“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.

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!

Knowing What Your Congregation Pledges

A thread on Twitter today made me want to blog a longer explanation of why deciding not to know what individual parishioners pledge is not the holy flex some pastors want to think it is.

The big argument put forth by the OP (original poster) is that she feels that knowing this information creates a bias or power dynamic that she wants to avoid.

If knowing what your congregation is pledging will harden your heart against them or create a sense of favorites, please search your soul. Take it up with your spiritual director. This is not a mature response to information about your church’s finances and stewardship spirit.

I call this approach the “precious piety” style of pastoral leadership, where the clergy is just too holy or whatever to dirty their hands with such matters as filthy lucre.

My grandfather was the Treasurer of his Greek Orthodox church for seventy years. So it was okay for him to know how much the members of his community gave financially to the church but not for the priest to know? I have no idea what his priests did in this matter but they raised a lot of money, so I suspect that they were fully informed.
If the priests avoided this administrative work, the implication is clear: the clergy must be distanced from this knowledge but it’s fine to burden the lay leaders with the entirety of the financial information, or to task them with feeding the pastor little kiddie-sized bites of it so as not to soil their opinion of people they have taken sacred vows to care for.

Got it.
As if money isn’t a prevalent reality for literally everyone in our communities.

What pastors who intentionally refuse to know what their parishioners give are saying is, “I can’t be trusted with this information,” or “I agree with you that I can’t be trusted with this information.” Neither of those options affirms pastoral integrity — and both need to be challenged. If a bishop or diocese or higher authority dictates this policy, this member of the clergy in the Free Church tradition thinks that’s a real tell regarding the hierarchy’s assumptions of the character of their clergy (or their own integrity). They worry about unconscious bias? So what are their policies around blocking clergy access to information about their parishioners that might trigger priests’ unconscious bias around gender, race, educational levels, home decor, weight and dietary choices, choice of spouse, child-rearing style, and… you get my point. Finance phobia is just that. Clergy are subject to have opinions of their people as a matter of being human. That is why we are expected to engage in strenuous spiritual practice to the goal of compassion, appreciation, love, forgiveness and the seeking of grace.

What does it say, Biblically, when pastors refuse to sit at the table with the stewardship chair or other key financial officer of the church to do a review of the annual giving campaign?
“This isn’t spiritual enough for me” or “I am too fragile to have access to information about members of our community: please handle all of this alone” is an abdication of leadership support for finance folks and I think it’s unbiblical to boot.

Finally, if the argument is, “Well, I am not afraid to know anything about my parishioners except what they give the church because my paycheck depends on their contributions,” then you’re saying that you can’t separate your position as spiritual and administrative leader of the church from your anxiety about your personal job security. That is understandable, just say that. Maybe the notion of seeing names and dollar amounts fills your with anxiety and messes with your feelings for people. Just say that. It’s your issue, it’s your decision, it may be something you inherited in the church culture when you got there and you have decided not to challenge it, that’s fine. Just don’t spiritualize it, please.

Bad Camera Angles

Hello, good people!

Isn’t it incredible how we are all learning how to produce church from our desks? So weird, so disorienting, and I was super sad today when I put my robe and stole in a garment bag knowing that it will be many a month before I will be wearing it with my people again.

This Sunday was to be my celebratory return to church after a sabbatical. It is the 7th anniversary of my call to my congregation. And it’s Mother’s Day and my mom died six weeks ago.

Is it any surprise that I have a huge cold sore on my face?

ANYWAY, it helps me very much to feel useful to you, so I have put together what I hope are edifying and entertaining (in a gentle teasing way) series of Bad On-Camera Ministry Angles:




And my final in the series,


The Von Trapp is when you have pressed your kids or spouse into service as a worship team. The strain is palpable, the awkwardness is distracting, and people like me think that life is stressful and socially traumatic enough right now for children. Unless they’re on the payroll, let them be. We all miss our worship teams, but your family deserves their privacy, and that forced Von Trapp energy is inauthentic and upsetting. Someone like me can spot fake dialogue six miles away, and oof. If you have a child actor, put them in a theatre class. Don’t make them play themselves as a character for your ministry. And since I’m on the subject, PLEASE make sure not to make the people you live with the butt of jokes in sermons, or to use them as sermon illustrations without their non-coerced persmission. We should all have plenty of inner and external resources for preaching or giving messages right now without exploiting the suffering and confusion being experienced by children or housemates of any age (but especially children).

Happy Clappy Joy Joy Nope

Hey gang.
A hard week for those who loved and admired Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche community. Another blow in this era of disturbing revelations (although is there really any other kind of era?).

A word to pastors having a hard time with this:

First of all, don’t preach or practice cheap grace, rushed reconcilings and coercive forgiveness. To do so is bad pastoring. Such recommendations are based in shallow theology and perpetuate systems of silencing and oppression.

You are not required to stay positive and hopeful at all times.

There’s a reason the Holy Scriptures don’t hide the sight of Jesus crying over Jerusalem from us. You get to cry over Jerusalem, too.

Don’t let the American idols of perpetual happiness and self-improvement cloud your faith and your integrity of soul.

It may make your people uncomfortable to hear you express your pain, but they are acquainted with the psalms and the prophets, it won’t bother them. Help them build a tolerance for rage and sorrow that the wider culture avoids by any means necessary; many of those means being damaging and addicting.

Your people should be engaged in spiritual practice by which they can be in deep encounter with the love and mystery and even the absence of God themselves. Your feelings and affect (which you do need to manage to a certain degree so as to remain appropriate, functional, present and faithful) should not be the barometer of whether or not your community is doing well. If you and your congregation are so focused on your emotions that it causes people to go into a fix-it panic when you express discouragement or even despair with the world as it is, remind yourself and them that you are not the Faith-Haver-In-Chief. You are there to model faithfulness, to preach the gospel as best you can with an assist from the Holy Spirit, and to facilitate your people’s own spiritual practices and growth.

Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to tell him jokes, keep him happy, distract him or protect him the night he was taken into custody. He just asked them to stay awake with him. Staying awake is hard. Remember how badly the disciples screwed it up.

We approach Lent together. From what things, ideas, products, behaviors, beliefs will you abstain in order to enter into a more intimate relationship with the God who called you to this work?

I have been on sabbatical since November 10th and am beginning to truly understand and respect, through many many hours of reflection and recognition, how demanding the work of ministry has been in this last decade.

You are not responsible for the emotional tenor of your community. You are not required to bring joy and hope every day. This is not a show in which you are the star. This is a pilgrim journey and when the path leads up a steep hill, you are allowed to wipe the sweat from your brow, stumble on the loose rocks and stop for a breather just like everyone else.

Much love and strength to you, and also lots of pancakes on Tuesday. xoxo PB