“A Pastor’s #MeToo Story” at Christian Century

#ChurchToo

I’m happy — and rather nervous — to say that my article is on the cover of the Christian Century (January 2018). It’s a deeply personal story that I have not told before:         A Pastor’s #MeToo Story

I also wrote an accompanying list:  18 Ways Churches Can Fight Sexual Assault in 2018.

As always, I look forward to your feedback. #ChurchToo

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Conversations with Strangers, Hairdresser edition

While I waited for my hair appointment, I chatted with two women over the magazines. They mentioned they were sisters, so I said, “How nice to make your hair a family affair.”

“It is nice, but it’s not for a nice reason. Our mother died the other day.”

I felt surprised at this, and glanced at the other sister. Tears sprang from the woman’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She wiped them with the back of her hand. She said, in a still-stunned voice, “She was only 90.”

“You’re never ready to lose someone you love,” I agreed.

They told me all about their mom, how she had dementia, and had a cough that turned out to be Stage 4 cancer. How their father took care of her at first, but he’s 92, and had a broken neck himself. So eventually they moved Mom into one sister’s home. One sister quit her job in order to help with the care full time.

“We fed her well right up to the end,” one said.

The other nodded with satisfaction. “And we surrounded her with love.”

“That’s obvious,” I said. “It’s obvious how much you loved her.”

Fresh tears rolled down their faces. “I’m worried about Dad. What will he do without her?”

“At least they got to celebrate their 70th anniversary. It was last November, about the time she was diagnosed. Oh, she died too soon!”

“But she saw her new grandbaby, remember. She got to meet her.”

I watched them grieve, together and separately, finding bits of solace and offering them to each other, like a piece of music passing the melody line from soprano to tenor and back again.

Then it was time for my haircut. Jen put a cape around my neck. Jen’s an artist when she isn’t cutting hair, and a priest-confessor when she is. We usually talk about love and death and art. We ask each other the questions all artists should ask each other, but seldom do. Plus I get a haircut.

I told Jen: “The women over there are sisters who just lost their mother.”

Jen groaned and shook her head. “It’s always too soon,” she said. “Always.”

To think I get to inhabit the planet with such giants, these ordinary people who know what love is.

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The Body of Christ: Tough & Fragile

Can You Beat a Small Church to Death with a Stick?

When I was in seminary I was taught: Small churches are tough. You can’t beat them to death with a stick! 

I believed that truism, and repeated it to others. Now I have fresh experience that allows me to see the backside of that truism, which is also true: Small churches are fragile.

So far in my career I have served two small churches as solo pastor — six years at Rock Creek Presbyterian (in a rural area outside Springfield, Illinois) and ten years at Poolesville Presbyterian (in a surprisingly rural corner of Montgomery County, Maryland).

Both of those congregations had long histories and many strengths. But both congregations also had serious weaknesses in three pivotal areas: histories that included conflicted relationships with previous pastors, inadequate buildings, and very few financial assets (less than $20,000 total savings). In some senses those weaknesses functioned as strengths because they had gotten everyone’s attention. The lay leaders knew that their churches were on the brink of failure and were ready to work hard — and perhaps even take some risks — to save them. Accordingly, I was able to enter into a robust partnership with the lay leaders and have fruitful ministry.

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A Peculiar Energy

For the last few Sundays I’ve filled the pulpit for a small church that has lost its critical mass. Attendance has dwindled to a faithful few, all of whom are running out of energy. Not a happy situation. Still, when I enter the church building, I feel a sense of welcome and warmth from the folks who are keeping the place afloat.

Faith Chapel, Lucketts VALast Sunday we had visitors, an older couple, tall and friendly-faced. They arrived early to get a seat (God bless them!). They were the first ones at church, other than myself, the organist, and the person tending the coffeepot. We chatted and I discovered that they were from out of town and just passing through. Eight more people showed up for worship, bringing us to a dozen.

Because the numbers are small, I’ve been informal. Before reading the scripture and sermon, I’ve tried a “Sharing Time” to help us engage a different part of our brain before hearing the Word. On this Sunday, our theme was Treasure. “What do you treasure?”

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Signs vs. Sidewalk: Which Speaks Louder?

I was walking through an unfamiliar residential neighborhood to get some exercise, going at a good clip when I was brought to a sudden halt because the sidewalk disappeared. A certain establishment had not installed sidewalks along its considerable property line. The name of the establishment? “Health Network.” I could not continue my healthy walk past the Health Network, but had to turn around.

Sometimes I think this is what the church must seem like to people outside the church — an establishment that says one thing on its sign, and another thing by its behavior.

I know churches that say “Welcome” on their sign, but good luck finding a door that will open. Some churches unlock only a few of their many doors, even on a Sunday morning.

I know churches that proclaim “All Are Welcome” on their sign, but heaven help the young lesbian couple that walks in, hand in hand.

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Two Kinds of Ministers

I submit that there are two kinds of ministers: ministers who’ve been hurt by the church, and ministers who haven’t been hurt by the church, yet.

I suppose you could apply this bifurcation to any group of persons. There are two kinds of spouses: those who have disappointed their mate, and those who haven’t, yet. There are two kinds of people: those who’ve died, and those who haven’t, yet.

Does this sound cynical? There is wisdom to be gained from meditating on failure and mortality, although we tend to avoid it.

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Superhost!

What if Guests Reviewed a Church Like an AirBnb

airbnb-superhostHospitality is important to me. I grew up in a home where it was common to have guests for dinner, even though we were a family of seven without a formal dining room. Simply getting everyone around the table could be a squeeze, but I don’t remember a person ever complaining. We were happy to sit down to my mother’s good cooking and the clink of bowls passing. I grew up knowing that to host an unexpected guest you simply added water to the soup, or corn muffins to the menu. I thought everyone hosted other people in this way.

Pastoring a church is essentially the practice of hospitality. People are looking for something when they come to church, even if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for. And that’s great. That’s perfect! Nobody has to have anything figured out before they walk in the door of a church. They just need to be ready to receive. The people who are already there should spring up to (metaphorically) squeeze the extra chair at the table and stir up a batch of corn muffins, to provide whatever’s needed.

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Screens in Church: Eight Tips for Using Visuals in Worship

Visual images are powerful. We are surrounded by images used to influence our behavior as consumers. What is the role of the church in using images? More than five years ago I wrote about the connection between computer icons and iconography. At that time I suggested using a stained glass of the day. It’s time for an update!

For the past two years I’ve been in many churches as a worshipper or guest speaker. I’ve seen carefully chosen images do many things well: create a mood, arouse curiosity about a subject, or help a worshipper enter into a biblical story by illustrating the climate, clothing, and topography of a place. Excellent!

I’ve also seen screens used to scroll church announcements or to project the words to songs. These uses have their place. But sometimes images are a bit like filler, a digital version of clip art. For instance, a picture of an offering plate or a generic cross on a hill with a sunset behind. These images remind me of the old-fashioned sort of kitchen wallpaper that features spatulas and rolling pins. Were we in danger of forgetting where we are? Just like clip art, these generic images feel like yesteryear and can actually diminish the worship experience by trivializing it.

I understand that choosing and using images can be yet another time-suck for people who already have too many things to do. Perhaps then the screens should stay dark. Don’t let them become a negative thing, for either the worship leader or the worshipper. Worship is just too important for that.

EIGHT TIPS FOR USING VISUALS IN WORSHIP:

  1. Have an attitude of experimentation. Invite people to respond as to what is helpful and what is distracting.
  2. Choose a few images carefully. Less is more. Try using a single image as a contemplation point or the “stained glass of the day.”
  3. If possible, let the edges of your image extend beyond the borders of the screen. Keep in mind that color tends to wash out in large spaces like sanctuaries, so choose images that do not depend entirely on color for their impact.
  4. Mix it up. Use great artwork of past eras, stained glass images, icons from orthodox traditions, photos from late-breaking news stories, a child’s interpretation of a scripture story, a classic Sunday School image, a photo of natural beauty. Avoid the cliché.
  5. Try using a disturbing image as a jolt, but don’t leave it up for a long time. Just make a point and move on.
  6. Timing can be important, so become comfortable with the clicker, or work with the person who is changing the images.
  7. Limit the amount of text. Too much text can be a trap for preachers, who often think in words. Putting a sermon outline on the screen is not the same as using visuals in worship. When using text, try white letters on a black background and choose a font with a serif. Use the largest font possible and pay careful attention to the line breaks. Check for typos, which are distratcing.
  8. Experiment with using an “Inquiry Image” for children’s time. Show an evocative image that relates to the topic and ask the children what they wonder about. But don’t answer their wonderings. Just let the questions gather speed. It will engage the curiosity of the adults as well as the children.

EIGHT EXAMPLES OF VISUALS THAT WORKED WELL:

  1. a photo of a dry, curling leaf as we considered a healing story, changing to a spring leaf as a closing image
  2. a series of paintings of homeless children, women, and men, as we considered the “least of these”
  3. an image of geese rising as we considered “the birds of the air”
  4. photos from my trip to the Mount of Transfiguration and Jesus’ baptismal site, as we considered those stories
  5. a DVD clip from “The Gospel of John” when the text was the raising of Lazarus
  6. images of women baking bread around the world on World Communion Day
  7. the tool of Google Maps to zoom from the globe, to the continent, to the country, to the county, to the rooftop of our church as we considered Acts, a kind of reversal of “from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth”
  8. a clip from “Doctor Who” as we considered in what way Jesus is a Time-Lord

I have not addressed the issue of copyright, which could be another blogpost.

What would you add to either of these lists?

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Praise or Blame, All the Same: Handling Criticism

A recent article in the NYT, Learning to Love Criticism, discusses a Fortune.com study of performance reviews, which shows that women are criticized more severely, and in more personal ways, than are men. In other words: It’s not our imagination!

I am familiar with the dynamic described. As a clergywoman, my work requires me to make decisions, talk frankly to people, and speak the truth. At the same time, I deal with people at vulnerable moments, and am heavily invested in communicating the love of God at all times. That is already a difficult dance to manage. Add the gender piece and now the dance floor is littered with holes that can grab your (figurative) high heels and pitch you to the floor.

Women who speak frankly are called strident. Women who are decisive are called aggressive. Women who exert their authority are called control freaks.

How can we do our job without paying a price? Perhaps the answer is: we can’t. So we must calculate the price and count it against the cost of not doing the work.

The NTY articles speaks about the “impossible tightrope” women must walk to do “substantive work.” The tightrope referred to is: how to be professional and make tough decisions while at the same time be seen as nice.

I am familiar with that tightrope. As an Associate Pastor in my first church, I was told that I too frequently used “I” language. This puzzled me. I had just spent a great deal of time and energy learning about family systems theory, and was committed to using healthy communication patterns. I thought that using “I” language was a good thing, not a problem. Even the committee members giving me the criticism were unable to further explain what the problem was, or how I should change to please them. One said: “They just think you should let the group make all the decisions, I guess.”

In that same group, we routinely ended our meetings with a time of open prayer. After everyone had prayed and the silence stretched for some moments, I would bring the prayer to a close. As soon as I said Amen, one particular person would invariably say “I was just going to pray but you ended!” So the next time I would wait longer. Still the person would not offer a prayer. So I would close and the person would protest. The pattern continued, with constantly lengthening periods of silence until it was ridiculous — a full two minutes of silence.

Finally, one of the older members pulled me aside and said: Don’t you see? It’s the perfect complaint. No matter how long you wait, it will never have been long enough. I am grateful for that wise elder, whose comment freed me from the need to try to please someone who was determined to not be pleased with me. A criticism that is a perpetual Gotcha! is not worth heeding.

I would like to think that this story is hopelessly outdated and that things have changed since the early 1990s. But I doubt it. Just as I was finishing this blogpost, my friend Carol Howard Merritt wrote about a similar dynamic. I know that I over-learned the practice of back-seating my own opinions. I became too enamored of a consensus model of leadership. I under-valued my own ability to help a group discern its next steps.

Now I am trying to learn new behaviors.

What we professional women must do is not easy. But we can feel empowered. Rather than waiting for the tightrope to disappear, we can change how we receive criticism. We can hear whatever bits are helpful, but not let any mean-spiritedness impair our ability to do the work. The work is what matters. The work is always what matters.

As Richard Carlson so memorably said: Praise or blame — is all the same.

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Hospitality: What the Church Can Learn from Air Bnb

airbnbI’m a Presbyterian pastor who often talks about hospitality, sometimes in relation to one of my other passions, which is uncluttering. Last spring my husband and I took the practice of hospitality to a new level when we became Air Bnb hosts. Air Bnb is part of the sharing economy.

Many people are curious about the experience of hosting. Why would we want to open up our home to complete strangers? I’ll readily say that the propelling reason was to create an income stream. Writing is rewarding in many ways, but not financially. But like many things a person does for economic reasons, we discovered other benefits. Being hosts made us feel better about staying in a larger-than-we-need house with unused bedrooms.

We welcomed our first guest last May — he stayed for a couple of weeks during a job transition. Since then many of our guests have been doctoral students, often from other countries. Only a few of our guests have been from the United States. I speculate that is due to our preoccupation with personal privacy. I have found it quite interesting to learn to navigate boundaries while there are strangers in the house. Usually it comes down to basic cleanliness, civility, and communication.

We have found some unexpected benefits to being an Air BnB Host (besides having become more regular about cleaning our bathrooms!).

For instance, we have discovered how quickly strangers can become friends. A chat at the kitchen table over a pot of tea is always pleasant. We have met guests who share our interests in many things: milkweed, the Chesapeake Bay, Buddhism, neuroscience, cats, new technology, the Shenandoah, the Civil War, organic cooking. Conversation has never lagged. At other times we have zero conversation with the guest, which is also fine.

We have the added pleasure of being a support to young people who are transitioning to the area. One young woman — upon hearing that I could squeeze her into a busy calendar — cried out: Why are you being so nice to me? I chuckled and said: Because once I was your age, relocating to a city where I didn’t know a soul. Upon reflection, I would say that this is the best part of being an Air Bnb host: paying hospitality forward. In a world that seems increasingly violent and full of tension, it feels good to add just a few drops of hospitality to the mix, and to ease someone’s burden.

We have also been guests a couple of times. When traveling we prefer Air BnB to “regular” B&Bs because they’re less costly, mainly because Air Bnb hosts don’t provide breakfast, only coffee and tea. A typical B&B provides a sumptuous breakfast and I don’t need the expense or calories every day. (Vacation model vs. Daily model)

As we’ve gone along, we’ve added a few rules. We have clarified the issue of friends staying overnight, for example. We ask overnight friends of guests to be registered, for security reasons. Recently I specified that no firearms are allowed in our home. I am fine with letting the rules evolve as we go. Also, I understand that there are regulatory/legal issues in some places; it is not my purpose to respond to those. I am only sharing my personal experience here.

If you read my blog, you know that I like to make comparisons to the church. Here are some Airbnb learnings that may have applications to how we do church:

~ Guests have different needs and it is possible to adjust to those if the host pays attention.

~ A clean, uncluttered environment says: I am ready for your arrival.

~ Effective hospitality requires rules, which evolve naturally from the situation and its needs.

~ Hospitality is often sweeter when it’s unexpected, meaning last-minute or after being caught in a surprise deluge. In fact, “crises” provide an opening to give and receive a gracious presence.

~ Sometimes hospitality is absolutely silent.

~ Hospitality is good for the host as well as the guest.

~ Most people like cats.

~ Perhaps most important, people have a very basic need to belong. And that need is not going away in our digitally connected world. Check out the video below. It introduces the new logo, which I agree has some unfortunate anatomical resonances. But that aside, what’s your reaction?

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