The Lonesome Valley of Birthing this Holy Week

New life is coming into a sick and suffering world for me this Easter, just as it did that first Easter. As I sat reclined in the dim monitoring closet of my OBGYN’s office listening to the heartbeat of the new life growing inside me, I realized I was beginning to understand Holy Week in a deeper way. I feel my feet matching the footprints of Jesus as he made his way to the Holy city for the last time. My child is due to arrive just after Easter, and so this Holy Week I walk the lonesome valley of doctor’s visits, ultrasounds, and monitoring alone; even my husband is not permitted to join me. The virus has turned our world inside out and this joyous time into a time of great fear and sorrow.

Fetal heart monitoring

Last week, I felt resolved to let go of my visions for birth and instead just show up when it was time to do what I must. “We’ll just do what we have to do,” became my mantra every time a new worrying arose. But as I sat in a mostly deserted waiting room on Monday of Holy Week with my N95 mask on, I struggled to breathe and couldn’t help imagining what trying to breathe through contractions would be like with a mask on. Breathing got harder and by the time the nurse took my blood pressure things did not look good. As I reclined hooked up to the fetal heartbeat monitor, I wondered if Jesus had a similar resolve that he then lost. Palm Sunday’s mantra could have sounded like mine: “Just get to the city and do what you have to do.” But of course, just a few verses later in John 12:27, we hear Jesus is “deeply troubled.” Having defiantly removed my mask to breathe easier and hopefully lower my blood pressure, I feel some comfort at the thought that perhaps Jesus waffled a bit this week too. He showed such grace in getting in his last lectures and final blessings, and then in the garden he prays for any other way. I totally get it, Jesus. If there is any other way, I’d love to hear it too. But we both know there isn’t. The only way to new life is through death. The only way to bring this new life into the world is by entering the halls of death, risking, fearing, and hopefully, eventually trusting God will bring us out again. Knowing you’ve been through it already helps for sure, but I’m most appreciative to know you had moments of doubt and fear too.

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 I Want to Be a Homemaker

We found out we were pregnant the day Mary Oliver died, life entering into this world and life leaving. Opening pink box after pink box just to be sure, I began to have the best and worst feelings of my life, wanting to constantly vomit and simultaneously filled with revolutionary hope.  This was our polar vortex baby that taught me about life finding a way in the deep cold and dark of a midwest winter. I sat by bedsides and anointed the dying in my church and held onto our little secret of life and hope. Our little one was of dreams and poetry but never to be more.These days parents-to-be can know so much, and it is a gift as you dream and track your little one. Our little one grew from the size of a chocolate chip but will never be more than my maraschino cherry.  All this knowledge is a gift until it isn’t and saying “I had a miscarriage” seems woefully inadequate, as if I was careless or irresponsible, language here fails me. I was and am heart broken. But life is full of consolation prizes and clubs of which you never want to be a part.

I had been planning on taking parental leave, postponing my first sabbatical for diapers, sleepless nights, and the life changing love of a newborn. My consolation was that now I would get three beautiful months to tend my soul and my broken heart. Becoming a parent, and specifically the parent that carries, I was excited about making my body a home, a safe place that would nourish, tend, and cherish this little human as it grew and developed within. The words of Genesis “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” taking on a whole new meaning.  I wanted to make my body a home. I wanted to be a homemaker. I still want to be a homemaker.

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When Christmas Isn’t Joyful: The Story of The Bird

I met my husband 15 years ago this Christmas, with all the trappings of a holiday romance movie: the snow was gently falling, he was in his new Army dress uniform, we talked for hours from the evening of Christmas Eve to the dawn of Christmas Day. I, young and feeling in love, went out and bought a Christmas ornament to commemorate such a lovely meet-cute. Ever since, we’ve had a tradition of buying an annual ornament; our collection is full of reminders of the churches we’ve served, the states we’ve lived in, and milestones we’ve reached as a family.

But there was one year, several years ago, when things were… not good. Our family was strong, but we were in the midst of both professional and personal chaos. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t in any mood to purchase a special ornament to commemorate it.

So I didn’t.

It came up in conversation a few times that season; my husband and I were very aware there was no new ornament, and we were okay with that.

But then, a few days after Christmas, we were at Target and saw a big clearance bin of ornaments, clearly the remnants of decorations that no one wanted during the season. I mean, ZERO PEOPLE wanted them. They were all damaged and hideous.

Then I saw it: The Bird.

It was oversized and brightly colored — very different from the delicate gold-trimmed ornaments we usually chose. It was crushed from having been pushed repeatedly to the bottom of the bin and was missing a sewn-on eye, a bare thread in its place. The tail was coming unglued and there was inexplicably some sort of plastic fish hook attached to its head.

And it was also 90% off. That thing cost thirty-nine cents.

I held it up to my husband: THIS IS IT. THIS IS OUR ORNAMENT FOR THIS YEAR. THIS BIRD THAT IS THIRTY-NINE CENTS AND MISSING AN EYE.

So we took it home and added it to the tree, talking about how difficult that year had been and what our hopes were for the coming year.

Every year since, as we decorate the Christmas tree, we retell the story of each ornament to our kids. And every year, we recount those struggles, smiling at the symbolism of this ugly bird on our tree that serves as a reminder of the year that didn’t destroy us.

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Joining the Divorced Pastors’ Club

On a Sunday morning in early 2016, I sat with a half a dozen kids in front of our altar for a children’s time, teaching them how to say my “new” last name. This would be my first week officially as “Pastor Posselt” instead of “Pastor [Married Name,]” after successfully changing it the week before in the appropriate city hall offices, divorce decree in hand.

Just a few months earlier, I sat across the desk in the office of the senior pastor – my colleague, friend, and mentor – to share with him about my upcoming divorce. Jim leaned back in his chair, almost as distraught as I was, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You are a part of a club that you never would ask to sign up for. But you’re strong – you’ll get through this, and you’ll become a better pastor for it.”

I could not have heard those words from anyone else. I knew he has walked a hard road himself as a member of a Club Nobody Wants to Join (as a widower). Because of that, my colleague and his words became one of the many sources of hope I clung to in those months, as my private and my public life collided. Not long after this conversation, I sent a letter to my congregation, breaking the news of my upcoming divorce, which brought me a mixture of relief and terror. So much of our lives as ministers of the church are unfairly on display: our salaries, our health, our clothing choices, how we spend our time, and too often our family lives. The business of the church means the church is in our business. It’s unfair, especially in our most vulnerable and painful moments.

I dreaded the judgment I imagined I would face, not only as a divorced person but also a divorced religious leader. As a pastor, I’m supposed to embody such holy ideas as forgiveness, reconciliation, love, patience, perseverance, and long-suffering. A pastor getting a divorce would be tantamount to a dentist needing a root canal or a heart surgeon needing a quintuple bypass.

I couldn’t quiet my own judgment. “I should have known better. I should have been a better model for my people.” After all, I know all the tricks in the “premarital counseling” bag. I should have been able to fix it. I felt like a kind of pariah – a woman pastor who is also divorced. I did not want to join this club. But I was – I am – strong. I did get through it, and I did become a better pastor for it.

We are all parts of various Clubs We Don’t Want to Join. I would never try to console you personally with the promise that your struggles will at some point make you a better person. But speaking for myself, my Divorce Club Membership gave me access to avenues of ministry I had not known before. My own congregation opened up to me in a new way and ministered to me in my need. And in turn, once the shock and grief started to heal, I did some hard work on myself so that I could be able to do the same for others.

Whatever the Club You Don’t Want to Join, it won’t define you, but it will change you. Somehow, I transformed from a newbie first-call pastor to a minister people trusted with their deepest secrets and truest selves. I was able to dig into some of those hard passages of Jesus that talk about divorce, and to remind my people that he was not talking about the no-fault variety. Marriage may be a promise, but it is not the beginning and end of everything in the church. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America it is not a sacrament, like Holy Communion and baptism.

Likewise, divorce itself is not a sin. Divorce is naming what is, and it is never a sin to tell the truth. Divorce does not break vows – it simply states that vows have already been broken, whether by egregious behavior or “irreconcilable differences.” In fact, staying in a relationship that is unsustainable can only add to everyone’s pain and suffering. Staying can sometimes mean breaking faith with yourself, in not loving and honoring yourself enough to leave. Divorce is the most loving option when it is the only way that the sacredness of human life – YOUR LIFE – can be affirmed and defended.

Pastors get divorced. And when we do so, instead of losing our credibility because of some outdated or harmful theology of Clergy Perfection, we get to call this notion what it is – hurtful garbage. As pastors we get to model healthy boundaries and abundant lives in whatever we go through, including how we get divorced. We can own our pain and push through because we know that ultimately our strength to persevere does not come from our own white-knuckling through the day, but from our Savior Jesus. We can dare to let ourselves be seen, because when we do, our members witness our boldness, and take courage from our example.

A Pastor’s divorce can also shine light on a subject that is still often taboo in the church, where divorce has often been cast only as sin, and rarely understood through a lens of redemption. Marriage can be holy and promote the abundant life that God desires for us. It can be a vehicle through which we experience something of the redemption and reconciliation promised by God in Jesus Christ. As we celebrate those gifts of marriage – whether in the church or in anniversary posts on Facebook – we can unintentionally cast a shadow of sorrow and shame for those whose marriages have ended, and even for those who are experiencing difficulty. We leave very little room to be real and authentic.

We need to reframe separation and divorce in the church. Sometimes abundance, redemption, and reconciliation come not through marriage, but through divorce. It, too, can be a holy thing. That doesn’t make it easy. Because I have joined this Club You Don’t Want to Join, I know that Jesus sees the pain of separation and divorce. Rather than condemning the path leading to it, Jesus’s love persists. Because I have joined this Club, I can assure members, friends, and others who are headed for separation and divorce that nothing will separate them from God’s love, that Jesus sees their pain, and can bring healing and wholeness. Take it from Pastor Posselt.

Pastoral Care

Trinity member Lauren Strawderman held 5 week old Micah while the author unpacked boxes. Lauren continues to be Micah’s second mom at church.

“Does the Pastoral Care team care for the Pastor or for other people?” It was a fair question from one of the new Elders at his first meeting, a day-long visioning and planning retreat for the Session, the church council elected by the congregation. I responded, “Sometimes both, but most of the time it’s coordinating care for church members and friends.”

As I responded in the present, my mind traveled through the past. That January meeting marked 3 years since the moving truck arrived in Harrisonburg with all of our family’s belongings – almost to the day. I had a 2 1/2 year old and a 5 week old with me, and arrived first at my new church, where the many boxes of books would be unloaded. Mary Lou, the chair of the search committee that called me, was there to present me with my key to the kingdom, and after boxes were unloaded, she followed us over to the townhouse to help on that end.

She wasn’t alone. Over the course of the day and in days following, a number of folks came through to offer their help. They unpacked boxes. They broke them down and took them away. They put dishes in the cupboards and they held the baby so I could get a few things done (clearly the most coveted job). Food arrived. Diapers. As I assessed some new needs – toy and book storage – Larry and Donna went shopping. I was five weeks postpartum and needed to take it easier than I would have preferred. But they took care of me.

On my first Sunday in the pulpit, I was busy trying to get everything together and Lauren, another member of the search committee, came in to take the baby off of my hands. From that week on, Lauren was Micah’s church buddy. It was Lauren who was first able to get Micah to take a bottle. To this day, Lauren sits right behind me, usually with Micah in her lap, wanting to read books, and he recently referred to her as “the one he loves so much.” Lauren and Mike, Bryce and Chris, Dawn, Susie, Abby, and Anne are just a few who have had turns babysitting, taking the boys to the children’s museum, their favorite playground, horseback riding, or on some other fun adventures. They take care of us. Read more

Seeing God in Sequins, Eyeshadow, and Ice Cream

Mama and Daughter enjoying dinner, dancing, and ice cream

Being a minister in a small town is complicated. Being the local tattooed, lesbian, single mama pastor – one whom you might see out in a low-cut leopard print dress, and from whom you might hear a few curse words now and then – in a small town is . . . complicated. I’m a mama, a public figure, and a person who loves time with friends. I’m known.

My congregation is an important part of the community, and when I was called here, it was a clear expectation that I become involved in this community. I’m on the library board. Everybody at the cafe knows my name. Options for friends are more limited, but that has also been a blessing for me. I make connections that I might not necessarily seek out. Take, for example, my friend Jason.

Jason is the dad of one of my daughter’s former preschool friends. He owns a property management company, and does everything from snow plowing to landscaping to building incredible gardens. He’s a pillar of our community, and he’s also a kind and thoughtful man. He once seriously considered seminary, and we often talk theology (though I’ve yet to convince him to come to church). I might not have been surprised to receive a call from Jason, but his invitation was definitely unexpected.

Jason called to invite me to attend the Daddy/Daughter Dance at the school, and to join in a larger group of dads and daughters for a fancy dinner before the dance. Honestly, I’ve got major issues with the whole concept for many reasons—many kids don’t have a daddy, many kids live with grandparents or foster parents, and, frankly, the whole heteronormative daddy dating daughter thing seems a bit sketchy. But, with many other places where I push the envelope, this hasn’t been a hill on which I’m ready to die, so I had resigned myself to ignoring the event for the next few years.

Jason’s invitation was sincere and warm. He and his daughter, now 11, had cherished this tradition since she was my daughter’s age. My daughter was near me while we were talking on the phone, and she asked me what it was about. I told her there was going to be a daddy daughter dance. Her face fell. She said, “I don’t have a daddy.” (That’s the first time she’s ever expressed distress about this fact.) I said, “No, but you do have a Mama, and I will take you to the dance.” She responded with joy. I knew we needed to go. Read more

An adult hand handing a Nilla Wafer to a child's hand

Grace and Vanilla Wafers

An adult hand handing a Nilla Wafer to a child's hand

A view that became familiar over the course of the morning.

This morning my ravenous, growth-spurting twins decided that Mini ‘Nilla Wafers were the only acceptable food in our house. I doled out four—one for each hand for each twin, and they made their way back into the playroom to play and enjoy their snacks. Every few minutes they returned. And one at a time I placed the wafers into their tiny hands.

After a few rounds I realized that something about this felt awfully familiar. I felt like I was distributing vanilla wafer communion right there in my kitchen. No, I hadn’t blessed them, and I didn’t even necessarily glance up from my work every time the little feet thudded back for more.

But with one outstretched hand after another, I recognized in my children the same persistence with which the people of the church return each week, hands outstretched for a wafer at the communion rail.

And the simplicity of what the twins did taught me more about what happens in the Eucharist than any lecture on eucharistic theology ever has. Each time those babies came back to me, it was because they knew I loved them and would meet their needs. Again and again and again. They came back to me each time with a trust I could only hope to muster as I approach God each time I receive the Eucharist. When I stretch my hands out to God the way those little hands stretched out to me, do I truly believe God will meet my needs? Do I trust in God’s love for me?

There is only so far that this comparison goes, of course, because eventually I will stop giving them ‘Nilla Wafers. Unlike a mom concerned for her children’s sugar intake, though, God will never stop giving.

Each time we return to the communion rail, God meets us there. And while those papery communion wafers aren’t quite as delicious as vanilla wafers, they nonetheless remind us, again and again, that God’s love and provision for us will never cease. This is grace. And it is sweet indeed.

picture of author

When the Professional is Personal

The author sporting the hip, professional look cultivated by her hair stylist.

The author sporting the hip, professional look cultivated by her hair stylist.

When the pastor’s phone rings, you never know who or what is on the other end of the line. It could be good news—the birth of a baby, an invitation to collaborate on a community initiative, or a good medical report. Often, though, answering the phone as a pastor can be a bit more fraught. We are called when accidents happen, when assistance is needed, and when problems arise. I often find that I brace myself when the phone rings, without even realizing it.

A few months ago, I answered to hear an unfamiliar voice. It was my hair salon. “Your stylist has moved away. Could we schedule you with someone else?” I was silent on the other end of the phone, taking in the information. My mind reeled: “How could this be? I knew nothing about this! She never even told me she was thinking of moving. How could she just up and leave?”

I was entirely surprised by my reaction – why was I being so overdramatic? Yet, in a very real way, her move felt like a real loss. A friend gone. A relationship just plucked out of my life. I couldn’t bear the thought of scheduling with someone else, so I canceled the appointment.

I had been with my hair stylist over 7 years – the same amount of time I’ve served in my second call as a solo pastor. Although my call has been the same, my personal life has drastically changed. I’ve gone from a 30-year-old, single, young clergy woman to a late-30s, married with child, not-so-young clergy woman. My hair stylist had been with me through all the changes.

She knew me before I established a community here, and offered an open heart and listening ear. She helped me find the right professional yet hip looking hairdo. She helped me refine my look as I met, dated, and got engaged to my now husband. She made me look simply beautiful on my wedding day. When I became a mom, but couldn’t find a sitter, she and her colleagues entertained my newborn so I could have the much needed self-care of a good haircut.

Every time I went in, she hugged me tight, intimately washed and massaged my head, and skillfully cut my thick frizzy hair into something beautiful. Every time I went in, her first question was: “Is everyone behaving at church?” My stylist was one of the people in my life who always accepted me just as I am. She was one of those rare people who not only respected my vocation, but reveled in it.

I only realized how much she meant to me as the months went by and my usually well-groomed hair grew into a long unmanageable mop atop my head. Not only did I miss the way I looked, but I missed her. I felt sad that I’d never hear more about her family or her travels or hear her contagious laugh. So I decided to seek her out and send a goodbye message via Facebook Messenger. Then, as I typed her first name into the search, I realized something: I didn’t even know her last name. She knew me intimately, but how well did I really know her? Of course she didn’t tell me she was moving. We weren’t friends. She was my stylist. Read more

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

Letting the Church Be the Church for their Pastor

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

From when the author and her congregation remembered their baptisms and belovedness.

One of my favorite images of a pastor is that of shepherd. As a shepherd, I take care of my flock, making sure they are fed in belly and spirit, trying to keep them on the path, and jumping in to offer care and support when they are sick or hurting. When they are facing a health crisis I often remind them that they are not alone: God is with them, yes, but so are the other members of our flock. Letting the church be the church can be difficult when you’re on the receiving end of the help and support, but caring for one another is one of the ways we live out our faith and discipleship. Sometimes it’s not a church member who needs the church the most – sometimes it’s the shepherd that needs the flock.

On Epiphany Sunday, my husband began to complain of back pain. We both chalked the back pain up to restless nights spent tossing and turning and coughing after he picked up a bug of some sort visiting family at Christmas. By Tuesday, he could barely walk, and on Wednesday he finally went to Urgent Care, where they guessed that he had a pinched nerve. The next morning he woke up with the left side of his face looking like he had a stroke. When he drank his coffee, it spilled back out. When he tried to stand, his knees buckled and he fell. This was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

After his mother arrived to watch our four-and-a-half-year-old twin girls, we went to the Emergency Room. Waiting in the hallway on a gurney for hours as they ran different tests, his legs became weaker to the point that he could no longer walk. The nurse practitioner kept a close eye on us, his eyes betraying his concern as test after test came back normal. As evening drew closer with still no answers, he called a neurologist who within minutes gave a diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).

GBS is a rare autoimmune disorder triggered by a virus in which the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking the myelin sheath of one’s peripheral nerves. It can progress incredibly quickly, and for some it’s a matter of hours before they are paralyzed and on a ventilator. My husband’s had progressed very slowly and they began treatment immediately. Once he was in a room I went into crisis mode: I messaged our family members to tell them what we knew; I asked one of my sisters to come up from Maryland to help watch our daughters while I was at the hospital; I called our District Superintendent; I alerted my Staff-Parish Relations chairs; I tried to explain to our daughters what was happening, kissed them goodnight, and went back to the hospital.

Everyone was quick to respond with offers of help. “Anything you need,” they said, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I needed. Read more

The author at her ordination (left) and the older, wiser minister officiating a wedding, nearly ten years later.

Worshipping at the Fountain of Youth

The author at her ordination (left) and the older, wiser minister officiating a wedding, nearly ten years later.

The author at her ordination (left) and the older, wiser minister officiating a wedding, nearly ten years later.

It was the first viral challenge of 2019: “How hard did aging hit you?” To play, one posts the very first picture uploaded to a social media platform next to the most recent. For many Facebook users, this seems to cover somewhere around a decade, give or take a few years. I cheated and posted a precious picture of my older sister and me long before social media was a thing, and likely before Mark Zuckerberg was even born.

The challenge proved to pack a bigger punch for some than aging itself. Pulling up a snapshot of life can bring up a flood of powerful memories – some good, some not so good. Seeing the physical changes of our bodies and faces can be another mixed bag of emotions. Some friends obliged and posted their pictures, along with lists of ways that they had grown, paths their lives had taken, adversities they had faced, and their pride at the beautiful people they have become, wrinkles and all. Even those posts were painful and triggering reminders for others of dreams that had been deferred or dashed completely, painful losses, and other ways in which life just hasn’t been what they thought it would be.

Our love/hate relationship with aging is, if not peculiarly American, at least particularly so. Youth and beauty are worshiped in many ways. The industries that sell products to combat aging are expected to exceed $216 billion in revenues by 2021.[1] At the same time, younger generations are judged as lazy, irresponsible, Peter Pan-like entitled adolescents who refuse to grow up. The stereotype is also that they are more self-centered and not motivated by civic duty. They aren’t joining Rotary, Lions, golf clubs, or churches. Clearly they must not care about anyone beyond themselves!

Most churches have been experiencing this tension for years. Initiatives to encourage young adult leadership and participation in the larger church have been around for a while. Where are the young people? We must find the young people! As I approach my 40th birthday this year, my time as a “young” person is officially coming to an end, I suppose. I felt it last year as I was reviewing applications for commissioners to our biennial General Assembly. For the last number of years, going to GA hasn’t been feasible for me with young children. But if I apply in future years, I will no longer be able to check off that shiny “25-40” box. I’ll be in the 41-65 group, no longer of special interest to the Church.

As more of our congregations continue to age and see decline in both numbers and energy, the desire to bring in more young people (often young families, which is a whole other matter!) can become priority number one. I’ve heard from many church folk in many places something along the lines of: “We need young people to come in and take over… the rummage sale, lead the women’s groups, teach Sunday school, serve on governing boards….” Many are looking for their own replacements – the people who will come in and do the things they have been doing for many years. But most “young people” I know aren’t really that interested in continuing traditions or serving the church in those same ways. Even if they are, younger generations don’t have nearly the same level of time, energy, or resources to pour into volunteer service at the church as previous generations did.

At the same time, many younger folk have amazing gifts and talents and creativity that the Church desperately needs. Churches that want “young people” simply to come and take over what they have been doing will probably continue to decline. But those who provide a place for all generations to come and participate as they are called and able will be enriched in new and exciting ways as more gifts are shared and the contributions of people, great and small, are honored and celebrated. Read more