Pastoring Faithfully in Divisive Times

The day after the 2016 presidential election, the seniors group at the church I serve was scheduled to gather. When I arrived, they told me that they’d agreed not to talk about the election. Emotions were too raw. So instead they shared stories about their grandchildren’s latest adventures or their day-to-day health challenges. Maybe that’s what they needed—a sense of normalcy and a sense that their friendships would continue whatever differences they had in political perspective.

But later one of them stopped in my office to cry and pray. She needed space to cry and pray, and the church was the place where she expected to find it.

The challenge of pastoring in a time of division and polarization like the one we are presently living through was clear that week. One man told me he comes to church because he wants a refuge from all the anger and pain out there. He doesn’t want to find the same conversations at church that he finds outside. But, while he didn’t articulate it this way, he also comes needing to hear a word about what Christian faith has to say in the midst of and in response to our broken world.

People need a place where relationships aren’t threatened by the sharp and polarizing divisions of the political climate, and people need a place to cry and pray in response to it. People need a refuge, and people need to hear a faith-based perspective. Both are true.

Holding these tensions is a key pastoral capacity. I realized quickly that we are not meant to hold tensions like these alone. So a group of clergy in my area began to gather to discuss the question of how we pastor faithfully and courageously in divisive times. I share pieces of wisdom that have arisen among us. For some pastors they might not be bold enough. But they have offered me a grounded place to begin as I have navigated my first four years of ministry.

1. Love them first. The month I was graduating seminary, I scheduled a meeting with the school’s president Craig Barnes to glean his wisdom about pastoring. “This could sound like a cliché, but I have found it to be true,” he told me. “You have to love them before you can lead them. Get to know them, wait to fall in love with them, don’t try to change them, and then they’ll listen.”

This theme came up again and again in conversations with my colleagues. One pastor shared about a man who initially had resisted her leadership. But when his wife got sick and she visited them in the hospital, something in him changed and he began proudly calling her his pastor. Another pastor shared how an unpopular local political leader’s parents thanked him for praying publicly for their son, not because the son deserved it, but because he was a child of God. It was a reminder to the whole body gathered that day of our common humanity and call to pray for each other, even people we consider enemies.

2. Discern when and how to preach on controversial topics. Someone in the group shared Nadia Bolz-Weber’s wisdom that she preaches on a topic when it is on the hearts of her people. We talked about how that means we aren’t always supposed to preach about every big news item that blows up our Facebook feeds, but we are to stay aware of the collective heart of the communities we lead. It also can mean, however, drawing attention to topics that may not be on the hearts of our people due to privilege or geography but that are important to the collective heart of humanity. Also we are in this work for the long haul, so we can choose to respond faithfully over time about issues like gun violence and racism rather than feeling like we need to say everything at once in response to a particular event.

From the group’s conversation, a three-fold approach for how to preach on charged topics emerged for me. First, tell stories, especially stories from people whose perspectives the congregation doesn’t otherwise hear. Stories facilitate connection and empathy. Our brains are wired for story, and story has more capacity to transform than instruction. Second, consider modelling how to think theologically rather than trying to tell people what to think. Finally, the gospel is good news. It is good albeit challenging news, especially for people with power. We encouraged each other to keep asking, “How is this good news?” as we prepared our sermons. Sometimes good news can feel like a “two-edged sword,” to use the image from Hebrews 4:12. But grace is the bottom line.

3. Encourage healthy conversation. The social media-driven culture doesn’t do conversation well. It doesn’t do dialogue well. For the church to offer a space where people can learn to engage in healthy disagreement is for the church to cultivate a grace-filled counterculture. To use family systems language, the church can model and teach people to self-differentiate—to take responsibility for their view and express it clearly without blaming or attacking—while also staying connected to others in the community who think and feel differently.

When I talk about a hard topic or one that I know some people take issue with, I do my best to communicate humility and willingness to be in conversation. This summer after I said something during worship about immigration that angered someone new to the congregation, she sent me a long, upset email. I invited her to coffee, but she didn’t respond. I was surprised when she showed up in worship the next week. As we shook hands at the end of the service, I thanked her for coming and told her I was glad we both were there even if we see things differently. She smiled and looked me in the eye, and I sensed the Spirit holding us in that moment.

4. Be gentle to yourself even as you push yourself to learn and grow as a pastoral leader. Holding tensions is hard but holy work. Leading and speaking in the midst of division is hard but holy work. One thing that has surprised me as my colleagues and I have gathered is the amount of time we’ve spent praying or talking about our prayer lives. Prayer is the root of our calling. So may we commit ourselves to learn and grow as well as to pray and rest as we keep at the hard, holy work to which God has called us.

On the day we had an active shooter drill…

On Sunday, September 15, Emily’s church had the first of three active-shooter trainings in the midst of its worship services. Members and friends were told about the training in advance.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, our community awoke to thunderstorms. Rain-soaked shoes dampened our carpets, squeaked on the hardwood, and worshippers raced into the sanctuary right as the prelude was ending, just like they always do.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, our worship didn’t seem to mind. The congregation sang about laughter; the choir about loudest praises. The scripture promised that new life was coming. The preacher spoke about abandoning cynicism for hope; and those gathered seemed—mostly—to agree.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, we baptized a new believer in faith with tearful, heartfelt ritual. We gathered around God’s table to share the promise and the feast.

And then the drill got started.

We put three old words into new context: Run. Hide. Fight.

Congregants shuddered and cried in our most sacred of spaces. The pews beneath them strained and creaked, trying hard to hold all that restlessness, all that discomfort, all that weight.

At least one person grew angry, and stormed out once we finished. Another said: There’s no one that dangerous around here. Observing our mostly white congregation, I thought: We are the dangerous ones.

When it was over, a pastor acknowledged the swirling emotions, thanking all who gathered for taking time to think about such awful things. It’s easier to turn away our hearts and heads and eyes.

Together, we prayed for broken hearts, and asked for God to use them. Move us, we prayed, into action. May our sadness become compassion. May our  tiredness become advocacy. May our anger inspire us  to—finally—make a change.

Somehow, when we left, the sun was shining. Inexplicably. On the day we had an active shooter drill.

The Stained Glass Cliff

Like many of my fellow clergy women, I was shocked when the news broke last week that the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler was leaving her pulpit at the storied Riverside Church in New York City after only five years. This is a short tenure in the life of such a famed institution, and the announcement of her departure comes on the heels of her serving as one of the featured preachers at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod only a week prior. Riverside has long had a complex and turmoil-laden history, but I joined many who were hopeful things were turning around under Amy’s leadership. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

It was clear to many of us that there were myriad untold stories to her departure, and what we have learned includes only some of the layers of one of those stories. Although stories will continue to emerge, and some may never be told, we can conclude that Pastor Amy was, at least in part, pushed off the Stained Glass Cliff.

The research on this is very clear: women are more likely to rise to positions of leadership and authority in times of crisis or conflict. It’s seen as a “nothing to lose” phenomenon. “We have nothing to lose, so might as well hire a woman.” We often follow charismatic or well-liked men who were behaving egregiously badly, and we often don’t have clarity on how deeply broken the system really is until we’ve already said yes.

Women are held to a different standard (especially when we are the first). We have broken the stained glass ceiling, so we are expected to be exceptional, extraordinary even. We are expected to resolve conflicts, and clean up messes we did not make in half the time it took the men who preceded us to make them. We are expected to effortlessly juggle leadership (but not too much), nurturing (but not be too soft), and family (but without asking for too much time) without complaint.

As soon as we enact too much change, push to make the system healthier, preach a sermon seen as “too political,” or don’t clean up the mess quickly enough, we are pushed right off the cliff. If we dare, as Pastor Amy did, to name patterns of sexual harassment and ask for accountability, we are often painted as the problem and sent on our way. A narrative is then written about how it “wasn’t a good fit” or “she just couldn’t hack it.” Read more

This Pastor Loves You

Some of our young clergywomen in their Pride shirts.

Young Clergywomen International created t-shirts for Pride month to reclaim a message of radical love. Board co-chair Sarah Hooker had no idea what kind of response YCWI would receive. She said, “The fact that we’ve sold around 850 versions of the shirt and continue to sell them, and are getting requests constantly for different word choices to print up next year, speaks so much for the need of the Christian community to have clothing that expresses a loving and inclusive message to the LGBTQIA+ community, but also for our clergy siblings who identify within that community to easily express their existence and calling to religious work.” The simple message of clergy loving all people has had a big impact among clergy and at Pride events this month.

I wore mine at my community’s Pride Festival in Frederick, Maryland. An interfaith pride worship service was held before the festival started, and I found myself rushing down the still-quiet street to get there in time. A car slowed down at a light as I crossed the street. I cringed, waiting for a catcall because of my feminine gender performance or vitriol in reference to the rainbow words on my shirt. Instead, someone called, “Thank you! We love your shirt!” After the service when I was walking with some of the youth from my church down to the festival, people stopped and took pictures with me. A clergyperson who shows up in love and affirmation is still too much of a novelty. Later at the festival, I sat at the table for the local United Methodist Reconciling Community and listened to story after story of experiences of discrimination in church and hopes for the future. They thanked us for being there, for disrupting the narrative of hate that has co-opted the church and showing “a more excellent way.”

Mine is not the only story. My social media newsfeeds are filled with clergy colleagues of all ages and gender expressions wearing shirts from YCWI’s Pride Collection. Here are a few of stories from other young clergywomen when they wore their shirts: Read more

Putting Politics Back in the Pulpit: Growing a Politically Active Congregation

The first ballot I ever cast was in kindergarten for the 1988 election. I specifically voted for Dan Quayle because he was like our state bird. I remember people talking about who and why they voted for their candidate, citing religious views, personal needs, social values, and party affiliations. Me, on the other hand? I voted for the man I thought might also be a bird. I voted for Bush/Quayle because I related to Mr. Quayle the most. I knew quails were important to California and so, he must be as well. No one was talking to me about policy or vision; no one explained that who we vote for reflects our understandings of a just society. I was five, so why would they?

But all these years later, I still remember what people were saying around me — instead of talking with me — and why I chose the person I voted for.

As Jesus reminds us, ‘“there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.’” (Mark 4:22-24, NRSV). Our children are listening, just like I was. In fact, everyone with “ears to hear” is listening. But what are we telling them?

Now, as a 35-year-old woman, I am a proud registered voter. I am strong in my opinions and fierce in my support for my candidates. I am a woman and so my body is a tool in political dialogue. I am also a pastor, and whether we name it or not, being religious is political. Thus, I cannot divorce myself from the political acts of our governing systems.

But it gets more complicated: It is also illegal and unethical for me to use my vocation to encourage support for a specific candidate; I believe in freedom and democracy, so I wouldn’t dare to even think of it. But what I can do, and what I must do, is preach and teach the stories of God and God’s people as shared in our scriptures. And one of the acts of the apostles that we rarely mention is voting.

…And I cast my vote… (Acts 26:10, NRSV)

Voting matters just as much now as it did back then. Paul was talking about voting against Jesus and his followers because he thought he had the sole and dominant understanding of God’s truth. Then through life experiences, he changes his mind and his heart about Jesus. And I find it hard to believe that he stopped voting after that, in light of the other votes in scripture, such as the one between saving Barabbas and Jesus.

Scripture tells us that voting matters. Read more

picture of fruits of the spirit passage from the book of Galatians in the Christian Bible

Notes to Myself: Commitments for Talking Politics with Care

picture of fruits of the spirit passage from the book of Galatians in the Christian Bible

“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…” ~Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

Monastic rules of life have drawn Christians through the ages to the spiritual disciplines. New monastics often look to one of the most well-known – the Rule of Benedict – and then write their own rule of life to order their lives in community. I have never been terribly successful at thinking of the Christian path in terms of discipline. In fact, at the mention of living the spiritual life “by the rules,” my inner self goes running for cover.

However, the fraught reality of public discourse in our time demands more discipline and less venting, more intentional, measured speech and less passion. In fact, it requires every bit of spiritual discipline the Christian can muster (and then it pleads for more from the Holy Spirit). Amidst the ever-widening crisis of public discourse, I have found it necessary to set down a rule for myself about speaking to and around my children. We all have steam to let off these days, but heaven knows we all need to speak with a little more care.

I have found three motivations for this care-filled speech at work in me, nudging me to speak with intention. First, I understand the pastoral office to be a listening office. This is ironic, I know, since few other professions boast 15 to 30 minutes of public speaking to a more-or-less willing audience every week. Even as I must preach the audaciously good news of Jesus without apology, I must also use language that does not blindly parrot phrases from political parties, denominational in-fighting, or other popular influences. And yet, to pastor is to move people along the path toward God and the Kin-dom of Heaven (the place where, in Christ, we are all kin to one another). The pastor is always inviting and always listening, so she must choose her words with care.

Second, I confess that I deeply want to avoid alienating people. This internal motivation is possibly the least important of the three, but nonetheless the most pressing to me. It is a desire for everyone to continue belonging to one another, especially when and where I am in charge. As a natural-born mediator (conflict avoider), I have little capacity for conflict when it might lead to alienation. I am not the first minister who likes to be liked, but this is a character trait which must be examined daily to be transformed from approval-seeking to the truer virtues of kindness and gentleness.

The third motivation involves my children, and to some degree, older generations of my extended family: I want to maintain open dialogue with my children and my family’s elders. One day my children will disagree with me on some of life’s most important issues. At that point, it might be too late to begin trying to mind my manners in discourse. I hope to have spoken in such a way while they were young that dialogue will still be possible when I am old.

Given these motivations, I would like to share with you my commitments for participating in public discourse, particularly related to political speech: Read more

"For Everyone Born" in text set in front of a rainbow-colored silhouette of the St. Louis skyline

Supporting Your Methodist Friends

"For Everyone Born" in text set in front of a rainbow-colored silhouette of the St. Louis skylineDear Non-Methodist Friend (who probably cares about and knows at least one United Methodist pastor or lay person),

Today I write to you as a United Methodist Church (UMC) pastor who is fighting for justice and full inclusion for all people at all levels in the lives of our churches and denomination. As you probably heard, last week the UMC held a big meeting, called a General Conference, to discern the role of LGBTQIA+ persons and allies in our body. This was a special, called meeting, held between regular quadrennial meetings, and the sole topic of this meeting was LGBTQIA+ persons (even though they weren’t mentioned by name for most of the day of prayer) which we have been debating at General Conference since 1972 – 4 years after we were established.

As you may know, the UMC is the 3rd largest denomination in the United States (behind only Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists); and we are a global denomination with 12.6 million members worldwide. Approximately 60% of our membership is in the United States. In some countries where we are in mission and ministry, it is illegal to be in a same sex relationship and is punishable by death. In other places, like the Northeast and Western US, fully welcoming LGBTQIA+ persons is a necessity to reach our communities. There is a great divide.

This divide was very evident at our Special General Conference when it was voted 53% yes, 47% no, to uphold the “Traditional” plan which would redefine same sex relationships in church law, increase penalties on clergy who break church law—including the revocation of credentials, and more. Much of this plan was deemed “unconstitutional” by the Judicial Council, which functions like the United States Supreme Court in our denomination. There are many questions about what the result of passing this piece of legislation will be. Suffice it to say, we won’t know for a while. In the meantime, all “sides” are weighing their options for staying or leaving the denomination while knowing that the conservatives will have a larger percentage of delegates at our next regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020.

This has been an exhausting week for all United Methodists who are following our General Conference. We are worn out. In the UMC, we have 3 General Rules that guide us and were given to us by our founder, John Wesley. 1) Do no harm. 2) Do good. 3) Stay in love with God. Harm has been done to our LGBTQIA+ siblings, and this is not acceptable. In the words of our baptismal vows, we must “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves.” We have failed. We allowed evil to rear its ugly head in the way we talked to the “other” this week. Insults were thrown from all sides. This is not a good witness to our faith.

Many well-meaning people of faith have asked me what they can do to help. So I crafted this list to guide you, well-meaning person of faith in engaging with United Methodists, especially those who are grieving the actions of General Conference: Read more

Woman praying alone in church

How to Talk About Abortion in Church

Woman praying alone in churchAbortion. Does the word stir up emotions? Does it cause you unease, even anger? You’re not alone. Say “abortion” in a public setting, and undoubtedly the reaction will be strong and visceral. Say it in the pulpit? The idea is enough to make even the most prophetic among us quake and quiver.

Our discomfort with discussing abortion, privately or publicly, leads many of us to avoid the topic completely. On the issue of abortion we resort to silence in our sacred spaces. But the truth is abortion is a reality in our congregations. Regardless of our political leanings or personal beliefs, nearly one in four women in the U.S. will have an abortion in her lifetime. Women of all races, economic backgrounds, political parties, and religious affiliations have abortions. That means there are people in our congregations who have had abortions. There are partners and family members of people who have had abortions. And there are those who will seek abortion care in the future.

Given this reality, what are we to say about abortion? How are we to respond to requests from congregants to “pray for the unborn?” What do we do when our colleagues are spreading misinformation on social media about legislation that regulates abortion? How do we speak with truth and compassion about serious and complex moral issues that are deeply personal, often politicized, and almost always hidden? Read more

mug reading "read fewer white dudes" on it on a shelf next to a pile of books by non-white authors

#ReadFewerWhiteDudes

mug reading "read fewer white dudes" on it on a shelf next to a pile of books by non-white authors

The author’s reading corner. Mug from Where Are You? Press, books from Powell’s books.

Two years ago, my good friend from seminary, Casey Kloehn, wrote this blog post inviting others to join in her reading challenge to #readfewerwhitedudes. It was one of those Holy Spirit moments, where her post and invitation came just as I was coming to grips with being told how white my reading list was. When the whiteness of my reading  list was first pointed out to me, I jumped to defending my choices in my head. “These are good books! I’m a smart person! I’m trying to buy books that will help me be a better pastor and this is what’s available!” But then I remembered: I live in one of the whitest cities in the United States. And I’m a pastor in one of the whitest denominations in the United States.  As much as I wanted to stay in my comfort of being able to order the professional and personal books that seemed to “fit what I needed” at the time…. It seemed like Spirit was urging, drawing, pulling me into this invitation to include diverse voices in the books that I was reading. (And, the excuse to order another motivational coffee mug for my office certainly didn’t hurt.)

 

After the first few months or so, I noticed some changes. First, I would get asked more often about what I was reading and was able to share recommendations more readily than before because of the intention I was holding in my reading habits. Some of this was admittedly because I unashamedly drink coffee from a mug (pictured) ordered from the independent publishing company that inspired Casey’s original hashtag. But some of it is also because people ask their pastor what they are reading.

 

This season of reading fewer white dudes has brought with it a season of talking about books from voices that were stirring something new in me. Which brings me to the second change—I noticed just how much my reading habits get into my head, heart, and bones. Before this challenge, I hadn’t realized how much my inner voice lacked diversity and imagination until I got called out on it and nudged into making this shift. If we believe in the power of written words to move us, then believing that what we read matters follows naturally. And as leaders, what we read matters.

 

There is a quiet and powerful prophetic task in not only reading with intention, but sharing our reading with others. Sharing openly about the #readfewerwhitedudes challenge started to feel like a very pastoral task, even if most of this reading was what I would consider “not for work.” For better or for worse, there are pieces of our lives as pastors that get exposed to the people we lead. While plenty of times there is space for us to discern how much or how little we share about our personal habits, I’ve decided my reading list is best kept open to the public. It keeps me accountable to those voices on the margin, and in sharing my story about why I #readfewerwhitedudes, I’m able to be open with others about naming and owning my privilege and power as a middle class, heterosexual, cisgender white woman. Some of that privilege and power needs to be checked with these marginal voices. And some of it has been able to do the work of standing up to the white hetero patriarchy by continuing to drink from my motivational mug, even when it has caused offense.

Two years after that first challenge, and I’m starting another annual booklist. Since that first list, I have resigned my first call, spent some time in Sabbath wilderness, birthed a baby and begun dabbling with a grassroots spiritual community forming in my neighborhood. Last week I got asked the question again “What are you reading?” And I stopped to share about #readfewerwhitedudes. All the while, aware that I still live in one of the whitest cities in the United States. And I’m still a pastor in one of the whitest denominations in the United States. I’m continuing this year to #readfewerwhitedudes. I’m reading fewer white dudes and more women, Asians, Native Americans, Black, Queer, Trans, Latinx writers  because as a leader I need voices in my head and my heart that will move me forward when Spirit pushes me towards justice. I’m reading fewer white dudes because I want to be able to share openly with others a habit of mine that feels honest and authentic and intentional. I’m doing it to claim small moments of being something other than status quo in a world that seeks ease and comfort. So, dear YCW and friends, want to #readfewerwhitedudes with me?

 

Pressing on to the Kindom of God

Group of people marching down the street with signs.

The author joins a caravan seeking shalom in her city, marching in solidarity for justice with immigrant neighbors.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for this publication on the significance of the United States having elected our first female President. I wrote it before the election, obviously, but hedged things in such a way that it could still be tweaked and published in the very unlikely event of Hillary Clinton losing the election, which, of course, is exactly what happened. After the defeat, even the “also ran” article hit nerves too raw, and in the end, it was all scrapped.

The past two years have unleashed and unmasked so much in our society. White supremacy, nationalism, and all kinds of fear and hate have been emboldened and empowered. The hate has been deadly. At the same time, there has been a greater public resistance than any I have seen in my lifetime. I joined the throngs in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. “The Future is Female” shirts started popping up everywhere. The #metoo movement has seen progress in holding powerful men to account for sexual assault, though we still have a long way to go.

A fire has been lit for many women who are mad as hell and not going to take it, to borrow from the movie Network. The 2018 midterms saw the greatest number of female candidates in any election, the greatest number elected, and resulted in a number of firsts: the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, one of whom is the first Somali-American elected to Congress; the first two Native American women elected to congress, one of whom is lesbian and a former mixed martial arts fighter; the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts; a Latina who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

There is much to celebrate in all of this, as our elected representatives start to become just a little more representative of the diverse population of the United States. It’s a start. And yet. Lest we get too comfortable, or too self-congratulatory, I have a message for my white sisters: we’ve still got a lot of work to do. Read more