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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

An Open Letter to the “Minister” in my Facebook Feed

Dear Facebook acquaintance,

Since we haven’t actually talked or seen each other since middle school, let me just start by saying I’m aware that you’re hearing from me out of the blue. We connected several years ago through the magic of Facebook, where I learned that you’ve become a lawyer, enjoy the party scene, are friends with lots of beautiful women, and have some pretty strong political opinions. Looks like you’re enjoying life and succeeding well at it.

Speaking of Facebook, you shared a picture recently that we need to talk about. It was a picture of you officiating a wedding on a beach somewhere. It looked lovely – beautiful setting, beautiful couple, all that. But I was shocked to see you wearing a clerical collar, that little white square of plastic at the base of your neck contrasted against a black shirt, that unmistakable uniform of the clergy – one I wear every day. I didn’t know you had become a priest! How cool! However, a little bit of internet sleuthing revealed that you got ordained online, and wore the uniform to be funny (and that you were never going to let your devout Catholic mother see that picture. I think that’s wise, because I remember her, and she’d kill you if she saw it.).

In case you haven’t taken the time to scroll through my Facebook page, you should know that I actually am a priest. After leaving my first career as a teacher, I went to seminary (a three-year, full-time graduate program), got my Masters in Divinity, did several internships in churches and hospitals, went through years of meetings with committees and governing boards, medical and psychiatric evaluations, and was finally ordained in a very beautiful and moving ceremony. I have been working as a full-time pastor for the last six years.

I’m surprised by how many people have asked why I went through this long and crazy process when I could have just gotten ordained online. That question has never been anything less than a stab in the heart: it tells me that people have no idea what clergy actually do. Being ordained isn’t about getting a piece of paper certifying my credentials. It’s about a calling by God, a life commitment, and work that is more difficult and holy than you could ever imagine. Read more

Hero

Everyone imagines themselves as the hero of their own story. Especially every child — and I was a child. They all imagine themselves as heroes. That’s not a new thing; it’s like that here in your twenty-first century American lives, but it was like that where I lived, in Nazareth two thousand years ago, as well. Your boys and girls have the heroes that they imagine: Wonder Woman, Iron Man, PJ Masks, Moana, GI Joe, Harry Potter. They’re inundated with them: hundreds of heroes, on television screens and in movie theaters, in newspaper comics and novels. Watch the children sometime, and see how they play: averting global disasters at the playground, setting up elaborate Lego battlefields, going on daring adventures through their back yards, covering themselves with temporary tattoos. They all want to be heroes.

So did I, but our heroes were a little bit different.

You have to understand that those Roman soldiers could do anything. There was no due process, no body cameras, no professional code of ethics — not that those things always make a difference for you, but even those flawed safeguards were not there for us. Rome had conquered my town and those soldiers could do anything they wanted.

So we would go to our religious services, passed off to the authorities as innocuous. They respected things that were ancient, and our faith was as ancient as they come: ancient stories, ancient scrolls, ancient traditions. They thought our religion kept us busy, kept us industrious, kept us docile. But every little child, boy or girl, wants to be a hero, and that’s what I was. So I learned the stories of our heroes. Moses, who led the people out of slavery in Egypt, who stood in the presence of God on Sinai. David, who as a boy stood fearless with his slingshot and felled the giant Goliath. Jeremiah, who heard the voice of God in his boyhood and fearlessly reprimanded the wicked and faithless. And there were other heroes, too: Ruth and Naomi, left widowed and making their way in the world. Jael, deceiving and impaling Siserah, Esther, risking everything to advocate for her people to the king.

Those were the stories that shaped me and formed me as a child. Read more

Spring Pruning: A Sermon on John 15:1-8

pruning shears

I got pruned the other day. There were some dead, unfruitful, suffocating branches that had grown up out of me, making me ugly and overgrown. And God came over to me with some big sharp clippers and pruned those dead branches right off and threw those useless pieces into the fire and burned them to ashes.

My pruning happened on a retreat I went to a few weeks ago, led by a woman named Tilda Norberg. At one point, Tilda asked us to do something called “Speaking Truth to Lies.” And she asked us to write down two or three lies about ourselves that we needed to get rid of. Not ridiculous lies like: “My hair is blonde” or “I’m a professional body builder.”

But the kind of lies we tell ourselves—lies that we know in our head are not true, but that our hearts hang onto.

If I give you some examples, I think you’ll recall some of these kinds of lies knocking around in your heart at some point.

“If I weigh more than 120 lbs, no one will find me attractive.”

Or this one: “Because I have cancer or because I can no longer move the way I used to, I will never be whole or well again.”

Or this: “I don’t have a problem with drugs or alcohol.”

Or this: “If I weren’t so needy or noisy or nosy, the abuse would stop.”

Lies that we live our lives by. Lies that we die little deaths by. These are the kinds of lies Tilda asked us to write down. Read more

Looking Over My Shoulder

DrMartens

When I was in seminary, and ordination loomed ahead, we, the young soon-to-be-clergy women, often discussed what to wear underneath our cassocks. I guess we were scared. I guess we saw our whole future ahead of us as very respectable members of society, and we were panicking. In any case, we discussed underwear. Black lace? Our even more daring, something red? After all, ordination to the priesthood has a lot to do with the Spirit…

The day came. I can’t remember what I wore underneath all that black. Probably something comfortable. Somehow it didn’t matter once I
was there. That day was full of grace, full of friendship and joy.

The questions came afterward. Or rather, my need to be young, my need to be me came afterward. Read more

When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. Read more

All of the Fun, None of the Work?

“All of the fun, none of the work.”

It’s the phrase I frequently hear from clergy when I tell them that I’m an Associate Rector. It’s the “truth-in-jest” description of associate clergy. You don’t have the highest level of responsibility and the buck doesn’t stop with you, so you don’t have to deal with the majority of the “work” or “business” of the church: personnel, conflict, roof repairs, fund raising, etc. I used to make this joke myself and laugh along with it, as if to say, “I know how good I have it – my job is the easy one!” I played along with the jab that being an associate pastor is like riding a bike with training wheels, a learning position where one prepares oneself to be able to handle the real responsibility of the “grown-up world” of ministry.

But you know what? This joke represents a highly problematic and diseased vision of church leadership, and I both resent and reject it. The claim that being an associate is “all of the fun, none of the work,” implies that a senior clergyperson does all of the work (and, perhaps, has none of the fun). It is “work” that one is supposed to aspire to do as one grows into positions of greater responsibility and scope  – and this “work” is generally non-pastoral. That is to say, it has little to do with the spiritual formation, nurture, and empowerment of the flock of Christians in one’s care. It’s all the stuff you “didn’t learn in seminary”- hiring and firing personnel, budgetary decisions, fund raising, reviewing proposals for roof repairs, approving the layout of the annual giving brochure. In contrast, associate clergy tend to have responsibilities that lean toward pastoral care, worship, outreach, advocacy, and Christian education – in other words, areas clergy are trained for in seminary. The unfortunate and unspoken belief this reveals begs a disturbing question: Does that mean that, deep down, churches (and the clergy who lead them) don’t view pastoral work as real work?

Many would immediately argue that “all of the fun, none of the work” simply means that associate clergy don’t bear the burden of the responsibility that falls on senior clergy, and this is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the senior/associate clergy relationship. Indeed, many associate clergy would report that the majority of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and preaching falls on the senior clergy. Yet most associate clergy would probably also report being responsible for many areas that senior clergy don’t touch at all: youth ministry, Christian education, family ministry, outreach and advocacy.

This brings to light two major problems:

1)  Education, youth, advocacy, outreach, and pastoral care are often treated as too unimportant for the senior clergyperson to handle. Whenever “all of the fun, none of the work” means ministry to youth, families, the sick and homebound, the bereft, and those on the margins, it speaks volumes about how little the church values those people.

2) It falsely links specific skill sets with levels of importance in church leadership and administration. Overseeing Sunday School and Christian Education? The associate clergy, or a layperson with some sort of seminary or religious training, can do that. Clerical matters, like sacramental and pastoral ministry (weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits, etc.)? Associates can do some of that. But when it comes to the real heavy lifting? Balancing budgets, hiring personnel, and running the business – well, that’s for the grown-ups. That’s for the senior clergy. Read more

The Bricks and Mortar of Family

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA) in Oconomowoc, WI

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA), Oconomowoc, WI

I have seen various versions of this meme going around Facebook, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, I generally just glanced past the posts without much thought. That is, until a friend posted this one. This one hit me differently.

When I look at this image, I am instantly transported into that building. Many of my earliest memories are of that place – hearing the story of how I took my first steps in that kitchen with its yellow flecked linoleum floor and countertops, anxiously awaiting the Sunday School year when I would finally be in the coveted room that had the huge rainbow mural on one wall, crawling around on the shuffleboard-covered floor to pick up the yarn scraps left by the quilting ladies, sitting four pews from the front on the pulpit side and looking at the sky blue dome behind the altar, practicing the phone number (which I knew before my home phone number) for the rare times I was home alone so that I had a way to contact my mom–a key volunteer before she became a staff member. This building was just as much my home as the house I lived in. Read more

cross in front of a sunburst

Enough.

As U.S. Navy Chaplains, we have the privilege of serving Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsman, and their families in every clime, place, and context. It is a humbling honor to stand with and for those who defend the Constitution of the United States. Our “ministry of presence” occurs aboard ships, cutters, and submarines; with expeditionary, construction, and amphibious battalions; ranging over air, sea, and shore commands worldwide. We live among our people, we deploy with them, and we preach and pray in some of the most interesting of circumstances.

cross in front of a sunburst

In the Shadow of the Cross

This chaplaincy is unique in the uniforms we wear and the places we go; however, there are a myriad of similarities with any parish or institutional ministry. We provide rituals and rites of our faith group according to our denominational guidelines, we counsel and facilitate religious practice for every service and family member of all faiths, we advise the chain of command, and we are subject matter experts on human care. The following reflection is based on an amalgamation of days and circumstances and reflects a typical spiritual and emotional experience for me as I continue to discover that My Job is really not at all about me. Read more

The author and her husband

Spiritual Safety

The author and her husband

The author and her husband

Wardrobe choices. That’s what my husband and I were fighting about that evening. It was like an episode of “What Not To Wear” was playing in front of our closet.

Read more