Nevertheless, she persisted

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She was warned that women could not hold positions of authority over men. She was given an explanation, straight from the Bible. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not be assertive. She was given an explanation: she might be perceived as shrill. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not show vulnerability. It was explained to her that she could be dismissed as soft or emotional. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not lead in ways authentic to them. She was given an explanation, that women must lead like men to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women could not be both pastor and parent. She was given an explanation: the concern that women would not be able to live fully into both callings. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not wear clothes, shoes, or makeup that would draw attention to their bodies. It was explained to her that such choices would not just be distracting to others, but possibly even prompt inappropriate thoughts. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that pastors should not also be people who acted on their own convictions in the public sphere. She was given an explanation, that ministers must not alienate the people in their care. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not challenge assumptions. She was given an explanation, that they would make too many people uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Clergywomen – and women in general – have always been the recipients of status quo warnings and unnecessary or inaccurate explanations. Still, we persist.

Keep on keepin’ on, brave and beautiful souls. Our persistence embodies faithfulness, courage, hope, and beauty that the world desperately needs.

Image created by Suzanne L. Vinson, owner of Silver Tree Art. Used with permission.

Safe for whom?

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In several of the communities that I value, there are intense discussions happening about the nature of safe space. Whose sense of safety are we protecting? It’s an important question, one that is rooted in the reality of privilege. All of us are socially located at the intersection of our gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors. Those of us with more privilege are accustomed to others deferring to our safety. I have been wrestling a lot lately with the nature of my privilege as a white, straight, cisgender, Christian, middle class person and the ways my obliviousness to that privilege has harmed others. I want to do better. I must do better. I am grateful for courageous voices that are calling me out, even if the new awareness they spark makes me uncomfortable. After all, what change was ever catalyzed by comfort?

The interactions that are urging me to examine both my innermost self and her outward manifestations are complicated. Listening and speaking can both be shut down quickly, hence the discussions about what makes space safe, and for whom. So what are some of the conversational skills that can help us hang in with one another in the midst of these tough, revealing conversations? Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had from my location as an ever-learning, trying-but-still-stumbling person of privilege:

Clarifying rather than (or at least before) advocating. Most of us speak to be understood before seeking to understand. Reversing that order – asking before telling – can stop a lot of arguments before they start.

Challenging rather than shaming. When we share our own perspectives, what is our goal? Is it to inform, to help our conversation partner grow (challenging), or to make him/her feel bad about her/his status or opinion (shaming)? Information and challenge can strengthen relationships. Shame rarely does that.

Defaulting to belief rather than doubt. Assume that the person saying something hard to hear is telling the truth.

Using “I” rather than “you.” “I” statements (“I feel angry when…” as opposed to “you make me angry”) are basic communication skills, yet we rarely use them. Starting a sentence with “you” tends to put hearers on defense. “I” signals I’m about to talk from my experience.

Avoiding exceptionalism. Don’t leap to self-defense when someone calls out privilege. Instead, take a moment to consider whether s/he might be right.

Striving for unity rather than uniformity. We will never all agree. That is ok. But we can look for shared values and purpose to rally around. And in doing so, we will better get to know one another, our histories, and our points of view.

What would you push back on, delete from, or add to this list?

Creative Commons image “listen (069/365)” by Tim Pierce is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A pastoral prayer for these days

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God of all creation,

you made the world we know out of a dark and formless void.

Before your breath swept across the face of the waters,

there was no light.

No sky.

No land.

No way of marking time.

No vegetation.

No animals.

No humans.

You made everything out of nothing, out of chaos.

And it was all good.

 

On behalf of everyone whose life feels out of control this morning,

who wonders how anything good could come out of such mess,

we pray to you this morning.

Where there is fear, let there be courage.

Where there is discord, let there be unity.

Where there is sickness, let there be healing.

Where there is oppression, let there be liberation.

Where there is loneliness, let there be connection.

Where there is worry, let there be peace.

Where there is want, let there be enough.

 

Use us, your people, to bring about all of this good,

because in your blueprint,

you bestowed upon humankind responsibility for all living things.

Prompt each one of us,

whether we are the leader of the free world

or have no formal position of power,

to use the skills and influence you have given us

in ways that make your world a place that is more just

more interdependent

more joyful

more beautiful

more sustainable.

 

These things we ask in the name of Jesus,

who came to redeem the brokenness in all that you made,

and by the power of the Spirit, which recreates us on a daily basis. Amen.

Creative Commons image “Hubble Goes High Def to Revisit the Iconic ‘Pillars of Creation'” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Ministry in a changing context

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It’s been less than two weeks since a new American president was inaugurated. The rapid pace of change – not just of policy, but also of a sitting president’s understanding of his authority – has resulted in whiplash for many. Ministry, never an easy calling to live into, has become even more fraught with tension for those who pastor politically diverse congregations or whose ideologies clash with their parishioners.’ What’s a clergyperson to do? Here are the best ideas I have to offer about how to minister in the current climate:

Advocacy

As a citizen, make phone calls, write letters, and sign petitions about issues of importance to you. There are plenty of websites, apps, and social media groups that provide action suggestions, scripts, and contact information for your leaders/representatives. You don’t have to give up your voice because of your vocation. (In fact, please don’t!)

Matters are more tricky for your public persona. Your church members don’t know when you call your senator’s office. They might take note – and possibly even offense – if they see you marching for a cause they oppose. When considering when to make your personal views known publicly, ask yourself these questions: How can I make the biggest impact for a position I believe to be biblically based? Would it be better in my context to march (for example), then share about my reasons and my experience and invite honest questions in response? This could provide an opening to important, if uncomfortable, conversation. It could also model healthy vulnerability and an openness to differing ideas. Or would it be better in my context to refrain from marching, knowing that I don’t yet have the trust level needed for my reasons and experience to be heard, and instead keep focused on what I have discerned scripture has to say about the issues at hand? You can still be plenty prophetic while continuing to build trust with your people.

[Regardless of your approach, familiarize yourself with the IRS Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations, which lays out the boundaries for political speech and action for faith communities that want to maintain their tax-exempt status.]

Ministry

In tough times, double down on the Bible and particularly the person of Jesus. Teach the gospels. Encourage people at every opportunity to put on their “Christ glasses”: knowing what we do about Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, what would he have to say about this people group or that issue? Ramp up missions, building off of the congregation’s energy. While you and your church might differ about whose needs are more urgent, together you will be bringing light and love to a corner of the world. Create more avenues within your congregation for storytelling and question-asking. Help them get to know the histories behind one another’s commitments. (Make sure you pull a seat up to this table too.) And check in with your leaders. What’s their take on what the church needs right now? Which members are really struggling with all the change and need some extra pastoral care?

Self-care

Change came quickly, and more shifts are coming. Prepare yourself to minister over the long haul. Widen your circle of care and extend your networks of people who are passionate about the same things you are. Make a recurring appointment with your therapist or spiritual director. Tend daily to your soul and your connection with God. Get good rest. Create something beautiful. Make room for fun! And please, for the love, never read the comments on internet articles.

Thank you for your ministry, which becomes more vital by the day. I have hope because of the good work you are doing. Keep it up!

Creative Commons image “IMG_1760” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

10 ways to strengthen relationships in the new year

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It’s a strange world we live in. In some ways, our relationships are stronger than ever, thanks in large part to technology. In other ways, we are more disconnected from each other than we’ve ever been (at least partially due, ironically, to the ways we use technology).

Whatever the state of our relationships, it never hurts to reinforce them. After all, they are the primary means for creating circles of care, affecting change, and ushering joy into the world. I’ve developed a list of ten ways to strengthen relationships in this still-young year. They can be applied to individual bonds, teamwork, and our walk with God.

Deepen trust. Without authentic trust, relationships will always stay at a surface level. What small risk are you willing to take to show the real you? How might you invite others to do the same?

Add a layer of communication. We generally believe we’ve been heard better than we actually have been. How can you relay important information in an additional, different way so that everyone is operating from a shared understanding?

Share stories. Narrative is the root and food of knowing and being known. It prompts people to laugh, mourn, and plot together. What anecdote or arc speaks to where you are or how you’re feeling today? Who needs to hear it? Whose stories do you want to seek out?

Reflect on the relationship. Ok, it’s awkward, but it never hurts to ask for feedback on how the relationship is going. What’s working (and not) for him/her? For you? Disconnects can’t be repaired if they aren’t identified.

Embrace conflict. Conflict is simply a difference of opinion. It doesn’t have to come with all the baggage we tend to load onto it. Being forthright – in respectful ways – about our disagreements allows us to learn, and our openness to one another in moments of dissent breeds trust.

Help one another be fully engaged in the relationship. Everyone’s personality is different. As an extreme introvert, for example, I need lots of alone time to be fully present with people. Know and own your quirks, and support others in theirs.

Examen each day. Engage in some sort of reflection at the end of each day. How was I a good friend? How did I fall short? Utilizing the spiritual practice of examen opens up the possibilities even more. Where did I notice God at work today? How did I aid in or hinder the in-breaking of God’s peace?

Increase your curiosity. Instead of imagining someone’s beliefs or motives, ask: tell me what you were thinking when… What did you hope to accomplish by…? We usually default to assuming the worst, and often the truth is better (or at least more complex) than what we thought.

Start from common values or vision. Consider what all parties can affirm. Even if there are differing ideas about how to approach problems, there can be shared commitments underlying them. That’s a much more promising starting point for connection and for change.

Affirm one another. Name what you appreciate in one another. Be specific, and focus on attitudes and actions rather than appearance. Not only does a genuine compliment provide a serotonin boost, it also helps people identify and navigate from their strengths.

Which of these ideas could you begin implementing today? What would you add to this list?

Creative Commons image “Free Hugs” by Ricardo Moraleida is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

 

 

 

What you get when you call a clergywoman

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Recently the Lewis Center for Church Leadership published a fantastic article about how congregations can welcome and support their female ministers. The piece speaks to some of the fears that search committees have when considering a woman for a ministry position. It also raises awareness about  the small but significant ways that clergywomen are treated differently than clergymen. In doing so, the post names and dispels many of the assumptions about women in ministry. With that slate clear, what can churches expect from their female clergy?

Clergywomen love Jesus. We are not in ministry for the money (most of us are paid less than our male counterparts) or the notoriety (the stained glass ceiling is real). And we definitely have not pursued this vocation because it is the path of least resistance. We’re here because we are drawn to the message and model of Christ.

Clergywomen know their scripture. For many of us, Paul’s epistles have long been used as a barricade to the pulpit. That means we’ve had to steep ourselves in the Bible, studying its words, arcs, and historical/cultural context so that we can be confident we’ve discerned correctly and so that we can be faithful in forming others.

Clergywomen have been vetted, then vetted some more. At every level of examination, someone is looking for a reason not just to exclude each one of us as individuals, but also to use our personal shortcomings (real or imagined) as grounds not to grant pastoral authority to any woman. If we clear these hurdles, you’d better believe we are capable.

Clergywomen have had their mettle tested. Women in ministry are criticized for our hair, age, fashion choices, voice, family situation, and many other variables that are irrelevant to ministry – and that men are rarely evaluated on. And the “acceptable” leadership style for a woman (in any professional field, really) falls in a miniscule range between too soft and too assertive. Experienced in dealing with discouragements around these matters on a regular basis, we are not easily scared off from the legitimate difficulties of church work.

Clergywomen have a deep, DEEP sense of call. Women have their calls to ministry questioned all the time. Sometimes it happens in plain talk (e.g., “I believe women should never teach men”), and on other occasions it manifests by such means as second-guessing, talking to a female pastor as if she is the speaker’s daughter or granddaughter, asking where the “real” pastor is, or using diminutive terms (Miss Laura, Pastorette). As a result, clergywomen check in with God about their calls on a regular basis, asking for guidance and courage to live toward the purpose we’ve been given.

Clergywomen are endlessly creative. When there are so many hurdles not just to serving faithfully, but also finding a place to serve to begin with, women have to call upon all our gifts. We can think beyond our assumed constraints because we must – and the church and her people are the beneficiaries of our innovation.

Many clergywomen are backed by a fierce tribe, which provides its members with wisdom and support. When a congregation calls a female minister, it gets the bonus of a magnificently insightful hive mind. (Note: if you are a woman in ministry who has not yet found her tribe, look for it! Here are two places to start. And as a coach I would be thrilled to be your encourager and thought partner via a coaching relationship.)

Imagine your congregation could find all of these qualities in a minister, plus the particular skills and graces of a ministerial candidate. What great things for God could you do together?

Searching for the called – one year in

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Last January I began devoting 5-10 hours per week to a labor of love: better resourcing ministerial search teams to do their essential work. In some ways, I can’t believe it’s only been a year. The marbles have been rolling around in my noggin for a while. In other ways, I can’t believe it’s been a whole year. Time really does fly when you’re having fun, and I have been having a blast with this project.

Thanks to insights from people I surveyed and interviewed, authors I read, and the Holy Spirit, the focus for this approach to search team work began to gel in the late spring and early summer. What would it look like for congregations not just to be blessed by the results of ministerial searches, but also for the search teams to be blessings to candidates, and by extension, to all the people and institutions those candidates influence? By arranging search processes around practices of hospitality, both aims can be met, resulting in a two-way infusion of health.

I expanded here on what hospitality could look like from an aerial view toward all the parties involved in a search (and note that there are more than two parties!). I have spent the last several months trying to bring the concepts down to ground level. Here’s what you can expect from the completed(ish) approach, which will cover closure with the exiting minister through helping the new minister get off to a fast start:

Applications that can layer over the process outlined by your judicatory, if there is one. This approach is not meant to enhance, not take the place of, the work prescribed/recommended to congregations.

A few non-negotiables. If your search team adopts this approach, there are certain steps that are essential to success, such as trust-building among all the parties, discernment practices, and good communication.

A lot of coaching questions. Every church, every search team must tailor this approach to its particular context. These questions prompt discussion to guide this customization.

Not just whats and hows, but also whys. Stages of the process and essential tasks all come with notes about their importance.

Lots of tools. I will link to pre-existing resources to aid search teams in their work or offer new ones where there are gaps.

Insights from the flip side. Often search teams don’t know what their candidates are experiencing on the other end of the line. Getting a peek into candidates’ hearts and brains will enable search teams to interact with them more hospitably.

Assessments. Is your search team ready for the next stage? Find out by answering a few yes or no questions.

There will be lots of other elements, but hopefully this gives you a taste.

I will launch a website in late June/early July with the completed(ish) approach, and I will offer free webinars about the content in the months following.  I’ll also be available for search team coaching and 1-2 day search team retreats.

Stay tuned for more news, including the announcement of a Facebook page that will give regular updates and link to search-related resources.

My guiding words for 2017

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Sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. Recently it ambushed me by way of an interview that entertainer/faux (?) journalist Samantha Bee conducted with pundit Glenn Beck. (If you click on the link, be prepared for strong language.) In it Bee and Beck, who inhabit opposite ends of the political spectrum, acknowledged that they have more in common than it seems. They celebrated their fledgling friendship by sharing a strange bedfellows cake.

That liberals and conservatives can work together on issues affecting us all was no surprise to me. What did catch me off guard was Glenn Beck’s warning that Samantha Bee was in danger of becoming – like him – a “catastrophist,” someone who reads the worst into every headline. As the earth has shifted beneath my feet the past couple of months, I’ve had to refocus myself continually on hope, courage, and justice. In those many moments when I’ve been less than successful at this, I too have been tiptoeing into catastrophist territory. (Vigilance and action are warranted in such a time as this. Catastrophism, however, consumes physical, mental, and spiritual energy that could be used more constructively.)

Surprised by this self-knowledge, three adjectives popped to mind, and they will serve as my touchstones for the year. I aim to be:

Curious. What’s really happening in this situation? What do I not yet understand? What’s going on inside of me? Denial and assumptions rarely lead to the best course of action.

Present. Who is around me? What do they need from me? What do I need so that I can stay engaged, insofar as it is productive? Insulating ourselves from the hopes and fears of others has led to a fractured church and a deeply-divided country.

Resilient. How will I stoke my resolve to be kind when kindness is not returned? To be brave when I am scared? To see things as they are, but still move forward in the confidence that this bad thing is not the last thing? 2017 promises many setbacks to the commitments I hold dear, but as matters of faith and integrity, I must keep showing up.

This is my mindset as we begin the new year. What word(s), phrase, quote, or song is guiding you? Let’s support and hold one another accountable.

Creative Commons image “New Years 2017” by maf04 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

It’s resolution time!

As 2016 becomes 2017, many folks will be making resolutions for the new year. Good intentions can quickly give way to frustration and guilt, though, if ample thought isn’t put into creating these goals. And who wants to start the year with frustration and guilt, especially considering the 12-month dumpster fire we’ve just collectively endured?

Here, then, are a few ideas for setting goals for 2017:

Consider the “why” behind the “what.” What are the reasons you want to read a novel per month, take on additional responsibility at work, or expand your circle of friends? If you’re sensing a nudge from the Spirit, tapping into an abiding desire, or coming up against a make-or-break moment (e.g., major health risk, request from a supervisor), you’ll have a better chance of succeeding than if you’re operating out of a sense of “should.”

Focus on what you can control. Want to lose 10 pounds? For some, that goal is attainable in a month. For others, it could be a year-long aim. There’s only so much we can do about our body’s chemistry and various environmental factors. We have much more control, however, over our actions. It could be more helpful, then, to frame goals accordingly: I will eat two more servings of vegetables per day, I will take 30 minutes of my lunchtime each day to walk around my workplace.

Note that there’s a step between doing differently and being different. Change usually begins with an alteration in routine. But for the change to stick, there must eventually be a shift to seeing things differently – not just “I teach,” for example, but “I am a teacher.” This new perspective is the midway point between trying something new and becoming a wholly new person.

Set sub-goals and celebrate when you achieve them. It’s easy to get discouraged when you set a big goal – even if it’s one that comes from deep within – and seem to be making only slight progress, or even taking two steps forward and one step back. Bite-size your resolution. If you’re a novice athlete who wants to run a 5K, first make a plan to run two minutes without stopping, then work up to five minutes, and so on. And reward yourself when you hit those smaller marks!

Build in support. Ask someone you trust to cheerlead and check in with you. If you’re concerned that this is requesting too much from a loved one, partner with someone who has a similar resolution, trade accountability and encouragement with a friend who has set a different goal, or hire a professional to help you stay on track.

Focus outward as well as inward. Don’t just consider resolutions focused on self-improvement. Think about ways you can make the world around you better with the achievement of your goals. We need these kinds of efforts now more than ever.

As you make plans for the coming year, consider how a coach might help you address challenges and meet goals. I am hosting an informational call about coaching on January 12 if you’d like to learn more about the process and its potential benefits.

May your 2017 start out with hope, and may your resolutions be a means for stoking that hope in the months to come.

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‘Twas the week before Christmas…

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Some crunch time humor…and an important reminder.

'Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the congregation
this minister was rushing to fulfill her vocation.
The greenery was rung 'round the sanctuary with care, 
in hopes that regulars and visitors soon would be there.

The figures were placed just so in the nativity,
waiting to add Jesus with his imminent delivery.
The musician in a tizzy, and I having writer's block, 
prayed our health would hang on
'till we'd sung "Silent Night" with our flock.

When from the copy room there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk chair to see what was the matter.
Away to the Xerox I flew like a flash,
dismantled the paper tray and pulled out the trash.

The machine had eaten all the Christmas Eve bulletins
and left me with confetti to distribute to everyone.
Little did I know that this was only the first mess
that would cause me no end of holiday stress:

The glow sticks I had purchased to hand out to kids
had been backordered due to so many bids.
My nursery workers were bailing, wanting to be in the pews,
meaning parents would have to juggle their hymnals and babies
until the service was through.

Grieving members needed extra care as they recalled Christmas memories,
and I was unsure where to focus my flagging energy.
A water main broke and half our parking lot was a geyser,
and I wondered if I could just hide in my bed, no one the wiser.

Strong Mary! Doting Joseph! Funky shepherds and sheep!
Sweet-singing angels 
and gift-bearing wise men coming to watch the baby sleep!
To Bethlehem proper, to that small, crowded stall,
now come quickly! 
Come quickly! Come quickly, all!

Time speeded up as the 24th drew nearer, 
and when was I supposed to shop for my family? That was no clearer. 
So to Amazon I went several nights, grateful for Prime, 
and shopped till my clock warned me it was nearly daytime. 

And then Christmas Eve came. It was showtime. 
I prayed that the worshippers would experience something sublime. 
As I climbed into the pulpit, white stole 'round my neck, 
I glanced toward the AV booth and gave a nod to the tech. 

Suddenly, I saw the faces. People smiling, expecting a Savior, 
glad to be snuggled together, on their best behavior. 
They were dressed in red and green, a few even in bells. 
They looked toward the creche, where God in flesh now dwelled. 

The music - how it filled me! The harmonization, how inspiring! 
The readings reminded me that I should be among those admiring. 
Communion brought us together with both future and past,  
Silence drew me into God's promise to be with us to the last. 

I then remembered that whatever did or didn't go right, 
the darkness would be pierced by Christ's growing light. 
Illumined by candles, the sanctuary filled with hope, 
and my heart beating gratefully, I scurried back up from the end of my rope.
 
God's love had been born anew, not just for me, but for all: 
good guys and bad guys, the worried and ill; 
the lonely, the wanting, the broken, and the raging, 
the hopeless, the imprisoned, the young, and the aging.

We all filed out when worship was done, 
Some to full, busy houses and some to a table of one. 
I headed home to pour a big glass of wine 
and to collapse on the couch, a hard-earned rest finally mine.

As I drifted off to sleep, too tired to remove my shoes, 
I gave thanks not only for the holiday's good news, 
but also for the privilege of witnessing to God's world being made right. 
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. 

Poem inspired by “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore.