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Monday in Beverly Hills

Blessing of the worms for All Saints’ compost bin

Blessing of the worms for All Saints’ compost bin

I had just arrived a block west of Rodeo Drive to the church I would serve in Beverly Hills. The rector told me not to bring my lunch, that it would be the church’s treat on my first day. I decided that morning that the lunch venue would offer me some clues about how to navigate my future ministry and the people I would serve. Where would we be eating lunch?

When I was a seminarian, part of the thrill of preparing for serving a church community for me was the thought of integrating into the community I served. My bishop told our ordination class, “Be prepared to go anywhere and serve anyone.”

Being a young woman from Central Indiana, ministering to people in just about any place other than the Crossroads of America felt like a great frontier. I read the experience of author Kathleen Norris, a Washington, D.C., native, who discovered a vocation to serve God and God’s people in the quiet monotony of the Great Plains. As she writes in her spiritual autobiography Dakota, “The fact that one people’s frontier is usually another’s homeland has been mostly overlooked.”

I had arrived at my very different frontier: amid selfie-taking tourists, harried traffic, and busy storefronts.

On my first office day at All Saints’, I met the people who called this place their spiritual homeland. And as the noon hour drew closer, it was time for lunch. Read more

Just Ask A Hillbilly

It’s nothing special. Just an old photograph—the focus is a little fuzzy and it’s certainly not the best angle. There are eleven of us gathered around a Sunday school table, and if I had to guess, the oldest is no more than five. I am the youngest. It might seem like nothing, really, but for me, it is a portal into another time—1988, another life ago when I was a little girl in a small town in the mountains.

I don’t live there anymore, but when I visit my parents, I still run into the oldest two children in that photo. Out of the five children that I still recognize in the photo, three are married. Two of them have kids. When I see her, the mother of the one who doesn’t is happy to complain about the fact she has grand-dogs instead of grandchildren. My own father loves telling stories about the kids of one of the others.

And then there’s the fourth child in that old photograph. She died in a car wreck after our freshman year of college. The roads of eastern Kentucky are unforgiving, so it took a long time to find her car. She had left her boyfriend’s house in anger, and, in these hills, running off the road meant that her car ended up down, down, down—all the way down to where the creek runs. The road she was riding on bears the same name as the creek where her car was found: Crane Creek. It’s the same road the school bus travelled as it wound its way between our homes and the little school I attended as a child.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about my early years in eastern Kentucky lately. I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir, set in Breathitt County, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, not far from Greenup County where I grew up. I know the world he writes of, which is why I also know that the beauty of that world has been nearly erased from his story.

I think of this as I look at that old photograph. The death of the young woman from that photo was my first encounter with the death of someone my own age. And it has never fully left me. Read more

When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. Read more

Beyond Disney Royalty: A review of Queen of Katwe

The slums of Katwe, Uganda, are an unlikely place to find a Disney Princess. They’re an equally surprising setting for a movie about a chess prodigy. Yet, this is home to Phiona Mutesi. And her story—the remarkable journey of a young girl who struggles to survive on the streets with her family and finds chess as a path to a brighter future—creates the brilliant tension and inspiration that is Disney’s recent movie Queen of Katwe. This film follows Phiona as she overcomes impossible odds; its focus on tapping the unrealized potential in all people is a gift to viewers who experience Phiona’s story through the lens of the camera.

One of the strengths of the film lies in its ironic juxtapositions: the dusty, chaotic streets of Katwe, lined by the ramshackle shelters that are home to the poorest of the poor, are set as a backdrop for the strategy and precision often associated with the game of chess. Nakku Harriet (Phiona’s single mother played by Lupita Nyong’o) desperately tries–in a culture in which women have few rights and even fewer opportunities–to provide for Phiona and her siblings. Phiona, her sister, and brothers cannot afford to go to school. They spend each day selling corn, hoping they will have enough to eat and pay rent at the end of the day. The story begins to shift when one afternoon, Phiona finds herself outside a church mission that offers sports for children in the city. Seeing that Phiona is hungry, Coach Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo) invites her inside for porridge. But porridge is not the only remedy for Phiona’s hunger. Inside the mission, Phiona discovers chess.

Katende quickly notices Phiona’s intelligence and innate skill for the game. Once Phiona has won chess matches with all the girls at the mission, she goes on to challenge (and win against) the boys as well. When Katende enrolls the children of Katwe in a chess tournament, Phiona takes the title. Her quick mastery of the game leads her to more tournaments at the local and international level, including the global tournament held in Russia. Plenty of setbacks and moments of conflict arise throughout the film, particularly regarding the clash of Phiona’s own culture with the privilege her success at chess affords. In light of this conflict, Phiona grapples with making difficult decisions. So, too, the viewer must sit with a story that illustrates the paradox that life is neither a magical fairy tale nor a hopeless case. Read more

All of the Fun, None of the Work?

“All of the fun, none of the work.”

It’s the phrase I frequently hear from clergy when I tell them that I’m an Associate Rector. It’s the “truth-in-jest” description of associate clergy. You don’t have the highest level of responsibility and the buck doesn’t stop with you, so you don’t have to deal with the majority of the “work” or “business” of the church: personnel, conflict, roof repairs, fund raising, etc. I used to make this joke myself and laugh along with it, as if to say, “I know how good I have it – my job is the easy one!” I played along with the jab that being an associate pastor is like riding a bike with training wheels, a learning position where one prepares oneself to be able to handle the real responsibility of the “grown-up world” of ministry.

But you know what? This joke represents a highly problematic and diseased vision of church leadership, and I both resent and reject it. The claim that being an associate is “all of the fun, none of the work,” implies that a senior clergyperson does all of the work (and, perhaps, has none of the fun). It is “work” that one is supposed to aspire to do as one grows into positions of greater responsibility and scope  – and this “work” is generally non-pastoral. That is to say, it has little to do with the spiritual formation, nurture, and empowerment of the flock of Christians in one’s care. It’s all the stuff you “didn’t learn in seminary”- hiring and firing personnel, budgetary decisions, fund raising, reviewing proposals for roof repairs, approving the layout of the annual giving brochure. In contrast, associate clergy tend to have responsibilities that lean toward pastoral care, worship, outreach, advocacy, and Christian education – in other words, areas clergy are trained for in seminary. The unfortunate and unspoken belief this reveals begs a disturbing question: Does that mean that, deep down, churches (and the clergy who lead them) don’t view pastoral work as real work?

Many would immediately argue that “all of the fun, none of the work” simply means that associate clergy don’t bear the burden of the responsibility that falls on senior clergy, and this is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the senior/associate clergy relationship. Indeed, many associate clergy would report that the majority of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and preaching falls on the senior clergy. Yet most associate clergy would probably also report being responsible for many areas that senior clergy don’t touch at all: youth ministry, Christian education, family ministry, outreach and advocacy.

This brings to light two major problems:

1)  Education, youth, advocacy, outreach, and pastoral care are often treated as too unimportant for the senior clergyperson to handle. Whenever “all of the fun, none of the work” means ministry to youth, families, the sick and homebound, the bereft, and those on the margins, it speaks volumes about how little the church values those people.

2) It falsely links specific skill sets with levels of importance in church leadership and administration. Overseeing Sunday School and Christian Education? The associate clergy, or a layperson with some sort of seminary or religious training, can do that. Clerical matters, like sacramental and pastoral ministry (weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits, etc.)? Associates can do some of that. But when it comes to the real heavy lifting? Balancing budgets, hiring personnel, and running the business – well, that’s for the grown-ups. That’s for the senior clergy. Read more

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Praying with Our Farmers

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Like many good ministry ideas, this one came about by accident.

I interned at two small, rural churches during my second year in seminary. At one of the churches – on my first Sunday there – the pastor invited me to the front of the sanctuary to introduce myself. He asked me to share two fun or interesting facts about myself. When put on the spot like this, I always seem to draw a blank and end up saying something weird. This time, I shared the fact that that when I was a kid my favorite toys were tractor figurines. What I said was absolutely true, but it probably would not have been all that interesting to the vast majority of people.

Only, I wasn’t talking to the majority of people: I was talking to farmers. It was probably the best thing I could have said to ingratiate myself with the people of this church. I was a local girl from another rural county about a half-hour away. I loved tractors, and I happened to be dating a dairy farmer (who is now my husband). They loved me. My internship went well, and I didn’t think about my embarrassing introduction again until about a year later.

Someone from that church called me up and asked if I’d be willing to lead worship early on a Sunday morning at an antique tractor show they were organizing, since they knew I really loved tractors. I immediately jumped at the opportunity because it seemed so unique. It wasn’t until I started planning that I realized I had potentially bitten off more than I could chew. What would the setting be like? How long should this service be? Would there be a microphone? What should I do about music? What exactly does one preach about at a tractor show? This final question was what I spent the most time worrying about. I wanted to say something relevant, but I was afraid that if I went with a Scripture passage with too much agricultural imagery I would either look like I was trying too hard, or I would show how much I don’t understand about agriculture when I tried to preach on it. Read more

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Communion in the City

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Sign in a New York deli

There’s a story, a myth perhaps, about a congregation that stopped all activities during Lent. That season they gathered for Sunday worship, and then the pastor and elders visited the homes of everyone in the congregation to serve communion. They held no meetings and no rehearsals – only worship on Sundays and in homes.

Anytime I complained to a former colleague about how busy my church was she would tell me this story. The idea is wonderful, but one that would take tremendous planning and congregational buy-in. Neither I nor the congregation I now serve was ready for this kind of endeavor, but the story got me thinking about communion and Lent in new ways.

During Lent in 2014, I invited the congregation I serve to join me for “Communion in the City.” Each Wednesday evening we gathered in a public space for fellowship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. During the five weeks that we met, we broke bread at two different Panera Bread restaurants, the mall food court, a McDonald’s, and a downtown outdoor space. Read more

gravestones in a cemetery

Can You Ask Them If They’re Okay With a Woman?

gravestones in a cemetery

“Can you ask them if they’re okay with a woman?”

It was late morning on the Friday after Christmas.  It was one of what feels like only a small handful of days each year when I didn’t have anything really pressing on my to-do list, so I came into the church that morning determined to clean my office.  My time that day felt like a gift – it wasn’t claimed already by someone else, and so I pulled up some music and set about making my space feel, once again, like my own, which almost never takes priority for me.  It had occurred to me, as I walked in, that these are the kinds of days when disasters usually strike, but I dismissed that thought as quickly as it had arrived.

So when the call came in from the city office, it took me a minute to wrap my mind around what the woman on the other end was asking.  Someone needed a pastor, and they needed a funeral in less than two hours.  Wait, what?  Who buries the dead that quickly?  Or if it wasn’t so quick, why hadn’t they called yesterday, or the day before?  Oh, I see, their priest is suddenly unavailable, okay.  And they don’t speak much English.  And you say they’re African immigrants?  They attend the Orthodox Church.  Okay.  It’s for a 6-week-old baby?  Good God.  And just the burial.  Right, just some prayers.  Christian prayers.  They just need a Christian minister; any Christian minister.  Got it.  Okay.

I’m a Christian minister.  A Lutheran one, to be precise.  My church is the first one the city employee had called, and of course I said I was available.  To bury a baby on a moment’s notice for a grieving family on the worst day of their lives?  Can there be more holy work than this?

After I had taken down the few bits and pieces of information the city employee had about the family, I was about to hang up, when I remembered one last thing:

“Can you call the family back first?” I asked the city employee.  “Can you ask them if they’re okay with a woman?”

She scoffed.  I appreciated the guttural expression of support, and I knew what she meant – that this family was desperate for someone to meet this need, and I was both trained and willing to meet it – but still.  “It’s the worst day of their lives,” I said.  “I don’t know anything about their culture, and not enough about their religious beliefs.  Can you just call and make sure?”

She agreed.

She called back within three minutes, her voice sheepish and apologetic.  “You were right to ask,” she said.  “They said that they would much prefer a man.”

Read more

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

Life at The Table

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

In Seminary, a professor had a “Dead Church Swear Jar.” If we said local congregations, denominations, or the Church universal was dying or dead, we had to put money in the jar. The point was that God is still alive and moving – and that will never change.

Yes, God is still alive and moving. Our rapidly-growing community was recently named one of the top 10 hottest neighborhoods in the nation. Everyone wants to live here, visit here, eat here, and enjoy the fun urban vibe we have. But very few people want to worship here. My own congregation – the largest protestant church in the neighborhood – is stuck at 50 people who are dying at a rate of 15% per year.

Statistically, in 5 years, the congregation will cease to exist. It is hard to think of the neighborhood churches – who aren’t engaged in mission and ministry and simply try to take in enough money to keep the lights on – as anything but “dead.”

But I’m an eternal optimist, and I refuse to go down without a fight. I began dreaming of ways to grow my congregation. I tried the relational model. I tried flyers, social media, websites, videos, free ice cream. You name it, I tried it. But I had minimal success. Visitor after visitor would approach me after worshipping with us for a week or a month and tell me, “I love you and your sermons, but these people! I just can’t do it.” They looked around the congregation and didn’t see anyone who looked like them. They saw that one third of the congregation is in their 90s. It didn’t matter that 15 kids were running around. They only saw a 1940’s church and couldn’t see themselves as part of that.

Our neighborhood, Hampden, is rapidly gentrifying. Thousands of homes are being built within one mile of the church. The older, blue collar mill workers stayed in the neighborhood after the mills closed, after the shops were boarded up and the houses were falling down. About ten years ago, a resurgence began. The artists came. The restaurants came. The shops came. And with these things came the college-educated – most with doctorate degrees and six-figure salaries – displacing the long-time residents who never graduated high school and barely survive on social security.

It’s a tale of two neighborhoods. To change Sunday morning worship to reflect the changing community would only remove the last thing the “Old Hampden” people could hold onto as being theirs. Yet, there is no future in this style of worship and approach to ministry. We needed something new. Read more

The author and her neighbor, Penny

Spiritual Friendship

The author and her neighbor, Penny

The author and her neighbor, Penny

Tucked among the many things my seminary education neglected to mention was the truth that ministry is, more often than not, a ministry of presence in a particular place. When we are called to serve a congregation, more often than not, we must choose to leave behind a community and a neighborhood in order to make a home in a new place. This mobile lifestyle poses a quandary: when all of our neighbors are church members (or potential members), how do we develop authentic friendships? How do young clergy women make the distinction between who is a friend and who isn’t? Does that distinction matter?

In the small church ministry to which I have been called, this question is alive and real. I serve a small church in the middle of a quaint borough in the heart of a once-rural county oozing with character and history. There are only a thousand people who live here with me, and because we are the only church in our borough, there are many folks who see my role as the de-facto pastor of everyone, not just the folks who warm the pews. Because of this expectation, when people I barely know see me on the street, they call me pastor, vicar, or chaplain.  What they don’t call me is neighbor.

When everyone is my parishioner, and nobody is simply my neighbor, ministry can get lonely. I begin to feel that the ministry of presence in a particular place is a vocation to live a guarded life, one marked by sidelong glances–and checked, rechecked, and hedged conversation–because who know who might be listening?

Because of the complicated nature of this role as pastor of the borough, that I thank God daily for my neighbor Penny. Read more