling up in me: my pastoral fight-or-flight response.

Some panicked part of my brain is trying to manipulate my heart into bailing on the conversation or getting preemptively defensive.

I know this fight-or-flight feeling well. I get this feeling during contentious conversations at church council. And when I’m about to preach a difficult sermon. And when I need to visit a member at her deathbed, surrounded by family members I’ve never met. And before every vague 2:00 p.m. meeting request that comes my way.

The fight-or-flight response, according to biological psychology, is a gift of evolution. It is the brain’s way of sensing danger and reacting to threats for the sake of survival. If I were to encounter a puma along my walk up the hill from home to church, I would undoubtedly be grateful for my amygdala, for the way it would trigger my adrenal system into overdrive. I’d be glad for the racing heart, the quickened breath, the trembling extremities, the tunnel-vision, the inability to hear or see anything other than the threat of the moment. I would be enormously grateful for the deep, primal, urge to get the heck out of there (provided I didn’t feel up to the task of wrestling the beast with my bare hands).

But my life these days is actually stunningly bereft of puma stand-offs. So why does my brain still feel the need to get me all jumpy and anxious for far lesser threats? Why does a 2:00 p.m. conversation trigger in me the same gut response as would an encounter with a wild animal?

In part, this response is trigged because we are all wired to remember past moments of pain and fear (in order to fine-tune our future response to similar stimuli).

I have been on the receiving end of hundreds of needle pricks over the last decade, and yet I still get nervous before blood draws because of one painful fainting spell more than ten years in my past.

I have been on the receiving end of hurtful words at other points in my ministry, therefore I brace for impact going forward.

We all have stories like this in our ministries. We remember the mistrust and mistruths stirred up by congregation members, past or present. We remember the topics that have put us in conflict before. We remember the sermons that have provoked angry emails. We remember the hurt of being taken advantage of. Some of us carry with us deep wounds of harassment and abuse, emotional, physical, or sexual.

So what, then, do we do? How do we move forward in the callings God has set before us without feeling like we are always managing our pain and our fear? Is there a way to cultivate a third response, something in between the fight and flight polarities? Read more

green tennis ball bouncing off of a red clay court with the shadow of the net across the court

The Need for Spiritual Agility

green tennis ball bouncing off of a red clay court with the shadow of the net across the court

Spiritual agility is a cluster of grit, emotional intelligence, and practice that allows us to respond to our changing realities with strength, speed, and stability.

My middle school tennis coach used to arrange the balls in a small pile at the center of each half-court on occasion. As soon as we approached the courts, we knew the occasion was agility drill day.

As fast as possible, our little, awkward, middle-school legs would go from corner to center, grab a ball, turn quickly, and place the ball in the corner from whence we came. We tripped a few times, as clumsy middle schoolers are sometimes known for doing, but we concentrated on developing our agility: moving with strength, speed, and stability.

My tennis-playing days are pretty much over, but I pastor a church in the 21st century. Last week I was invited by a Bible Study in my congregation to discuss what it is like to be a woman in ordained ministry. They were concluding a study on Romans and startled to discover that, of the 25 saints Paul calls by name in his most famous epistle, ten were women.

“So, what is it like?” the study leader asked.

Well, here we go. I talked about the “stained glass ceiling” and the “glass cliff.” I referenced studies that about the female clergy pay gap and how women make up more than half of all MDiv graduates yet repeatedly serve in positions in which we piece together part-time work, parenting, domestic responsibilities, and/or are relegated to subordinate roles because the church is used to seeing a young, white man when they picture a minister.

AND… when you see us scramble from zumba class to bible study to committee meeting, and when we scrape a sermon together in the gaps before our kids’ parent-teacher conference and a pastoral care visit, you are seeing a miracle at lightning speed. In the 21st century, it’s not realistic for followers of Jesus to simply walk one way down a winding shepherd’s path. Although we may feel clumsy at times, we are participants in the miracle of true 21st century discipleship, traversing a path that is challenging and rarely predictable. We embody the ability to adjust to changing realities and demands with speed, stability, and strength.

As I blurted out all these thoughts and statistics and stared at this group of disciples around the table, I realized the gift of what it means to be a woman in ministry today. I am glad that the church is entrusting the church to young women again. And I am glad that we sisters in Young Clergy Women International and beyond are giving the church, and the world, the gift of spiritual agility. Read more

person sitting in darkened room by window clasping hands and looking outside at dark, rainy sky

Lament in a Purple Church

person sitting in darkened room by window clasping hands and looking outside at dark, rainy sky

If lament is largely about naming loss, how am I to lead when there isn’t agreement over what is lost?

Increasingly, I look around at the state of the world and my response is to lament. My heart breaks at all the violence and injustice. In my ministry, I oversee and plan corporate worship every week and, correspondent with my personal desire to lament, I have grown in my desire to create space in worship for public lament.

I serve, however, in a majority-white congregation that is decidedly mixed in its political and socio-economic identities. It has been a challenge at times for me to serve in the purple context of Maumee, Ohio. If lament is largely about naming loss, how am I to lead when there isn’t agreement over what is lost?

In August 2017, James Fields, Jr., most recently a resident of Maumee, Ohio, drove his car into a gathering of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed Heather Heyer. In response, I explicitly named white supremacy as sin and condemned it, full stop, from the pulpit. Some people thanked me sincerely afterward, but others were less receptive. One church leader threatened to leave the church because I was “taking cues from the media and not from God’s Word.”

The next week, I was speaking with a church member, and she said to me, “I just don’t understand. There is so much hatred in the world right now.” I nodded vigorously; I was thinking of the KKK. But then she continued, “Why those people want to tear down historical monuments make no sense to me. It’s history!” My nodding stopped. I realized in that moment just how much disagreement there is in a purple church about what hatred looks like. Read more

What’s a clergy group to do?

In a clergy group, I’m looking for the unafraid—the folks in ministry who see the turbulent journey ahead as one full of opportunity and excitement for the church, even amid real challenges.

I have a friend, also a pastor. She wants to start a clergywomen group, wants to know what I’d like to get out of a thing like that. We both belong to other groups—with and without men—and we discuss that we’re not sure what we’re meant to get out of those groups, either. We like them—but we can’t tell if they’re for conversation and prayer, hivemind troubleshooting, networking, collaborating, or some hybrid of all of the above.

Of course, all of this prompts the question: What am I looking for in a clergy group? Am I looking for camaraderie—for colleagues in what can otherwise be a solitary calling? Am I looking for wisdom, for the experience and insights only a more seasoned pastor could offer? Or maybe the freedom to be female, and a few cautionary tales from other female pastors who’ve gone before me?

When I try to conjure an ideal, for some reason, my thoughts keep circling back to famous bands of writers or artists who produced in unison and shared an artistic legacy. I think of the Beatniks, Lost Generation, Algonquin Round Table. I also think of Silicon Valley incubators. I think of groups better than the sum of their parts, groups that foster innovation and usher in real breakthroughs.

Ministry in the twenty-first century isn’t for the faint-of-heart, we know. Here on the West Coast, where I live, we can’t take anything for granted. Old models of ministry seem to be failing fastest out here. I am constantly confronted by the very real limits of what I was taught in seminary. Most recently, in conceptualizing the shift happening, I’ve been guided by the thoughts of Alan Roxburgh, author, pastor-theologian, and fellow Pacific Northwesterner, particularly his suggestion that it’s inaccurate and complacent to cling to a narrative about it being the church’s season to grieve. The time for grief is over for most of us, Roxburgh declares, and the way forward looks like faithful, communal discernment.

In his book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, that discernment happens in congregations. But it will also happen outside of them. I’m hoping it will happen in clergy groups. Read more

Epiphany

Epiphany

Buford probably never paid homage to another person
in her life. Widowed young, no children, innumerable
opinions, Buford got to work and never stopped—

fixing her house, tending her garden,
building porches, painting ceilings;
climbing on ladders, rafters, scaffolding, even

into her seventies. When she finally decided
to move to the nursing home, she ordered
a motorized wheelchair, in which she became

unstoppable, even if another–slower–
resident got in her way. And when she turned 104,
she proved every day that she didn’t get that far

by being weak-willed. (Move that. Stand there. Stop
talking so loud. My hearing is fine.)
Visiting
Buford was less an act of non-anxious

presence, and always more of an exercise
in following orders. Yet, one time, when I brought
my fourteen-week-old daughter to Buford’s room,

and placed her on the worn, yellow bedspread,
Buford stooped over her, as low as she could go.
And as my daughter started swinging

her small soft fists, Buford reached out,
allowing one of those squishy hands to catch her bent
knuckle, and she paused for a moment, letting

her finger be gripped by this other finger,
which had entered the world 103 years
and 10 months after hers. At this,

as flesh met flesh,
I knelt beside the bed
and bowed my head.

Tomato plant

Leadership Metaphors: Garden and Machine

Tomato plant

I started to acknowledge that my leadership role, at its best, would be like cultivation—helping to create conditions in which life could thrive.

I was only about a month into my first call as solo pastor of a small Presbyterian congregation when a new class of elders rolled onto the Session, which is the church’s governing board. In my congregation, much of the ministry is carried out through teams, and the Session asked me to organize them, which meant rearranging some existing elders and assigning new ones to leadership positions. The problem was, with just a month in office, I felt I didn’t know them well enough to have a sense of who would fit where.

I had before me a list of teams, a list of elders, and a church directory.  I cleared off the table in my office and set about the task. Using color-coded note cards, I shuffled and reshuffled elders and church members among the teams, struggling to figure out the optimal arrangement. I was at this for about an hour before I stopped and asked myself, “What the heck am I doing?”

I realized that I had been treating the church as if it were a machine and people as though they were interchangeable parts. I think this is common, actually, in the vernacular of management—I have a feeling that in their professional lives many of the people in my congregation are subject to a similar kind of mechanistic metaphor. The language and concepts of industry have crept into our understanding of human beings. Employees find their names printed on organizational charts, an orderly arrangement of identical squares joined by straight lines. The task of handling people belongs to a department called “human resources,” as though people were raw materials like iron or copper or gravel or sand. Read more

Wear the Red Dress

I will wear red.
I will wear the red dress, even though
you will talk behind your hands to
wonder out loud –
what is she wearing
why is she wearing that
is that even appropriate
should a [insert literally anything here] be wearing that.
I will wear red.
I will wear the red dress
because you will notice something or other about me anyway
My haircut
My breasts
My ass
My legs
My shoes
My weird laugh
My voice that’s too high.
I will wear red
like the tree last to shed her leaves
that hussy show-off
she burns as her leaves die, her falling apart
is absolutely stunning.
She sheds her death like a skin
a beacon, a burning bush.
I will wear red like her.
I will wear red.

Prince Edward Island coast

A Pastor’s Scope for Imagination

Prince Edward Island coast

Prince Edward Island

When I was growing up, I would travel to Minnesota each year to visit my maternal grandparents. My grandmother had very strict parameters as to what content she would watch on her television.  Although she had cable and thus access to dozens of channels, she only watched Animal Planet and the Weather Channel because she deemed the others to be potentially sinful. An alternative to those television channels was the VHS version of a 1985 miniseries, “Anne of Green Gables,” and its 1987 sequel, “Anne of Avonlea.” I grew to love these videos, and I always opted to watch them over the Weather Channel. Returning to “Anne of Green Gables” year after year in my grandmother’s Minnesota living room left me brimming with the warmth of nostalgia and love.

The setting of “Anne of Green Gables” is Prince Edward Island (PEI), and scenery depicted in the miniseries made me eager to visit the Canadian island in person someday. I suggested that in 2017 the family vacation be to PEI. Happily, my family was on board and we spent two lovely weeks exploring the Atlantic Maritime provinces. PEI was gorgeous—the sand was distinctively red on some beaches; green potato plants were growing in neat rows; and the rural roads were dotted with quaint, old church buildings. In anticipation of the trip, I read the 1908 novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery that inspired the miniseries, and my appreciation for the fictional Anne grew all the more.

I love Anne’s emphasis on the pleasure and the necessity of having an imagination. Early in the novel, Anne declares, “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”  Read more