There’s a Woman in the Pulpit

There's a woman in the pulpitI never saw a woman preaching in a church pulpit until my first month into seminary.  I’m not sure what I was thinking – a 20-something woman taking required preaching courses who had never laid eyes on, much less heard, a woman preacher before.  But there I was.

“My first” was another student – MH – who was clear and strong and smart.  I’ve never forgotten that moment of witnessing her in the pulpit.  She – who would eventually receive the senior award for Best Preacher – delivered the sermon with confidence and grace.

Years later, after I’d preached countless sermons myself, a couple visiting Washington, DC on vacation came to worship in the church I was serving.  On the way out of the sanctuary, the gentleman said to me, “I was very surprised when you stood in the pulpit.  You seem to be a woman.”

Why, yes I was and still am.

It used to be considered odd and unusual to find a woman in the pulpit, and in certain denominations, it still is.  But there are quite a few of us now.

I remember when all the clergywomen in my Presbytery could fit around a dinner table for six or eight.  A few years later, there were enough of us to fill a whole fellowship hall.  And now we number in the thousands.

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit tells stories about the experiences of these clergywomen.  And it’s a great read.

This book is for everyone who seeks beauty in both the common and uncommon. There’s the story about the woman who baptized her own mother.  There’s the story about the pastor who sat at the death bed of a frail man who loved to put puzzles together.  There’s the story about the woman adorning her hair in preparation for standing in a sanctuary full of wedding guests – but she is the officiant, not the bride.

Most parishioners have no idea what their pastor does all week.  There is no one watching us visit the sick, writing our sermons, preparing for meetings, making choices that impact our personal lives and our ecclesiastical lives.

If you’re interested, this lovely collection explains it beautifully.  It will change the way you see your pastor and your own ministry.

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I have a story in this collection too.)

No Crying in Baseball, No Sabermetrics in Church

I don’t get baseball and the only reason I go to games is for the ambiance and theNo Crying in Baseball singing. I don’t understand sabermetrics and specifically I don’t want to understand W.A.R. (Wins Above Replacement.) Too much math.

But this article struck my fancy recently, especially in regards to assessing our leadership skills.

In a recent conversation with one of my extraordinary colleagues about closing/shifting/creating congregations he asked: Do we have any leaders who could pull this off?

We have challenging congregations out there needing skilled pastors. And we have lots and lots of pastors out there looking for work/a new call.

But do we have leaders who are skilled at guiding our challenging congregations?

How do we learn skilled leadership? It doesn’t seem to be taught in seminary. Maybe it can be absorbed by osmosis in field education (and that’s assuming the field education supervisor is skilled.) But most of our best leaders tweak and fine tune and assess and develop their skills on the job, bolstered by effective evaluation, coaching, and mentoring.

From Marty Fukuda’s article cited above, these are great questions for reflection:

  • Is your leadership making your team and everyone on it better?
  • Do your leadership and personal actions strengthen your organization’s culture?
  • How would you evaluate the strategic decisions you’ve made for your organization over the past year?
  • How do you rank against the average worker when it comes to overcoming obstacles and adversity?

That last question is the kicker and it seems especially connected to our spiritual depth. Do we trust God in times of uncertainty? Are we the kind of leaders whose first response to conflict is self-protection? Is this ministry first and foremost about me?

We cannot measure church leadership like statisticians measure baseball performance. But, thank God, there’s crying in church. And thank God that we can learn more skilled leadership for these days.

Image source.

Just for Presbyterians: You are (Probably) Not a Lay Leader

priesthood of all believersProof that I care about things that nobody else in the world cares about except for an infinitesimal slice of people in my small but rocking denomination:

You will not find the word “laity” in any part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA. It’s not in there. As well, the word “lay” as in “lay leader” is only included to explain that we don’t use that word.

Please stop calling yourself “just a lay person” (or any kind of lay person) if you have ever been ordained in the PCUSA. Stop it.

This is not about proper word use. It’s about sound theology.

We Presbyterians ordain teaching elders (aka ministers of the Word and Sacrament), ruling elders (aka those who govern on boards called Sessions) and deacons (aka those who tend to those in need.) Let me repeat this: we are ordained. This means that – by virtue of our ordination – not one of us is any longer a lay person. We are not “laity.” We are not “laywomen” or “laymen.”

The word “laity” was first used in the 15th Century which makes sense in terms of how the clergy were elevated regarding power and authority. The church that the New Testament describes sets people aside for leadership, but “the priesthood of all believers” makes it clear that everyone who follows Jesus is called to serve in Christ’s name. Everyone.

Theologically speaking, as long as we consider the leader with the seminary degree to be The Real Minister, we will be an ineffective church.

To consider church members to be “lay” members assumes and accepts that those without seminary degrees are ill-equipped to serve. The truth however is that God has called all of us to serve. Some – ruling and teaching elders and deacons – are called to be leaders. Others are called to lead in everything from music to administration to education to hospitality.

If you are dorky enough to read this blog, you are probably not a lay leader. I’m looking at you, ordained ruling elders and deacons.

This post is dedicated to CJB.

The Whole Entitlement Thing

The more we know about ourselves, the less we make it about ourselves.*

Queen of Bavaria's CrownProfessional ministry may no longer be the respected vocation it once was. Between catastrophic disappointment in our clergy and the general end of Christendom, we pastors and priests no longer wield the immediate respect we once enjoyed.

And yet entitlement is alive and well among me and my clergy colleagues. I’m trying to get my head around this.

We are called to Servant Leadership. We teach Jesus’ message that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. And yet I observe a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dose of entitlement in professional ministry.

Can someone wiser than I speak to this?

I occasionally observe new pastors who are bright and amazing, but they expect the salary, benefits and responsibilities of seasoned pastors. I occasionally observe experienced pastors who are wise and gifted, but they expect people to defer to them because of their tenure. Is there a loving way to say, “You are clearly called to this ministry, but it’s not about you”?

All of us make things about us from time to time. I need to pray often: “forgive me for making this about me” because I am insecure enough to want that – sometimes unconsciously. But what if we work with colleagues who seem to be unaware that they are making everything about them?

It’s not a good way to live. It’s definitely not a good way to be a pastor. Any wisdom out there about this?

*This quote comes from a wise colleague.

Image of the crown of the Queens of Bavaria.

I Heart Weekends

brunch ny timesI have a very clear memory of My Last Weekend As a Church Civilian.

I was 24 years old.  It was the weekend before I started as the Student Pastor in my seminary field education congregation.  I was sitting in a Greek restaurant outside Boston with a friend blissfully consuming my spinach & feta omelet and the Sunday New York Times when it hit me:  this is the last weekend of my life when I will not have Professional Church Responsibilities, required by either my seminary or my future congregation.  Honestly this stark realization almost knocked the wind out of me.

So here I am 35 years later and I still miss weekends.  Sure, there have been vacations, study leave, a sabbatical, sick days, and several months between positions.  But I have worked most weekends for a long time.

Yes, there are many professions that require weekend work from fry cooks to brain surgeons.  And there are the jokes about pastors working only an hour a week and it happens to be Sundays.

But the unrelenting weekend work of pastors is unlike other work.  Even as a Middle Judicatory Staffer (a description of ministry which makes me sound like someone you would never invite to a party) I work weekends.  The wonderful thing is that I can control this in a way that a parish pastor cannot.

I’m coming off of a four-church weekend if you count an all day Presbytery Assembly on Saturday.  But occasionally, there is a weekend when nobody is being ordained or installed, nobody’s retiring, no church is having a congregational meeting or an anniversary, and no pastor is ill.  Those weekends are precious in a way that’s different from a vacation weekend.

Most parish pastors do not have those opportunities.  They are in worship Every Weekend except for – in my denomination – 6 Sundays a year (2 for Continuing Education and 4 for vacation.)

I also know some parish pastors between church calls who come to enjoy their “free weekends” so much that it’s almost painful to go back to working 46 weekends each year.

Everybody needs that soul-refreshing break every week when we can read Every Single Page Of The Sunday Paper if we wish.  Clearly most people on the planet do not get this, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it.

What would it look like if all pastors got a real weekend at least once a month? I’m imagining a Sunday each month when other leaders (who never went to seminary) were set free to lead worship without the supervision of The Pastor. I’m imagining the resting pastor visiting another congregation to worship without any leadership duties.  I’m imagining equipped volunteers.   I’m imagining pastors picking up interesting ideas from other congregations.  I’m imagining refreshed leaders.

I wish for you and all of us nourishing weekends.  Imagine.

The Need to be Needed (& How It’s Hurting the Church)

One of the worst kept secrets of pastors is that we very much need to be needed. spotlightWe like the attention that comes with a pulpit and a microphone.  It’s fun to be beloved.  We like to fix things or at least we like to believe we can.

Okay that’s actually four secrets.  And what’s also true is that some congregations 1) do not think they need their pastor, 2) mess with the sound system (Note: this is a metaphor), 3) Do not love their pastor, and 4) are beyond anybody’s ability to be fixed.

Sometimes we pastors make ministry about us.  And it’s hurting the church we love.

Among the behaviors that are wrecking things:

  • The pastor who “loves us so much” that he not only sits in the surgical waiting room for hours with the parishioner’s family, but he also goes with us to our annual exams, x-ray appointments, mammograms, dental surgeries, and colonoscopies.
  • The retired pastor who still lives in the town of his former church and meets his longtime friends (aka former parishioners) for coffee every Tuesday.
  • The pastor who insists on attending every church meeting.  (Or the congregation that requires that the pastor attends every church meeting.)
  • The pastor who doesn’t take at least one full day off each week.
  • The pastor who doesn’t take all her vacation.
  • The pastor who doesn’t take all his study leave time or spend his continuing education money.
  • The pastor who boasts about working 60 hour weeks.
  • The pastor who insists on having everything run by her before being purchased, printed, ordered, assigned, or instituted.

A thriving 21st Century Church is all about giving permission, setting  free, minimizing the hoops to jump through, and teaching the faithful how to pray, lead, serve, and love their neighbors without constant pastoral supervision.

As long as we make our people dependent on us, we might feel important but our congregants will feel spiritually disempowered.  If we love the church we serve, we can’t make it about us.

Free Range

kids playing

I’m thinking that most of us – Democrats and Republicans, Progressives and Conservatives, Denominational People and Non-Denominational People – can agree on the issue of free range children – at least to a point.

I’m not talking about allowing our preschoolers to wander home alone from the library at 9 pm.  I’m talking about kids who who know how to look both ways before crossing the street who need to run and skip and catch guppies and climb trees – sometimes without the watchful eye of adults.

I’m not talking about abandoned kids whose parents drop them off at the zoo to go to work.  (Sadly, that probably happens.)  I’m talking about two siblings – ages ten and six, walking several blocks home after playing in a park on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

All of us of a certain age can recall stories from our childhood of summer days when we left home in the morning and returned in time for dinner having played with our pals all day long.  We rode bikes. We collected rocks.  But then Etan Patz‘ photograph was printed on the side of our milk cartons and people got scared.  And a couple years later the Center for Missing and Exploited Children was established and names like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard became familiar.

If you are a parent who’s lost a child even for a minute in Target, you know that it’s terrifying, even after you’ve found them in the Lego aisle.  We’ve been trained to keep a sharp eye.

So what happens to kids who never wander?  Do we turn into overly cautious adults who are slow to explore?  Are we forever to live by fear instead of faith?

I wonder today about Free Range Adults.  They aren’t many.

I know some adults who take risks and explore the world.  They tend to be fresh out of college, privileged enough to have the resources to travel or move to a new city.  But then we settle down and by the time we are middle aged, we become slower to explore.

So what does all this say about the moving of the Spirit – if anything?  I work with wonderful church people who are usually slow to leave their comfort zones.  Maybe we are afraid of wandering too far from what feels like “home” to us.

We forget that the God who created us also called Abram and Esther and Ruth away from all that was familiar to them.  God moved prophets to speak difficult truths to people who didn’t want to hear them.  God took a holy singular personal risk to make an eternal cosmic point.

And so living Free Range with our ears perked up towards the heavens seems like the least we can do.  I believe God is calling us to something that will stretch us beyond our wildest imagination, but we need to be willing to wander a bit.

Is Your Pastor a Tool?

Garden Art by Tadpole Creek CreationsI ask this in the most positive way possible.

The reason our churches have buildings, classrooms, Bibles, coffee makers, printing machines, hymnals, screens, parking lots, playgrounds, flip charts, and all other property is because they are all tools for ministry.  We do not worship them.  We use them to carry out our ministry, to make disciples and to love God and neighbor.

And not only does a pastor have tools for ministry from libraries to to computers to a seminary degree, but we pastors are tools for ministry.  We want to be sharp and effective.

Think of all the different professions that need tools:  cooks, potters, electricians, gardeners, seamstresses, construction workers, teachers, and students.  We pastors metaphorically do the work of ordinary tools.


  • The pastor as aerator bringing fresh air to dry, unhealthy landscapes.
  • The pastor as flashlight bringing light to dark spaces.
  • The pastor as spatula stirring things up as needed.
  • The pastor as hammer offering leverage when a wall needs to be torn down.
  • The pastor as needle patching up what is torn.
  • The pastor as broom cleaning up the debris.

You get the idea.

As I work with so many good pastoral leaders, it’s clear that after many years on the job, we get tired and dull.  Some of us haven’t taken a life-changing continuing education class or retreat (i.e. something to help us “get sharper”) in years.  Some have never had a sabbatical.   I hate to admit this, but some of us haven’t read a new book in a while.

Now more than ever, our spiritual communities need the right tools to do ministry and that includes a strong, well-trained, energetic equipper of the saints – an effective pastor.  If you know a pastor who no longer has the capacity to be effective, there are things we can do to encourage her/him.  Support them in prayer, financial care, and offerings of coaching, counseling, and recovery time. God deserves our very best.

Image source.

Which Seminary Should You Attend?

dunikowska-knocking-on-heavens-door-2004This article by Duff McDonald struck my fancy yesterday regarding “MBA Programs that Get You Where You Want to Go.”  Want to work on Wall Street?  Start a new business selling organic meat? Become a marketing consultant? Instead of Harvard, Wharton, or Kellogg, maybe you should consider Ross, Fuqua, or Sloan.  Or – in the wisdom of my excellent colleague EH, if you want to work in Southern California all your life, maybe you should go to Marshall at USC.  If you want to spend all your years in Maine, an MBA from  Maine Business School (they make it easy) makes sense.

I doubt that most Americans could name a seminary or divinity school.  But for all you The More You Know fans, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is connected to 12 seminaries.  Among my PCUSA colleagues, there are many graduates of other non-PCUSA related seminaries and divinity schools.  If someone asked me where she should go to seminary, I’m not sure I would ask “What kind of ministry do you want to do?”  I would probably ask “Where do you want to live?”

I went to seminary because of geography.  I also heard from a colleague that he was advised to “go to seminary someplace you’d like to live because you’ll never get to choose where you live again.”  He was a big believer in God calling us to places where we don’t want to go.  Very John 21:18.  Exhibit A:  I never thought I’d ever be living in The Prairie State.  (But now that I’m here, it’s pretty great.)

At the risk of offending my colleagues, I’m going to this whole “Which seminary should you attend?” question a whirl and I’d appreciate your feedback.

If you want do general parish ministry and eat excellent barbecue for 3 years, go to  Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary – Austin, TX.

If you want to do general parish ministry and make lifelong Southern connections, go to Columbia Theological Seminary – Decatur, GA

If you want the ease of on-line seminary, go to University of Dubuque Theological Seminary – Dubuque, IA

If you want to do general parish ministry and be near The Mother Ship, go to Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary – Louisville, KY

If you want to study urban ministry, perhaps in a non-parish setting, go to McCormick Theological Seminary – Chicago, lL

If you want to learn how to start new churches, go to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary – Pittsburgh, PA

If you want special focus on youth ministry and/or be a Senior Pastor, go to Princeton Theological Seminary – Princeton, NJ

If you want general parish experience with added chops in spiritual disciplines, go to San Francisco Theological Seminary – San Anselmo and Pasadena, CA

If you want an historical black church experience (and you can wait because they are not currently offering classes) go to Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary – Atlanta, GA

If you want general parish education, especially with a focus on Christian Education, go to Union Presbyterian Seminary – Richmond, VA & Charlotte, NC

If you want certificate programs in leadership, and especially training in being a coach, go to Auburn Theological Seminary – NYC

If you want training to serve the church in Puerto Rico, Latin America, or with Spanish-speaking churches in the US, go to Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico – San Juan, PR

[Full disclosure: I went to seminary in Boston (where there is no PCUSA seminary) because of a relationship and I took classes at Boston University School of Theology (preaching), Harvard Divinity School (Greek and NT), Gordon Conwell (polity), and Andover-Newton (MDiv & their CPE connections because I planned to be a chaplain as I had never seen a woman in the pulpit.)  I also have a DMin from Columbia Theological Seminary – a PCUSA affiliated institution  – because of their Christian Spirituality program.]

The reality is that the seminary one attends may or may not lead to whatever call one discerns.   “The Big Three”  clergywomen recently called to large urban congregations – Shannon Johnson Kershner, Amy Butler, and Ginger Gaines-Cirelli – are graduates of Columbia Theological Seminary, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Yale Divinity School respectively.  So there.

Clergy – I’d love your feedback on the advice you received about where to go to seminary?  And how did you make your decision?  And did it matter?

Non-clergy – I’d love to hear your assumptions about particular seminaries.  Do you assume all Fuller graduates are conservative?  That all Princeton Seminary graduates are big time?

Image source here.

Thank You Working Fathers

Mosaic St Joseph the workerI joyfully celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus  in a standing room only sanctuary surrounded by babies, toddlers, and their parents last Sunday.  As it happens with babies and toddlers, Attention Needed To Be Paid. There was the little girl with the runny nose. There was the baby who applauded every time the choir sang.  There was the skirmy little guy who needed to be held, then not held, then held again.  There was the baby who needed a new diaper.

Yes, these little ones could have been in the nursery, but they were not for whatever reason.  And towards the end of the service, some parents near me left to go retrieve their children who were in the nursery during worship so that they would be ready for the post-worship Egg Hunt.

So, here’s what I noticed: Most of the parents doing the hands-on duties were dads.

I remember a time when only mothers left worship to change diapers, picked up the baby at the nursery, or kept emergency toys in their pockets.  I have no recollection of my own father changing anybody’s diaper as a father, grandfather, or fun uncle.  Maybe he did, but I never saw it.  What I did see on Sunday were many fathers doing fatherly things:  making puppets out of their fingers, bouncing babies on their shoulders, offering sips from water bottles.

Thank you Working Fathers.

On my commute to work yesterday, I came across this article about working moms and a cool new website called Power to Fly that connects professional women with jobs that allow them to work from home.  Awesome.

But it’s interesting that this website is not also for men. Fathers interested in spending time with their young children and working from home are also seeking similar positions, I would think.  What about married gay dads?  What about single dads?  What about dads who can do their jobs digitally who are married to spouses required to work at construction sites or in operating rooms?

I get that this is a niche market specifically for women looking for this sort of thing, but here’s a plug for working dads:  fathers need this as well.

HH and I shared a single job when our kids were young  – which worked out for us but might not work out for others.  Even when our children were older, HH was always A Working Dad.  He coached lacrosse and drove Brownies and went to PTA events.  It was helpful that he could do some of his work from home.

My point is that there are many working fathers out there who have done what I’ve done as a working mother – parented while trying to balance work from the home and work outside the home.  And don’t get me started about “stay-at-home moms.”  They are obviously Working Moms too even if they do not earn an income.

All engaged parents are working parents.  How can we best support each other in this?

Image is part of a mosaic celebrating the Feast Day of Joseph the Worker ordinarily observed in late April.