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

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.

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.