Women, ministry, and emotional labor

I have a decade-old memory of weeding with great ferocity. In the process I was telling my husband – who had joined me in yanking up a root system that spanned the entire backyard – that I was so tired all the time. I was constantly doing, and if I wasn’t doing, I was recalling information or researching or planning. How did people find the leisure time they seemed to have? I was truly befuddled.

Part of my problem was due to my personality. I am interested in a lot of subjects, and it was (is) easy to let myself become occupied. I also have perfectionist tendencies, so it’s hard to leave projects be when they reach the “good enough” stage. But I’ve come to realize that there is another reason it is so difficult to let myself rest – mental load and emotional labor.

Mental load is bearing the responsibility of remembering all the things. Emotional labor is tending to the feelings of everyone affected by those things. Both mental load and emotional labor are both invisible and labor-intensive, draining energy and leaving us to wonder where it went. And women are culturally-conditioned to be responsible for both.

But wait, there’s more! Ministry is itself a vocation laden with emotional labor. We hold the big picture for our congregations, with all the hopes and disappointments of individual church members wrapped up in it. We sit with people in intimate moments, deeply listening to thoughts and feelings so personal they might not have been shared with anyone else.

And then…parenthood. That added layer upon layer of remembering – when was the last time my baby pooped? what did he say his best friends might like for their birthdays? what time is karate, and who will take him and pick him up? – and tending to big feelings (his and mine).

All of this hard work was brought into the light by reading Gemma Hartley’s book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. I took away a couple of pieces of wisdom from the book that are currently helping me address the heaping pile of emotional labor in my own life. One is that I have to talk about all of that invisible work, proactively rather than when I am at my wits’ end. Only then can I begin to shift some of it. The second suggestion that struck me was that I am sometimes undermining my own desires to share the emotional labor load by thinking that things can only be done one way. If I have a standard that no one else can live up to, or if I go behind others to “fix” what doesn’t look like I think it should, then the emotional labor will be all mine, for all time. I must admit that my way isn’t the only or even necessarily the best way.

Where do you feel doubled-over with emotional labor? What strategies might you employ to hand some of it off, not just so that you can breathe but also so that others can enjoy the breadth and depth of emotional and relational life?

Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash.

System or community?

In many congregations there is a generation or two that pines for a bygone era, one in which Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams and regular worship attendance meant coming to church every week. There is a movement in Christianity that pushes back on this nostalgia. It says that things were not as good as we remember. That the Church’s success then sowed the seeds for its current struggles now. That marginalization of religion allows us to be more prophetic. (After all, the church in Acts operated from the fringes.) That faith requires us to be nimble and to meet people where they are, not enshrine ways of doing ministry and make others come to us.

I agree with all of these arguments. That said, I don’t know that they address what I suspect is the real issue underlying nostalgia: in the mid-20th century, the church morphed from a community into a system. Communities are built on connection, on investing in our neighbors and our neighborhood, on drawing on one another’s gifts to make life work. Systems, by contrast, breed disconnection. They focus on areas of (sometimes manufactured) discontent and then propose solutions to that unhappiness – a product or service that we must purchase. The signs of this shift in the church include:

Congregation-shopping. If my needs aren’t fully met at one church, I’ll keep looking until I find the “perfect” (for now) church instead of pitching in to make my current faith home look more like my vision.

Outsized staffs. If laypeople aren’t covering all the responsibilities, we’ll pay more people to take on those tasks.

Siloed ministries. Noisy, questioning children and youth are shuffled off into their own classes and worship services, rarely to be heard or seen.

Inclination to hire experts to come in and tell us what to fix.  Someone else must know better than we do what changes we can make to become vibrant again.

Now, we don’t need to recreate the 1950s for a number of reasons. But looking for ways to move church culture from a systems focus back to a community mindset is a worthy endeavor. Some ways to do this include encouraging more interaction between church members and the community, not in a “we’re here to help you” kind of way but in mutually-beneficial relationship-building way. Looking for more opportunities to foster understanding, connection, and investment among generations within the church. And making a deep and wide exploration of the congregation’s collected gifts and considering what God might be inviting us to consider through this assessment.

The point of these efforts will not be to get more bodies in the pews or more dollars in the bank. After all, God told us to go forth to make disciples, not bring them in so that we can pad our attendance rosters and our budgets. But if we can transform a congregational system into authentic community, people eager to know and be known by others will undoubtedly be much more eager to join us.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash.

New resource: gifts gratitude calendar

“I don’t have enough time to do all the things.”

“I don’t have anything worth contributing.”

“Our congregation is so much smaller and grayer than it used to be.”

“We’re gonna have to send these church budget requests back to committees to be pared down, because our projected giving is down 10%.”

Do these sentiments sound familiar? They play in loops in individuals’ heads and reverberate through sanctuaries of all sizes. They are the product of scarcity thinking, of focusing on what we don’t have. The scarcity mindset is rampant in our culture, manifesting in the beliefs that we need to guard what we have and prepare for the worst possible scenario. And unfortunately, while we worship a God who created the universe out of a dark and formless void and follow a Savior who was all about opening up the law and the bounds of community, this thinking has trickled down into our churches. The result is that many of our people are afraid to dream and reach out, instead turning inward and wondering how long our congregations will be able to hold on.

The scarcity scourge is a huge barrier to growing our faith in and love of God. Luckily, the season focused on removing such obstacles to our discipleship is almost upon us, and I want to offer a resource that might help individuals and congregations note the abundance that God has blessed them with in the form of resources, talents, connections, hopes, and ministries. The calendar below gives a gratitude prompt for each day of Lent and the first day of Easter. (A printable PDF is available here.) Feel free to download and/or share it. I hope that those who use this calendar will talk with one another about the unexpected ways they have realized that God is at work in and around them.

 

Find your no-filter friends

A few weeks ago I went on retreat with my four best friends, women I met in seminary before any of us had significant others, kids, or “Rev.” in front of our names. These are the people who finally busted me out of round-the-clock study mode – a habit fueled by perfectionist tendencies and the need to achieve – with their invitations to sing karaoke, watch so-good-it’s-bad tv, and eat cheese dip. (I am forever grateful to these friends. Without their intervention, I would likely be incapable of the self-care required by ministry and motherhood.) We have aspired to gather every year now that we are geographically scattered. We’ve missed some years due to church and family commitments, because we don’t retreat unless we can all be present. But especially as we’ve gotten older, life has become more complicated, and our kids have left diapers behind, we’ve moved our trip up the priority list.

Other than my husband, parents, and brother, these are the only people with whom I can totally take off the filter. They have known me half my life, so they take what I say in the context of 20 years of deep friendship. This is an incredible gift, because while I always want to be true to my values and act out of who I really am, there’s never a time when I don’t either choose my words carefully or spool through the tapes after conversations when I’m in ministry mode, wondering how certain statements will be or were taken. That pre- and post-thought takes a lot of mental and emotional energy, and I am grateful to get an extended break from it once each year.

If you’re a minister, I encourage you to make time for the people with whom you can take off the filter. Use technology as needed, but get in a room together when you can. It will do your heart and mind so much good. If you don’t have these unfiltered friends yet, carve out time and space to find some. They might turn up at a local hangout, beside you in a classroom, in a parenting group, or with a group of hobbyists or fans. It’s not easy finding friends as an adult – especially when you have a vocation that brings certain assumptions to mind in new acquaintances – but it’s worth the effort to know and be fully known by another. While these friends will likely beyond your ministry sphere, they will bolster your sustainability in ministry as much as (if not more than) any other kind of self-care.

 Photo by Levi Guzman on Unsplash.

 

 

Small group processing sessions for United Methodist clergy after General Conference

Though my primary denominational identity is Baptist, my approach to ministry was broadened and deepened by attending Candler School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary. While I was a student there, I met four United Methodist clergywomen who are still my best friends. That was also the season when I started dating my now-husband, a United Methodist pastor. I have served congregations in multiple contexts, including the UMC. I now coach ministers in more than ten denominations, with a significant number in the UMC.

Because of all of these connections, I am familiar with the rising anxiety around the called General Conference – and the potential consequences of the decisions made there – that will take place from February 23-26 in St. Louis. At that gathering delegates will act on a report from the Commission on a Way Forward, a group proposed by the Council of Bishops and authorized by the 2016 General Conference to discuss and make recommendations about language in the Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. These conversations are high-stakes, and it’s no surprise that churches, clergy, and all people who either identify as LGTBQIA+ or love someone who does – all of us, in other words – are deeply invested.

Pastors will be bombarded with questions no matter what happens at General Conference, and I want to help them (to the extent that I can) show up as the thoughtful, faithful leaders I know them to be. And so, I will be drawing upon my outsider-insider perspective and coach approach to facilitate conversations with United Methodist clergy about what the General Conference outcomes mean for them and for their ministry settings. I hope that these discussions will be spaces for finding mutual encouragement and developing strategies so that participating pastors feel better-equipped to guide their churches in the coming days.

On February 27 and 28 I thus invite United Methodist ministers to join in one of a few 50-minute, small group (6 participants or fewer) discussions, each of which will be tentatively structured as follows:

  • How am I feeling? What self-care do I need to engage in?
  • What are the possible impacts of the decision(s) on my ministry setting and individuals within it?
  • What are the possible impacts of the decision(s) on me personally and my ministry?
  • How do I want to show up in and for my ministry setting right now?
  • What do I need to know that I don’t yet? How might I find out?
  • What are my immediate next steps?
  • What support do I need, and where might I find it?

We will bookend our time together with prayer for clergy and congregations.

There is no charge for these processing sessions. If you are interested in taking part, please fill out the form (which includes the available time slots) here. I will contact you with a day, time, and Zoom link by the week prior.

Peace and hope be with all who worry in these uncertain days.

Eight Cs for growing trust

[Note: a version of this article first appeared on Searching for the Called.]

The most important ingredient in any process isn’t expertise or charismatic personalities or financial resources. It’s relationships. When the bonds are strong among the people involved, there can be productive disagreement, a full exploration of possibilities, deep investment in the work, and mutual support and accountability, all leading to forward progress.

The foundation of relationships is trust. Not simply predictability – I know your passions and hot buttons and how you’ll react to each being tapped – but shared vulnerability and risk-taking. Many congregational teams and committees start with some sense of predictability by virtue of the members attending church together for a long time. But most (if not all teams) will need to dig in before high-intensity work begins to develop the second-level trust that will allow for the most thorough and faithful process.

What does it look like to grow that deep trust? Here are eight Cs – from lowest to highest risk – to guide that essential work:

Clarity is getting straight within ourselves about our thoughts and commitments, then being honest with others about them.

Communication is putting our clarified knowledge and understanding out there, and in turn listening to others with open hearts and minds.

Curiosity is admitting we don’t have the whole picture and wondering about what we don’t know.

Compassion is showing care to and connecting at a heart level with others, believing the best about them as we do so.

Companionship is being present and authentic while still maintaining the boundaries that allow us to be clear and compassionate.

Consistency is showing up the same way every time and admitting when circumstances have thrown us off balance.

Conflict is being willing to disagree and to have our ideas improved upon.

Control release is relinquishing attachment to the outcome, trusting that the process will end up as it should so long as we bring our whole selves to it.

Jesus embodies each of these Cs in his ministry. He bookends his active period with a time of clarifying his identity and purpose in the desert and a prayer in the garden of “here’s what I want, but I’m here to finish the job.” His interactions with followers and adversaries alike are centered on getting his message out while asking about and listening to their hopes and fears. Time after time Jesus shows up for people, particularly the least of these, truly valuing them and radiating divine love for them. With those who want to hold on to what they know and have, he’s not afraid to offer a challenge. And in the end, he allows himself to be led to the cross so that he can expose all that is wrong with the hunger for power.

The eight Cs and the resulting trust can strengthen relationships not just within the team but between the team and congregation. The effects of deepened connections, in turn, extend beyond the process itself, cultivating beloved community with the Source of love at its center.

Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash.

Follow your curiosity

[Note: a version of this post first appeared on Searching for the Called.]

In a recent TED interview, author Elizabeth Gilbert talked about creativity in terms of following our curiosity. We are often told to follow our passions, she said, but that is an all-in pursuit that can be both overly risky and quickly discouraging. For example, if we quit our jobs to write the book that is taking shape within us, we might not have money for groceries. And if that book bombs once it hits the shelves, we’ll have to muster a whole lotta moxie to put ourselves out there again.

Attending to our curiosity, in contrast, is more gentle. Instead of running out on our jobs, we ask, what’s going on in me? What is God nudging me toward? What would it mean for me to make a major life change? What would I need (externally or internally) in order to take that step? The ultimate outcome might be the same, but it would derive from discernment and come with a more settled spirit. The point is not to abandon passion, after all, just to probe it a bit. Or you might discover a previously-unconsidered way of being true to your gifts and faithful to God.

This curiosity is not just useful for individuals but also on group and organizational levels. Sometimes we’ll have a big vision for our congregations, or a member will bring an idea for a new ministry with hopes it will be implemented immediately. Asking questions can help flesh out initiatives, align them more closely with God-given mission, and stoke enthusiasm in others such that they are eager to join in. Or these queries might reveal that this thing is not right for this people at this time and plant seeds for other possibilities.

As you consider what is going on in and around you in this new year, where would a bit of curiosity help you listen deeply, plan faithfully, and move forward confidently?

Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash.