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When Procrastinating on the Sermon is Good

wheatfield-with-sheaves-1888.jpg!Blog

It was late July, and I was enjoying the school holiday break from my usual School Chaplaincy activities. Over those two weeks I had periodically glanced at the readings set for our staff commencement service on the first day back, at which I was to preach, but I was lost for ideas and put off the sermon writing a little longer. Then, just days before our return to school, MH17 fell victim to a missile attack and crashed over Ukraine. This suddenly drew greater attention to the once localised conflict between Ukraine and Russia, at the same time as tensions in Gaza began to escalate. It is perhaps no surprise then that when I finally went back to writing my sermon what stood out immediately in the readings were themes of woefulness, disaster and sorrow; of war and conflict; and of tyrants lording it over their people. I could not overlook these because, sadly, recent news had reminded me that they remain as much a part of our human life today as they ever have. We do not live in a kind of utopian wonderland – ours is a world often broken and suffering.

After what seemed like two weeks of procrastination, recent world events became the catalyst for a sermon that tackled some very big issues – evil, suffering, doubt, the presence and nature of God, and the basis for Christian hope. I could have written my sermon weeks earlier, but I doubt very much it would have addressed any of these topics, and I doubt it would have led to the meaningful conversations I have had since then with various colleagues.

First, I named the realities that were going on around us. Putting aside our individual viewpoints on current issues, we will surely agree that the state of our world at the moment is concerning to say the least. Our nightly news is filled with images of wars, protests, and uprisings. We see natural disasters and human disasters side by side. We see images that cannot be described as anything other than evil, and we see the subsequent pain and suffering endured by those directly affected. We see innocent people caught in the crossfire as they go about their daily lives. There is much to be concerned about when we really stop to look at the world we live in, even despite the relative peace and comfort that many of us enjoy. All of these grim realities I named so that we could hold them and wrestle with them together.

My intention was not to be pessimistic though, and so I interspersed these reflections with clear messages of hope. I explained that one of the gifts the Christian scriptures offer to us is the reflection on God’s loving and restorative presence within the world. As we read through the musings of various people from different times and places, we hear one very clear message – a message of hope. I treasure the fact that the writers of our biblical texts did not shy away from real human experiences and emotions, yet neither did they lose sight of the hope they had in God’s ability to restore even the most broken of lives. They teach us that not one person is beyond the reach of God’s love and comfort in times of sorrow, and no matter how low we are brought by our circumstances God is always at work restoring us and our world to newness of life.

I suggested that a part of me wonders if this sounds a bit trite in the wake of recent tragedies. It’s not that its untrue, not at all, but it does skim past the raw emotions felt at a time like this. It also rushes over the big questions that many people will be asking today: questions of why and how, and questions of where God is in all of this.

This led into my next point: that it is ok to be asking questions. When we are asking the tough questions we can turn again to the Christian scriptures for comfort, because in those texts we meet many other people who in the wake of their own sorrows asked similar questions to our own. In this way the Bible gives us permission and encouragement to ask those questions that are on our mind, and it even gives us the words when we cannot find them ourselves. Take the Old Testament prophets, for instance. In times of deep sorrow they dared to say aloud the questions that were on their minds as they cried out to God in utter despair. This is good, because until we give voice to our questions we cannot even begin to work through them. When we face difficult times it is perfectly understandable to have doubts and worries, and we need to voice them so that we can start to make sense of things.

Is that where I left things though, with a grim view of the world and a chapel full of colleagues wrestling alone with tough questions? Not at all! I explained that, thankfully, the Bible isn’t just filled with our questions. In it we also hear God’s responses to our questions: words of love, peace, and hope in every situation. Resurrection will always come, for our broken lives, and indeed our broken world, are always under the care of our God, who is actively working to restore all that is not whole. Things may not go back to how they were, but God will always make things new. God will bring smiles, laughter and joy back to us.

Turn again our fortunes, O Lord:
as the streams return to the dry south.
Those who sow in tears:
shall reap with songs of joy.
They that go out weeping, bearing the seed:
shall come again in gladness,
bringing their sheaves with them. (Ps. 126)

Our world is indeed broken and in pain, but this is not the end. Evil, death and suffering will never have the last say, in this world or the next.

(Photo of Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Sheaves)

Episodes of Holiness: Clergy on TV

 

It really is a shock that there aren’t more TV shows about clergy. Doctors, lawyers, police, firefighters, college students…honestly, they have nothing on the wonderful strangeness of our careers. In what other profession can one day encompass breakfast with a group of teenagers, an office crisis situation around the location of a set of church keys, a bittersweet visit with a dying 97 year old, a session of coloring with the 2 preschoolers whose parents are late to pick them up, adjudicating an argument between two people over carpet color in the fellowship hall, and maybe, if you’re really blessed, 15 minutes of prayer?  And that’s just the day at work…add in family or a social life, and you’ve got several seasons of wonderful material!

Clergy people are always on the lookout for portrayals of our profession, partly to be reminded the world knows we exist, partly to see ourselves, and, usually, for the fun of critiquing the accuracy of the portrayal. Sometimes, we cringe and hope our church people don’t watch these shows and get the wrong idea. Sometimes we wish we could force them to watch so they would understand what we really do. And sometimes, we aspire to be like the clergy we see on TV, even if we know it’s impossible to hope for.

Here, from a recent online conversation about TV shows between young clergy women, are some broad categories of TV shows that attempt (or, don’t even attempt!) to portray clergy. Happy watching!

Shows Where Clergy Are Conspicuously Absent

Several hospital shows seem completely oblivious to the existence of chaplains. ER didn’t have a chaplain character until the bitter end. And several of us note that Grey’s Anatomy often leaves us wondering why someone doesn’t call the chaplain.

Six Feet Under, though, is particularly at fault. Clergy spend a lot of time in funeral homes. They barely play a role in that show (except for a brief appearance by a young, female Rabbi).

Shows That Don’t Quite Get It (Or Maybe Get It a Little Too Much)

The classic TV show about clergy that completely misses most realities of church life is Seventh Heaven.  Among other errors, I can confirm, as a the daughter of a pastor myself, that working as your Dad’s associate pastor is about the unlikeliest thing (unless we’re talking about a mega church).

The Book of Daniel didn’t make it through one season, and was controversial for all risky moral issues and twisty relationships it portrayed. Maybe it was exactly what people don’t want to believe about clergy. And sometimes, satire is so funny that it’s true.

Many of us knew a guy in seminary who was just a little bit too much like the Rev. Casey Peerson, Mindy’s love interest on The Mindy Project.

And on those days when you just need to laugh? Father Ted  is pure humor. Inappropriate, and nearly always the complete opposite of any clergyperson you’d hope to encounter, but exactly what’s needed when you need something ridiculous after a long Sunday.

True to Life Pastoring

Two recent series from the UK do an incredible job of portraying ministry. Both are so real that I know of people who have stopped watching because it cuts too close to real life. Rev. was two brilliant seasons portraying the life of the priest at a struggling urban church, the Rev. Adam Smallbone. It is honest, funny, sad, and human. If you’ve been a pastoring for awhile, you know that even the scenes that might seem bizarre could probably happen. And Adam is by no means perfect, but he’s a good guy.

Call the Midwife was tender in its portrayal of a clergyman as he courted one of the young midwives. But the real honesty about ministry in the show comes from the wisdom of the older nuns and the hands-on ministry that the nuns and the young midwives do with mothers and families in their neighborhood. I wonder, as well, if it resonates with clergy because it portrays a group of people residing together and then going out to do ministry: when we are off on our own, scattered about in parishes, we often miss the camaraderie of seminary.

Clergy We Aspire to Be

It’s only one episode of The West Wing, but when President Jed Bartlett brings in his former priest to help him reason through the ethics of a decision, it provides a glimpse into some of the hardest and yet most rewarding moments of ministry: helping people work through God’s call on their lives. And this priest does an incredible job of it.

Firefly gives a futuristic possibility for clergy (giving us hope that we will continue to have calls in the future, perhaps to steam-punk-esque space ships!). The character Shepherd Book is a good person, but with a hint of mystery to make it interesting.

But, for most clergy women, there is no TV clergyperson we would rather be than the Rev. Geraldine Grainger on The Vicar of Dibley. She is funny, and smart, and pastoral. And she is confident in her role as pastor, through success and failure.

There’s Hope for Romance

This category is especially dear to many young clergywomen, and not just single ones. Shows that portray clergypeople as desirable partners are a reminder that we are very real, looking for companions just like everyone else. The sweet romance between a priest and a midwife in Call the Midwife isn’t that contemporary, but it’s adorable. The Mindy Project portrays a much more contemporary Rev. Love-Interest, imperfect a pastor as he may be.

But then there are the shows that have clergywomen as the object of someone’s affections. Lucinda, in The Goodwin Games; the chaplain Julia, in ER (who is pursued by John Stamos!); and, of course, The Vicar of Dibley, who marries Harry (in spite of her parish’s predictable accidental attempts to derail the wedding).

 

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Toxic Church Edition

Dear Askie,

I am currently serving in a church that is best described as toxic. The staff is dysfunctional, the personnel committee seems to be disinterested in creating a work environment that is nurturing, anytime I bring up any concern I’m automatically shut down, and I am fed up. I have been searching for jobs for many months now but am having a difficult time. I am starting to realize I may be stuck here for a while. What can I do in the meantime to survive my toxic work environment? Or should I just run for the hills?

Sincerely,

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

toxicYou are not the only one. Unfortunately, all too many young clergy women are trying to serve Christ and his church in the midst of dysfunctional work environments. While we shouldn’t regard such situations as normal or acceptable, Askie fears that toxic congregations will probably be part of the lives of some pastors until kingdom come.

You’re wise to search for a new call, and Askie urges any YCW in a toxic setting to keep an updated resumé, Ministerial Profile, PIF, or whatever your denominational equivalent might be. Even if you feel called to stick it out (or are compelled to do so by your familial or financial circumstances), toxic churches have been known to turn unexpectedly on their pastors. So even if you’re not ready to pack your bags just yet, be prepared.
All that said, here are a few strategies for surviving until you’re able to move on:

  • Build (and use) a strong support network: This is important for all of us, but especially so in an environment like yours, where you can’t expect support from colleagues and lay leadership. You may want to work with a spiritual director, a therapist, a life coach, a mentor, or all of the above! Be intentional about nurturing friendships both with clergy colleagues in other settings and with non-clergy friends. Online community (like the TYCWP Facebook group) can be a great source of support as well, although it shouldn’t replace the personal, incarnational support we all need.
  • Be attentive to your spiritual life: When God is your job and your job is awful, your spiritual life sometimes takes a hit. Don’t let them do that to you, sister. Make sure to intentionally care for your soul in this season of your ministry. Could you find an evening or weekday worship service that you can attend from time to time? Carve out more time for prayer? Read books that nourish your soul?
  • Do your homework: If you haven’t studied family systems theory, now would be the time to start! Understanding how systems work can help you figure out how to survive in yours. You might gain some insight about how the system is working, a strategy about how to change the system and your role in it (hint: probably non-anxious presence), or a reminder that interactions that feel very hurtful often have little or nothing to do with you personally. Friedman’s Generation to Generation is a classic starting point, but there are plenty of great resources out there. You may want to look for a course or conference to help you dig deeper, as well.
  • Feed the function: Thankfully, even the most dysfunctional church usually has a few bright spots. See if you can identify the parts of your church that are healthy and put lots of your energy there. Affirming and supporting the healthiest areas of your church’s life helps them to grow… and not only is it good ministry, it’s also life-giving for you!
  • Put on your own oxygen mask first: There are people whom you will never be able to make happy, even if you work twenty-four hours a day and cater to their every whim. So do what it takes to keep yourself healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Get outdoors, take a yoga class, enjoy good chocolate or coffee or wine. Binge-watch some fluffy television from time to time. Spend time with family or friends. Take all of your vacation, and your days off. Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion, so don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it!
  • Find some distance: When Askie is at the absolute end of her rope with some bit of petty church drama, she imagines what a great chapter it will make in her memoir someday. That’s my trick, but you’re welcome to use it, or find one that works for you… something that helps you to step back, to disengage emotionally a bit, and to remember that in a few months or years, this will all be over. When it is, I hope you will find yourself with some hard-won new skills, some outrageous stories, and your integrity. Keep the faith, sister.

Wishing you deep peace and a speedy exit,
Askie

Streams Run Uphill

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La vida es la lucha. Coined by our mujerista theologians it literally means, “life is struggle,” or even more simply “to live is to struggle.” Conversely, the flip is true, too – to struggle is to live. The book Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color was first inspired by an African proverb that echoes the sentiment above.

Where streams run uphill, there a woman rules.

From the Prologue: It is the dynamic but unexpected harmony of streams that “run uphill” that compels me the most. There is struggle in an uphill endeavor, but miracle in its very existence. There is an irrationality about it, as well as a subversive, kingdom-shaking quality. There is something off-putting and hard to swallow but undeniably compelling about it. So, too, it is with the “other” clergywomen and our work and ministry, their calling and community relationships, their voices and their perspectives.The original subtitle was “The Pastoral Identity and Ministry of the Other Clergywomen.” The word other is significant. It conjures up orientalism, exoticism, colonialism, and those felt effects still present today even in the more liberal disciplines and vocations. The history of feminism especially in North America has mostly been narrow and excluded women of color until fairly recently. But, this isn’t unusual. Much of majority culture has often marginalized groups based on gender, race, economics, orientation, and ability. Still, especially in the church, there continues to be an urgency in working towards reconciliation at all levels, and at the vey least it means making sure there is a space for all voices and experiences.

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

Colossians 1

Growing up, and even today, my parents love to say, “고생해.” Loosely translated it means, “You need to know trouble/grief/pain/sorrow.” It’s an odd blessing to offer one’s child, but they knew that there was something valuable to facing one’s struggles. It reminds me a little of Paul’s words in Romans about suffering producing character, etc. and somehow ending up in hope.

As a woman of color I’m always forced to struggle with the questions: Is it because I’m Korean? Is it because I’m a woman? Whenever I left an interview for a position or felt sidelined or silenced during a committee meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something else beneath the situation. I can’t begin to count the number of times I had heard a church’s rejection and wondered if my ethnicity, gender, or age had more to do with it than the cop-out language of “God is leading us elsewhere.” And for a long time, I was silent in my response to it. Perhaps the “encouragement” from my parents to face these struggles head on meant more than developing a thick skin and more character, but a word to work for a greater change.

Those that are outside of these particular experiences can never understand how those questions are always agonizingly a part of the equation. No one makes this up. If I were white and male or even simply white I would never wonder if my race/ethnicity would make an impact on the dominant culture’s questions and doubts towards me. But these questions have been there from the beginning and stayed with me throughout seminary, my call process and interviewing at churches, and ministry. Not everyone has these experiences.

And thankfully these weren’t the only experiences I had throughout my life. But they’re out there and real. The stories in this book blessed, challenged, and inspired me to continue in the struggle.

From the afterword of the book: I let myself savor the stories in these pages like a glass of fine water turned into wine from that wedding at Cana. I celebrate, I give thanks, and I am deeply humbled by all the sacrifices and risks made by these writers. These clergywomen were vulnerable. They were transparent. They were genuine. And they were and are trustworthy. These are only glimpses into much more complicated histories and larger narratives. Yet, even these small windows allow us to see the possibilities for real connection and community, a little taste of the kingdom of God and how we experience that in the midst of struggle and surrender, in those places where reconciliation with God, neighbor, and self is rooted in embracing the other.

Being the other is not only a philosophical, social, political, or literary concept. It is a theological image. It speaks of a God of the margins, a God for the oppressed, a God who loves and pursues the stranger. And despite the history behind it and how it traditionally is a negative phenomenon, being the other does not have to be associated with colonial and imperialistic movements or a tool of oppressors or a burden of those who internalize what it means for the oppressed. The language of the other is redeemable but also an instrument for redemption. It speaks of the extreme and miraculous routes God forges to connect to us. It is the other that helps us to see God’s love for us even more. It is when we see and recognize the other in ourselves that we begin to fathom the depths of God’s love for us.

Telling the Old, Old Story

“Preparations were carefully made. All the people who expected to participate were very sure that their feet were already clean and had nice new hose.  White sheets were hung up separating the men from the women. A pan of water was provided for each group and two long towels.  Then one after another looped the towel about his waist, washed another’s feet and dried them with the towel until all had been washed.  It was a very solemn occasion, one felt very humble and I have seen the tears streaming down their faces as their feet were being washed.  They were thinking of the time the Savior washed his disciples’ feet. “~ From Big Sunday at Friendship Baptist Church, Ola Shields Deckard

 I have a binder; an old black one I pack away carefully in a crate filled with my journals as well as folders of papers I read only when I need a shot of self-confidence.  Every so often I pull the black binder out and leaf through it carefully as though turning pages might cause the papers to crumble.  The pages, type-written years ago on a word processor before computers were prevalent or affordable and rough with perforations from the dot matrix printer, carry the memories in story and poems of my maternal great-grandmother, Ola Shields Deckard.  A school teacher and farmer’s wife, Ola raised 6 children, the second-youngest of which was my grandmother.

She passed before I was born of course, but the binder is filled with her recollections of childhood, of raising her family, of travel and of church.  I’m not sure how old I was when I first read these pages, but I have carried them through four states and six different residences and they never fail to make me a bit teary.  They communicate not merely a sense of family history, but also a sense of scripture, as though somehow infused with holiness and speaking revelation.  The stories aren’t great masterpieces but they are vivid nonetheless, relating image and smell and texture and feeling in ways that ring true and broaden understanding.  Ola’s writings invite me into her world and, in turn, to see mine with her eyes.

At extended family gatherings, one only has to bring up her name to spend the next few hours listening to her grand and great-grand children share their own memories and contest each others’ versions of events or portrayals of her character.  For many she was harsh and intimidating, living in the second half of the 20th century but adhering to traditions and attitudes of the first.  My aunt, everyone agrees, was the favorite, somehow turning the strict schoolmarm into an indulgent granny.

 

It is here, in the midst of these stories that I learned to see the world in story form.

 

For better or worse I’m a story-teller, interpreting the world around me with a very particular type of structure, looking always for the narrator’s biases, for how the tale builds and falls. From sitting quietly listening to family stories, I understood before I could really articulate it that no one narrative is ever complete, that each narrator has a perspective and a purpose.  Ola writes about her father attending church regularly but deciding year after year to resist affirming his faith.  Eventually, he admits that while “the church can get along without me, I can’t do without the church any longer” and Ola believes that “no doubt there was rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one sinner coming home.”

It makes me wonder how the story would change if told by her father. Is it stage fright that keeps him from publicly declaring his faith that way? Did he simply believe that his faith did not need testimonial, that his life spoke his commitment? Or did he harbor questions and doubts that made him feel somehow unfit to call himself a Christian?  I read Ola’s description of a creek-side baptism service and wonder what it looks like through the eyes of the newly baptized or those waiting on the shore to go next.  How does the preacher feel, out there in the center with his arm around the man’s back, his hands clasped to his chest, guiding him below the waters and raising him to new life?

Through this I know the questions and fears many people harbor, the uncertainty and suspicion with which the church can be viewed.  I know that all of those things lie within me as well.  And because I know that my grandmother began attending First Christian Church because she wanted to be married in the biggest (and most beautiful, she thought) church in town, I know that it is not only community and security that motivates people to join churches, but also sometimes a self-serving agenda.

In the end, Ola’s stories strike me as scriptural because they reflect and bear witness to the true nature of the Biblical text as well.  The scope of scripture reveals the myriad narratives of humanity’s relationship to the Divine, to that which feels bigger than ourselves and manifests differently in different times and to different people.  This is how, and why, I fell in love with God’s grand story and why I keep trying to tell it again and again with a multitude of voices — one of which I know is Ola’s.

“Make up a story…
For our sake and yours forget your name in the street;
tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.
Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear.
Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
– Toni Morrison

My Real Grandmother

Twisted-pine

As we head into the holiday season, I always remember my grandmother.  She was a Rev. She was a Dr.  She had all the credentials.  But more importantly, she had a lot of love.   In my journey to ordained ministry, from the earliest whispers of a call to my ordination day, I always knew she was there.  Her love and support were like spiritual life rafts that held me up, kept me going- a safety net that I always knew was there.  She devoted so much of her life to loving people better, not just me.  She wrote her dissertation, and later a book, on the nature of love.  I, and everyone who knew her, kept her atop a pedestal, and it seemed as if nobody doubted that is where she belonged.

She should be a top candidate to be in my female clergy cloud of witnesses.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Hebrews 12:1-3

But my grandmother also had some other qualities that affected her calling to live a life of love.   She had a drive to be “perfect.”  She wanted everything to be “lovely.”  As a child, I thought of this trait as an asset, an outward expression of her wonderful love.  She loved to make things beautiful and wonderful- for others as well as for herself.   I remember her especially during the holidays because her search for perfect beauty really came out then.  She always had a stunning Christmas tree with perfectly matched ornaments and wrapping paper.  She even ordered fresh flowers to put on the tree.  There were no tacky colored lights or ornaments made of popsicle sticks.  It was “perfect.”  And she did that for all of us to enjoy right?  Who couldn’t admire that?

But after she died, three weeks after my ordination, I was left to face the cold reality that life and love really aren’t perfect.  In my grief I began to see that they should never be perfect.   You can’t decorate your life like a beautiful tree.  I was now facing the rest of my life without my role model.  I was without her love that I had sought to emulate, a love that had inspired me and carried me to this point.  I felt lost for a while.  I tried to tell myself, that her love could still support me, that she had become one of the great “cloud of witnesses” in my life.  But it’s much harder to tap into the great cloud once they have passed.  You can’t give them a hug or go to them for advice.

In her absence, I also began to face a challenging truth: my grandmother made mistakes.  In her desire to make everything “perfect” and even in her quest to express love, she often limited the freedom we had in our relationships with her.  She limited our ability to love her back in our own ways.  Most importantly, she missed that part of God’s love that is unpredictable, messy and working through flawed people.   Like the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree with one small ornament, sometimes it is the imperfect that reflects God’s love and beauty best.   Grandma had largely missed out on God moving through ordinary things and ordinary people.

How could my saint, the largest in my cloud, have gotten it so wrong sometimes?  What do I do with that now?  I felt like I had lost her again.

Thankfully, God was not finished with me either.   All around me, I was embracing imperfection, in my ministry and in my role as a spouse and as a mother.  I was decorating my own tree in a very different way.  But I couldn’t seem to embrace my grandmother’s mistakes.  In my mind, she was a saint and she couldn’t have made mistakes.  And since she did make mistakes, I guess she wasn’t a saint.  I couldn’t reconcile her in my mind.

I think my answer lies in the “cloud of witnesses” text from Hebrews .  The author doesn’t promise perfection in the great cloud of witnesses.   The text seems to know that nobody is perfect.  It assumes that we are prone to growing weary and losing heart.  I had lost heart with my grandmother and there was only one way forward: to cherish her strengths and flaws together, counting them all in my great cloud.  It is both the perfections and imperfections of our saints that shape and strengthen us.   Their assets motivate us and their lacks challenge us.   As we embrace the fullness of who they really were, we can push ourselves forward in our own great races.   The failings of the saints point us even more to Jesus, who is, as the author rightly notes, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  Because of Jesus, I can “lay aside every weight.”  Because of Jesus, I can look at my wonderful cloud, sometimes dark, sometimes whispy and happy, and I can run.

So I am back to cherishing my grandmother and her memory- cherishing it even more so now that it is more real.  I feel her love and support again.  I feel challenged to go beyond her limits.  I can run my race with confidence, standing on the perfections and imperfections of my great cloud of witnesses, picking up the torch where they left off and trusting in “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

When Worlds Collide

Angel of GriefIt felt like falling down a well.

That’s the best way I can describe standing by the side of the cart in the back room of the funeral home, looking down at my sister in the body bag.

The call had come after a long day in the church office of meetings, planning sessions, and all of the mundane paperwork that has somehow accrued to the Good News these two thousand years after we first heard it.  The early evening light slanting across the living room of my apartment took on a surreal tinge as my father’s voice on the phone told me my sister Maggie had died suddenly and unexpectedly from a drug interaction.

My sister had just turned thirty-three the prior week.  I was twenty-seven, still learning the ropes after two years of ordained ministry.  I was starting to get familiar with some of the changing patterns of post-ordination relationships—high school friends asking me to officiate their weddings, always being turned to for the prayer at Thanksgiving Dinner.  And I was learning the rhythms of tending to parishioners in sudden and unexpected grief—going to the hospital, helping plan the funeral, gently shepherding dazed mourners through the steps of saying goodbye.

But suddenly my two worlds were colliding.  No matter how many self-care and boundaries lectures we heard at seminary about not being pastors to our families, our loved ones didn’t sit through those classes.  My family was even pretty good about not expecting me to have any greater knowledge of or connection to God than anyone else; but in the deafening spiritual chaos that descends in the death of an immediate family member far too young and without warning, I knew they would be looking to me for answers.

The death of a loved one has the immediate effect of revealing what your real theology is.  In that sudden first burst of emotion, the long hours of evaluating elegant theological constructs around the problem of evil and life after death abruptly evaporate.  My first prayer was visceral in its need: Please, God, I don’t care what she did or if she never had a chance to say sorry for it, just let her be safe.  Perhaps it showed how deeply I’ve been conditioned by the societal belief in a punishing hell.  But if nothing else, on later reflection it gave me a new appreciation for how our deepest desire for our encounter with God is a loving, sheltering, and above all safe Holy Presence.

Because my sister was not an easy person to love.  In fact I and my whole family had been estranged from her for the previous two years.  Her struggles with mental health and addiction manifested themselves in cruelty and abuse, and some boundaries had to be drawn for the safety of vulnerable people.  I do not regret those boundaries even now.  But I guess I always had hoped that healing would occur and those boundaries could soften over time.  Now she was dead with all the unhealed pain forever suspended in unanswered questions.

In the car on the way to the funeral home, the emotional intensity was so high I had to keep tuning in and out of it like turning a radio dial from station to static and back.  Jesus, her death is going to kill Mom and Dad; they say some people never recover from the death of a child, I would think, and then *click* went the mental dial: Wow, that’s a lot of people at a KFC this early in the morning and *click* back to I swear to God I hated her as much as I loved her, *click* Why didn’t I bring my comfortable black shoes, these are the ones that always give me blisters *click* Why are you doing this, God?

I’d seen my fair share of dead bodies in my Clinical Pastoral Education term.  But this was my first experience of an immediate family member’s dead body in front of me, and she was not made up and dressed nicely the way people are by the time they get to funerals.  She was still zipped into the body bag that she had been placed in at the hospital morgue.  I reached out and touched her cold face, my family standing around me crying, and for the first time in my life I didn’t want to be a priest.

I didn’t want to offer a prayer or a reason or a comforting platitude.  I didn’t want to be strong.  I didn’t want to try to find something to say about how she now rested in God’s embrace and all her troubles were over.

But as the tears of anger and confusion and grief coursed over my own cheeks, I had a sudden and bone-deep knowledge that I didn’t want anyone else doing those things either.  I didn’t want a pastor none of us knew coming in and trying to speak to a situation that he or she, through no fault of his or her own, knew nothing about.  The deep and complicated veins of emotion twisting their way through our family could not be ministered to, at least in that moment, from anywhere but inside.

Although my ordination had briefly felt like a burden in the midst of my panic and pain, it came home to me once again as a gift.  No, I shouldn’t be or have to be a pastor to my family.  But right now, the people I love most in the world are drowning in the greatest darkness we have ever experienced.  I have my hand on a lifeline—scripture and sacrament and prayer—and I’m going to use it.

Many Sunday mornings, when my mind was on the football game that afternoon or the headache that was making my sermon text blur, I felt like a less than adequate vessel of grace.  All of those times, the good words of the prayerbook bore me up; and they came through for me again in my hour of greatest need. Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Maggie.  Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

So what did I learn about being a priest and being a sister and a daughter all at the same time?  I learned that when push comes to shove, the labels and titles fade away, and that lay and clergy alike, we are all helpless before death and deeply in need of our loving and healing God.  Boundaries are good and important to preserve family life and role clarity, and 99.9% of the time we shouldn’t be pastors to our families.  But the 0.1% of the time we have to be pastors to our families—those can be among the most sacred moments of our lives.

That day I found the tools God had placed in my hands at my ordination helped me keep the wolf away from the door for my family, gave us an anchor of strength in God in the storm of pain. That one half hour in the back room of the funeral home may be the most blessed and real of my entire ministry, and will make me forever grateful God made me a priest.

Pastor and Possible Friend: A Perspective of a Clergyperson and Clergy Spouse

friends stoneThe new president of Princeton Seminary wrote an article last December, titled “Pastor, not friend.”  In that article, he reflects on his relationship with a devoted elder of the parish who was shocked—and saddened—when Craig Barnes announced his leaving the parish.  He said “friends don’t treat each other like that.”  Craig responds, “He was right, but I was not his friend, I was his pastor.”

Craig goes on to argue that pastors can not truly be friends with parishioners. And yet, he argues when you do the math, there is little time leftover for other relationships because parishes are such “demanding lovers.”  And, on the one hand, as an Episcopal priest (who happens to be married to an Episcopal priest) I completely understand where the author is coming from. It is difficult to be aware of parish issues, like an on-going fight with one person or another on a committee, and not engage in any discussion about that topic.  Or even something as regular as our stewardship campaign.  Does this parishioner, who is my friend, understand that we have a deficit right now?  Should I mention it or not?  Should I assume they know about the deficit and talk about my anxiety with regard to the budget this year?  These are indeed delicate topics and each one must be discerned from moment to moment.  But, I can’t embrace not having parishioners as friends.

As a mother of two young children who moved across the country to have my husband serve as a rector to a parish in a Philadelphia suburb, the first people to bring us lasagna and take my kids to the playground were parishioners.  The first people who threw me a baby shower for the birth of my third child was the parish’s Moms’ Group.  And, over time we have developed close relationships with some members of the parish.  Of course, there are times when I am deeply aware that I need to be careful about what I say or do, but where would I be without these people?  Where would I find Christian friends who are willing to brainstorm ways that we can observe Lent in our home? Where would I find comfort when I needed people with whom I could pray and not feel weird asking them to do so?

There is something deeply resonant about the incarnational nature of our God.  And, as a priest, I know I have been set-aside to live a life that can be terribly lonely. You live with people’s joy and pain very close to your heart.  But, with that knowledge, I refuse to divorce myself prematurely from relationships because of the belief that I should “not” cross a line and make friends with parishioners. Even our ordination service from the Book of Common Prayer, asks us to pattern our life in holiness, but not alone. After all, in what other aspect of life are you expected to participate fully in the life of your husband’s faith community (which is his work), and your own, and yet not make a single friend?  I don’t believe it’s possible.

Yes, there are times when I wish I could say more to my “church” friends about my life, but with time I have come to understand that I have to reserve these conversations for my husband, a dear friend who lives out of town, or my spiritual director.  It has taken me almost three years to finally feel comfortable as a clergy spouse fully knowing that, at times, people will not like my husband’s decisions—or even him.  And yet, my children will continue to worship in that parish every week, sing in the primary choir, and run around like crazy at the parish pancake suppers.  Indeed, the Christian life is full of paradoxes.  If my husband were a doctor, I would not have to live next door to his medical practice, send my kids to him for weekly medical check-ups, and have chili cook-offs at his office.

In all my time as a seminarian, I never fully thought about what it would be like to be a clergy spouse.  And, now I know that it can be odd to be fully educated and formed as a priest, and be married to a priest.  The dinner table conversations can be interesting when we begin to compare newcomer programs and debate the use of Eucharistic Prayer C.  But, with regard to friends, we both recognize our need to have them—both within and without the parish.  And, because we are merely human we make friends.  And, of course, as mere humans do, we hurt our friends sometimes and they will hurt us, too.  But forgiveness and reconciliation seem a better path than distance and loneliness.

So, I say to the faith communities of which we are a part I will always be your pastor (or your pastor’s wife.). I may also come to be your friend.  Just as in any trusting and mature relationship, together we will discern what is best to share with each other—and when.  But, please don’t write me off as some pie-in-the-sky priest or pastor who doesn’t feel, think, and desire relationship just as much as you do. After all, in John’s gospel, Jesus even goes as far as to say that he will lay down his life for his friends.  And, he’s not talking about Facebook friends.  He’s not talking about pastoral boundaries. Instead, he is offering us a relationship with him of deep intimacy—a holy offer for sure.   A friend is a holy and beautiful gift, parishioner or not. A friend is someone with whom we share the integrity of our lives and live out the incarnational nature of our Christian faith.

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

Diary of an Online Dater

Day 1

11:42PM Having procrastinated until the eleventh hour on this week’s sermon, the only thing that makes sense at this point, less than nine hours before said sermon will be preached, is to join an online dating site. Dating site X is selected, and I begin to fill out the form that will, with the help of a few algorithms, a little luck, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, find my true love for me.

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