Dear Clergy: A Letter for November

My dear, weary, fierce colleagues in ministry,

It’s been a year, hasn’t it? None of us knew going in to 2020 what would come; none of us expected to spend the majority of the year figuring out how to minister to and with people we couldn’t be within an arm’s reach of. And yet, here we are.

photo taken by the author at a clergy retreat in 2019

Let’s recap, shall we? We ended Lent during stay-at-home orders and celebrated Easter in parking lots and dining room tables. We canceled VBS, camps, and mission trips. We figured out cameras and live streaming and answered questions we never even knew we needed to ask. We learned Zoom and taught it to our congregations. Then taught it again. Then trouble-shot it. We switched platforms, software, hardware, and techniques, using skills that we never learned in seminary. We planned sermon series to speak to our trauma and danger; we found new ways to distribute food and serve our communities. We have planned and started over and planned some more; we have figured out how to administer communion in ways that are theologically and physically sound; we have presided over weddings and funerals over cameras and screens. We have held relationships together that are strained because of a contentious election; we have risked and weighed when, how, and how much to speak prophetically. We provided care over phone calls and texts instead of hospital beds and coffee tables. We have cried and prayed, wondered and doubted… all while trying to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our congregations healthy.

Whew. That list isn’t even exhaustive.

And yet. AND YET. Every step of the way, pastors made it happen. Surrounded and upheld by the Spirit, we served God’s beloved. You served God’s beloved.

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Sabbath, Rest, and the Voices Inside My Head

“Would you ever consider doing something like this?” I asked. I was sitting with my friend Jeff in the balcony seats of the Wilbur Theater in Boston.

“Nooo!” he replied.

“Do you think Hannah would?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “What about Luke?”

“No way,” I answered.

It was intermission at a Mainstage production of the Moth, the live storytelling movement that had taken NPR and audiences across the country by storm.

I had never even heard of it.

Hannah is Jeff’s spouse, and Luke is mine. The four of us are friends from seminary and our two families vacation together every year. We were in Boston for our time together that year, where Hannah and Jeff live, and Jeff had bought tickets to the show after getting hooked on the Moth podcast and reading the first printed collection of stories. Neither Luke nor Hannah were feeling well that night, but Jeff and I went anyway, which is how we found ourselves on that balcony during intermission, discussing the similarities and differences between storytelling and preaching, and speculating about whether our spouses would ever do something like this.

“This” was to prepare a story – a true story, and your own story – on a set theme, and then to share it with a live audience. Notes are not allowed, there’s a strict time limit, and you can’t even wander the stage; the mic stays on the stand. It’s just you and the audience and your story.

I had only begun to understand how it worked – and to understand the draw – about an hour before.

“Would you ever do something like this?” Jeff asked.

“Yeah,” I answered. Something had clicked. I was getting nervous from the very idea of it, and my breath was already catching in my chest. “I think I have to do this.”

Conclusion of the 2017 Twin Cities Moth GrandSLAM

I went home and began to research how the whole thing worked. Moth StorySLAMs are amateur night in cities around the country, where anyone can throw their name in the hat to tell a story, and ten names are drawn. After ten StorySLAMs, the winners face off on a bigger stage at the GrandSLAM, with new stories under a new theme.

I was heading to a writing workshop in a few weeks. I had a piece prepared to workshop, and I volunteered to go first so I’d have the rest of the week to work on my story for the StorySLAM a few weeks later, which seems ridiculous in hindsight, given that there’s no guarantee your name will even be drawn. Read more

The Pastor’s Advent

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

As I write this, I’m sitting on my living room couch. I showered this morning, but I’m wearing what my husband’s aunt calls “soft clothes” – a sweatshirt, and lounge pants, and slippers.

I haven’t worn mascara in more than a week.

“What are you going to do today?” my husband asked me, this morning, while he packed lunches and I spread cream cheese on bagels for our daughters, who are 7 and 3.

“I have some writing to do,” I said. “Maybe I’ll return those Christmas lights that are too short, and buy some candles for the Advent wreath.” That was the entirety of my to-do list, at least as of 6:30am. I tried not to feel like it was inadequate.

On my way back from dropping our youngest at daycare, I decided to make a lasagna. And then I decided that I would sit my butt down and actually read the two long-form articles that have been open in my browser for days, one of them maybe even for weeks.

The very idea of sitting down, uninterrupted, to read an entire long-form article – without feeling the whole time like I was supposed to be doing something else – was almost unfathomable. The possibility that I could just sit and read the entire thing, from beginning to end, rather than to read it piecemeal – a few minutes here while my kids are playing in the tub, and a few minutes there while I scarf down my lunch – made me happier than I’d like to admit.

I took the week off, you see. Read more

open suitcase on a beach with beach gear inside

Ask a YCW: Vacation Edition

open suitcase on a beach with beach gear inside


Dear Askie,

I’m a solo pastor, and as summer approaches, people have been asking me what I’m doing for vacation this year. I know everyone says vacation is important for pastors, and I have vacation time included in my terms of call, but it seems like any week I’d want to be away, I would miss something important at the church. Plus, preparing for vacation is just so much work! With arranging pulpit supply, and getting bulletins ready in advance, and finding someone to cover pastoral care, it just sometimes seems easier to stay here. If it’s so much work to go on vacation, is it really worth it?

Too Tired to Take Time

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Single Sabbath

I’m sure it’s not what our church leadership intends, but I have developed a reflexive twitch of annoyance whenever I hear the words “Sabbath rest” or “self-care.” I’m not a martyr pastor who thinks the church can’t exist without me – my ego isn’t healthy enough for that. I just believe we need to reframe the conversation so that our conversations about Sabbath and self-care reflect the spiritual diversity of our clergy siblings.

Early in my ministry at my first church, my senior pastor suggested that my Sabbath day should be spent in silence and reflection because I spend the rest of my week being a talkative extrovert. I took the kind hint and stopped chatting with him as often, but it also made me think about how we talk about the practice of Sabbath. When I attend clergy gatherings, conferences, or annual conferences, they often talk about ways to deepen our spiritual practices. We hear stories of silent retreats, days spent hiking alone listening to God, setting aside time for prayer and meditation in silence and solitude. All beautiful, important parts of a well-rounded spiritual life, all assuming that I am drained by the time I spend around other people.

I think the unique solitude of singleness is sometimes lost in the larger conversations about the loneliness that clergy often face. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Toxic Church Edition

Dear Askie,

I am currently serving in a church that is best described as toxic. The staff is dysfunctional, the personnel committee seems to be disinterested in creating a work environment that is nurturing, anytime I bring up any concern I’m automatically shut down, and I am fed up. I have been searching for jobs for many months now but am having a difficult time. I am starting to realize I may be stuck here for a while. What can I do in the meantime to survive my toxic work environment? Or should I just run for the hills?


Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

toxicYou are not the only one. Unfortunately, all too many young clergy women are trying to serve Christ and his church in the midst of dysfunctional work environments. While we shouldn’t regard such situations as normal or acceptable, Askie fears that toxic congregations will probably be part of the lives of some pastors until kingdom come.

You’re wise to search for a new call, and Askie urges any YCW in a toxic setting to keep an updated resumé, Ministerial Profile, PIF, or whatever your denominational equivalent might be. Even if you feel called to stick it out (or are compelled to do so by your familial or financial circumstances), toxic churches have been known to turn unexpectedly on their pastors. So even if you’re not ready to pack your bags just yet, be prepared.
All that said, here are a few strategies for surviving until you’re able to move on:

  • Build (and use) a strong support network: This is important for all of us, but especially so in an environment like yours, where you can’t expect support from colleagues and lay leadership. You may want to work with a spiritual director, a therapist, a life coach, a mentor, or all of the above! Be intentional about nurturing friendships both with clergy colleagues in other settings and with non-clergy friends. Online community (like the TYCWP Facebook group) can be a great source of support as well, although it shouldn’t replace the personal, incarnational support we all need.
  • Be attentive to your spiritual life: When God is your job and your job is awful, your spiritual life sometimes takes a hit. Don’t let them do that to you, sister. Make sure to intentionally care for your soul in this season of your ministry. Could you find an evening or weekday worship service that you can attend from time to time? Carve out more time for prayer? Read books that nourish your soul?
  • Do your homework: If you haven’t studied family systems theory, now would be the time to start! Understanding how systems work can help you figure out how to survive in yours. You might gain some insight about how the system is working, a strategy about how to change the system and your role in it (hint: probably non-anxious presence), or a reminder that interactions that feel very hurtful often have little or nothing to do with you personally. Friedman’s Generation to Generation is a classic starting point, but there are plenty of great resources out there. You may want to look for a course or conference to help you dig deeper, as well.
  • Feed the function: Thankfully, even the most dysfunctional church usually has a few bright spots. See if you can identify the parts of your church that are healthy and put lots of your energy there. Affirming and supporting the healthiest areas of your church’s life helps them to grow… and not only is it good ministry, it’s also life-giving for you!
  • Put on your own oxygen mask first: There are people whom you will never be able to make happy, even if you work twenty-four hours a day and cater to their every whim. So do what it takes to keep yourself healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Get outdoors, take a yoga class, enjoy good chocolate or coffee or wine. Binge-watch some fluffy television from time to time. Spend time with family or friends. Take all of your vacation, and your days off. Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion, so don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it!
  • Find some distance: When Askie is at the absolute end of her rope with some bit of petty church drama, she imagines what a great chapter it will make in her memoir someday. That’s my trick, but you’re welcome to use it, or find one that works for you… something that helps you to step back, to disengage emotionally a bit, and to remember that in a few months or years, this will all be over. When it is, I hope you will find yourself with some hard-won new skills, some outrageous stories, and your integrity. Keep the faith, sister.

Wishing you deep peace and a speedy exit,

You Shall Love… Yourself

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:39b

I remember the first time someone pointed out that Matthew 22:39 assumes that you love yourself. It’s a simple nuance to the second most important commandment, but it impacted me profoundly.

“You shall love… yourself.”Fog City You Shall Love Yourself June 2013

It is in our nature as clergy to desire to reflect God’s love into the life of others. We provide pastoral care, support the disenfranchised, and walk beside people in their grief. Generally those who feel called to ministry get to that place because on some level they like people. My pastoral care classes in seminary provided vocabulary, resources, and framework for this work, but the desire to help others and inclination to listen were already there.

Self-care is another matter entirely. If you’ve been to seminary you’ve likely heard professor after professor advocating for proper boundary setting and self-care. You’ll hear adages such as “you must fill your own cup before you can fill others,” and “you must be the people of God, in order to do the work of the people of God.” But taking that time and space is counter-intuitive to most pastor types. We feel selfish spending time on ourselves and scripture reading can easily become just another work related task. Even when we seek out Sabbath time it can be nearly impossible to set aside the concerns of the parish. We don’t get to walk away from work at the end of the day. We are always on call. Even when we make special effort to be on vacation we will still be contacted in the case of a congregational death or tragedy. We never stop being a pastor, which at sometimes is great, and at others can be suffocating.

As a pastor in my first call I thought I was doing okay self-care wise. I was eating relatively healthfully, got a massage about once a month, met with a spiritual director once a month, went on regular walks with my dog, spent great effort and was able to find non-church friends in my area, and had even recently become engaged! On Facebook I looked like not only did I have it all together, but I was genuinely happy and living a joy-filled life. Behind those pictures of me with my handsome fiancé, sweet dog, and smiling friends, however,  was a much darker shadow. As the television show Portlandia all too accurately said, I was “cropping out the sadness.”

In ministry we learn to be adept at small talk, to reveal just enough about our personal lives to make a connection, but not too much as to be inappropriately vulnerable or make our congregation feel like they need to take care of us. When we’re used to doing this work of protecting our vulnerabilities, presenting our personal life in a professional way on Facebook is second nature. The trouble with this, however, is that we take so much time crafting the mask, we ourselves can forget what is underneath it.

Depression filtered into my life like a slowly rolling fog. If I squinted my eyes just right I didn’t even notice it was around me. And once I realized it was there it was nearly too late. I was crying at committee meetings and crying myself to sleep. When I tried to support the church council’s ideas for establishing financial accountability, members would angrily oppose the simple filling out of vouchers. While I knew these actions were motivated by their own fear of new things and their desire for control (in a part of their life that would lend that to them) — it eventually became impossible not to take things personally.

I never felt like I was doing anything right, and so many church members would confirm my perceived inadequacies and add their own criticisms to the list. When consulting with the church leadership on a technological update that the secretary had requested, a member e-mailed back saying that more technology in the church would just be an excuse for me to spend more time with technology and less time with people. While this particular technology wasn’t anything I was going to be interacting with, the idea that technology was more comfortable to me than some of the personal interactions cut me deeply. As a constant outsider in the community it was frequently difficult to connect with the members of the church in the ways they connected to one another. It was easier for me to work on the technological aspects of ministry because it was where I did have confidence in my gifts.

Finally my regional denominational leader approached me after he had received a call from a parishioner of mine complaining that I was not pulling my weight. He asked what was going on and all of my attempts at professionalism failed. I told him that I couldn’t even articulate the helplessness that I was feeling. While I pleaded for some sort of a break, he said, not very gently, that a medical leave for depression would have serious repercussions for me professionally. He wouldn’t give me an easy way out, but he did point me in the direction of the hard working way forward. He insisted that I go and see a doctor and find a way out of the fog.

If someone with my story came to me, I know what I would say. I would read them John 10:10 and tell them of Christ’s promise to provide abundant life. Perhaps I’d read Jeremiah 29:11-13 and remind them of God’s plan for them. I would pray for healing, peace, and comfort. But when it came to my own life, I was not so assured.

Three medication changes, 12 therapy appointments, and 20 gained pounds later, I’ve begun the climb out of the mire. I discerned that it was very necessary to move on from this place that has been so toxic to me. I have now accepted a position with a new congregation; one that will be on a multi-pastor staff rather than the solo pastorate I am leaving.

Part of me wishes I could’ve stuck it out here, but the other part of me is just so grateful to have a chance at a new beginning. As I begin saying painful goodbyes and packing boxes, I feel like a survivor. On the surface level, I’ve survived the congregation’s cruelty and anger. On a deeper level, I continue to survive depression’s fog. I pray that I may listen to the advice I would give to another, and that the stories of God’s love and care and redemption will once again permeate my heart. Most of all, I pray that I relearn to love myself as God has called each of us to do. May it be so.

The author has survived ministry for several years with the help and support of her dog, fiancé, and friends. She is looking forward to new life in her new congregation.

Photo Credit:  “Fog City” by David Yu. Accessed June 18, 2014.  Used under Creative Commons License.

The Zumba Pastor

I take the stage and feel the music pumping and I’m ready to move! Let’s get this party started! Most people don’t expect their pastor to be dancing salsa, merengue, reggaeton and Bollywood on stage in front of a class. They haven’t met “The Zumba Pastor.”

happy zumba

Three years ago I went to my first Zumba class in the gym next to my very first, grown-up apartment in the town of my first call. I flopped around in the back row feeling like an idiot. Then I was sore for about three days. But I came back for more and more and more. Until I was a Zumbaholic!

Zumba started out as just a fun exercise to do. But then it turned into more. One of my parishioners had a friend who was teaching Zumba in her basement and was looking for a bigger space to teach in. I instantly said yes to using our fellowship hall! Before we knew it, there were fifty people in class every Thursday night! It was amazing! People were having fun, getting healthy and losing weight – and so was I!

Months went by. Soon Theresa and Amie, our instructors, and I were chatting after class as we normally did. They said to me, “Krista have you ever thought about getting certified to be a Zumba instructor yourself?” Had I thought about it?! YES! In fact I found myself getting sidetracked from sermon prep to watch Zumba videos on youtube! It was like so many ministry call stories I had heard before, just replace pastor with Zumba Instructor. It felt like a calling.

In December of 2012, I got certified. My friends let me lead songs in their classes. Theresa always introduced me at the beginning of each class as the pastor of the church and as a Zumba instructor. It really opened a lot of doors. People started coming up to me after class and saying, “YOU are the pastor? That’s so cool!” Or they would ask for advice or a prayer. Several of my parishioners also started coming to the class. It was another great opportunity to connect with them. There’s nothing like sweating it out with the same people you sat in the stressful council meeting with the night before!

Our classes got so big that we actually needed to move out of the church! We got an offer to come to a local community-based gym that was looking to offer Zumba classes. Now we’re teaching in an old furniture store turned gym. It’s privately owned and run by a Christian man who also wants to see change on our side of the city – the “bad” side. It’s the same side of the city my church is on. We are making positive connections between the church, the gym and the community. I think God has really blessed me with this opportunity to be part of the change, to help individuals be whole in mind, body and spirit in a depressed part of the city.

Zumba has done so much for me. It started as simply my self-care. Now, not only has it turned into a part of my ministry, it’s also introduced me to friends outside the church which is huge and hard for us pastor types to do! I now am asked to do Zumba in the local Lutheran school gym classes, women’s retreats and synod functions. Thank God for Zumba!

The Gift of Gentleness

My Christmas Eves are a little different these days. I generally spend the day in front of my computer, finishing the sermon I’ll preach for the biggest crowd of the year. No pressure, of course. As my family digs into dinner, I pass candles around a church 1,500 miles away. After leading the last worship service, I meander back to my dog and a darkened house – because I usually haven’t had time to hang up lights or other Christmas decorations during the rush of Advent; it’s a very good year if I manage a tree. I heat up some leftovers, pour a glass of wine, pop in a movie, and collapse on the couch. Then I wake up on Christmas Day and…go back to sleep as long as possible.

It’s not as pathetic as it sounds, I promise! By the time I’m done with the Christmas insanity, I am more than ready to just crash, and my dog is just about all the company I can handle. My Christmas Eve ritual has become a sort of Sabbath; I defend it even when I receive other invitations. This much-needed time of quiet rest has become one of my favorite things about being single and living alone. Read more