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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

Ripples of Love

Sometimes our ministry drives us to create that which we most need to hear for ourselves.

Sitting at my studio table, I am renewed. As the light dapples through the open windows, I am surrounded by art and story. While I appear in solitude, I am never alone. The voices of those in my tribe echo, energy resides, the Spirit moves, and I am home. My heart is full.

I’ve been an ordained minister for 11 years. It began when I started volunteering and teaching classes in church as a teenager, and soon after I began working in the church. That was nearly 20 years ago. There’s no gauge. It’s a breath. It’s a heartbeat. Well, okay, maybe a few.

Even so, I find it hard to talk about how I interact with my art-as-ministry and ministry-as-art. I breathe who I am, aiming to show up and share myself with the world. Unlike many traditional vocations, artistic projects can take years to develop. Others are birthed quickly. On a few I have missed the mark and must to re-do the work. All of that is part of the process.

But I know this:
I am not perfect.
I am perceived as more confident than I often am.
I strive to be near-perfect, to be confident and to get it right the first time. 

But perfect is next to impossible. For most of last year, my life was marked by chronic illness, anxiety, and depression. I was so deep in it that I couldn’t see what was what. I had been sick for months and was grieving a friend’s death. I felt as though I was drowning. It wasn’t until I found myself on the other side of an anxious call to a beloved client that I hung up the call and made an appointment with a therapist to find care for myself. I share this because not everything is as we’d hope; sometimes it’s just what it is.

My art is a reflection of the care I place on myself and the care I put into things. If I haven’t rested well, my hands hurt and it’s hard to hold the paintbrush for long. In the same way, when I don’t practice yoga regularly, my body aches. It sounds simple because it is – you have to care for yourself. In my experience, it takes persistence and practice to develop a regular practice of self-care and soul-care.

But it is worth it, because you know what they say, right? Self-care is sexy! My loved ones notice how different I am when I’m caring for myself; it shows when I name what I need or take the long bike ride. I feel good, and that impacts everyone around me. It is a reminder to me that we know what we need and how to have what we need. We just need to be willing to ask.

I also know this:
I love myself as I am.

I hear so many stories when I show up with my art. I notice how folks interact and respond to my art as if we’re sharing space in the same room. The Spirit carries the intention of hope, healing, and delight into the world. It’s as though art becomes my church, where I find myself softened and strengthened hearing the stories of others as they interact with my creations. Over time, I’ve realized we are in that same congregation. We’re a wider community that builds upon spirituality, connection, service, and practice. We gather, share, create, and serve one another and alongside one another.

Over time, I have discerned that my call is to gather folks round the table. I feel called to minister especially to clergywomen, those who are grieving, and those who want to explore spirituality and soul care. In this work, I am also ministering to myself. And, thankfully, because I am not alone, that ministry expands to the world around me. Because I am showing up and sharing what I do as I minister to myself, I end up reaching the most people without even intending to.

Nicki Peasley interviewed me recently and spoke of my artwork and studio retreats in an article:

For Suzanne, gathering people around the table is art in its truest form, a creative banquet and dynamic process of exploring, healing, and appreciating–together. Suzanne holds a welcoming, sacred space for gatherers to lay down their burdens and fears and begin to engage in authentic self care. A sensitive and gracious facilitator, Suzanne utilizes guided meditation, visualization, mindful creative practice, poetry, body movement, and storytelling as primary tools to engage both the intellect and the human spirit.Suzanne helps to gently open the heart to empower, encourage, and feed the individual and collective soul.

“When we gather at the table, it’s a safe space with a focus on the state of our hearts, bodies, minds,” Suzanne says, “As witnesses to each other, we name what needs to be named, release what needs to be released, and we encounter new life and the possibilities within.”

“My desire is to spread love, hope, courage, and delight in small, generous artful acts, moments, and services. I am showing up with hands ready to move, an open heart, and trust that this whole enterprise makes ripples in this wide world.”

Nicki reminds me of the ripples that are unseen yet felt. So much of my ministry resides in the space of mystery. What I do is through contemplation and creation. Just as I write and create art, I hold space for those with whom I minister in my daily living.

While I miss ministering in a single church from time-to-time, art-as-ministry and ministry-as-art fills my cup. I know that I’m equally called to motherhood and to making good food for our family table. I also know my art reaches many more than I have the time or energy to meet and greet. I welcome those interactions and generous meetings. I welcome the partnership each time I am commissioned to create something, or each time someone shares my art with another. These are seeds of loving kindness and care. Some folks don’t know what to say or do in difficult moments, and, yet, they find a way through the art: a card attached to a jar of soup, art for the family displaced by a fire, words of wisdom before cancer treatments, art for the physicians who have journeyed alongside a patient.

I know this:
As Chaplain of the Arts, I am healed as I heal.

view of sheet music and choir

How Can I Keep From Singing?

view of sheet music and choir

Singing in choir

When I was growing up, my parents thought it was so important that their children learn to sing in a choir that we went to two churches. My Dad pastored a small congregation with decent music, but limited choral opportunities for children. And so, one or two weeks a month, we’d go to the 8:00 am service at our own church, and then scramble out to the car with my Mom, and hurry to the “big city” ten miles away to sing in the Treble choir at an Episcopal Church.

I was hooked. I do not sing solos: it’s singing as a group that thrills me. I went on to sing in an excellent high school choir, and then chose a college that just happened to have one of the best choral programs in the country. Even though I was never in any way a candidate for the premiere choir at that institution, I sang all four years of college, and continued to sing in my seminary choir. But, when I became a pastor, I figured that was likely the end of my choral singing. Aside from the occasional pinch-hit, I knew that very few pastors have time to join the church choir.

Then a few years ago, I followed my husband’s job across the country, and found myself in a new city with no church job. A few months after the move, I met up with a college friend who was living in the same city. He had recently founded a choir, devoted to singing a broad range of musical genres, from various traditions and cultures. It was, he said, the nicest group of people he’d ever sung with, and unusually diverse for a choral group. “You should sing with us,” he said. 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

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

small girl covering her eyes

Coming out of the Clergy Closet

small girl covering her eyes

Hiding in plain sight

Last year our oldest child started at a new child development center. Unlike the commercial daycare setting we’d ended up at during the first year of our new call, the school is small and intimate, priding itself on a very deep sense of community. It’s the kind of preschool where we receive regular invitations from teachers to be involved in the life of the classroom and regular invitations from fellow parents to birthday parties galore.

Like most young clergy couples entering a new church, town, and phase of life, I was hungry for relationships outside of our congregation and thrilled with the prospect of meeting other parents. There is a known camaraderie among parents of similarly aged children, right? Knowing that nearly all the attendees of our preschool hold a connection to the large university that is the foundation of our lovely little college town, surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find some common ground?

But there it was. The question we clergy find ourselves staring in the face as we try to go about our daily lives. The question that traps us when we are young and single and are set up on a first date. The question we find ways to dodge when it comes from the person sitting next to us on the three-hour flight to a church conference. The question that confronts my husband and I when we are approached by a stranger at a cocktail party:

“What do you do?” 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

Of Veils and Virgins: My Life with the Bees

Nothing graces the Christian soul so much as mercy; mercy as shown chiefly towards the poor, that thou mayest treat them as sharers in common with thee in the produce of nature, which brings forth the fruits of the earth for use to all.

-Saint Ambrose, Patron Saint of Beekeepers

One of the earliest moments of me ever captured on film is a photograph of me and my father tending to his bee hives. In the photo, my father (who must have been about the age I am currently) is decked out in his full bee-keeping suit—long leather gloves, netting that covered his whole body, and the all-important beekeeper’s veil— that kept the agitated bees who assume, rightfully, that he was there to take their honey, from stinging him. I, on the other hand, am about three years old, in a light t-shirt, and the only protection I seem to have had is the hand-held smoke pot that kept the bees calm by simulating a forest-fire.

Dad had, no doubt, employed me to work the small bellows on the pot so he could have his hands free to inspect the hive. For my part, I am smiling, apparently oblivious to the danger that my lack of veil put me in. These bees were my friends and I knew no fear. Even the honey they made was called “Hilly-Honey” as a tribute to my fearlessness with them. And though my father could be accused of being reckless with my body’s well-being, he was anything but with my soul’s—teaching me that we kept bees because we are the stewards of this earth and are to care for the least of God’s creatures. Thus began my life as a beekeeper.

To keep bees is to be invited to help build a kingdom.

The keeper and the bees labor side by side tending to the sick, feeding the hungry, building homes, and pollinating the world – an awful lot like being a part of a church. In fact, the link between bees and the church is almost as old as Christendom itself, including everything from theology to candles. At the height of the season there can be upwards of 35,000 bees in a healthy hive and they are all family—mostly all female, in fact. They share the same mother—their monarch, the queen—and their common life together has long been lauded as a model for Christian community. Read more