“Hey Pastor, Can We Meet?”

It took me two seconds to screenshot this Tweet from an active parish minister, save it and share it.

Before I get into how to manage this kind of request, let me say that it is never, ever advisable to reference a communication or conversation with an individual from your church or ministry practice on social media. If your parishioner could recognize themselves in a critical post, delete it. You are destroying trust and your post might even be construed as a violation of confidentiality.

If you want to use your socials as a passive-aggressive management mechanism, then by all means talk trash about your clients or parishioners! And good luck with that.

I say this myself as a social media pugilist who fights a lot of people on-line and with great gusto! The people I don’t discuss online are those in my spiritual care, unless it is to post general comments about the work of ministry on my own private Facebook page where only friends will see it. I save all “can you believe someone behaved like this” content for closed clergy support groups conducted on Zoom or Signal.

Don’t assume that anything is ever private; it took me two seconds to screenshot this post and to link to the thread that follows (which is a great conversation!).

We can all agree that no one loves to get vague requests; it is a best practice to ask for meetings and to be asked for meetings with a sense of what the topics will be. For my own ministry, I need to know how to prioritize: I immediately clear my schedule for people in serious crisis, whereas a casual exploratory conversation about programs or the church in general get scheduled like any other meeting. Board leaders and ministry team chairs get my attention right away for a brief check-in, during which we may schedule a longer talk for as soon as we both have time. I drop everything for the board president because the person in that role often has immediate business to deal with, and they have almost always been a person with a full time job handling a huge amount of responsibility on behalf of the church. I am there for them 24/7 and so far, no one has ever abused that ultra-availability. Your mileage may vary.

So again, this is a great conversation! I agree with the colleagues who advise a response of “Sure, I’m happy to meet but I need to know the general topic so I can plan.” That’s not an unreasonable request, but help your caller identify their category. Are they in crisis? Do they need spiritual support for a family/job/life issue? Are we talking about leadership? Are we talking about programming? Are we talking about staff issues? Is this a general complaint/venting?

All of these things are legitimate, ordinary reasons to want to talk to the minister. None of them should cause you, the pastor, undue anxiety: you have adeptly responded to all of these kinds of needs in the past, and you will in the future. We are all a bit fried right now, trauma-reactive, and we should be able to recognize that, get extra support for it, and even explain this in a non-anxious way to our people. Honesty, what a concept! Remember that how we respond to things that make us anxious are still a model for our communities.

“I’d love to meet. I do have a lot of scheduled meetings in the next several days, but I want to make time for you right away if this is a crisis. Please be honest, are you okay?”

“Happy to get together. It would help me know how much time to schedule if you give me a sense of what’s on your mind.”

“I’d love to talk to you, I know you’ve been frustrated with x lately, do you think we should include So-And-So in our conversation?”

I code my conversations in my calendar, and I really like doing that as it normalizes every kind of conversation we are likely to have: “Pastoral/Leadership/ProgramIdeas/ComplaintDept/RightRelations”

From my vantage point twenty-five years into parish ministry, I can confidently say that the vast majority of “Can we talk, I want to tell you something” requests are not about you at all, and are nothing to be anxious about.

Take care of yourselves and your anxiety, pigeons. Kiss of peace.

You Are Your “Kind” Of Church

My friend and colleague Liz sent me this today and although I hooted with laughter, it’s true. What we wear, how we present ourselves, is an immediate visual significator of our church. This very blog got started eons ago when someone I love and respect was visiting church websites and confessed to me that she did not feel inclined to visit a nearby liberal religious community because the pastor was wearing a Guatemalan vest. She knew that her assessment was shallow, but it actually wasn’t. What it was, was instantaneous. She is an art teacher and finely attuned to visual language. What that pastor communicated with her hair, face and attire was not bad or wrong, it was, “We are the hippie church. I am freshly scrubbed, terminally earnest, someone who will not be relatable to you, and disconnected from media culture. I either don’t know about it or I don’t care. I am not culturally multi-lingual.”

Accurate? Maybe. Fair? Probably not.

But when it comes to image, we are the face of our institution and we don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Hebrews 13:18 Plus Size Tops

When it comes to plus sizes, God BLESS the manufacturers for their consistency. They are still religiously devoted to swathing larger bodies in yards of ugly, garish fabrics in bizarrrely designed garments.
It’s Hebrews 13:18 in fashion form: “Jesus Christ. The same yesterday, today and forever.”

Meanwhile, how are you all? What a two years it has been.
I’d like to post more than a few times a year but I do have to figure out this new updated WordPress interface. Like you, I am absolutely fried from learning new tech skills, from decision fatigue, worry, anxiety, pivoting from format to format, general angst about reopening, masks, air circulation, room capacity, social distancing at coffee hour, whether we are having coffee hour, signage, sanitizers, carefully discussing how many verses of a hymn we should sing, should we sing at all, how to handle the offering, whether to handle the offering plates, and — what did I forget?

I have not forgotten you, clergy colleagues. I am coming up on the 25th anniversary of my ordination and 25th year of full time parish ministry and never in a million years could I have imagined what we are currently coping with.

Lenten love to you.

Leading Prayer: A Rant

Hello darlings,
First, a general note: I have been concerned about the irresponsible and awkward leading of prayers I have seen over the past several years at worship and retreats online and in person. It is clear to me that those in the Low Church traditions have not had instruction in the leading of public prayer and are not sure what to do with themselves either before or during the act. They are not sure how to compose or deliver a prayer. They don’t know how to introduce it with confidence, they do not know where to look or how to stand, and they default to a popular “breathe in, breathe out” structure that is often led clumsily or with a sense of precious piety that distracts one from being able to focus on actual breathing. (In other words, “Thanks, I hate it.”)

Meditation is not, despite what Unitarian Universalists seem to think, synonymous with prayer; nor should we use “meditation” as a euphemism for prayer to assuage religion-phobes. You must know the difference and lead clearly. I am firmly of the belief that meditations should be led in meditation sessions where all have gathered with shared expectation and willingness to spend the necessary time dedicated to focusing the breath. Corporate worship is not this setting. In further bitchy observations, the vocal inflections of those leading “visualizations” are often so distracting and the content of the visualizations so fanciful and sentimental as to irritate as many participants as it engages.

I continue to lament the lack of liturgical training for Unitarian Universalist aspirants to the ministry. There is so much education needed beyond How To Write and Deliver A Sermon. We have fallen into very gooey indulgences.

ALL THAT SAID, the upsetting experience I had with someone teaching a prayer practice this morning was not in a Unitarian Universalist context. It was a Christian retreat. I have created a 20-minute video discussing the matter in general and the specific experience of today. Enjoy!

Is It Okay For Pastors To Take a Day Off?

PeaceBang SPUTTERED when she saw this question asked on Twitter this morning. She practically choked on her coffee. The actual quote was, “Do you feel okay having a day off every week?”

Some context, first: the poser of the question was having a conversation with a colleague in his mid-50’s who spent a recent night watching a movie and writing letters to congregants, because this seemed to him a good idea (?).
“Work doesn’t end,” she wrote of this approach to ministry. “This was how he was taught to be a pastor thirty years ago.”

Pigeons, I too was taught to be a pastor thirty years ago. I am in my mid-50’s. I am very dedicated to taking a day off, even if (true confessions) I often allow work to bleed into that day. I also respond to emergencies whenever they arise, and I have a generous interpretation of “emergency.” That said, I keep an eye on my time for rest and renewal and will schedule myself a day or two off when those interrupted days off accumulate.

I do not refer to my day off as my “sabbath” because I do not keep it holy, and because I think that this framing is precious and pious for my context in the Unitarian Universaist tradition, which is largely Humanist and eclectic. UU ministers who never preach from the Bible but who refer to their day off as their “sabbath” make me roll my eyes far up into my cranium. Give me a break. Your mileage may vary, of course.

I have recommended against auto-reply messages on clergy email that make a big deal out of taking a day off. NORMALIZE TAKING A DAY OFF. It should be in your contract and an understood aspect of your life. If parishioners who email you expect an immediate reply, address that directly, not through passive-aggressive little email auto-responses. Use those extremely sparingly, please, remembering that every time someone pops a quick note to you they do not want to have to get the “I am a Holy Person and am therefore unattached to my devices between 8AM Monday and 8:10 AM Thursday, unlike you, you frantic mortal. Please respect my enlightened schedule and do not litter my inbox with your petty concerns until I have re-entered your realm, at which time I will grace you with a reply. After I’ve had my coffee.”

Enchantment with the capitalistic ethos of overwork is not generational. It may be regional, or denominational, or gendered. Whatever it is, if is legion among those in our work and over-functioning is almost certainly the number one reason clergy are leaving parish positions in droves. Too many clergy are what someone, and I’m sorry I can’t remember who, called “quivering masses of availability.” I understand that some parishes expect this and punish clergy who set appropriate boundaries around insanely demanding systems and overly-demanding individuals, and I always applaud when ministers resign from those congregations. Bravo! Walk right out those doors.

But in my experience and observation, the commitment to clergy overwork as a way to prove ones merit is often internal. I am preaching this to myself, gang. I find it very, very hard to let go and stop. I love what we do. I think about the next sermon and meeting and pastoral call on my day off, of course I do. I worry about my parishioners when I should be sleeping. I try to figure out what hymns to sing while grocery shopping. My mind and heart are ever with the church unless I have a good long period of time off, which I take during the summer (and sometimes in the winter I am successful at really unplugging during a January or February vacation). Twenty-four years into this, I am still trying to get better at doing what I can for six days of the week and letting go on the seventh. Let things remain undone. See what happens. Will you actually be berated or will you berate yourself?

How much of your sense that you have to actually keep up with the endless demands of ministry is coming from your leaders? How much is coming from you? I am still trying to fully internalize a loving admonition made to me by my board of trustees that clearly stated that they wanted me to take my day off and my vacation time. During the pandemic shut-down, many of us spent endless hours learning how to do online programming. I was often up until 1AM learning video editing or solving tech problems. I mistakenly thought that naps during the day were sufficient refreshment and I did not take many whole days off because I felt constantly panicked and desperate about managing the crisis.

What I understand now is that this was noticeable. Very noticeable.
This isn’t to heap burning coals upon my head, it is just to state the truth: stressed and strained pastors bring stressed and strained spirit to the church. We can do nothing else. Put on your own oxygen mask first, & etc.

To deny oneself at least a day off is not only sad and dysfunctional, it is arrogant! “I am too important to step away for a day!” It sets a toxic example for church members. It leads to competitive martyrdom among clergy and church staff, the sort that leads to ridiculous one-upmanship at gatherings, where one’s level of burn-out and exhaustion is often presented as a sign and symbol of commitment and moral superiority and tacitly received as such.

Sometimes it IS vey important that we be there. We must take care of ourselves not only for the sake of it, but also because we are first responders and need to have the inner resources to bring compassionate presence to crises. Given that the entire country (and globe) has been in crisis for 18 months, this directive takes on even more potency.

If your congregation treats you as though you are the only one who can pray, the only one who can bring the care and strength and comfort of the church universal to grieving or lonely persons, the only one who can make decisions about how to decorate the sanctuary, the only one who can lead the meeting or the program, they are feeding your ego to their own detriment. This is not the way Jesus worked, this is not the way God ordered the world. And speaking of Mr. J, he had a very short ministry and wound up on the Cross. He is your savior, not your ministerial mentor. God, our sovereign boss, made it very clear that we take time off. Even the land is supposed to get time off. Even the servants and the animals get time off. Who are you to think you have to labor ceaselessly?

“I’ll try to get to that tomorrow.”
“What would you like to talk about? I’d like to be able to prepare, and also, if this isn’t an urgent matter I’d like to schedule it further out” (this for those controlling types who like to keep you on edge with mysterious requests “to talk.” Don’t accept mysteries. You have a church to care for; you need to be able to set your priorities for the day and week).
“Yes, that is my day off but let me see what I can do, because I’d love to go to this!”
“I’ve got a family thing that weekend, is there another date that’s possible?” (And YES, single people, we can use this, too!! We also have family! They may not be blood kin, but if they are people whose lives are deeply important to ours and whose love and support we rely on, they are family).

Here’s the thing: your people should care about their pastor as a human being. If they don’t, they aren’t spiritually right and you have to try to get them there. You cannot do this if you don’t care about yourself as a human being outside of your role as pastor.

I have been in the parish ministry full time since 1997. It has taken me many years to put myself in perspective, and I still struggle with it. I struggle with my sense of importance. I struggle to let go of the reins. I struggle with guilt because I don’t talk to everyone I want to talk to and yes, the work is never done. I struggle with having the energy and creative spark to equip, encourage and organize the congregation to engage in its own ministry: that’s what we should be doing, but a thousand other responsibilities are also on our plates and sometimes it’s easier to do it ourselves than to mentor, teach and train. I know. I get it. Sometimes I have to make an actual plan with a friend to get out of the house on my day off because I know that if I don’t, I will spend much of the day catching up with administrative tasks, filing, figuring out a calendar issue, contacting “just a few” people to line up meetings, or in a million other ways reinforcing my fantasy that I am the Hercules holding planet church on my shoulders.

Let God hold the church for a day. If you don’t step back and make space, the Holy Spirit will get shoved against the wall holding her cup of coffee watching with amusement as the Busy Busy Pastor rushes around clumsily and exhaustedly doing what She had been perfectly available to do. There is an inexhaustible source of energy, I believe this to be so. But we cannot get close enough to it to be renewed, refreshed and in-Spirited if we never stop working.

God bless you, my lovely colleagues. Let yourself be at rest for a portion of the week.