Posts

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Inked Edition

2834571741_8c0b73f7df_z

Dear Askie,

I’m in my first call as a Presbyterian minister. My congregation is a small, wonderful group of folks, mostly older, all over the theological spectrum, who do great work with hunger ministries and refugee ministries. I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo, and I’m worried about what they would think about it – it would be something that’s of personal religious significance to me, but not obviously religious. If having a tattoo would be a huge impediment to my ministry, I’d like to take that into consideration. But I’m just not sure, and I don’t want to ask my congregation because I don’t want them to think that they get to make the decision for me. Most of the people I go to for ministry advice are folks of a certain generation, ones I fear might have a knee-jerk reaction to a question about being a pastor with a tattoo. What would you do?

Sincerely,
Rev. Blank Canvas

Read more

feet of newborn - Caucasian

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Taking Your (Maternity) Leave Edition

feet of newborn - Caucasian

Newborn feet – fearfully and wonderfully made!

Dear Askie,

I’m preparing for the arrival of my first child (a girl!) in September. My congregation is very excited about my pregnancy, but I’m not sure they really “get it” about maternity leave. I have six weeks of paid maternity leave, and am extending that by using two weeks of vacation time. The problem is that I keep hearing people mention things that they assume I’ll still do while I’m on maternity leave. Congregants say things like “Oh, you’ll be on maternity leave then, so I’ll just email you,” or that I’m welcome to bring the baby along to the Fall Festival (three weeks after my due date, so I’ll definitely be out). I’ve also heard a lot of comments about how great it is that the church is being so generous to give me maternity leave, and it’s hard to know how to respond. At the same time, these folks are so sweet and so kind, and so excited to have a new baby at our church – they’re knitting blankets, making sure that the nursery meets my needs, and I think they’re even planning a surprise baby shower (someone let the secret slip). How do I navigate this new phase of life and ministry?

Expectant Pastor

Read more

Sometimes We Need the Lines: A Review of the Adult Coloring Trend

adult coloring bookColor me skeptical. When I first noticed craft-store and grocery-store displays of mandala coloring books, artist-quality colored pencils, and overpriced pen sets, all marketed to adults, I winced. Don’t get me wrong. As an artist and former art teacher, I’m excited when the mainstream crowd gives a nod to the arts. And as a children’s minister, I’m equally jazzed when adults trade their carefully constructed decorum for childlike fun. (My sixty-something, always elegant senior minister once raced through an enormous, inflatable bouncy house at our church picnic, and I count it a blessing to have witnessed such joy.) And yet, I felt uneasy about the adult coloring trend. The commercialism of all the mass-produced coloring books raised an initial red flag for me, but the nagging feeling in my stomach didn’t stop there. At first I couldn’t put my finger on the cause of my growing grumpiness, but then it hit me: all the intricately drawn coloring pages seemed controlling. Sure, marketers were touting these books as creative and meditative outlets, but weren’t they really just enticing us to color inside the lines? Read more

Walter’s Cigarettes

When I was a teenager, I promised myself that I would never buy cigarettes. A few of my friends smoked, and occasionally someone would offer me a cigarette and I would accept. Fearful of addiction, I came up with what I thought was a fool-proof strategy: if I never bought cigarettes, I could only ever smoke when I was bumming cigarettes, and since I couldn’t return the favor, politeness would prevent me from smoking too often. Ten years later, I walked into a corner store sporting a clerical collar and a small baby bump and, for the very first time, bought a pack of Newports.

My beloved congregant Walter was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. An African-American man who worked as a diversity trainer (among other things), he connected easily with people from all kinds of backgrounds, and constantly, lovingly encouraged the congregation to be a model of a community overcoming racism, classism, ageism, and more. He laughed and cried unreservedly. He spoke at length about “Ubuntu” theology, the African theology that emphasizes interconnectedness. As the president of our church’s board, he led the committee that interviewed me and called me as the associate pastor; when I told him with some trepidation, only a few months later, that I was expecting a baby and would need to take maternity leave, he rejoiced. Shortly after my baby Abel was born, we got word that what Walter had thought was a dental issue was in fact a bone tumor forming in his jaw. His diagnosis took us all by surprise – a vibrant man in his early 60s whose father still lived independently, we had all assumed we would have him with us for decades to come, even if we did nag him to quit smoking. They gave him six months to live.

Months passed, and Walter responded positively to treatment, but the doctors were clear that there was no cure for this kind of cancer, only temporary reprieve. When we baptized Abel, I asked Walter to be his godfather, knowing that Abel would probably never remember Walter. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Spare Some Change Edition

Gas Station

Dear Askie,

I’m a new pastor in a small farm town. The church is on the main road through town and I live in the parsonage next door. Across the street is a gas station/minimart. The previous pastor was known to help whomever knocked on the door with money for gas, food, etc., so I’m getting knocks from people looking for help. So far these people don’t live in town, they’re passing through, and five miles further down the highway is an enormous casino. The church members and my denominational leadership do not expect that I hand out money from my front door, and so far I have not. But I feel like a terrible person, the falsest of Christians, and the most hypocritical of pastors when I turn someone away. What do I do?

Sincerely,
Struggling

Read more

My Doula

Several hours into hard labor, no drugs, with my second child, I had to pee.  I made the decision that it was too much work to walk to the bathroom. “I’m gonna pee!” I announced. And as the urine hit the hospital bed, my first thought was, “Well, this certainly moves my relationship with Martha from pastor-parishoner to something entirely different.”

I am chief among those who extoll the importance of boundaries between pastors and their congregations. (I’m the child of a minister and a clinical social worker: I was raised speaking family-systems.) Urinating on a bed in front of the church people is definitely not a part of my understanding of appropriate boundaries.

Martha was a member of my congregation, part of the committee that had called me as pastor for children and youth five years earlier. After a few years, I had identified her as one of the “safe” people, people who got it that pastors are human (she’s a PK, which is no coincidence). But when my husband and I had trouble getting pregnant again, I found myself telling Martha about it. She was a natural birthing instructor, and I admired her combination of granola-crunchy sensibility tempered with a healthy respect for the wonders of modern medicine.

That was the beginning of a journey toward the peeing. A year later, after some medical assistance, I was pregnant. My first child, who had been shockingly easy to conceive, had blessed us with a dicey pregnancy and then was an absolute nightmare to get out, culminating with an exhausting emergency c-section after several hours of pushing. My plan for not having another one of those involved an attempt at an unmedicated birth this time around. And so my husband and I found ourselves enrolled in Martha’s birthing class, sitting on the floor of her living room with four other couples every week for three months, discussing the utmost of private details, emotions, anatomy, and fears.

And then we decided to ask her to be our doula, too. (A doula is a professional who supports a woman before, during, and immediately after labor. Recognize the word, Greek scholars?) I wavered on that decision for weeks. Was this maybe too personal? Wouldn’t the boundaries get too blurry? But we knew her and we trusted her and, boundaries aside, it made sense.

The day Abram was born was a Sunday: our head pastor was able to announce in church that I was in labor, and the whole congregation was able to pray together for me. I was a couple miles away from church, in a room with my husband; my Mom; (my Dad, popping in and out while reading the Sunday New York Times in the waiting room); a fabulous hospital staff, and my OB; and Martha, too. She was there through the whole messy and wonderful thing. (If you love birth stories, here’s my take and here’s Martha’s.)

My church, boundaries and all, is my spiritual family. And they were there with me, body and soul, that day. I am grateful for their presence, because it wasn’t an easy birth (though the outcome was exactly what we had hoped for).

Giving birth was the most embodied experience of my life. Birth is embodied from the down and dirty minutia of muscle and blood and fluid and excretions, to the pain and sensation, to the rhythm of breathing and contracting and pushing, heartbeat and blood pressure, right on to the big moment of a new little person coming out of your body and being placed on your chest. If the experience of birthing is not about bodies, I don’t know what is.

I have a hard time with idea of birth as a spiritual experience: that rubs me the wrong was theologically. God made us as beings with bodies. We are embodied creatures. We are meant to experience God not just in “spirit” but also in the embodied creation around us: the real life, physical, touchable world.

Birthing-Abram-The-Detailserikanderica-1.org_

I believe in embodied ministry, too. It matters that we are able to talk and touch and hug our congregations. It matters that we are with them, body and soul. Living and experiencing God through the body is a key part of the Christian understanding of who God is and how God relates to us. Don’t forget: we believe that in order to carry out salvation, God became flesh (incarnation), embodied. We live this out as pastors.

I still believe in boundaries. But there are always a few people in each call who play multiple roles in our lives and blur the boundaries. We take those relationships with us when we leave a church. Last week, Martha and her family had a four hour layover at the airport in our new town. We got a few precious hours with them.
My oldest child, now almost seven, said, as we drove to pick them up, “Martha’s really like family, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian pastor who lives on the San Francisco Peninsula with her husband and two kids. While she waits for the next ministry thing, she enjoys hiking and running and driving on Highway 1 and chasing her kids…and day dreams about the next full time ministry call if only because it will allow her to once again afford childcare and house cleaning. She blogs at “Don’t Flay the Sheep“.

Love ’em, Leave ’em, and Know What to Say

Over my ten years of ordained work, I have discerned a call to intentional interim ministry, or as I sometimes put it, “love ‘em and leave ‘em.”  I take both halves of this formula – which sounds strangely like the storyline for an old-school country song – very seriously.  I am fully engaged with the churches I serve while I’m with them, but I begin thinking about the way I want to leave the joint from my first day of employment.  Where does this congregation need to be spiritually and emotionally in 1-2 years to live into its God-guided future?  What can I do to provide the breathing space, promote the healing, and encourage the identity work required to get to that point?  My goal is to bring the members to the cusp of their collective potential so that the succeeding minister can love ‘em and not leave ‘em, at least not anytime soon.

My departure preparations, then, focus not just on the church but also on the settled-minister-to-be, even though there’s no face or name to put with that title for most of my tenure.  I try to put myself in her boots and imagine the tools she’ll need to get off to the best possible start.  In the interim call I wrapped up last week, I set and staffed fall ministries with the incoming minister’s blessing so that she could concentrate on getting acclimated, spent months creating a flash drive of notes and files, battled decades-old office dust with my trusty can of Pledge, and put together a minister’s survival kit.  In addition to popcorn, chocolate, bubbles, and a coupon book for local restaurants and attractions, the kit included a document titled “Top 12 Essential Sayings for Ministers,” which I composed drawing on the wisdom of others and my own experience:

Top 12 Essential Sayings for Ministers

12. That sounds like a great idea!  I encourage you to take the ball and run with it.

Empower those with passion.  They might look confused or disappointed that you didn’t add their suggestion to the top of your to-do list – that’s ok – or they might have just gotten the permission they needed to be a member in ministry.

11. Thank you for sharing your conflicts with [name] with me.  Let’s think together about how you might address them with [name].

Develop an aversion to geometry – particularly triangles. 

10. That is not an appropriate question/comment.  My appearance/family/financial situation is off limits.

Ah, life in the fishbowl.  Gently remind (generally) well-intended people that if they wouldn’t say it to the other professionals who provide care to them, they shouldn’t say it to you either.

9. [When grabbed on Sunday mornings] I appreciate this information.  Could you call or email me this week to remind me?  What you have told me is important, and often I don’t retain what I’m told in passing on Sunday mornings because there is so much going on.

Sunday mornings are your best opportunity to interface with the largest number of church members, which means you’re bombarded by information about pastoral care needs and ideas for new ministries.  But you’ll also need all the brain cells at your disposal for the five-hour sprint, so put the onus back on others to remind you later about what they want you to recall.

8. I do not give weight to anonymous complaints, but I would be happy to talk face-to-face with anyone who has a concern.

Emphasize this early and often, and get your leadership on board so that they can encourage others to put on their big girl/boy pants and confront issues directly.

7. I could use your experience/expert help with [task].

Even the most broad-based seminary curricula don’t include construction, marketing, or tech support.  Give folks a chance to lead by asking them to share their talents in God’s service.

6. I’d love to meet/attend your event on [day], but I take that day for self-care so that I will be fully ready to minister with you and others the rest of the week.

This one is tricky, and there are exceptions.  Learn what yours are, and flex the time out elsewhere when you exercise them.

5. Let’s bring [colleagues/trusted lay leaders] in on this situation to help us think it through.

Lone rangers are prone to mistakes and have no one to back them up when the crap hits the fan.

4. Thank you for your email.  Since the situation you name is both important and has some nuance and complexity to it, I think it would be most helpful to continue the conversation in person.  When can you meet?

There is a time for email conversations, especially when you need documentation of your steps and others’ words.  But real quagmires are often exacerbated by the limitations of text, the option to hit “forward,” and the lag time in responses.

3. The [rule/policy in question] is in place to ensure the safety and welcome of everyone in our community.  This [rule/policy] applies to everyone equally, and I enforce it because I care about you/your child.

In a world full of excuses, exceptions, and entitlements, showing fairness and putting a person’s well-being over your need to be liked is uncomfortable but prophetic and pastoral.

2. When I am on vacation, my phone will be off and I will not be checking email.  You may contact the church if you need immediate help.

Remind your people – and yourself – that you are not indispensable.  The church will still stand and time will march on if you take a week or two to rest your body and feed your mind.

1. Thank you!

Say this sincerely, often, and in a variety of ways.

I thought the above statements might be instructive for someone new to ordained ministry (as my successor is), but I’ve realized that they need a permanent place on my own desk to boost intestinal fortitude.  I offer them to you as well, because whether or not I know your face or name yet, we are all partners in the sometimes delicate, sometimes raucous, always exhilarating square dance called ministry.  I pray that these essential sayings will provide us with the courage to remember and honor our limits so that we can model how to do the same for the people in our care.  And along the way may we learn to rely more fully on the presence and grace of God, the One who loves us and never leaves us.

 

Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed, a resident of north Alabama, is a lifelong Baptist who has also served in United Methodist, PC(USA), and Disciples of Christ contexts.  She is currently seeking her next interim gig and secretly longs to have a business card printed that reads “Short-Timer, Wisenheimer” in the position field.

Photo credit: JoelMontes via photo pin cc