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The Stained Glass Cliff

Like many of my fellow clergy women, I was shocked when the news broke last week that the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler was leaving her pulpit at the storied Riverside Church in New York City after only five years. This is a short tenure in the life of such a famed institution, and the announcement of her departure comes on the heels of her serving as one of the featured preachers at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod only a week prior. Riverside has long had a complex and turmoil-laden history, but I joined many who were hopeful things were turning around under Amy’s leadership. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

It was clear to many of us that there were myriad untold stories to her departure, and what we have learned includes only some of the layers of one of those stories. Although stories will continue to emerge, and some may never be told, we can conclude that Pastor Amy was, at least in part, pushed off the Stained Glass Cliff.

The research on this is very clear: women are more likely to rise to positions of leadership and authority in times of crisis or conflict. It’s seen as a “nothing to lose” phenomenon. “We have nothing to lose, so might as well hire a woman.” We often follow charismatic or well-liked men who were behaving egregiously badly, and we often don’t have clarity on how deeply broken the system really is until we’ve already said yes.

Women are held to a different standard (especially when we are the first). We have broken the stained glass ceiling, so we are expected to be exceptional, extraordinary even. We are expected to resolve conflicts, and clean up messes we did not make in half the time it took the men who preceded us to make them. We are expected to effortlessly juggle leadership (but not too much), nurturing (but not be too soft), and family (but without asking for too much time) without complaint.

As soon as we enact too much change, push to make the system healthier, preach a sermon seen as “too political,” or don’t clean up the mess quickly enough, we are pushed right off the cliff. If we dare, as Pastor Amy did, to name patterns of sexual harassment and ask for accountability, we are often painted as the problem and sent on our way. A narrative is then written about how it “wasn’t a good fit” or “she just couldn’t hack it.” Read more

lit up exit sign

Tools for Good News People When Sharing Bad News: How to Let a Church Employee Go

lit up exit signAs the new year unfolds, so often does the need for casting new visions for the church. The new year can be a space in which to start anew and a moment for leadership to cast new visions for the communities they serve. Improving the functioning of the church to best support and sustain its more visible ministries is often the first step in achieving these new visions. Unfortunately, this often comes with the prayerful discernment that changes might need to be made to the roles and employment of paid and unpaid lay staff. In short, sometimes in order to strengthen your church’s ministry and fulfill its vision, it is necessary to let an employee go.

I used to work a corporate job where, for over nine years, I was instrumental in the hiring and firing of staff from multiple departments. From that experience, I learned what is the best practice when having to give someone the news that they no longer have a job under your employment.

Now let’s be honest, this is one of the worst parts of the job. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news…we are supposed to be the good news people! But unfortunately, this is a part of the job and one that is not spoken about enough. Of course, please follow all the employment laws you are required to by your church and state governance and report all unlawful activity to the appropriate authorities. I am also only talking about the specific act of letting someone go, not the process of discernment that should lead up to the decision. This article assumes that a healthy and contextually appropriate discernment process involving church leadership, has been completed and brought you to the need for termination.

Once I started doing this more regularly, although it never got easier emotionally, I became more adept at doing it skillfully and compassionately. I created an acronym to remind me of the things I needed to make this meeting as respectful and dignity-giving as possible.  That acronym is P.H.A.S.E.S. It stands for: Pray, Have paperwork ready, At beginning of shift in private, Supervisor (or HR), Exit strategy, Say as little as possible. I will go through each of these in a bit more detail. All of these steps can also be adapted to your specific context and are only meant to help open the conversation around this part of the pastoral role. Read more

blank book laying open on copper-tinted plant with small blue flowers

Wordless

blank book laying open on copper-tinted plant with small blue flowers

Wordless

For Anneliese and Luke

 

I am a pray-er and writer

a speaker and singer

I am a word weaver and warrior

but you

have taken my words away.

 

From the breath and keen of labor

to the fog and ache of nursing

from the midnight

three

and five a.m.

giving myself

to the smile and sigh

and wet and messy

I have lost my words,

lost their place and purpose

their rhyme and rhythm.

I have barely enough presence

to play and read with you,

clean and dress you,

feed and comfort you,

rock and carry you

in my arms

in my heart

in my mind

every waking

and dreaming

and worrying

moment.

 

So these are my prayers, now,

these are my poems:

the kiss on your cheek

the light in my eyes

the fullness in my breasts

the cushion in my belly

the tightness in my back

the warmth in my skin

the love that swells my heart

to bursting.

 

These are the Words made Flesh

that I write, speak, preach, pray, sing

for you, my children,

fruit of my body,

beloved of my soul.

 

I am wordless

with wonder

erased

and re-written

by love.

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