The joy of “barre-lesque” dancing

The only exercise I have ever truly enjoyed – aside from basketball, and even that included a lot of running I truly abhorred – is barre. In barre I have built my strength through small movements and isometric holds. Thanks to these classes I was in the best physical and mental shape of my adult life before I took maternity leave, and I am currently in the process of getting back to that state.

At the studio where I exercise, there is an instructor who is a former professional dancer. She has started developing and offering occasional classes with a dance flair. Before Christmas she led a Nutcracker workshop that combined ballet and barre. And recently she choreographed a barre-lesque (think burlesque) routine that she taught a group of about ten very uncertain women.

I am not a dancer. I have very little physical grace. (That’s what I like about barre – small movements don’t advertise my clumsiness!) But I wanted to try barre-lesque. My comfort zone was a blip in my rearview mirror, but I had so much fun. And here’s why: the instructor kept urging us to flip our hair and put more pop into our hips. She sincerely told us we were doing great. She encouraged us to enjoy our bodies. Her enthusiasm allowed us to relax, try new ways of moving, and cheer one another on.

The whole experience was not just body positive but celebratory of sensuality. My first thought afterward was, “I would like to bring every woman recovering from purity culture to this class.” Twenty-plus years later I am still dealing with the emotional and spiritual baggage that came with my church’s participation in True Love Waits, in which teens were shamed and scared into abstinence. It worked in my case, but at a great cost. Until my family moved during college, I had my TLW pledge card taped above my bedroom light switch. It reminded me to be totally confused about how God had wonderfully created me yet made me a temptress who could ruin not just my life, but the lives of anyone I let too near my body. Until my wedding day, that is, on which I was magically supposed to figure out (and enjoy) how my plumbing worked so that I could perpetuate humankind.

But barre-lesque let me inhabit and take delight in my body. For me. For no other reason than that it was joyful, and I believe we were made for joy. It was a whole-self celebration – body, mind, and soul. It was then that I more fully realized how I could not compartmentalize my physical, mental, and spiritual health.

If you haven’t yet, my hope for you is that you can find something that helps you embrace your fearfully-made fierceness. After all, God looks at your complete package and smiles, saying, “You are good, and you are loved.”

Creative Commons image “Backwards” by Quinn Dombrowski is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Safety in hard conversations

Hard conversations are everywhere – or at least are needed everywhere – these days. Politics, faith, and the practicalities of everyday life are converging in ways that necessitate honest and vulnerable dialogue if we are to grow as disciples and tend to the well-being of our congregations, our neighbors, and ourselves. Before we can have helpful hard conversations, however, we must establish some degree of safety for people to share their deepest worries and highest hopes. Trust is the bedrock of this safety, and I’ve written about what trust is and how to build it.

In this post, though, I’d like to focus on signs that trust-building isn’t complete. (In a sense it is never finished, because the work of mutual respect is ongoing.) If one or more parties is engaging in either silence or violence, that means said party does not feel safe enough to be fully seen, and more trust-building exercises are required to create the conditions for real dialogue.

As defined in the book Crucial Conversations, silence is a fear reaction that can manifest as sugar-coating one’s feelings, avoiding the real issue, or walking away altogether. Violence is also a fear response, and it consists of such tactics as defensiveness, blaming others, and using power over another in manipulative ways.

All of these approaches to difficult topics are common in congregational life, and they are very frustrating (at best) to those of us who lead. I wonder how our perspectives and the conversation might change, though, if we were able to keep in mind that silence and violence are the result of feeling afraid. With a more generous read, how might our willingness to engage and our approach itself evolve? What might we be willing and able to do with that generosity to continue upping the trust factor?

Photo by Harli  Marten on Unsplash.

The course of least regret

[Note: a version of this article original appeared at Searching for the Called.]

A few weeks ago my area was under a tornado warning. (Tornado season in Alabama is pretty much year-round.) I turned on the tv to watch the continuous weather coverage, which was led by a meteorologist known for his suspenders and his uncanny knowledge of local landmarks. He was telling viewers that rotation could spin up at any time, so we should follow the “course of least regret.”

That phrase has stuck in my head ever since. It is an encouragement to look at the big picture. Don’t try to run out for supplies in this weather. Don’t decide today is the day to fulfill your stormchaser dream. Get to a safe place and hunker down until the danger has passed. Otherwise, you might get the batteries or see a marvel of nature but lose your life in the process.

Often, though, we find ourselves traveling the path of least resistance instead of the course of least regret. This perspective is focused on our present comfort level. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make anyone mad. Keep your imagination in check. We might stay safe in the short term, but we’ll have a lot of clean-up to do when suppressed emotions and long-held disappointments spin up.

While I like the thought of the course of least regret, I might reframe it more positively, like maybe the course of greatest possibility. We’re acknowledging what is going on in the present – as well as the potential impact – and responding pro-actively so as to keep future options open.

Where are you following the path of least resistance, and how is it limiting you? How might you take the on-ramp to the course of greatest possibility, earning trust among peers and creating more options in the process?

Photo by James Forbes on Unsplash.

Workshops for your clergy colleague group

In one of my contract ministry roles, I help clergy put together peer groups for mutual learning and encouragement. Some of these groups convene around a common focus, such as digging into the Enneagram or working for racial justice or balancing parenthood and pastoring. Other groups, however, understand the importance of a colleague group for combatting isolation and burnout in ministry but aren’t sure what topics to discuss when they gather.

If you have a peer group that is eager to get together and engage in professional development but isn’t sure what that might look like, consider a workshop. Here are some of the learning opportunities I offer:

  • Creating and using your personal purpose statement
  • Living into your pastoral potential
  • Building trust at multiple levels
  • Fending off overfunctioning
  • Strategizing for self-care
  • Creating helpful feedback loops
  • Searching for a new call
  • Leaving and starting calls well

Most of these workshops can all be completed in 1-1.5 hours, including a high degree of interaction. They are conducted via Zoom, which means they would work for clergy groups that are accustomed to gathering in person or those that are geographically scattered. The online format makes the workshops very schedule-friendly, customizable, and affordable. The material presented could provide the springboard for deeper conversation over multiple gatherings.

If you would like to learn more about a particular workshop and/or discuss options for putting one on the calendar, I invite you to contact me here.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash.

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.