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.

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.