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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

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

Better Together

But as I moved through school and into my first call, and he settled in first one parish and then another,
we began to see how our gifts for ministry could work together – how we could complement each other instead of compete. Our own personal styles developed and emerged, and perhaps most importantly we began to add a new dimension to our relationship: we began to respect one another as a pastor.

We didn’t start out working together, and the situation that led to us doing so was not typical (if there
is such a thing in ministry). This congregation we serve is my first call. I’ve been here three years. He started this past January. I handle areas of finance and outreach; he oversees education and worship. We share the preaching schedule equitably but unpredictably. We still take vacations together. Sometimes we talk about a meeting or something that happened when we’re at home. Sometimes we talk about what we’ll have for dinner when we’re in the office. We’re co-pastors in title, call, salary and (hopefully) most people’s minds.

This collegial and cooperative ministry, in the ten or so months that we’ve been doing it, works well for us. I have come to value the way that we are able to develop ideas, naturally relying on one another’s gifts (not every day, of course). But it also has its drawbacks. We’ve always shared ideas and processed things with one another about our respective congregations – but now there’s just one congregation between us. Talking about an idea during a commercial break now feels much more like work. While I like being able to say to someone, “That’s not my area of responsibility,” it doesn’t take the stress or the responsibility out of the family. Read more