Politics, polarization, and the Coronavirus

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt covers a range of themes about which liberals and conservatives disagree. One is the care/harm theme in which the two polarities differently attribute definitions and causes of hurt and assign the responsibilities of society toward those who are vulnerable. In another, the polarities take varying stances toward people with power.

Our relationships toward these two themes are running beneath the surface of many COVID-19 conversations. Who is to blame for the spread of the virus? Who is supposed to do what about it? How well are our leaders serving us in this crisis? Who is the boss of me and my comings and goings as recommendations for ever more stringent social distancing guidelines are urged?

Right now these questions are only helpful insofar as they reduce the spread of disease. Beyond that, they are ingredients for introducing even more anxiety into a system that is already highly reactive. Still, the questions aren’t going away.

For leaders, then, the need to self-differentiate is more important (and difficult) than ever. If we can be with our people rather than react to to them, we’ll model ways to manage self and begin to infuse the system with more stability.

What does self-differentiating in a pandemic mean? Here are some thoughts:

Listen deeply to others. When people feel heard, seen, and valued, the tension in a conversation drops.

Stay curious. Seek to understand, whether or not you agree.

Don’t try to change minds. Be clear about what you believe, but prioritize the relationship over the position.

Neither under- nor overfunction. This helps distribute responsibility throughout the system, evening out the emotions.

Balance thinking and feeling. You need both, but too much of one or the other will make it hard to keep connected with people.

Stay present with people. If you can be grounded where you are, there is always the potential for care and respect.

Take care of yourself. Self-differentiation is hard work. Shore up your support system as needed.

Your leadership matters. While others panic, blame, or scoff, your self-management is helping make it possible for those in your care not just to cope, but to assign meaning to this unprecedented experience.

Photo by cloudvisual.co.uk on Unsplash.

Avoiding clergy burnout

According to many studies done over the past couple of decades, clergy burnout is epidemic. At least half of all pastors leave vocational ministry for good after five years of service. (Some surveys put the number closer to 85%.) Fewer than 1/10 of clergy make it to retirement. These are sobering numbers.

Symptoms of burnout cover the range from relationship problems to poor physical health to feelings of isolation from God to anxiety and depression. But what is the root cause of this burnout? According to Sarah Drummond in Discerning Dynamics: Reason, Power, and Emotion in Change Leadership, “A leader becomes burned out not from long hours, but from working under unrealistic expectations set by others or themselves. When responsibility and power are insufficiently proximate in the work environment, burnout is possible.” This means that clergy who are tasked with making congregational shifts (or keeping a lot of people with disparate hopes happy) but who are not given the resources and authority to put changes in place are most at risk.

What can pastors do, then, to avoid burnout?

Get clear. Use every avenue available to you to find out what the stated and unstated expectations of the pastor are. Read old newsletters. Paw through meeting minutes the previous minister left behind. Know what is in legal documents. Information itself is power.

Get curious. Talk with formal leaders, informal influencers, and people who have a long history with the congregation (including those beyond the church, such as judicatory leaders and other clergy in the community). Whenever a weird dynamic pops up, probe what’s going on beneath the surface. Illuminating unhelpful norms is the first step in reshaping them.

Communicate, then communicate some more. Let everyone – especially your core leaders – know what you’re doing. Use the newsletter, the pulpit, and social media. Make your pastor’s reports available to everyone when appropriate. The role of minister is shrouded in mystery for some folks, leading them to believe you only work a few hours a week. That can prompt them to lay on the pressure even as they grab tasks. Sharing what you’re doing can reshape unrealistic expectations.

Create constructive feedback loops. Advertise when and how you hear questions and concerns best (e.g., a Monday morning email instead of a pre-worship ambush). State what kind of feedback is off limits, such as your parenting approach or hairstyle. Say how you handle anonymous notes. Setting boundaries allows you to claim – appropriately – your power.

Build support for new initiatives. Before you take any big steps, identify the people who will be most affected and get backing from them, particularly from those with the most clout. In other words, pool your power for positive purposes.

Say what you need. Could you use more time away for rest and renewal and professional development? An increase to a line item in the budget? Introductions to potential community partners? More layperson power for a particular ministry? It’s ok to ask, no matter what the response is. In fact, it’s an opportunity to share your thinking and to give folks a peek into what happens in ministry.

All of these approaches work toward more alignment between responsibility and power.

The church needs you and all your gifts for the long haul. So while the onus isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – all on you to match expectations and authority, it’s well worth your effort to gain new awareness for yourself, shift others’  understanding, and seek more resources.

Photo by Danylo Suprun on Unsplash.

‘Twas the week before Christmas…

Some crunch time humor…and an important reminder.

'Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the congregation
this minister was rushing to fulfill her vocation.
The greenery was rung 'round the sanctuary with care, 
in hopes that regulars and visitors soon would be there.

The figures were placed just so in the nativity,
waiting to add Jesus with his imminent delivery.
The musician in a tizzy, and I having writer's block, 
prayed our health would hang on
'till we'd sung "Silent Night" with our flock.

When from the copy room there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk chair to see what was the matter.
Away to the Xerox I flew like a flash,
dismantled the paper tray and pulled out the trash.

The machine had eaten all the Christmas Eve bulletins
and left me with confetti to distribute to everyone.
Little did I know that this was only the first mess
that would cause me no end of holiday stress:

The glow sticks I had purchased to hand out to kids
had been backordered due to so many bids.
My nursery workers were bailing, wanting to be in the pews,
meaning parents would have to juggle their hymnals and babies
until the service was through.

Grieving members needed extra care as they recalled Christmas memories,
and I was unsure where to focus my flagging energy.
A water main broke and half our parking lot was a geyser,
and I wondered if I could just hide in my bed, no one the wiser.

Strong Mary! Doting Joseph! Funky shepherds and sheep!
Sweet-singing angels 
and gift-bearing wise men coming to watch the baby sleep!
To Bethlehem proper, to that small, crowded stall,
now come quickly! 
Come quickly! Come quickly, all!

Time speeded up as the 24th drew nearer, 
and when was I supposed to shop for my family? That was no clearer. 
So to Amazon I went several nights, grateful for Prime, 
and shopped till my clock warned me it was nearly daytime. 

And then Christmas Eve came. It was showtime. 
I prayed that the worshippers would experience something sublime. 
As I climbed into the pulpit, white stole 'round my neck, 
I glanced toward the AV booth and gave a nod to the tech. 

Suddenly, I saw the faces. People smiling, expecting a Savior, 
glad to be snuggled together, on their best behavior. 
They were dressed in red and green, a few even in bells. 
They looked toward the creche, where God in flesh now dwelled. 

The music - how it filled me! The harmonization, how inspiring! 
The readings reminded me that I should be among those admiring. 
Communion brought us together with both future and past,  
Silence drew me into God's promise to be with us to the last. 

I then remembered that whatever did or didn't go right, 
the darkness would be pierced by Christ's growing light. 
Illumined by candles, the sanctuary filled with hope, 
and my heart beating gratefully, I scurried back up from the end of my rope.
 
God's love had been born anew, not just for me, but for all: 
good guys and bad guys, the worried and ill; 
the lonely, the wanting, the broken, and the raging, 
the hopeless, the imprisoned, the young, and the aging.

We all filed out when worship was done, 
Some to full, busy houses and some to a table of one. 
I headed home to pour a big glass of wine 
and to collapse on the couch, a hard-earned rest finally mine.

As I drifted off to sleep, too tired to remove my shoes, 
I gave thanks not only for the holiday's good news, 
but also for the privilege of witnessing to God's world being made right. 
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. 

Poem inspired by “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore.





 

The value of boundaries

[Note: this post originally appeared on Searching for the Called.]

As a minister with standing in my region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I am required to attend boundary training at least every ten years. This is important work, not just because abuse by clergy is (sadly) in the news so much these days. It’s also essential because the emphasis in these conversations shifts. For example, we spent much more time discussing preaching in this iteration of the training than in my last go-round. That’s because the political climate is such that pastors have to check their motivations and their theology every week so that the pulpit doesn’t become, well, the bully pulpit.

The increased attention to preaching was not the only new piece for me, however. The training materials lifted out that boundaries aid ministers’ work; they allow pastors to recover from the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical demands of their roles so that they can come back to lead another day. That seems obvious enough. For the first time, however, I heard that boundaries themselves actually are the work.

I bristled at that statement initially. Surely ministers are not being encouraged to walk around wrapped in caution tape! But the materials clarified that we are constantly crossing boundaries – anytime we step over the threshold into a homebound member’s home or a hospital room, get buzzed into a school to eat lunch with a youth, hear the intimate details of a parishioner’s hurt, embolden our leadership in the midst of conflict, share a bit about our lives to let others know they are not alone, or enter the pulpit to preach. It is the minister’s job, though, to acknowledge those boundaries, to be clear on why we are or are not pushing through them, and to ensure that those reasons are to help the people in our care grow closer to God.

At the same time, spiritual leaders are called to help others recognize the boundaries they have set up between themselves and God and between themselves and their fellow humans so that they can remove these obstacles. Clergy do this through preaching and prayer, teaching and serving the community alongside church members.

Boundaries, then, are in fact the heart of ministry, recognizing and then either holding to or tearing them down. The hoped-for end is the same, regardless: to see and celebrate the image of God in all people and to remember that rootedness in relationship to God is essential for us all.

May we thus be aware of boundaries, sometimes using and other times obliterating them to promote connection and wholeness.

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash.

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.

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.

 

 

Fending off overfunctioning online workshop

 

It was December, six months into my very first call as a Minister of Education, and I was in charge of making sure all of the out-of-town college students received their pre-exam care packages. I shopped for gift cards, snacks, and cozy socks. I bought and assembled the boxes. I printed the shipping labels. I taped up and took all the completed parcels to the post office. Midway through this process, I was stripped down to a tank top – in sub-freezing weather – in a Sunday School room, grumbling and sweating and wondering why the heck no one was helping me. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t ask.)

I was waaaay overfunctioning. And it was neither the first nor the last time.

As it turns out, overfunctioning is a common struggle among ministers. We want to prove our competence. We hesitate to burden other people who are busy like we are by asking for help. Some of us deal with perfectionism. Others just want to go home, and it’s easier and quicker in the short run to cross off the tasks ourselves. And women are culturally conditioned to do all the things. These are only some of the reasons behind the tendency to overfunction in ministry.

That’s why I’m offering a workshop on overfunctioning, just in time to work on giving this default mode up for Lent (and Lenten preparations!). In this 90-minute gathering, I will define overfunctioning and connect its motivations to each Enneagram type. We will explore the implications of overfunctioning for ourselves, our loved ones, our congregations, and our successors. We’ll take a look at what scripture has to say about overfunctioning. Then we’ll pinpoint our signals that we’re easing into overfunctioning territory, discuss multiple strategies for extricating ourselves, and design the actions we each plan to implement to keep overfunctioning at bay.

The workshop will take place via the Zoom platform on Tuesday, February 12, from 1:30-3:00 pm eastern. The cost is $15, and registration is available here. I encourage you to sign up if you:

  • find yourself resentful for all the tasks that have been dumped on you,
  • have no time for anything beyond church,
  • are afraid – for whatever reason – to give up anything on your to-do list,
  • don’t know where to start with delegating, or
  • feel tired all the time.

This workshop will help you see the bigger picture and adjust accordingly so that you can have a long, fruitful ministry and a flourishing life outside of the church as well.