Guest Blogger: What I Wish Y’all as the Church Knew about Non-Binary People

spectrum-indigo by Leba BovardNote from Jan: I invited my nibling Taylor to write a guest post for today in hopes of helping those of us in Church World learn something new. There are people in our communities who are unfamiliar perhaps, but they, too, belong. Here goes . . .

Y’all is my favorite gender-free way to address a crowd. That’s why my aunt asked me here to begin with — to talk about what I wish y’all as the Church knew about non-binary people. (Here, is a helpful short trans dictionary in case you don’t know some of the words I use). In no specific order there are some things I wish you knew.

I am only one person. My word is not every non-binary person’s word. I don’t speak for my entire group. My narrative is not every non-binary person’s narrative. For example, I do not experience being non-binary trans in the same way as a person of color would. So, this post isn’t really what I wish you knew about non-binary people but instead what I wish you knew about me as a non-binary person. Moreover, non-binary can be considered an umbrella term containing many identities, but is also an identity in and of itself. So asking me “what kind” of non-binary person I am will get you nowhere. This word works best for me because of the possibilities and ambiguity I attribute to it.

I am not “just like you.” As an anti-assimilationist, I have to say this is one of my least favorite things to hear. The fact of the matter is, I am not like you. If I was, I wouldn’t have to police my behavior in order to assure my safety. This assimilationist chorus most often, for me, manifests itself in church with the way some people frame Galations 3:26-29, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I’m thinking “in Christ” is the most important part of this. In Christ’s eyes, we are no better or worse for our many intersecting identities. Christ might see us as all deserving of the same treatment, but society does not. We might be “children of God through faith” but on the street, some of us are treated as subhuman. Using this verse to deny the lived experiences of trans people — the fact that we are more likely to experience homelessness, alcoholism, abuse, unemployment, and the like — is not only oppressive to us as trans people, but it seems to be a gross recontextualization and application of the verse.

You can’t tell just by looking. You know nothing about a person just by looking at them. Just because someone is wearing a dress doesn’t make them a woman. Also, just because you’ve been told for years that dresses are feminine, doesn’t make them feminine. Clothes, colors, sports, and art don’t have a gender. Genitals don’t have a gender. (Hint: never ask anyone about their genitals. This should be obvious and easy.) On this note, not every trans person is looking to transition. Furthermore, transitioning means different things for different people. It might mean changing the clothes they wear or taking hormones. It might be seeking surgery. Regardless, it’s important to know that not every trans person is looking to make changes. Not every trans person experiences body dysphoria).

Call me a “sibling in Christ.” I can’t stress how easy it would be for pastors and laypeople alike to use non-binary inclusive language. Instead of “brothers and sisters in Christ” try words like “siblings” or “family.” Call someone you just met a “person” instead of man or woman. Call someone’s child a child instead of a son or daughter. Call someone’s spouse a spouse, a partner a partner, instead of a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, if you don’t know their gender. (Hint: You most likely don’t know their gender).

My pronouns non-negotiable: Most people don’t think about pronouns past first grade, but it’s an everyday thought for me as a non-binary person. My pronouns are they/them. (Used in a sentence: Taylor is running late, so they won’t be here until 9:30). Those are the pronouns you should and will use in reference to me, whether I’m in your presence or not. Wrongly gendered pronouns are a quick way to misgender somebody, which can be anything from a nuisance to a make-or-break moment in a trans person’s day.

Everything changes: In church, we are fond of words like “unwavering” and “steadfast.” We are drawn to their spiritual qualities, excited by their promise. I don’t blame you; they are stable words and most of us want stability. But here’s my reality — in any given day I feel a laundry list of gender feelings. I am constantly in flux. Part of this flux also means I feel zero gender feelings some days. I’m curious how a preoccupation with these words might affect the way people in church see my gender. Do they see it as weak? Wishy-washy? Do they write it off as eccentricity and new-agey hullabaloo? My gender isn’t static, but I’m met constantly by both cis and trans communities with the demands of Destination Gender — as if my gender is something final, something permanent. The truth is, I’m not God. I am not steadfast, unconditional, unwavering, constant, or forever. (And as my aunt pointed out to me, even God changes God’s mind sometimes. See: Jonah). Expecting or demanding me to embody words like that is just too much to live up to. It’s setting me up for failure. My gender isn’t a failure. Or a downfall. Or too complicated. Or invalid.

My gender is no destination. It’s more like a hike in the woods at night with a wet book of matches. But it’s not always scary. It’s actually kind of a blast, in a way.

Taylor M. Silvestri is a (f)unemployed writer, teacher, and activist, they spend their days writing cover letters and deconstructing Craigslist ads using various theoretical lenses.

Image is Spectrum Indigo by Leba Bovard

When the Pastor is a Mom/Dad/Wife/Husband

Ben Fred Jan 1989When I was a parish pastor several years ago, this line showed up on my annual personnel review: Jan is a good mother.

It struck me as strange.

I remember not knowing if I should be offended (A male pastor would most likely never find ” ___ is a good father” in his personnel review) or appreciative (Yay. They noticed that I can be a good mom and a good pastor at the same time.)

At the installations of clergywomen over the past year, I’ve noticed that there is often a mention – especially in the Charge to the Pastor or the Charge to the Congregation – about the importance of spending time with family.   I haven’t heard the same guidance about family to clergymen.

It doesn’t matter if my church is happy if my marriage and kids are not happy,” I hear female colleagues say – and of course that is true.  Clergywomen seeking new calls mention the hope of balancing work and family in their interview conversations.  And of course, balance is a good thing.

But when was the last time you heard someone charge a new clergyman or a clergyman’s new congregation with similar words?  When was the last time we heard a male colleague share that he was going part-time after the birth of a child?

I have male colleagues who certainly take their turns with carpools and bedtime stories, but being a father has been something that makes a male pastor more appealing without necessarily impacting his daily ministerial duties.  Or am I wrong about that?  Being a mother and a pastor implies that There Will Be Juggling at a level that being a father and pastor doesn’t seem to imply.  Or am I wrong about that?

What is your experience, friends – especially friends in congregations?

Image of HH, FBC, and me (1989)

Profoundly Disappointed (Or: Clergy Misconduct on the Road)

grief_statueNote: This is one of those posts that makes me feel old and dorky.

Sexual misconduct on the road is a common plot feature in contemporary movies (Up in the Air) and in classic novels (The Scarlet Letter.) The examples are countless actually.

As a parish pastor, there were numerous situations in which a couple came to talk with me after one spouse had cheated at an out of town retreat or conference or meeting. Sometimes the extra-marital relationships had lasted for years. Sometimes they had been one-time liaisons.

Church people might be surprised (and profoundly disappointed) to hear that it’s also common in the lives of clergy.

We professional ministers attend annual meetings, assemblies, conferences, training sessions, and retreats – all opportunities to hook up with someone new regardless of our marital situation. I was comparing Dork Notes with a colleague over the weekend about the fact that we couldn’t figure out exactly How This Works.

For example:

When I was a fresh-out-of-seminary twenty-something pastor, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about preaching Stewardship Sermons and so – for my very first Clergy Continuing Education event – I signed up for Preaching on Stewardship with James Forbes in a lovely retreat center in the NY mountains.

I arrived on a Sunday night for the three day conference, and at the first meal that night, I met the friend of one of my colleagues. We sat next to each other at dinner and he showed me pictures of his pregnant wife and their two daughters. It was the only time we ever spoke during the whole event . . . until the last day, as I was carrying my bags to the car.

Pastor With Pregnant Wife: So, I’m glad I got to see you again before you left. It was good talking with you the other night.

Me: Nice to meet you too.

PWPW: I was thinking that maybe we could go skiing sometime this winter.

Me: (faraway look on my face)

PWPW: What do you think?

Me: I’m trying to figure out who I could bring (because in my head I’m assuming he’ll bring his wife after the baby is born and I’ll need to find a date.)

PWPW: No. (with a chuckle) I meant you and I could go skiing.

Me: (still clueless) I’m not really a good skier.

PWPW: No. (Now smiling with cute – but now oddly disgusting – dimples). We probably wouldn’t be skiing much.

So, here’s my question: Does this actually work for people? You meet someone over meat loaf at a stewardship retreat and two days later you invite her for a winter ski weekend where there wouldn’t be much skiing?

Honestly, this kind of thing happens all the time, I’m sorry to say. There are certain conferences that are especially popular hook up events. Gentle Readers in the PCUSA: you know what I’m talking about. Again, it makes me feel old and dorky to write these words.

I’m a big fan of keeping promises – especially to the person with whom we’ve made vows before God and all the people we love most. But – now with my Professional Hat on – can I just remind you, sisters and brothers, that I currently do your executive job references as a Middle Judicatory staffer? Our denominations are like small towns and if you hook up with an old or new friend at a meeting, I will often hear about it.

Yes, these issues are as old as Genesis. And no, this post won’t change the incidence of adultery and other sexual misconduct among our clergy and other leaders. But please know that when you “inappropriately connect” your actions introduce layers of pain that will take many years to heal. The pain ripples out from your inappropriate relationship to all your other relationships, including the congregations you serve.

Please seek counseling to try to figure out what’s going on in your mind and soul. Please take a break from your ministry until you figure things out, so that your congregation will not be damaged beyond what’s already happened. Please stop lying to yourself. Please stop imagining that your actions aren’t hurting people.

Long-Term Pastors & Age

chicago_fall_2More conversation about age:

Issues about age in the ministry – or in any vocation – are often more about energy levels and call than chronology.  And it’s all a little scary.

For example:

  • Imagine being a pastor in her early-50s who has already served her congregation for ten years.  She could stay until retirement (i.e. another 20 years) or she could seek a new call in a different congregation.  What’s the most faithful choice?
  • Imagine being a pastor in his early to mid-60s who has already served his congregation for 12 years.  He could stay until retirement (i.e. another 8 years) or he could retire early or he could seek a new call.  What’s the most faithful choice?

As a pastor who served for 22 years in one congregation, I often worried about staying too long.  It can be a form of clergy misconduct.

At about year 18,  I chose a group of three people (one of whom usually disagreed with me on pretty much everything) and I asked them about every six months if it was “time to go.”  This group changed often due to the transience of the congregation.

I don’t think they were just being nice when they said that they didn’t think it was time to go, but honestly, as years passed, their collective counsel went from “no!” to “we don’t think so” to “maybe.”

For all of us in this situation, it’s complicated.  In my situation, it was more about my spouse having his own call than the fact that my kids were in high school and we “couldn’t leave.”  Our extraordinary TBC said that – if her Dad found his dream job somewhere far away –  she’d happily move.  The truth is that 1) she had a profoundly good life she’d be leaving behind and 2) as it happened, HH wasn’t called away until TBC started college.

And it was still traumatic leaving the home our children had known all their lives.  Nevertheless, we were called halfway across the country.  This is what you do if God calls.

Brian Blount preached at Shannon Kershner’s installation yesterday that following a call is “not a lifestyle choice.”  It’s not about climbing a ladder.  It’s not about moving to a bigger and “better” church.  It’s not about staying close to family or moving closer to family – although I always pray that these things might be under Divine consideration.  Some of us are called to serve congregations close to home and some of us are not.

Calls change as years pass and we who consider what we do as a calling – whether we are pastors or teachers or scientists or construction workers – must assess whether or not we are still energetic, still visionary, still teachable.  Do we in long-term calls encourage risk and fresh expressions of faith?  Do we partner with people in different generations, cultures, experiences than our own?

As I visit numerous congregations and talk with as many as ten governing boards each month, I see time and time again that we are sometimes stuck because we need fresh leadership.  Sometimes it’s the pastoral leadership that needs to change and sometimes it’s the lay leadership that needs to change.  And the longer the pastor or the elders/deacons have served, the more difficult it is to make those changes.

It’s terrifying, really, to make these changes.  The unknown is always scary.  But, friends, it’s a new season in more ways than one.  We need to ask ourselves, “Is it time to move on?”  And if so, how are we preparing ourselves for the next season of ministry?

Or maybe it’s not time to go anywhere.  (Talk with God about it.)


Image of Fall in Chicagoland.  (Notice the blue skies behind those autumn leaves.)

Now That I’ve Got Your Attention . . .

. . . what should we do when:CutEnergy

  • An embattled 59 year old pastor shares that “if he can only stick it out” for 11 more years, he can finally retire.
  • A pastor less than 5 years from retirement confides that he’s done the math and there’s just enough endowment left in his church coffers to get him to retirement, and then the church can close.
  • A pastor shares that his mortgage will be paid off in three years, so he needs to keep working even though he’s pretty much out of energy.

Yesterday’s blog post hit some nerves, and as I wrote, there are certainly vibrant sexagenarian pastors out there as well as some uncompelling forty and fifty-something pastors.  But it’s easier for the young pastors to make a change when a change is needed.  A forty-something pastor can make vocational shifts more easily than someone on the cusp of 70.  And yet . . .

In our particular Presbytery, several of our churches have called pastors in their late 50s and early 60s over the past three years.  Those pastors have displayed energy, teachability, and a professional/spiritual life that has continued to grow and expand.  A couple of them had previously started new congregations or new forms of worship.  They still read widely, attended conferences, and were current on 21st Century theological conversations.

I remember another colleague in another Presbytery who shared that he “taught continuing education classes” he didn’t “take continuing education classes.”  He considered further education unnecessary, and it showed.  I know very few pastors in the second half of their careers who seek spiritual direction.

While many say that these are tough times for the Institutional Church, I believe it’s actually a fantastic time to be engaged in professional ministry.  We are reassessing why our congregations exist and what’s breaking God’s heart in our neighborhoods.  Some of us have “little to lose” and so we let go of everything we previously trusted that was not God.  We find ourselves free to be more authentic and declare that we – too – have been giving too much attention to the things that kill community rather than those things that enhance it.  This is a great time to be the church.

God deserves our best and it can’t be about our mortgage and our pension and our resume, no matter what our age.  But how can we assist those on the threshold of retirement to leave their churches better than they found them – if not in terms of numbers or programs, then at least in terms of spiritual depth?

Are 60-Something Pastors Irreparably Damaging Our Congregations?

Crumbling church buildingIn the interest of self-disclosure, I am a 58 1/2 years old clergywoman. I know some fresh, excellent 60-something pastors.  And I also know some 50-something (and even some 40-something) pastors who are ineffective leaders.

But, having said this, I wonder what to do when our failing or stagnant churches have 60-something pastors – or even clergy in their late-50s – and a new leadership is needed.  What if those pastors intend to stay with their congregations until they are 70?

The consequence of a declining church led by a tired pastor tends to be irreparable.  But this is an issue facing many of our congregations.

For the pastor nearing retirement, the issues include:

  • The fact that many pastors still have mortgages and – possibly – young adult children in college.
  • The fact that there are financial incentives in many denominational retirement plans for working to 70. (I just calculated my own pension numbers and the financial benefits between retiring at 65 and retiring at 70 are substantial.)

For the congregation in decline, the issues include:

  • The fact that church endowments have been used to pay budget deficits to the point that they are almost depleted.
  • The fact that the pews are no longer full – if they ever were.
  • The fact that the median age of a member in my denomination (the PCUSA) is 63.  For the ELCA it was 58 in 2008.  For the UCC it’s 70. For the UMC it’s 57.  For Episcopalians it’s also 57.

Many of our congregations can indeed turn around, and by that, I don’t mean “return to the glory years” or have full pews and Sunday School classes.  But – if we are willing and faithful – we can turn around in terms of:

  • Becoming communities that reflect the love of God in Jesus Christ.
  • Working to bring the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • Creating community in our neighborhoods that feeds people spiritually.
  • Serving broken people who crave spiritual peace.

As we all know, many pastors have been trained primarily to be chaplains who preach, teach, marry, baptize, and bury.  Effective 21st Century pastors have skills in systems theory, volunteer management, congregational redevelopment, entrepreneurship, community organizing, and . . . preaching, teaching, marrying, baptizing, and burying.  Most of all, we need pastors who are courageous, energetic, risk-taking, and grounded – all to the glory of God.

So, what do we do if a 60-something pastor plans to stick around until 70 . . . leaving the congregation damaged – perhaps – to a point of no return?  After years of tired leadership, many of our congregations will find it impossible to regain both the energy and capacity needed to be the church God has called us to be.

Here are some questions that require serious consideration:

  1. Can our respective denominational Boards of Pensions figure out a way to make it financially beneficial for pastors to retire by 65 – making the way clear for younger clergy?
  2. Can our 60-something clergy partner with younger clergy to mentor each other in these transitional years when our culture is increasingly multicultural, post-denominational, post-Christian?
  3. Can we trust God in all this?

Financial fears keep us enslaved.  Especially in the US where money is our most popular idol, some major shifts are needed.  Who’s up for it?

Image source.




Friday Church Fun: Channeling our Inner Fairy Godmothers & Godfathers

The Church's One FoundationMany articles have been written about equity (or inequity) in pastoral salaries, etc. but the truth is that – as church pledging continues to diminish for a wide variety of good and not-so-good reasons – many of us will look back to these days as The Golden Years of Clergy Compensation.

With an eye on supporting our often underpaid clergy, here’s something that we did in Chicago Presbytery that was relatively inexpensive but good for the soul:

Our generous Synod gave our Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry $33,000 to share with our clergy.  Since we already had grant available for medical and other emergencies and for continuing education expenses, we decided to give 33 of our clergy $1000 Refreshment Grants.

Channeling our inner Fairy Godmothers and Godfathers, we’ve granted $1000 grants for everything from painting classes to gym memberships to kayak lessons to date nights with spouses (babysitting covered too.)

If we cannot pay our clergy generously, then the least we can do is be creative in providing other ways to support them:

  • Give an extra week of vacation in the annual benefits (especially if you can’t give a raise.)
  • Provide “free” guest preachers several times a year for solo pastors and most especially for PT pastors who ordinarily preach FT. (Presbytery staff, retired clergy, specialized clergy like chaplains and professors might volunteer to preach four times a year for a colleague during non-vacation or study leave weekends.)
  • Include sabbaticals in each new Terms of Call – even if it’s just a one month sabbatical after six years.  (Parishioners have no idea how many pastors work seven days a week simply due to real life.  Emergencies consistently occur on our “day off.”)
  • Find money from the denominational coffers to offer $1000 Refreshment Grants to as many pastors as possible each year.  Even if you can only award five grants each year, it is astonishingly good for morale and for the soul.  Even those of us who are privileged enough to grant these gifts find our souls filled.

Have a great weekend, everybody.

Image of Eli Lilly, Patron Saint of Exhausted Clergy.  This post is dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Carol McDonald, our fearless leader.


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)