What Do We Pray For Today?

Today is a good day to take brownies to our local First Responders.  It’s a goodLA 9-11 Memorial day to visit Shanksville.  It’s a really good day to pray and the litany of people to remember is endless – from the children of the 9-11 victims to the children of Iraq, from the families of Foley and Sotloff to the Yazidis.  Let’s all take at least 20 seconds to remember.

That’s about all I can say today.

Image is the 9-11 Memorial in Los Angeles by Heath Satow (2011)

Women in Elevators

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some interesting experiences in elevatorelevators.

Male strangers have shared that they’ve “liked my legs.”  (Help me Jesus.)  I have felt quite palpable queasiness upon finding myself alone in an elevator with someone who felt a little creepy.

So here’s my thought:  I agree with President Carter who says that the subjugation of women is source of much of what is wrong with the world. Just to be clear, I have also been on elevators with completely lovely human beings.

My point is that most of us do not recognize that Every Day In This Country women are abused by men who are 1) idiots, 2) unaware that women  – like men – were created in the image of God.

Church is where we women (and men) should be learning that God has endowed us with the extraordinary responsibility to make this world “on earth as it is in heaven.”  May it be so.

Girl on Girl Loyalty

Ruth Naomi Orpah 1960ChagallYears ago, I had a twenty-something friend who was asked out on a date by a guy she was interested in getting to know better, but she turned it down because she already had plans that night.  She was picking up a (platonic) girlfriend at the airport.

Guy Who Asked Her Out:  Wait a minute.  You are turning down a date so that you can give somebody a ride? Can’t she take a cab?

Woman Who Was Asked Out:  I told her I’d pick her up.

GWAHO:  I have never heard of a woman choosing a female friend over a guy.

WWWAO:  Maybe you either don’t get out much or you have terrible female friends.

That was a true story.

Yesterday I wrote about Girl On Girl Betrayal which is sadly all too common. That post had a basic heterosexual, binary view of the world which bothered me a bit, and so I’ve asked someone I love to share a different perspective on loyalty and loving behavior later this week.

But for now, what about basic, platonic Girl On Girl Loyalty?  A friend who privately commented to me on yesterday’s post wondered how we can develop this basic loyalty between young girls (and young boys for that matter.)

Assuming that – let’s say – tween girls will always be mean and that’s just the way they are seems almost as ridiculous as assuming that all football players beat their partners/wives and that’s how it is.  Assuming that women will choose romantic opportunities over platonic opportunities is wrong.  Women of any age are not necessarily in competition with each other.  And yet we could cooperate a little better.

Church can be one of the best communities to teach loyalty.

Imagine a church culture that encouraged confidence.  (We were each created in God’s image in unique ways.)  Imagine a church culture that encouraged cooperation and collaboration.  (There is a priesthood of all believers.)

Imagine a church that taught stories like Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah as “how to live in the real world” stories about loyalty and connecting this to friendship today. Maybe you know lots of congregations doing Christian Education this way – relating Bible stories in such a way that life is transformed.  We meet as a community and we leave after the conversation/class/meeting not just socialized or smarter but better friends and human beings.

Imagine a church women’s group which is more than a mission project or a Bible study, but the women were taught how to be loyal friends to each other and to women in the community.  My hope is that everyone reading this can say, “That’s exactly how the women’s group is in my congregation.”  So is it?  Do girls and women learn how to be loyal friends in your church?

Image of Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah by Chagall (1960)

Girl on Girl Betrayal

Sarah and Hagar ChagallHere’s a post for the ladies:

I have always been a girl’s girl.  This doesn’t mean I’m holier or more compassionate than the next person, but Girl On Girl Betrayal is a peculiar disturbance in my gut.  Why would a woman betray another woman?

Yes, we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.  Yes, we are all miserable offenders. I totally get this.   But . . .  don’t we identify with other women in terms of relationships and work and daily life?  I (totally judgmentally) have a hard time understanding women who backstab other women.

My mother was not one to give advice to her children, but I have a clear memory of Mom announcing at the dinner table, one night, a rare and valuable declaration to my brothers:  Never Date a Girl with No Girlfriends.   I agreed with this admonition absolutely from personal experience and I would find in the years to come that women with no girlfriends had (not always but often) found themselves girlfriendless because they had consistently betrayed their friends for the sake of selfish, often man-centered pursuits.

This is not to say that we women must personally like all other women, or that we understand all other women, or that we are responsible for all other women. But the least we can do is not sabotage each other.

Maybe it’s the particular soup I find myself in lately, or maybe I’ve been walking alongside too many sisters with similar stories, but here are a few questions I would like to ask, in hopes of receiving authentic and wise answers:

1.  Why are the critics of clergywomen most likely to be other women? Are they upset that they themselves didn’t go to seminary?  Did all those generations of men in the pulpit serve as idealized husbands or eye candy or father figures?  Are they jealous?  Are they self-loathing?  Honest explanations would be appreciated.

2.  How can a woman have a sexual fling with a married man without thinking about the sister she is betraying?  Has she been told that The Wife is cold/gay/sick/tired/in-love-with-someone else?  (Believe me, what you’ve been told is not always the truth.)  Is she herself vulnerable and lonely?  Was everybody simply drinking too much and caught up in the fun of being at a conference together?  Did it seem harmless/meaningless?  Am I just a dork who takes marriage vows seriously?  What’s up with this?

3.  Why can’t we women be happy for each other when something goes well?  One friend remarried after becoming a young widow and another friend rued the fact that “Two people fell in love with her, but nobody has fallen in love with me.  It’s not fair.”  Another friend said, “I can’t believe she got that job.  What does she have that I don’t have?”  And yet another recently shared with me, “I don’t trust (that clergywoman) with my husband’s church committee.  I’m not comfortable with him going to meetings led by a woman.” Really?

Yea, yea, yea I know that all of us are occasionally catty and immature and all-about-ourselves, but these things happen in the church (In The Church) every day.  Am I asking too much to expect women to work alongside, be friends alongside, live alongside each other without stabbing each other in the back?

Anonymous responses especially welcomed in this post, but I’d like to know if you are male or female as you respond.  Thank you.

Image is Sarah and Hagar by Marc Chagall (1956)

What Rocky Said (and More)

rockyYesterday, Rocky Supinger  – a gifted pastor and colleague who works with youth in California – wrote this provocative statement in his blog:

Maybe my students need church to be the thing that backs down and that expects whatever percentage of themselves they’re able to give–today.

You can read the whole post here.  And read the comments too.

Our church kids are busy.  Our church adults are busy.  And church should never be something that shames us, overwhelms us, guilts us, or bores us.  But consider the comments we occasionally hear in church about families that disappoint:

  • They never do their share as  volunteers.
  • They drop their kids off and go to Starbucks.
  • They won’t bring their kids to youth group.
  • They never help with Vacation Bible School.
  • They are always late for worship.
  • They used the church for baptism and then they left.

Maybe we are missing the basic point.  Our youth, our children, our adults are not expected to “come” to perpetuate and maintain an institution.  Spiritual communities should engage and refresh and lighten the load.  The point is to build a relationship with God and with each other.

So what do we do when our people are exhausted and overwhelmed?  Rocky says, “Maybe it’s the church that should back off.”

Maybe.

In my first church, I met with a family early in my years there whom  – I’d heard – were once very active in the congregation, but now they stayed away. The family included Mom, Dad, and three elementary school kids.  I visited in hopes of convincing them that it would be great to have them “back” again.  But the dad said something like this:

The last pastor told us that we should stay home on Sunday mornings because it’s the only time of the week that all of us are home and we need that family time.  My wife works nights.  I work days.  The kids have lots of activities.  But we need a Sabbath.  We need one day when we can stay home in our pajamas and eat a big breakfast and hang out together with no stress.”

I didn’t buy it.  What pastor would tell a family to stay home on Sunday mornings?  Maybe the last pastor said that or maybe he didn’t.  But I get it now.

Families long for down time.  Is it the church that should back off?

One of the most fundamental questions we must ask ourselves as church leaders is this:

  • Is our goal to create programs that make us feel successful?  (e.g. lots of people, stuff, events)
  • Or is our goal to create a spiritual community that is safe, inclusive, holy, and reflective of God’s love?

One of my smart colleagues AD has suggested that – just as adults often meet for Faith on Tap, God Talk on Tap, etc. – maybe something similar could be offered for youth which involves meeting in dairy bars or Chinese take out restaurants.  Imagine churches offering something – in addition to the regularly scheduled programming – that involves informal conversation around spiritual topics from money to gun violence to sex.  Drop in.  Bring friends.  No pressure.

In my ongoing effort to encourage churches to increase the number of portals through which people can enter the community, this is one idea that allows kids and their parents to participate as they can, when they can.  And depending on the leadership (which like all church leadership needs to be equipped and gifted) it might attract people who would never step foot in a church building.  Just a thought.

 

 

 

 

Human Beings

sotloff

Can we all agree that Jennifer Lawrence is a human being? Surely we all recognize that Steven Sotloff was a son, a friend and – now in death – still a beloved child of God.

Why would we denigrate these human beings by downloading hacked personal photographs or watching video of someone’s execution? What is the matter with us?

It’s surprisingly difficult to remember that even our enemies are human beings, created in the image of God. I often find myself in meetings reminding Church People that:

  • This” (slander, ugliness) “is not the way Christians talk to each other.
  • Followers of Jesus do not gossip about each other in church parking lots.
  • People who’ve experienced God’s grace convey that grace upon others.

I observe pastors treating parishioners with open disdain. I observe parishioners openly shredding their pastor’s personalities, leadership, and very existence.

Again, what is wrong with us?

In terms of becoming a 21st Century Church, it’s easier for us Church People to speak snarkily of each other than it is to make the difficult shifts required for faithful ministry. It’s hard work to become a new church for a new day.

Repeat after me: In life and in death, we belong to God. Whether we believe in God or not. Whether we deserve it or not. (I believe we actually don’t.) Jennifer Lawrence. Steven Sotloff. The pastor you disagree with. The elder who makes you crazy. The church official who seems so out of touch. You. Me. We are human beings who deserve respect – if for no other reason than the fact that God created us holy.

Image of Steven Sotloff whom we mourn today.

Forced Detours – for 20-Somethings & All of Us

Detours are a pain.  Some are more painful than others.Detour

The viaduct a block from my house has been closed until mid-October which means we can neither drive nor walk our usual path.

This closure divides our little village, cutting off local businesses, the fire department, schools, and – mainly – a primary road.  My side of the literal tracks can drive all the way around Homewood to the north and Olympia Fields to the south to get where we want to go, but what used to be a quick trip to the bank, for example, now takes twenty minutes. Err.

First world problem, to be sure.  But it reminds me of life’s shifts – no matter what our age or vocation.

  • We make a plan.
  • We work towards the plan.
  • Our path seems clear.
  • A detour forces us to navigate a new path.

As the mother of twenty-somethings, I see how these detours can be absolutely crushing for young adults.  I liked this TED Talk by Meg Jay – up to a point.  When she talks about a woman’s peak fertility being at age 28, I feel a little nauseous.  I remember being 28, unmarried, uncoupled, and nowhere near a place where “peak fertility” were happy words.

What I also remember is that overwhelming feeling that every decision I made would forever determine my future life.  This is terrifying.  For example:

  • I could major in Engineering or Accounting and have a prosperous but (for me) an unsatisfying work life. I could major in Poetry or Art History and Love Every Minute Of It but find myself struggling to find a barrista job after college.
  • I could marry A and have a prosperous life with fewer choices in terms of my own career.  I could marry B and struggle financially but have more options in my career.
  • I could choose both singleness and child-free-ness and have a wealth of options in terms of where I live and how I spend my income.  Or I could choose singleness and parenthood, making life more expensive and complicated but building my own little family.

When we don’t trust that – no matter what we choose – everything’s going to be okay, it’s paralyzing.  This kind of trust has a spiritual component, of course.

How can we offer spiritual community that builds resilience and fosters an understanding of a loving God who is with us in life’s detours?

I’m not sure to be honest.  But I’m fairly sure it’s not happening by perpetuating what the institutional church has been offering for the past 50 years.  This is not to say that all churches are failing twenty-somethings.  But there is a lack of connection that still needs addressing.

Spiritual connection is less likely to happen in a sanctuary and more likely to happen in intentional conversations in living rooms and coffee shops and bars.  

One of huge detours in the Institutional Church these days is that shift from Sunday Morning being the most important hour of the week to Monday – Saturday evenings being the most important hours of ministry.  Imagine the repercussions regarding our choirs, our liturgical teams, our preachers.

I’m not saying that Sunday morning worship is a thing of the past, nor that it’s unimportant.  But I am saying that it can no longer be the central portal through which people join a spiritual community.

Just the mention of this major detour in how we are the church is terrifying.  But everything’s going to be okay.

Image of Flossmoor Road near my house.

Labor Day & Clergy

Do we promise to pay our pastor fairly and provide for our pastor’s welfare as she/he works among us?*   

Come Labor OnOn this Labor Day Weekend, let’s talk about unions.  Actually, this post is specific to my denomination: the PCUSA.

[Note for non-Presbyterians: In my denomination, the regional body for church governance is The Presbytery. A Presbytery ordinarily encompasses all the churches in our denomination in a specific geographic region.]

It’s been said that The Presbytery is a pastor’s union in that The Presbytery (not to mention The Board of Pensions) has salary requirements, vacation requirements and study leave requirements that ensure fair pay and benefits for our clergy.  While labor unions came into being in the mid-19th century to protect workers, care for Presbyterian clergy via special funds and minimum salaries predates labor unions by over a century.

In a perfect world, employers would pay workers fairly, give them time off, and offer them health insurance and a pension.  But our world is not perfect.  Sadly, we’ve needed labor unions to ensure fair pay, time off and other benefits.

In a perfect Church, the congregation would pay church workers fairly, give church workers time off, and offer health insurance and a pension.  But – God knows – the Church is not perfect.  Sadly, we’ve needed the Presbytery to ensure fair pay, time off and other benefits.

Many of our congregations struggle to pay the clergy minimum because they simply do not have the capacity to do so.  I know that in 30 years of professional ministry, I have earned the Presbytery minimum in 25 of those years – and my salary took the largest percentage of the annual church budget.  But I’ve also noticed – both as a parish pastor and now as a Presbytery staffer – that some churches either:

  1. Do not understand the life of a pastor (and why – for example – a pastor needs a sabbatical every 5-7 years) and/or
  2. Hope to get church staffers for cheap.

This goes for church musicians, educators, administrators, and sextons as well as clergy.

  • We hire “directors” instead of pastors because we can avoid paying the Presbytery minimum salary and benefits.
  • We avoid paying secretaries and music staff full-time salaries to avoid paying the health care and pension benefits that are required for FT employees.
  • We seek the less expensive staffing.  I was asked during conversations with my first church why I needed $14,000/year (the minimum) when I had earned only $8000/year as a hospital chaplain because I “seemed to be doing just fine with $8000.”  We had to convince them to pay me the minimum, and to be fair, many of the parishioners received surplus cheese handouts from the US government.
  • Clergy women still earn less than clergy men on average.

The truth is that there is huge disparity in terms of clergy salaries.  Heads of Staff of large churches often earn twice or three times what the Associate Pastors earn.  There could be reasonable and not-so-reasonable factors involved.

Those who serve in rural or inner city congregations with a higher incidence of unemployed or underemployed parishioners earn less because their congregations simply cannot possibly pay more than the minimum salary, and often cannot pay that minimum at all.

And finally – something on my mind as I can see retirement in the not-so-distant future – there are huge financial incentives for staying in active ministry after age 65 which can destroy a church that needs fresh leadership.  If a pastor needs to go at the age of 60 or 62, but plans to stay on through 70, the congregation may never recover from those years of stagnation.

I have no brilliant answers to remedy these concerns, but they are real.  And my hope is that someone smarter than I might address them on a national level.

In the meantime, I ask you in the parish to appreciate your church workers – from the person who vacuums the sanctuary to the person who preaches the sermon.  If we can’t pay them what they are worth, at least we can thank them for making it possible for us to gather as a community and grow in faith together.

*This question is asked of a congregation when installing a new pastor in the PCUSA.

Image shows the lyrics of the great hymn Come, Labor On by Jane Laurie Borthwick. (1859)

In-Demand Pastors

clergy in Rio de JaneiroMany of my colleagues and hundreds of recent seminary graduates are seeking calls in church settings right now.  Those of us in Christian traditions without bishops interview for clergy positions much like other vocations interview for secular positions.

Why is it that some professional ministers have many opportunities and others do not?  Why are some pastors more “desirable” than others?

Here’s a very non-scientific list of characteristics that make for great (and in-demand) 21st Century Pastors:

  1. Teachability.  They read, attend lectures, seek mentors, and maintain curiosity even (and especially) decades after ordination.
  2. Community Organizing Chops.  They not only have a concern for neighborhood issues, but they know how to organize ministry to address those issues.
  3. A Missional Perspective.  They know how to connect with neighbors who are not part of the church.
  4. Skills in Church Transformation.  They know at least a little about shifting a 1950s church into a 21st Century congregation.
  5. Bravery.  They have the courage to try and fail, to challenge the status quo, and to stand up to bullies.
  6. Collegiality.  They partner with clergy colleagues, community leaders, and politicians for the sake of enhancing their congregation’s impact.
  7. Willingness to relinquish control.   They equip leaders and then let them lead.  They don’t have to be the king/queen of all things.
  8. Visionary.  They see what could be.

What would you add?

Image Source here.

 

Difficult Conversations

Yellow Islands 1952 by Jackson Pollock 1912-1956
When David Letterman had a daytime talk show long ago, he did a bit involving Difficult Conversations.  He would ask if anybody in the audience was dreading a personal conversation,  and then he would make a phone call on their behalf.  He called unsuspecting boyfriends and broke up with them at studio guests’ requests.  He called parents and told them that their kids had wrecked the family car.  You get the idea.

Very few of us enjoy having difficult conversations, most especially within a spiritual community.  

What conversations have you initiated and/or endured that are forever memorable because of the sheer suckiness of the situation?  Here are my top three in no particular order:

  • The conversation in which I had to fire a church member from a church staff position.
  • The conversation in which I broke up with a really nice guy.
  • The conversation in which I had to tell a young mother with two children that her husband had been killed in a car accident.  (The sheriff wouldn’t do it.)

Of course the sheriff didn’t want to do it.  None of us want to participate in these conversations.  We don’t want to hurt people.  We don’t want people to dislike us.  We don’t want to stir the pot.

But, my friends, the pot longs to be stirred.

After hearing Joseph Grenny speak on Crucial Conversations at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit a couple weeks ago, I’m convinced that families and communities that can “talk about anything” are healthy families and communities.  His book is popular with leaders in many fields.

After years of making myself have difficult conversations with parishioners, family members, friends, and colleagues, I’ve found that – done in love – I really appreciate these conversations.  They clear the air, clarify realities, and serve to improve processes and procedures.

We in the church are generally terrible with this kind of thing.  Most of us would rather poke our eyes with a pencil rather than initiate difficult conversations with parishioners who are causing mayhem, leaders who have broken confidentiality, church ladies who gossip, and staff members who need to be fired.  We endure ineffective leadership, toxic relationships and confusion rather than grapple together in healthy dialogue.

Pastors go for years without an annual performance review because personnel leaders have no idea how to tell their pastor that ____ needs to improve or maybe it’s time to retire.  Inept staffers keep their jobs solely because nobody has the guts (or the compassion) to discuss the need for a change.

But if we respect people, if we take community seriously, if we see to reflect God’s reign on earth (as it is in heaven) we will learn how to address difficult situations.  Honestly, it’s not so hard once we learn how to do it.

Image is Yellow Islands by Pollock (1952) with a slight edit.