Coming: Advent Devotions with Music Suggestions

For the season of Advent (beginning in earnest quite soon!) I’ll be posting daily short devotions, just a few paragraphs, that will straddle the line between sacred and secular. My intention is to write some thoughtful pieces around the themes of time, waiting, anticipation, shadows, joy/sorrow, and yes, a/theism to make this Advent a ponderful one.

If you’re looking for something relentlessly cheery, it’s probably not the Advent devotional for you. But it will always be thoughtful and hopeful, that I promise you.

My desire is that these will be read by both the faithful and those who have who have left faith behind.

Along with my own thoughts, I’ll dot in some poetry suggestions, and most every day will have a song, secular or sacred, to add to your Advent playlist.

If you want them in your inbox, just click on the page to follow along and, boom, there they’ll be. And if you know someone who you think would enjoy this kind of work, feel free to pass along, post on social media, or print out and snail-mail a reflection to your Cousin Mel.

In this really tough year, as we enter into what I feel is a really sacred time of the calendar, whether you’re religious or not it is…it’s human to feel it in your bones, I wish you a blessed holy/holiday season.

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.

Studying Theology Exposed Me to What God, Is

idolsMysticism put me in touch with God, that golden thread running roughshod through the energy of the cosmos.

Theology didn’t do that.

Theology isn’t the study of God, but rather the unveiling of gods.

And what are our gods?  You know them.  We bow to them daily.

A popular god is money.  Mammon, if you want to use an older term.  It invites you to cherish it, promising you fulfillment, but then continually moves the goalpost.  This god is insatiable, delightful, and cruel.

Another popular god is conformity.  Most churches are built around this god.  Oh, sure, the cross may be front and center, but if you look past the cross to the people in the pew you’ll see their clean shoes and spotless teeth, a thin lacquer covering rotting insides intending to keep up with the Jones’s. You know quickly if you don’t fit in here because you’ll sit in the wrong pew, suggest the wrong hymn at the hymn-sing, clap to that one song, or bring your boyfriend to church and suffer the stares when he doesn’t fit in (and, now, neither do you).

Nationalism is a popular god.  American-Christians (in that order) are found in every congregation.  They complain when you don’t play a patriotic hymn on the Sunday closest to the 4th of July, or when you don’t adequately honor 9/11 somehow.  They’re not interested in singing a song in Spanish, but will insist on having Veterans stand up on Veterans Day.

Community is a god.  A benevolent god, usually, but a god nonetheless.  Community is a god who takes care of the flock, but doesn’t really like any feathers to ruffle in the nest.  Community will encourage people to bow, especially when they have a controversial idea.  Community will send you a casserole if you’re sick, but sometimes will question in hushed voices what you did to deserve the illness.  Community tries to love the followers, but often can’t meet all the needs, and so people will worship for a while, and then stop, if this is their god.

Right Answers is such a popular god that everyone has their own depiction of it!  People usually worship this god in quiet, assuming that everyone else is worshiping this god, too.  Until you show that your depiction isn’t the same as theirs, and then they take their god and leave. People who pride themsleves as “free thinkers” usually are strong adherents to this god, and you’ll know it because, well, they’ll tell you about it…

Some people think Science is a popular god, but Science is not a very good god because Science changes its mind as it gets more details.  This frustrates humans, because they like their gods to be largely immutable (and also largely mute).  When people say their god is Science, what they’re usually referring to is Right Answers (see above).  Interestingly enough, people who trust Science usually don’t equate it as being a god at all because, well, as I said, science doesn’t really work like that.

The Bible is a very popular god, especially among Christians.  But it is a god of mixed-messages, and so is not very reliable when it comes to rule-making and order.  Plus, no one can really agree on what the Bible is or says, so really anyone who bows to this God bows to a tailored version of their own preferences, and that quickly becomes the god of Right Answers (see above).

I know we talk about God as a who, but really we need to talk honestly about gods with the word “what.”

Theology is not the study of God, but of gods, and how we worship them.  Theology exposed me to what god, is.

And, oddly, those who trust their faith is the purest are usually the most pantheistic.

Feel free to add a god that you know…there are thousands.

“Girls Can’t Be Pastors” and Other Lies I Believed from Church

female-pastorI’m, in fits and spurts, working on a larger piece of work that explores and exposes some of the falsehoods I was led to believe as a child, either implicitly or explicitly, through Christian faith formation.  Here’s a short piece for a chapter tentatively titled “Women are ‘Different'” Note: this is not a finished product, nor even a finished portion, just initial thoughts.

Today, on the day when we celebrate 50 years of women’s ordination in the ELCA (and predecessor bodies), I think it’s an appropriate offering.

She sat on a stool up by the blackboard, chalk in hand, religious text-book precariously balanced on her knees.

Every day started with announcements and the invitation from the disembodied principal over the intercom to stand and face the Stars and Stripes and recite the pledge of allegiance, hand over our hearts.  Then, directly after those words, hands remaining on our hearts, we’d pivot just slightly to face the “Christian flag,” with blood-red cross over blue and white background, and recite a pledge there, too:

I pledge allegiance, to the cross
Of our Lord Jesus Christ,
And to the faith,
for which it stands.
One Savior,
King Eternal,
With mercy and grace for all.

We were Americans.  We were Christians. We were American-Christians.

We’d take our seats and, without fail, would start the day with Religion, the foundation of our schooling in that parochial school.

She sat up at the board and we all dutifully turned to the lesson of the day: ministry.

“There are different kinds of ministers,” I remember her saying.  “Some work in schools, like this one, where they teach.  Some work in churches as pastors.  Some are Sunday School teachers and administrators.  There are different kinds of ministers.”

I remember being onboard for this part.

“Men and women can be teachers and administrators, though the Bible is clear that women shouldn’t be over men when it comes to authority,” she said looking out at us.  “And only men can be pastors.  Men aren’t better than women, but women are just…different.”

My eight year-old brain can’t recall all the particularities of the lesson, but I remember being stuck and struck by that phrase: “And only men can be pastors.  Men aren’t better than women, but women are different.”

Don’t you love that little word, “but?”  It’s the word that people use when they want to sound generous but stick to their problematic opinion, right?

Like, “Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not sexist, but…” or the ever-popular, “I’m not a racist, but…”

Don’t cough or you might miss the remark that nullifies their qualifier.

I raised my hand.

Now, I think it’s generally true that most students assume their teacher doesn’t like them, especially in these early grades.  But I didn’t have to assume; I knew she didn’t like me.  I knew this because she rolled her eyes every time I raised my hand.

Especially during Religion.

“But Mrs. L,” I said, “I know women pastors.”

She closed her book, sighed, and looked at me.

“I’m sure you know women who call themselves ‘pastor,'” she said, “but God’s word is clear on this: they are not pastors.”

“But…” I began, and she held up her hand.

“You come from a different faith,” she said slowly, as if I had trouble understanding the English language, “and in this class this is what we teach. Women are different.  Girls cannot be pastors.  They can do lots of great things!  They can be teachers, and administrators, and music directors, and can serve God in all sorts of ways!  But only men can be pastors.”

“…we have a women pastor…” I continued.  We did.  She was an intern at our church at that very moment.

“Tim,” she said, “why don’t you go out into the hall?”

That year the hall and I became good friends, and not for no reason.  I was a talker, there was no question about that.  And I was known to get off topic and draw and couldn’t keep my desk clean to save my life, all reasons for which the hall was an apparent remedy.

But sometimes I was sent into the hall, especially during religion class, because I couldn’t believe the things they were telling me.  Or, more rightly, wouldn’t believe them.

At least I didn’t think I did…

Fast-forward to middle school, a different place and time, where I met another woman pastor, an excellent preacher, a gifted theologian.  I found myself not only admiring her, but encouraged by her.

But (see? There it is…), I also found myself saying things like, “Well, I think the pastoral role is generally best suited for a man, but you’re awesome!”

Patriarchy, beloved, is like a thief in the night, stealing those perspectives that make it impotent and replacing them with dead-end thinking and misogynistic memes.

____________________________________________

He stared up at me, grinning from ear to ear.  That’s not the first thing I noticed, though.

No.  The first thing I noticed was how his wife sat by his side, her face downcast, not even looking at me.

“We’re so glad you’re here, pastor,” he said, shaking my hand with vigor. “It’s been years since we’ve been here.  When that woman got here we decided we couldn’t come anymore.”

I took back my hand.

“Because,” he continued, grin never failing, “we believe what the Bible says about women.”

What does the Bible say about women?

The aged prophet Elizabeth has some thoughts, as she speaks into Mary’s heart, “Blessed are you…and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

The warrior Deborah is the only one in the book of Judges with enough guts to go up against Jabin’s army.  And Queen Esther is identified as being made, “for such a time as this.”

We grin so much when we feel like God aligns with our prejudices.

And his wife.  I tried to engage her in the moment, but when she looked up at me all I could see was a vast nothingness in her gaze.  As her husband made her culpable to his disdain for women as religious leaders, I couldn’t catch a feel for her thoughts at all.

He withstood exactly two Sundays of my preaching before leaving in a tersely worded emailed huff.

_____________________________

It’s amazing for me to look back at my youth and realize that, although my particular church never taught me that women can’t or shouldn’t be pastors, Christian culture imparted it upon me, anyway.  My teacher even went so far as to say, “Girls can’t be pastors,” which is either an indication of the age of the students in front of her, or indicative of her thoughts on gender and roles and the diminutive nature of females.

Is this peculiar to American-Christian culture, or Christian culture in general?  I’ve not made heads or tails on it, but the issues feels as connected as those two pledges were to the start of my every-adolescent-day.

And it’s amazing for me to see how many still sit in the pews of congregations belonging to denominations who have ordained women for decades, and still think it’s an aberration of the call, and not the rule.

Just look at a contemporary list of so-called “outstanding preachers,” across denominations.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find one with more than one or two female preachers on there.  And how many women do you know who serve large congregations?  It’s abysmally small, and this is not a result of ratios, my friend.

It’s a result of structure.  I mean, look at that Christian pledge I was forced to recite.  “King eternal,” does not leave much room for the feminine imagination, right?

The statistics are a result of thinking “women are ‘different,'” in all the ways that phrase is unhelpful.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if “Jesus of Nazareth” had been “Jean of Nashville.”  What if the Savior had been Jean, or Julie, and identified as female?  Would Jean ever be able to be, as the so-called “Christian pledge” says, “One Savior, Queen eternal?”

Or is the word “King” above less a description of Jesus (I mean, honestly, only Pontius Pilate calls him that, and not in a flattering way), and more a description of us and our propensity to equate male with all things powerful and godly?

Hell, what if God came embodied as a woman, and we all just missed it because we were expecting a man?!

Don’t say such things too loudly in the presence of the faithful, though.  They have a tendency to invite such ideas into the hall…

What Does the Church Look Like Without Communal Singing?

silent-and-semi-silent-vowels-in-japanese-devoicingHow can I keep…from singing? the old, old song asks.

Well, turns out you keep from singing because it might infect the alto section…and Lord knows no song is complete without the alto section.

If you don’t believe me, just ask an alto.

The very idea that communal song will be put on hold for a while, even after churches can gather in person again, breaks my heart.

Music is at the heart of what makes worship a thing.

Music is, some would say, what makes a church service tolerable.  And if the music is good?  Well, that can make a tolerable church service enjoyable, even.

Music was always the fallback for a pastor who gripped a sub-par sermon in their hands.  “Well,” they would think, “at least they’ll see Christ in the liturgy…”

The loss of communal singing in church will be great, indeed.  Where else, save for the bar, do we sing communally anymore?  Gone are the glee clubs.  Gone is classroom singing.  As the Fine Arts disappear from school curriculum in deference to STEM courses, gone is the peculiar mathematics and social intelligence that communal singing, both the learning and the doing, offer humanity.

And, sure, I’ve seen many the stoic pew-sitter stand obediently during a hymn and never move their lips.  But that is the exception, in my experience, not the rule.  It’s not that some have chosen not to sing in church, it’s that now we must choose not to fill the void those lyrical objectors create.

What will we do?

Well, we won’t stop music, that’s for sure.  In fact, one of the beautiful things about the liturgy lies in its repetition.  I only need to hear the introduction to Setting Four of This is the Feast and the song of my heart begins intoning, even if only in my mind, “This is the feast of victory for our God…

To be honest, one of the reasons the liturgy is repeated week after week is just for this reason: so your heart knows how to sing when your lips, for whatever reason, be it tragedy or overwhelming joy, cannot stir.  The liturgy is kind of like your familiar road home that you take, and though your mind drifts as you drive it, you arrive safely back in your garage before you know it because your body knows the way.

Your soul has memorized it.

That does not, of course, replace communal singing, but it is a bit of comfort, Beloved.

No, we will not abandon music, but we will do what communities have done since we first began purposeful gatherings: we will ask someone to sing on our behalf.

After all, what is a pastor but the person called by the community to lead them through the parts, sometimes offering them on the community’s behalf?  Who is the cantor but the person commissioned by the assembly to encourage song, arrange song and, if need be, sing for the silent community?  And, like the elected representatives currently fulfilling (or not) their duties in our government on our behalf, these people will take on the role of speaking for the community, singing for the community, until it can again.

This has happened in small ways, always.

I remember our musician playing an especially emotional rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” one Sunday morning and, when his voice gave out as the tears choked him, the whole community started singing the song for him.  It was more than beautiful.

This will be that, but in reverse.

And I remember a particularly troublesome bout of laryngitis that afflicted me one Christmas Eve, leaving me no voice for my favorite Christmas hymns, as I had to save it all for the sermon. On that O holy night the community sang for me.

This will be that, but in reverse.

And surely wise leaders will take the opportunity to safely incorporate soloists, distanced duets, and whatnot for those gathered.

Crisis is the mother of ingenuity.

What will it look like?  I don’t know yet…but you can’t stop the music, Beloved. It dances inside you. It lives in the heart of our spirituality.  The Christian Celts claimed God sung creation into being and, as Jesus said, if this virus silences the disciples, the very rocks themselves will ring out in song, vibrating with the energy of sun they’ve absorbed every day of their existence.

The crickets chirp the soprano line. The wind rushes through the trees as an able tenor (which are hard to find!). The opening petals of the flowers and their almost imperceptible cracking will replace the bass pedals of the organ if they have to…though they won’t.

They won’t, because we’ll find a way.

It will be sad, it will be difficult, but it will be done.

You will sing for me, and I for you, until we can sing together.

 

The Particular Anxiety of the Local Congregation

let-it-goCommunities have anxiety.  All of them do.

Work communities hold anxiety, especially when rumors of acquisitions, layoffs, and resignations begin to swirl.  This may be what Jesus was referring to when he said that you will hear “wars and rumors of wars.”  Maybe it wasn’t literal wars he was referring to, but the weird wars we play on an uncertain future when given the chance.

Family communities hold anxiety, too.  This usually presents itself in grudges, passive-aggressive phone calls, or over-communication between parties.  You know, so Edna doesn’t bring too much egg salad again to the picnic because no one really likes it, anyway.  And, do you think Brian will bring his boyfriend?  Because grandma can’t handle that yet…

The local congregation, too, holds anxiety, but in my experience, they do it in these really strange, yet predictable, ways.

Way One: the rumor mill.  It starts churning in the parking lot after church.  Or in the Fellowship Hall (really, shouldn’t we call these gossip halls?) during coffee hour.  Or in whispers during the offering after spying that thing in the announcements that you really don’t care for.

Notice how, in this particular way, no one actually goes to the pastor.  Instead, the pastor will hear about these “wars and rumors of wars” being fought in the shadows, and will say the predictable, “Tell them to come talk to me if they have an issue.”  And they have to say this because no one will give up the name of the person with anxiety.  Their name is “some people.”  As in, “some people are talking…”

Pro-tip: If you’re not ready to reveal who “some people” are, or usually, is (mostly always singular), don’t bother saying anything at all.

Way two: the late-night email.  Pastor’s inboxes are these strange depositories for so many people’s anxieties.  And I can’t tell you how many anxious, terse, or even just plain nasty emails, usually emboldened by rumor or fact-less fret, were sent after midnight.  It’s just there, staring at you, the minute you check it the next morning.

The inbox is where we hold a lot of our anxiety, transferring it there for safe keeping.  More often than not, I’d just delete it.  Because they didn’t need the anxiety, and had put it in my inbox.  And guess what?  I didn’t need it either, so the delete folder got it.

Way three: the anonymous note.  In what world do we think these are helpful?  Can we just all agree to put our name on our issues?  Please?  Trust me, you will feel better if you put your name on it.  Why?  Because then the pastor can actually talk to you about it.

But if you don’t want to put your name on it, do yourself a favor and write it out…and then throw it away.  Because that’s where your pastor will put it: in the literal trashcan. Or, at least, they should.  It’s what I coach them to do.

Way four: the grand withholding of funds.  “Until this is changed,” it was said, “I’m not giving another dime.”

This particular tactic isn’t just harmful to the church, by the way, but I truly believe it’s harmful to the giver.  If I agreed with every. single. thing. a place who got my benevolence did, enacted, or invested in, I’d probably never give any of it away.  Which, ironically, is what so many protestants do, as we’re known for giving only around .46% of our income away.

Notice that decimal point.

Leveraging your generosity to get your way on a pet project is probably the definition of bullying, especially for an organization that runs off of generosity.

Times of change and transition are always touchy, no matter our context.  We are animals who say we like adventure, but love to anchor ourselves in routine.  Deviation is not something humans do very well.  Evolutionarily, deviation meant danger…our lizard brains take over and our anxiety can get the best of us.

So what shall we do with our anxiety?  Name it.  Call it out.  Voice our concerns honestly with those who can actually address them.

And then see what happens.

Let them drift down the river of life.

Because our anxieties are just preoccupations with the future that prevent us from being present, and prevent us from being our best-selves.

One of the reasons I always deleted those late-night emails I received was because I knew that the person sending them was not in their right mind…because no one in their right mind sends those off.  And I wanted them to be their best-selves.  None of us need a paper trail of our most anxious moments.

But why bother to name these anxieties anyway?

Because they destroy communities.  They erode trust using half-truths and misinformation.

And they infect a congregation like a virus.  This is how congregations get sick.

The best medicine when you hear of “wars and rumors of wars” is to name the war, name the rumor, offer it up as a sacrifice to both God and anyone who can do something about it, and then, as Elsa would say:

let it go.

The Problem of the Circles

three_circlesSince I left parish ministry, I’ve had many people inquire as to the “real reason.”

Well, when I find out the whole story, I’ll tell you…

There isn’t just one, but rather many. And they’re not good or bad or anything.

They just, well, are.

A new call.  A nudge away.  A pull away.  A new mission.  I mean, all sorts of things.

But after serving in parishes for ten years, I do know a thing or two about what kills professional church workers emotionally, psychologically, and physically.  Parish ministry is, as the saying goes, “death by a thousand duck bites.”  I still, to this day, have a post-traumatic stress relationship with my phone.  When it rings, I react negatively.  Even after six months out of the parish I can’t help but wonder who died, who’s pissed, who’s in crisis, or who needs my attention.

Parish pastors aren’t, of course, the only professionals who have this relationship with their phones.  Chaplains, medical doctors, undertakers, and all sorts of on-call professionals know that dread.

But I’m not writing about that today, actually.  I’m writing about a more acute issue, one that leads to burn-out more quickly than the phone, and most any other, I’d suggest.  I’ve named it, “The Problem of the Circles,” and it literally caused me more dread in my years in the parish than most any other problem.

So, here it goes, some truth:

You have circles you run in.  Everyone does. And they overlap somewhat.

Somewhat.

One is your professional circle, or where you do your work.  It’s how you make your money, how you earn the means to eek out your small existence in this corner of the universe.

Another is your family circle, both biological and chosen.  In this circle you form relationships that sustain you and keep you.

A third is your voluntary circle.  For some this takes the form of hobbies, and for others it takes the form of charity or philanthropic work.  In some lives, those two are combined.

These three circles make up our existence and friend-base, even though not everyone has all of them.  In fact, most of the people I’ve counseled over the years are lacking one of those circles.

They’re stuck in their work, and have neglected their family or hobbies.  Or they only have their family, and have no meaningful vocation or philanthropic outlet.

Or they have a meaningful service opportunity, but work sucks and their family is non-existent.

That’s a problem, of course.  And it can be a problem for pastors, as it can be fore everyone.  In fact, I want you to stop and consider what your three circles are right now.  What do you have?

Ok, moving on…

All of these circles will overlap a bit.

But actually, I think pastors have a unique problem when it comes to the circles.

See, most people have three distinct circles: work, family, and hobbies/philanthropy are separate. They overlap, but aren’t the same. They’re different. Comprised of different people and different foci.

But for a pastor, the circles are all one and the same, or at least, that’s the expectation.  I was expected to pull my work, include my family (and pull my friends), and spend my philanthropic time all in the same circle.

If I didn’t show up for a community event at church, did it even really matter?  The pastor wasn’t there, does it count?  Why wasn’t I there?

And if the pastor isn’t at every social engagement, don’t they really care?  Couldn’t they be bothered to show their support?

Pastors are often expected to pull their work, their friends, and their leisure-time from the same sphere, and it’s just often too much.  Because if M-F is for work, Saturday is for social gatherings (that “chosen” family), and Sunday is for philanthropy, when is the time the pastor gets away?

Away to cultivate a new circle?

And not just a vacation…because vacations won’t do it.  Vacations are where you get away from all circles.  We all need a vacation; certainly.  But even week-to-week, we all need time away.

Away to form other relationships.

I can’t tell you the number of times over the last 10 years I received flack because I didn’t volunteer with this pet cause or that pet cause run by various parishes.  If I gave my time to every pet cause, guess what cause would lose out?

My family. Because it would have been, just about, every night and every weekend. Oh, and why isn’t the pastor’s family here?

In that case, my work and my philanthropy became the same circle.

Or sometimes my hobby of writing would catch flack because, well, why wasn’t I working?!

When do you think I do most of my writing? Here’s a hint: it’s usually after 5pm, and often after midnight.

But when you’re on-call all the time, when is time off?

Here’s the thing: everyone needs three circles.  At least three.

A fourth might be a friend group even outside of all of that (usually that rolls into the hobby/philanthropic circle, but can sometimes be a stand-alone group).

But everyone needs at least three circles.  And you need to be free to have them, no matter your profession.  You need to have them so you don’t become co-dependent on any one of them.

And think that’s not a real thing?  How many parents can’t stop over-parenting, even after their kids are grown?  How many professionals never really give it up, even when they’re technically “retired?”

Too many.  We become co-dependent so easily…

So, Beloved, how are you doing with your circles?

Yeah…it can be a problem.

Cultivate them.  You need them. And let others have them.

Okayness and Gayness

s-l1000“Hey Mark,” I said outside the church on a bright day.  He had grocery bags in each hand.

Of course, Mark isn’t his real name…

“Hey Pastor Tim,” he said a little sheepishly.  “How are you?”

“Good, good, how’s the new addition to the family?” I said, putting my hands in my pockets.

“Ha.  We’re all tired, but surviving the transition…” he smiled.

Mark and his wife had just welcomed a new child, a son, into the world.  I remember seeing the posts about it on social media.

“I suppose you noticed we haven’t been in church a lot lately…” he went on.

“Well, new babies disrupt schedules.  That’s just true.” I nodded.  Even though I didn’t have children at that point in my life, I knew it was just plain truth. Babies mess up your world in all sorts of ways.

“There is that,” he went on, averting my eyes, “but I’m not sure we’ll be coming anymore. At least not here.” He was honest and frank and seemed embarrassed about it all.

“Okay…” I responded, “is everything alright?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “but I’m not sure we can raise a kid in this church.”

“Really? Why?” I was genuinely curious.  In the ministry you learn not to take these things personally…well, you try not to.

“It’s not you,” he said, “or anyone.  Everyone here is great.  It’s just, well, we had a boy…” his voice trailing off as if I should know what was implied here.

“Yes…?” I said.  I was hoping he wasn’t meaning what I think he was meaning.

“And, well, your church teaches that it’s okay for people to be gay.  And we don’t want him hearing that. Especially because we have a boy.”  He looked down.

“Wait,” I said, “but what if he is gay?  I mean I’m not sure what having a boy has to do with it, but what if he is a sexual minority of some sort?  Don’t you want him to hear that he’s loved and accepted and alright?”

Mark just looked down.

“It’s just harder because it’s a boy,” he repeated.

I’m not sure how the conversation, or the situation, would have turned out had they had a girl.  I mean, I can’t conceive of how that would make a difference. But I also know that traditional conceptions of masculinity is something still prized in many corners of modern America.

“I mean, I don’t think I have a problem with it, but Sharon…” he said, voice trailing off again.

The conversation was full of lots incomplete sentences, almost like if the sentences were completed, the foolishness of the statement would be too boldfaced to take.  We often avoid saying the thing because to utter the thoughts of our hearts would actually embarress us.

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.  “I don’t think being open and welcoming is harmful to children.  I think it’s helpful. Necessary, even.”

“I know.  But if he hears it’s okay to be gay, he might become gay,” he said.

“I don’t think the biology works like that, ” I smiled.  I tried to diffuse the obviously uncomfortable situation.

“We’re just not okay with it,” he said finally.  “And we don’t want him to be okay with it. But I hope to see you around the neighborhood.”

“Sure, Mark.  And if you all ever want to talk about this, just let me know.  Happy to keep the conversation going.” 

I waved as he walked away.

 

Churches Don’t Have Dues, but They Do Have Don’ts

Member Stamp Shows Membership Registration And Subscribing“What are the benefits of membership?” she asked me.

I just kind of stared at her, trying to figure out if she was serious or not.

I hadn’t been in the parish very long, just a year, but I had never imagined that someone would ask that question with any seriousness.  My confusion was my own fault, of course. The bubble of church membership that I had grown up in insulated me from many who had never been part of church culture before.  And, like country clubs offer membership perks, I had before me someone seriously inquiring as to what she might get if she joined our parish.

“There are no perks,” I said, “except that you get to vote and can be on committees.  Which, isn’t really a perk at all because, well, have you been to a congregational meeting?”

I laughed.

She didn’t.

“Then, why would I join?” she asked matter-of-factly.

And that was a great question.  Why would she join?  Why would anyone join?

In all honesty, I’m “post-membership” myself when it comes to churches.  The people who are a part of your community are the people who participate in the community, whether they’re officially on the books or not.  But, deep in my heart, I know that joining something does do something to me.

It makes me feel responsible. Accountable.

“You join,” I said, ” to remind yourself that these people and you have covenanted to do life together.  People join to say something about themselves, to be accountable to others and themselves, and like any marriage, the joining keeps you together until you fall in love again.  So when we fight, you just can’t leave, and we can’t walk out on you, we have to figure it out as best we can…”

It was all I could think of.

She nodded, “Ok, but what are the dues?” she asked.

Again, an honest question that I never expected.

“There are no dues,” I said, “but we are expected to give of ourselves and our treasure, including our money, to fund ministry and give back to God what is God’s.”

In that first year, at our first congregational meeting in fact, I had one family who, though they considered themselves quite important, rarely participated in the life of the church, and they asked me before the meeting, “If we split up the budget equally amongst all the giving units in this church, how much do each of us owe?”

I stood there, blinking.  I had actually done that calculation the night before, but I wasn’t going to offer it to them.  They were a family of means, and could offer to give far more than the number on the ledger, and far more than they gave at the present time.  Meanwhile, they were sitting right next to a family of five kids where the father was out of a job and the mother alone held the roof over their heads through her 9 to 5, but they showed up every time the doors were open and quite honestly were punching above their weight in the giving department, but far below the number on the ledger.

“That’s not how it works,” I said.  “The question we ask isn’t ‘how much does it cost all of us,’ but rather, ‘how much of what I have been given am I deciding to keep?'”

Church budgets are not equal.  They are fair.  Or, at least, they should be.

Back to the woman in front of me: she sat there thinking about the idea of membership and dues and what it all would mean to sign on the dotted line.  I gave her some time…she never did officially join.

But she was a part of the community.  And she was active.  And she gave what she could.

Churches don’t have dues, but they do have some don’ts.

Don’t make your church easy to “join.”  Churches aren’t country clubs, they are costly.  They should cost the members something: of treasure, time, commitment, and everything it takes to do life together.  A Saturday seminar with a Sunday reception does not imply the costly nature of it all.

Don’t treat all your parishioners equally.  Everyone gets treated well, and treated fairly, but if you expect the same out of everyone you’re missing the very important differences between the people in the pews.

Don’t be surprised if the membership culture of church life gets confusing for many.  Some from previous generations think membership entitles them to certain opinions, even if they don’t really participate in the community.  Others, especially those who didn’t grow up in the church, will wonder why they might bother at all.  You should wrestle with this as a community.  Why does it matter to be a part of it all, anyway?

And finally, don’t imagine that any of what worked before will work again.  Change is happening at a pace that is difficult to keep up with these days.  Tweak and refine what membership means.  Tweak and refine what you’re asking of the people in your community.  Tweak and refine what it means to make and meet budget.

Churches don’t have dues, but there are some don’ts.