Life on Mute

“I never want to Zoom again,” a colleague said to me the other day.

Zoom. Teams. Go To Meeting.

Pick any medium you like. The general consensus after six months of a pandemic is that online meetings are about as annoying these days as in person meetings were before the plague. Except, for a number of physiological and psychological reasons, virtual meetings somehow feel more taxing…as if we ever thought that could be possible.

And, as a parent, Zoom School is…well…a practice in education and patience across all sides of the screen.

Virtual meetings are here to stay, I think.

Like healthcare, once people are given something (like the opportunity to work from home), gathering them back into the office on the regular will be more difficult.

I suspect the same will be true for the religious practices of the world, too, for better and for worse.

I heard a pastor say the other day that they had a small regathering of the faithful, and that the people who showed (around 20 or so) were “simply giddy” to be back in person. And I’m sure they were!

But what about the folks who didn’t show?

My hunch is that many people will go to their congregations through St. Youtube of the Screens with more regularity.

I don’t say that with any sort of judgment or even sadness. I’m just saying it…it’s how things have been forced to move, and it’ll be hard to go back. New metrics and ways of measuring ministry will have to be formed to account for this kind of virtual participation, especially as it appears that in-person gatherings on a large scale will not be possible for some time. And even when it becomes possible, church is not very embodied when we can’t touch one another, touch the sacraments, and sing.

It’s just not.

One of the peculiar things that the pandemic has forced everyone to experience, in one way or another, is the pesky problem of the “mute button.”

Oh, the dreaded mute!

Nothing is more annoying than a person beginning a long speech or a response, only to realize they were on mute. The frustrated participants waiting for their words say with alternating humor and exhaustion, “You’re on mute…you’re on mute…”

The mute button is instructive for us, though, and I think we should take this opportunity to think about it a bit. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste!

What voices in our world regularly operate on mute?

BIPOC? LGBTQIA+? Native American? Women, especially women trying to climb a corporate ladder?

What about children? Those for whom English is a second language? Religious minorities? People who don’t practice any religion? The very elderly?

The difference is that these voices have been “muted by the host” throughout history because it has been thought that their commentary wasn’t germane to the conversation. Or, more to the point, whether it was germane or not, it wasn’t wanted.

In fact, many of these populations have also had their cameras disabled, made largely invisible in large conversations. Or we shove them into breakout-rooms of their own so that we can largely ignore their input.

And now there are fears that other sections of humanity, who have often been the hosts of these large-scale life meetings throughout the world are being put on mute: white men, the cis-gendered, and in the United States, Christians. These fears largely stem from the realization that, well, other people would like to host meetings once in a while and have been prevented from doing just that and even barred from doing just that and, like any good host, dominating voices sometimes do need to be put on mute so others can be heard!

Our political and cultural schisms at the moment are all about the mute button, Beloved.

The problem, of course, is that for all intents and purposes, all of history, all of life, has been one big Zoom meeting, even though we haven’t had language for it until just recently.

Virtual meetings are designed to mirror the way culture has designed our common life: some are muted, some are hosts. You get engaged in them and you soon realize how undemocratic they are…and, by extension, how undemocratic most of life is.

Oh, sure…we talk a good democratic game, but the functions embedded in virtual meetings are too familiar to not see the similarities.

Some are on camera, some are kept from being seen.

If you have a question, use the “chat function,” and we’ll see if we get to it…

Maybe this is why Zoom is so exhausting: it’s just our normal operating procedure without any pretense, mirrors, or charades.

But in this moment, we actually have an opportunity.

We have an opportunity to un-mute some of the voices history has long muted.

It’s happening on the streets, but now it can happen in our virtual meetings, too.

Now it can happen in our virtual church services, too.

Now the audience is captive, Beloved, and elevating those voices so that they have a chance to speak is one of the ways this crisis can steer us toward progress rather than stall us all.

Who is on mute in our world?

In your virtual gatherings, who is perpetually on mute and who forgets to put themselves on mute? How can we use this opportunity to shift the power dynamics in such a way that we come out of this plague having heard new things, seen new faces, and gained new understanding, even from the (dis)comfort of our own homes?

When we speak out about the muted voices of the world, some will get uncomfortable. Some will not like the suggestion that they mute themselves so others can be heard over the noise of history they’re adding, consciously or unconsciously, to the conversation.

But seize the opportunity nonetheless.

Because for too long some voices have been on mute in this world, and now is a time they can be heard, by God.

5 Things Every New Pastor Should Know

“Anytime,” I said.

It was an answer to the question, “When can I call you?”

It was the wrong answer.

The sentiment was true; I wanted to help them when they needed help. But I could not, would not, should not, be available “anytime.” Unfortunately I didn’t learn this soon enough in my time as a pastor, and it, over the years, took its toll.

There are certain things that I think every new pastor should know. Here I’ve highlighted five of them. There are probably 5,000, but here I’ve highlighted five to start the ball rolling.

Get a separate cell phone for work.

The cell phone era has made the job of the pastor more difficult, I think.

I didn’t always think that. The ease of picking up the cell phone, storing numbers, even texting…it made it much easier to get in touch with one another at all hours of the day, no matter where you are.

Which is a problem.

Texts late at night that were unimportant. Calls on Saturday mornings for non-emergencies while you’re at the ball field with family, calls that would in past generations end up on a landline answering machine, but instead buzz in your pocket. Social media messaging that, in some minds, has replaced a phone call, but are easy to forget.

It’s too much.

Were I to do it over again, I would get a separate cell phone for work…and just leave it at home when I was supposed to be off.

If that is not possible, use the technology to your benefit. Silence non-family rings and texts on your days off. Ask work-related social media messages to be left as voicemails on the office line.

Make the lines distinct. Be accessible, but not always available.

Also, and this is important to know: you are not a therapist.

I’ve sometimes made myself too available for counseling over extended periods of time. In these cases I’ve almost always regretted it because those kinds of boundaries are hard to sever.

My limit became three. If, after three visits, the situation was not getting any better, I’d refer them on. Usually I’d refer after the first meeting, actually. People in need will always need you, and honestly, they’ll often need more of you than you can realistically spare.

Be good about your boundaries. I wasn’t always, and it takes its toll.

You do get time off, pastor. Take it.

Let people love you.

This can be a tough one for some pastors, but it’s important.

People want to give you gifts of love, and you should let them (provided they’re no political strings attached…cause that happens). But the generosity of your people should be celebrated, not stifled. There are limits, of course, but in general people want to show you their love and you should not only allow it, but welcome it.

Welcome it because it’s part of the bonding experience that needs to happen in this kind of a relationship.

I remember when, just hours after having our son and closing on a new house (it happened the same weekend…terrible timing), folks in the church offered to come and wipe out the cabinets of the new house that had sat dormant for a while.

I said no…it was OK. That was a mistake.

My wife, in her wisdom, overruled, and a cadre of folks came over to take care of us and it was an important piece of our shared journey together. It was important because they wanted to honor and celebrate with us, and I’m grateful for that.

Let your people love you.

Make friends outside the congregation.

I’m one of those pastors who encourages you not to have your friend needs met within the congregation. It creates a power dynamic that is just unsustainable in all but a few exceptional cases.

In those cases where I have made a friend in the congregation, I usually have, “the talk” with them that is not unlike a talk you might have with someone you want to date. It’s an important moment where you kind of redefine everything so there’s understanding. It’s not easy, and can be dangerous, even. If a pastor has a slip of the tongue in the wrong company it can not only jeopardize relationships, but might trespass on confidentiality.

This is why I think that, except for maybe one or two rare exceptions, pastors need to have their friends outside the congregation.

But here’s the thing: you have to make them.

Pastors are at the distinct disadvantage of having their work space, philanthropy space, and their “human-interactive” space all land in the same circle: the church. This means they have to be intentional about cultivating relationships in new circles, perhaps even very different circles altogether.

A running club. A local bottle shop. A sports league. Some of my colleagues have even become gamers, finding their community within the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

However you find it, make sure you find it. Loneliness in the parish, whether you have a family or are single, is a clergy killer. I know this too well.

You don’t have to be social media friends with your parishioners.

Gone are the days when most pastors had two social media profiles: professional and private. It was a lot of work and felt duplicitous. I got rid of my “professional” one with great joy.

However, I made the mistake of allowing every parishioner to be my social media friend.

Not every parishioner will get your sense of humor, Beloved. Trust me, I know.

Not every parishioner will appreciate your political opinions. Trust me, I know.

Not every parishioner will take your hobby as a “fun side project,” but will complain to others that you are “working on other jobs when you’re supposed to be their employee.” Oh yes. It happens. It happened. A few times.

Also, it should be noted that in this hyper-partisan climate, most pastors are generally more liberal than their congregations. It’s just true. And in a world where “live and let-live” is not really the way of things anymore, it might just be smart to not have the potential for an online argument.

Your internet activism may be threatening to some. Trust me, I know.

If your social media presence is meant to be “you,” and not “Pr. You,” then you are absolutely wise in not being every parishioner’s social media friend. Sometimes blocking people from seeing your feed is actually the most loving thing you can do for them and for yourself. For some you will always be your professional role and, like when the third-grade you saw your teacher at Target for the first time, will have trouble seeing you any other way.

Or, and perhaps this is even better, do what author and engineer Cal Newport does and stay off social media altogether. Author Ann Patchett has the same philosophy. It’s worth contemplating…I have thought about it.

Embrace both disappointment and overwhelming forgiveness.

I was disappointing as a pastor.

I’m not saying I was bad at it. I actually think I was pretty good in the parish.

But I was a disappointment in the role, sometimes.

And sometimes, honestly, the work was disappointing. I wanted to change lives, but sometimes it seemed I was expected not to change anything. I wanted to fight for justice, but sometimes it felt like I was usually just matching hymns and texts together and trying to find ways to say hard truths while offending the fewest number of people.

That can be disappointing. You adjust to it, because usually the disappointing parts are outweighed heavily by the beautiful moments.

But when you are personally the one doing the disappointing, well, that’s the worst feeling.

Sometimes it was because people wanted me to be something I couldn’t or wouldn’t be. Sometimes it was because I actually failed in the role, forgot promises, or made mistakes small and large.

It doesn’t really matter what the reason, a pastor has to quickly learn to embrace the fact that they will sometimes fail at the job, and that will feel devastating.

Likewise, sometimes you will succeed at the job, but it won’t be what others wanted or expected, and that, too, will feel devastating.

And sometimes your people will disappoint you, too. They’ll be more fearful of change than you want them to be. You’ll see sides of them that you’d rather not see. Petty sides. Racist sides. Sexist sides. It’s part of the work, Beloved.

And it can be disappointing.

Embrace it. Embrace the disappointment because if you don’t hug it close it will hurt anew every time.

Oh, it will still sting, but if you go in with managed expectations of both yourself and them, you’ll usually be delightfully surprised more than disappointed.

Because you’ll also find that sometimes you succeeded where you were sure you’d fail. And sometimes your people will absolutely knock you off your feet with their wisdom, their tolerance, their ability to change.

Surprises, both good and bad, abound in the parish. Embrace the disappointment and welcome the good surprise.

And here’s the thing: when you do, legitimately, fail at the work, I’ve found more often than not that the people will be more gracious than you ever expected…and it will be overwhelmingly beautiful.

Accept their forgiveness.

And then, try to dole it out on them, too, as the occasion arises.

______________________

Being a parish pastor was the most amazing and most taxing work I’ve ever done. But it’s also unlike any other job I’ve ever seen. It is a beautiful tightrope that requires more balance than I ever fully acquired…if it’s possible to walk at all.

Be mindful of your time.

Be mindful of your friendships.

Invest in your people, but also invest in your hobbies.

And know that you’ll suck at it some days, and they’ll forgive you. And they’ll suck sometimes, and you’ll forgive them.

Go in with eyes and heart wide-open, pastor.






On Failure and Honey

“You don’t lead a church anymore, right?” Alistair asked from the backseat this morning. We were stopped at a stoplight, and like his little brain does, that question just came out of the blue.

“Right,” I said, staring ahead.

“But you’re still a pastor, right?”

His follow-up question was innocent. He was trying to figure it out. Honestly, in many ways, I’m still trying to figure it out.

“I am,” I said.

My exit from the formal pulpit was tough and not easy and complex. It was hard to explain except for, well, I knew in my gut it was the right thing for everyone involved…even if it didn’t always feel like the right thing, especially to those watching from afar.

Why would you do something so difficult if it wasn’t the right thing, Beloved?

But, and I was reflecting on this the other day because I was chatting with a colleague, there is still a sense of “failure” for pastors not in a formal pulpit. It might be particular to my age bracket, but it’s real enough. It’s real even when you continue to work in the non-profit sector. It’s real even when you continue to contribute to the formal life of the church. It’s real even when you do get occasion and invitation to preach and teach and do the things that marked your former formal vocation.

Failure. Shame. Even when it’s the right thing.

And I think that’s something no one ever tells you when you’re growing up: sometimes doing the right thing can feel like failure.

It takes courage. I know this. I lived it. But it often feels more like crap in the moment.

Part of it is attachment. In all my leave-taking from congregations there has been this immense attachment that we’ve had to one another. When you pour your life into something, and people put their trust in you, well, the bonds are not easily severed.

“You don’t really care about us,” came one email.

“I get that it’s good for you, but it’s bad for us,” came another.

When my father left one of his parishes, one parishioner who we deeply loved, who took care of us as kids, whose house we went to and whose pool we swam in, said over and over to him, “Damn you! Damn you!” on his last Sunday.

I remember looking at him in that moment, his head down, not sure what to say. It was grief speaking. All of the above is. Grief and anger and confusion.

Trust me: that’s felt on all sides of the equation.

There were other notes, too.

“You did so much,” and, “You meant so much.” Lots of those. It’s always a mixed bag, right? And they’re said with love. I want to say all comments, even the hard ones, are said with love.

Love shouldn’t hurt physically, but it can sometimes wield an emotional sword that shows no mercy, Beloved.

All leave-takings are confusing and complicated and you try to do them the best you can.

So much of the pastorate feels so overly intimate that it is absolutely impossible to shoulder sometimes. Not only can you not be what others need you to be or expect you to be, I’ve come to the conclusion that a pastor shouldn’t be those things…it’s not healthy in the long run.

Identities become confused. Roles become infused. In work with such a porous border, with such ill-defined relationships, it’s easy to confuse your identity with the work.

I know it is not failure at all. It’s discernment. Wisdom sometimes whispers something that’s difficult to follow but important to heed, and speaks it so softly that sometimes no one else except a few really hear it.

I’ve learned this. Intellectually I know this. And I think it’s true for all people, not just pastors.

But the heart still sags a bit when you recall that you couldn’t be what others wanted you to be.

And I don’t write any of this for any sort of pity. It’s just an honest reflection; that’s all. Christian Wiman writes that just as we are sometimes called to things, sometimes we are called from things.

I’ve come to believe this, intensely.

Today on my run I had all these things on my heart.

When I returned and was prepping for a meeting, I stumbled quickly upon this poem by Antonio Machado:

“Last night, as I was sleeping
I dreamt–marvelous error!–
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.”

And I let out a deep, deep breath.

This pandemic has given ample time for self-reflection, for retracing the timeline of my life, especially as I near 40. And, as my Enneagram type is wont to do, I see more stumbles than successes. Perhaps that’s true for most of us.

But the hardest things, while they’ve felt like stumbles, like failures, I still hold on to the deep hope that they were hidden wisdom and that the bees in my heart are working furiously.

Furiously!

Making those perceived failures into a honey that will, eventually, be proven the right sweet ingredient to live into a life of purpose.

I hope that’s true in your life, too. I hope those bees are furiously making honey out of anything you perceive to be a failure and, in the end, you’ll realize how sweet it all was.