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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

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

Campfire Church

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

S’mores

Q: What do you do when life gives you lemons?
A: You make s’mores.

For about a month, we smelled natural gas outside the sanctuary doors. But as it often happens with a group, everyone thought someone else would call. I finally took it upon myself to call Atlanta Gas one Thursday morning. Atlanta Gas responded within 30 minutes and determined that we had a significant leak in one of our pipes buried under ground. To be safe, they shut off our gas.

This was the beginning of February. Our new property chair immediately called the necessary repair companies. By Friday morning, he had discovered:

  1. There was a hole the size of a silver dollar in our pipe. We were blessed to be there.
  2. The leak was buried too deep for most companies to fix.
  3. The only company willing to do the repairs couldn’t get to it until after the weekend.

I got the phone call at 11:00 a.m. on Friday morning that we would not have heat in the church for worship. Temperatures were expected to be near freezing all weekend, so the property chair suggested we cancel worship.

“Give me an hour. I think we can have fun with this,” I told him. I had no idea what I was going to do; but as soon as I hung up the phone, I began to brainstorm. One hour later, I came up with a plan that I loved. 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

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Praying with Our Farmers

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Like many good ministry ideas, this one came about by accident.

I interned at two small, rural churches during my second year in seminary. At one of the churches – on my first Sunday there – the pastor invited me to the front of the sanctuary to introduce myself. He asked me to share two fun or interesting facts about myself. When put on the spot like this, I always seem to draw a blank and end up saying something weird. This time, I shared the fact that that when I was a kid my favorite toys were tractor figurines. What I said was absolutely true, but it probably would not have been all that interesting to the vast majority of people.

Only, I wasn’t talking to the majority of people: I was talking to farmers. It was probably the best thing I could have said to ingratiate myself with the people of this church. I was a local girl from another rural county about a half-hour away. I loved tractors, and I happened to be dating a dairy farmer (who is now my husband). They loved me. My internship went well, and I didn’t think about my embarrassing introduction again until about a year later.

Someone from that church called me up and asked if I’d be willing to lead worship early on a Sunday morning at an antique tractor show they were organizing, since they knew I really loved tractors. I immediately jumped at the opportunity because it seemed so unique. It wasn’t until I started planning that I realized I had potentially bitten off more than I could chew. What would the setting be like? How long should this service be? Would there be a microphone? What should I do about music? What exactly does one preach about at a tractor show? This final question was what I spent the most time worrying about. I wanted to say something relevant, but I was afraid that if I went with a Scripture passage with too much agricultural imagery I would either look like I was trying too hard, or I would show how much I don’t understand about agriculture when I tried to preach on it. Read more

Healing and Hope: Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Unlike Carol Howard Merritt, I grew up in a small, progressive American Baptist congregation. In my church life, I grew up in a place that invited questions, encouraged me to pursue deeper meaning, and embraced me wholly as I was created.

However, I also attended church camp. I loved camp, and it helped shape my faith and taught me about relationship with Jesus Christ. But the church camp I attended was staffed by Christian counselors who came from more fundamentalist congregations. They came from belief systems that upheld patriarchal roles and were concerned with saving souls before camp ended on Saturday morning, and the best way to do that was to make us feel that we needed to be saved before we returned home. The jagged knife of Scripture was used to create wounds that declared that I was a sinner, in a way that made it seem very shameful, that I had done something purposefully bad to separate myself from God; that because my hormones were going wild as a teenager, I had fallen short of God’s perfection. I wasn’t good enough. I had to be saved by Friday night or I might not go to heaven.

I was healed through good preaching, fellowship, and friends in college. I experienced further healing in seminary as I began to learn about the historical and cultural context of those scriptures, the same verses my camp counselors had used but hadn’t understood themselves.

Healing Spiritual Wounds is a book for all Christians (not only those who have come out of a fundamentalist background) because all of us have been harmed at one time or another by churches or church institutions that failed us. Read more

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Communion in the City

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Sign in a New York deli

There’s a story, a myth perhaps, about a congregation that stopped all activities during Lent. That season they gathered for Sunday worship, and then the pastor and elders visited the homes of everyone in the congregation to serve communion. They held no meetings and no rehearsals – only worship on Sundays and in homes.

Anytime I complained to a former colleague about how busy my church was she would tell me this story. The idea is wonderful, but one that would take tremendous planning and congregational buy-in. Neither I nor the congregation I now serve was ready for this kind of endeavor, but the story got me thinking about communion and Lent in new ways.

During Lent in 2014, I invited the congregation I serve to join me for “Communion in the City.” Each Wednesday evening we gathered in a public space for fellowship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. During the five weeks that we met, we broke bread at two different Panera Bread restaurants, the mall food court, a McDonald’s, and a downtown outdoor space. Read more

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

Life at The Table

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

In Seminary, a professor had a “Dead Church Swear Jar.” If we said local congregations, denominations, or the Church universal was dying or dead, we had to put money in the jar. The point was that God is still alive and moving – and that will never change.

Yes, God is still alive and moving. Our rapidly-growing community was recently named one of the top 10 hottest neighborhoods in the nation. Everyone wants to live here, visit here, eat here, and enjoy the fun urban vibe we have. But very few people want to worship here. My own congregation – the largest protestant church in the neighborhood – is stuck at 50 people who are dying at a rate of 15% per year.

Statistically, in 5 years, the congregation will cease to exist. It is hard to think of the neighborhood churches – who aren’t engaged in mission and ministry and simply try to take in enough money to keep the lights on – as anything but “dead.”

But I’m an eternal optimist, and I refuse to go down without a fight. I began dreaming of ways to grow my congregation. I tried the relational model. I tried flyers, social media, websites, videos, free ice cream. You name it, I tried it. But I had minimal success. Visitor after visitor would approach me after worshipping with us for a week or a month and tell me, “I love you and your sermons, but these people! I just can’t do it.” They looked around the congregation and didn’t see anyone who looked like them. They saw that one third of the congregation is in their 90s. It didn’t matter that 15 kids were running around. They only saw a 1940’s church and couldn’t see themselves as part of that.

Our neighborhood, Hampden, is rapidly gentrifying. Thousands of homes are being built within one mile of the church. The older, blue collar mill workers stayed in the neighborhood after the mills closed, after the shops were boarded up and the houses were falling down. About ten years ago, a resurgence began. The artists came. The restaurants came. The shops came. And with these things came the college-educated – most with doctorate degrees and six-figure salaries – displacing the long-time residents who never graduated high school and barely survive on social security.

It’s a tale of two neighborhoods. To change Sunday morning worship to reflect the changing community would only remove the last thing the “Old Hampden” people could hold onto as being theirs. Yet, there is no future in this style of worship and approach to ministry. We needed something new. Read more

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

I Take the Saints With Me

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Growing up, church was… interminably slow. Not bad, just slow. Like the waving of a cardboard fan in the hands of a church mother, it was steady and sure, and time just sort of “hung” in church. So there was lots of time to people-watch. The people I especially loved were the old saints, these mahogany/ tan/ebony/cream-with-just-a-hint-of-coffee ladies and gentlemen who occupied the prime seats in the church, who nodded knowingly when the preacher was especially inspired, who sang in the senior choir, and whose hands lifted to the air meant church was going to last an extra five, ten, twenty-five minutes.

I was not a regular (my parents weren’t church goers), but I was a regular visitor to two churches in particular, because my extended family were every-Sunday church folks. Even before I had ever heard of the “communion of saints,” in which we profess our faith each week in my own Episcopal church, I believed in it because I witnessed and experienced it. When we sang the old hymns and spirituals, I felt myself lifted up, beyond. I would imagine Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Frederick Douglass sitting in a church just like that one, singing those very songs. Their pictures, and those of other “Heroes and Heroines of Our Faith and People” were hung along the church’s hallways and on the walls of its fellowship hall, and their solemn, noble faces told stories of faith in Jesus as my people have lived it, of sojourning and thriving in this harsh and wondrous America we call home.

This has been a bloody, bloody summer to be Black in America. In this wearying time, I take with me the saints of my beloved Black church. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Inked Edition

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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

Dear Celebrity

writing-1209121_640Dear Celebrity,

The first time I met you was a very memorable occasion. I’d met celebrities of your stature before, but they’d all been a meet-and-greet sort of thing or strictly business—the kind of official interactions where it didn’t matter at all who I was. Honestly, I haven’t liked many of them. So when I saw you, at the end of a long day that had started twelve hours before, I wasn’t exactly giddy. You were there, at church, with your kids, having just moved into the neighborhood a few months before. You were looking for an Episcopal church with kids’ programs, because apparently not everyone in Hollywood is either atheist or crazy, right-wing, born-again Christian. I found that hopeful. You were also there on the most somber of holy days: Ash Wednesday, that day when we smear ashes on our foreheads with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. I thought, “Good Lord, what an introduction. Welcome to our church. Remember, you’re all going to die.”

I talked to your kids about Sunday School, about how long the class is and what they’d learn. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, that you had entered my world. I’ve entered into your world—worlds you’ve created—many times. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen you in. You’re really one of my favorites. And there I was, talking to you in real life, like you’re regular folk. I mean, of course you are a person like anyone else, but let’s be honest, in many ways you’re not. You and I live in the same neighborhood but not in the same world. Yet there you were, in this church, on my turf, interested in things that are my responsibility. All I could think was, “I really hope I don’t make an idiot of myself.” I’m pretty sure I did, even though I was trying very hard to act normally and not geek out. Most importantly, I was trying to make it about the kids, because that’s why you were there. You were not there as a famous actress. You were there as a mom, and I wanted so much to make sure that’s how I treated you. I’m sorry I let it slip that I was a huge fan of your hit show while your son was talking about being friends with your co-star. It was a natural segue, but I hope it wasn’t unprofessional.

None of that is why your first visit was memorable, though. Read more