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.

picture of fruits of the spirit passage from the book of Galatians in the Christian Bible

Notes to Myself: Commitments for Talking Politics with Care

picture of fruits of the spirit passage from the book of Galatians in the Christian Bible

“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…” ~Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

Monastic rules of life have drawn Christians through the ages to the spiritual disciplines. New monastics often look to one of the most well-known – the Rule of Benedict – and then write their own rule of life to order their lives in community. I have never been terribly successful at thinking of the Christian path in terms of discipline. In fact, at the mention of living the spiritual life “by the rules,” my inner self goes running for cover.

However, the fraught reality of public discourse in our time demands more discipline and less venting, more intentional, measured speech and less passion. In fact, it requires every bit of spiritual discipline the Christian can muster (and then it pleads for more from the Holy Spirit). Amidst the ever-widening crisis of public discourse, I have found it necessary to set down a rule for myself about speaking to and around my children. We all have steam to let off these days, but heaven knows we all need to speak with a little more care.

I have found three motivations for this care-filled speech at work in me, nudging me to speak with intention. First, I understand the pastoral office to be a listening office. This is ironic, I know, since few other professions boast 15 to 30 minutes of public speaking to a more-or-less willing audience every week. Even as I must preach the audaciously good news of Jesus without apology, I must also use language that does not blindly parrot phrases from political parties, denominational in-fighting, or other popular influences. And yet, to pastor is to move people along the path toward God and the Kin-dom of Heaven (the place where, in Christ, we are all kin to one another). The pastor is always inviting and always listening, so she must choose her words with care.

Second, I confess that I deeply want to avoid alienating people. This internal motivation is possibly the least important of the three, but nonetheless the most pressing to me. It is a desire for everyone to continue belonging to one another, especially when and where I am in charge. As a natural-born mediator (conflict avoider), I have little capacity for conflict when it might lead to alienation. I am not the first minister who likes to be liked, but this is a character trait which must be examined daily to be transformed from approval-seeking to the truer virtues of kindness and gentleness.

The third motivation involves my children, and to some degree, older generations of my extended family: I want to maintain open dialogue with my children and my family’s elders. One day my children will disagree with me on some of life’s most important issues. At that point, it might be too late to begin trying to mind my manners in discourse. I hope to have spoken in such a way while they were young that dialogue will still be possible when I am old.

Given these motivations, I would like to share with you my commitments for participating in public discourse, particularly related to political speech: Read more

Pressing on to the Kindom of God

Group of people marching down the street with signs.

The author joins a caravan seeking shalom in her city, marching in solidarity for justice with immigrant neighbors.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for this publication on the significance of the United States having elected our first female President. I wrote it before the election, obviously, but hedged things in such a way that it could still be tweaked and published in the very unlikely event of Hillary Clinton losing the election, which, of course, is exactly what happened. After the defeat, even the “also ran” article hit nerves too raw, and in the end, it was all scrapped.

The past two years have unleashed and unmasked so much in our society. White supremacy, nationalism, and all kinds of fear and hate have been emboldened and empowered. The hate has been deadly. At the same time, there has been a greater public resistance than any I have seen in my lifetime. I joined the throngs in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. “The Future is Female” shirts started popping up everywhere. The #metoo movement has seen progress in holding powerful men to account for sexual assault, though we still have a long way to go.

A fire has been lit for many women who are mad as hell and not going to take it, to borrow from the movie Network. The 2018 midterms saw the greatest number of female candidates in any election, the greatest number elected, and resulted in a number of firsts: the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, one of whom is the first Somali-American elected to Congress; the first two Native American women elected to congress, one of whom is lesbian and a former mixed martial arts fighter; the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts; a Latina who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

There is much to celebrate in all of this, as our elected representatives start to become just a little more representative of the diverse population of the United States. It’s a start. And yet. Lest we get too comfortable, or too self-congratulatory, I have a message for my white sisters: we’ve still got a lot of work to do. Read more

A Love Letter to My Swamp Monsters

When you are ordained, you agree to love your congregation in the name of Jesus Christ. When you like them and when you don’t, you love them because, well, that’s just the deal you’ve made with God. In seminary they told us this would be both infuriating and holy work. What I didn’t learn in the classroom was that, as a pastor, you are given a front row seat to the stories of diverse, fascinating people of Christian conviction. To be a pastor is, in the best case, an opportunity to praise God for the work of the people of God.  To give thanks while observing the intellect and compassion of God’s people as they pursue vocation as a primary, 40 hour-a-week vehicle of Christian discipleship.

I pastor a church of about 100 in Washington, DC. Our church is part of a small denomination in the lineage of Dutch theologian, journalist and statesman Abraham Kuyper who wrote, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus does not cry out, ‘This is mine!’” So, from earliest days, our church members were told, in church and Christian schools, that every subject they could ever study is part of knowing and thereby coming to love God’s broken and beautiful world. Almost any vocation can be, if you know where to look, a part of Christ’s Kingdom being redeemed.

Many of our church members attended denomination-affiliated colleges and universities that taught them to pursue of all kinds of work – philosophical, scientific, political, legal – as a means to benefit the common good. After graduation, these intrepid disciples of Jesus Christ went to graduate schools, pursued careers and moved to DC – not in opposition to their Christian faith, not even as a neutral parallel track to the journey of Christian faith, but precisely because of their sense of uniquely Christian calling.

Nearly a third of our congregation works for the government in a spectacular array of acronyms: DOD, DOJ, DOS, DOT, EPA, FDA, USDA, USAID, NASA, and a handful even work on Capitol Hill. Even folks who don’t work in government directly – educators, journalists, NGOs and non-profits – are inescapably connected to government fluctuation, personnel, and finance here in Washington, DC. It’s an honor to stand in the pulpit every Sunday to remind all of us that we matter to God and that our work matters to God. To celebrate the thoughtful folks attempting what their childhood churches, their Christian schools and Reformed universities told them was good, meaningful and even holy work. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Politics in the Pulpit Edition


Dear Askie,

I’ve always been pretty into politics, but I’m wondering if that has to change? I’ve been serving in my first call for two years, and my church has a big spectrum from conservative to liberal. I’ve posted some articles on social media about my preferred candidate, and some articles that are critical of my preferred candidate’s opponents. I’ve mentioned the election in sermons, and talked in a bible study about how one of the candidates in particular doesn’t seem to understand Christian doctrine and practice. If my least favorite candidate wins the primary, I’m thinking I might volunteer for my preferred party’s nominee. Now some of my congregants are complaining that I’m “too political,” and that pastors are supposed to be neutral. They emailed the personnel committee and the board because they’re “afraid our church will lose its 501c3 status.” Askie, I’m pretty sure they’re off-base on that particular claim, but what are the limits here? Do I have to give up politics for my congregation?

The Political Pastor

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grafitti vote

Love One Another: Election Edition

grafitti voteAre you an American citizen of voting age? Good. We need to talk. We’re in the thick of primary season, and have months to go before November. In my capacity as an “official religious person,” I sometimes feel the need to speak into the raucous echo-chamber of conversation that social media has become. If you’re like me, often you shut off the yelling and therapeutically eat cookies as a way to stave off growing despair over the state of American politics. But put down your cookies (or beer, or night cheese) and listen. Despair doesn’t help. Neither does apathetic disengagement. Unless you’re an avowed Anabaptist who has deeply held religious convictions about being divested from political process, you’ve got a responsibility to be educated, engaged, and present on voting day. So is this another screed against That-Guy-With-the-Hair or That-One-Lady? Nope. I’m going to roll us back from all of that. I want to talk to you about the underlying foundation of how we approach politics in general. Read more

They Will Know…By Our Love

We just wrapped up a highly contentious election season here in the United States.  Mud – and other sorts of muck – was flung freely between all of the political parties and their supporters.  It wasn’t pretty.  I suppose that much of that behavior was to be expected in the secular arena (which is a sad commentary on our culture); but, it was (and still is) particularly disconcerting to witness that behavior being demonstrated by Christians – clergy and parishioners alike.

I get it.  We are passionate people.  Our faith does not require that we give up having an opinion (or two or three) about things going on in the political realm.  In fact, our faith often informs our politics.  But I struggle to remember that part of our faith that encourages us to throw insults at others.  I have not been able to identify that part of our faith that teaches us to mock people for having opinions and beliefs that are different from our own.  Unfortunately, during this past election season – and even in this post-election season – there’s been a lot of “love the ones who vote the same way as you” and not a lot of “love the ones who vote for other people”.

One of my favorite hymns is “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love”.  In it, we sing of how we will walk with each other, and we will work with each other.  Most importantly, perhaps, is the bold declaration in the first verse that “we are one in the Spirit” and “we are one in the Lord”.  Indeed, as members of the Body of Christ (the Church), we are made one in Christ Jesus.  And, as members of the one Body of Christ, we are called to love – to love God, and to love our neighbors.

In John 13:34-35, Jesus gives us the foundation for the well-known hymn.  He says to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  It is by our showing love for one another that everyone will be able to tell that we are Christ-followers.  It isn’t because of the crosses we wear around our necks.  It isn’t because of the bumper stickers we have on our cars.  It isn’t even because people see us walking into a church building from time to time.  Plain and simple – from Jesus’ own lips – it is by our love that people will know that we are Christians.

Hurtful words and actions do not answer God’s call for us to love one another.  They don’t bring about the Kingdom.  They don’t let people see clearly that we are Christ-followers.  In this post-election season – as some cheer for those who have won, and others grieve for those who have lost – I am left wondering: when does love win?  When will we challenge ourselves to love the ones who don’t agree with us just as much as we love the ones who do?  When will we dare to walk with each other, hand in hand?  When will we put our differences aside and work with each other, side by side? 

Ultimately, the answer to these questions is up to us.  Like it or not, we aren’t always going to agree on how things should be done.  We aren’t likely to agree on who should (or shouldn’t) get the credit for things that happen in the world.  And God knows that we aren’t all going to agree on which people to vote for or which news channels to watch.  But I pray that maybe — just maybe — we who call ourselves Christian might agree on the importance of showing respect to one another — even when (and maybe, most importantly) we disagree so passionately about other things.  If we can refrain from the temptations of finger-pointing and name-calling, then maybe love can finally win.  Maybe then, we can all live out the words of the hymn, and “they will know we are Christians by our love.”

The Rev. Amy Loving serves as the pastor of the Seneca Presbyterian Church and Bellona Memorial Presbyterian Church in New York State, as well as the creator of The Worship Closet.  She enjoys reading, karaoke, and has never met a sharp cheddar that she didn’t like.

photo credit: Vox Efx via photopin cc

Generation to Generation

I come from a long line of strong women. While our last names and family trees follow the men in our lives; there is a deep current that runs through the women in my family.

I am the great-granddaughter of Marie, who was born in 1892, and went on to raise 3 daughters and 6 sons. She died before I was born, but I’ve come to know her through the stories that have been passed down to me, and in what I witness in the lives of her adult children. In them, I see women who were raised to believe they are valuable and love. They could expect equality in marriage and be women who work, marry, and raise children. The men they marry should be faithful men of God, strong, loving and good. And that being in good relationship with God, and serving Christ was of utmost importance – and that treating others with love, value and respect is one way that we live faithful Christian lives.

I am the granddaughter of Elizabeth, who was born in 1921, and went on to raise 3 daughters and 5 sons; teaching them to be people of integrity. She taught them to be leaders in their work and in the church, and modeled it by being a lay leader within the church at a time before women were ordained. She taught them to take a stand for equality and that all people are children of God. She modeled this through advocating for her adopted Korean daughters during a time when race relations in rural America were divisive. Significantly, she also modeled the importance of community, of worshiping and serving Christ together, even as we disagree in our beliefs, in how we vote, in what we drink at dinner, or in how we raise our children. That Sunday morning needn’t be, as Martin Luther King Jr called it, the “most segregated hour in America”; but that Sunday morning could be the time where we are united in Christ, hoping that one day this unity would remain long after the benediction.

I am the daughter of Elaine, who was born in 1958, and went on to raise 2 daughters and 1 son. She taught us to be confident, opinionated, and empathetic. She taught us that faith and discipleship is lived out in the world: wiping the tears of a grieving spouse, stopping to provide aid to the stranded car on the road, picking up the check for dinner for the family who’s crops didn’t make it, or telling and retelling stories to loved ones in the memory care unit.

I am Amelia, the next generation in this great line, born in 1984. Early in my life, long before I’d ever seen a woman preach or preside over the sacraments, I knew that God was calling me to be a pastor. I played pastor the way that most young girls school or house: my Barbies were congregation members, my blanket became my first stole. In so many ways, I believed I was not only following God’s call to enter ministry; but was also fully living into the lineage of women in my life. Equipped with all of the lessons I’d inherited from the women in my family, I’d teach people to love God and serve their neighbor; I’d encourage people to be caring, to stand for equality, to expect all people to be treated with respect and love. And I’d do so not only because of my call, but because of the women who prepared me for it. I am proud to be part of a denomination that shares my belief that all people have been created in the image and likeness of God – and  whether male or female, old or young, whether gay or straight – all are loved, valued, and part of God’s good creation. And I am hopeful that one day, I will live in a state, a country, and a world that recognizes and embraces this as well.

And here is the painful truth of the long line of strong women I am part of: not all the women in my life agree with me. Not every generation of women in my life believes in marriage equality; instead upholding a “love the sinner, not the sin” theology. The respectful, conflict-averse, Scandinavian part of me focused on living in community with my family, silently holding my beliefs while “respecting my elders”.

Until one day, during a discussion on the marriage amendment that will be on our state’s ballot in November, Grandma asked: “Do you believe two men should be allowed to marry?” And I was faced with a decision: to remain silent and avoid the question, or to speak truth in love. Bravely, I chose the latter: “Yes, Grandma, I do. I believe that God created us to live in community with one another and rejoices with us when we find someone to share our life with, male or female.” My honesty caused her to gasp; giving me a sense of relief and fear. But the response I heard, coming from the woman I hoped to one day name my daughter after, was a bullet to the heart. “Well I am glad I do not attend your church. And I don’t think, if you truly believe that is what God intends, that you should be a pastor.”

I held back tears, anger and hurt; knowing that I had hurt her just as much as Grandma’s words hurt me. I swallowed the lump in the my throat, and spoke three words: “I love you.” It’s the only thing I could muster, needing to both remember and declare these words. Those painful words came from one woman, with one voice; but what I felt was a sudden disconnect in the family line. That suddenly all of the things that  generations of  women taught me were the same things that suddenly separated me from them.

This was the moment I learned the dangers of being a recipient of such strength. Because it meant that I had been taught and empowered to speak my mind, to love all people, and to work for equality; even in times and in places where the very women who modeled these values for me didn’t approve. And it reminded me of the danger of responding to God’s call. Because when I responded to God’s call on my life, I chose to live a life that honors God and all of God’s creation; dedicating my life to sharing Christ’s love with all people. No exceptions.

I’ve realized that despite the painful response I received, in word and in deed, in that very moment I was living into the long line of strong women in which I have been born. That my courage, convictions, and understanding of equality are precisely the values shown to me through the women in my life; and in speaking these hard truths, I am making my mark and fulfilling my role as the next generation.

I am Amelia, the next generation of a great line of women, born in 1984 – who will, I pray, one day raise a beautiful and wise daughter to carry on this heritage. I pray that when that day comes, I will teach her to be a faithful, daring, beloved child of God. And just as the women before her, to stand for equality, justice, and  love in the unique way the church and world needs. I pray that she will have the strength and courage to make a stand, even if her words cause her Mother, Grandmother, or Great-Grandmother to gasp; and in doing so – may she know, that she is not only responding to God’s call on her life, but that she too is fulfilling her role as the next generation of strong women.

Names have been changed and/or withheld at the author’s request.

Editor’s Note: Leading up to the election, Fidelia’s Sisters will publish articles written with a political flair. We will consider what it means to be political, to be clergy and to be young women.

Photo credit: scooteroo2002 via photopin cc

Election Day Communion

“Election Day Communion- Tuesday,  Nov 6 at 12:15PM in the upper chapel. As our nation goes to the polls, let us gather at God’s table- not as Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, but as brothers and sisters in Christ”.

“Election Day Communion- Tuesday,  Nov 6 at 12:15PM in the upper chapel- As our nation goes to the polls, let us gather at God’s table to celebrate that we are all one in Christ”.

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Poem: Bumper Stickers

Some time ago I saw a bumper sticker taped to a car, and I got to thinking about our ideals and the permanence (or impermanence) with which we hold to them. What messages would you be willing to affix to your life forever? What messages come and go with the times?

Bumper Stickers

ah, dear driver of the hulking black metal,
you “Imagine Peace” in earnest black letters
on a wide strip of white—
and you trumpet your sentiment with
four careful pieces of tape,
tape that will dissolve into gunk,
but easily disappear with goo-gone
purchased at the hobby lobby.
where’s the commitment?
do you think Peace is justsoclose,
so easily imagined, like the song
on the tip of your tongue, then YES!
that nothing of yours need be peeled away
in the process?