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Black silhouettes of a female and a male arguing on a grayscale background

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Haters Gonna Hate Edition

Black silhouettes of a female and a male arguing on a grayscale backgroundDear Askie,

I recently found myself in a tricky situation, and thought you might have helpful perspective on it. A while ago, I got together with some old high school friends and their significant others. One old friend has become a young clergywoman, which I think is great, although I identify as atheist. Yay for religious people being non-oppressive and feminist and stuff! However, the other friend’s spouse made repeated negative comments about religion and religious people. The person making the comments had experienced a lot of trauma at the hands of people who claimed to have been acting in the name of God (both spouses are LGBTQ). My clergy friend was very gracious, but the exchange still made me very uncomfortable. I tried to change the subject a few times, but I’ve been wondering if there was any other useful way I could have helped diffuse that situation or made my YCW friend feel more supported. I try to be an ally to religious folks, just like I try to be an ally to the LGBTQ community, but as a young professional in a left-leaning city, I hear anti-religious sentiments much more often than I hear homophobic ones, and I don’t always know what to say. What advice do you have about how I could have supported my friend? What I can say when people talk smack about religion?

Thanks,
Your Friendly Atheist Ally

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My Alligator and Me: A Love Story, of Sorts

Florida Alligator in Canal from Shark Valley Everglades Wetlands

Florida Alligator in Canal from Shark Valley Everglades Wetlands

I’ve understood the concept for years, but I never knew why they were called alligators. I never bothered to ask, either, until I finally had one of my own. Ancient symbolism for alligators follows that they have big mouths, but do their best to remain hidden. In modern church contexts, this term is used for someone who employs gossip, lies, and slander because of a personal vendetta they have, directed toward a particular leader, often a clergyperson.

This is a love story about my alligator and me.

She took me by surprise, to be honest. I’ve heard stories about clergy and their alligators, about clergy being driven out of a church, or out of the ministry altogether, because of the harm their alligators have caused. And while I certainly assumed it would come to pass at some point in my ministry career, I foolishly felt that serving a relatively healthy congregation, being relatively self-differentiated, and having both decent boundaries and a solid support system would somehow grant me immunity.

You know, as if none of those things were true of all those other pastors.

My alligator took me by surprise in the depth of emotion she was able to raise in me. They teach us in chaplaincy that the results of stress can manifest in the physical body, and they’re not wrong. I was surprised by the size of the pit in my stomach, surprised by the weight of the veil that shrouded everything – even the stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with her, or with the church.

Let me be abundantly clear:  She is rude, and verbally and emotionally abusive. She will not listen to reason. She is not very self-differentiated and she has terrible boundaries.

And yet, it’s not all bad.

I’ve noticed that on the days when I’m doing my part really well – when I’m able to hold good, firm boundaries, when I’m able to be particularly self-differentiated, when I’m able to say (and actually believe) that this is about her, and not about me – on those days, she actually helps me to be a better pastor, a better wife and mother, and even, perhaps, a better human being.

Just before I realized that she was even an alligator at all, much less mine in particular, I had been struggling mightily to stay on top of my to-do lists. It felt like I was the Associate Pastor of Triage, with no room to dream big about where God might be trying to lead this church. I was tired and stressed out. I was only half-present in meetings, half-present with my family, half-present in preaching and leading worship. It was the middle of Lent, which I should know by now is when everything falls apart.

Then my alligator snapped, and everything changed.

It changed for the worst, to begin with. Her constant presence behind-the-scenes meant that even the victories of ministry felt subdued. Her biggest snap followed my proudest moment; my most significant contribution to the programming of this congregation since my arrival. Her snap cut short my celebration. While the other confirmation kids and their parents expressed deep gratitude for the workshop I had put together on human sexuality, she used false accusations and below-the-belt hits to disguise her opposition to the topic as opposition to my ministry in general.

A few days later, I offered her an olive branch between services. I was preaching a difficult sermon that day. Several people commented positively about it, and I was feeling buoyed and brave and big enough to reach out. She tore that proverbial olive branch to shreds, in a loud voice in front of several parishioners, two minutes before I walked into worship to preach that sermon again.

And it wasn’t only at church that I could hear her voice in my head. It was at home, too. It was out in the world. I bought groceries wondering if the other shoppers could tell that I wasn’t as confident in my professional abilities in that moment as I had been the day before. I colored pictures with my daughter wondering if she would still pretend that she was “going to work now, to preach,” if she knew how I really felt inside. I made dinner knowing that my husband knew the whole story, but wondering if he could tell how much I was letting her get to me. I felt small and vulnerable, like walking the middle school hallways the day I got my period for the first time – I was sure the people around me could tell that something had changed, and I was sure that I didn’t want them to know.

I am not a patient person. My threshold for irresponsible communication and emotional abuse is very low. It didn’t take long before I had simply had enough. And then, somehow, everything changed again, but this time for the better.

Now, it’s enough for me to simply know that my alligator remains, lurking and scheming in the shadows. Her presence there keeps me on my toes. Her focus on irrelevant and inaccurate details and her drive to shift my attention away from what I believe God is calling me to do has lit a veritable fire under my butt. My boundaries are tighter than ever, and I’m a better pastor for it. I pay more attention to the integrity of my ministry, because I know she’s watching. The next time she questions my professional and pastoral abilities, I want to be able to stand firm in the knowledge that she doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I’m focusing more on the big picture, because getting overwhelmed by the endless minutiae of ministry leaves me stressed and vulnerable, and I’m convinced she can smell it, the way dogs can smell fear.

At home, I’m more present with my family. I have a better understanding of the dangers of putting all my happiness eggs into the church basket. I never realized how many I was keeping there until my alligator stomped all over them. I’m sure, now, to leave her fewer to work with.

My alligator has also made me more aware of how tempting it can be to toe the line of self-righteousness. She reminds me how easy it is to offend someone like her, and how difficult it is to regain that trust once it’s lost. She reminds me to err on the side of being pastoral rather than the side of being right. It’s one thing to call an alligator an alligator, but even the alligators need to feel like someone is in their corner.

The days when my alligator makes me a better pastor, wife, mother, and general human being happen frequently, sometimes, and other times they feel brutally few and far-between. And while I consider this to be a love story (of sorts) for now, I don’t mean to romanticize the damage that such people do to their clergy and their congregations. It may be that, at some point, the days when she helps me in these ways are simply gone. There may come a day when the only love I can muster up for her is in recognition that she, too, is a child of God.

In the meantime, however, I will do my best to hold fast to what is good, and to not repay her evil for evil. For now, she is my alligator, and I will do my best to love her for it.

Martha and Mary in Ministry

medium_6832493862This last week a miracle happened in my life. I had a full twenty-four hours with no “church stuff” in it. One might think that using the term miracle here is a bit flippant, but when you’re a solo pastor, in the fall, miracle is the only appropriate way to describe a real day off. Until this day occurred, I had not had a Saturday off since mid August, and my coveted Mondays off had not occurred in three weeks because of the funerals that kept popping up. Throw in my first-born child, who is 5 months old and needs to eat every 2 hours because, as his pediatrician says, “he’s too chill to demand food when he’s hungry”, and my life pretty much resembles a chaotic mess.  I don’t mean to whine (ok, maybe a little bit), but for real, that day off was desperately needed. There was a point last week when I seriously considered whether this pastor thing was all worth it. I’m approaching my first anniversary in this congregation and ordained ministry. Is this really how it is going to be for the rest of my life? I love Jesus and all, but come on; a girl needs a day off once in a while.

All of this to say, that when I read Luke’s brief account of Mary and Martha, in an all too uncommon prayerful moment that was truly Spirit led, I said, out loud, “Martha, I totally feel you.”

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

We’re so often told as women in ministry that we are to strive to be like Mary in this story, seated at the feet of Jesus, learning and being a good disciple. We hold her up as a role model; as validation that, yes, even women are encouraged to be followers of Christ. Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says. So should we.

I’ve claimed Mary throughout my life; seen her in the women clergy who guided me through discernment, embraced her through missionary work, seminary and even the chaos of hospital chaplaincy. Mary was my model, the one who would not be distracted by life. Mary was the woman who wanted to be with Jesus because it is where she was called to be, and that was ok. She was a woman who gave me permission to “be” in ministry. Martha, on the other hand, was just that other sister, the one who let tasks consume her and didn’t take Jesus, Mary, and the other disciples seriously. Getting dinner on the table was more important than learning. That’s not who, or what I wanted to be as a woman in ministry.

Oh, how wrong I was. I’m claiming it right now, Martha is the woman I resemble more often than not these days. Martha, the woman who is running that house like a boss. Making sure the dinner preparations are going as planned. Getting the rooms ready for all the visitors, who I am sure are also staying the night, meaning that beds have to be made, sheets clean, and don’t forget the extra tooth brushes in case anyone forgot to bring their own.

I now know why Martha came bursting through that kitchen door, mad as hell at Mary. “Can’t I get just a little bit of help around here? I shouldn’t be doing this all on my own.” Martha’s voice is my voice, at home and in ministry.

The challenge in pastoral ministry, I am starting to realize, is to find a good balance of Mary and Martha. The reality of being a solo pastor is that things do have to get done; bulletins, committee meetings, and funerals. The reality of being a mother and a spouse is that dinner has to be made, laundry needs to be done, and emergency trips to the pediatrician happen. Our Martha’s are calling out to the Lord, “please just tell someone to help me!” But there is another side to the reality of ministry and motherhood. There is a Mary side. Those moments of profound holiness, where time is allowed to stand still and I can sit at the feet of the Holy and listen. The difficult part is recognizing when I can give myself permission to do this. The list will always be full and something will probably get left undone. Instead of Jesus’ curt response to Martha in the passage, I wish what he had said was “Martha, you look really busy. Come here and sit with Mary for a while, then we will all go in the kitchen and help you finish dinner.” These are the words I need to hear in ministry. That what I am doing, even in those overwhelming Martha moments, is what I am called to be. But that I am also called to rest from my labors, to sit down and just listen, even if for a moment, because I am called to be there too.