pastoral ministry

You're Not Alone: Finding Friends in Ministry

By Rev. Mindi

I graduated from seminary fourteen years ago, with ninety credits and one unit of CPE under my belt. Though I had loved my Biblical Studies courses more than anything, I made sure I took the more practical courses: Church Administration, Stewardship, and of course, Pastoral Ministry Ethics. I figured those would be the courses that would help me in my day-to-day ministry.

Until I came to a church that didn’t want to talk about money or stewardship.

Until I came to a church that had too large of a governing structure for its body.

Until I came to a church that had no internal governing structure for its body.

Until I came to a church that had unhealthy power dynamics within the staff and within the lay leadership.

Until I came to a church that was barely surviving.

You get the picture. In the variety of calls I have served, I have encountered situations that “they didn’t teach me about that in Seminary.”

And even though I am an outgoing person and have immediately sought out clergy groups, sometimes it is hard to relate to other clergy who have had a different experience in ministry. I find it hard at times to relate to clergy in which they were always paid a full time salary with benefits, or were always able to attend continuing education events and their regional and national governing bodies. We all know that relationships are the key to ministry, and if who you know matters, how can you move to a new call when no one at the regional or national level knows who you are because you have never been able to afford to attend? Or how can you compete with pastors who have D.Min’s or other credentials when your continuing education budget is small?

Ministry can be lonely, even when you have colleagues.

Sometimes, you have to build what you envision. “Built it, and they will come.”

A few years ago we began a great local “younger” clergy group. We are small. We can fit around a dining room table. We gather once a month for lunch and to check in with one another. We bless one another when they leave a call, or transition to something new. We honor one another by listening and not judging. We pray for one another when we are going through difficult times. We have built a beautiful support network that I could not minister without.

I also joined another clergy group, with clergy of different ages, but also different cultural and language backgrounds. Many of these colleagues I have been able to relate to in my experience of finding time for ministry while working another job. I have also had a good listening ear from my recently retired colleagues in this group, who get that ministry has changed from when they entered and that those of us in our early years of ministry need more support than ever.

But perhaps the greatest support network I have been part of is UNCO. The UnConference (and yes, I keep blogging about this here, and here, and here) began a few years ago as a “built it, and they will come” event that brings together clergy and church leaders without a keynote speaker. We share our ideas and our concerns in ministry and form breakout sessions based on those topics. All those things I didn’t learn in seminary? I’ve learned more from UNCO than any other continuing education conference. And, it’s affordable! It’s under $500!

Ministry gets awfully lonely at times, and sometimes we feel we are going it alone into uncharted territory, especially as the traditional church wanes and something new is birthing. What is coming forth? What is our role? UNCO is helping us to figure that out for each of us, and I always receive encouragement and support, and even enthusiasm as I return to my ministry setting. And the support continues, through Facebook, Twitter, and Google Hangouts. Sometimes we even pick up the phone and call the old fashioned way, across time zones and denominations.

UNCO West is October 24-26 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The cost is $350 per person including meals and room for 3 days and 2 nights. There is KidUnco (the BEST!) and there is still space available. Register now!

The Glass Ceiling Ain't Broke Yet

By Rev. Mindi

A few weeks ago, we watched the graphic of the glass ceiling break as Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee by a major political party. While presidential candidates in the past have had it mentioned that they were good parents, there was much lauding of Hillary’s motherhood, and behind-the-scenes talk about her sticking by her husband during their difficult times.

This past week, we have heard stories of Kerri Walsh Jennings being a terrific mother and how she has to balance motherhood and being an athlete. Headlines that congratulated the wife of a Chicago Bears lineman who won bronze in women’s trap shooting: her name is Corey Cogdell (the Chicago Tribune received a lot of feedback on that one). That glass ceiling is not broken, only cracked. Because women are barely getting through.

Less than one quarter of the churches in my region have a woman on the pastoral staff, and of that quarter, one third are part-time. And while more women are still entering seminary than men, more women are in search processes and more women are not considered by search committees. There are still churches, in 2016, in my denomination that refuse to look at the professional profile of a woman minister in their search processes.

So I would like to ask my male colleagues to consider the following:

--Would you enter a profession in which you were significantly less likely to be hired because of your gender?

--Would you accept a position at a church if the person before you was a woman and received more pay than you, even though you have the same level of experience (or even more?)

--Would you be comfortable in a denomination in which there were churches that would not consider you because you are male?

--Would you accept a position in which a major change in family status would require you to be gone for 6-12 weeks, but the church would not pay for your leave time?

 

Now, ask yourself these real questions that I have personally been asked by search committees in the past, and how would you feel about them being asked of you:

--“How will you balance your family time and church time?”

--“What will you do on Sunday if your child is sick?”

--“What will your spouse do if you are the pastor? Will they be involved in the church?”

--“How is your physical health?”

--“How will you be able to pastor the (opposite sex) in our church?”

--“Will you leave the church if you have a baby?”

No my friends, the glass ceiling has not been broken. It has been cracked, but we have a long way to go in breaking it.

 

*Note: this post reflects a binary way of thinking, and is definitely not encompassing of all ministers or all families, especially LGBTQ individuals and their families. I cannot imagine the list of questions my LGBTQ clergy friends have been asked that would never be asked of those of us who are cisgender and heterosexual. 

UnCommon Acceptance

By Rev. Mindi

Two years ago, I sat in a breakout session at my first UNCO—The UnConference for pastors and church leaders—and in the first fifteen minutes of the session titled “Show Me The Money,” I learned more about fundraising and stewardship campaigns than I had in seminary—and I had taken an entire January term course on stewardship and church finances. I listened as church leaders shared what had worked in their congregation, ways of talking about stewardship, and focusing on the positives (“Look what ministries we participated in last year”) rather than the negatives (“Our budget shortfall means we will have to cut programs unless we raise enough money”). 

Two years ago, I connected with pastors and church leaders that I still go to regularly for ideas, support, and encouragement, as did my husband who was planting a new church. But more importantly for us, it was the first church conference that not only provided space and childcare for children (called KidUNCO), but fully welcomed our child AJ, who has autism, into the full life of the UnConference.

Last year, when we returned to UNCO, not only did we receive our warm welcome again, but as AJ ran across the gathering space, where we livestream our worship services and large group “brain-dump” sessions, people who knew AJ from the previous years but could not attend tweeted their greetings to AJ.

UNCO has created a community of church leaders who are connected not only after UNCO meets via Twitter and Facebook, but a way of connecting those who are physically present and those who participate via Twitter and livestream. And following last year’s UNCO, those of us involved in new church communities and the challenges of raising funds for our new ministries began using Google Hangout on a monthly basis—not only to share ideas and knowledge, but also to check in, and lift up one another and our ministries in prayer. The networks created within the larger UNCO gathering, including a writer’s group and synchroblog, provide support and encouragement for creativity in leadership.

UNCO has given me and my husband the opportunity to attend a leadership gathering together—and to bring our child with special needs to an inclusive and welcoming environment. Because of KidUNCO, my husband and I have been able to attend breakout sessions without one of us having to care for our child while we are learning and sharing.

More importantly, UNCO has provided close friendships with colleagues facing similar challenges in ministry. UNCO is not a conference you attend and take back with you what you learn—UNCO is the UnConference, in which you are participating all year long and in person for three days, if you are able to be there.

UNCO West is October 26-28 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Click here for more information and to register. You won’t find a more affordable continuing education event that will benefit you throughout the year. You can also read Carol Howard Merritt’s excellent article on UNCO in the Christian Century.

Reverent and Rule-Breaking: There's a Woman In the Pulpit

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

I have had the pleasure of being part of the RevGalBlogPals community, a group of active clergywomen bloggers, and the great honor of being a contributing author in the RevGals first collective book There’s a Woman In the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor, which is being released today by Skylight Paths Publishing.

As Rev. Martha Spong, director of RevGalBlogPals and the editor of this work (as well as a seminary colleague and friend of mine), states in the introduction, “Our community includes people who are single and married and partnered and divorced and widowed, gay and straight, cis- and transgender, parents and not, clergy and clergy spouses and laypeople, with an age range of twenty-something to seventy-something…” and we come from a variety of denominations around the world. In short, you will not find another work with the personal voices of such a diverse group of clergy women.

Included in this diversity of clergy women’s personal stories are some common threads: the difficulty of following one’s call into ministry by a still male-dominated patriarchal church structure, sometimes calling women away from the denomination of their youth; the focus by others on what clergy women wear and look like; wrestling with theological questions and walking with people on their faith journeys. 

There are prayers and poetry, laments and reflections; tales of baptisms and communions, deaths and births, revelations and resolutions. The stories shared are often of those intimate moments in ministry: placing ashes upon the forehead of a stranger; praying for a dying stranger; baptizing a child; being in the ER when people are informed their loved ones are gone. These intimate moments are shared beautifully, and as I read them, renewed in me the understanding of God’s call to this important ministry I am part of as a Christian pastor.

As I read each woman’s story, I recognized my own frustrations and trying times of being a woman in ministry. I especially resonated with the tales of breaking the rules. Standing in the line of Jesus, women called into ministry have been called to break the rules—even if their denomination ordains women. We still are challenging a status quo, a cultural idea that men are ministers and women are not. And in subtler ways we have been breaking rules even in our liberal, affirming contexts, because the work is not done to welcome all and to follow Jesus’ call.

This is not just a book to give to the clergy woman you know, though she will enjoy it, I’m sure. This is the book to give to anyone considering the ministry. This is the book to give anyone who loves Jesus but isn’t sure about the church and its laundry list of rules. Guess what—some of the clergy aren’t so sure about those rules, either. Yes, there is a place for you. There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and she’s inviting you in.


Breaks and Interruptions

By Rev. Mindi

I haven’t written something new for Dmergent since before Christmas. I was all set, after the holiday break and our “Best of 2014” series to write something new on January 6th, Epiphany.

Then my son fell and broke his ankle at school. On Epiphany. He gets the cast off on—you guessed it—Ash Wednesday. He’s definitely a PK.

On those first six days of the New Year, I had grandiose plans. I and another clergy friend launched autismandchurch.com, a new blog about autism and church that incorporates personal stories, resources and reflections, from both family members of people with autism along with individuals on the autism spectrum. I was going to try to blog almost every day, and I started thinking about ideas to write here… and then the break happened.

When I was in high school, discerning a call to ministry, my pastor would sometimes bring me to the local clergy text study. I remember the Lutheran pastor in our town say once to me, “A day in pastoral ministry is a series of interruptions.” How true. How many times I have sat down to work on the worship service and received a call from a member who needed to speak to me. A person drops by the office in need of assistance. The office administrator needs the Call to Worship for the bulletin. A series of interruptions.

There is no time for a pastor to have a personal crisis, but here we were, on Epiphany, waiting for hours in the emergency room for xrays, for results from radiology, for pain medication that never came, for a referral to Children’s, for discharge papers. My husband had to come home early and join me at the hospital while we waited for all the news and instructions. Twenty-four hours later, we were at our son’s orthopedist appointment at Children’s, breathing a sigh of relief that our son would not have to have surgery, and that he would spend six weeks in a hard cast, and six weeks from that day will be Ash Wednesday. The entire Season After Epiphany will be marked by a green and purple striped cast for this clergy family.

But what I had forgotten, and was reminded so beautifully by my congregation, is that people are always praying for us. A wonderful card came for AJ the very next day. The member who runs the prayer chain called me on the way home from the hospital to see how AJ was doing. Others sent text messages and Facebook messages. People celebrated when he came to church on Sunday in his wheelchair. We were prayed for and cared for by the congregation.

Almost six-and-a-half years ago, one week after giving birth to AJ, I was rushed to the emergency room because I had an infection after my C-section. As I was admitted to the hospital and given a room, the head nurse on the floor that day was a church member. She came to greet me as I was rolled in and said, “I saw the name on the chart and began to pray.”

What happened next still brings me to tears. She made sure we were comfortable in our room, showed JC where the coffee was at the nurse’s station and to help himself, made sure we had everything we needed for AJ and then turned things over to another nurse. Instead of being my nurse, she asked, “Pastor, can I pray for you?” And she took my hand and JC’s hand and prayed for me, for AJ and JC. She was strong, and certain, and was a better chaplain that I could have been to a patient that day. She took the priesthood of all believers seriously, and made sure my spiritual needs were cared for while the other nurse took care of any medical needs.

Pastors and leaders, we need to remember to let ourselves be ministered to, as well as our families. We need to know that interruptions are going to happen, and that sometimes we need to let go, and let someone else minister to us. As we enter 2015 (three weeks in now, I realize), may we learn to let go a little easier, and let others minister to us, and with us.

Pastoral Care to Families of Children With Disabilities

By Rev. Mindi

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, October is Disability Awareness Month. Being both clergy and a parent of a child with a disability, I thought I would share some of my experience for other clergy and church leaders in terms of pastoral care to families of a child with a disability.

When, at twenty months old, our son AJ stopped talking completely, we knew something was wrong. Our son had never said much—just “Hi,” “Uh-oh,” and “Mama.” But he knew at least twenty baby signs, and he would pick a sign up in a day, such as “more” and “all done” and “milk.” But this all stopped by the time he was twenty months old. At twenty-two months he began speech therapy and continues to receive speech therapy today at the age of six.

 

When AJ was three, we received the life-changing diagnosis of autism. I didn’t know what to do, or what to think. I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of information on the internet and in bookstores, much of it contradictory. We tried different diets, we tried different supplements, but nothing really changed AJ’s social or behavioral patterns.

A good friend of mine who has a child with a disability gave me some advice: I needed to grieve the child I had lost. It sounds harsh. My child did not die, they just received a diagnosis, a medical categorization, but my child had not changed from who they were. But at the same time, she was absolutely right. I needed to grieve my own dreams and hopes for my child, now lost probably forever. My child will most likely not grow up to be a great scholar or star quarterback or Olympic swimmer.

The truth is, most of our kids don’t grow up to be those things. At some point, our dreams as parents have to die and we have to mourn their passing, but we usually have a lot more time to recognize it. Parents of children with disabilities or life-changing illnesses have to make this leap a lot earlier and a lot faster: we have to grieve, and then we have to accept our children.

But society around us is very slow to catch up. I cannot tell you how many well-intentioned people have told us “just look at Temple Grandin!” Very few children with autism grow up to be like Temple Grandin or have the resources her mother had when Temple was a child, to attend private school, to have a full-time nanny, to be sent to an alternative boarding school as a teen. Most of us do not have those kind of resources available. And even those with good financial resources cannot always expect that their child will develop and grow the same way. The mantra is, “If you’ve met one child on the autism spectrum, you have met one child on the autism spectrum.” Every child is unique.

The truth is as a society we like to gloss over the challenges and difficulties many people face, with good intentions: we want to cheer them up, we want them to find hope, and somehow we think that our words will bring that. Hearing so many times, “He’ll be all right,” “He’ll grow out of it,” “He’ll catch up,” does not help me at all. It’s true he will be all right, no matter what his diagnosis or ability. It is not true that he will grow out of it. And I do not know whether or not he will catch up, and neither will you, because I am guessing you are not an expert in autism spectrum disorder. 

What is helpful is hearing, “That must be hard,” or “Thank you for sharing that with me,” when I or another parent of a child with a disability shares what they are going through. Also, silence is also acceptable. Just having someone to listen as we struggle and advocate and support our children is more than society often gives us.

I am a glass half-full kind of person. I still have a lot of hope for my son. Recently he is starting to verbalize more, repeating words and phrases from TV shows and songs for the most part, but he is using some of it in context. He seems to understand what he is being asked a lot more than he used to. He uses an assistive communication device (currently an iPad with speech software) to make his requests known and sometimes to comment on things that he likes. He also spells out words and is trying to read more. I have hope. Maybe someday he will go to college. Maybe someday I won’t have to buy large diapers in bulk. Maybe he will still live at home the rest of his life or have to live in an adult assisted living facility. And all of that is fine. One step at a time. 

Thank you for listening to me. Please be sure to listen to other parents of children with disabilities.

My son spelled this out in my office one day. I know that I have to be his voice, until he can speak for himself.

My son spelled this out in my office one day. I know that I have to be his voice, until he can speak for himself.

Cultivating Call

By Rev. Mindi

When I was thirteen, I felt the call to ministry. I was sitting in my grandfather’s church, listening to him preach, and I felt something in me say “This will be you someday.” And I never looked back.

When I told my pastor about my call a few months later, my pastor made sure to include me in worship leadership.  At first it was simply reading Scripture, but by the time I was fifteen I was preaching a sermon at least once or twice a year. I helped with Communion, I led liturgy and prayers.  After I was baptized, I was made a member of our Deacon Board (this happens when you are in a small church startup with about twenty members!) When I was in college, the pastor of the church I attended invited me to preach. The first time he was present; after that, he invited me as pulpit supply on occasion.

These experiences helped build me up and prepare me for ministry long before I attended seminary. And when I was serving in my first church as an associate minister, we established our first Youth Sunday in a long, long time. But I knew that Youth Sunday wasn’t going to cut it. Only once a year? Only one time for the youth to share their gifts for ministry? So I began to establish, with the help of the senior minister, a training program for youth starting in middle school to help in the worship service. And we began by reading Scripture to the congregation, and worked our way into other areas of the service. 

At my second church, where I served as Senior Pastor, I did the same—but I also invited youth to preach and not just on Youth Sunday. And when she turned sixteen, I invited her to come on pastoral visits with me (but I always received permission first from the homebound member). She also eventually was invited to serve on the church board.

In both churches, there was one youth who began to feel a call to ministry and felt uplifted, supported and encouraged in that call, just as I had felt many years ago.

What are we doing in our churches to support young people in the call to ministry? What are we doing to help laity of all ages feel supported in their call to ministry?

All too often, worship is led by the pastor, and even if laity are involved, it is simply for things such as taking the offering or serving Communion, or maybe reading Scripture. The number one complaint I hear from pastors when I ask them how laity participate in worship is that the laity are not trained to read Scripture or to lead in worship. But that is our job. If we are not involving the laity in our worship services (and of course I am speaking from a Free Church congregation with no set liturgy other than what was created by tradition within this particular congregation), we are failing to raise up the next generation of leaders.

In my current congregation, no one has come forward to me to express an interest in professional ministry—yet. But that does not mean I do not provide those opportunities, as much as possible, by inviting others to participate and serve. I also provide training, once a year, on reading Scripture out loud, what the Prayer of Invocation is and what it means to call people into worship. An 85-year-old woman in my church, who attended the training but had no interest in actually leading it, said to me “I never knew what the word Invocation really meant until now. Now I know what it is we are doing.” Sometimes, in the Free Church tradition, we have done a poor job of educating within our communities on what it is worship means, what is liturgy, and what it is we are doing.

We need to do better. Think of ways you can involve others in leadership, and ways we can educate our congregations on what worship is, but we also need to find ways of encouraging and lifting up those within our congregations who may be gifted for ministry. It is not enough to bless them and send them on their way to seminary; we must begin cultivating that call now.

The Myth of the Ten-Year-Full-Time Pastorate

By Rev. Mindi

I don’t know where I learned the myth—somewhere along the way in attending church in my youth to my college days and even into seminary and my first call—somehow, I believed that the average call to pastoral ministry in congregations was about ten years. After consulting with a few other seminary friends, they tell me that they also heard this myth in seminary. I believed that churches provided full benefits and adequate salary and housing that would help cover my student loans from college. I believed I would be able to have my own one-bedroom apartment and take my day off and work a 40 hour workweek.

That all changed very quickly. My first call was full-time and did offer me retirement and health insurance for me—but when I got married, not for my spouse unless I paid for it. My first call did not pay an adequate salary nor was the housing allowance enough to cover my rent—I found a house with three other roommates to split the rent four ways (I did have my own bedroom), and I was able to pay a car payment on a used car—but without consolidating my student loans I had $45 after every paycheck. After consolidation, I had $145 to pay for groceries and gas. Needless to say, I opened a credit card in order to survive that first year and a half until I received a raise. Then my roommates moved, and I had to move into an apartment with a roommate with higher rent. The debt caught up quickly.  This was all while working at one of the most prominent churches of my denomination in that state, connected to a seminary and regarded as a pillar church, a church that did not pay its staff a livable wage.  In addition, I was often working 50-60 hours per week. I was in charge of starting and building the youth group, running the church school, participating in worship and other duties in the life of the congregation. However, most of the time I did manage to take Friday off. I stuck with that, though I worked several 12 hour days during the week.

It wasn’t until my second call, just less than four years later, when I moved into a parsonage and I received a salary in which I could meet my expenses. Here, I was paid a livable wage, my family was covered under health insurance, and I worked reasonable hours during the week (40-50). In my first call I was an associate minister; in this call, I was the senior pastor of a smaller congregation.  It seemed perfect. I imagined myself there for seven, eight—even ten years. We wrote a family leave policy into my contract and I had a child. I began to work on writing in sabbatical leave, as the congregation wasn’t used to sabbatical leave before.

But even there, I ended up moving before four years. My husband received a call to a church in another state, and it seemed an opportunity he could not pass up.  It was bittersweet—a great opportunity not only for my husband, but for us as a family as I could be home more with our son—but leaving a wonderful church community and call.

To be honest, I really wrestled with leaving in this time. I felt that somehow I had failed to live up to the standard of a ten-year pastoral call. But then I began having conversations with other, older pastors and I suddenly learned that the ten-year pastoral call is a myth. And then it hit me: my grandfather, a pastor I had looked up to as the model of the perfect pastor, never had a ten-year call, either. Most of his were 4-5 year calls, several were shorter than that.  Many times it was because of unhealthy aspects of the congregations he was serving. Sometimes, though, it was because of family dynamics and choices made for the entire family.  Sometimes he served part-time congregations and did other work on the side. My grandfather had a slew of odd jobs over the years to help make ends meet at times.

I was so worried in leaving that church that I was leaving behind any chance of having a full-time, long-term call again. That somehow I would be marked by this. Thankfully, this has not been the case—in talking with search committees, most have been very understanding of the decision to leave full-time ministry to care for my child and to move for my spouse’s call.

At this time, I am serving at two part-time calls. I do not have full benefits—I rely on my spouse’s insurance to cover the family.  It is working, though it is hard to be in two places—as my husband, who also serves two congregations, can attest as well. Neither of us can envision a ten-year pastorate any more.

At a recent gathering of younger clergy, none of us saw ourselves in a ten year pastorate. Most of us were averaging a vision of about five years. Times have changed. And congregations, for various reasons, are no longer preparing for long-term pastors. It’s not only that fewer congregations are not providing full time salary, housing and benefits, it’s not only that there are unhealthy congregations that run through pastors every few years--it’s that our understanding of vocation, call, purpose—it is all changing. This is not to say pastors are still not called to congregations, but that perhaps the Spirit is moving in new ways.

It seems to me that one of the shifts that has happened is that the leadership within churches has become more long-term, fixed (even bylaws have been changed in churches I have served to allow for continuous terms), the pastor’s tenure has become shorter.  In congregations with history of long pastorates, often the leadership within the church went through periods of transformation and change. New people were brought into the lead, new styles brought on, new models tried out. Now, in my experience with congregations with shorter term pastorates, the leadership has stayed the same, but the pastor is the one who changes. Sometimes this is good; sometimes this is stagnant and the problems are associated only with the pastor.

A short term pastorate is not necessarily a sign of an unhealthy congregation or pastor—sometimes, the Spirit is doing something new, and the work that was done between the congregation and pastor needs to shift or move on. And often, in places where there perhaps was an unhealthy element within the congregation that didn’t get addressed by an interim (and intentional interim ministry is a key point that I am not addressing at this time) a new pastor is able to help the congregation move forward and become healthier, and once that new health is achieved, it may be time for a new transition, a new shift.  

Pastors are all unique and have different gifts and abilities. As the kinds of pastoral ministry change along with the settings (there is no one-size-fits-all pastor for an “average” church, as may have been perceived in the past) perhaps certain skills and gifts are needed in certain times of the church’s life, and the pastor find themselves wanting to continue to use those gifts and skills in new settings.

Pastoral ministry is changing, as much as the church continues to change, as much as pastoral ministry has changed. I’ve reflected on this before: in my twelve years of pastoral ministry, I have gone from having a cell phone as an emergency phone for my car only, to using my cell phone as a way of providing pastoral care through text message, tweeting prayers, and connecting with others in leadership. I have moved from being in the office 8-5 to being at the coffee shop in the mornings and a bar in the evenings. As the world of pastoral ministry has shifted in the past ten to fifteen years, so has the focus of gifts and skills in pastoral ministry, and so has the vision of the pastor’s role within the congregation. And while there are still full-time pastors serving in congregations 10+ years, the ones I know I can count on one hand. The myth is not holding up as it once did--if it ever really did.

What’s in your collection?

By Rev. Mindi

A few weeks ago I hosted my family reunion at my church. Over thirty people came. This was the first gathering since my grandmother’s passing back in April, so it was incredibly important for us to be together, good—and hard. I had come up with an idea of a photo collage and had family members bring photos of them with Grandma and we put them up on a bulletin board to share our memories. However, my aunts also brought several things that had been my grandmother’s that hadn’t been given away yet.


My grandmother grew up during the Depression in the Colorado plains and scarcity had been her life. From the time I knew her, her home was filled with things. Some things, like the numerous photos of all of her grandchildren, little trinkets she had picked up while traveling later in life, had special meaning for her and were precious to her.  Other things, like the closet full of canned beans she had found on sale for 10 cents each, were not. Or the bags of things she got at garage sales. They were bargains that were too good to pass up. And we understood. If you’ve gone through a time where you’ve had so little, you want to make sure you won’t go without.

By the time she passed many of her things had been given away. She had a tiny apartment in an assisted living facility, and in that apartment were photos everywhere of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also had magazines and newspaper clippings. Though she had met AJ as a baby, she didn’t get to see him again until just before he turned four years old, and he had been diagnosed with autism the year before. When we visited her, she pulled out a few magazine and newspaper clippings that she had saved over the past year about autism. To others it might have just been stuff. To me, this was precious.

So on three tables in my church a few weeks ago were notebooks, journals, boxes of greeting cards, old “peel and stick” notes, markers, Post-it notes, and other writing items. And we all remembered how Grandma would write us letters and send birthday cards with $2.00 bills in them or write us notes when we were in college. There was a table of vases and canisters and we remembered the flowers she would cut from her own garden and how she had the greenest of green thumbs—she could save just about any plant that I could kill. And on another table were boxes of books she had read over the years—prayer books and short inspirational stories. 

Lots of things, lots of stuff. By itself, it had no value. But the memories of looking at those things remind me of the importance of what we value—the memories we have of the time together, the memories of the time taken to send a letter or pick up the phone, the memory of fresh-cut flowers and tattered books read aloud.

A few of those boxes now sit in my garage for the church rummage sale. We all took something, knowing that we didn’t really need another empty journal or a vase or a book, but there was a lot left over and hopefully they will go to others who need them.

And so my black journal with my grandmother’s name written in the front, but the pages empty, are a place maybe I will record other memories. It reminds me of the green dress that hangs in my closet.

The green dress was given to me by a woman I’ll call Ev. Ev was a member of the first church I served as an associate and as I was leaving to become the senior pastor at another church she entered hospice. Ev was the one who called everyone in the church. Ev was the one who knew everything about everyone, but not in a gossipy way. She sincerely wanted to know.  The last time Ev was in the hospital and I went to visit her with a friend, she told us about how the ambulance had come to get her, and she told us the ambulance driver’s name, where his kids went to school, who his favorite Red Sox player was, and many other details about him. She then stopped and looked at us and chuckled. “Some people collect things. I collect people.”

When I visited her at her home in hospice, she asked me to go back into her closet and look for this particular green dress she had bought but never worn. It definitely was not made for my height, but I have kept it and even worn it on occasion, thinking of Ev and her wise words.

I think my grandmother was the same way. Though she had a lot of things, the most important thing she collected was people, even if most of them were her family.

I’ve been in professional ministry for almost twelve years, serving at four churches and as a hospital chaplain. As I reflect back, it’s not about the sermons I’ve preached that went well or didn’t go well, or the programs that went smoothly or the ones that failed—it’s about the people I’ve met on the way.  Whenever I have taken the time to have a cup of coffee with someone or visit someone in the hospital, I have gained something more. I know that when I have struggled with a church member, attempting to take the time to listen has often mended some hurt feelings and strengthened the relationship.

In the end, I hope that I look back both on my personal life and in professional ministry and think about the people I have collected on the way, more than positions that were successful or not or programs or growth or—whatever. I hope that it is the people who stay with me.

Like a kid who can't sleep at night: Excitement in pastoral ministry

By Rev. Mindi

My son AJ gets so excited for school that he has trouble going to bed at night. Often as we finish up his bath routine and get ready for bed, he starts repeating stories or songs or other rhythmic patterns he learned from school. It runs through his head and then he can’t shut it down. He’s just so excited for school. Even in the morning, sleepy as he is, once he is out the door waiting for the bus, he is excited.

I’ve been feeling this way about the churches I serve lately. But let me step back for a minute and let me be honest:

I don’t always feel excited about ministry.

The day in, day out of pastoral ministry can be draining. I’m sure I’m writing to the choir but day after day of pastoral calls, visitations, hearing complaints and frustrations, and dealing with budget shortfalls, disappointment over not having enough volunteers, and working way too many hours can just take its toll. Ministry can, at times, seem more like a dead-end job instead of a calling.

During school vacations our son gets bored after the first few days. He doesn’t fight the bedtime routine much. He gets a little more irritated and aggravated during the day as well as a little more mischievous.

Church can be a little like that. Boundaries get tested and people seem to be more aggravated and irritated at times.  Maybe it’s not that church is boring, but that when there aren’t many changes to the pattern, it appears like boredom.  We get annoyed.

How do we break that pattern for ourselves as clergy? Look back on where you have found excitement before. Where have you found renewed energy in the past?

For me, the excitement and energy was found when I gathered with a small group of church members and started to ask what excited and energized them about church. They began talking about things such as small group dinners, book groups, lunch gatherings. Things they remembered from the past, or things they always wanted to try but hadn’t done so.

What I did was listen, encourage, and bless.

I listened to their memories, their ideas and old dreams. I let them romanticize and be nostalgic. I asked questions about those good memories.

I encouraged the ideas that had legs. I encouraged the people who had those ideas that they had the gifts to lead, to plan and to implement. I offered help only where I felt it absolutely necessary to guide or tweak, but otherwise, I encouraged them to lead.

I blessed the ideas by acknowledging them, sharing them, and lifting them up.

In another church, I had what I thought was a good idea and shared it with another member. While they had reservations about it, they had another, similar idea, and I did the same. I listened to the concerns. I encouraged the new idea and offered to help. And I blessed the opportunity to share in ministry with another.

Now, I’m the one bouncing with excitement, thinking of the ways the Spirit is moving in the church. I’m the one who is excited to be in community with these great people of faith. 

And here’s another thing I learned: While excited about my ministry, the aggravations and irritations and attitudes of discouragement don’t get to me the same way. I’m not concerned about them, not spending my time and energy worrying and fretting.

That’s not to say I won’t have a time when it will happen again. That’s not to say I won’t get tired or burned out and not feel excited. But I am hopeful as a minister that those times will be shorter and less frequent, that I will remember to start again by listening, then encouraging and blessing, and the joy and excitement of the Spirit doing new things in ministry will return rather quickly.

 

Disclaimer: I realize this may be a stretch. But it’s 10:15 pm and I’ve put my son back to bed for the umpteenth time, and in thinking about his excitement for school, I was reminded of how excited I am, right now, in my pastoral ministry. I’ve never been more excited and passionate about what God is doing in the congregations I serve and in my life than now.

Ten Tips for Cultivating Creativity in Ministry for 2014

By Rev. Mindi

I was going to write a great post to kick off the New Year, something like Ten Resolutions for the Church in 2014, but then there was this great post on Sojourners by Rev. Evan Dolive of 14 Things Your Church Can Do in 2014 that is pretty awesome. Way better than what I was coming up with. Plus, my creative capacity was zapped.

I was sick. On Christmas Eve, I had this tickle in my throat that I just thought was leftover from narrating the Christmas Pageant the previous Sunday. On Christmas Day I felt a little down, but just thought it was the after-Christmas-Eve energy crash. But no. I was full-blown sick by December 26th and it lasted right up until this past Monday, the end of my vacation time.

Clergy are suckers for overworking. And it’s not just the long hours of extra worship services and activities in Advent—it’s the overtaking of mental and physical energy. It’s exhaustion on many levels. As I went back to the office today for the first time in two weeks, I wondered why no one had reported a burglary. Papers strewn everywhere, books piled haphazardly on the floor, shepherd’s staffs and costume pieces thrown across the table.  As I picked up my child’s toys from the floor (I had been in the office on Sunday, and my son was with me) I tried to remember the last time I cleaned and organized my office. It was probably September, around Labor Day.

So as I get back into the swing of things, here are Ten Tips for Cultivating Creativity in Ministry for 2014.

1. Don’t get sick! Yes, if only there was clergy immunity. But apparently, if you eat healthy, exercise and sleep well, your body is much more able to fight off viruses.  The entire month of December I wasn’t eating well, eating lots of sugar (mmm, Christmas cookies!) and I didn’t exercise much. I remember many nights staying up after 11 and getting up around 5:30. I also can’t remember the last time I took a full day off.  So, first I would say start with yourself. Start by going to bed at a reasonable time and scheduling in exercise. Think about what you will eat for the entire day in the morning or the night before and make a plan for healthy living, day by day. Oh, and take your day off. Schedule them in on your calendar as if it was an appointment for yourself.

2. Clean up/declutter your work space. Spend a day, or at least a morning, decluttering. Clean up from last year. File away those papers you need, recycle what you don’t, create a clean workspace. Hang up a 2014 calendar. Buy a scented candle (if you like those sorts of things).  One thing I have in my office that I love are some cork boards covered with fabric, and on them I pin things such as inspirational quotes, Bible verses, pictures and other things that inspire me in my ministry.  I also keep a big three-ring binder in which I put articles or jot down sermon ideas when they come to me, or Bible study ideas, etc.

3. Plan an outing once a week. Don’t spend all your time in your workspace. Coffee shops and diners, pubs and libraries—all sorts of public spaces can also at times provide new inspiration and help you to connect to the community.  Sometimes all you need is a change of space for your mind to declutter.

4. Use your calendar.  Whether an old-fashioned calendar that hangs on your wall or Google calendars that sync to everything, use your calendar to plan out the year. Plan out sermon/worship themes. Plan out a visitation schedule (I know for me, one of the first things that can go is remembering my pastoral responsibility to visit others). Plan out vacation times and rest periods and reading weeks.

5. Turn your phone to silent once in a while. When you are decluttering, or writing a sermon, or brainstorming ideas, or praying, turn your phone to silent. That way it’s not actually off (vibrating still is distracting) and though you will miss a call you won’t miss it all day if you forget to turn the sound back on. We are connected to everything and part of our role as clergy is to foster connections. But sometimes we need to disconnect briefly.

6. Say no. I’m the first to overcommit to things and become overwhelmed. I have to learn to say no, even to others in the church. Some things are not my responsibility or should not be.  We have to learn to delegate to others and share the load. If we take it all, there is little room for creativity or inspiration.

7. Seek others. Hang out with other clergy or colleagues or friends. Don’t get together and talk shop. Go bowling or to a movie or out to dinner and talk about other things rather than ministry. Give yourself one hour, one space, in which you are not the pastor.  Time away helps you recharge and use other parts of your brain that sometimes are neglected in clergy life.

8. Read. Read books. Read articles. Read blogs. Read your Bible. Read a magazine. Do some reading every day. Remember those read-a-thon charts in elementary school? I don’t know about you, but we had, in almost every grade, some sort of reading challenge. In fourth grade we were challenged to read at least fifteen minutes a day and if everyone in the class read fifteen minutes a day all week we got an ice cream party. Everyone who read could earn points for rewards—and I always got the top rewards. In sixth grade, I read so much that I got every prize twice—I started over after finishing and won everything again. Yeah, I know. Overachiever. Anyway, back to the point—read fifteen minutes a day. Give yourself a treat at the end of the week if you finish—and if you don’t, start again the next week.

 

9. Don’t sweat it when it doesn’t come together.  I had planned today, my first full day back in the office, to begin in prayer, plan out themes, plan out my visitation schedule, make meal plans and an exercise schedule—and the water heater in the parsonage decided today was the day to break down and flood. Things happen. I spent much of my day on the phone taking care of the situation, which meant getting approval to replace the water heater, cleaning up the mess, and figuring out if they were going to shut off all our water to the parsonage or not which would necessitate a hotel stay (luckily, that turned out not to be the case, and I’m writing this knowing I will not get a shower in the morning).

10. Pray. I sadly know a lot of pastors who do not pray outside of Sunday morning. Everyone’s prayer practice is very different.  Some of us pray in the shower, some of us close the door (and turn our phone to silent!). Some of us pray for others out loud; others of us simply take deep breaths. Whatever it is you do, do it. Create a spiritual discipline that is yours and that you can keep. It will help remind you of where the source of your creative energy comes from, especially in those times you feel drained. Above everything else, find time every day to pray.

Happy New Year!

Staying With My Religion

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

The Spirit and Place Festival is an annual multi-day event in Indianapolis that takes place every November and is presently occurring.  The festival's mission is to “catalyze civic engagement and enduring change through creative collaborations among the arts, humanities, and religion.”  During the ten days of the festival there are a variety of activities including lectures, panel discussions, workshops, concerts and art shows. A few years back, I attended a workshop on creative writing in which I learned some practices that I still utilize.  The Spirit and Place Festival is a welcome part of autumn in Indianapolis.  I once met a couple, both of whom are artists, who moved to Indy after coming from out of state for a couple of years to participate in the festival.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Risk: New Connections, New Directions.”  In advertising this theme the festival website reads:

What issues need strategic risk-taking? How can we surf the space between safety and danger in ways that stimulate community vitality? What risks can we take during Spirit & Place to galvanize change for pressing social concerns?

Since I believe risk is a strong component of faith, I was glad to see this theme and scanned the many opportunities that were available.  When I looked, there was open space in every event except one, an event titled: “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  This event is being led by a former pastor and author of several best-selling books on religious themes.   After twenty-five years as a pastor, he has decided that the religious life is no longer for him.  The event is titled after a new book he has written with the same name, which offers a guide for those who have decided that the religious life “no longer works for them.”

I have to admit, I found it quite ironic that the Spirit and Place festival, which counts a variety of faith traditions among its supporters and which “embraces religion in the values of compassion, fairness, hospitality, and service that fuel our life in community” would host an event such as “Leaving My Religion.”  (It is also listed as a Risk prize finalist. This means it has the possibility of winning a $2,500 prize awarded by the festival committee.) I also have to admit that I was not surprised, but was very sad, to see that this event had sold out. With the fastest growing segment of American religious affiliation being the “nones,” that is, those who don’t affiliate with any religion, it is little wonder that this event had no seats left.

The reason religious faith is on a decline in America is a complex matter that has many different contributing factors.  There are the cultural matters that include America’s hyper-individualism, consumer mentality, and a 24 hour, 7 day-a-week busyness, that does not lend itself to participation in much beyond one’s self and family.  There is also the rise of “scientism,” the mechanistic world-view that the only things that are “real” are things of material substance.  “Scientism” should not be confused with science. It is instead the belief that the “only valid” way of knowing is through the scientific method.  A world view that fails its own test, because it cannot be proven that the scientific method is the only way knowledge is acquired.  This is simply to say that there are cultural matters that have impacted the decline of religious faith.

But the cultural factors should not preclude the church from taking a hard look at itself and how it has contributed to the religious decline.  There is no shortage of books or studies which show that many people view the church as an anti-intellectual, anti-science, homophobic, judgmental group who condemns to hell those who don’t hold the same beliefs we do.  We might want to argue with that perception of the Christian faith, and I know it doesn’t square with most of the Christians I associate with, but we have to admit that where there is smoke there is fire.  And the truth is, many people have experienced a brand of Christianity that is a close description of the above. 

Well, the thoughts in the two preceding paragraphs need a whole lot more time than I am able to give them in the space provided here. Let’s just leave it at this, there is no one reason for the decline of religious faith in America – there is a complex, multitude of reasons for why this has happened. 

What I want to offer over the next few weeks is an alternative to “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  I would like to offer “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards  of Sticking It Out.”   My intention won’t be to critique the reasons for the decline beyond what I have briefly mentioned above.  I simply want to offer to you why I have stayed with the life of faith, even when it didn’t seem to “work for me.” I want to share with you the places that I still find great beauty in the religious community.  One pastor is sharing with others why he chose to leave.  I want to share with you why I have chosen to stay.  I want to state why I believe that the life of faith still has much to offer our culture and our world, it’s most important offering being a word of hope. 

“Does God Keep You Up At Night?”

By Rev. Mindi

That was the slogan for the Conference on Ministry that I attended when I was a prospective student for seminary. I don’t remember paying attention to it all that much, except the fact for me was God was not keeping me up at night. I had known I was called to be a minister since I was thirteen. While I had wavered slightly in college, more from fear and less from doubt, I had always known I’d go on to seminary and sure enough, I even picked that school.

But what kept me up back then, and what keeps me up at night, are still the same things. And they’re not good things. They’re not even bad things such as war, poverty—even the Government Shutdown right now—that should cause me to feel sick to my stomach to the point of wanting to change the world. They’re the things that keep me from being a healthy person and a healthy pastor.

What keeps me up at night? Budgets. Student loans. Drama between two people. Miscommunications. Worrying about my son’s education. Thinking about how in the heck I will pay for college for my son when it is already more than twice what it was when I attended. Committee meetings turned sour. Health care. Retirement. Indigestion (probably related to some of those things).

What kept me up at night in college was the worry that I’d get through seminary and not find a church. Find I was un-call-able. Be ordained but not be able to pay off my college loans. How much debt I was leaving school with.  And while some of those things have faded away, much of it has remained.

It’s not God that keeps me up at night, but all the things that hold me back from God.  And it’s not even those things, it is the fear.

It’s a hard time to be clergy. Many of us are going to part-time positions and try to balance work and home life and all the while, we still have the same student loans to pay along with other bills, and with tuition rates going up, it’s not going to get better.

I preach about how fear is what holds us back from following God, and yet it is so hard for me to let go of my own fears. Conversations play over and over again in my mind. Bills come in and pile up by the toaster. What is it that I’m afraid of?

Failing.

Afraid of not having enough to make it through. Afraid of letting down my congregation or my family. Afraid of letting down myself (“I should have written that book by now and have paid off my debt by now!”) Afraid of not living up to some standard.

That’s not God keeping me up at night.  I don’t believe for a second God thinks I’m a failure, or thinks I don’t do enough, or thinks I’m not good enough. 

Friends, it’s high time we let go of the standards set before us.  We are going to be in debt. We are going to struggle with bills. Ministry is a tough place and budgets are tight.  But we need to know that God does not see us as failures.  Instead, I’m sure God sees new opportunities and possibilities.

I sorta wish it was God keeping me up at night, telling me that there are hungry people in my neighborhood, homeless right down the street. I wish I was kept up at night because of the war in Syria (which the news seems to have conveniently forgotten) or those who are affected directly because of the shutdown. I wish I could turn to seeing what needs to be done in the world, instead of looking only at myself.

Even then, however, I’m sure God would want us to see the possibilities and the opportunities, and not to beat ourselves up about it.  Not getting any sleep doesn’t help anyone. Even Jesus slept at the back of the boat; so perhaps we, too, need to close our eyes to the worries of ministry around us and be refreshed, dreaming of the ways God is using us now, for I believe God is using us, exactly as we are.

Messages on the Bathroom Wall

By Rev. Mindi

I’ve not had a great week, let’s just say that. Balancing parenting a special needs child and ministry is difficult. Ministry is difficult. There are demands every which way and you can never satisfy everyone’s demand.

People call on a daily basis looking for assistance and nine times out of ten, I can’t help them. The resources aren’t there. We are a very small church, but we do what we can and we’ve narrowed our assistance to food and refer everyone else on to social services. But that, of course, does not make most people happy.  Many times people hang up on me. Sometimes they even accuse me of not being helpful, or worse, not being a Christian. They tell me no one will help them. Maybe that’s all true. Maybe I am a lousy Christian because I don’t help every person who comes to me and often I turn them away. Once in a while, I can help with either a food donation or a gift card, but that’s it.

I am the pastor of a small church, but even so, it seems like I never have the time to visit everyone who could use a visit. Because my child is young, he is home with me or at the office with me a lot, making it difficult to go out and visit like I feel I should. I always seem to be a step or two behind on paperwork, on worship planning, on visioning with the church.

My energy is often low, especially on days when my son has been up since 2 a.m. There are days where I simply cannot focus on ministry. I would call them sick days, but really it’s “I’m-just-so-tired-I-need-a-break” days. They often are combined after a week of meetings and church events and therapies for my son and then a night where he doesn’t sleep.

Sometimes I wonder what the heck I’m doing with my life.

And then I remember.

*****

I was sitting on the darkwood pew, doodling on the bulletin. I put the little half-pencil with hardly any lead down, picking up the hymnal as I stood up to sing along with the congregation. This church was a little weird, in that they sang all the “Amens” at the end of hymns. I wondered if other churches sang the “Amens” and if my home church was the only one who didn’t. It seemed to make the hymn dreadfully longer than it needed to be. I looked out over the mass of silver haired heads in front of me. My mother sang perfect alto harmony as we neared the “Amen.” It echoed in my ears after we had put our hymnals back and sat down.  Then my grandfather went up to the pulpit.

I don’t remember what the Scripture reading was. I don’t really remember much of the sermon, except the part where my grandfather talked about two men who had come out as gay and loved each other. I don’t know why that is the only part of the sermon I remember, I guess it is because in 1990 it seemed a little shocking to vocalize support for GLBTQ people from the pulpit. But more importantly, what I remember is this:

“That will be you someday.”

It wasn’t a voice, it was more like a feeling—no, more like a push inside my gut and heart saying this is who you are. A minister. It’s in your blood. My grandfather, his twin brother and younger brother, their father and grandfather—all Baptist ministers. And suddenly, I knew who I was and who I was going to be. I was sure of it, certain of it, and that certainty stayed with me a long time.

Throughout high school, that certainty remained silently inside while I listened to my good Christian friends tell me how women couldn’t be ministers.

Throughout college, when at times I questioned my call, thought about going to graduate school for creative writing instead, that certainty kept me from filling out the applications for Master of Arts programs and instead requesting information for Master of Divinity degrees.

Throughout seminary, when I questioned the Bible, even Jesus sometimes, and wondered what the heck I was doing and why my dating life was suffering, that certainty melded into my identity. I began to see myself as a minister, as a church pastor, as leading a congregation. And when I became a little afraid and applied for a few non-ministry positions while in seminary as “backup,” the certainty was there in the relief I felt when those positions fell through.  Indeed, by the time I graduated I had already been called to be a Christian Education minister that later grew into a full Associate position.

*****

The certainty is still there—when I doubt it all after a hard board meeting, when I have had little sleep trying to balance parenthood and ministry, when I am pulled in every direction—my heart and my gut say, “This is you.”

God says, “This is you.”

Because a long time ago, even before I sat in that pew at my grandfather’s church, I was at my home church in Alaska which rented space from an Episcopal church. One of those funny Episcopalians—I have no idea if it was a layperson or the rector—had printed a little card and had taped it to the bottom of the restroom mirrors.

That card read, “You are looking at a minister.”

So whenever I go to the bathroom, I look at myself. I look at a minister. I look at the one called by God.

My gut and my heart say, “This is you.”

Coming Out as a Christian Liberal

By Rev. Mindi

I attended and graduated from a small, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, a college affiliated with my denomination.  In my first year, I became involved in all of the different Christian organizations on campus, ranging theologically from middle of the road to conservative. The few theologically liberal Christians on campus that I knew (that admitted to being Christian) didn’t attend most of the Christian organizations’ events or kept quiet about being theologically liberal most of the time, as I did for my first year.

But by my sophomore year I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I didn’t like hiding part of myself just so I could feel like I belonged and fit in to Campus Crusade or any of the other groups. I grew up in a congregation that was Welcoming and Affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning folks, and there was a group on campus that was the equivalent of a gay/straight alliance. In addition, my pastor had recently written a book about his journey as an evangelical pastor coming from a place of “love the sinner,” to full acceptance and affirmation of gay and lesbian people. I wanted to share this book with the group and hopefully find a place where I was welcome with my liberal Christian theology.

I attended my first meeting and after about a half hour, I finally introduced myself. When I mentioned I had brought copies of my pastor’s book for free, I heard a collective gasp as people’s eyes grew wide. I suddenly realized they thought I was there to condemn them and I quickly had to assure them that was not the case.  Once they knew I was not only an ally but convinced by my beliefs that God’s love meant a full inclusion of all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, the tension left the room.  Following the meeting, several people stayed and we chatted about our religious backgrounds.

What followed was story after story of rejection. A Missouri Synod Lutheran who had faithfully attended church with her grandparents until she came out at seventeen and when the church rejected her, she rejected the church and Christianity. A Catholic who now identified as spiritual but not religious. An evangelical Christian who was now an atheist because she had not experienced love from Christians in the way she imagined love was supposed to be.  Story after story after story. 

And finally, a story of acceptance.  After almost everyone had left, a woman who identified as a Quaker and attended the local Friend’s meeting spoke to me. She spearheaded change in the food purchases by the campus cafeteria in regards to migrant worker’s rights and was involved in raising awareness of social issues on campus.  She shared that it was her trust in Jesus’ teachings in why she was involved so much in the local community.  But as far as I know, she never shared about her faith in that way outside of this small gathering, with the few who had not left.

It’s time for liberal Christians to come out and stand up. This week, Jason Collins came out (and I had to look up who he was because I’m not an NBA basketball fan). Sixteen years ago yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres came out on live TV. I was in college, junior year, at a “coming out” party put on by the student group and the one fraternity on campus that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation.  Every day, people come out to their families, to their pastors, to their bosses, to their friends.

How many liberal Christians still hide their beliefs, because they don’t want to rock the boat? How many liberal Christian pastors stay quiet when a member says a derogatory slur, making the excuse that “they are a long-term member, I can’t offend them,” or some other excuse? How many liberal Christian leaders say nothing because “the issue hasn’t come up in my congregation”? 

How many more stories will we continue to hear of people who have been rejected by their church, so they have rejected their church, their religion, or God, altogether?

It’s been seventeen years since I sat in that campus room and came out as a liberal, welcoming and affirming Christian. After that moment, I didn’t hold back from my friends my views. Eventually I dropped out of most of the campus Christian organizations, except for one, the Student Chaplain’s group. My junior year also marked the year I was not alone. While I had known a few other liberal Christians on campus involved in the different organizations, they had kept quiet in public about their views. But my junior year, two others from the Student Chaplain’s joined the gay/straight campus alliance group. And one eventually came out about her sexuality as well.  And that all happened because one night I was hanging out with members of the alliance group and these two Student Chaplains came up to me and I introduced them and invited them to join the alliance group.  

It’s been seventeen years, and yet I know so many pastors still afraid to come out as welcoming and affirming or open and affirming today. It’s long overdue, friends. Come on out. Stand up for equality and justice for all LGBT folks. Even if you don’t think your church is ready to join O&A or W&A yet, they aren’t going to get there at all unless they know their pastor will help lead the way. And you never know what youth is hanging on by a thread, needing to know not only that God loves them, but that God’s representatives in their community—their church and especially their pastor—love them too. Otherwise, I fear that more college campus alliance groups will be filled with the same stories mine was—stories of rejection and loss, instead of stories of Christ’s love, faith, and hope.

Two Prayers

By Rev. Mindi

Two prayers I learned during my summer as a Clinical Pastoral Education intern were:

“Lord, help me not to run,”

and

“Lord, shut my mouth.”

I carry these two prayers with me into my ministry. 

There are plenty of days when I want to run. When the umpteenth person calls or rings the doorbell to tell me they are down on their luck, need gas money or food money, and how they can’t get help from social services for one reason or another or they are just short until the end of the month and will pay me back.  When a church member tells me of all the problems they are facing: relationship struggles, financial struggles, mental health struggles, and it all just seems too much for them to bear and now I have been drawn in.  When someone calls and is mad about the church lights being left on one night, or a building user is upset because the piano was moved, or something is broken or missing and immediately another group is blamed for it.  I want to run.

I want to run instead of going into the hospital room to face the family that is not ready to see their loved one go and just believes if we say the right prayer God will answer.  I want to run when the alcoholic parent tries one more time to make amends and set their life straight and wants me to try to talk to their estranged family.  I want to run when I’m told once again we’re behind in the budget and we’re going to have to cut something.  I want to run.

But I pray that prayer, breathe, and go on. Sometimes I go rather slowly, but I go on, by the help of God, I go on.

And then I pray that second prayer.

I shut my mouth when I am tempted to give the easy answer.  When someone tells me their personal struggles with faith and with the church I listen. When the waitress at the diner tells me about her faith journey I listen. When the elderly woman goes on and on about her dogs as if they were her children I listen.  I listen because it’s the most important thing I can do.

I listen when the pastor in the next town calls me up to try to get me on board with a movement I don’t agree with. I listen when a man tells me how I can’t be a pastor because I’m a woman. I listen when the person laughs that I am a minister and tells me what’s wrong with organized religion.

I listen because it’s not only what I’m called to do, but I pray for the strength to do it.

In my time as a pastor, I have found that one of the most precious gifts we can give to those in need is of our time and of our ears to listen. I have also learned for those who have axes to grind that listening is one of the most disarming things we can do. I’m not advocating for listening and taking in hate speech, but for someone who is looking for an argument, a person who simply listens can dissipate the intensity. Sometimes even listening can change someone’s mind.

When I was a CPE intern that summer, I was called to a room on a floor that never called in the chaplains, even laughed when we checked at the front desk. But this morning I was called in because a patient had requested spiritual support.  But it turned out she had not. What had happened was that she was a talker and the nurses were tired. And it also turned out she was an atheist and the last person she wanted to see was a chaplain (the nurses had failed to mention to her that they had requested the chaplain nor bothered to ask her if she wanted the visit).  But she did turn out to be a talker, and so I prayed for the strength to listen.  I maybe got in 5 sentences in 2 hours of conversation. But by the time they were taking her away for tests, she asked me to pray with her, and so I did.  When I returned the next day she had been discharged, but I believe that was one of the most powerful days as a chaplain. I simply listened.

And I carry those prayers with me on days like today, where I listened to the diner patrons complain about daylight savings time and the government. I prayed not to run when someone called me about a difficult conversation they needed to have with me. I prayed to listen instead, and I believe it went well.

Get Out of the Office

By Rev. Mindi

In my last two pastoral positions, I was an office worker, or I worked from home once my son was born.  I did emails, prepared sermons, counseled members, met with people and did most of my work from the church office. 

This time, I wanted to be different. I wanted to get out of the office, which is in an out of the way place on the church property, and away from the church building, which is in a residential area behind a school and not something most people see and notice.  I wanted to read and do work in a public space, where I might engage in some pleasant conversation that might lead to an invitation to my church.

I’m in the Seattle area, so of course the coffee shop seemed the natural place to go (If you want coffee in Seattle, all you have to do is point and walk a block or two in that direction).  I have friends who love doing their work in the local coffee shop, and they know their baristas by name.  But the coffee shop I went to was too sterile for conversation—people were engaged clicking away on their Macbooks or reading magazines I had never heard of.  The few that were talking were in private conversations or talking about gossipy news.  I was able to get work done, but I was not able to engage others in conversation.  Staff were always busy behind the bar and working the drive-through.  Plus, I saw I wasn’t the only one with the idea.  One time, a man was sitting at his table with a very large Bible open, which he pretended to read and then scan around the coffee shop hoping someone would engage him in a conversation. I’m quite certain that had I attempted to, I would have heard more about the Bible’s “plan for my life,” and would not have actually had a theological discussion but a one-sided lecture.

Then I heard a story of a pastor who would set up in a local bakery once a week in the morning with a sign reading “The Pastor is In” (think Lucy from Peanuts).  I thought the bakery in my town might be more of a suitable location.  After indulging in chocolate croissants and cookies, though, I also found it hard to engage others in conversations.  Again, staff were always busy, often having to work in the back to prepare the delicious food that was served, and most customers did not stay long.  I still go there now and then, but more for a publically private place to read and work.

Then I found the diner. The hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon dive place.  Where the booth seats squish down and do not spring back up.  Where there are bowls of creamer and bottles of Tabasco sauce on every table.  I brought in a couple of books to read and some light work to do. The hostess begins a conversation about what her horoscope says. The waitress asks me about what I am reading.  Every time I am in there, I see the regulars—lots of seniors who come for a cup of coffee and conversation, some truck drivers and other workers who gather for breakfast every morning, and some young couples, just off the night shift, getting in a good meal before they go to bed.  It’s a mix of class and culture, with a table of women in scarves and dress shoes next to a table with two fresh-out-of-high school workers on a breakfast date with paint on their pants.  Across from me sits Jack, who must be in his 80’s and has old faded tattoos on his arms, who comes every Tuesday to meet his Navy buddy, and at the next table another man also introduces himself as Jack, and he is a local pastor.

In one hour of having breakfast and reading at this diner, I made more ministry connections and new relationships than I had in the first four months of my ministry here.

It’s important to get out of the office.  While there may still be some who expect their pastor to be in the office, most understand that we need to be out in the community.  Sure, there are times we need to buckle down and get some things done in the office, but more and more, we need to be out and about, making connections and engaging in conversation, getting to know the people. 

Find your space in the community: a diner, a bakery, a coffee shop, a pub or an ice cream parlor (another friend I know holds office hours at an ice cream shop!).  Find the place where people more naturally engage in conversations with strangers. Get to know the regulars and the staff. Bring some work, but understand that by being a customer there, you are engaged in ministry already.  Enjoy it!

Women Responding to the Call of God

 When Jennifer Harris Dault put out a call for Baptist women’s call stories, I was excited for the opportunity to share the story of God’s call on my life (from my perspective, of course).  I quickly wrote out my story, edited it a bit, and sent it to her.  Many months later, The Modern Magnificat: Women Responding to the Call of God was released.  I purchased the book for my mother for Christmas and waited for my copy to arrive in the mail, excited to see my name as a chapter in this collection.

However, when I sat down to read this canon of twenty-three stories of Baptist women called into ministry, I forgot about the details of my own story.  As I read, chapter by chapter, story by story, woman by woman, I heard my story in the voices of these women.  Women who had faithfully responded to that inkling, that nudge, that Divine Word, that altar call, that prayer to follow Jesus by going into ministry, and all of whom at one point or another faced incredible challenges to following that call.  More often than not, it was a male voice telling them, “No.”  Not the voice of God, not the Bible, but the voice of pastors, teachers, even husbands and fathers, saying “No” simply because she was a woman. 

Even though my call story is included in this collection, it isn’t complete by itself. As I read their stories, I recalled other moments when men said “No” simply because they were a man and I was a woman. I also now remember times when other women told me I needed to learn my place.  I remember friends and family who believed they were being loving by telling me I had no place in ministry whose words were crushing. 

But I also remember so much more now.  As I read these testimonies, I feel pride in remembering all the encouraging voices on the way—pastors, parents and grandparents, teachers, friends—all who saw the gifts of God in me and pulled me along the way.  I recall my own personal experiences with God when I heard, or felt, very clearly that God was indeed calling me to be a minister.

While this book is written by Baptist women and their experience, I believe there are many women in other traditions who have experienced similar discrimination, and I hope, similar places of encouragement along the way in their faith journey.  Baptists, of course, bear our own unique name and burdens, stereotypes and generalizations, and there are many former Baptist women serving in other traditions now, but I believe this book can be a work of encouragement for all women pursuing the call to ministry. 

As I read this book with my story in it, as a fifth-generation ordained American Baptist minister (and the first woman, with my mother following after me), I wonder about my grandmother and the other minister’s wives in my family and their daughters.  I wonder if they ever wondered if God was calling them into pastoral ministry but set it aside, believing that they were fulfilling that calling by being a pastor’s wife. I wonder how many women have been denied even the possibility of dreaming about being a minister. 

In more conservative and evangelical circles there is a continuing debate about Biblical equality and women in pastoral leadership roles.  In the progressive/liberal churches, we often assume that debate has been settled.  Yet I know my colleagues in other traditions, and I in my American Baptist tradition know our name has been rejected from church search committees because we are women. We know that churches still refuse to consider a woman, even if the batch of profiles they receive from their regional office are full of women’s names, even when we know that over 60% of seminary students today are women and that number continues to grow. 

The Modern Magnificat brings a challenge to the church universal: women will follow the call by God, despite the attempts of denominational bodies or local churches, despite the naysayers in the pulpit and on the parish committee.  Will the church be the one to change and accept that God calls all people, or will the church continue to hold on to false interpretations of Scripture used to justify power-holding and power-over others?  For there is no other purpose of denying women into ministry: besides the numerous Biblical examples from Deborah to Phoebe, besides the traditions of women partnering with men in ministry throughout church history, the need to hold power and authority over others is what perpetuates the denial of women into ministry—or indeed, any group considered a minority in power. 

While there are other great books out there on women in ministry, written from academic theological perspectives, read this book of women whose own stories, who own narratives share their experiences of denial and perseverance, of challenge and most importantly, hope. 

(You can read the introduction of Jennifer Harris Dault’s book here).

Developing Young Leaders: The Church's Need for Good Grandparenting Skills

The Interview

Scene: An interview Setting: The church parlor Characters: Pastoral search committee and the candidate

First Church of the greater metropolitan area just west of the bypass has seen its pastor of more than two decades retire. The congregation has entered into the search process with great trepidation, and perhaps a small amount of expectancy. On the one hand, their retired pastor is the only pastor many of them can remember. On the other hand, many people who’ve carried the load for so long are excited about the prospect of the new energy they believe a new pastor will bring.

The pastoral search committee is made up, for the most part, of faithful members–which means that almost all of them have been chairperson of the board (session, consistory, etc.) at one time or another. The congregation sought to offer a good cross-section of the membership on the search committee, but a “good cross-section”–owing to a dearth of young people–invariably means that the median age is upwards of 50. There are two young people in their thirties (both with children), the search chair is careful to point out. They have, as everyone is quick to acknowledge with nodding heads, “the core of a children’s program,” upon which, they hope (perhaps a bit too fervently) that the young minister will help them build. They greet the candidate in the nicest room in the church, having laid out a tray of Snickerdoodles and a carafe of designer coffee, hoping to give off a good impression.

Search chair: “Welcome! We can’t tell you how glad we are that you’ve agreed to meet with us. We’ve read your pastoral profile (resume, C.V., etc.), and we’re extremely impressed with what you’ve managed to accomplish. Additionally, your references are all quite positive.”

Candidate: “Thank you. I appreciate your invitation. You have a lovely church. My compliments on the Snickerdoodles!”

Search chair: “We’ve devised a set of questions, which we’ve divided up among ourselves. I think we’ll let Arthur go first. He’s sung in the choir for years, and was, if I’m not mistaken, in one of the first off-Broadway productions of Guys and Dolls. I believe he’s going to speak with you about your feelings on worship styles. Arthur?”

The conversation carries on for quite some time, ranging over a wide spectrum of topics:

  • What does a typical day look like for you?
  • Would you rather we take out radio advertisements to announce your cell phone number, or should we just publish it at the top of the first page on the web site?
  • What is your strategy for growing our church? Take a quick shot; we know there’ll be minor changes.
  • What committee assignments will your spouse be assuming? Only chair of one, though. We like to look out for the pastor’s family.
  • Do you have any felony arrests? Arrest warrants? Arrests without convictions? Have you ever spoken with the police?
  • What things do you believe, things that we haven’t thought to ask you, but that might come back to embarrass us should they become known?[1]

Finally, the questioning process makes its way around to Gladys.

Gladys: We’ve got good leadership in this church. The problem, though, is most of us have been at it for a long time. We’re tired. We’re looking for a pastor who can develop young leaders. What will you do to train up leaders to take our place?

Arthur: I don’t mean to step on Gladys’ question, but this one is crucial. We’ve had great leadership here in the past, but time marches on, and all that. We’re extremely concerned that the new pastor attract and train young leaders. We’ve had our time. Now, we want to hand the baton to another generation."

Candidate: I’m very interested in developing new leadership, investing them with the authority to make the kinds of adjustments necessary for the congregation to change and adapt to new social realities.

Search chair: (Nervous chuckle) I’m sorry, I thought I heard you say, “change and adapt.”

“Oh, now he’s going to start with the beating-up-on-lay-people-thing again.”

Sorry. That last one was sitting on a tee.

No. It’s too easy to say all churches are old, staid, and intransigent. It’s not necessarily true, nor would my saying it again be particularly interesting.

I’m more interested in another dynamic … grandparents.

In Which I Reflect on What It Means to Be a Grandparent

I was in a church one time that announced it was ready to bring in and develop young leadership. Yay! Music to a young minister’s ears.

Turns out, the folks in charge did want very badly to bring in young leadership–but not to lead. The old guard wanted fresh blood to take over the work, while retaining veto power.

I had a colleague at the time who said, “What that church needs is some people who know how to be grandparents.”

I asked what she meant.

“You spend so much time during your adult years, raising your kids. Then, one day, they’re grown up and gone. You grieve, but you figure out how to go on. Then, one day, they show back up at your house with babies. Now, your kids have kids of their own. And something shifts dramatically. Your place in the world is different now.”

.

“At first it’s kind of exciting. The babies cry and fuss. You haven’t done this in awhile, so you’re kind of relieved when they pack up and go home.”

.

“But as time wears on, you have to sit and watch their parenting decisions. These decisions, many of them, are not the kind of decisions you would have made. In some cases, they do the exact opposite of what you’d do.”

.

“So, you start wondering: Are they doing things differently because they thought we did a bad job? Does their failure to raise their kids the way we raised themamount to a repudiation of our parenting?”

.

“And your first impulse is to try to correct your children’s obviously shoddy parenting decisions. ‘No, dear,’ you say, ’don’t you think it would be better if you didn’t let little Sally eat quite so much kale?”

.

“You comfort yourself with the rationalization that you’re just trying to help. You’ve got years of parenting experience, after all. You’re doing them a favor. If they don’t listen, you owe it to them to press the point a bit harder.”

.

“Sooner or later, though, you come to realize that you’ve made it about you–and it’s not about you. It’s not even about the legacy you’ve left them; it’s about allowing them the grace and the freedom to take what you’ve given them, and let them become who God wants for them to be.”

.

“Grandparenting is about biting your tongue and watching your kids make mistakes.”

.

“It’s about standing by and watching them throw up your mistakes from their childhood to you, while choosing to do something completely different.”

.

“It’s about standing by and applauding them when they accomplish something you could never in your wildest imagination see them doing, as well as stooping down to help pick up the pieces of their failed dreams.”

.

“That church,” my colleague said, “needs some folks to learn how to let go and be good grandparents.”

“We need young leaders!”

Yes. The church needs young leaders.

But just as importantly, the church needs some good grandparents.


  1. Just joking … mostly.  ↩