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Pastoral Care

Trinity member Lauren Strawderman held 5 week old Micah while the author unpacked boxes. Lauren continues to be Micah’s second mom at church.

“Does the Pastoral Care team care for the Pastor or for other people?” It was a fair question from one of the new Elders at his first meeting, a day-long visioning and planning retreat for the Session, the church council elected by the congregation. I responded, “Sometimes both, but most of the time it’s coordinating care for church members and friends.”

As I responded in the present, my mind traveled through the past. That January meeting marked 3 years since the moving truck arrived in Harrisonburg with all of our family’s belongings – almost to the day. I had a 2 1/2 year old and a 5 week old with me, and arrived first at my new church, where the many boxes of books would be unloaded. Mary Lou, the chair of the search committee that called me, was there to present me with my key to the kingdom, and after boxes were unloaded, she followed us over to the townhouse to help on that end.

She wasn’t alone. Over the course of the day and in days following, a number of folks came through to offer their help. They unpacked boxes. They broke them down and took them away. They put dishes in the cupboards and they held the baby so I could get a few things done (clearly the most coveted job). Food arrived. Diapers. As I assessed some new needs – toy and book storage – Larry and Donna went shopping. I was five weeks postpartum and needed to take it easier than I would have preferred. But they took care of me.

On my first Sunday in the pulpit, I was busy trying to get everything together and Lauren, another member of the search committee, came in to take the baby off of my hands. From that week on, Lauren was Micah’s church buddy. It was Lauren who was first able to get Micah to take a bottle. To this day, Lauren sits right behind me, usually with Micah in her lap, wanting to read books, and he recently referred to her as “the one he loves so much.” Lauren and Mike, Bryce and Chris, Dawn, Susie, Abby, and Anne are just a few who have had turns babysitting, taking the boys to the children’s museum, their favorite playground, horseback riding, or on some other fun adventures. They take care of us. Read more

One Can’t Rush The Process of Forgiveness: A Personal Story of Sexual Trauma

A picture of the author in front of a large rock

The author

Sexual trauma. Two uncomfortable words to see in print and to write about, particularly in the church. Sex is still a taboo subject in the church in the year 2018, although church folks are having quite a bit of it – whether it is wrong or right, single or married, ethical or unethical, or even scandalous. The point I am making is this: not talking about sex in the church does not mean the church is avoiding the trauma that is continuously happening with its members, congregants, guests, visitors, and so on.

Unfortunately, sexual trauma happens too often to too many girls and boys every day in various homes, church spaces, schools, parks, and more. It doesn’t care what race, gender, ethnicity, religion, denomination, time of the day or week nor time of the month. All it cares about is what it needs at the time when it is ready to feast on the innocent and unconsenting bodies.

The needs of sexual trauma are to control, manipulate, and distort the minds of both the perpetrator and victims. Many do not survive its wrath.

I lived to tell my story of how I wrestled this evil spirit of sexual trauma, although I wish it could have been for only one night like Jacob. I have spent years purging the damage and residue of its grips from the depths of my mind, spirit, and soul.

Even now, it is difficult to write about my experience; toiling over this piece thinking of a way how I can tell my story. Where do I start? How much should I tell? Do I even want to remember those events of my life? This is a part of my narrative. Sexual trauma had its tentacles in shaping the woman I am today, unfortunately. But, no glory will be given to sexual trauma for no good thing it has done in my life, but all good things come from God.

Due to the invasion of sexual trauma I had no choice but to desperately search for wells in dry places in my adulthood, particularly when I was pressed to forgive and love my perpetrator by church folks. I know that Scriptures teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and to be kind and forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). Throughout my young adulthood, other believers urged me to forgive and love my perpetrator. This request seemed to be in support of the perpetrator rather than in my best interest of getting healed.

It seemed unimaginably unfair to me. It was so disheartening that my body was violated. My trust had been broken. My mind had suffered from flashbacks and the entrapments of withdrawals as I navigated my altered life. Too many burdens for anyone to bear alone.

Why do have to be the responsible one to love him and forgive him in order to receive my healing? Why are people quoting these Scriptures to me in the midst of my trauma without even asking me how am I doing? I believe people sometimes rush the process of forgiveness and place unwarranted pressure on victims of trauma to forgive their perpetrators. Read more

We Really, Really Love You

The author, surrounded by love at her Valentine’s Day Installation service, 2016.

After what might have been my fifth phone call of the morning, the dichotomy hit me again: I was delivering very sad and difficult news about the death of a beloved church member, then quickly asking for logistical help. It had been less than a month since a shocking, terminal diagnosis, but for that month, I had been sitting with the grief, knowing that this was coming. We knew that the end was imminent, and the night before, I had the great gift of being present at the bedside, singing, praying, and anointing with oil.

The family wanted to hold the service soon, but I also knew that on a holiday weekend, with a number of our regular volunteers out of commission for one reason or another, it would be a bit more of a stretch to cover everything. Not impossible, but a stretch. So when I got the official word, and confirmation of the service time, I set to work making phone calls.

Actually, I started to do that. I was about to tell the secretary that the member had passed, and the funeral would be in a few days, but my throat closed up, and the tears returned. I had shed many tears in the past month, and would continue to shed many more. Grief is like that. It sideswipes you with no prior warning. It opens up like a flash summer downpour on what had been a brilliantly sunny day.

In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of our ordination vows is to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” When I was ordained, my pastor father gave the charge to me, which boiled down to this: love the people you serve. Seven years later, I was installed into my current call, very appropriately on Valentine’s Day.

I deeply love the people I have been called to serve. When they rejoice, I rejoice with them. When they weep, my heart weeps with them. That’s part of being one body of Christ. But being a pastor to that body also means that when they are weeping, I am also providing pastoral support, comfort, and care. They are not called to comfort me in my grief, even though I am grieving, too. That’s just the way this calling works. 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

Earbuds

Hearing and Being Heard: A Pastoral Response to Orlando

Earbuds

Listen

The Orlando shootings are not about me. Let’s start with that. I’m white, heterosexual (attracted to people of the opposite gender), and cisgendered (my internal gender identity matches the physical traits I was born with).

My privilege has socialized me to think that the news is always about me – I believe I can make the first comments, know something about it before anyone else, and choose to disregard it as rubbish when it doesn’t fit my worldview. Even when I actually know and experience nothing about it, my place in society gives me the privilege to believe that I am allowed to be the first to know something about the things that happen in our incredibly diverse world. Especially, my privilege assures me to know that I will be heard.

I confess this: being heard has been more important in my life than hearing. I do not listen enough.

Today, the Monday after the shootings, I realize how much I need to listen. I am yearning for the stories written by people in the communities most affected. I am looking for articles written by Latinx (a gender-neutral word form of Latino/Latina) people, posts generated from people who identify within the LGBTQIA community, blogs composed by Muslims who remind us that their religion is indeed about love, not hate. We need to hear that hatred within Islam is a perversion of Islam.

In the same way, hatred is a perversion of Christianity. God is about love.  Read more

Why I Go to Church on Sunday, Especially When I Don’t Want To

sanctuary

Holy

“Every Sunday morning I wake up not wanting to go to church. By noon, I’ve come face-to-face with the holy and I’m humbled.” #realclergybios

I wrote that tweet back in January, but it nicely sums up my pastoral experience of the last 12 years. When my alarm goes off at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings, my first thought is always “already?!” followed closely by “who decided that church needed to be at 8:15?” and “I hate being a pastor!” Mornings have always been my least favorite time of day, and, as an introvert, having to cheerfully greet hundreds of people always fills me with dread. Read more

Dear Celebrity

writing-1209121_640Dear Celebrity,

The first time I met you was a very memorable occasion. I’d met celebrities of your stature before, but they’d all been a meet-and-greet sort of thing or strictly business—the kind of official interactions where it didn’t matter at all who I was. Honestly, I haven’t liked many of them. So when I saw you, at the end of a long day that had started twelve hours before, I wasn’t exactly giddy. You were there, at church, with your kids, having just moved into the neighborhood a few months before. You were looking for an Episcopal church with kids’ programs, because apparently not everyone in Hollywood is either atheist or crazy, right-wing, born-again Christian. I found that hopeful. You were also there on the most somber of holy days: Ash Wednesday, that day when we smear ashes on our foreheads with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. I thought, “Good Lord, what an introduction. Welcome to our church. Remember, you’re all going to die.”

I talked to your kids about Sunday School, about how long the class is and what they’d learn. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, that you had entered my world. I’ve entered into your world—worlds you’ve created—many times. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen you in. You’re really one of my favorites. And there I was, talking to you in real life, like you’re regular folk. I mean, of course you are a person like anyone else, but let’s be honest, in many ways you’re not. You and I live in the same neighborhood but not in the same world. Yet there you were, in this church, on my turf, interested in things that are my responsibility. All I could think was, “I really hope I don’t make an idiot of myself.” I’m pretty sure I did, even though I was trying very hard to act normally and not geek out. Most importantly, I was trying to make it about the kids, because that’s why you were there. You were not there as a famous actress. You were there as a mom, and I wanted so much to make sure that’s how I treated you. I’m sorry I let it slip that I was a huge fan of your hit show while your son was talking about being friends with your co-star. It was a natural segue, but I hope it wasn’t unprofessional.

None of that is why your first visit was memorable, though. Read more

Unexpected colleagues, unanticipated friends

P365x52-12: Control, Option, Command

P365x52-12: Control, Option, Command

Asking for secretarial assistance or office support seemed a little ridiculous in my first parish. We had 15 to 20 in worship most weeks. I am as computer savvy as you’d expect someone who’s been to grad school to be; I could produce a bulletin and manage our terrible equipment with a greater ease than it would take to train the type of candidate we could afford or attract. But some of the leadership wanted someone in the office at regular hours; they wanted someone to answer the phone. They wanted, I think, to be a church that could afford a secretary.

We went through several unsuccessful candidates. The job market was not what it is now, and no one wanted to work five to ten hours a week for ten bucks an hour. Then, the need for someone consistent became more pressing: I was going on maternity leave, and someone, for sure, needed to produce the bulletins.

The stint of that someone didn’t last long past my return. I burnt out on supervising people who weren’t particularly well-suited to the role, and on justifying the expense to the finance committee.

Then, we got some news. Debi, who worked in the nursery on Sundays and ran an in-home daycare during the week, had received a breast cancer diagnosis. As she underwent treatment, she could no longer be around the germy hordes she loved so dearly. Unable to work, she and her family were in financial trouble.

As a church, we made meals. We debated if we could make some sort of financial contribution. But this was a congregation that could barely afford my pastoral salary and the monthly payment on the boiler loan, so any money we gave would have been largely symbolic.

We needed somebody in the office, though, so we asked – would you be interested in this job instead?

Debi had never done office work before. She’d finished high school, taken a few classes toward a med-tech certificate, and knew how to use her personal AOL account. She was not the best speller; I edited everything we produced closely. I had to teach her how to cut and paste in Word. But she was game.

Debi, brought into the office by illness and financial devastation, nonetheless brought new life and new possibility to the church, and to me. We were a good option for her, too. So part-time, so low-stake that she could reschedule shifts around treatments and their fallout. I’ve worked with some highly competent church office admins in the years prior and since– but I loved working with Debi. I loved Debi.

She struck that ineffable pastoral balance with the congregation: she was warm and caring, but she didn’t put up with any of their crap, on the occasions when they felt inclined to dish it out. She pushed me gently when I forgot to get her information she needed in a timely fashion, but she was a wonderful – and powerful – ally.

I’ve wanted to write for years about what it meant to me to work with her, and now that I have this spot, and this deadline, I am struggling to find the words. We were neither likely friends nor likely colleagues, but that ultimately didn’t matter much. I was in my mid-twenties and working on hitting as many milestones of adulthood as possible in a short time. She was over fifty, had married late, had an eighth grader. We were both terrified she would die before her daughter reached adulthood. She shared updates on her treatment and prognosis; I learned about the HER2+ gene, which made her cancer more aggressive. We talked politics; she and I would be voting for Obama in 2008, because (well, I pretty much always vote one party) we lived in hope of healthcare reform, because her husband’s insurance was so lousy and kept refusing to pay for things.

I learned about how bankruptcy is sometimes your only viable option. I learned that some hospitals are subpar, even in nice enough areas.

Sharing her illness and treatment with me, allowing me into her life, helped me to become a much better pastor than I might otherwise have been. I had studied public policy – hell, I’ve studied health care policy – but her experiences, seeing these public crises through the lens of her life and the complexity her social location added to her ability to navigate those crises, both reminded me of my own powerlessness and showed me the possibilities for agency. Sometimes we sat with the reality of a denied treatment or a horrible, persistent, side effect; sometimes we researched other options.

Debi’s cancer was a critical part of how and why we came to really know each other, but it was not the only thing. My daughter was new in those days, and I was anxious about everything: balancing work and care for her; wanting to be attentive, but not overly-so. Debi was such a good mom – she and her thirteen year old had such a good relationship—and she had provided such wonderful care for so many other people’s kids that I trusted her advice. Pragmatic and gracious, she offered counsel without condescension.

I asked for a new appointment just before my daughter’s second birthday. I felt terrible, abandoning these people, but after three and a half years in a dying church, I was cooked. Debi affirmed my choice: you need to do the right thing for your family.

We were not as close after I left. The maintenance of proper boundaries dictated as much, plus we weren’t in the same office for hours each week. I learned Debi had died not quite two years later, somewhat unexpectedly, through Facebook: another complication of her cancer mishandled by that terrible hospital claimed her life. The new pastor invited me back for the funeral, and I was privileged to speak.

Since leaving that church, I’ve always worked on bigger staffs. I’ve supervised folks; I’ve drafted job descriptions and discussed evaluative processes. I’ve fired people. And I believe in the importance of best practices and the expectation of excellence in church work. But one of the [2,700] reasons I’m in ministry and not corporate life is because of the regularly realized opportunities we have to share our lives in unexpected ways with unexpected people. I love ministry because we get to have relationships that are rich and layered. Even when they lead to loss, to grief, to the increased awareness of injustices in our healthcare system: these are the relationships that make the life of the church so critically important.

Debi and I were never a crack team when it came to getting the newsletter out on time, but our work together was holy.

 

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.

As A Mother

The sweetest part of my day is the sound of little voices calling “Mother, mother.” I have never given birth, nor have I adopted children. But most mornings, as I open the door to my church, I am greeted by the tiny denizens of my church’s preschool, and their chipper little hellos. They call me Mother; that’s the title I prefer as a parish priest. They say it with such confidence that it makes me want to be a better pastor, one worthy of the title “Mother.”

As a woman who has not had children, I have limited (mostly second-hand) knowledge of the work of mothering children. I have worked at a nursery school, assisted with younger siblings, and have done a great deal of babysitting. But I have never walked the floor with a colicky baby. I have never had to play the tooth fairy for a child too excited to sleep. I have never had a teenager sit at my kitchen table, her head hung in shame as I question her about blatantly violating her curfew.

I have, however, listened to the weekly frustrations of a parishioner with big dreams for the church. I have helped plan big surprises for parishioners in need of real cheering. I have spoken with community members about respecting our church and its values. I have even had to let someone know he was not welcome to participate in non-worship activities as long as his disruptive behavior continued.

In Christ, I am becoming a spiritual mother. That has more to do with the way I am called to love my parishioners than the ways in which they are called to treat me. That is the fundamental truth of parenting—it is a one-way street. You love for the sake of loving, not because of the love you hope to get at the end. And in doing so, however imperfectly, you hope to draw people more fully into relationship with the God who loves them endlessly and perfectly.

Our primary work as pastors is love. Everything we do: teaching, preaching, administrating, caring–all of it is the work of love. We shepherd people toward a deeper relationship with God, to preach and teach in a way that instructs, strengthens, and transforms. We help people grow (and grow up) into the fullness of Christ. We stand with people when they are heartbroken, we cheer them on when they feel discouraged. We love folks whether or not they are loving or loveable. We are called to love them whether they are A+ Jesus followers or D- community disrupters, and (mostly) we are called to love people who are both. We are called to remember that love isn’t always hugs, affirmations, and encouragements. Sometimes loving someone means asking a person to step back from leadership, or to stop behaving in a disrespectful or hurtful manner. Sometimes love means saying “no” or “not now.”

During Holy Week when the computer breaks, I have a frustrated parishioner on the phone, and my sermon feels like a wash, I still can’t think of anything I want to do more (except sleep). Doesn’t that sound like motherhood? Pastoring is day after day of nurture and patience, in a life that is by turns hope-filled and exasperating. Priesthood is the everyday ordinariness of serving others. And yes, it is also joy. Yeah. I’ll admit it. I love the people of God. Even when things are completely off kilter, I get up most mornings and can hardly believe God called me to this wacky, amazing, and wondrous work. Loving the people I serve is giving me (I hope) a mother’s heart.