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Group of people holding hands around an A-frame wooden church sanctuary

Bind Us Together

Group of people holding hands around an A-frame wooden church sanctuary

Singing “Bind Us Together Lord” as the benediction

I’ve almost finished my first year as senior pastor at a church that is unlike any other I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. Our vision statement is “To be a house of prayer for all nations,” and while we may not have all nations yet, together we worship in Burmese, English, French, Spanish, and Swahili. It is beautiful and energizing. When I first arrived church members told me, “In heaven, people are going to be from all over the world and praising God in different languages. We might as well start practicing now.”

I don’t want to romanticize my church, of course: please remember that it is a church, which means it is made up of people, which means that life lived out together in faith can be messy. There are still disagreements and misunderstandings, and now we can have misunderstandings across languages and cultures as well. We are not a church of one single political or theological viewpoint.

We are made up of refugees and immigrants as well as people who’ve lived their whole lives in Kentucky. We live into the tension of having people hug and greet one another on Sunday and post articles about “building the wall” on Monday. And for those church members, they experience no contradiction in that. They see their political beliefs around immigration as separate from the love they show to the people right in front of them. Read more

Enough with “Enough”: A Review of Seculosity by David Zahl

“Do you remember the days when the Sunday school was full and everyone went to church on Sunday?”

“It’s such a shame that stores are open and there’s soccer practice on Sunday mornings…”

You don’t have to be around a 21st-century church very long before you start to hear questions and comments like these. They reflect an ongoing narrative that recalls mid-20th century glory days of the church in which Christians enjoyed power and esteem ( glorious as long as you were straight and white and male, and as long as you did everything the right way…).

The specter of this bygone era of the church has the ability to consume modern faith communities, to push them into a mentality of scarcity over all-we-once-had-and-why-can’t-we-just-have-those-things-again.

Anxieties rise. New programs launch to make the church exciting and relevant once more. Maybe this time we’ll turn the tide.

Why don’t people seem to want religion anymore?

In a new book out this month, David Zahl, founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries takes this question head-on, with a perspective that offers the possibility of a way forward.  The book is called Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It.  In it, Zahl explores the possibility that our culture is not becoming less religious at all, but rather we are becoming religious about more and more things.

He uses the neologism ‘seculosity’ to describe the many activities and identities to which modern Americans devote a zeal that can be described as nothing so accurately as religious. From leisure activities (SoulCyle or CrossFit?) to parenting style (attachment or Babywise?) to political identity and work, from Zahl’s perspective, these are more than activities, they become part of people’s identities. These seculosities offer not just community, but a justifying story of their lives, a frame through which to see the world, a mechanism by which they can establish a sense of “enoughness.” They offer identity, community, meaning, purpose in ways that religion once did in wider society.

The problem arises, he argues, when we realize that no matter how much we devote ourselves to these pursuits, there is always more we could be doing or accomplishing or achieving. We could find our soulmate and get started on happily ever after. Our kids could win more awards. We could work harder, advance faster, earn more. But the focus on all of this makes the fact that the achievement of the goals we create for ourselves is an ever-vanishing horizon. Read more

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

Letting the Church Be the Church for their Pastor

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

From when the author and her congregation remembered their baptisms and belovedness.

One of my favorite images of a pastor is that of shepherd. As a shepherd, I take care of my flock, making sure they are fed in belly and spirit, trying to keep them on the path, and jumping in to offer care and support when they are sick or hurting. When they are facing a health crisis I often remind them that they are not alone: God is with them, yes, but so are the other members of our flock. Letting the church be the church can be difficult when you’re on the receiving end of the help and support, but caring for one another is one of the ways we live out our faith and discipleship. Sometimes it’s not a church member who needs the church the most – sometimes it’s the shepherd that needs the flock.

On Epiphany Sunday, my husband began to complain of back pain. We both chalked the back pain up to restless nights spent tossing and turning and coughing after he picked up a bug of some sort visiting family at Christmas. By Tuesday, he could barely walk, and on Wednesday he finally went to Urgent Care, where they guessed that he had a pinched nerve. The next morning he woke up with the left side of his face looking like he had a stroke. When he drank his coffee, it spilled back out. When he tried to stand, his knees buckled and he fell. This was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

After his mother arrived to watch our four-and-a-half-year-old twin girls, we went to the Emergency Room. Waiting in the hallway on a gurney for hours as they ran different tests, his legs became weaker to the point that he could no longer walk. The nurse practitioner kept a close eye on us, his eyes betraying his concern as test after test came back normal. As evening drew closer with still no answers, he called a neurologist who within minutes gave a diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).

GBS is a rare autoimmune disorder triggered by a virus in which the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking the myelin sheath of one’s peripheral nerves. It can progress incredibly quickly, and for some it’s a matter of hours before they are paralyzed and on a ventilator. My husband’s had progressed very slowly and they began treatment immediately. Once he was in a room I went into crisis mode: I messaged our family members to tell them what we knew; I asked one of my sisters to come up from Maryland to help watch our daughters while I was at the hospital; I called our District Superintendent; I alerted my Staff-Parish Relations chairs; I tried to explain to our daughters what was happening, kissed them goodnight, and went back to the hospital.

Everyone was quick to respond with offers of help. “Anything you need,” they said, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I needed. Read more

ycwi conference planning team for the 2018 St. Louis conference

Go Team: Christ, Community, and Conference Planning

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

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

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

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

When Love Blurs

Helms and her husband, Greg, lead weekly “devos” from their home for neighborhood youth at QC Family Tree.

I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but let me tell you about my favorite. I met her ten years ago. Her brother was an active member of our neighborhood youth group. He’d walk a few blocks from his house to ours to hang out or participate in an activity. Then, he moved. Their new house was only a mile away and it was important to us that we kept our connection, so one of us would volunteer regularly to go and pick him up for activities. I hadn’t before spent much time at his house, but now I was making several trips a week to his front door.

I wasn’t sure who’d answer the door when I knocked. There were six siblings, a parent, and often a friend of the family staying there. After a few visits, I learned to expect that she and her little sister would be the ones to greet me. I took this front door opportunity to introduce myself and strike up a conversation. Then, I simply asked, “Would you like to go with us?” The girls looked sheepishly back at their mother. Once they got the nod to go ahead, they bounded out the door with excitement and a tad bit of nervousness.

After a short time living away from the neighborhood, the family moved back. Ten years later and these girls have become family. Some seasons in our relationship, we have gone only a few hours between visits. They’ve gone on just about every youth trip, babysat my children, taken care of our dog and house when we were away, listened intently as I’ve preached sermons, gone with us on family vacations, and have nurtured me in some of my most tender moments.

You know the blurry line of being in ministry and being in relationship? Nature or nurture – we’re taught to set boundaries. We’re not supposed to fall in love with the ones to whom we minister. Some might advise refraining even from friendships with congregants. Yet, we’re called to a ministry of love and authenticity. Plus, we are humans who have a deep capacity and desire to love and be loved. This makes boundaries tricky to set and keep. Read more

Ask a YCW- Halloween Edition

Halloween_Pumpkins_by_bartoszfDear Ask a YCW,

I found this great sexy pope costume online. Is it ok for me to wear it to the Halloween Party at my church tonight?

Party Pastrix

Dear Party-

No.

Ok, maybe not an outright no. But there are a few questions you should ask yourself about appropriateness before wearing this costume, and the chances of you ending with a yes are very slim. From Askie’s perspective way off in the internet, the idea of you dressing up as a sexy pope is HILARIOUS, precisely because it is about six different kinds of wrong, but the reality could leave you with a pretty big mess when the Feast of All Saints rolls around. So let’s do some discernment. Read more

Single at 28 (and 82)

Sometimes being a single woman in ministry is awkward. When a very hospitable mother-of-the-bride stuck by my side for the entire wedding reception because she knew I was there alone, it was a little awkward. When kind parishioners asked what I was doing after Christmas Eve services were over and I had to confess that I was going home to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas alone in my pajamas while making a dinner out of the Christmas cookies they baked for me, it was awkward. When my denomination’s Search and Call paperwork used to include a “Describe Your Present Family” section and I ended up writing a whole paragraph about my cat, it was definitely awkward. When I received an invitation to a community event for “pastors and their wives,” it was super awkward (and super sexist).

Most days I am perfectly happy with my single-rev life. Never have I thought being single made me a less-competent minister than my partnered peers. But occasionally, when I have fumbled my way through one of these moments, I’ve wondered if a spouse would make some of this ministry stuff just a little less…awkward.

One day after a church clean-up event, when all of the flowerbeds had been mulched and all of the pews polished, I was invited out to lunch. As I grabbed my purse from my office, I heard an elderly widow of the congregation ask in the next room, “Is the pastor going?” “I think so,” someone replied. “Okay,” she said, “Then I’ll go, too.”

At first I didn’t think anything of this exchange. I assumed this woman just wanted a few minutes to privately update me on a friend who was in the hospital or ask me a question about Sunday’s sermon. But when we got to the restaurant, she didn’t mention either of those things. In fact, she barely spoke directly to me at all. Read more

Pastor in the Pew

When I let it slide into conversation that I am a pastor, the natural follow-up question is, “Where’s your congregation?” For me right now, that answer requires extra explanation. I am a “pastor in the pew,” a phrase I am not entirely sure I am, but may be, coining. My national church body’s term for my status is “on leave from call for family reasons,” but in plain language, I am staying home with the kids for awhile. I do not believe at all that everyone should (even if they can, financially) do this, but for me and my family many factors converged at once to make this option the right choice for now.

I’m not alone. Others become “pastors in the pew” by going into specialized ministries as chaplains or counselors, by serving camp ministries or non-profits, by going to graduate school, by becoming professors or synod/regional church staff, or by retiring. No matter the method, there we are: in the pews of congregations of which we are not the pastor.

There in the pew, we hold the specialized education of seminary and also gifts and insights into various kinds of ministries developed through experience. We carry the confidence and wounds of being deeply embedded in congregational life. All of those gifts can benefit the congregation if noticed and stewarded by the thoughtful pastoral leaders in whose flocks we bleat. My skills for ministry continue to be useful. But what of my identity as “pastor?”

My church body does not ordain pastors until they have received a call from a congregation (only rarely to specialized ministry first), and we imbue the “call process” with spiritual weight, believing that the call of the Church is the action of the Holy Spirit herself. As I sit in the pew, I am plagued by the notion that if I am not actively leading a congregation, my call as a pastor comes into question. I ask again and again: how might I best be a faithful pastor in the pew? Read more

Home

Houses aren’t meant to sit empty. It’s hard on them. They’re meant for occupying—pipes need water to move through them, not just to sit and corrode. Windows and doors need to be opened and closed, lest they get stuck in place, stifling the air inside. Roofs need someone to notice when they leak. Wires need to have a reason to connect, to come alive, to carry current. The walls and the beams need the warmth of occupation in the winter and the flow of breeze in the summer. Our houses—our homes—are creations of our own hands whose well being is directly linked to their connectedness with us.

This was the first thought that came to me when I opened my back door to my stifling house after it had been sitting vacant for a week. It looked like home, but it didn’t smell like home. It didn’t smell bad, just different—stale and empty and static. There were no lingering kitchen smells from a meal prepared, no pungent wafts of wet dog barging in through the door, no sweetness of beeswax candles burned or perfume of fresh farmer’s market flowers on the dining room table. I didn’t realize the rhythm of my life had a fragrance until it left my house with me.

I fiddled with the thermostat, dragged in my luggage, and began to unpack. I was completely and utterly exhausted from a red-eye flight and a week of people-ing in a time zone three hours different from my own. In the quiet of my solitude I felt every introverted cell in my body begin to relax, uncoil, and breathe. Yet the more I moved about, the more dust I kicked up, the more rooms I disturbed, the more I began to feel like I wasn’t actually all that alone. I was in the presence of Home, and that’s different than being by yourself.

It slowly dawned on me that this was the same feeling I’d felt a few nights before while I was in Vancouver for the YCWI conference. Read more

A Conference Story

As young clergy women gathered in Vancouver, Canada, for YCWI’s tenth anniversary conference earlier this July, the scenery was gorgeous and the weather was spectacular. The conference was uplifting, invigorating, challenging, and exciting. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Casey Fitzgerald, inspired us with her biblical storytelling and challenged us to consider where our stories intersect with God’s stories.

One of the things I love about YCWI is that my colleagues already know so much of my story. Indeed, they know much of it without me even having to say a word, because it is our shared story. It is the story of being a young woman ordained to ministry, and all the joys and struggles that go with that – the frustrations of receiving more comments on your hair or shoes than your sermon; the anger of coming up against the stained glass ceiling; the challenges of balancing dating and ministry, or motherhood and ministry. All of that, is held in the knowledge that we are called and gifted by God to serve the church in all that we embody as young women.

These are my people, my village, my church. And they are part of my story. Read more