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When the Professional is Personal

The author sporting the hip, professional look cultivated by her hair stylist.

The author sporting the hip, professional look cultivated by her hair stylist.

When the pastor’s phone rings, you never know who or what is on the other end of the line. It could be good news—the birth of a baby, an invitation to collaborate on a community initiative, or a good medical report. Often, though, answering the phone as a pastor can be a bit more fraught. We are called when accidents happen, when assistance is needed, and when problems arise. I often find that I brace myself when the phone rings, without even realizing it.

A few months ago, I answered to hear an unfamiliar voice. It was my hair salon. “Your stylist has moved away. Could we schedule you with someone else?” I was silent on the other end of the phone, taking in the information. My mind reeled: “How could this be? I knew nothing about this! She never even told me she was thinking of moving. How could she just up and leave?”

I was entirely surprised by my reaction – why was I being so overdramatic? Yet, in a very real way, her move felt like a real loss. A friend gone. A relationship just plucked out of my life. I couldn’t bear the thought of scheduling with someone else, so I canceled the appointment.

I had been with my hair stylist over 7 years – the same amount of time I’ve served in my second call as a solo pastor. Although my call has been the same, my personal life has drastically changed. I’ve gone from a 30-year-old, single, young clergy woman to a late-30s, married with child, not-so-young clergy woman. My hair stylist had been with me through all the changes.

She knew me before I established a community here, and offered an open heart and listening ear. She helped me find the right professional yet hip looking hairdo. She helped me refine my look as I met, dated, and got engaged to my now husband. She made me look simply beautiful on my wedding day. When I became a mom, but couldn’t find a sitter, she and her colleagues entertained my newborn so I could have the much needed self-care of a good haircut.

Every time I went in, she hugged me tight, intimately washed and massaged my head, and skillfully cut my thick frizzy hair into something beautiful. Every time I went in, her first question was: “Is everyone behaving at church?” My stylist was one of the people in my life who always accepted me just as I am. She was one of those rare people who not only respected my vocation, but reveled in it.

I only realized how much she meant to me as the months went by and my usually well-groomed hair grew into a long unmanageable mop atop my head. Not only did I miss the way I looked, but I missed her. I felt sad that I’d never hear more about her family or her travels or hear her contagious laugh. So I decided to seek her out and send a goodbye message via Facebook Messenger. Then, as I typed her first name into the search, I realized something: I didn’t even know her last name. She knew me intimately, but how well did I really know her? Of course she didn’t tell me she was moving. We weren’t friends. She was my stylist. Read more

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outside

That Awkward Moment: Making Small Talk as a YCW

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outsideWe don’t know each other well, but we’ve been chatting for awhile, maybe at a party, or at a playdate for our kids.

The subject of what we do for a living hasn’t come up yet, and we’re talking easily about other things. But then the time comes when we would normally talk about what we do for work and I don’t bring it up. You might wonder if it’s because I don’t work, whether I’m a stay at home mom or unemployed, so you think maybe you shouldn’t bring it up. But I can tell you want to tell me what you do for work and so I ask.

My hesitation is not because I don’t want to know what you do for work—I really do—but because I don’t want to answer it back. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by what I do for a living—quite the opposite, in fact—it’s just that once I tell you that I’m a priest, everything about our conversation is going to change.

The first thing you’ll do is apologize for swearing.
(It’s ok! I have actually heard those words before. In fact, I’ve even said them!)

You start scanning my face to see whether I’m judging everything you do.
(I’m not.)

Then you worry you’re offending me with things you say.
(You’re not.)

You start to wonder if you can ask me all the questions you suddenly have. And sometimes you ask. And I try to answer them honestly, usually refraining from the snarky ways I’d actually like to answer:

Do women priests even exist?
(Would you believe me if I told you I’m actually a hologram?)

Are you allowed to have sex?
(No. My three children sprung from my head like the children of Zeus!)

You might feel awkward talking about what I do for living at all and so you ask quickly what my husband does for a living. You learn he’s a teacher, and suddenly we have lots of things to talk about. Everyone likes talking about teachers. The conversation flows on from there.

But then, sometimes….

You ask me about God.  Read more

three young girls with arms around each other

Everything Is Fine

three young girls with arms around each otherI was driving a golf cart through the woods at camp when I came upon three girls sitting on a bench with their counselor. I hadn’t heard them at first because of the noise of the golf cart, but as I parked it was clear: the girls were wailing. Loud, grievous, gasping, sobbing, wailing. Camp is a place entirely devoted to these children’s safety, fun, and happiness, so I couldn’t imagine what had provoked this noise. The wailing was so over-the-top I was more inclined to laugh than to be concerned. What on earth could be this bad?

I asked the counselor just that. She whispered back, “They’re homesick.”

I would have burst out laughing if it wasn’t so inappropriate. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I said, “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not,” she said, first smiling, then stifling her own laughter, “I wish I was.”

So I knelt down in front of the girls, still huddled together—still wailing, still gasping—almost as if they are one organism tied together in the unity of despair. I started with the very pastoral, “What’s up?”

I knew they were trying to form words, but the words were not even remotely intelligible.  So I try again, “Girls, I want to help you, but we can’t have a conversation until you can talk, so try breathing for me.” Surprisingly this works. “That’s good,“ I say, “long, deep breaths.  Now, do you think you can tell me what’s going on?” Read more

friendship bracelets

Who I Am With Them

friendship braceletsI have been best friends with the same four women for over 20 years. It’s only now that we’re in our 30’s that we’ve realized how fortunate we are to have sustained our friendship for so long. What a gift it is to have friends who have known me as a little girl, a young woman, and into middle age, who have witnessed the successes and failures of every stage of life, and who have loved me through them all. However, this intimate knowledge of my life is not all that my friends offer me. It has taken me some time to recognize and make peace with this, but part of the gift of their friendship is that my friends do not respect or even acknowledge my calling as a minister.

Initially, we five were drawn together because we lived in the same neighborhoods and were in the same classes at school. We “played well together” at an age when that was the most important part of friendship. As the years went on we experienced our share of falling-outs and at times (as all friends do) hurt each other deeply. But we stayed together, and what had once been playground compatibility slowly and mysteriously transformed into a mature love.

Always, this love was enriched by our mutual love of God. As children, our religion was simple: we all went to different churches in our Bible Belt community, but the bottom line was that we believed that Jesus had saved us. My friends were Church of Christ, Southern Baptist and Presbyterian Church (PCA). I was United Methodist. When we were small, we thought ourselves quite a charmingly diverse little club of Christians. But as we grew older and learned more about the differences in our theologies and how these played out practically in our lives, the religious tensions grew. By the time we were teenagers, I was feeling the heart-slap of these tensions. One Sunday, one of my friends told me she wasn’t allowed to step foot in my church because my church was “liberal.” The most obvious difference between our churches was that my denomination ordained women, while theirs had explicitly condemned women pastors. Read more

A Sacred Window

OnesWeLoveImageNothing can really prepare you for the death of a friend. It doesn’t matter how many pastoral care classes you took in seminary. It makes no difference how many funeral services you prepare and lead on a regular basis. The books on your shelves and the articles in your files do not mean a thing when it comes to losing someone you hold dear.

When I first met my friend (I’ll call her “D”), I was interviewing with the churches I now serve. D was serving as a Committee On Ministry liaison to the search committee. She was fun and feisty and full of energy. She was a strong woman with a clear, strong voice. She was, perhaps, one of the most dedicated Elders I had ever met. She spoke fluent sarcasm and had a wicked sense of humor that matched well with my own. We were fast friends and colleagues.

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Swallowing a Bitter Pill: A Lenten Journey

Bitter Pills of Lent

Bitter Pills of Lent

“I’m giving up Lent for Lent!”

It is a common joke around this time of year when worship leaders start planning for the Lenten season. I know I’ve said it before — even meant it. Lent can be a big, busy, bitter pill to swallow.

Ash Wednesday is one half of the encapsulation of Lent. It begins the 40 days when we wander through our own wilderness before we turn our focus onto the actions of Jesus in Holy Week. We start with the confession: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The message is easy: you have an expiration date. You are inhabiting a body of dust and ash that will, one day, fail you. These words are meant to stir our hearts and allow us to deepen our spiritual life during the Lenten journey. Two people I love, one a long-standing friend named Martin and the other, a mentor for many of us through his writing, helped me confront my own mortality on Ash Wednesday about 10 years ago.

At that time, I had been reading the words of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, writing words to himself that he needed to hear, said, “You so much want to heal yourself, fight your temptations, and stay in control.  But you cannot do it yourself. …acknowledge your powerlessness.” Not only did Nouwen need to hear this, but I did as well. I wasn’t just pessimistic and melancholy. I found myself unable to concentrate and in a miserable mood all the time. I realized things had to change when I misplaced a paycheck and wore two different color shoes to work. (And, it wasn’t a navy and black shoe — it was a black and a red shoe!) Like Nouwen, I wanted to believe that I was in control and the answer to my problems. But I found myself unable to find motivation to do anything. I didn’t want to admit my powerlessness.

In this state of mind, I found myself crying to my friend Martin over the phone. He knew my struggle and encouraged me to call the doctor. Through my tears, Martin pointed out: “Jen, this is a grace moment.” That year my Ash Wednesday confession was to see the truth in my mortality, to recognize the spiral downward that was far from normal, and to seek help for depression.

I went to my doctor, and on Ash Wednesday my prescription for antidepressants was filled. It is amazing how one pill can force you to look at yourself and life differently. Sounds a bit crazy, but it is true. I didn’t want to go to the doctor; I didn’t want to admit that my life was being affected by being depressed. All of this was a desire to avoid admitting that I was mortal. I had certainly avoided admitting my need for help. But, with a sip of water and a small green pill, I stared down the fact that I was human, broken, and in need of help. It was thanks to those two voices in my life: Nouwen showed me courage to love myself enough to tell the truth, and my friend Martin gave me the final push to face reality because of God’s grace.

Just as Lent begins with our confession, the Lenten journey is encapsulated on the other side by Maundy Thursday and the powerful words of absolution. “By the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”

By no means is depression sinful! No illness ever is. But for me, depression was part of the brokenness of the world within me. I desperately needed to hear that God overcomes brokenness. My sinfulness was my pride in trying to say I was in control; it wasn’t the disease. There is nothing more powerful than the voice of someone saying “you are forgiven” to make you ready to face Easter’s joy and to give you hope after your confession. Those first 40 days weren’t the end of my struggle with depression. They were, though, the beginning of a longer journey of healing, a journey that I found the courage to take 10 years ago with a confession, a pill, a sip of water, and the promise that God is greater than myself.

So, no, I won’t be giving up Lent for Lent. Each year it is another pill to swallow that allows me to deepen my mortal human experience of life. It prepares my heart for Easter, God’s greatest gift of grace.

Litany For Her

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I own a piece of art that isn’t worth much money but, it’s a conversation piece.  Handmade with small patches of fabrics varying in colors from red to the brightest orange it hangs on my wall. This gift is a modern version of American quilting.  On the black border you’ll find a hand stitched  words, “Follow the path with heart.”   My Aunt gave it to me when I graduated from seminary.  I carry it with me like the stories of the women who encouraged me to follow the path of Jesus with heart. We are woven together by faith and love.

One fateful night my friend Annie and I spread our books out on a kitchen table. We made piles with our notebooks and plugged in our laptops.  Coffee cups lined the table.  We lived on coffee.  Midterms loomed over our heads.  Feeling lost and overwhelmed by all the theological terms in our first year of seminary we decided to camp out. She was housesitting for a local family. The large windows let in light and air we couldn’t feel in our cramped dorm rooms. Quizzing each other never worked so we asked questions in the attempt to contextualize the large terms. Sparks flew. Laughter encased us. After a few quiet moments I shouted out a question, “Do you think Jesus has a body in heaven?” Annie scrunched up her face, sighed, and said, “I don’t know.”  In the bright light of a kitchen I would never see again we taught each other about theology and friendship.  To this day we reference that night almost ten years ago now.

My women friends in seminary surrounded me with prayer like a warm blanket that radiated the scent and glow of home.  I gathered with Bridgett, Annie, Kim and Aisha for prayer in our dorm rooms.  Kim always knew how to center us around God’s presence.  She could throw out jokes like the best of them, but when it came time to talk to God she knew how to welcome the holy into the most ordinary of circumstances.  With Kim I learned how to tap into the spirit of God that sustains me.  After finishing our finals one year we drove around the town of Princeton with the windows down shouting, “Hallelujah, we made it!”  When Bridget made dinner in her seminary apartment she gave me permission to be myself in a unique way.  Her faithfulness to God shined through in her encouraging words.  I saw her heart grow day by day.

The first time I heard Aisha sing my heart melted.  She is a jazz vocalist blessed with an undeniable gift. And when our friendship grew over the years in seminary I learned the story behind her voice.  We found a safe space to be the artsy and spirit filled women God made us to be.  I’ll never forget the courage I found in her friendship.

Meredith and I share more than a name.  The second year of seminary an effervescent group of women moved in on my floor.  I felt enlivened by their energy and desire to change the world.  It was over countless meals and endless cups of coffee I found a kindred spirit in Meredith.  She’s taught me to love my sometimes irrational and always searching self.

Truth is, I could decorate an entire wall with names of the women who were like steps on a staircase of faith for me in seminary.  Each one challenged, nurtured, and encouraged me in unique ways.  Meredith, Aisha, Bridgett, Kim and Annie are the women I can call in the middle of night with any question in my heart.  They light my path.  They show me that I don’t have to be perfect to serve God.  I learned how to listen to God amongst the noise because of their voices in my ear.  Each step I take on this beautiful and crazy journey of faith and vocation I take with them beside me. With God’s love we will go far.

I realized then that even when our arms drop off for a moment or a connection is missed, we are still standing in this thick river of Love that connects us. I also realized that if we’re standing together, it’s hard to walk away … Even when we slip or need a rest, we are not taken out of the River. We have a place and there are grace-filled arms all around to help carry us. We don’t stand in our own effort, but we stand in a divine Love…The Source is not our humanity that is finite (and can burn up pretty quickly), but it’s from a Greater Love that passes all understanding.

Not only do we stand in thick Love, even the atmosphere around us is Love. It’s grace and anointing. It’s kindness, patience, goodness. Faithfulness, humility and self-control. I’ve learned along the way that this kind of Love empowers. That when I know I am loved—even in my mistakes—I can move ahead in confidence. I know the Love is not dependent on my actions or perfect performance, but instead, this Love covers. It graces. It protects. It connects. So, my dear sisters, this Love we’re called to stand in, is rivers deep. It stretches far and wide, for as many of us would come and stand.

Idelette Walker, from SheLoves Magazine

Rev. Erin Hayes serves as the Pastor to a multicultural church in Rahway, NJ. Serving in Rahway helps her use her Hungarian and African-American heritage in many ways. She was nurtured in the Baptist church and became ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA just shy of a year ago. After 10 years in ministry in various churches she loves the challenge and blessing where she serves now. In her free time you will find her hanging out at the local Crossfit gym trying to find a way to work it into a sermon.

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.

Silent and Still

The silence of my prayer was replaced with the noise of the narthex. The hymns were sung. The people were blessed. And now, it was time to share in the joy of being together as the congregation participates in the exodus from the sanctuary to the promise of the Parish Hall.

Babies wake up from the sermon, and the silence fades. The squeals of the children just released from Sunday School nearly drown out the mutterings of “good sermon” and “thank you for worship.” Familiar faces sojourn to coffee hour while insisting I must remember their names. My laughter mixes with the hesitant laughter of visitors. Hands are held. Hugs linger too long. Shoulders are touched. The silence disappears.

Only for a moment, the silence disappears. Only for a moment, there is a clamor of giggling children and a racket of slurping adults. The clatter continues until the Parish Hall empties and I am left to lock the doors.

And then it becomes silent and still once again. My distress grows worse, and my heart becomes hot with me as the silence returns. This silence is not like the stillness of prayer. Those are moments that I crave. I need that respite from the insistence of so many demands screaming incessantly. I need that sacred time to be still and know that God is in the silence. This is precious silence. It is not the same silence that greets me with the click of the lock in the church doors.

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