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A Curse Word and A Cocktail

A Portion of the author's Hinge profile

A Portion of my Hinge profile

I swiped left after left. Conflicting political understandings. Anti-religion. Doesn’t like cats. I definitely swiped left more than right. The swipe right list is not long, but it has weight. A message popped up from a mutual match. He quoted Bret Easton Ellis when he found out I was from Los Angeles, which made me both laugh and wonder what he really thinks about being from LA. We decided to meet for a drink at my local bar. I chose this bar because I know the owner and bartender and made a deal with them long ago – as women often do – that if the date was going wrong or I felt unsafe, I could order a specific drink and they would make sure I got away and home safely. The need for this is imperative this day and age, but that is for another article.

He arrived and we ordered drinks. The conversation was fun and breezy. The type of new conversation that is engaging and enjoyable, devoid of any immediate emotional commitment. I knew why. He didn’t know what I did for a living.

I’m not a fan of dating apps. I will admit that I am on a couple to keep myself “out there.” I don’t have anything against them, but I’m an Enneagram 3 and a Gen-Y woman, so the imposter syndrome comes from all angles. I always anxiously ask myself after setting up my profile, “Who will they say that I am?” Some answer with inquiry, support, and kindness, others have been less so. Unfortunately, I’ve boiled it down to this: the men I have met on dating apps have taught me they aren’t ready to date a female pastor. So, I curate the best photos, the wittiest comments, and the most clickable tagline to present my best, most authentic self, all without saying what I do. Which makes me feel phony.

Now this is not all dates, but in my personal experience, when I do put my job on my profile, I often get two types of guys. The first I can deal with. The first is the guy who is religious but very conservative. Which is to say, our theological worldviews do not align, and we would not be a good fit. He often thinks that I am a “helper” in my church, not the “actual pastor.” Or he thinks I’m not an actual pastor. The other type of guy that I have experienced on several occasions, has a sexual obsession with my job and the apparel that comes with it. The first guy is easy for me to thank for a lovely dinner but share that this isn’t going to continue for lack of compatibility. The second reminds me that in many places I am still not valued as a whole person called to this job by God. The number of times I have been asked if I “wear my collar to bed” by a complete stranger is more than I care to count. So, I leave it off my profile.

The guy I am having drinks with at the bar works in sales, and loves his job. I tell him that I am in my second career. My first career as a theatrical marketing producer making movie trailers is an easy sell. But then the question happens: “What do you do now?” I decide to tell him the truth.

When I disclose my vocation and subsequent occupation to a new person, I always do two things. The first is that I take a drink of an alcoholic beverage. It seems like a simple thing, but drinks are all a part of my plan on dates, on how to best share this part of myself. My drink is not for me, it’s for them. Its purpose is to break down the notion of me that they carry in their head that they may not even know they have. So, I take a sip of my drink and tell them, “I’m a pastor.”

Chances are that in the conversation leading up to this moment, I have already used a cuss word. I find swear words holy, cathartic, and honest. They are a part of my everyday vernacular. But once I take my drink, and share my truth, I always cuss right afterwards. Something like, “And I f***ing love it.” Because I do. That is when I can truly breathe…but also hold my breath. Read more

Book cover for Very Married

Very Married

Book cover for Very MarriedThe other day I had a mortifying experience at the local breakfast cafe. A friend and I had met to go over plans for the party she’s planning to celebrate the release of my forthcoming book, Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. On our way out, we passed a table of teachers from the elementary school. As we chatted, the purpose of our lunch date came up. Of course one of the women asked about my book. I froze and frantically glanced at my friend for help, but she’s on board to help with party favors, not elevator speeches. She laughed, nervously, “We’re still working on that.”

When I’m not paralyzed by fleeting waves of social anxiety, I could tell you that Very Married is an apologia for marriage, one that is candid about the agony, ecstasy, and tedium of wedlock. I could tell you that it’s a blend of cultural commentary, theological reflection, and personal narrative. I could even mention that I received the invitation to write the book after I wrote an article for the Christian Century that became the magazine’s most-read article online in 2015.

But that confident description of the book is laced with subtext – subtext which is largely responsible for my persistent unease. That tidy phrase, “personal narrative?” It means what you think it means: my book about marriage is largely rooted in stories about my marriage. It’s not quite a memoir, but it is decidedly memoir-ish. I experienced searing vulnerability when I published my first memoir-ish book a few years ago. That one was mostly about motherhood, but it was my few forays into the territory of our marriage that made me feel truly exposed. Read more

Telling the Truth

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“Wait, you mean you still haven’t fired him yet?” I burst out at my colleague. She was having a meeting with her music director. The same music director. The same director, who, over a year before, she’d told me was impossible to work with and so she was forming a plan to ask him to resign. I assumed he was long gone but a year later, here she was: as angry with him as she ever was and still squirming over how she could find the nerve to let him go.

It’s not easy to fire someone. It’s not easy to be honest with your leadership or senior pastor about unpleasant things you’ve seen in your fellow staff, or lay leaders, or on committees. It’s not easy to be honest with people in your church when they are behaving badly, carelessly, or in a way that is disrupting parish life.

A disclaimer: I shouldn’t be writing this article. Even though I wrote an ordination essay back in 2007 outlining a Christian moral position on lying, connecting Immanuel Kant with the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve had a terrible time with honesty in my own congregation. It’s not that I’ve lied; but mostly, in my five-year tenure here, I’ve swallowed the truth. I didn’t want to make a mistake or hurt someone. Mostly, I ended up getting my own insides burnt, because the truth has a lot of spikey points when you try to swallow it.

But the longer I’m a priest, the more necessary it seems to me (and the easier it gets for me) to practice honesty. Honesty and transparency are crucial to developing a trusting relationship with a congregation. If you can’t tell the truth, reveal the numbers, bandage the wounds, or dig out the weeds because no one, including you, can point to them, you can’t help a congregation grow in the Gospel.

Now, it may be that your congregation has a systemic, historic problem with secrets and dishonesty. That’s going to require some love, patience, and formation in congregational development from the experts (ask colleagues or clergy you admire to help you find resources, support, and training).

On the other hand, pastoral honesty without humility or the foundation of relationship can be a clumsy, blunt, and hurtful instrument. Just because you’re clergy doesn’t mean you have a right or obligation to share your honest appraisal of everything. (For reference, see recent viral list: “Secrets Your Pastor Can’t Share in a Sermon.”) The right to be honest comes only from our responsibility to be relational.

Here are ten tips (I love tip lists!) for practicing responsible, relational honesty in your context:

  1. Be a leader that people can be honest with. Strive to be confident and calm enough that other people can tell you the truth, face to face, and you can hear it – and maybe even learn from it. Be able to admit when you’ve been wrong.
  2. Pick your battles. Some things are worth being honest about, and other things aren’t. If you’re not sure, sleep on it or ask colleagues for their perspective. Many things can be let go.
  3. Have the difficult conversation. Sleep on it… but not for a month! Get to the point, be directive, and don’t apologize. Preserve the good of your congregation above the feelings of individuals. Convey to the other person, despite the difficult topic, what you value about them as part of the conversation.
  4. Trust that your relationships with your leaders and congregation can withstand some bumpy roads. If you don’t trust that this is the case, visit, visit, visit your people to build up that trust. Or start looking for another job.
  5. Don’t try to have an honest conversation with an irrational, possibly crazy, person. They. Will. Always. Win. Set boundaries and expectations, then stick to them.
  6. Affirm, congratulate, and say “thank you” much more often than you correct, instruct, or criticize.
  7. Stay with your emotions and don’t try to stifle them: admitting your sadness, nervousness, or anger can help you set aside fear and rigidity.
  8. Show some vulnerability. Say “I don’t know” sometimes. Don’t be the pastor who always has the answers. Ask for help when you need it. Tell people when you’re having a bad day, when you disagree, or that you are going to turn down that piece of cake, thank you.
  9. Practice truth-telling with your church board. Appoint someone to play devil’s advocate for important conversations. Go around the table and ask people to share their perspective on an issue. Ask them, “What would you do if you were in my position?”
  10. And how to fire that staff person: Well, there’s no formula for this one because so many factors can be in play. Before taking action, talk to your mentor or colleagues. But don’t wait too long!

The old adage goes “Speak the truth in love,” but we often forget the rest of the verse: But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15). Speaking the truth, first, is about seeking Christ and growing as part of his Body. Not about being righteous, confident, corrective, or even caring; but aspiring to “grow up into Christ.” Honesty is a spiritual discipline. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. But the most healthy and holy honesty brings us closer to God and to one another, rather than pushing us apart. And that’s why, really, we should never be afraid of it.

Pastor and Preacher as Artist

“Becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive”

-Art & Fear: Observations on The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland

To be an artist one must be true to the voice that God has given you. I came to learn this in my last year of seminary when I left the world of West Michigan where I grew up and journeyed to New York City for an internship at a church. The creativity of the city invaded my soul. The city was like one giant orchestra and each one of the 8.4 million citizens was trying to figure out which instrument was ours to play. It is in New York where I first understood my calling as a pastor was to a calling to first and foremost be an artist. The medium with which I make art is through being a pastor and preacher.

A painter walks up to her canvas full of ideas that she has collected that she desperately needs to convey to the world through the medium of paint. I am the painter and my sermon is the painting. My canvas is my approach to the text. How I choose to paint that text is the grueling creative process. The sermon is begging to come out of me but I have to do the hard work of trying on different inspirations that come to me the week before.

To be an artist one must be true to the voice that God has given you.

For inspiration I sit with the poets, the musicians, and the writers. Everyday I get a poem sent to me in my email from poets.org and I take the time to read each word and look at its construction. Music is one of the languages my soul speaks. I also peruse music blogs and websites voraciously to hear the current cultural trends coming out in instruments and voices. These people finesse words and have the courage to write Truth. Some are more honest than others but all trying to capture the currents of life and mystery. People like Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, The Civil Wars, Dinah Washington and so many others have become my friends.

Inspiration is not just in writing but it is everywhere for an artist. Whether I am listening to a new song, marveling at the eccentric fashion style on Broadway, or walking in the park I always wonder what these encounters have to teach me. What truth are these everyday artists telling me? One thing about art – really good art – is that it is honest. No matter how terrifying, angry, colorful, confusing, inspiring it is, good art tells the truth. Good art helps us become better truth-tellers. Read more