The Pastor’s Advent

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

As I write this, I’m sitting on my living room couch. I showered this morning, but I’m wearing what my husband’s aunt calls “soft clothes” – a sweatshirt, and lounge pants, and slippers.

I haven’t worn mascara in more than a week.

“What are you going to do today?” my husband asked me, this morning, while he packed lunches and I spread cream cheese on bagels for our daughters, who are 7 and 3.

“I have some writing to do,” I said. “Maybe I’ll return those Christmas lights that are too short, and buy some candles for the Advent wreath.” That was the entirety of my to-do list, at least as of 6:30am. I tried not to feel like it was inadequate.

On my way back from dropping our youngest at daycare, I decided to make a lasagna. And then I decided that I would sit my butt down and actually read the two long-form articles that have been open in my browser for days, one of them maybe even for weeks.

The very idea of sitting down, uninterrupted, to read an entire long-form article – without feeling the whole time like I was supposed to be doing something else – was almost unfathomable. The possibility that I could just sit and read the entire thing, from beginning to end, rather than to read it piecemeal – a few minutes here while my kids are playing in the tub, and a few minutes there while I scarf down my lunch – made me happier than I’d like to admit.

I took the week off, you see. Read more

Ask a YCW: Sexual Harassment Edition

Dear Askie,

I’ve been really shocked and saddened lately by so many of my female colleagues, friends, and parishioners posting #metoo online with their stories of sexual abuse and harassment. I knew such things happened, but I had no idea how widespread this problem really was. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of behavior in Hollywood or Washington, D.C., but it’s deeply upsetting how many of these experiences seem to have happened in churches. We have trainings and policies to protect children and youth in the church, but it seems like so many of my younger female colleagues have experienced abuse both by other pastors and by parishioners. What can we do to protect them as well as female parishioners? As a middle-aged male pastor, what can I do to address this problem? I want to be an ally, but I don’t even know where to start.

Signed,
Overwhelmed by the Stories

Read more

“I Believe the Women”

With great understanding,
Wisdom is calling out
as she stands at the crossroads
and on every hill.
She stands by the city gate
where everyone enters the city,
and she shouts:
“I am calling out
to each one of you!
Good sense and sound judgment
can be yours.
Listen, because what I say
is worthwhile and right.
I always speak the truth
and refuse to tell a lie.
Every word I speak is honest,
not one is misleading
or deceptive.
-Proverbs 8:1-8 (CEB)

detail from Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on canvas, 1609

The allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct continue to mount in every sector of society. In response to the allegations against Senate candidate Roy Moore, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I believe the women.” These four words hold extraordinary power, and the fact that they are so extraordinary points to how necessary they are.

The word of a woman is often questioned – including by women themselves. In the wake of #metoo, one thing we’ve seen is just how much women have internalized our victim blaming culture. Many have been reluctant to name sexual misconduct for what it is, or have felt partially responsible for it because they had been flirting, too, or they had enjoyed a drink with a friend. There is an inner voice asking, “Was this somehow my fault?”

In a culture that prizes women who are nice, sweet, and submissive, calling out harassment is strongly discouraged. For many women, speaking out would be detrimental to their careers or advancement. There is a pressure in many industries for women to be able to keep up with the men, to prove that they aren’t too emotional, too difficult, or any number of negative stereotypes that would prevent them from fitting in to the dominant culture. Louis CK’s sexual misconduct opened up dialogue among female comedians, who find that “not being able to take a joke” when it comes to sexual misconduct is a real career killer. Where men continue overwhelmingly to dominate certain industries, where “locker room talk” is actually the talk in whatever rooms of power – board room, green room, Senate chamber – women are under pressure to prove that we can take it, that we can hang with the best of them, while allowing the dominant rape culture to define the “best.”

Certainly, there have been, at times, false accusations made. But the vast majority of allegations of abuse and harassment are not false. Women have very little to gain in accusing men – particularly the rich and powerful – of misconduct. When women do speak out, our word is doubted, our character maligned, or worse. Women who have spoken out against powerful men have received death threats and lawsuits. It’s no wonder so many keep silent. Read more

Young Clergy Women Tell All: The Real Reasons We Became Pastors

“As the good book says… ‘let justice roll down like beeswax’”

There are lots of reasons to go into ministry: a feeling or experience of divine call, for instance. Or a deep desire to preach the gospel, equip the saints for the work of ministry, feed Jesus’ lambs and tend his sheep. An affinity for planning worship. A love of pastoral care.

But you know what? You’ve got our number. You figured us out. Here are the real reasons we became pastors, confessed by young clergy women, of many denominations and regions, speaking on condition of anonymity:

  • I became a pastor to head off controversies about whether or not corn tortillas are appropriate for communion.
  • I became a pastor so someone reliable could drive the church van.
  • I became a pastor so I could have tea with old ladies who like to endlessly ask me about my reproductive plans.
  • I became a pastor in order to run out and buy stamps and paper when we don’t have any in the office. I also became a pastor to fix toilets and shovel snow. And, I definitely became a pastor to recruit children (or if there aren’t any around, to create them out of nothingness) in order to fulfill 70-something-year-olds’ ideas of what Sunday School should be like.
  • I became a pastor so I could help my parishioners return things to Walmart without their receipt.
  • I became a pastor to ruin people’s church by singing “new” songs, including ones written in 1902.
  • I became a pastor so I could proofread everyone else’s work because apparently no one else cares about details or grammar.
  • I became a pastor so that I could coordinate vacatio- I mean, mission trips for the youth that absolutely MUST include a trip to an amusement park.
  • I became a pastor to annoy and distract people with my voice, bangs, clothes, lipstick, and children.
  • Three words: Boiler. Repair. Discussions.
  • One word: Casseroles.
  • I became a pastor so I could debate which one God loves more: beeswax or stearine candles. The debate is over which sort of solid candle to get: 51% stearine vs. 100% beeswax. Apparently God hates anything that isn’t pure beeswax. As the good book says, ”I hate, I despise your solemn assemblies when you burn stearine on the altar… let justice roll down like beeswax.”
  • I became a pastor so people would tell me how nice my hair looks.
  • I became a pastor because I needed the constant confusing affirmation that my bangs look much better THIS week.
  • I became a pastor because I cannot be trusted to make decisions about my hair, makeup, clothing or family all by myself. I obviously need six hundred opinions on all these topics. All the time.
  • I became a pastor so I could google things for people who “don’t do” the internet.
  • I became a pastor so old clergymen could steal my good hangers from the vesting room every time there is an ecclesiastical event.
  • I became a pastor so I could write a newsletter article every month that almost nobody will actually read, even though everyone reads the newsletter.
  • Speaking of which, I became a pastor so I could spend lots of time preaching sermons to people who won’t apply what I’m trying to impart. Futility is my jam.
  • I became a pastor because I secretly harbored a desire to do half of our office administrator’s job each week.
  • I became a pastor because I wanted to always have the final say in heated arguments about Christmas wreaths and tablecloth colors. Also, so I could teach people deep spiritual truths every day. And by deep spiritual truths, I mean how to use the copier.
  • I became a pastor so I could disappoint people by the fact that I am not Jesus.
  • I became a pastor to try creative things in worship, inspire people to Christ, and to preach theologically-sound sermons that I’ve exegeted thoroughly. Just kidding! I became a pastor so someone would live in the manse next door and provide access to a plunger when the church needed one.
  • I became a pastor to cancel events when nobody signs up.
  • I became a pastor because I was worried I’d become too confident in my own competence.
  • I became a pastor in order to micromanage the placement and removal of renters’ furniture.
  • I became a pastor to make sure nobody uses our tables and chairs, coffee pots and roasters. Because what kind of Christians would we be if we shared or resources with our community?

Okay, let’s get real. Here’s the real reason I became a pastor: so I could have awkward conversations on airplanes for the rest of my life.

Tomato plant

Leadership Metaphors: Garden and Machine

Tomato plant

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

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

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

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

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

“Find Yourself a Group of Friends…”

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

Find yourself a group of friends…

 

…who will remind you to take care of yourself.

Just last night I went to set my home alarm before going to bed, like I always do. It was late, and the alarm wouldn’t set. It kept notifying me that the basement exterior door was open. There was no reason why the basement door should be open, so that freaked me out. I went out into my backyard, mace in one hand, phone in the other, two dogs by my side, and peered over the fence at my basement door. It looked closed to me. So I started thinking about calling the non-emergency police number to have someone come out and help me check my basement, since I live alone and basements are scary and it was late at night. Immediately, I wanted to know what my friends would do. Then I thought, “You know what they would say! They’d tell you to ask for the help you need!” So I called the non-emergency number and two deputies came out and checked on everything for me, and then I was able to sleep soundly.

I knew that’s the advice they’d give because it’s the advice they give me all the time. They remind me to eat and to sleep when I’m cranky. They remind me it’s ok to eat reheated Panera soup when I’m sick and just need something easy. They don’t flat out tell me to go to therapy, but when I say I think I probably need to, they encourage and support me in that. Over and over and over again these women have helped me remember to take care of myself, and that is a gift at midnight on Sunday when the alarm won’t turn on because the basement exterior door is open when it shouldn’t be and you don’t want to ask for help.

…who will sacrifice for/with you.

October is friendcation month for me. Each year two of my dear friends and I set aside a week in early October to be together. Sometimes we pick a destination and rent a house there. Other times we go to someone’s home—usually when that friend has recently moved—and spend a week seeing their town. This week almost always involves more compromise than any other area of my life. I’m single and childless, so, ordinarily, my time is my time, my money is my money, and my space is my space. My friends are also single and childless, so it’s possible that they, too, compromise more on friendcation week than at other times.

This year during friendcation I found myself thinking a lot about this. Single, childless people often get the message that we can never understand what it is to be partnered or to be a parent until you’ve lived it. Frequently, that message comes with the implication that somehow a person’s capacities for love and self-sacrifice are stunted due to their lack of partner or children. I acknowledge that it is hard to relate to others’ lives until we’ve experienced something similar ourselves, but I know about love and sacrifice. Read more

Wear the Red Dress

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

Shared Leadership: Lessons from YCWI

Kelly Boubel Shriver (left) and Molly Field James (right) during their terms as co-chairs

After serving three years as a co-chair of YCWI, I am beginning my third month as “just a regular board member.” I am loving that I get to spend my final year on the board with the fabulous women of the editorial group. It is a joy to have the opportunity to lift up the voices of our members and to educate the world about the experience of being a YCW. And I even get to write occasionally!

While I am happy and excited in my current role, I am also aware of what is missing. I am no longer the co-chair. Serving in that capacity, I had the privilege of working with Kelly Shriver and shepherding the organization through some tremendous growth and transformation. It was time for me to step down, and I don’t miss all the challenges and responsibilities of that work. It is nice to have a little break from it. What I do miss, though, is the collaborative nature of that role.

As often happens, when you no longer have something, you become all the more aware of how wonderful it was. I have been reflecting on the gifts of collaborative leadership lately, and my most valuable insight has been that I can carry those gifts with me in the rest of my ministry. I might even be so bold to say that the model of collaborative leadership practiced by YCWI has some lessons for the whole church. Here are my top five reasons that collaborative leadership is a gift. I hope they are helpful in your context. Read more

The author with a fellow Moms Demand Action member at the annual Virginia Interfaith Lobby Day for Gun Violence Prevention

Striving for Justice and Peace Among All People: Advocacy, Activism, and the Baptismal Covenant

During Baptisms, Easter and other special occasions in The Episcopal Church, churchgoers are asked eight questions known as The Baptismal Covenant. It begins as a statement of faith laid out in straightforward question and answer style with questions aren’t all that questionable.

Do you believe in God?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

Then the covenant transitions into questions about how we will live out our faith.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching, their fellowship, communion and prayers?
Will you resist evil and return to God when you sin?
Will you proclaim the Good News of God in Christ?

And to these three questions we respond heartily, “I will, with God’s help.”

But then there are the last two questions, which have always been far more radical to me than the six preceding them.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

Again, we respond, “I will, with God’s help,” but I’ve always wondered what crosses through folks’ minds as they respond.

These fundamental promises define who we are as Episcopalians. The way in which we live and move and have our being as Christians is deeply embedded in these baptismal promises. We know that seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for peace and justice among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being are things we should be doing as followers of Jesus Christ, but, truthfully, I found living out these promises incredibly challenging while working as a parish priest. Read more

Chips and Salsa

May I Take Your Order?

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

Sometimes we do not choose when our collars come off; the choice is made for us. That’s how it happened for me. I was in a call I had loved for 6 years when I was told the position was no longer mine. I was given a 6-month severance package and a party, and then had to say goodbye to a congregation I had not yet planned on leaving, who had not yet planned on me leaving them.

I spent the first month resting, healing, having lunch with friends, and processing. I rejoiced in my ability to go home to be with family for Thanksgiving and to be home on Christmas Eve for the first time since I was ordained. I updated my Personal Information Form (PIF) and began the search for the next call.

The holiday season came and went, and January turned into February, and the wheels were still moving slowly. Things got…desperate. So I began the search for a job that would pay the bills in the meantime. It turns out, however, that if your Master’s Degree is in the field of Divinity, and you are an ordained minister, people really don’t want to hire you. I was on ten job websites, registered with four temp agencies, chasing every lead I could, and kept getting rejected. As the clock ticked towards when I would receive my last severance check, I took myself out to lunch one Sunday to one of my favorite restaurants. I sat at the bar, eating my food and listening to one of the hostesses tell a customer that they were hiring. I picked up an application on my way out.

The running joke in my house used to be that it’s always good to have a skill to fall back on. I had been a server and a hostess in high school and college, and the skills stayed with me. I had experience, I was good with people, I promised not to try to convert them to Jesus, and then I had a job: waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

I wasn’t sure if my collar had come off for good. I kept my head down and served – literally. Read more