Balking at binaries

When I was growing up, I thought being a strong woman – since “strong” is a stereotypically masculine virtue – meant that I had to reject anything associated with femininity. I didn’t wear pink. I refused to learn how to cook. I cut my hair short. I played on the boys’ church league basketball team. (In fact, my short hair and blousy basketball jersey combined with a referee’s poor eyesight prompted him to refer to me – game after game – as “little man.”) I sought ordination and a ministry position in the Baptist world, even though I had only seen men in those roles.

So no one was more surprised than me when I bought a sewing machine ten years ago to make kitchen curtains for my new house. I then made placemats, napkins, pillows, and other domestic items in addition to some clergy stoles. I realized that I loved sewing, dangit. And, as it turned out, I was no less strong than I’d been pre-Singer. I began to understand that the feminine-masculine binary was not just hurtful but false. I deeply regretted subconsciously buying into the message that male (again, defined stereotypically) was better and female was lesser. I wondered what other joys I had deprived myself of in the effort not to be too girly.

Masculine-feminine binaries are not the only ones that keep us from living abundantly, however. At Nevertheless She Preached, Jaime Clark-Soles talked about the way traditional interpretations of the Martha-Mary relationship sort their roles into bad and good. In Luke 10 Mary chooses the “better part” by sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha is “distracted by her many tasks” (NRSV). But the latter descriptor is more accurately translated as “drawn away into much ministry,” with the Greek word for ministry used by and about Paul elsewhere in Acts and the Epistles. We have falsely pitted Mary and Martha against each other for millenia while both were attending to aspects of the life of faith.

In congregational life binaries translate into polarities, either/or pairings that are better viewed as both/and. Should we be a church that cares for those who are already here or that goes into the community to share God’s love? Should we have traditional or contemporary worship? Should we be pastor-led or lay-led? Generally, the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” Too often we think we cannot do or be both and must choose. But polarities cannot – should not – be solved, only managed, in order for us to accept the fullness of the work and the abundance that God wants for us.

These days, I wear pink (and most days, a skirt). I’m a mom who revels in that role. I’ve also cut my hair short again and enjoy crude jokes way more than I should. My strength and joy are enhanced, not diminished, by this complexity. Where do you need to rename binaries as polarities, and what do you and the people you care about require to thrive that in-between space?

[Note: this is the fourth of four posts inspired by the Nevertheless She Preached conference.]

Photo by KT on Unsplash.

Reclaim your too-muchness

When have you been told that you were too much?

Too intimidating?

Too emotional?

Too opinionated?

Too invested?

Too smart?

Too beautiful?

The church and the world often tell women that we are too…too…too. Our too-muchness makes people uncomfortable. Our too-muchness threatens the status quo. And yet, the church and the world need our too-muchness. As Tectonic plates shift beneath the church and culture, women have the insight and innovation that can result in a more just and sustainable society.

AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez, an IndoLatinx mujerista and faith-based organizer, spoke about reclaiming our too-muchness at Nevertheless She Preached. She said that people want to celebrate the survival of women who have experienced trauma. They often do not, though, want to celebrate what made it possible – our too-muchness.

This too-muchness is both forged in circumstances and God-given. As a matter of faithfulness, then, we must lean into our too-muchness. But how do we do that?

  • Think about when you have felt most powerful. What made it possible for you to claim your strength? What influence do you have in recreating these conditions?
  • Think about when you have felt least powerful. What were the circumstances? Which of these circumstances can you change or work around in the future in order to claim more of your strength?
  • Who affirms you in your too-muchness? How might you amplify those supportive voices?
  • Whom can you affirm in their too-muchness? How might you go about it?
  • How has your too-muchness served you well? How might you remind yourself of those good outcomes on a regular basis?
  • What does it look like to be grateful for your God-given too-muchness?

I hope that these questions provide some points of reflection for wearing your too-muchness with pride and helping others do the same.

[Note: this is the third of four posts inspired by the Nevertheless She Preached conference.]

Photo by Ryan Riggins on Unsplash.

Vulnerability as rebellion

“Sometimes vulnerability might look like rebellion to someone else.” So proclaimed Kyndra Frazier – a pastor, mental health professional, and self-described hope innovator (I love that term!) – from the Nevertheless She Preached stage. If God is working for our thriving, she said, then we can risk standing in our truth and fully inhabiting our bodies.

I confess, I struggle with the V word. Mightily. I’ve assumed for a long time that it’s because I am an internal processor, a left-brained thinker, and a deeply private person. But lately I’ve remembered I was more outgoing – more willing to wear my heart on my sleeve – at one time. Case in point: I remember holding a boom box out the window of a friend’s house, crying and blasting Debbie Gibson, to try to win back a boyfriend in the sixth grade. Most of the girls in my grade were inside the house, while many of my male classmates were outside. I was not deterred by the gazes and whispers of this party-sized crowd. (The aim of this exercise was problematic, for sure, but also indicative that my resistance to vulnerability is learned, not inherent.)

I pinpoint the first day of seventh grade as my withdrawal into myself. New school. New people. New universe, as a formerly public school kid starting private school. The first bell rang, and I was clueless. Was I supposed to go to my first class, or was there some sort of orientation first? The first night of homework – a trauma that devolved into tears and lashing out at my parents and lasted into the early hours of the next day – zapped my confidence. The first weeks went by, and the best friend I’d followed to this new school disappeared into a new circle of peers. It suddenly felt too risky to lay out my hopes and fears and anxieties, so I stopped doing so. I was being strong and stoic, I told myself. Who wants to be a walking puddle?

What I didn’t realize was that I was playing into cultural messages that keep us isolated so that we cannot find each other, band together, and affect change. But vulnerability as rebellion exposes those messages and the systems they support for the evils they are. It prompts us to tell our stories to one another so that we see God in all people. It broadcasts the needs we each have and the barriers we encounter to having those needs met so that we can remove those obstacles. It joins us at the heart with people we see as soul siblings, and it reminds us that our vulnerability is exactly the power we need to overhaul unjust institutions. Sharing my vulnerability in service to rebellion is the least I can do as someone with relative privilege, recognizing that others’ efforts to be authentic have much higher stakes.

I’m going to try to be more vulnerable, because these times call for rebellion. Will you join me?

[Note: this is the second of four posts inspired by the Nevertheless She Preached Conference.]

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash.

 

The ministry of absence

The death of a loved one. A financial catastrophe. The disappearance of a child. A sexual assault. The anticipation of a life-altering diagnosis. A journey into the unknown. These are some of the situations in which pastors and other caregivers are called to provide a ministry of presence – an embodiment of God’s love for those who are lonely, hurting, or anxious – because words are insufficient and our ability to do something is limited.

In the pastoral life, much emphasis is placed on this ministry of presence, and for good reason. Christians are people of the incarnation, in which God put God’s own body on the line so that humankind might feel the divine breath, touch the divine’s clothing, and experience the divine washing our dirty, smelly feet. Through Jesus God was born into the world, moved about the world, and was murdered by the world, yet came back from death to show off scars and cook fish on the beach for friends. Jesus was fully present to us, and in being so he demonstrated God’s own desire to be close to us.

And yet, we can’t always be present. Sometimes the reasons are logistical; time and geography do not permit. Sometimes the reasons are that we have multiple pulls on our ministry at the same time. And sometimes the reasons are that we have nothing left to give at that moment. At this point self-care becomes an imperative rather than merely a good idea. Many of us resist self-care, though, because of critical voices that come from within us and beyond us and because we follow a Christ who made time for others, even when he desperately needed to catch his breath. We equate self-care with selfishness, and we talk ourselves out of it.

It’s time to reframe self-care. Last week at Nevertheless She Preached, I was introduced to the concept of a ministry of absence by Jaime Clark-Soles, professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology. The term, however, was coined by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen believed that pastors had become so available that there was not enough space for the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of God’s people. In other words, parishioners have become dependent on pastors rather than on God, and pastors have become too eager to get their needs to be needed met by responding to every care request. Occasionally making ourselves scarce not only gives our bodies, hearts, and egos a rest, then, but also allows our people to strengthen their relationships with the God who wants good for them.

In a faith centered on incarnation and a vocation born out of that faith, how does a ministry of absence compute? The reality that Jesus is no longer physically with us provides a good start. He was raised from the dead, he had a few meetings with the disciples to boost their confidence for the work ahead…and then he ascended. He took off into the clouds before the disciples thought they were ready to discern and do on their own. They had a lot to argue about and figure out, and they did it with the help of the Holy Spirit. They likely wouldn’t have done it at all if Jesus had still been hanging around. For one thing, the Spirit did not descend until Jesus ascended. And Jesus’ presence enabled the disciples’ dependence, whereas his absence activated their boldness. That boldness built the body of Christ here on earth, through which the incarnation lives on, spreads the good news, and cares for the least of these.

There are times to minister through your presence, and there are times to minister through your absence. Prayerfully consider what your indicators might be that one or the other is called for, then go forth in faith that the Spirit will fill whatever space you do not.

[This post is the first of four upcoming reflections inspired by Nevertheless She Preached.]

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

My commitment to keep growing as a coach

I recently celebrated five years as a coach. I have felt more creative, productive, and impactful doing this work than at any other time in my ministry. I love what I do, and I want to get better at it every day. That’s why I follow a five-pronged approach to my professional development:

I learn about coaching. Each month I attend – at minimum – two hours of continuing education online in the form of learning labs and webinars. I listen to a coaching podcast weekly, and I read books about coaching. Once or twice per year I take a 16-hour training around a particular aspect of coaching. These learning opportunities help me expand my understanding of coaching.

I watch coaching. A couple of the organizations I’m affiliated with occasionally offer live demonstrations by master coaches. I tune in to see how those who have been in the field longer than me facilitate new awareness in their clients. These demos give me a picture of excellence in coaching to strive toward.

I coach. I can’t grow in my ministry – and what would be the point? – if I don’t actually coach! And so I do, happily, four days per week. After each session, I sit and reflect for a few minutes on what went well and in what areas I’d like to improve. These coaching sessions and post-call analyses allow me to inhabit the role of a coach better.

I seek feedback about my coaching. At the end of every first session, I ask new coachees what about my approach was helpful and what I can do on the next call to be more helpful. I emphasize that feedback is welcome throughout the coaching relationship, since my goal is to support coachees in reaching their hoped-for results. I have also created a form for those whose coaching packages have concluded to evaluate the process, my competence, and my adaptability. This feedback gives me other perspectives on my coaching, pointing me to areas that need additional attention.

I get coached. I believe in the coaching process, which necessarily means that I pursue coaching for myself. I meet several times per year with a mentor coach who helps me work through challenges in my role as a coach and as the sole proprietor of a coaching practice. Being coached helps me put myself in the shoes of my coachees and remember what it’s like to be the one bringing the agenda, with all the excitement and hesitancy that entails.

I strive to be the best possible coach so that I can fulfill my call faithfully and serve my coachees well. I pursue professional development eagerly so that I can meet both of these goals and thereby promote well-being in clergy and the congregations they lead.

Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash.

Fatigue’s impact on trust

Recently I was coaching a pastor who was two months into a new call. She was excited about her church and its mission potential. She was also enjoying getting to know the people, but she was having trouble trusting them. She was a bit befuddled by this, because there was no overt reason for this hesitation. She hadn’t received any hurtful criticism or significant pushback. When I asked what the lack of trust was about, she thought for a moment. She then named relational fatigue as a key factor. In this pastor’s case, she had taken a full month off – a typical fallow period – before diving into her new ministry. And yet she was recognizing that she needed more time to tend to her (understandably) tender heart after leaving behind parishioners that she loved.

This pastor had just provided perhaps the most powerful testimonial for taking ample time off between ministry positions. We often cite physical and spiritual exhaustion as the primary motivators for spacing out calls. But bringing closure to relationships with people we’ve walked alongside during their personal milestones, with whom we have dreamed and argued, and who have been present for our own ups and downs is hard, good work. It can be overwhelming to think about opening ourselves up to knowing and being known by a whole new congregation. And yet, the bedrock of strong connections is trust, which we do not lend or receive without the willingness to make ourselves at least a little vulnerable.

This is not to say that it’s easy to take long stretches between ministry positions. Personal financial pressures are real. Churches that have been in long search processes are eager for the uncertainty to end and the settled pastor to arrive. (Search teams in particular are known to apply pressure to be on site as soon as possible. After all, the team members know the incoming minister best and are most excited about her arrival!) The pastor herself is looking forward to a fresh start in a new setting. But before committing to a start date, consider not only what you need in terms of every manner of recovery, but also what time frame will allow you to enter the system with a readiness for mutual belonging. This is a mindset – a heart orientation – that attends to the long-term missional and financial health of both clergy and congregation.

If you are already in place and find yourself reluctant to trust even in the absence of conflict, then self-care is in order. When we are unable to risk exposure, whether we are new in a call or ten years into our tenure, we need time to rest. We need space for introspection. We need opportunities to view or create beauty. We need relief from the relentlessness of ministry. Because if we have not tended to our own inner lives, we will not be able to offer a quality of presence to others. And if we withhold, then we do not build trust and do not forge or maintain relationships that make bold ministry possible.

In the case of my coachee, we strategized ways to create space and clarity within her current personal and professional realities so that she could increase her capacity to trust. If you find yourself turning inward in your ministry setting, what changes do you need to make so that you can be the pastoral leader God has called you to be?

[Note: my coachee graciously granted me permission to share her story.]

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Bookending the day

Your alarm goes off. You groan and bury your face in your pillow. Is it morning already?

Your fatigued body slumps into bed, and you can barely work up the energy to pull up the covers. Meanwhile, your brain is on overdrive, trying to process everything that happened during the day and all the tasks that await you tomorrow.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Real rest can be hard to come by, making for a slow start to the day. Real exertion of every variety – part of the deal in ministry – is hard on the body, mind, and spirit, making for a fitful entrée to much-needed sleep. It’s a vicious cycle.

Starting and ending the day with intentionality can help you frame your day more positively (thus giving you energy) and end your day with gratitude (thus sending you off to quicker and more satisfying rest). These bookends don’t have to be lengthy or cumbersome. They just have to work for you. Here are some suggestions.

Starting the day

  • Breathe deeply for 30 seconds before getting out of bed
  • Do a 5-minute interval workout
  • Decide on a focus word for your day that you can repeat to yourself as needed
  • Smile at yourself in the mirror
  • Speak aloud a sentence prayer as you cross the threshold of your home or office
  • Refuse to look at your phone until you get to work
  • Read a short devotional at your desk before you turn on your computer

Ending the day

  • Utilize the examen
  • Pray in color or doodle or write in a journal
  • Identify a way you helped someone or grew as a person or pastor that day, then name and give thanks for a way someone helped you
  • Mindfully stretch out your weary body and remember that you are wonderfully made
  • Tell someone you love them, whether in person or by technology
  • Create a short ritual of letting go of undone tasks or unmet expectations for the day
  • Meditate for a couple of minutes or do a body scan once you’ve gotten in bed

You cannot control all the events of your day. Bookending your day with intentionality can help you control your responses and their effects on you, however, thereby enabling you to release what is not yours to worry about and guarding your body, heart, and mind from an unhealthy level of exhaustion.

What would you add to these lists, and what might you try to frame your day in a new way?

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash.