Caring vs. carrying

A couple of weeks ago I wrapped up a three-session course on resilience in ministry with some fantastic clergywomen. We talked about the emotional labor that gets dumped on us by parishioners – bless their hearts – and the ways it siphons off both professional and personal joy. The question that popped into my mind was, “What do we need to refuse to care about more than our people do?” One of the participants anticipated that I was going to use the word “carry” instead of “care,” a leap that took us into rich discussion. Maybe we shouldn’t refuse to care. Maybe we can’t not care. But that doesn’t mean we have to carry all the worry and responsibility – especially around this emotional work – that others offer us.

I can care that you’re in conflict with another church member without inserting myself into the conflict.

I can care that your feelings were hurt by not being nominated for a lay leadership role while remaining clear that the decision was a good one.

I can care that you don’t think I visited you often enough in the hospital without doubting my intentionality around how I spend my ministry time.

I can care that you heard my sermon in a way I did not intend and still trust that the Spirit did its work in and through me.

Caring vs. carrying all boils down to the hard work of self-differentiation: here is where you end and I begin. When we are clear about our strengths, purpose, and role, we can begin to crawl out from the weight of others’ expectations while remaining connected to the people around us.

What burden do you need to lay down?

Photo by Felix Russell-Saw on Unsplash.

Everything happens

As a teenager I had an unhealthy affinity for Lurlene McDaniel novels. She writes about young people who have chronic or terminal illnesses. There’s also at least one book about a high school girl dying in a car crash because she didn’t want her seat belt to wrinkle her new dress. These works of fiction were the perfect/worst possible match for my personality: generally anxious with a side dish of hypochondria. I cannot tell you how many times I convinced myself I had diabetes or cancer, thanks to the similarity of my “symptoms” with a Lurlene McDaniel character. I mentally penned my farewell letters and practiced my brave face in the mirror. (Truth be told, I still kinda do these things.)

Which is why I couldn’t wait to read/put off reading Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an assistant professor of church history at Duke Divinity School who was unexpectedly diagnosed with incurable, stage 4 cancer in 2015. She is in her late 30s. She is a self-professed church nerd. As a Mennonite she is a proponent of believer’s baptism adrift in a sea of infant baptizers at her Methodist seminary. She has a young son. She has a close-knit, irreverent family. In short, I could relate to much of her story. And her humor…oh, how I love her wit.

But Kate Bowler is not a fictional character. She is a real person who is wrestling daily with what it means to inhabit the space between living the dream and actively dying. She is a real Christian who is struggling with her subconscious assent to the prosperity gospel – if you pray hard enough and are good enough, the world is your oyster! – and her fear that death means disconnect from her husband and child.

Bowler’s words did not hit me square in my anxiety. They did something that is rare for someone as head-focused as I am: wriggled their way into my most tender, most guarded inner self. They made me want to be less private and more honest. They made me want to dream about more than control my life. They made me want to love so deeply that I would feel grief acutely. Now, how to do those things…

I guess I don’t have to spell out that I recommend this book, as well as the accompanying podcast.

Thank you, Kate Bowler, for the beauty of who you are and what you share with the world.

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.

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.

Questions for reflection during crisis


There are times when the future seems so murky – or so desolate – that we are utterly unsure what to do next. For many in the United States, this is one of those times.

There are no rewind, pause, or fast forward functions available to us. We can only press play and allow life to unfold. For times such as these, I offer some questions for reflection. They are intended to help us gain new awareness, focus our commitments, and make action plans for leadership and for self-care. Intentionality is our friend when chaos is afoot.

You are welcome to share the image above and/or to print the PDF version available here.


On “bullies”

Lately I’ve seen several articles about church bullies making the rounds on Facebook. They tend to point out the characteristics of a bully and offer some helpful strategies for dealing with – or working around – antagonists. A quick internet search brings up pages of similar posts.

Bullying in the church is real. I have been both a witness to it and a target of it. If you have too, then you know it is soul-sucking. It is exhausting. It affects our ability to minister to healthy people. We sometimes end up taking our pain out on the people closest to us. We may even question not just our calling, but also our faith. Maybe those doing the bullying don’t know how deep their impact is. Maybe they do.

My coaching clients often want to talk about their “bully” or “antagonist.” That verbiage is a shorthand. If I’ve met with the client before, those keywords tap into previous conversations so that we can move more quickly toward designing actions. Those words also give me clues to the client’s state of mind, though I must be careful not to assume too much or project my own experiences. So the label “bully” can be helpful in some contexts.

But I believe the term’s usefulness is limited. If we almost exclusively refer to a person as our bully or antagonist, it becomes difficult to see them any other way. We begin to interpret everything that person says or does through that identity. The hints of humanity get sifted out. Saying that someone bullies rather than that someone is a bully reminds us that the sinner is not his/her sin. Language matters.

I’m convinced that there are pastoral care needs behind every act of bullying. We might have been so wounded by the one bullying that we are unable to provide that care. We might need to set strong boundaries with that person to limit the damage s/he can inflict on us or on others. But as followers of a God who loves even the hardest heart, we must continue to look for – or at least believe in – the image of that God within those who hurt us. Because if we do not, then God’s image within us becomes more deeply buried.

Bullying is real, evil, and potent. But our power lies in grace. Not a cheap grace that makes any and all behavior acceptable, but in a grace that moves us toward wholeness for all.

Creative Commons image “Broken Heart Grunge” by Nicolas Raymond is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Prophet and priest

When I was in high school and college, I fancied myself a prophet. I was a young woman discerning a call to ministry in a Southern Baptist context, and I knew in every wrinkle in my brain, beat of my heart, and conviction of my soul both that God calls women to be pastors and that we are up to the challenge. And I wasn’t hesitant to tell anyone exactly what I thought.

I might have said a prophetic word here and there about egalitarianism, but some of my bra-burning rants were more about pushing others’ buttons or reacting when they pushed mine. Fourteen years into ordained ministry I understand something that I didn’t back then: that there’s more to being prophetic than simply saying something edgy.

Sometimes God taps us to say hard things to people who won’t be eager to hear them. But there’s a second task in the prophet’s job description: we have to prepare our intended audience to listen to what we’re saying. Too often we expend our energy yelling into the void because we haven’t cultivated the relationships that prompt our hearers to pay attention, to give credence to our impassioned points. All the wordsmithing and protesting in the world won’t make up for neglecting this responsibility.

In congregational ministry we tend to believe being a pastor gives us, well, a pulpit for our positions. To some extent it does. Our title and role provide some level of authority. But to be truly, effectively prophetic (read: prompting people to real action based on beliefs they hold themselves), we must first prove ourselves to be our constituents’ priest. We must get to know them, care for them, learn from them, minister alongside them, share our own stories with them, be a trustworthy presence for them, and show our ministerial abilities to them. (Even as public figures we must prove ourselves relatable to hearers we might never meet by finding ways to listen to their concerns and by living with integrity, compassion, competence, and appropriate self-revelation.) Only then will the soil be well-fertilized for the prophecies we share with them to take deep root.

Taking the time to relate to our people is as important – more important? – than ever. In an election cycle that is turning out to be like no other and in a Church that is often held captive by anxieties and outdated expectations, prophets are much needed. And without real bonds, the only people who will care about our messages are the ones who already agree with us. Not only will few hearts and minds be changed, we’ll continue to speak past each other (or worse, talk at one another). So may God equip us in this critical time not just with the words, but also with the courage, empathy, persistence that give the words lasting impact.

Creative Commons image “Preach on” by David Sorich is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.