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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.

Not From Around Here

“Hang on,” my friend Alissa said to me during a conversation over coffee on her couch. “I need to go take out the Herby Curby.”

I looked at her blankly.

“Did you just say… the Herby Curby?”

She looked at me blankly.

“Yeeesss…”

Then her eyes opened wide as she suddenly realized she needed to explain herself.

“Oh, right. That’s what we call trash cans – you know, those big ones that you take out to the curb? The Herby Curby?”

 

I had lived in Western Kentucky for a few months at that point, and this was the first – but not last – time I’d hear this. Come to find out, when that community first got curbside trash service, the waste disposal company had a commercial on local TV to explain to its new customers how to use the service, complete with a cartoon trash can named — you guessed it — Herby Curby.

While that continues to be one of my favorite stories from my move to Kentucky, after living — and serving — all over the country, I’ve realized that there are much more meaningful lessons that we have to learn from the different regions we’re in.

Michigan will always be home for me, but my spouse is an Army chaplain; thanks to the military I’ve lived in nine states in adulthood and have served churches in Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and currently Texas. And what I’ve realized is that the differences in these regions runs far deeper than how much snow they get and what they call that stuff that comes in cans and bottles (which I will call “pop” until my last breath!).

Don’t get me wrong – I miss having roots. I miss having high school friends up the road, I miss my kids living near their cousins and grandparents. But there is something so valuable that comes from planting ourselves in communities and cultures that are not our own – even within the same country.

We clergy have a lot to learn from the churches we serve, particularly when they are outside our cultural comfort zone. That church in Kentucky not only taught me another way to refer to trash cans; they also taught me about being connected to the earth. They taught me about deep family connections, about being proud of your hometown unlike anywhere else I’ve been. They taught me about living out faith in friendships that last a lifetime.

It is a sacred call to be able to experience a culture different from one’s own, not just cohabiting the same space but breaking through the differences into the fabric of a collective identity. As my path and each church’s path intersect, all of our past experiences make us who we are. I showed up to Texas a different person than I showed up to Kentucky, because Kentucky was in my blood. I showed up to Kentucky a different person than I showed up to South Carolina, because South Carolina was in my bones. We breathe in the history and culture of one place, and breathe out who we are becoming.

As I reflect on what I’ve learned, these are some of the ways I’ve come to approach new communities:

Approach regional differences from a posture of listening. It takes some cultural humility, to listen and learn about what’s important in a community. I currently serve in San Antonio, and the community here has a deep and rich connection to honoring the past. Tell them about your home, yes… but really listen to them share about theirs. Listen to their stories not just of their family history, but the community history. If people are still giving directions referring to a corner store that hasn’t been there in 30 years, ask about why that store was so important… then hear their answers.

Do your own research! Yes, listen to the stories told over potluck casseroles and sweet tea… and also do some reading on your own about the historical roots of that area. Visit the city or county museum. Subscribe immediately to the hometown paper, listening to “the story beneath the words” of how they tend to think, feel, and act. Are there books written about the area, or published authors from there? Acquaint yourself with those works!

Integrate and appreciate, but don’t appropriate. While every place I’ve lived becomes a part of who I am, and it’s important to not talk like “an outsider,” it’s also important to honor that you are not from there… especially when matters of deep identity and pride arise. This is even more important if you are serving a population that has been historically marginalized and you don’t share that identity.

Have fun with it! While not every region has Herby Curbies, every place does have its own quirks, and it can be a lot of fun to laugh and learn about them!

Moving to a new area always carries uncertainty — but when we’re open to learning from them, we become better people and better ministers.

Now please excuse me, I have to go take care of my Herby Curby…

 

 

 

What I Learned in My First Year in Ministry

Standing in my living room surrounded by church members, I put my hand on a small group leader’s shoulder and anointed her with oil. I watched as tears welled up in her eyes. It was a moment I’ve thought about as I’ve reflected on my first year of ministry, one of the many meaningful experiences I’ve had. I am glad I have memories like these to think back on. Ministry is not easy. I have found ministry to be a mixed bag of frustration punctuated by moments of grace and growth. As I look back on the first year, I’ve learned many lessons, some easier than others. Below you’ll find six of the most important.

Sexism in the church is real. Practice creative problem solving.
There have been several times during my short time in ministry where I have come into contact with subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexism. People have a tendency to comment on my weight, my hair, my clothes, and my way of doing things consistently. People treat me differently than they treat my husband, who is also a pastor. There are fewer women in the denominational structure who share my gender and invest in me. While this is frustrating, I realized that there are female leaders who have learned to navigate the system well. These women have turned their frustration into creative problem solving and the best ones have done it with a sense of humor. In my own way, I am learning how to recognize injustice and use my resources to circumvent roadblocks that keep me from being an effective minister. Some of the best leaders I know have developed much of their leadership arsenal while navigating spaces of great adversity.  Knowing this has helped me to cultivate gratitude in the midst of frustration.

Instead of trying to be successful, get to know the people.
I spent the first few months of my ministry trying to figure out what the “rules” of ministry were because I wanted to be a successful pastor. As a former high school teacher, I knew there had to be rules somewhere! What I found in the church instead of rules were complicated networks of people. It took some time for me to feel out the culture of my church, the people I’d be working with, and the neighborhood. In the process, I learned that ministry is more relational than rule-oriented. Once I learned this, the image I had of a successful pastor got a little bigger and there was more space for me to bring my whole self to the job. I also felt freer to be creative and use my skills to reach goals in my own way.

Lead out of who you are.
I have learned that I can only lead out of who I am. I have a gender, an age, a racial identity. All of these things have shaped my life experiences and made me into the person that I am. In my first year of ministry, it has been important to share who I am without trying to copy another person’s leadership style, even the women leaders I look up to. I have used my own story in sermons and small groups. For example, this year I shared a story about becoming aware of my own racism because it was an important part of my Christian walk. This led to a spirited discussion of race and its importance in our lives at a women’s retreat as other people uncovered their own hidden biases. Movement through my own codependency has led me to recognize and deal with the codependency in my congregants and has helped to improve the health of our church programs. In many ways my wounds are gifts to those around me. Sharing my experiences has created a space for people to share about their lives and struggles. I think this has been one of the most valuable aspects of my first year of ministry.

It’s important to be theologically aligned with your co-workers.
No one is going to agree with you 100%. People have not been formed by the same relationships, bible studies, and seminary that has formed me. My own Christian walk is unique. Through our hermeneutic and life experiences, each of us live out our faith differently. And while it is good and healthy to expect theological differences among co-workers, it is equally important to share an understanding of the work of Jesus and the church in the world with your co-workers, especially if you will be working under another pastor’s vision. For example, if you feel that your faith compels you to social action, and the people you work with or your congregation don’t see the value in your approach, it is a recipe for frustration. Get to know the church you would like to work for and the people you would like to work with and make sure that it is a mutual fit so that your ministry is life-giving to both you and your congregation.

Cultivating a non-anxious presence comes through processing your own anxieties.
As pastors, we are called to be with people in the sacred moments of their lives; in birth, sickness, change, and death. It is immensely helpful to be a non-anxious presence in the stressful moments of other’s lives. I have learned that I can only do this by processing my own anxiety. This year, I had a chance to do this as I sat across from two congregants to discuss changing a long-running church program. I could feel my desire to please them bubbling up inside me. This was at odds with my desire to bring attention to the parts of the program I felt were unhealthy. It was an uncomfortable place to be, but by allowing space for my feelings, I had the chance to see what happened when I listened to my anxiety rather than reacted to it. I learned that it’s okay to be in tight spots, and that sometimes being in them allows me to deal with my own unresolved issues. This in turn helps me to be more present to the people in front of me.

Be patient.
In my first year in ministry I have learned nothing more thoroughly than this lesson. Recently I memorized the Message version of 2 Corinthians 5:8, “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.” In ministry, many days go by where it seems nothing is happening, no one is changing or growing, least of all myself. But through patience, I began to recognize the small changes in myself and others: the ways pastors extended trust to me or how a congregant was willing to share a story with me about the loss of their child. Change is slow in coming, and ministry is hard work, but God’s grace is ever unfolding and not a day goes by without it.

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

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

She Is Someone

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

“How’s your hubby?”

“Where is your husband?”

“What’s your fella up to?”

“You should have brought your husband today!”

I am new clergy, recently graduated from seminary, and four months into my first call as an associate pastor. The questions above are what I am asked every single Sunday and frequently when I encounter congregants through the week. Often, they ask this question without even saying hello to me first or asking how I am doing. In fact, one Sunday I had a woman physically grab my arm as I was walking by in the fellowship hall to stop me and ask, “Where is your husband?” I pointed to him at the food table where he was filling a plate. “Oh! I didn’t see him!” she replied and then walked away from me without another word. She didn’t even approach him to say hello. Why was it so important that she knew where he was, where she could physically lay eyes on him? He doesn’t come every Sunday, and he doesn’t have to. He has his own business to tend to on Sunday mornings.

As independent people, he and I have separate plans. I tried to gently explain this in our monthly newsletter saying, “My husband and I are pretty independent people, so don’t be worried or surprised if you don’t see him in worship all the time!” (With an exclamation mark added so that it didn’t come off as threatening.)  But I am not sure the message has gotten across.

I know that what I do as a pastor is appreciated. There have been encouragement and compliments about my sermons, my teaching in Sunday school, and the prayers I write for the liturgy. I just know that with a compliment comes the questions about my husband. While I know these questions are well-meaning, as this church is trying to get to know me and be invested in my life, it can be hurtful and frustrating. Why is my husband’s well-being of more concern to some people than my own? My husband has been and continues to be an incredible support to me, but we aren’t a package deal. We’re not a two-for-one special. Why am I not enough? Read more

An Open Letter to the “Minister” in my Facebook Feed

Dear Facebook acquaintance,

Since we haven’t actually talked or seen each other since middle school, let me just start by saying I’m aware that you’re hearing from me out of the blue. We connected several years ago through the magic of Facebook, where I learned that you’ve become a lawyer, enjoy the party scene, are friends with lots of beautiful women, and have some pretty strong political opinions. Looks like you’re enjoying life and succeeding well at it.

Speaking of Facebook, you shared a picture recently that we need to talk about. It was a picture of you officiating a wedding on a beach somewhere. It looked lovely – beautiful setting, beautiful couple, all that. But I was shocked to see you wearing a clerical collar, that little white square of plastic at the base of your neck contrasted against a black shirt, that unmistakable uniform of the clergy – one I wear every day. I didn’t know you had become a priest! How cool! However, a little bit of internet sleuthing revealed that you got ordained online, and wore the uniform to be funny (and that you were never going to let your devout Catholic mother see that picture. I think that’s wise, because I remember her, and she’d kill you if she saw it.).

In case you haven’t taken the time to scroll through my Facebook page, you should know that I actually am a priest. After leaving my first career as a teacher, I went to seminary (a three-year, full-time graduate program), got my Masters in Divinity, did several internships in churches and hospitals, went through years of meetings with committees and governing boards, medical and psychiatric evaluations, and was finally ordained in a very beautiful and moving ceremony. I have been working as a full-time pastor for the last six years.

I’m surprised by how many people have asked why I went through this long and crazy process when I could have just gotten ordained online. That question has never been anything less than a stab in the heart: it tells me that people have no idea what clergy actually do. Being ordained isn’t about getting a piece of paper certifying my credentials. It’s about a calling by God, a life commitment, and work that is more difficult and holy than you could ever imagine. Read more