A reflection on my Lenten journey

Just before Ash Wednesday, I posted what I was giving up – or at least attempting to – for Lent: shame, inaction, defensiveness, withdrawal, and despair. All of these weighty realities were negatively affecting my relationship with God and my interactions with others, and my denial had been so thoroughly obliterated by the political and cultural battles of the last election cycle that it was high time to wrestle with each of these monsters.

Every one of the monsters, I realized, was the result of self-absorption. I didn’t want to hurt, didn’t want to be challenged, didn’t want to give up my sense of security. There are so many people who don’t have the luxury of avoiding hurt, challenge, and insecurity, and so my Lent was an exercise in growing my ability to center their concerns. I wrote a piece about what I learned and how I responded to these gleanings for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Patheos blog.

But if my Lenten discipline was just an experiment, a temporary shift in focus, then I was not truly willing to be formed, I was not actually interested in growing toward others and God. And if I go back to the way I operated before Ash Wednesday, then I can no longer claim to be a faithful minister or a follower of the gospel. I cannot forget what I have read and heard about the plights of others over these 40 days. I cannot pretend that I didn’t discover parts of myself that need redemption. I cannot ignore that if I believe God is self-giving love, then I must do my human best to embody that same love, comfort be damned.

So hold me accountable, will you? Call me out when needed. Tell me how I can help. I promise I will keep listening, expanding my heart, and trying to do better.

Creative Commons image “Walking the Labyrinth” by GPS is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

A Maundy Thursday reflection

Jesus’ disciple went to the authorities and asked,

What will you give me…

What monetary reward?

What recognition?

What reassurance?

What relief?

…if I betray Jesus to you?

if I take you to him when he is most vulnerable?

if I deny his divinity?

if I ignore his teachings and his example?

if I turn my back on his love for me?

 

I do this every day.

I betray Jesus

for the love of wealth

for the love of power

for the love of security

for the love of comfort

for things and feelings that are fleeting and fake.

And yet, fully knowing that I will turn on him

– even as I say, Surely not I? –

Jesus invites me to his table,

feeds me with the bread of life,

and offers me the cup of the covenant, saying,

Drink from it, all of you.

 

I guess “all” truly does mean all,

thanks be to God.

I guess I’d better start living like it.

 

Image courtesy of Hermano Leon Clip Art.

 

To ministers lying prostrate on their office floors

I have been there.

I have been bullied by power-obsessed parishioners, then gaslighted by a senior pastor who denied the bullying was happening.

I have been left with few advocates – whose voices were diluted in a sea of people who either actively opposed me or didn’t know what was going on – even as I was forbidden to advocate for myself.

I have been afraid of what would happen to my vocational future if I got let go and if I resigned, even as those were my only two options.

I have faded away into a congregation’s ether when no one wanted to announce my departure, because then the folks caught off guard would start asking questions.

I have endured a last lunch I didn’t want with a staff that refused to back me, at which the senior pastor poo-pooed my next steps in ministry.

I have worried about my family’s ability to pay the bills, having just purchased a home, when my income went away.

As I said, I have been there. And it sucks beyond words.

But this lowest point in my career was also the beginning of my rising.

I learned from the missteps I’d made while also refusing responsibility for others’ bad behavior. I continued the work of shifting my pastoral identity from a job title to my unchanged sense of call. The shape of that call deepened and sharpened, making the approaching points on my professional trajectory crystal clear. I sought training for those next steps, loading up my ministry toolkit. I was going to be more discerning, more wise, and more prepared emotionally and spiritually for the next opportunity to serve.

As a result, the years of ministry since I found myself prostrate on my office floor have been exponentially more fruitful than the years before that moment. I feel more creative and impactful and I’m having more fun.

Who knows? I might find myself facedown again. But I have learned that there is life after noting carpet impressions on my face. I will thrive again, God willing and with God’s help. You can too.

So, when you’re ready, peel yourself off the floor. Let others help you stand back up, because we don’t rise on our own. And follow your call from God into what is next for your gifted, amazing self.

Creative Commons image “Defeat” by Cameron Kisel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For the love of spandex

It all began with my (mild) obsession with flash sale sites. I had not only been getting some great deals through Groupon and Living Social, I’d also gotten a little cocky. I’d been posting my unique link referring others to my super bargains, and so many friends had fallen prey to my powers of persuasion that I’d gotten some of my vouchers for free. That was why, when the opportunity to buy a package for pure barre showed up in my inbox, I broke one of my cardinal rules: never pay to exercise.

As it turned out, I didn’t get that deal for free. But my body needed a tune-up before a beach vacation, so I happily scheduled the purchased classes anyway. Pure barre was an awakening – a painful, booty-kicking one. Every 55-minute workout was harder than the previous one, with its small movements and isometric holds, its ballet barre work and fiendish double tube sprints. But I left each class reinvigorated physically and mentally, since the focus required leaves no room for thinking through my to-do list or playing back tapes of conversations gone wrong. I was quickly hooked because of both benefits.

Most importantly, though, barre work enabled me to come to terms with my body. I have never begrudged my height, all 4’10” of it. I have lamented how quickly that extra slice of pizza shows up (to my mind) on my backside. I have also spent many a morning cursing my adult acne, wondering when my miracle creams will finally work their wonder. These preoccupations have made me a hypocrite, seeing as how I’m a minister in a very incarnational faith. I tell young girls to love their look even as I’ve hardly been able to look at myself in the mirror. I’ve preached that God intentionally made us the way we are, inside and out, even as I’ve wished wholeheartedly that God would have spent a little more time tweaking my design. I’ve reminded people that God loves bodies, or else God wouldn’t have given Jesus one. But still I’ve found mine wanting.

It’s not been a complete 180, but it has been major progress. I know it because of my love of spandex.  Oh, spandex, we spent some ill-advised time together in the late 80s and early 90s when bicycle shorts counted as, well, shorts. Since then, though, I’ve steered clear of you – until barre work came into my life. Barre exercises require stretchy, breathable clothing, and spandex best fits the bill. I’ve found that the more form-fitting the outfit, the more comfortable the workout … relatively speaking. So I wear it, tight as it can be, as I tuck and pulse. And the more I wear it, the more I flaunt it. I love the way it feels, and I like the way I look in it. My glances in the mirror now are to measure my muscles’ progress rather than to check for pimples (on my face) and dimples (not on my face). I no longer put my tights on just before a workout and take them off first chance I get – if I have to run errands before or after I torture my thighs, I do them in spandex.

My spandex has covered me in comfort through some difficult times. Pregnancy left me blah most of the time, such that I only felt normal when my tights and I were at the barre. When my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, spandex and that blasted double tube anchored my body and my mind in the midst of physical and emotional chaos. My spandex has also reminded me of my strength through change and the upward creep of my age. The visible curves of my muscles – even beneath the post-baby weight that might be here to stay – are proof that I can hold my own, come what may.

No, I don’t wear spandex under my preaching robe or to conferences or pastoral care visits. But you just might see me in it shopping at Target, running after my son, or grabbing coffee. I don’t don it to allure or to fit the mom dress code. It’s sort of my power suit. I invite you to put yours on too, whatever that looks like for you. Let’s be powerful and beautiful together.

Taking time to transition

I love my lists and my Google calendar. They make my chaotic life feel manageable(ish). Still, there are times when the to-dos meld into  asinglerunontask and events overlap. That’s when my brain kicks into hyperdrive, my eyes dart around my desk, and my heart picks up the pace. I’m TCBing, with output of questionable quality. I’m everywhere at once, but nowhere fully present. Maybe you can relate.

I confess that I sometimes I sing “I’m Every Woman” to myself with whiff of pride. But it’s not always (often? ever?) good to be every woman at every moment. I don’t want to be mentally running through research while eating dinner with my family. I’m not my best self as a leader if I’m sketching my sermon outline during a committee meeting. It’s hard to give good pastoral care to someone who is grieving when I’m still coming down off a tense conversation with a colleague. Yes, there are times when I have to manage multiple responsibilities, but not as often as I try to.

Hence the need for transitions: into and out of my workday, from one task to another, between conversations that require emotional awareness and sharp mental focus. Anytime a shift in mindset is warranted, I’ve got to take a moment to close one internal file and open the next. This transition allows me to consider how I want to show up for the situation I’m about to enter and to re-center myself so that I can live toward those intentions.

There are any number of ways I make the shift – sometimes more successfully than at other times, I admit. Taking deep breaths to re-set my brain. Jotting down notes about what I’ve been doing so that I can fully set that work aside and come back to it later. Doing a couple of quick yoga poses or pilates exercises. Shutting my eyes for five minutes (making sure to set an alarm!). Queueing up the playlists I’ve created for settling down and amping up. Turning over loose threads to God and asking for awareness and guidance going into whatever is next on the agenda. Taking a lap around the building.

What are the ways you transition from one task or event to the next, or even into and out of your day? Where do you need to build in a couple of minutes on the front and/or back end of your to-dos so that you can fully be you – insightful, compassionate, prophetic, gifted you – as a pastor and a person?

Creative Commons image “bridge” by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

11 red flags search and call candidates shouldn’t ignore

Are you a minister engaged in the exhilarating, overwhelming, often frustrating search & call process? I’ve ridden that roller coaster too. I’ve participated in some healthy call processes and in others that left me wondering, “What was that search team thinking? Lordamercy.”

Through all these experiences I have learned that the way a church handles its ministerial search is a big indicator of how the clergy-congregation relationship will go. That means it’s really important to be attentive to red flags in interactions with the search team. Here are ten to be on the lookout for:

Inappropriate questions. Outside of small talk, queries from a search team should stay focused on your call to ministry, qualifications, and capacity to engage fully the responsibilities of the position.

Incomplete information. Particularly if you are a finalist for a position, you have the right to obtain complete answers to your questions about the congregation, to view the church’s key documents., and to meet church leaders.

Lack of space for your questions. You are interviewing the congregation as much as the congregation is interviewing you.

Rushed search. A rush job often indicates high anxiety, which means you could be stepping into a hornet’s nest if you accept the call.

Unresolved conflict in the congregation. A church that has completed the hard work of a transition will have addressed tricky issues – or at least will have an already-activated plan for doing so that is not simply “let the next minister handle it.”

Difficult dynamics within the search team. If you can hardly see the search team members because of the elephant in the room, name the dynamics you notice and ask what’s behind them. These difficulties could be a microcosm of what’s going on in the congregation as a whole.

Inflexibility. If the search team can interview you at X date/Y time and no other options are available, for example, consider what might be behind this rigidity.

Job description that is outdated or “kitchen sink.” If the minister description has not been revised since 1957 or it would take four full-time clergy to fulfill all the duties outlined, the search team doesn’t have a good grasp on what it’s looking for.

Lack of courtesy. The best search teams communicate clearly and in a timely manner, plan for interviews and visits with hospitality in view, and don’t leave you guessing about search expenses.

Focus on hot buttons. When you’re asked where you stand on gay marriage, for example, don’t just dive in. Probe the concern behind the question.

No spiritual component. If the search team could have conducted the exact same interview in a secular hiring process, the search process may not have the requisite spiritual grounding.

If you note one or more of these red flags, don’t panic. These aren’t necessarily indications that the congregation is a train wreck or that you should immediately withdraw your name. (Most people who serve on search teams are participating in this process for the first time, and there’s a steep learning curve for calling a minister.) Do, however, proceed with caution. Do your homework. Leave no question unasked. Parse your search team interactions with a trusted colleague, coach, mentor, or judicatory leader. Mull whether this church’s challenges are a good match for your passions and your skill set.

Above all, enjoy the ride when possible, and hang in there!

Creative Commons image “Red flags” by Rutger van Waveren is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Where does your authority reside?

Two nights before I got married, my parents, husband-to-be, and I went to dinner in the restaurant adjoining the wedding venue. The hostess – a fellow young adult – placed menus with fancy fonts in front of everyone…except for me. I got a coloring sheet and crayons.

At first, I was stunned. After I got my wits about me, though, I was boiling. I marched the kiddie menu back to the hostess stand and asked, through gritted teeth, to exchange it for a grown-up one.

I’d like to say this incident was out of the norm, but it wasn’t. (It was, however, the most embarrassing in a long line of ego-shrinking moments!) Until I had a high-energy child who quickly and visibly aged me, strangers often underestimated my age. The mismatch between my perceived and actual age ballooned into a bigger issue when I became a minister. Not only was I female, I looked like a 14-year-old. Not a great combination for being taken seriously in the pulpit, in hospital rooms, and at the funeral home. I spent a lot of time justifying my presence to others…and to myself.

All of my insecurities came to a head during my first unit of CPE. Some doctors, nurses, and hospital staffers were more open to the idea of chaplaincy than others. Once I was mid-prayer with a patient in ICU – at the request of said patient and family – when a nurse burst in and told me to go so she could perform a routine blood pressure check. I acquiesced. When I brought my frustrations to my CPE cohort, my supervisors challenged me: “Do you believe you had a right to be there? Why did you leave?” That situation was in sharp contrast with the all-night vigil I kept with a family whose patriarch was dying. They – and the doctors and nurses – welcomed my ministry. In fact, the deceased’s wife called the hospital later that week to thank me for my prayers and my presence.

Those two encounters worked on me mightily. I realized I had been waiting for others to grant me pastoral authority rather than locating it in my call and my sense of self. God has pulled me into ministry. God has equipped me and continues to do so. I won’t get it right all the time, but that’s ok. Sometimes my humanity opens opportunities for connection that perfection in pastoring would not.

There’s a certain amount of authority we gain by virtue of our education, ordination, and job title. We also earn some of it by being with our people at points of pain and celebration. But these sources cannot be the primary means of understanding ourselves as ministers. Otherwise, when we are between positions, when we don’t have our ordination certificate handy, when we are at the center of conflict, when others don’t yet know us well enough to let us in, when someone tells us to get out, we won’t have much to keep us rooted in our pastoral identity.

Instead, we must continually (because it’s not a one-and-done exercise) develop the ability to ask, “Do I deserve to be here? What are the gifts I have to offer? What is God prompting me to do here and now?” Not so that we overstep our authority, but so that we live fully into it.

I found that once I stopped questioning myself so much, so did other people. Or, at least, those moments prompted more of a willingness to educate (and, let’s be honest, some mental eye-rolling) than a vocational crisis.

Are you called by God into ministry? Are you called by God to be in ministry at this time, in this place? Has God equipped you, or is God currently equipping you to serve? Then go forth to use your gifts, embracing your identity as pastor and person.

Leavin’ it behind for Lent

Tomorrow is the first day of Lent, the season of preparing ourselves for the good news of Christ’s resurrection, with all that it means for us. Lent is a prime time to clear away – with God’s help – the obstacles that keep us from growing in our relationships with the divine and with humankind. Often that spring cleaning involves taking on a particular discipline, whether giving up a distraction or adding a spiritual practice. Both are great means of creating more space in our lives for love. I think I’m going to tweak those approaches a bit and focus on the barriers themselves, using different means to try to shrink them.

Shame. As Brene Brown so helpfully names, shame is a feeling of unworthiness. It is different from guilt, which is regret about an action or an omission. God has fearfully and wonderfully made me. God has fearfully and wonderfully made everyone else too, including people I do not know, like, agree with, or understand. I will seek to be more attentive to when I feel shame and when I use shame as a tactic against others.

Inaction. I have always liked to think of myself as someone who does her part to help others. In the past month – as circumstances for a number of populations have become more dire – I’ve realized I have not been doing nearly enough. I will ask God to open me to opportunities to be generous, vulnerable, and bold…and to kick me in the pants to take those opportunities.

Defensiveness. My mind screams “I’m a good person!” when someone challenges me on what I believe and how I live out those tenets. The truth is, I’m a privileged person, one who has unwittingly perpetuated a number of isms. I will engage in intentional learning about the shortcomings I’m aware of – and, no doubt, unearth more in the process. Not to feel shame, mind you, but in knowing better, to do better.

Withdrawal. It is really, really hard right now to resist pulling my head and my limbs into my shell. In some of the spaces I inhabit, very human opinions are given the weight of gospel, and the outflowing strategies are heralded as salvific. It does not feel safe to share from my heart, or even from my greater comfort center – my mind. I will effort to stay present, because conversation is one of our greatest hopes for unity.

Despair. It feels like every day another heavy, wet blanket is layered onto my tired body. Things are changing so quickly in our country and world, and (to my mind) not in a way that reflects God’s yearning for creation. I will pray continually for hope, using the scriptural phrase, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

What discipline(s) will you take up for Lent?

Creative Commons image “Prayer” by masatoshi_ is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Nevertheless, she persisted

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?

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.