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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.

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the background

Fear Not: A Letter to a Young Clergy Woman

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the backgroundDear Friend,

I was recently thinking back to my third date with Daniel. He reached across the table for my hand and asked, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” The question caught me off guard, so I paused before sharing a wild and intimate dream, feeling half embarrassed and half thrilled by voicing this fervent hope.

I’m not as exciting a date, but I’d like to pose a similar question: what would your church be doing if you knew you could not fail? I know you’re plagued with fear about how the church is going to pledge the budget. I know the ceiling in the back of the sanctuary is still leaking when it rains. I know that there continue to be arguments in your congregation about whether or not the church can be open and affirming to LGBTQ+ folks. I know that your church bully came to the office this week. And I know that you are exhausted with what the poet John Blase refers to as “the sheer unimaginativity of what passes for wrestling with angels or walking on water.”[1] I know because I feel the exact same way.

My friend, I think you need reminding that the Church cannot fail. This beautiful, bedraggled Bride has a future more glorious than we could ever figure out in a planning retreat with our Elders. I think you have temporarily forgotten that all will be well.

I was talking with Zada recently. (Can you believe I have a ten year old now?)

“People are getting impatient,” she explained, in response to my question about why she thinks people don’t engage in churches in the same way they may have in the past.

“How so?”

“Well, if churches aren’t treating all people with kindness and respect, other people aren’t going to put up with it anymore, so they stop believing in God or at least stop going to that church.”

We are up against a truth that a ten-year-old can plainly see. Our churches have become apathetic and lethargic. I’m not sure that the scholars talking about the decline of church as we have known it use the word “impatient,” but it actually feels really accurate. Our congregations are impatient with a world that has left them behind. The world is impatient with a church that seems increasingly irrelevant and wrongheaded. The impatience is frustrating, hard, and sad, but it is not insurmountable. Read more

Woman's hands opening prayer book

Boundary-Breaking Witness

Woman's hands opening prayer bookIt may seem strange that a group of women opposed to my calling as a priest would be an inspiration to me, but picturing those Armenian nuns, especially when I celebrate the Eucharist, motivates me to be the best priest I can be.

I was raised in the Armenian Church – the most ancient of Christian traditions. Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity, in 301 C.E. Armenians have been proud followers of Christ ever since, and the Armenian Church has survived over 1700 years relatively intact and unchanged despite centuries of war, displacement, outside occupation, and most recently, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 followed by nearly 70 years of Soviet rule, which did its best to erase much of the Christianity and Armenian culture from Armenia. Suffice it to say that Armenians have a deeply embedded impulse to cling to tradition and prioritize the preservation of the Armenian faith and culture.

While my family attended church almost every Sunday and were very active in our local Armenian church, my most profound learning about faith was absorbed at the Armenian Sisters Academy, a private day school run by the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, an Armenian Catholic order of nuns. I would notice that the sisters had great joy, and that their joy came from something other than the work they were doing. It came from their daily discipline of prayer and connection to the God who called them to this life. I knew that the nuns prayed a lot. They prayed with the assembled student body at the beginning and end of each school day, and they prayed as a community both in the morning and at nighttime. I also could tell that the prayers we learned in school were not only important for me to know as an Armenian, but deeply personal and meaningful to the nuns who prayed them daily. It was clear to me that their vocation – not just to run a school, but to commit themselves to the discipline of daily prayer and ever-deepening love of God – was something that brought them a deep joy that I’d never seen in anyone else. Furthermore, I could see that the structure and tradition of the church, with its prayers and liturgies and hymns that had been passed down from generation to generation, gave them a profound connection to God. The witness of these nuns, and they way their faith clearly fueled their very existence, gave me the first sense of my own vocation. Whatever I did with my life, I wanted it to be with the vigor and the joy that they possessed.

The nuns remained an important part of my spiritual journey long after I left the Armenian Sisters Academy. In college, I learned about churches other than my own, including churches that ordained women. This was new and exciting information for me, and I immediately took it to the nuns to try and make sense of it. I had so many questions about one basic quandary: Why couldn’t the Armenian Church ordain women? Many years of intense conversation and discernment followed. It took twelve years from the time I first felt called to the priesthood to formally join the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t easy to leave my church of origin behind, and it cost me many friendships. Most of those broken relationships were ones I had to accept would never be mended; to many people, I was a bad Armenian, a traitor, a heretic. But my relationships with these nuns, whose faith nurtured me from the time I was a child, were ones I cherished so much that the thought of losing them was heartbreaking. And so, after my ordination to the priesthood, I reached out and met Sister Emma, who had been my Kindergarten teacher, for coffee on a cold winter afternoon.

She was the same old Sister Emma. Warm, kind, with a hint of strictness you wouldn’t want to mess with. I reminded her of the time she punished me for refusing to put on a coat to go outside for recess, and she reminded me of the time I noticed she had gotten braces and seemed to be in pain. We talked for hours, and yes, it was uncomfortable at times when our theological differences were apparent. Mostly, though, it was like coming home to an old friend. We sat there and talked about our own spiritual journeys – the challenges of maintaining a life of prayer, dry times when God feels far away, the joys of our respective vocations. We talked about all the similarities between the Episcopal Church and the Armenian Church. We also acknowledged our many differences. She will never understand why I left the Armenian people behind to serve in an American church, or why I feel called to the priesthood, or how I can be a Christian and support LGBTQ equality, or how I can be married but not want children. But – and I still am brought to tears every time I think about this – she intentionally searched for what we had in common, rather than allowing our differences to divide us. This woman of ardent, abiding faith, whose very life inspired me to want to give my own life to God, was still a witness to me about the power of God’s enormous love: love that reaches beyond boundaries and differences, and that connects human beings, heart to heart.

A few months ago, I was celebrating Eucharist and found my mind wandering, getting lost in the same words I say week after week. It’s one of the dangers of a highly liturgical tradition, that prayer can easily become rote. Suddenly, I thought, what if Sister Emma or Sister Arousiag or Sister Louisa were sitting in those pews? The thought of these nuns in the pews in front of me, women of deep devotion and piety, reminded me of my responsibility to say every word of this prayer with all of my heart and with utter dedication to God. Immediately, I focused on the Eucharistic prayer in a way I never had before. I dedicated the Eucharist to all the Armenian Sisters in my heart that day. Maybe none of them will ever be able to sit in the pews of my church, but in a world that seems to thrive on polarizing differences, these women continue to witness to me the victory of the God of love, the power of faith to break down boundaries, and the joy that comes with a life dedicated to God’s service.