cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Talking to Young Children about Death

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Recently a fellow young clergywoman shared a story* in which she was talking to her five-year-old daughter about death. Mom was preparing her daughter to visit the funeral home where the child’s great-grandmother was lying in wake. She was explaining what it means to have a body in a casket but reassured her daughter, “It’s only her body in there.”

Her daughter listened and, trying to understand, said, “Okay. So…not her head?”

As a pastor and a mom of a young child, I am frequently asked how to talk to children, especially young children, about death. Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Young children are concrete thinkers. They hear and understand things quite literally. In the story above, the mom was insinuating that the great-grandmother’s soul was with God, but her daughter interpreted her words to imagine a decapitated person. Because young children take everything literally, it is essential that we use terms such as “died”and “dead.” Euphemisms such as “passed away” are confusing and misleading for children. In a way that is appropriate and accessible for each child’s developmental stage, it is vital for them to know the finality of death.

When talking about death with children, it is also essential that they understand life. A good first step is to teach them how the body works. Talk about the vital organs and processes that keep it alive. Help them listen for a heartbeat, take big breaths, feel a pulse. Once this becomes part of the conversation, explaining death becomes slightly easier. Death happens when those organs and vital functions stop working: the dead person no longer eats, swallows, farts, breathes in and out, and so on.

Explaining physical death is a place to start, but the conversation cannot end there. Many more questions are bound to arise, and each must be addressed in order to help children process their grief. This is often where our role as clergy becomes important. We are called in not just to provide pastoral care in a time of crisis but also to help make sense of all that is happening. Read more

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

Supporting Your Methodist Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

two gold rings on top of a Bible

Sacramental Presence

two gold rings on top of a Bible

As a single person, I need to remember that–while officiating weddings–I am a billboard for the unexpected and unearned favor of our Lord and Maker.

There are a number of things that I like about being single. I like changing into my sweatpants as soon as I get home from work. I like eating spaghetti and not worrying about how inelegantly or noisily I slurp up the noodles. I like having my own bathroom; I’m not grossed out by the hair in the shower in the same way as I would be by the sight of someone else’s hair. I like having complete autonomy over what entertainment to consume. I was on a date once, and after dinner the man asked if I wanted to get coffee and continue to talk. I politely and swiftly declined – I realized that I would rather go home and watch a DVD by myself than have the date continue. It was clarifying to realize that I preferred my own company than his. I watched the DVD and went to bed, enjoying a full night’s rest under the warmth of all the covers. Solitude has its perks.

Nevertheless, when it comes to officiating weddings, I feel very much at the disadvantage. Who am I to counsel couples as they make this serious and binding commitment, one that I have never made? Recently, I did pre-marital counseling with a couple who were planning to get married in my church’s historic chapel. They seemed appreciative of our counseling sessions. I created space for them to reflect, I asked questions, and I closed each session with prayer. I did not try to pretend that I was drawing from vast personal experience in dating and relationships during the counseling sessions.

But, as I considered what to say during my wedding homily, I felt my singleness acutely. I felt like an imposter. I feared my advice would be of little worth. Mercifully, I saw my friend Peter a few days before the wedding. Peter was a Catholic priest for many years and he officiated hundreds of weddings as a single, celibate priest. I asked him what weddings were like for him and what kind of advice I could give to a couple about to be married when I was single myself. He replied, “Emily, you are a sacrament. It is not so much important what you say. They aren’t going to remember much of that. But they will remember that you were there with them, that you loved and gave yourself to them that day. That’s what’s important: the sacramental nature of your presence.” Read more

rainbow flag blowing in the wind

Speaking For Me

rainbow flag blowing in the wind“The issue.” That’s how we are often talked about by conservatives and progressives alike. To those who would like to purge The United Methodist Church of all of us queer folks, we are discussed not as real people in the church but as “the issue of homosexuality.” Then there are allies who are quick to point out that human sexuality is just the “presenting issue” as our denomination grapples with how we understand scripture, where the locus of power should rest, and the complex realities of a global church. While there is truth in that argument, that truth fails to dull the sting of dehumanization. Either way we are talked about as if we weren’t right here.

The United Methodist Church has been fighting about LGBTQIA+ inclusion/exclusion since 1972 when language was inserted into our book of polity that declared homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching and then in 1984 that barred “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being clergy. This antiquated language enacts not just exclusion but also erasure as those of us who identify as BTQIA+ but not as homosexual are left unclear whether we are even being talked about to begin with. I have heard allies defend themselves for only speaking out for gay and lesbian rights because our book of discipline only discriminates against homosexuality. And yet, United Methodist polity has reduced identity to action—sexual orientation to sex acts. Being bisexual will not protect me from charges filed if I decide to marry a woman nor will it protect me from the much more complete purge the so-called traditionalists would like to enact.

And now, as our denomination gathers for a special called General Conference (Feb 23-26) in St. Louis to vote on a way forward for our denomination, the “issue” will be fought over as though it were just the future of our denomination and not real lives that are at stake. Our lives. My life. In the fall of 2018, I made the complicated decision as a young United Methodist clergywoman to come out as bisexual. I began claiming my own queer voice just as my beloved denomination has disintegrated into a shouting match—speaking sometimes against, sometimes for, but always over me. Rarely with me.

When I was deciding how, when and if I would come out to my congregation, a queer friend and mentor asked me to consider if I wanted to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights “as an ally” or if I wanted to fight for our rights as a queer woman. I looked at her funny. I know who I am. I can’t do anything as anyone other than who I already am. “That’s your answer,” she told me matter-of-factly.  Read more

lit up exit sign

Tools for Good News People When Sharing Bad News: How to Let a Church Employee Go

lit up exit signAs the new year unfolds, so often does the need for casting new visions for the church. The new year can be a space in which to start anew and a moment for leadership to cast new visions for the communities they serve. Improving the functioning of the church to best support and sustain its more visible ministries is often the first step in achieving these new visions. Unfortunately, this often comes with the prayerful discernment that changes might need to be made to the roles and employment of paid and unpaid lay staff. In short, sometimes in order to strengthen your church’s ministry and fulfill its vision, it is necessary to let an employee go.

I used to work a corporate job where, for over nine years, I was instrumental in the hiring and firing of staff from multiple departments. From that experience, I learned what is the best practice when having to give someone the news that they no longer have a job under your employment.

Now let’s be honest, this is one of the worst parts of the job. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news…we are supposed to be the good news people! But unfortunately, this is a part of the job and one that is not spoken about enough. Of course, please follow all the employment laws you are required to by your church and state governance and report all unlawful activity to the appropriate authorities. I am also only talking about the specific act of letting someone go, not the process of discernment that should lead up to the decision. This article assumes that a healthy and contextually appropriate discernment process involving church leadership, has been completed and brought you to the need for termination.

Once I started doing this more regularly, although it never got easier emotionally, I became more adept at doing it skillfully and compassionately. I created an acronym to remind me of the things I needed to make this meeting as respectful and dignity-giving as possible.  That acronym is P.H.A.S.E.S. It stands for: Pray, Have paperwork ready, At beginning of shift in private, Supervisor (or HR), Exit strategy, Say as little as possible. I will go through each of these in a bit more detail. All of these steps can also be adapted to your specific context and are only meant to help open the conversation around this part of the pastoral role. Read more

ycwi conference planning team for the 2018 St. Louis conference

Go Team: Christ, Community, and Conference Planning

“What does it mean to embody ministry? To be the physical body of Christ in the world? How is it with your soul?” These are just a few of the question posed by keynote speaker, the Rev. Karoline Lewis, at the last Young Clergy Women International (YCWI) Conference WE: Embodied Ministry in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, in July of 2019.

ycwi conference planning team for the 2018 St. Louis conferenceI joined the YCWI Conference Team in 2014, during my second year as a YCWI board member. I had three goals coming onto Conference Team: 1) ensure incarnational connection for young clergy women (YCWs) spread across the USA, Canada, UK, Sweden, Israel, Australia, and other countries who are often isolated and yearn for deeper connections in ministry beyond their local communities and YCWI’s online community; 2) get YWCI to Texas, specifically onto the campus of my alma mater, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and 3) take our annual conference international to truly reflect who we are as an organization and as young women facing a similarly unique set of challenges in and beyond the church as we serve across a multiplicity of denominations.

The Conference Team achieved all three goals during my tenure, which concluded last summer. In 2015, we hosted Text in Context at Austin Seminary, in 2016 we saw a 57% increase in attendance in Boston, and in 2017 we marked YCWI’s 10th anniversary as an organization in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. If setting goals, achieving goals, and learning the logistical ins and outs of running (and for 3 years co-chairing) an international conference were enough, I would count my time on YCWI’s Conference Team a success and now move on to the next thing. But God is funny that way, so these experiences came with far more depth and purpose than merely offering professional development and checking off a to-do list.

We were a small team. For a few years, we were a tiny team learning and growing in more ways than organizational conference leadership. We were learning what it means to be Christ – to embody Christ – for each other and grow in our own faith. Those four and a half years were among the most joyous, exhausting, affirming, aggravating, educational, soul-refreshing, found-my-people-ing years of my ministry. Read more

Woman praying alone in church

How to Talk About Abortion in Church

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

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

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

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