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Parlor and Kitchen Stories

Kitchen stories are the unsparing, honest, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink truths.

This spring, I took a job in a new church context. There is something so unique and exhausting about the first couple of months of a new job, trying to memorize names, make connections, and meet expectations which may or may not be spelled out. One major aspect of any new job is listening: getting people to open up, and hearing the stories that parishioners choose to tell.

As I listened to all these stories, I was reminded of something I heard at a conference a couple of years ago. The speaker talked about church in terms of parlor stories and kitchen stories. The parlor is the room in a house with immaculate carpet and formal furniture–parlor stories are those stories that cast the church in the most positive light. Parlor stories are the “official” history of the church and feature the content that would belong on a brochure. They are like a grandmother’s pristine furniture covered in plastic. They are the stories that I heard from people serving on the search committee when I was going through the interview process.

A parlor exists as a valid room of a house, and parlor stories are valid, but they are not the only truth about a church. In contrast to the parlor, different narratives emerge when people are busy scrapping food off plates and wiping down counters. Kitchen stories are the unsparing, honest, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink truths. Read more

The Stained Glass Cliff

Like many of my fellow clergy women, I was shocked when the news broke last week that the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler was leaving her pulpit at the storied Riverside Church in New York City after only five years. This is a short tenure in the life of such a famed institution, and the announcement of her departure comes on the heels of her serving as one of the featured preachers at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod only a week prior. Riverside has long had a complex and turmoil-laden history, but I joined many who were hopeful things were turning around under Amy’s leadership. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

It was clear to many of us that there were myriad untold stories to her departure, and what we have learned includes only some of the layers of one of those stories. Although stories will continue to emerge, and some may never be told, we can conclude that Pastor Amy was, at least in part, pushed off the Stained Glass Cliff.

The research on this is very clear: women are more likely to rise to positions of leadership and authority in times of crisis or conflict. It’s seen as a “nothing to lose” phenomenon. “We have nothing to lose, so might as well hire a woman.” We often follow charismatic or well-liked men who were behaving egregiously badly, and we often don’t have clarity on how deeply broken the system really is until we’ve already said yes.

Women are held to a different standard (especially when we are the first). We have broken the stained glass ceiling, so we are expected to be exceptional, extraordinary even. We are expected to resolve conflicts, and clean up messes we did not make in half the time it took the men who preceded us to make them. We are expected to effortlessly juggle leadership (but not too much), nurturing (but not be too soft), and family (but without asking for too much time) without complaint.

As soon as we enact too much change, push to make the system healthier, preach a sermon seen as “too political,” or don’t clean up the mess quickly enough, we are pushed right off the cliff. If we dare, as Pastor Amy did, to name patterns of sexual harassment and ask for accountability, we are often painted as the problem and sent on our way. A narrative is then written about how it “wasn’t a good fit” or “she just couldn’t hack it.” Read more

Submit? I’d Rather Not

When my husband made the decision to become partner at the ranch, a part of me felt betrayed.

As a pastor who leads day in and day out, I feel comfortable when I am the primary authority, giving vision and guidance to others on how things need to be done. But as a woman in an egalitarian relationship with a man, I feel less comfortable—all right, I admit it: I feel very angry—when I hear the word “submit.” The very word makes me feel gross. Gross, for the million ways abuse has transpired under the guise of religious teaching. Gross, for the countless opportunities this word has allowed self-avowed Christian men to ridicule, demean, and belittle the women in their lives. Gross, for all the reasons submission seems like such a backward notion after you have experienced the freedom of life in Christ.

Nevertheless, I have learned that I need to reclaim the essential idea of submission, using language appropriate for a 21st century covenantal relationship, for the sake of a healthier and more life-giving relationship with my spouse. My husband and I struggled for several years early in our marriage. One of the biggest tension points is how we made decisions. I’m stubborn, and my husband arguably moreso.

A few years into our marriage, our therapist gave us tools to discern that we both have ENFP personality profiles, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Knowing one’s personality type alone can’t determine a relationship’s health, but we did learn plenty about how we make choices together. When we’re on the same page, life is grand. And when we disagree, well…heaven and hell can’t sway either one of us. Being willing to submit is not a strength we possess.

I know, I know. I used the seemingly forbidden word: submit. It still rubs me the wrong way when I hear it, but in my quest to strengthen my own marriage (and, providentially, as part of the required reading for my graduate school courses), I happened upon the work of John Gottman. Ever heard of him? He’s not Jesus, and his narrative is hetero-normative, but he does offer some pretty excellent insights in his book called The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.

The first time I read this book, I began to see patterns of conflict within my own relationship more clearly. Specifically, I saw the ways I resisted my husband’s influence in my life (a no-no, according to principle #4). Yes, I loved him. Of course, I wanted to support him. But let him influence the way I make decisions? Now that’s a bit too far! It sounds an awful lot like submission. My response to John Gottman was the same as to the Apostle Paul: “Submit? I’d rather not; thanks anyway!”

At that point I had been married for three years. This week my husband and I celebrate nine years of hard-earned marriage. One thing I’ve gradually come to terms with, thanks to John Gottman and Jesus the Christ, is the need to let my husband influence me. I still don’t easily do this. It’s a discipline I cultivate day after day, and only because I’ve seen the real value it offers my marriage. It’s also something I expect of my spouse, because this principle only works when it’s given and received. Oh, but what a gift it can be! Read more

silhouette image of a woman on a horse reading a book - the logo for UMC clergywomen

Fewer Gender Binaries, More Expansive Leadership

silhouette image of a woman on a horse reading a book - the logo for UMC clergywomen

Another kind of circuit rider

We are saddened and frustrated whenever male colleagues in ministry seem to be suffering amnesia about the power of women’s leadership in shaping the church. Recently, a United Methodist clergyman penned a commentary for a forum run by the United Methodist news service on the role of women and men in the church. In it, he claimed that the church requires gendered forms of leadership, a Marian form following the example of prophet and God-bearer Mary of Nazareth and a Petrine form following the example of disciple Simon Peter.

The Marian form is–you guessed it–nurturing, whereas the Petrine church is about discipline and maintaining order. He presents these two forms of leadership as both being necessary and so concludes the piece without recognizing the problem. This leaves us, as women and gender-nonconforming folks often have to do, to educate our dear colleague once again: we cannot continue to rely on the sinful “complementarian” structure that is the very same used to reject the ordination of women.

When it comes to leadership in the church, we do not have to match our roles to the assumed genitalia of disciples in the Bible. Mary of Nazareth is not the role model for all women who want to participate in the life of the church, nor is Simon Peter the role model for all men. Mary and Peter offer differences in their relationship to Christ and their ministries, as do all other disciples and apostles. Our roles are not defined by or limited to our gender performance.

Separating out leadership roles by gender limits all of us. To make our Theotokos, a Greek title for Mary that means God-bearer, a model only for women is to discount a powerful example of discipleship for all who follow Christ. Mary is a model of courageous, outspoken, inclusive leadership. She is an example not just for women’s roles in the life of the church, but for ALL who seek to be disciples and leaders in the church. She answered God’s call, proclaimed God’s justice, shared Christ with the world, and welcomed everyone, from the shepherds to the magi, to be part of the movement. She is the model of leadership that the whole church needs not just mothers or women to emulate but all people, regardless of gender.

The apostle Paul offers us wonderful image of his leadership that does not conform to gendered expectations when he writes that he is like a nursing mother (for example 1 Thessalonians 2:7). Paul is clearly a “discipler” by vocation and action, something the author of that article claims is Marian by Scriptural witness. A closer look at Scripture reveals more than what the author of that article sees. Read more

Here I Sit

I have spent my final year on the Board editing the column, “Here I Stand.” It has been a joy and a privilege to share the stories of my sister clergy women, their convictions and the remarkable experiences of their particular and diverse contexts. As I come to the end of my time as a part of the leadership of this amazing organization, I find myself finding some new inspiration from our puppy.

In January we brought home a new black lab puppy. His name is Espen (a combination of the Norwegian names for God and bear). Just like our last black lab, he is already teaching me profound lessons about who God is and who I am called to be. Our next door neighbors have a dog too. It is the highlight of Espen’s day to be able to play with Benny. If we let him, Espen would spend the entire day just as he is pictured above. Sitting at our back door patiently waiting, ever hopeful that Benny will come out the door to play.

I have been struck by his patience and his ability to incarnate hope. It does not matter what time of day it is or how long it has been since Benny has come out. Espen lives out a conviction that new possibilities can happen at anytime. Past experience does not always have to be an indicator of the future. New realities are possible. To borrow from CS Lewis, at anytime, we can be “surprised by joy.”

Patience is a virtue on which I am perennially working. I often feel in a hurry. Read more

Naming the Desert

Figurines in the Lexington Avenue Baptist Church’s Godly Play set.

There are moments in ministry when I feel marvelously competent: when a child interrupts my Sunday School lesson to make a connection to something we learned weeks or months ago, when I preach a sermon that I know said what needed saying, when the kids I work with lead such a great Ash Wednesday worship experience that my not-so-liturgical church gladly embraces it.

And then there are moments when I know I have no idea what the heck I’m doing.

This year has been full of the latter kind of moments.

Two years ago, when I was asked to serve as moderator of my state denominational organization, I was flattered. I would be added to the list of great people who’ve come before me in that position. It would look awesome on my resume. And I was assured it wasn’t too big a thing. Over the course of the three years of service, I’d plan our annual meeting once (a lot of work, but doable work), lead coordinating council and business meetings (a bit out of my comfort zone as a minister to children and families who seldom uses those skills in the local church, but still doable), and eventually recruit a dozen or so people to rotate onto the council (children’s minister = volunteer recruiting champion). So I said yes.

Little did I know.

During my moderator-elect year, the organization dealt with a difficult situation that landed me in hours and hours of tense and frustrating meetings and didn’t end in a way that made anyone particularly happy; a fairly contentious council meeting just before I took over as moderator made the general discontent abundantly clear. Then, just as my moderator year began last April, the organization found itself without a staff at all, barring an administrative assistant who’d begun work the same day the last of our former staff departed.

The good news was that there were transition guidelines already in place. I just had to follow the directions for appointing committees, hiring an interim, and operating in the meantime, plus do a fair amount of guessing and hunting down answers about how things were normally done in the office. It was a time-management challenge, but it was mostly okay. Follow the rules as they’re laid out. Ask questions. Figure out who has what pieces of the institutional memory.

The bad news was that I also had to lead a fall council meeting for a group of people who were frustrated with one another and with the position we were in as an organization. There was nothing in the transition plan about how to deal with that. I’m a nine on the enneagram. I hate conflict. I want everyone to be happy. Gulp. Read more

Learning to say “Yes, And…”: A review of God, Improv, and the Art of Living

I still remember that gathering in a hotel meeting room in Kansas City. The NEXTChuch conference had just ended, and a group of pastors gathered to learn about Improv and how it could impact our ministries. Our speaker was snowed into her hometown, and the leaders began to change their plan. Yes, we were going to improvise a 24-hour workshop on improvisation. Throughout our sessions, as we played and then debriefed, I kept asking for the rulebook, the place where I could read about what we were doing to understand it better. MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of those facilitators, and she very patiently kept reminding me that she was in the process of writing the book for which I hungered.

When I finished reading the book, it took all I had not to race to the internet and preorder copies for all of my clergy colleagues and church leaders. It was this paragraph that held the book together for me and helped me pivot from “principles of improv” to “heres what it means”:

“The truth is, were not in control of our lives, and the unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is to use our resources to put together a life in the wake of these things – maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whats on hand.” (p. 119)

How much of ministry, how much of life really, is using our resources to fashion meaning out of what may appear to be chaos? The book is filled with examples of how this happens in workshops, on stage, and in the church. The way this works for those who look at life through an improv lens is saying “yes, and…” This is the key theme in McKibben Danas book. When we say “yes,” we accept the reality of what has been given to us. Be it the character to include in a skit, the terminal diagnosis, the relocation for a job, the burnt breakfast or any other number of circumstances we cannot change, the basics of improv include saying “yes” to the reality in front of us. Read more

Tomato plant

Leadership Metaphors: Garden and Machine

Tomato plant

I started to acknowledge that my leadership role, at its best, would be like cultivation—helping to create conditions in which life could thrive.

I was only about a month into my first call as solo pastor of a small Presbyterian congregation when a new class of elders rolled onto the Session, which is the church’s governing board. In my congregation, much of the ministry is carried out through teams, and the Session asked me to organize them, which meant rearranging some existing elders and assigning new ones to leadership positions. The problem was, with just a month in office, I felt I didn’t know them well enough to have a sense of who would fit where.

I had before me a list of teams, a list of elders, and a church directory.  I cleared off the table in my office and set about the task. Using color-coded note cards, I shuffled and reshuffled elders and church members among the teams, struggling to figure out the optimal arrangement. I was at this for about an hour before I stopped and asked myself, “What the heck am I doing?”

I realized that I had been treating the church as if it were a machine and people as though they were interchangeable parts. I think this is common, actually, in the vernacular of management—I have a feeling that in their professional lives many of the people in my congregation are subject to a similar kind of mechanistic metaphor. The language and concepts of industry have crept into our understanding of human beings. Employees find their names printed on organizational charts, an orderly arrangement of identical squares joined by straight lines. The task of handling people belongs to a department called “human resources,” as though people were raw materials like iron or copper or gravel or sand. Read more

Shared Leadership: Lessons from YCWI

Kelly Boubel Shriver (left) and Molly Field James (right) during their terms as co-chairs

After serving three years as a co-chair of YCWI, I am beginning my third month as “just a regular board member.” I am loving that I get to spend my final year on the board with the fabulous women of the editorial group. It is a joy to have the opportunity to lift up the voices of our members and to educate the world about the experience of being a YCW. And I even get to write occasionally!

While I am happy and excited in my current role, I am also aware of what is missing. I am no longer the co-chair. Serving in that capacity, I had the privilege of working with Kelly Shriver and shepherding the organization through some tremendous growth and transformation. It was time for me to step down, and I don’t miss all the challenges and responsibilities of that work. It is nice to have a little break from it. What I do miss, though, is the collaborative nature of that role.

As often happens, when you no longer have something, you become all the more aware of how wonderful it was. I have been reflecting on the gifts of collaborative leadership lately, and my most valuable insight has been that I can carry those gifts with me in the rest of my ministry. I might even be so bold to say that the model of collaborative leadership practiced by YCWI has some lessons for the whole church. Here are my top five reasons that collaborative leadership is a gift. I hope they are helpful in your context. Read more

Spring Pruning: A Sermon on John 15:1-8

pruning shears

I got pruned the other day. There were some dead, unfruitful, suffocating branches that had grown up out of me, making me ugly and overgrown. And God came over to me with some big sharp clippers and pruned those dead branches right off and threw those useless pieces into the fire and burned them to ashes.

My pruning happened on a retreat I went to a few weeks ago, led by a woman named Tilda Norberg. At one point, Tilda asked us to do something called “Speaking Truth to Lies.” And she asked us to write down two or three lies about ourselves that we needed to get rid of. Not ridiculous lies like: “My hair is blonde” or “I’m a professional body builder.”

But the kind of lies we tell ourselves—lies that we know in our head are not true, but that our hearts hang onto.

If I give you some examples, I think you’ll recall some of these kinds of lies knocking around in your heart at some point.

“If I weigh more than 120 lbs, no one will find me attractive.”

Or this one: “Because I have cancer or because I can no longer move the way I used to, I will never be whole or well again.”

Or this: “I don’t have a problem with drugs or alcohol.”

Or this: “If I weren’t so needy or noisy or nosy, the abuse would stop.”

Lies that we live our lives by. Lies that we die little deaths by. These are the kinds of lies Tilda asked us to write down. Read more