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.

Warm Up The Face

Ah, the agony! You purchase a lovely little product with SPF in it and it turns your face ghastly white! Such was the case with the products below, both drugstore brands. Titanium dioxide is the culprit, and I shoudl have known:

Pictured: Pacifica Ultra CC Cream Radiant Foundation SPF 17 (definitely tinted moisturizer consistency and coverage)
Burts Bees BB Cream SPF 15
IT cosmetics Ombre Radiance
Tarte Cosmetics Amazonian Clay Waterproof Bronzer in Park Avenue Princess (very light, buildable, wash of golden tan)

Click to enlarge images

Bronzers to the rescue (because who wants to go to CVS and return a tinted moisturizer, or waste it?)!

Don’t think of bronzers as being just for faking a tan or sun-kissed glow. They are terrific for just adding a bit of warmth to your face any time you’re feeling washed out by a product or by life. They are best used over foundation or tinted moisturizer but can also be worn over bare skin for a quick glow-up, whatever your skin tone. Definitely read some reviews before purchasing online, or ask for help in the store because a lot of bronzers can come out quite orangey. It’s worth doing some research. Tons of good brands make a powder or cream bronzer, so there’s definitely one out there for you.

Use a fluffy brush and apply to your hair line and temples, sweep under your cheekbones, the jawline and chin. If you want to deepen the color, keep building little by little. I apply a pop of blush to my cheekbones so I don’t look too monochromatic and sweep it up into my hairline – you don’t want to create blush circles just on the apples of your cheeks.

I won’t repurchase these creams but will valiantly continue my quest to find a good SPF product with a bit of coverage that isn’t as heavy-duty as the serious unguents I use in the summer (which are a whole ‘nuther story!).

Click to enlarge

I am wearing Burts Bees BB Cream in Light, Tarte Amazonian Clay Bronzer in Park Avenue Princess. Lip color by JOAH, eyebrows by Morphe, eye make up by Korres and Nabla, and blush by Colourpop. All cruelty free products. MWAH!

Pandemic Fall-Out and Masks

Greetings, darlings.

What weirdness abounds!
Thanks be to God for seeing us through this far. If you are reading this, you may be serving in parish ministry and if you are, congratulations for surviving. Friends in the search and settlement and clergy coaching business, and news about religion in America, plus many conversations with clergy colleagues, inform me that this is an unprecedented time of resignation from parish positions. I want to talk more about that later and especially to create a space for the sharing of anonymous testimonials that have led to your decisions to leave your ministry positions or to pursue other kinds of work entirely.

I have heard too many stories over the past months of pastors being forced out of their pulpits by anxious congregations who expected their clergy to be able to pivot with no warning and no training and not enough support or grace to on-line worship leaders and crisis response expert. I am angry and devastated by the unfairness of these scapegoatings and shocked by the horrible acting out I have heard clergy share on social media. I am not an unconditional supporter of clergy: my loyalty is to God and the gathered people of God trying to live faithfully into our covenant with the divine, and I do not stand in defense of ministers out of professional courtesy or anything else. But I have seen too many worthy pastors with their heads on the block for deficiencies for which they should not be held entirely accountable, since those deficiencies are explicitly related to the “failure” to perform functions for which (say it again for the cheap seats) they had no preparation, no prior experience, minimal to no support, and no training. The heartlessness shown by some congregational leaders has been shocking and I use the term scapegoat very intentionally. It is obvious to me that some people just wanted to punish someone for their fear and frantic loss of control.

Shout out, praise hands and a shipment of chocolate to all the lay leaders in all ministry settings who were compassionate with each other and their clergy, who grieved what we all had to suspend without acting out about it, who served on COVID-safety task forces and tech teams and offered their time and expertise to church when their own lives were exceedingly stressful and who took the many frustrations we all experienced as we coped with this strange and scary territory in stride. God bless all of them.

THAT SAID, let us discuss masks!

I am so grateful to be back in the sanctuary with my congregation, and although I did manage to learn a lot of video editing and online skills in 2020, leading worship on Zoom was a creative and psychic drain unlike anything else I have ever experienced in this work. I have certainly had seasons when it was a particular struggle to stay connected to the soul or to feel and articulate the living God, but there has not been anything remotely close to the demands of maintaining a preaching ministry online during a pandemic.

So I am just incredibly glad to be with the congregation even in masks, and even with all the protocols in place that are keeping us safer while denying us cherished fellowship traditions. I assume these measures are temporary and I will gladly endure them rather than live in isolation trying desperately to connect with people over Zoom.

I get tested weekly and am of COURSE vaccinated. Our first week back, I did not remove my mask. Let’s take a look. Click to enlarge

Nice satin pink, cone shape didn’t rest on my face but it was actually much hotter than a surgical mask and I had to really project the whole service. Overall, though, workable. Then the choir and the congregation encouraged me to remove the mask when I speak. I wear an ear-worn microphone so I had that, and the mask ear loops and occasional use of reading glasses to deal with. I decided not to remove the mask entirely but to pull it under my chin. The result is definitely an “Oh honey, no” look. Is that a FEED BAG?

Click to enlarge

So this doesn’t work, and the only solution is going to have to be to remove the whole thing for the sermon. I don’t mind the chinstrap silliness for some of the service but I think it’s distracting enough to need a fix for the sermon. I have heard of preachers letting the mask dangle off of one ear but that doesn’t seem like a good idea and also possibly a fire hazard.

What are you all doing with your masks?

Kiss of peace, PB