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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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.

A Prayer for Veterans Day

In the United States, we are approaching Veterans Day – a day set aside to remember and honor those who have served in the military. But more than simply saying “thank you,” it also offers the opportunity to turn our attention to the stories and lives of our veterans. Hold them in prayer and listen to their stories, truly seeing the child of God in your midst. They are your neighbors and are sitting in your pews. Maybe ask them to share their story with you, for it is in sharing the story that community exists, God is present, and healing may be possible.

 

 

The author (center), in her capacity as Chaplain.

God of all that was and is and is to come,

 

You, who bear witness to our creation and usher us home at our final moments,

we ask that you turn our ears to the cries of those we often do not hear,

to open our eyes to the stories in our midst,

to hear the stories of those called,

to hear the stories of those who answer the call.

 

Open our ears to the story of the seventeen-year-old

who yearns to serve in a world with honor,

who seeks an escape from the drug-riddled streets he calls home…

only to be sent to a place where the streets are riddled

with a different kind of violence, replacing one form of hate with another.

 

Give us the eyes to see the single mother,

yearning for a better life for her son,

who is called into harm’s way,

her son sent away to his grandparents yet once again,

in hopes that she is able to provide a better life for him,

who has more of a relationship with her son over phone video

than she does in real life,

only to hear cries of judgment for being a “bad mother.”

 

Give us the hearts to receive the young officer,

who, a few months after graduating from college, barely old enough to drink,

       found himself at war, commanding troops,

                  ordering young people into harm’s way.

Give us the heart to grieve with this leader

who now is writing a letter home to the parents of one of his Soldiers,

bearing the burden for the flag-draped box

that is the resting place for their son’s long trip home.

 

Lord, open our hands to the countless veterans

wearing their respective hats —

or simply wearing the cloak of service on their faces.

Open our hands to the Vietnam war veterans who never received that open hand,

and still live in the torment of war,

even though they have been told they have been “home” for decades.

They never really came home.

 

Lord, help us to hear their stories;

give us the wisdom to close our mouths and truly listen to the struggle,

for though they may be called into war-torn places,

they come home with war-torn hearts, lost and unsure.

 

Help us to be a safe haven, offering more than the mere words:

“Thank you for your service.”

Let us sit in the uncomfortable spaces of their lives for even a minute,

to dwell in the war-torn realities they never left.

 

We remember each year our veterans;

we remember the sacrifices they make…

but, Lord, call to our attention these warriors in our midst

as we seek to live and love in community each and every day.

May we see the scars in our midst,

may we listen to their stories,

and may we love and continue to welcome them home,

until our swords are turned to plowshares

and your reign of peace begins.

 

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.

Commemorating 1619: On Naming Slavery in Worship

The act of worshipping together as a community—of being not just in physical proximity, but spiritual proximity—sometimes feels like a miracle. As a pastor responsible for planning and leading worship, I have a deep appreciation for the perils and pitfalls that come with asking a group of people to pray together, sing together, worship together. If I write a prayer for worship, it can’t just be my prayer; it has to be a prayer for the whole community.

The logo for 400 Years of Inequality, a coalition committed to education and observance and urging communities to organize against racism for justice.

These challenges become especially acute when worship leaders ask their communities to engage with a topic that is painful or divisive. But we can’t shy away from hard subjects. We can’t restrict our worshipping life to shallow platitudes and feel-good theology lest we water down the gospel to the point of being meaningless. Faith communities need to dig deep into the places where our faith, our scripture, and our God intersect with the hard stuff: injustice, suffering, cruelty, sin. The sacredness of worship provides a powerful connection-point to the very subjects that are hardest to confront.

These reflections took concrete form for me recently as I pondered how my congregation should mark the quadricentennial of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia (though enslaved people were brought to the Americas prior to 1619)[1]. Four hundred years later, organizations both secular and religious are using 2019 to reflect on our history and to see how it connects to our present.

I’m a white woman, and I pastor a predominantly white congregation. Bringing up race or racism  among white people tends to evoke anxiety, guilt, and defensiveness—in short, our white fragility is quick to rear its head. We would rather leave slavery in the distant past. We would rather ignore the continuing racial injustice in our society. We would rather not consider our own complicity in this injustice. So I was faced with a complex challenge: how to mark this 400th anniversary in worship in a way that is truthful and authentic, without prompting so much defensiveness among my white congregants that they would be unable to engage.

Of course, what is truthful and authentic in my context won’t fit in every context. Particularly in communities made up of descendants of enslaved Africans, marking the quad-centennial will look very different. For those, like me, in mostly-white congregations, I hope these resources will be helpful.

I developed some liturgical resources with a lot of help from my colleague and fellow young clergywoman, the Rev. Jessica Harren. Part of developing these resources was paying another colleague, Jessica Davis, M.A. who is African-American, to do a sensitivity reading. If you are white and writing something about race, it is wise to seek input from a person of color; but don’t take advantage of their expertise and emotional labor! The liturgical resources we wrote can be found here: https://www.socalsynod.org/2019/08/16/resources-for-commemorating-the-400th-anniversary-of-the-arrival-of-the-first-enslaved-africans-to-north-america/

Another young clergywoman colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings, wrote liturgical resources of her own, which can be found here: https://www.disruptworshipproject.com/litanies-confessions-prayers-for-justice/confession-and-repentance-on-the-400th-anniversary-of-slavery-in-the-united-states

Bringing up slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, and racial injustice in worship may seem daunting. For those of us who are white, it is certainly easier to say nothing, to let this anniversary slip by. We have the privilege of ignoring slavery’s legacy. Our siblings of African descent don’t have that privilege. If you are hesitant to rock the boat by asking your congregation to name racism as sin, I encourage and challenge you to be bold. Our Savior didn’t come to placate the privileged and neither should we.

Worshipping together in community seems like a miracle sometimes. It is a miracle that we can come together—- all with different stories, different hopes, different wounds—- and find a sacred unity. It might seem miraculous that a mostly-white, suburban, politically mixed congregation could join their voices in condemning slavery; could publicly repent for denying the divine image in all people; could pray together for descendants of enslaved Africans. And they didn’t even lash out at their pastor afterwards!

Although marking the quadricentennial in worship felt like a risk, the truth is that it was a small first step. The things we do in worship—the stories we tell, the prayers we raise up, the history we remember—form us as individual Christians and as Christian community. The true miracle is that the Holy Spirit works in and among us, uniting us as the body of Christ. The work of worship leaders and planners is important, but it is the miraculous work of the Spirit that transforms us, bringing us ever closer to God’s sacred intention.

[1]

To learn more about the complexity of the translatlantic slave trade beyond 1619, visit https://bit.ly/2kLqc5M

 

Not From Around Here

“Hang on,” my friend Alissa said to me during a conversation over coffee on her couch. “I need to go take out the Herby Curby.”

I looked at her blankly.

“Did you just say… the Herby Curby?”

She looked at me blankly.

“Yeeesss…”

Then her eyes opened wide as she suddenly realized she needed to explain herself.

“Oh, right. That’s what we call trash cans – you know, those big ones that you take out to the curb? The Herby Curby?”

 

I had lived in Western Kentucky for a few months at that point, and this was the first – but not last – time I’d hear this. Come to find out, when that community first got curbside trash service, the waste disposal company had a commercial on local TV to explain to its new customers how to use the service, complete with a cartoon trash can named — you guessed it — Herby Curby.

While that continues to be one of my favorite stories from my move to Kentucky, after living — and serving — all over the country, I’ve realized that there are much more meaningful lessons that we have to learn from the different regions we’re in.

Michigan will always be home for me, but my spouse is an Army chaplain; thanks to the military I’ve lived in nine states in adulthood and have served churches in Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and currently Texas. And what I’ve realized is that the differences in these regions runs far deeper than how much snow they get and what they call that stuff that comes in cans and bottles (which I will call “pop” until my last breath!).

Don’t get me wrong – I miss having roots. I miss having high school friends up the road, I miss my kids living near their cousins and grandparents. But there is something so valuable that comes from planting ourselves in communities and cultures that are not our own – even within the same country.

We clergy have a lot to learn from the churches we serve, particularly when they are outside our cultural comfort zone. That church in Kentucky not only taught me another way to refer to trash cans; they also taught me about being connected to the earth. They taught me about deep family connections, about being proud of your hometown unlike anywhere else I’ve been. They taught me about living out faith in friendships that last a lifetime.

It is a sacred call to be able to experience a culture different from one’s own, not just cohabiting the same space but breaking through the differences into the fabric of a collective identity. As my path and each church’s path intersect, all of our past experiences make us who we are. I showed up to Texas a different person than I showed up to Kentucky, because Kentucky was in my blood. I showed up to Kentucky a different person than I showed up to South Carolina, because South Carolina was in my bones. We breathe in the history and culture of one place, and breathe out who we are becoming.

As I reflect on what I’ve learned, these are some of the ways I’ve come to approach new communities:

Approach regional differences from a posture of listening. It takes some cultural humility, to listen and learn about what’s important in a community. I currently serve in San Antonio, and the community here has a deep and rich connection to honoring the past. Tell them about your home, yes… but really listen to them share about theirs. Listen to their stories not just of their family history, but the community history. If people are still giving directions referring to a corner store that hasn’t been there in 30 years, ask about why that store was so important… then hear their answers.

Do your own research! Yes, listen to the stories told over potluck casseroles and sweet tea… and also do some reading on your own about the historical roots of that area. Visit the city or county museum. Subscribe immediately to the hometown paper, listening to “the story beneath the words” of how they tend to think, feel, and act. Are there books written about the area, or published authors from there? Acquaint yourself with those works!

Integrate and appreciate, but don’t appropriate. While every place I’ve lived becomes a part of who I am, and it’s important to not talk like “an outsider,” it’s also important to honor that you are not from there… especially when matters of deep identity and pride arise. This is even more important if you are serving a population that has been historically marginalized and you don’t share that identity.

Have fun with it! While not every region has Herby Curbies, every place does have its own quirks, and it can be a lot of fun to laugh and learn about them!

Moving to a new area always carries uncertainty — but when we’re open to learning from them, we become better people and better ministers.

Now please excuse me, I have to go take care of my Herby Curby…

 

 

 

What I Learned in My First Year in Ministry

Standing in my living room surrounded by church members, I put my hand on a small group leader’s shoulder and anointed her with oil. I watched as tears welled up in her eyes. It was a moment I’ve thought about as I’ve reflected on my first year of ministry, one of the many meaningful experiences I’ve had. I am glad I have memories like these to think back on. Ministry is not easy. I have found ministry to be a mixed bag of frustration punctuated by moments of grace and growth. As I look back on the first year, I’ve learned many lessons, some easier than others. Below you’ll find six of the most important.

Sexism in the church is real. Practice creative problem solving.
There have been several times during my short time in ministry where I have come into contact with subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexism. People have a tendency to comment on my weight, my hair, my clothes, and my way of doing things consistently. People treat me differently than they treat my husband, who is also a pastor. There are fewer women in the denominational structure who share my gender and invest in me. While this is frustrating, I realized that there are female leaders who have learned to navigate the system well. These women have turned their frustration into creative problem solving and the best ones have done it with a sense of humor. In my own way, I am learning how to recognize injustice and use my resources to circumvent roadblocks that keep me from being an effective minister. Some of the best leaders I know have developed much of their leadership arsenal while navigating spaces of great adversity.  Knowing this has helped me to cultivate gratitude in the midst of frustration.

Instead of trying to be successful, get to know the people.
I spent the first few months of my ministry trying to figure out what the “rules” of ministry were because I wanted to be a successful pastor. As a former high school teacher, I knew there had to be rules somewhere! What I found in the church instead of rules were complicated networks of people. It took some time for me to feel out the culture of my church, the people I’d be working with, and the neighborhood. In the process, I learned that ministry is more relational than rule-oriented. Once I learned this, the image I had of a successful pastor got a little bigger and there was more space for me to bring my whole self to the job. I also felt freer to be creative and use my skills to reach goals in my own way.

Lead out of who you are.
I have learned that I can only lead out of who I am. I have a gender, an age, a racial identity. All of these things have shaped my life experiences and made me into the person that I am. In my first year of ministry, it has been important to share who I am without trying to copy another person’s leadership style, even the women leaders I look up to. I have used my own story in sermons and small groups. For example, this year I shared a story about becoming aware of my own racism because it was an important part of my Christian walk. This led to a spirited discussion of race and its importance in our lives at a women’s retreat as other people uncovered their own hidden biases. Movement through my own codependency has led me to recognize and deal with the codependency in my congregants and has helped to improve the health of our church programs. In many ways my wounds are gifts to those around me. Sharing my experiences has created a space for people to share about their lives and struggles. I think this has been one of the most valuable aspects of my first year of ministry.

It’s important to be theologically aligned with your co-workers.
No one is going to agree with you 100%. People have not been formed by the same relationships, bible studies, and seminary that has formed me. My own Christian walk is unique. Through our hermeneutic and life experiences, each of us live out our faith differently. And while it is good and healthy to expect theological differences among co-workers, it is equally important to share an understanding of the work of Jesus and the church in the world with your co-workers, especially if you will be working under another pastor’s vision. For example, if you feel that your faith compels you to social action, and the people you work with or your congregation don’t see the value in your approach, it is a recipe for frustration. Get to know the church you would like to work for and the people you would like to work with and make sure that it is a mutual fit so that your ministry is life-giving to both you and your congregation.

Cultivating a non-anxious presence comes through processing your own anxieties.
As pastors, we are called to be with people in the sacred moments of their lives; in birth, sickness, change, and death. It is immensely helpful to be a non-anxious presence in the stressful moments of other’s lives. I have learned that I can only do this by processing my own anxiety. This year, I had a chance to do this as I sat across from two congregants to discuss changing a long-running church program. I could feel my desire to please them bubbling up inside me. This was at odds with my desire to bring attention to the parts of the program I felt were unhealthy. It was an uncomfortable place to be, but by allowing space for my feelings, I had the chance to see what happened when I listened to my anxiety rather than reacted to it. I learned that it’s okay to be in tight spots, and that sometimes being in them allows me to deal with my own unresolved issues. This in turn helps me to be more present to the people in front of me.

Be patient.
In my first year in ministry I have learned nothing more thoroughly than this lesson. Recently I memorized the Message version of 2 Corinthians 5:8, “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.” In ministry, many days go by where it seems nothing is happening, no one is changing or growing, least of all myself. But through patience, I began to recognize the small changes in myself and others: the ways pastors extended trust to me or how a congregant was willing to share a story with me about the loss of their child. Change is slow in coming, and ministry is hard work, but God’s grace is ever unfolding and not a day goes by without it.

Craft Store in September

Christmas in September

Here it is, September 24. The heat has tapered off, the colors are starting to turn, and pumpkin spice is everywhere. Yet, if you walk in your local craft store, that fact might elude you. I was recently in search of a sketchbook for my son, and as soon as I walked in the door, the sights and sounds of Christmas — with red and green, glitter and bells — overcame me. The aisles were lined with these craft supplies and decorations, and I walked by shopping carts full of greenery and ribbon. I’ve barely breathed since Labor Day, and yet it seems as though Halloween has been completely subsumed by Christmas.

Craft Store in September

Craft Store in September

In fact, if my own social media feeds are any indication, the corporate rush into holidays is one of Americans’ favorite things to collectively complain about. The chorus of “IT ISN’T THANKSGIVING YET! PUT YOUR CHRISTMAS STUFF AWAY!” rings almost as loudly as the passive-aggressive posts counting down the days until Christmas, chiding people to refrain from any songs containing the words “holly” or “jolly” for that number of days.

And it isn’t just Christmas, is it? Easter decor is out by Valentine’s Day, Independence Day by Easter, fall by Independence Day, Christmas by Labor Day… and the cycle continues.

It feels rushed and capitalistic. Like the only thing the stores care about is getting us to buy more, earlier. And… that is true. When you’re out in September and see a Christmas decoration you absolutely love, there’s no way to know if it will still be there in December, so you should buy it NOW, right? Then buy more when the season does roll around! Stores know this, and they are happy to feed that need for more, for better, for newer.

I don’t deny for one minute that that is true; corporations sell what makes money.

But there’s an also true here, another reality that offers a different lens. Without denying capitalistic goals, the also true is that stores are not the only places that blur the lines between seasons and holidays.

This is also true in clergy offices.

Clergy are always one season ahead. At least one season.

Sometimes, that feels a little bizarre.

It’s an odd mark of ministry; cultivating worship experiences and programming to fit the theme of each season requires a lot of advance preparation, so we are never really full present in the season we’re in. We live our lives in this “already but not yet”… one foot planted firmly in the present, leading in worship and programming that meets the needs of our congregations and communities, at that very space and time. And the other foot is always — always — a step ahead.All over the country, on this very day in September, pastors are working on their Advent sermon series, planning seasonal events, and filling newsletters with “Save the Dates” for December. Advent planning has been a regular conversation in my clergy social media groups for weeks, and I‘ve even seen some references to Lent and Easter 2020 popping up. By the time our congregations are actually observing Advent, clergy will be knee-deep planning Lent: preaching on Sunday morning about awaiting the birth of embodied Hope… all the while spending Thursday afternoons planning Lenten Bible Studies that focus on the fallibility of our humanity.

And occupying that space, the ever-present reality of the already but not yet, is holy. It’s like a little sneak peak into what’s ahead, prayerfully seeking where God is leading us and our congregations next. Getting to lead what is with grateful anticipation of what might be.

Embracing that has been helpful for me, laying down my sword in the fight against one-season-at-a-time and living into the messiness of the reality of blurred seasons. So, one recent morning, I breathed deeply, lit an evergreen candle, added peppermint to my coffee, and streamed a Christmas movie in the background while I got to work.

And then, when I walked into this craft store that had exploded in red and green, I let out a sigh of solidarity. It wasn’t just me. I know that we have all of autumn, not to mention four full weeks of Advent, before we get to Christmas. But some days, focusing on that grateful anticipation of what might be is what my soul — and my planner — need.

So the next time you see Christmas decorations out long before Thanksgiving, remember that, as people of faith, Hope is already here. 

 

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.

Collars, Leashes, and Lead Ropes

One of the very first things my spouse said to me on the day that we met was, “Your sense of call is going to make your life tough.” It has. It continues to do so.

In February of 2018 I took my collar off. I resigned from my call without a new call in place. It was not really my choice. I was in my second call, loving every minute of it. The rural community felt great. The congregation and I were challenging each other and learning and growing together. But then something happened, I am not sure I will ever know exactly what, and my ability to be their pastor came to an end. For the sake of the community and the congregation, I needed to remove myself from the situation.

So there I was without call, without any prospects before me, hurting so badly I was not sure I wanted another call even if there was an option. In fact, I was not sure I ever wanted to be part of a congregation again if it was going to be this ugly and hurt this badly. Pile on the guilt and shame and feelings of failure: and yes, life was tough.

Rev. Alyssa Augustson competing with a client horse “LuLu”(owned by Rosey Paulson) at Lincoln Creek in 2018.

When I began searching for something to do—anything really—so that we could continue to pay our rent, I found myself back in the world of training and competing dressage and jumping horses. I found myself doing things I love: riding, training, competing, cleaning stalls, and all the other work that goes along with the care of horses.

Growing up with horses, I spent the first twenty or so years of my life working toward a career as a riding instructor and trainer. Cleaning stalls, scrubbing buckets, and measuring feed with meticulous attention became one of my strongest spiritual practices. I was centered. I was in the moment. I was grounded. And there I was, once again, living in this spiritual practice with some added adrenaline on competition weekends as the horses I had in training would gallop around cross-country courses full of intimidating jumps.

Shortly after bumping my horse hobby back into professional mode, I also contracted with a dog walking company in Portland. Soon enough I was easily getting my 10,000+ steps in every day, making many new canine friends, and appreciating the company’s focus on being open and welcoming to all in a way that, dare I say, I have not experienced in the church. Read more