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

Should and Should Not: Just Trust

Slats Toole, author of Queering Lent

Slats Toole, author of Queering Lent

When I began to write about God, I was 20 years old, reeling from the end of a four-and-a-half-year relationship, and still struggling to piece together my faith two years after returning to Christianity after a long period of agnosticism. There was very little that made sense to me that summer as I ached for the future I’d lost and searched for glimpses of the God I had once cut all ties with. It was out of the longing and the hurt and the confusion that I found words.

As I worked to intentionally reconnect with God, as I faced the reality of no longer being part of a pair, I strung together poems that were (I didn’t realize then) defining my lived theology. I discovered a God who was infinite and terrifying, playful and beautiful, and I worshipped this God in my words.

I kept these poems hidden. I’d compiled them into a document that I’ve only ever sent to those I felt a particularly close relationship with. I can count on my hands the number of people who have seen them in the decade or so since. There was something so intimate about the idea of letting people see this part of me, so I knew these poems had to be guarded and protected.

Eight years later, I graduated from seminary. While I am grateful for many things I learned and people I met while at seminary, there was a lot about the experience that was draining. My seminary had no real queer theological presence on campus—I’d slipped out of the closet as non-binary towards the end of my first year there, and I spent the rest of my time educating administration and pushing for gender-neutral restrooms and housing.

Another part of myself that I felt slipping away was the part of me that became curious about seminary in the first place—the poetic part of me that wanted to get to know all it could about the mysterious, glorious, confusing and incredible God I had met one summer in the mountains years before. Instead, I found myself picking up the beliefs that so often come with seminary and have nothing to do with God. The belief that my value came from exam scores. The need to have a ministry-related job that could be easily understood in a few words upon graduation. The sickening feeling that I had to compete, win, and be the best.

So, as I looked towards my Lenten discipline for the year after I graduated seminary, I knew I had to reconnect with the parts of myself that I’d neglected while in school. I needed to nurture both my queerness and the part of my faith that could not be expressed in a clean exegesis paper. The discipline I landed on was simple: write one poem, connected in some way to God, every day. The twist for me was my accountability check: I would post the poems on Facebook. 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

Surviving Resolution Season as a Fat Pastor

picture of author with a poinsettia

Amber Slate, Embracing the Joy of Embodiment!

This January I am sending out reverse trigger warnings. I have slowly been embracing a new compassion for my body and a new neutrality about the word “fat.” But it’s fresh and tender, and I know this will be easier said than lived, especially during New Year’s resolution season.

Looking back, the idea started in a garden where a group of women had gathered on the warm grass to sit and talk about our seminary assignment for the day. It was a class designed to ask students to pay more attention to their theology of creation and embodied experience by doing the embodied work of gardening and eating together and then reflecting on the connections to our readings.

I was thrilled to be considering the goodness of embodied life which is proclaimed in creation and affirmed in the incarnation. I grew in my conviction that God cares about our different embodied experiences of race, sexuality, ability, gender, class, and body type and how we address the different kinds of privilege that come with each one. It made me wonder if I had been taught to overemphasize the holiness of sacrifice, control, and disembodied spirituality only to neglect the holiness of planting, eating, loving, resting, moving, and creating.

But on this particular day, the writer, who had done an excellent job of praising the grace manifested in creation, happened to casually mention pursuing health by losing weight as a response to that grace. I felt a little fire ignite in my belly – angered by the oversimplification and the lack of consideration for the variety of narratives that exist around that topic. Spurred on by my strong reaction, I swept past any shame that might have silenced me previously and plucked up the courage to ask the rest of the group what they thought about it.

Since I had risked some vulnerability, the others also began to respond. One woman talked about how when she developed an eating disorder, everyone around her praised her for how thin and healthy she looked and no one noticed that she was sick. Another woman talked about how much judgment she had internalized about her body and how she looked back with regret for not enjoying her body and youth. Another woman talked about how that narrative can erase the experience of people of color like herself.

We talked about what access to health looks like on the spectrum of class and the differences in expectations according to gender. I shared about how my introduction to dieting had begun cycles of extremes that left me totally disconnected from my body. It left me always trying the same ineffective and harshly depriving approaches with increasing intensity which might be successful for a moment but then left me disappointed once again with a narrative of self-loathing and personal failure. I shared about how I longed for the ability to find more connection to my body and to find a way not to measure my value or my happiness based on my smallness.

Then I encountered Health At Every Size (HAES) and knew I had found an approach to thinking about bodies (and my body in particular) that aligned with my theological convictions in such a deep way that I was not going to be able to ignore it. For those who are unfamiliar, HAES is a theory and social justice movement made up of many elements including celebrating body diversity, believing individuals’ lived experience, challenging cultural assumptions about dieting, approaching science and medicine without a weight bias, acknowledging the impact of thin privilege, considering joyful movement to be the birthright of every person, trusting our bodies to hold the wisdom about what they need, and encouraging compassionate forms of self-care. 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?

 

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

She Is Someone

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

“How’s your hubby?”

“Where is your husband?”

“What’s your fella up to?”

“You should have brought your husband today!”

I am new clergy, recently graduated from seminary, and four months into my first call as an associate pastor. The questions above are what I am asked every single Sunday and frequently when I encounter congregants through the week. Often, they ask this question without even saying hello to me first or asking how I am doing. In fact, one Sunday I had a woman physically grab my arm as I was walking by in the fellowship hall to stop me and ask, “Where is your husband?” I pointed to him at the food table where he was filling a plate. “Oh! I didn’t see him!” she replied and then walked away from me without another word. She didn’t even approach him to say hello. Why was it so important that she knew where he was, where she could physically lay eyes on him? He doesn’t come every Sunday, and he doesn’t have to. He has his own business to tend to on Sunday mornings.

As independent people, he and I have separate plans. I tried to gently explain this in our monthly newsletter saying, “My husband and I are pretty independent people, so don’t be worried or surprised if you don’t see him in worship all the time!” (With an exclamation mark added so that it didn’t come off as threatening.)  But I am not sure the message has gotten across.

I know that what I do as a pastor is appreciated. There have been encouragement and compliments about my sermons, my teaching in Sunday school, and the prayers I write for the liturgy. I just know that with a compliment comes the questions about my husband. While I know these questions are well-meaning, as this church is trying to get to know me and be invested in my life, it can be hurtful and frustrating. Why is my husband’s well-being of more concern to some people than my own? My husband has been and continues to be an incredible support to me, but we aren’t a package deal. We’re not a two-for-one special. Why am I not enough? Read more

They Don’t Teach That in Seminary: 99 Prayers You Need

“They don’t teach that in seminary.” A minister’s whole career could be summed up with that sentence. Seminary fills a person with a lot of knowledge. But somewhere between eschatology and soteriology, the Nicene Creed and the Barmen Declaration, aspiring ministers aren’t taught what to do when a market crash wipes out a church’s savings or a tragedy brings reporters camped out on the sidewalk. Enter 99 Prayers Your Church Needs [But Doesn’t Know it Yet].

This thin but weighty book of prayers composed by Bethany Fellows covers all manner of unexpected and yet thoroughly plausible situations that a minister and congregation may face in their shared lives together – everything from a pastor waking up too sick to come in on Sunday, to a congregation deciding whether to become welcoming and affirming, to a family welcoming a foster child. As communities committed to walking alongside each other through every season of life, we want to mark significant occasions. But too often we are like the Apostle Paul, not knowing how to pray as we ought.

We all know the moments that call for prayer: baby dedications and baptisms, budget meetings and, of course, before any meal with a pastor in attendance. But what do you say when a community member is being deported? How do you come up with words when your pastor is being deployed as a chaplain? What words can appropriately convey gratitude for a major donor gift without sounding uncouth?

It is easy to assume that as long as a prayer is expressed from the heart, our words can never be wrong. But too many of us have suffered through cringe-worthy prayers to know this is not always true. We want to honor the spirit in which all prayers are offered, but if we are intentional in reflecting theologically on what to say at the graveside of a beloved congregation member, shouldn’t we bring the same care to acknowledging the loss that comes when a church staff member is fired? 99 Prayers is an invaluable tool for ministers and congregations caught in situations they never expected and never prepared for.  Read more

silhouette image of a woman on a horse reading a book - the logo for UMC clergywomen

Fewer Gender Binaries, More Expansive Leadership

silhouette image of a woman on a horse reading a book - the logo for UMC clergywomen

Another kind of circuit rider

We are saddened and frustrated whenever male colleagues in ministry seem to be suffering amnesia about the power of women’s leadership in shaping the church. Recently, a United Methodist clergyman penned a commentary for a forum run by the United Methodist news service on the role of women and men in the church. In it, he claimed that the church requires gendered forms of leadership, a Marian form following the example of prophet and God-bearer Mary of Nazareth and a Petrine form following the example of disciple Simon Peter.

The Marian form is–you guessed it–nurturing, whereas the Petrine church is about discipline and maintaining order. He presents these two forms of leadership as both being necessary and so concludes the piece without recognizing the problem. This leaves us, as women and gender-nonconforming folks often have to do, to educate our dear colleague once again: we cannot continue to rely on the sinful “complementarian” structure that is the very same used to reject the ordination of women.

When it comes to leadership in the church, we do not have to match our roles to the assumed genitalia of disciples in the Bible. Mary of Nazareth is not the role model for all women who want to participate in the life of the church, nor is Simon Peter the role model for all men. Mary and Peter offer differences in their relationship to Christ and their ministries, as do all other disciples and apostles. Our roles are not defined by or limited to our gender performance.

Separating out leadership roles by gender limits all of us. To make our Theotokos, a Greek title for Mary that means God-bearer, a model only for women is to discount a powerful example of discipleship for all who follow Christ. Mary is a model of courageous, outspoken, inclusive leadership. She is an example not just for women’s roles in the life of the church, but for ALL who seek to be disciples and leaders in the church. She answered God’s call, proclaimed God’s justice, shared Christ with the world, and welcomed everyone, from the shepherds to the magi, to be part of the movement. She is the model of leadership that the whole church needs not just mothers or women to emulate but all people, regardless of gender.

The apostle Paul offers us wonderful image of his leadership that does not conform to gendered expectations when he writes that he is like a nursing mother (for example 1 Thessalonians 2:7). Paul is clearly a “discipler” by vocation and action, something the author of that article claims is Marian by Scriptural witness. A closer look at Scripture reveals more than what the author of that article sees. Read more

a black-ink tattoo of the word "enough" with curlicue decorations around it

Enough

a black-ink tattoo of the word "enough" with curlicue decorations around it

The author’s freshly drawn tattoo, by Trevor at Alley Cat Tattoo, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

I’ve spent 39 years on this earth without any tattoos. I’m not anti-tattoo, but I couldn’t think of anything that I would, without any doubt, want forever engraved on my skin. For some reason, as I approached my most recent birthday, I suddenly had a desire to celebrate it with permanent ink. In small Hebrew lettering on my upper arm, close to my  heart, I got my two sons’ names, which both came from Hebrew Scripture and hold great meaning. Less than a month later, I was already planning my second tattoo.

This second tattoo was inspired by the gift of a week at CREDO, a program in some denominations for pastors that looks deeply at overall health and wellbeing in five areas: vocational, spiritual, financial, physical, and emotional. From the start, one word kept coming to the fore: Enough. I journeyed with that word for the week in the company of wonderful colleagues, and knew what my next tattoo had to be.

For those familiar with the Enneagram, I am a very solid One – often called The Perfectionist, or as I prefer, The Reformer. Ones are always striving for improvement. We want to make the world a better place. We want to improve what is in our environment. But the strongest focus of that drive for improvement is internal. I’ve always known that I hold others to high standards, but none nearly as high as the expectations that I have for myself. It’s pretty exhausting. Ones are always our own worst critics.

As a One, the word “Enough” was the word on which I needed to meditate. What would it look like for what I have done to be enough? For me to be enough? When do I know that enough is enough?

In some ways, “enough” and “grace” could be used interchangeably. To be honest, the word “grace” might have made for a more graceful tattoo. Ryan O’Neal, the artist behind “Sleeping at Last,” has created a whole body of music that is enneagram focused.[1] I sometimes just put “One” on repeat, listening to the refrain “grace requires nothing of me.” Grace is enough. But for me, “enough” conveys a little more, too. Read more

I’m Still Here: A Review

Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness was released this year and I commend it to you. Brown’s memoir is essential reading. Especially Christians who are white and living in the United States will benefit from listening to Brown’s wisdom and perspective as a woman of color.

Her absorbing book starts with a surprising story that immediately draws the reader in: Brown describes an encounter she had at the age of seven when the librarian was suspicious and questioned whether the library card actually belonged to this young Black girl. When Brown confronted her mother afterward, her mother confessed that she and Brown’s father had intentionally chosen a name most typically given to a white male, because they hoped that potential employers in the future would give “Austin” a chance not normally extended to people of color.

After this powerful chapter, Brown tells her story chronologically. She describes attending a private Christian elementary school in Toledo, visiting extended family in Cleveland, and she shares experiences—both positive and negative—with teachers at her Catholic high school and majority-white college in Chicago. After graduating, Brown worked at a number of Christian non-profit organizations. Brown is someone who is well acquainted with white evangelical culture, and she writes with persuasion and spiritual strength.

Going into the working world after college, Brown admits that she had assumed that she would be able to fearlessly combat racism, slaying racist nonsense as if it were a dragon. What she discovered, however, was that racism was not so much an “imposing beast” but a “poison” that “seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.” My guess is that many young clergywomen could resonate with this experience. We may enter a ministry with idealism and a desire to effect change, but systems that oppress continue to oppress, and others undermine our truth at every turn. Every time we seek to name the problem, we are told that the problem is with us. It can be wearying.

For this reason, I am grateful for Brown’s tenacity: throughout her memoir, she fearlessly challenges the presence of white supremacy within the American church. At the same time, it was clear to me that she wasn’t using Christianity as a punching bag: there was no malice in her evaluation, only love. She writes, “even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate. I continue to be drawn toward the collective participation of seeking good, even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.”

In the workplace, Brown discovered how insidious white supremacy is. She writes, “Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls… It wants us to sing the celebratory ‘We Shall Overcome’ during MLK Day but doesn’t want to hear the indicting lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit.’ It wants to see a Black person seated at the table but doesn’t want to hear a dissenting viewpoint. It wants to pat itself on the back for helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.”

There were times as I read this book that I had the same sensation as when I watched the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. What I had previously seen as benign in American culture was exposed, by Baldwin and Brown’s keen insights, to be grotesque. Brown rightly observes that the white church has viewed power as its birthright rather than its curse, and her memoir is a testimony of the damage done by the curse of whiteness in the American church.  Read more