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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Attitude of Gratitude Edition

Dear Askie,

I know that gratitude is a good thing and that there are so many blessings in my life… I have enough to eat, work I feel called to, people who love me and whom I love, and so much more. But honestly, it sometimes feels stilted this time of year. With Advent planning, the stewardship campaign, the budget committee, and the community interfaith Thanksgiving service (which means I can’t leave town until late the night before Thanksgiving), and family dynamics around the holidays (did I mention that my mother asked again whether I could come home for Christmas Eve?), gratitude sometimes feels like one more unrealistic expectation. Do you have any tips for finding my sense of gratitude in the midst of stress, anxiety, and frenzy?

Too Busy to Be GratefulThank You Notes

Dear TBTBG,

I hear you, sister! As clergy, this is a time of year when our jobs include a lot of trying to help other people practice gratitude… often while persevering through some of the toughest parts of the annual cycle of church life. It isn’t easy, and the professional and familial expectations that we make a show of our gratitude at this time of year sometimes make it even harder to experience gratitude authentically.

Fortunately for us, gratitude is like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise (and atrophies with disuse). If you’re not feeling especially grateful, don’t beat yourself up about it! Instead, start by practicing gratitude, and you may find that authentic sense of gratitude starting to grow. Why don’t you try doing something concrete that might help nurture your sense of gratitude?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Participate in TYCWP’s #thanksliving14! Every day this month, young clergy women and others are posting photos and reflections around themes of thanksgiving and gratitude. Maybe hunting for the perfect photo opportunity for “abundance” or “feast” will make you more aware of the moments of grace and blessing throughout your day. If you’d like to join in or learn more, check out this article.
  • If you have children, one YCW suggests incorporating a “thank you prayer” into bedtime. Each member of the family thanks God for one thing about their day – “Thank you, God, for pumpkin day. Amen.” “Thank you, God, for pizza at lunch. Amen.” “Thank you, God, for my son. Amen.” This practice helps parents to model and teach prayers of thanksgiving, while refocusing the whole family on God’s blessing in our lives.
  • Another family practice (for families with or without kids) is a “thanks jar” – sometime in October, take an evening as a family to write down fifty-five things you’re grateful for and put them all in a big jar. Each day from November 1 to December 25, pull one paper from the jar during a family meal, and read it out loud. Big kids can participate in writing down things they’re grateful for; littler kids can help decorate the jar.
  • When your work life is tough, it’s helpful to have a file of “love notes”… mementos that remind you what you love about ministry. Your file might include hand-written notes of thanks, congratulations, or praise; mementos from events that made your heart sing; or photos of beloved congregants that make you smile. If you don’t have a file, start one this week and try to find a few things you can put in it.
  • Speaking of notes, you could write thank you notes to people who are contributing to your ministry. From the person who cleaned out the fridge last week, to the one who sang a solo in worship, to the one who can always be trusted to “pinch hit” if an usher calls in sick, I hope your ministry has plenty of people who are helping out in big and small ways. Making a habit of writing thank you notes each week is a great practice for nourishing congregational vitality – and it’s a great discipline for you, as well!
  • If you don’t have time to go buy some notecards right now, you can start with this baby step: start every email with a word of thanks. Sometimes it’ll be easy to find something to thank people for, and other times you may need to really dig deep (Wrong: “Dear Budget Committee Chair, thanks a bunch for your suggestion of cutting my salary.” Right: “Dear Budget Committee Chair, thank you so much for the dedication and creativity you’re putting into stewarding our church’s resources.”) I think you’ll find that the practice of searching for something for which to be grateful is a very fruitful one indeed.
  • A practice that one YCW encourages is telling the stories of moments of blessing and grace in your daily life. While it’s certainly good to notice those moments, sharing stories about the times we’ve experienced God’s grace helps to reinforce our gratitude and build one another up in faith.

Blessings and best of luck as you navigate this season, TBTBG! As the Apostle Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18, NRSV). I’m thankful for you, and for all my sisters in ministry.

Gratefully,

Askie

Blogging as Spiritual Practice

I have always loved writing. I was called to ministry when I was thirteen, but I felt called as a writer when I was eight years old. I won a school-wide poetry contest in the fourth grade. And when I went to college, I knew I was going on to seminary, so I decided to major in Creative Writing instead of religion, with a focus in creative nonfiction.

In my first call, I was an Associate Minister of Christian Education. I preached only a few times a year, but I participated in the worship service and wrote out many of my prayers, and sometimes other parts of the liturgy such as the Call to Worship and Prayer of Confession. I received positive feedback from the congregation, and continue that practice of writing my own liturgy through today.

In my personal faith life, I have long found that writing is a spiritual practice for me. I began keeping a diary when I was thirteen but over the years it grew into a prayer journal. Sometimes it was just stream of consciousness writing. Sometimes it was vivid descriptions of events and places I had been to. It didn’t always mention God and didn’t always say Amen at the end, but I consider my writing a form of prayer, a spiritual practice that works for me.

When I moved to my second call, blogs were becoming more mainstream. I was the senior minister in that call, and so I preached a lot more often. I also continued to write liturgy for worship every Sunday. However, I wanted a way to connect more personally my faith and ministry through writing. I began a blog as a way to write about life and ministry and to share thoughts beyond my Sunday morning sermons and a monthly newsletter column. The church web designer added a link to my blog from the website and I referenced it in the newsletter so that people from my congregation would read it. At first, I tried to write once a week but sometimes it would fade to once a month. I wrote about whatever seemed to be on my mind—the early debates around the Affordable Care Act, motherhood and ministry, spirituality in my daily life, and so on. I always added a disclaimer that these were my thoughts, and not necessarily the views of my congregation. People in the congregation would comment—both electronically on the blog and verbally to me in person—and I valued the interaction and the conversations that came from my blogging.

In 2010, my husband accepted a call in Southern Oklahoma and I left full-time ministry. I became a volunteer chaplain a few months after we moved. I was out of routine, no longer preaching most Sundays, and no longer writing liturgy for the first time in eight years. My blog also lapsed. Then I had the idea of blogging on the Revised Common Lectionary—a way for me to keep up my exegetical skills, and to write liturgy to share with my friends in ministry. It also kept me to a weekly practice.

I have been back in pastoral ministry the last two years, but have continued my weekly blog. The practice of blogging on the lectionary in advance has helped me to prepare much earlier for Sunday worship than I would normally have (such as the day before). I have also shared special prayers on my blog during times of crisis in our country and in the world, and those prayers have been meaningful for people in my own congregation.

A few years ago I was invited to contribute on another blog where I have an almost-weekly column (I usually take one week off a month). There, I often write about the challenges of ministry today: shrinking churches, changing pastoral roles, dealing with conflict, balancing parenthood and ministry, having a child with a disability—all of these articles have not only been helpful for colleagues and for my own congregation who read them on occasion—but it is a helpful practice for me, to weekly stop and think about what is important to me, what challenges I am facing as a pastor, and to think it out in a public space that also invites comments and questions to challenge me.

Blogging has become a spiritual discipline for me as a pastor. It helps me not only prepare for worship, but carving out that time every Thursday when I blog on the lectionary is a spiritual practice for me. I’ll be honest: I fail at devotional reading most of the time. I’ve read the Bible through in a year a few times, but I’ve given up halfway through at least a dozen times. I will start a morning or evening prayer practice and let it slip away after a few weeks. But with blogging, I have a deadline—I have committed to it, and I have readers that are waiting for it (I currently have a mailing list that goes out every Friday with links to my blog, and my blog is also linked on The Text This Week and other sites). It is a practice, a discipline that keeps me focused and helps me to prepare for worship. And the other articles I write help me to remember to think critically about my ministry and the world around me. This, too, is also a spiritual practice: to engage the world and church through critical reflection.

Blogging can be a spiritual discipline that is personal like journaling, but becomes public the minute you press “Publish.” It is revealing to the world your thoughts and reflections and your willingness to engage the world. Blogging can also open up new conversations with church members in a way that our traditional Sunday morning worship format does not allow, and allows for sharing via social media. My blog has become a sacred space, creating a place where I can publicly engage the world around me, and invite and encourage others to respond beyond Bible Study and Sunday morning worship. Blogging is my testimony of my spiritual practice as a pastor, and the art of blogging has become the practice itself.