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Pastoring Faithfully in Divisive Times

The day after the 2016 presidential election, the seniors group at the church I serve was scheduled to gather. When I arrived, they told me that they’d agreed not to talk about the election. Emotions were too raw. So instead they shared stories about their grandchildren’s latest adventures or their day-to-day health challenges. Maybe that’s what they needed—a sense of normalcy and a sense that their friendships would continue whatever differences they had in political perspective.

But later one of them stopped in my office to cry and pray. She needed space to cry and pray, and the church was the place where she expected to find it.

The challenge of pastoring in a time of division and polarization like the one we are presently living through was clear that week. One man told me he comes to church because he wants a refuge from all the anger and pain out there. He doesn’t want to find the same conversations at church that he finds outside. But, while he didn’t articulate it this way, he also comes needing to hear a word about what Christian faith has to say in the midst of and in response to our broken world.

People need a place where relationships aren’t threatened by the sharp and polarizing divisions of the political climate, and people need a place to cry and pray in response to it. People need a refuge, and people need to hear a faith-based perspective. Both are true.

Holding these tensions is a key pastoral capacity. I realized quickly that we are not meant to hold tensions like these alone. So a group of clergy in my area began to gather to discuss the question of how we pastor faithfully and courageously in divisive times. I share pieces of wisdom that have arisen among us. For some pastors they might not be bold enough. But they have offered me a grounded place to begin as I have navigated my first four years of ministry.

1. Love them first. The month I was graduating seminary, I scheduled a meeting with the school’s president Craig Barnes to glean his wisdom about pastoring. “This could sound like a cliché, but I have found it to be true,” he told me. “You have to love them before you can lead them. Get to know them, wait to fall in love with them, don’t try to change them, and then they’ll listen.”

This theme came up again and again in conversations with my colleagues. One pastor shared about a man who initially had resisted her leadership. But when his wife got sick and she visited them in the hospital, something in him changed and he began proudly calling her his pastor. Another pastor shared how an unpopular local political leader’s parents thanked him for praying publicly for their son, not because the son deserved it, but because he was a child of God. It was a reminder to the whole body gathered that day of our common humanity and call to pray for each other, even people we consider enemies.

2. Discern when and how to preach on controversial topics. Someone in the group shared Nadia Bolz-Weber’s wisdom that she preaches on a topic when it is on the hearts of her people. We talked about how that means we aren’t always supposed to preach about every big news item that blows up our Facebook feeds, but we are to stay aware of the collective heart of the communities we lead. It also can mean, however, drawing attention to topics that may not be on the hearts of our people due to privilege or geography but that are important to the collective heart of humanity. Also we are in this work for the long haul, so we can choose to respond faithfully over time about issues like gun violence and racism rather than feeling like we need to say everything at once in response to a particular event.

From the group’s conversation, a three-fold approach for how to preach on charged topics emerged for me. First, tell stories, especially stories from people whose perspectives the congregation doesn’t otherwise hear. Stories facilitate connection and empathy. Our brains are wired for story, and story has more capacity to transform than instruction. Second, consider modelling how to think theologically rather than trying to tell people what to think. Finally, the gospel is good news. It is good albeit challenging news, especially for people with power. We encouraged each other to keep asking, “How is this good news?” as we prepared our sermons. Sometimes good news can feel like a “two-edged sword,” to use the image from Hebrews 4:12. But grace is the bottom line.

3. Encourage healthy conversation. The social media-driven culture doesn’t do conversation well. It doesn’t do dialogue well. For the church to offer a space where people can learn to engage in healthy disagreement is for the church to cultivate a grace-filled counterculture. To use family systems language, the church can model and teach people to self-differentiate—to take responsibility for their view and express it clearly without blaming or attacking—while also staying connected to others in the community who think and feel differently.

When I talk about a hard topic or one that I know some people take issue with, I do my best to communicate humility and willingness to be in conversation. This summer after I said something during worship about immigration that angered someone new to the congregation, she sent me a long, upset email. I invited her to coffee, but she didn’t respond. I was surprised when she showed up in worship the next week. As we shook hands at the end of the service, I thanked her for coming and told her I was glad we both were there even if we see things differently. She smiled and looked me in the eye, and I sensed the Spirit holding us in that moment.

4. Be gentle to yourself even as you push yourself to learn and grow as a pastoral leader. Holding tensions is hard but holy work. Leading and speaking in the midst of division is hard but holy work. One thing that has surprised me as my colleagues and I have gathered is the amount of time we’ve spent praying or talking about our prayer lives. Prayer is the root of our calling. So may we commit ourselves to learn and grow as well as to pray and rest as we keep at the hard, holy work to which God has called us.

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

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

Letting the Church Be the Church for their Pastor

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

From when the author and her congregation remembered their baptisms and belovedness.

One of my favorite images of a pastor is that of shepherd. As a shepherd, I take care of my flock, making sure they are fed in belly and spirit, trying to keep them on the path, and jumping in to offer care and support when they are sick or hurting. When they are facing a health crisis I often remind them that they are not alone: God is with them, yes, but so are the other members of our flock. Letting the church be the church can be difficult when you’re on the receiving end of the help and support, but caring for one another is one of the ways we live out our faith and discipleship. Sometimes it’s not a church member who needs the church the most – sometimes it’s the shepherd that needs the flock.

On Epiphany Sunday, my husband began to complain of back pain. We both chalked the back pain up to restless nights spent tossing and turning and coughing after he picked up a bug of some sort visiting family at Christmas. By Tuesday, he could barely walk, and on Wednesday he finally went to Urgent Care, where they guessed that he had a pinched nerve. The next morning he woke up with the left side of his face looking like he had a stroke. When he drank his coffee, it spilled back out. When he tried to stand, his knees buckled and he fell. This was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

After his mother arrived to watch our four-and-a-half-year-old twin girls, we went to the Emergency Room. Waiting in the hallway on a gurney for hours as they ran different tests, his legs became weaker to the point that he could no longer walk. The nurse practitioner kept a close eye on us, his eyes betraying his concern as test after test came back normal. As evening drew closer with still no answers, he called a neurologist who within minutes gave a diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).

GBS is a rare autoimmune disorder triggered by a virus in which the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking the myelin sheath of one’s peripheral nerves. It can progress incredibly quickly, and for some it’s a matter of hours before they are paralyzed and on a ventilator. My husband’s had progressed very slowly and they began treatment immediately. Once he was in a room I went into crisis mode: I messaged our family members to tell them what we knew; I asked one of my sisters to come up from Maryland to help watch our daughters while I was at the hospital; I called our District Superintendent; I alerted my Staff-Parish Relations chairs; I tried to explain to our daughters what was happening, kissed them goodnight, and went back to the hospital.

Everyone was quick to respond with offers of help. “Anything you need,” they said, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I needed. Read more

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

10 Things I Wish All Clergy Understood About Pregnancy Loss

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

Doctors estimate that one in four of all pregnancies ends in miscarriage.

In the years since my own experience of pregnancy loss, something amazing has happened. An entire world has opened up to me—a world filled with women and men and families who have gone through similar experiences. I’ve heard stories from strangers, friends, even family members.

And because I am a woman who has gone through this experience as well as a priest, I hear a lot from people about the ways the church has handled their loss. I have, of course, heard stories of (and been a part of) faith communities who have lovingly cared for families in their time of loss. And these are beautiful stories of compassion in times of sorrow.

Unfortunately, I have also heard heart-wrenching stories of ways the church has made this impossible experience even more painful.

Clergy have an important role in this because they will learn about the loss of pregnancies that no one else even knew existed. Clergy also have privileged positions in pulpits and behind microphones that can be used to form communities with greater compassion for the women and families suffering in their midst, often in silence.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. And so this month, even more than usual, these are the things I wish all clergy understood:

Not all pregnancy losses are alike.

My loss was very early. It was an entirely different experience from someone who loses a pregnancy several months in, and yet it came with its own challenges and confusion that were unique to my circumstances. It’s important to let the person tell you what happened and what that meant to them. So few people want to hear all the details, but as clergy you can create space for those going through loss to tell the whole story and what it was like for them to experience it.

This may not be a one-time event.

Families struggling with infertility may experience recurrent losses as they try to conceive. This requires enormous physical, emotional, and spiritual strength. Be willing to support them for the long haul.

Don’t assume you know how they are feeling.

There’s a wide range of emotions that can be stirred by the loss of a pregnancy, and can vary depending on the feelings about the pregnancy itself. Grief over the loss. Relief over the loss of an unwanted pregnancy. Guilt about feeling relieved. Feelings of guilt for having caused it somehow. Fear that this means it will never be possible to have a baby. Despair. Ask open questions. Be ready for anything. Read more

prayers written in a spiral on paper

Until You Know That I Know-And You Are Okay with That: Pastoral Confidence-Keeping

prayers written in a spiral on paper

All the confidences we keep, written with walnut ink.

Clergy do not all live by the same ethical standards—or even embrace them—but here is one we all aspire to keep, with some variance: unless I know that you know that I know that thing about you, and you’re okay with my knowing, I do not know it. I’m not going to bring it up with you. You do not have to talk about it with me, but you can if you want to.

Or, if I know something that few people know, you’re not going to hear about it from me.

And (this is the other side of the coin): at any given time, I might know more than you think I know.

I can offer an example, one of many curated from a group of clergy friends so as not to come from my context:

While serving lunch at the church’s soup-kitchen ministry, a congregant mentions to me that his great-niece, who is also a member of the community, has been diagnosed with endometriosis, or diabetes, or skin cancer. He indicates that this is not public knowledge (or he doesn’t—the next steps of the minister are really the same either way).

Now, I know something. I have been entrusted with a confidence of two different kinds. For one, the congregant has shared something that is important to him. The act of sharing with another person, particularly a pastor, offers that person a safe place to talk about it and a way to sort through something that indirectly affects him. The act of telling someone what you know is cathartic.

The second and most important layer of confidence, or confiding, is that I know something about the great-niece that she did not tell me herself, something very personal with long-term effects and possible heart-aches, that she may at some time want to sort through or may want to forever keep private. Now, when I offer a pastoral or priestly presence to that great-niece, I can be sensitive, but it is absolutely not cool for me to bring it up or let on that I know about her struggle with diabetes or skin cancer or endometriosis. I know more than I will or can let on.

This keeping of confidence is both a high-stakes issue for some congregants and a highly difficult task for the pastor. It is high-stakes because breaking either of those confidences can be tantamount to betrayal of trust by a minister, and by proxy, the church. Or they could not care at all. And one can seldom predict the difference with confidence. This is especially true in situations where reproductive issues, gender, or sexuality issues come into play. Mark my words, if the confidence has to do with the reproductive system, it is a high-stakes issue, a sacred confidence to keep, and not my story to tell. There is a high level of difficulty in this kind of pastoral confidence-keeping because often the information comes to me in a laundry basket of other information: “Sarah is out of the hospital, Josi is starting kindergarten in the fall, and my great-niece has endometriosis.”  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

Sarah Ross, the author, and her grandmother, laughing as they take a selfie

Pastoral Care for the Pastor

Sarah Ross, the author, and her grandmother, laughing as they take a selfie

The author, teaching her grandma about selfies

A few weeks ago, one of my church members, Dee, approached me after worship. Dee is one of our adults with special needs, and she is kind-hearted but often quite blunt. “Pastor Sarah, someone said your grandpa died,” she said. “But that’s not right. It was your grandma, right?”

I sighed. “Well, actually it was both,” I told her. This summer, my paternal grandmother and my maternal grandfather passed away just two months apart.

“Whoa.” She paused, looking stricken. “That’s really bad.”

It was indeed.

All spring, my congregation had been stressing out about hosting the May presbytery meeting. They’d touched up the paint, picked out centerpieces, prepared an elaborate menu, and arranged worship for the regional pastors and elder commissioners who would be coming to our building for a meeting. It was one of those long-awaited, much-discussed, all-hands-on-deck kind of church events.

So I was a bit caught up in all the nervous preparation and had just gone home for lunch when my mother called to tell me that my grandmother had not woken up that morning. She had died sometime during the night, unexpectedly. Read more

Black silhouettes of a female and a male arguing on a grayscale background

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Haters Gonna Hate Edition

Black silhouettes of a female and a male arguing on a grayscale backgroundDear Askie,

I recently found myself in a tricky situation, and thought you might have helpful perspective on it. A while ago, I got together with some old high school friends and their significant others. One old friend has become a young clergywoman, which I think is great, although I identify as atheist. Yay for religious people being non-oppressive and feminist and stuff! However, the other friend’s spouse made repeated negative comments about religion and religious people. The person making the comments had experienced a lot of trauma at the hands of people who claimed to have been acting in the name of God (both spouses are LGBTQ). My clergy friend was very gracious, but the exchange still made me very uncomfortable. I tried to change the subject a few times, but I’ve been wondering if there was any other useful way I could have helped diffuse that situation or made my YCW friend feel more supported. I try to be an ally to religious folks, just like I try to be an ally to the LGBTQ community, but as a young professional in a left-leaning city, I hear anti-religious sentiments much more often than I hear homophobic ones, and I don’t always know what to say. What advice do you have about how I could have supported my friend? What I can say when people talk smack about religion?

Thanks,
Your Friendly Atheist Ally

Read more

Good Christian Sex cover

Good (Progressive) Christian Sex (Resources): A review of Good Christian Sex

Good Christian Sex cover

Good Christian Sex

I have an entire shelf of books about sex in my office at church: historical critical analyses of sexuality in ancient Israel and first century Rome, dense volumes of theology and ethics, some psychology, and a distressing number of books about clerical abuse and safe spaces in church. One of my seminary professors instilled in me the practice of “the ministry of the well-placed book,” (thank you, Dr. Dykstra!) and I keep this shelf front and center in my office, hoping the message will be literally seen and figuratively heard: I am not afraid to talk about all aspects of being human, including (but not limited to) sexuality. It’s a bummer that we in the church have such a garbage history of dealing with sexuality that I have to think of creative ways to make this point well with my parishioners.

I’ve consulted this shelf many times over the years as I offer pastoral care, but I’ve never had a book I feel like I can just pull off the shelf and hand to church members to read on their own. The wisdom I’ve found is spread between them, never in one place. Far too many of these books are tomes of theological jargon written for seminary educated “experts.”

But the minute I’m done writing this review, Bromleigh McCleneghan’s book Good Christian Sex (http://www.bromleighm.com/book/) will be sliding into its well-earned place on my sex book shelf. This short read is theologically thoughtful, ethically coherent, narratively interesting, and accessible to an audience who has never set foot in a Systematic Theology 101 classroom. I can’t wait to hand it to members of my church. Read more

Pastoring After Orlando

3704240804_76133ef97b_bIn the wake of the shootings in Orlando, you are not alone if, as a clergyperson, you find yourself asking, “What’s a real thing I can do in response to this?”

Members of The Young Clergy Women Project shared some of their ideas over the last few days. Here are some ideas from young clergy women in a variety of denominations and contexts:

Pastoral Care

  • “Call your members who are LGBTQ. They’re scared, they’re hurting, they’re angry, and they may need pastoral care. Tell them you love them and remind them that God loves them.”
  • “Especially if you are white, hetero, cisgendered: Call the people you know who are gay, Latino, LBBTQI, Muslim. Say you are here for them. Ask how this affects them. Respect if they don’t answer. But if they do, be quiet and listen. Just listen. Don’t share your own reaction or what you think that person should be feeling or doing. Just listen and honor the story.”
  • “Don’t forget the family members of LGBTQIA people. And family members of Muslims. Listen attentively. Validate and normalize the complexity of feelings. Love them, network for them, build them up.”
  • “Apologize for how hurtful the Church has been to the LGBTQ community. Acknowledge that we are still going to mess it up. Commit to try your hardest to personally work for change and ensure the safety of LGBTQ people. Proclaim that while the Church fails, God never fails in God’s love for them.”

Worship

  • “You could offer a requiem Eucharist to celebrate the lives of the beloved children of God who were murdered. The role of the Church is to give our air time to the people who were killed, to comforting those who mourn, and to create ways we can end senseless violence.”
  • “Consider preaching about this, even if it’s hard. It’s good to post prayers on social media, but this may have to be addressed from the pulpit. Consider saying each name during your sermon.”

Public Witness

  • “Fly a rainbow flag at half mast on your church’s flagpole.”
  • “It’s Pride month. If you aren’t involved, it’s not too late to help out, be present and watchful (not creepy though) during Pride events in your community.”
  • “Open your mouth when you hear hate and stop it. Be uncomfortable and be disliked. It’s worth it.”
  • “If you see a Muslim family being harassed, intervene if you can. If you can’t, then console the family after their attackers are gone. Help to make the world safe for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters because their community was attacked and an attack on the Muslim community happened as well.”
  • One young clergywoman shares these plans as an example of ways to build community and solidarity: “We are holding an interfaith lunch in a cafe owned by a same sex couple (which is a noted safe space for LGBTQ persons) as an act of solidarity and fellowship. One of our Muslim interfaith council members will be reading a statement of peace and reconciliation. We hope this leads to further partnerships.”
  • Another young clergywoman writes, “I went to a local mosque today to ask how we could help. The imam asked if we could host an iftar dinner between his community and the LGBTQ community at our church because his mosque didn’t have a large enough space. I know God’s house is big enough.”

Other Thoughts

  • “Talk to your kids about this. A pediatrician I know posted this article.
  • “Even if your denomination or church is not in full support of LGBTQ rights, talk to your congregation about the consequences of the language that we use, what it looks like to show love and support even when we disagree, and what it means to work for the preservation of life in all places.”
  • “Avoid the sentiment, ‘I believe homosexuality is a sin but…’ This is neither the time nor place for that conversation.”
  • “Explicitly acknowledge that this hate was directed at the LGBTQ community. Some of the language out there right now is contorting itself to avoid saying the obvious truth, and that is one more denial.”
  • “If your church has caused harm to queer people, it’s time for repentance. Please don’t participate in ‘praying for Orlando’ without acknowledging that you’ve actively caused harm. If you are interested in Holy Spirit change, that is great! But don’t use the LGBTQ community in prayer when it seems convenient. There is a big difference between churches that represent a wide variety of theologies, but do their best to minister to all, and churches actively doing harm to the LGBTQ community. If your church is the former, by all means, pray. Pray loudly. Lift this up. Let it fuel your work toward a wider lens of inclusion. Acknowledge this as a hate crime and its intersectional nature. But if yours is a church where queer folks would not really be welcome, one which hosts ex-gay ministries etc., then you need to think hard about what an appropriate public voice is.”