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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.

Midrash on the Beach

One of the things I love most about preaching is the opportunity to imagine between the lines of a story. I can’t resist a chance to illuminate the scene and characters from my own imagination. The Bible is often sparse in its literary detail, to put it lightly – I mean, come on, parchment is expensive! We can’t be wasting space with frivolous details, like the names of women and whatnot! But more often than not, my own imagination falls far short of the real beauty and complexity of the lives that must have been lived between the lines of those ancient pages.

That’s where a good book, movie, podcast, painting, or other creative effort comes to the rescue. 

As you head out into your summer, why not bring along a great book or download a new show to help expand your preaching imagination? Here are are few Biblical-story-retold favorites from some of our members and friends:

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Woman praying alone in church

How to Talk About Abortion in Church

Woman praying alone in churchAbortion. Does the word stir up emotions? Does it cause you unease, even anger? You’re not alone. Say “abortion” in a public setting, and undoubtedly the reaction will be strong and visceral. Say it in the pulpit? The idea is enough to make even the most prophetic among us quake and quiver.

Our discomfort with discussing abortion, privately or publicly, leads many of us to avoid the topic completely. On the issue of abortion we resort to silence in our sacred spaces. But the truth is abortion is a reality in our congregations. Regardless of our political leanings or personal beliefs, nearly one in four women in the U.S. will have an abortion in her lifetime. Women of all races, economic backgrounds, political parties, and religious affiliations have abortions. That means there are people in our congregations who have had abortions. There are partners and family members of people who have had abortions. And there are those who will seek abortion care in the future.

Given this reality, what are we to say about abortion? How are we to respond to requests from congregants to “pray for the unborn?” What do we do when our colleagues are spreading misinformation on social media about legislation that regulates abortion? How do we speak with truth and compassion about serious and complex moral issues that are deeply personal, often politicized, and almost always hidden? Read more

#BelovedCommunity

Hashtag my trauma
Publicize my drama
Go ahead, paparazzi me and my mama.

Don’t understand
The supply and demand
For our vulnerable blogs
And sensational vlogs
Voyerism or loneliness?
My addiction to the blue screen
My thumb scrolling fast and mean,
A desire to know and be known
Yet the tandem desire to be left alone

Get one mention in Sunday’s sermon
And his/her/their pain goes viral
Tweeting for a few days
But what’s the homiletical plot?
Does the preaching change the lot?
Did we give an altar call,
eyes closed,
heads bowed,

Alleviate affliction, humble the proud, did we end with the cup and the bread, somehow praying for the sick and remembering our dead?

Did you have a moment of reflection for their rejection,

Did we have a what next, a call to action?

Is anyone on their feet, or is it social media reactions?
Am I the hands and feet? Or the typing fingers of the body,
Will we see each other face to face and meet?
Will we let ego keep us separated and haughty?

Or is the virtual perception, my new reality, our only connection.

Maybe I need the church to help me feel,
Your blog to help me heal,
But maybe and I think you know it, too,
We need to touch and pray like we used to do,
Then go out and serve
Instead of remain
Impotent outside of a web domain
Nothing wrong with the internet
But human contact Just might yet
Be the way we were meant to be
Somewhere inside of the beloved community

Bringing Up the Rear

ocean water crashing on rocks

Trouble the waters.

I Corinthians 15:1-11

  1-2 Friends, let me go over the Message with you one final time— this Message that I proclaimed and that you made your own; this Message on which you took your stand and by which your life has been saved. (I’m assuming, now, that your belief was the real thing and not a passing fancy,that you’re in this for good and holding fast.)

3-9 The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that the Messiah died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that he was buried; that he was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says; that he presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that he then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him; and that he finally presented himself alive to me. It was fitting that I bring up the rear. I don’t deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God’s church right out of existence.

10-11 But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste. Haven’t I worked hard trying to do more than any of the others? Even then, my work didn’t amount to all that much. It was God giving me the work to do, God giving me the energy to do it. So whether you heard it from me or from those others, it’s all the same: We spoke God’s truth and you entrusted your lives. (I Corinthians 15:1-11 MSG) 

A woman preacher is a woman in trouble.

There is that troublesome God who plucks us from the simple linear life that we created for ourselves and calls us into ministry.

There are those troublesome insecurities, that voice that rings in our heads “who am I to stand in front of people and speak. I am nobody.”

There is that troublesome glass ceiling that women have been hurling stones at for generations but that pesky glass is strong and hard to crack.

There are those troublesome stereotypes. The covert and overt messages that say “if you are going to be a woman preacher you have to look a certain way. Talk a certain way. Stand a certain way. Be a certain way.”

And then. And then. And then:

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What’s News? Young Clergy Women Share Their News Sources

Coffee and the News

Coffee and the News

A favorite line of shop talk among preachers is that we must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. (This quote is frequently attributed to 20th-century theologian Karl Barth, although trustworthy sources, like Princeton Seminary’s Barth Center, say there’s no proof of this exact quote, just similar statements by Barth.) TYCWP asked young clergy women what sources they use for news.

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Careful

When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. ~2 Samuel 6:6-7

 

pulpitSomewhere in my early years of ministry I picked up the message that in order to be the pastor to everyone, I must be very careful never to sound partisan or to take a side on an issue. I’m pretty sure it started with the discussions about political bumper stickers (don’t) and bled from there into preaching, writing, and teaching. Congregations are made up of a wide spectrum of opinions and beliefs, of course…indeed sometimes that’s the only diversity to be found in a suburban mainline sanctuary. Because I wanted the most people possible to be open to hearing the gospel message, I was careful to say things in such a way that no one would stop listening in anger. Because I didn’t want anyone to feel they didn’t have a place in the community, or that I couldn’t care for them because we disagreed on political or economic issues, I was careful to use words in a way that would appear to agree with everyone.

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Pastor and Preacher as Artist

“Becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive”

-Art & Fear: Observations on The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland

To be an artist one must be true to the voice that God has given you. I came to learn this in my last year of seminary when I left the world of West Michigan where I grew up and journeyed to New York City for an internship at a church. The creativity of the city invaded my soul. The city was like one giant orchestra and each one of the 8.4 million citizens was trying to figure out which instrument was ours to play. It is in New York where I first understood my calling as a pastor was to a calling to first and foremost be an artist. The medium with which I make art is through being a pastor and preacher.

A painter walks up to her canvas full of ideas that she has collected that she desperately needs to convey to the world through the medium of paint. I am the painter and my sermon is the painting. My canvas is my approach to the text. How I choose to paint that text is the grueling creative process. The sermon is begging to come out of me but I have to do the hard work of trying on different inspirations that come to me the week before.

To be an artist one must be true to the voice that God has given you.

For inspiration I sit with the poets, the musicians, and the writers. Everyday I get a poem sent to me in my email from poets.org and I take the time to read each word and look at its construction. Music is one of the languages my soul speaks. I also peruse music blogs and websites voraciously to hear the current cultural trends coming out in instruments and voices. These people finesse words and have the courage to write Truth. Some are more honest than others but all trying to capture the currents of life and mystery. People like Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, The Civil Wars, Dinah Washington and so many others have become my friends.

Inspiration is not just in writing but it is everywhere for an artist. Whether I am listening to a new song, marveling at the eccentric fashion style on Broadway, or walking in the park I always wonder what these encounters have to teach me. What truth are these everyday artists telling me? One thing about art – really good art – is that it is honest. No matter how terrifying, angry, colorful, confusing, inspiring it is, good art tells the truth. Good art helps us become better truth-tellers. Read more

Preaching Poetry

Preaching Poetry

There isn’t much
that makes me think that writing
in free form
short
sentences
deep indents
staggered
lines
of
thought
will actually make my sermons any better.
Because when it comes right
down
to
it
I’m not slamming
(not that I was ever good at that when I tried)
in the pulpit
any more than I was when
I fancied
myself a poet far
far
from any
pulpit.

Last week
I sketched
my sermon
in some sort
of weirdfreeform
that I hoped would
break it (you know, the Word)
free
if only for me.

And I smiled when I thought about standing
before these nice, church folks,
spitting out words
in a rhythm
of stops
and starts
starts and
stops, then walking away to sing
the hymn of the day.

Then I swiveled
my chair to face the computer
and I typed long sentences
that
flowed together and broke only when the margin butted in and made them
jump to the next line as if scared that God’s grace really couldn’t
flow like the Gospel promised.

Navigating the Fishbowl

I’ll deal with it later.

Later is Tuesday.

Could I be feeling some ambivalence about my eldest child going to kindergarten, about seeing her swallowed up by the large yellow school bus?

Up until now, my child’s peer groups have been very limited—a few kids in daycare half a block from our house, and children at church. As one of the church’s pastors, I have had a special vantage point to observe her interactions, even as I’ve tried not to crowd her. As the worship leader for Vacation Bible School, I snuck frequent peeks at her, singing and dancing along with the activities of the day. As the chapel teacher for the preschool, I shared the great stories of faith with her and her friends. I didn’t seek her out as she walked the halls, but I’ll admit it—when she broke away from her class to run and hug me, I didn’t object.

Tuesday is a launch of sorts. She’s ready, I know, but it will be bittersweet. Here at the church she is known and adored. But out there… who knows?

I’ve always known that she didn’t “belong” to me, but it is truer now than it has ever been.

For this reason, I have made a pact with myself: I will no longer use stories about my daughter in my preaching. I rarely did before—I used to joke in sermons: “Here is my yearly sermon illustration involving one of my kids… don’t blink or you’ll miss it.” But kindergarten seems like a fitting time to end the practice for good. Now that she will be out in the world, with friends and classmates I will not always know, with social dynamics that will swirl around her in ways I cannot imagine, I am committed not to put her questions, actions, or even her profound wisdom on display.

Different pastors handle this differently. Some ask the child for permission before using him or her in a sermon. Others make a joke out of the awkwardness, giving their child a dollar for every story told from the pulpit. Either approach can work, and in parenting as well as pastoring, standard disclaimers apply—people need to find what works for them. And our children are smart and spiritually deep—why would I declare mine off-limits when they teach me so much?

Because I am haunted by the story (perhaps apocryphal) of the pastor who started telling a story about his son, only to have the young man rise from the pews and say, “I’m sorry Dad, it is not OK for you to tell that story.” And as a recovering people pleaser myself, who often deferred to adults even when I didn’t have to, I’m not sure whether children really feel free to say No to adults about this kind of thing… no matter how many times I might reassure her that it really is OK to refuse.

The decision about preaching is part of a larger issue of parenting as a pastor. My husband is a preacher’s kid, so I have heard a lot about the “fishbowl”—the increased attention that comes from being the minister’s child. I think the fishbowl is not as confining for PKs as it used to be, but I am still aware that my mothering is very public. Read more