For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Ministry Moments

Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman, by Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith, Chalice Press, 2011, 123 pp.

I wish this book had been around 10-15 years ago, when I was just starting seminary and entering ministry. I’m so glad it’s around now for new young clergy women making their way into pastoral life.

Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith have captured the private conversations and storytelling that happen whenever young clergy women find themselves together, which is too often a rare and isolated opportunity. I remember the first time I was in a group of other young clergy women, thanks to the birth of the UCC’s 2030 Clergy Network. We all had our fair share of stories, good and bad, charming and challenging, hilarious and horrifying: being refused as a pastor because of youth and gender, having your wardrobe up for scrutiny, hearing people talk about “the pastor” without realizing its you, struggling with what to wear, handling discrimination or sexual comments or inappropriate behavior, discovering how to be ourselves while also fulfilling this demanding role as pastor.

Masters and Smith tell stories from young clergy women (themselves and others) and capture the power of those storytelling conversations—the laughter, the horrified looks, the empathy and understanding. The storytelling itself has healing and encouraging power, but the authors take it even further. In each chapter, between the stories, they offer scriptural and theological reflection on the questions at hand. The classic conversation about what to wear for what occasion is deepened with a reminder of the finery of the woman from Proverbs 31, or Paul’s instruction to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Stories about feeling at home (or not) in a new community take on new meaning when coupled with the story of the exiles whose captors demand they sing in a foreign land (Psalm 137), or Lydia, from the Book of Acts, who as a foreigner welcomes Paul to Macedonia.

This power of connecting biblical stories to contemporary stories of young clergy women was especially powerful in the chapter on pregnancy, when the authors reach back to biblical women as sisters on the journey, no matter what your journey looks like:

There are the “Sarahs” of the world, who may be too old to have a child; there are the “Hannahs” who wait many years to get pregnant; and there are the “Rebekahs,” who struggle with the relationships between their children. There are even the “Michals,” who, like David’s wife, are unable to sustain a pregnancy and end up parenting other people’s children. And yet as pastors, our pregnancies can be a step beyond. We can easily feel like “Tamars,” whose families are judged, or “Ruths,” who are foreign outsiders to the mainstream. Remembering we are daughters of these women can help us fulfill the roles of mother and pastor. In our life and ministry, we too are listed within the genealogy of Jesus and are called to be God’s messengers. (65)

This book is a real gift to young clergy women everywhere. It gives voice and validation to our stories, and offers the perspective and encouragement of sisterhood across thousands of years.

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Nearly two years ago, one of the members of my church brought me an old book she found while cleaning out the church library in preparation for a major construction project. She gave it to me with a wry smile. “I thought you’d be amused by this,” she said, and handed me a copy of A Preacher’s Temptations, by James H. Blackmore, copyright 1966. At first I chuckled too, expecting an antiquated list from another era, like a ladies’ book of etiquette. Instead, I was surprised and convicted by the accuracy of the preacher’s temptations Blackmore described, and struck by the timelessness of his list.

Each chapter identifies a particular temptation, and Blackmore explains what he means and what that temptation looks like. Then, the chapter ends with a prayer for deliverance from that particular temptation. As much as I wanted to enjoy a good laugh at old-fashioned ideas of ministry, I couldn’t even muster much of a smirk once I started reading Blackmore’s list.

This is the Table of Contents, taken verbatim, plus my commentary:

  1. To identify God with our thoughts about Him. Aside from the irony of the gendered language in this context, this is certainly one of the biggest temptations of all religious leaders. The prayer at the end asks God to save us “from mistaking theology for religion.” (3)
  2. To paste labels on people. The labels may have changed, but their power to shut down relationship has not.
  3. To be jealous of the other fellow. Who, us clergy? Jealous of another’s success in ministry? Surely not! Except that all of us are, and rarely admit it.
  4. To love “the uppermost seats.” I had to read the chapter to figure this one out, but it’s about ambition—about always looking for a bigger church, more important title, or higher status. Yeah, that’s always a big challenge to clergy egos.
  5. To assume a superior air. Lord, spare us from arrogance!
  6. To run from truth. Nearly every week, it takes courage to preach the truth of the gospel. It is always tempting to avoid afflicting the comfortable, and we all succumb to an easy message from time to time.
  7. To bargain with God. This is a temptation for all disciples, but sometimes we clergy think God owes us a thing or two, for all our long hours and faithful service. Reality check: God doesn’t.
  8. To act presumptuously. Blackmore describes this as expecting God to work things out according to our wishes: “this temptation expresses itself in resentment; we are tempted to feel that somehow God has let us down.” (19)
  9. To be partial. We all know that there are some people we find it easier to love than others. Blackmore goes beyond that, warning that pastors must not spend all their time with “the sick, the troubled, the old and the lonely… To keep a balanced outlook the pastor needs to associate with the healthy, the happy, the young and the active as well.” (21) This includes children.
  10. To neglect our body. Apparently, even in 1966 clergy suffered from high blood pressure, obesity, overeating, lack of exercise, and lack of rest. While we talk about this more today, we still fall prey to the same problems.
  11. To run “in all directions at the same time.” Guilty as charged.
  12. To substitute talk for life. “O God, help us practice what we preach.” (28)
  13. To become impatient. With ourselves, with others, with God.
  14. To neglect our own family. Apparently, this is not new to women in ministry or to our generation.
  15. To mistake the parts for the whole. “We may know all the sources of the gospels, but if we do not see the Lord move within them, we do not know the Gospel.”(34)
  16. To think it all depends on us. This is a disaster to us, and to the church.
  17. To neglect spiritual exercises. Guilty again.
  18. To fumble the gospel. “The urgency of our task is that God has something to say to the people of our day, and we are called to say it.” (43) This is a weighty one.
  19. To fail to get the good news for ourselves. God’s grace is for us, too. Forgive us when we forget it.
  20. To speak in an unknown tongue. Our sermons and God’s message are meaningless if they cannot be understood.
  21. To keep up with the Joneses. Deliver me from envy, O Giver of All.
  22. To act as if we own the church. Lord, forgive me when I talk about “my” church instead of yours.
  23. To forget our calling. “Our calling is not something we can turn on and off; our calling and ordination make us ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ—not just for certain hours or places, but for ever and for all places.” (54-55) This is a tough one, but it’s true. We cannot be one person at church and another person outside it—we are always living in faith.
  24. To be nettled by taunts. “Nettled” is just the right word, isn’t it? Critics’ words prick at us and stick under our skin, leaving us irritated and unsettled.
  25. To give forth uncertain sounds. While I might have phrased it differently (this sounds vaguely like bodily noises), the temptation to equivocate in our messages is real.
  26. To undertake too much. Oh dear.
  27. To neglect the work of an evangelist. Ever get too busy managing the church to pay attention to those outside it? Yeah, me too.
  28. To go too far ahead of our people. A pastor is a shepherd—we are supposed to be leading the sheep, not leaving them behind.
  29. To be lazy. I’m glad Facebook doesn’t report how much time I spend there.
  30. To be too severe. The reverse of #6 is equally tempting.
  31. To be proud. No explanation necessary.
  32. To cease to pray for the people. Humbling, and accurate.
  33. To despise ourselves. It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about knowing that God works through us as we are, not as we think we ought to be.
  34. To ride on the authority of others. It’s about plagiarism, y’all.
  35. To hold our peace. Some of us struggle to hold our tongue, others to speak up for the right if it might cause conflict.
  36. To assume we are exempted from evil. Unfortunately, our ordination doesn’t free us from “petty meannesses and small jealousies” (91) or from the big ones.
  37. “To whine.” Apparently, Blackmore has attended some of the same clergy gatherings I have.
  38. To “grow weary in well-doing.” Guilty again.
  39.  To feel that we are no longer needed. Like #6 and #31, the temptation exists at both extremes: to think it all depends on us (#16) and to think that what we do doesn’t matter at all.
  40. To despair. Pastors too face times of darkness and distance from God

James H. Blackmore, thank you for this open, honest work that stands the test of time and crosses generations of pastoral experience.

The woman who gave me the book told me to pass it on to the Goodwill pile, but I’m holding on to it. Much in ministry has changed in the last 50 years, but these temptations remain.  Deliver me, O Lord, from temptation.


Yesterday, I met with a friend-of-a-friend seeking spiritual care, discerning a way out of a dark night of the soul. My friend thought I might be able to help her with a spiritual roadblock, and I was happy to offer my time, to hear her struggle, to offer perspective and prayer and theological conversation. We talked for a couple of hours, and then prayed together. However, throughout the meeting I felt a sense of awkwardness about my role that I have not felt in a long time. As I contemplated this later, I think it has something to do with the source of pastoral authority that was lacking in my relationship with her.

As a pastor, my authority comes from the context of the church. My ability to offer spiritual care and insight comes from a complex, multi-layered relationship. My connection with those in my church community (regardless of membership or active status) involves preaching, teaching, prayer, fellowship, leadership, presence in a crisis, working side by side in service, and more. All of these aspects of ministry take place in a shared community grounded in history, story and the lived reality of regular interaction. Our relationship includes not just times of profound spiritual conversation, but washing dishes together after a shared meal and working out the details of chaperoning a Sunday School class and playing kickball at the annual picnic. We are co-workers in the common mission of God for our church.

This is very different from the helping professions. Therapists get their authority from their listening skills, their ability to ask discerning questions and their expertise in family dynamics and emotional healing. Doctors get their authority from their superior knowledge of the body and its myriad possibilities for brokenness and healing. Massage therapists and alternative healers get their authority from their knowledge and physical skills at working through mind and body toward wholeness. There is always work to establish genuine trust between the healer and the patient or client, but the relationship remains transactional—one person has knowledge or treatment to offer the other, and that person is always the expert.

Pastoral authority does not come from knowledge or expertise, and I do not simply have spiritual insight to transact. I am not a guru who has reached greater spiritual depths or discovered deep wisdom to pass along. I know the Bible better than most, but there have been people in every church I’ve served who know more about it than I do. I try to live a faithful Christian life, to walk with God and listen to the Spirit, but I am no more spiritual than anyone else. There are a great many people in my church whose faith is stronger and deeper and wiser than mine.

When someone comes to me facing a dark night of the soul, my authority comes from repeating the same good news of God’s love that we share every week in worship. My wisdom is shared wisdom, of the community, of the ages, told and retold until it soaks deep. My care for them is an extension of the community’s care for one another. My words about God’s grace echo the ways we try to practice grace and forgiveness with one another in our life together. The prayers we speak are part of a longer, deeper, wider conversation with God that we carry on week in and week out.

My authority comes from the community itself, and from our ongoing relationship. That is not to say that there is no expertise in ministry, or that God has not placed in me the unique gifts, or that knowledge and wisdom have no bearing. Those things matter a great deal in the community’s willingness to grant authority to a pastor, but the source of the authority is not those things. The source of pastoral authority is always the community itself.  The community trusts me to tell their story, to speak the truth in love, to pray as though it matters, to challenge and provoke in the name of faithfulness, to enter a crisis to bear witness to God’s presence there, to hold the light of hope when all seems dark. I claim that authority from them, with them, in every act of ministry. I claim it not for myself, but for us—for the Gospel.

To speak “as one with authority” (Matthew 7:29) in ministry requires the presence and participation of the community of God. With it, I am a pastor, with an abundance of authority and wisdom to share in relationship. Without it, I am just the friend-of-a-friend.

Painting entitled "Very Bad News" by Pol Lent, from fineartamerica.com

Hello. This is Pastor Jennifer. I’m calling because I have some news I need to share with you.

At least once a week I make a telephone call that starts out that way.

Jane is in the hospital…

Joe has moved to hospice care…

Ann took a bad fall…

Sometimes I get to call with good news.

Sarah had her baby last night…

The church just received a bequest…

John has been declared cancer-free…

Then there are the hardest calls of all.

He died last night. After such a long illness, there is peace. But I know you will miss your lifelong friend.

She was rushed to the hospital, but they could not revive her and she died. We’re all in shock. There are no words. I’m so sorry.

Painting entitled "The Arrival of Good News" by Fabio Napolean, from fineartsamerica.com. (Found this after writing the post. Perfect match.)

Bearing news, whether good or bad, is a weighty responsibility. I carry the news in my body, in my mind, until I am able to share it with all the people who need to carry it as well. Good news is a helium balloon. I have to hold tight so it doesn’t fly away too quickly. Bad news is a load of bricks.  The more painful it is, the heavier it feels to carry. Tragedy is measured in tons, not ounces. Sometimes I wish I did not have to burden others with it.  When people answer the telephone, innocent and unaware of the reason for my call, I know that what I am about to tell them will change the course of their day, sometimes their lives. I will never forget the times I have helped bear news to young children that a parent has died.

I did not realize, before I became a pastor, how often I would be a messenger bearing news for the community. And yet it is fitting. I entered the ministry because I wanted to bear news—Gospel (which mean good news), the message that God loves us and abides with us in all things. When I make a call bearing news of life and death in this world, I do not bear only that news. I hope I am also always carrying, and delivering, the good news of God, who loves us, heals us, forgives us, saves us and walks with us in the shadow of death. In all things, I hope to bear God’s good news that can overcome fear and drive away despair.

Maybe I should just pick up the phone and start calling people to share that news.

Hello. This is Pastor Jennifer. I’m calling because I have some news I need to share with you. God loves you…

A picture of me on my ordination day.

Today is Good Friday. It is also the 10th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry. Every year during Holy Week, I give thanks with all my heart to be a part of this pastoral life.

It was March of 1989, and I was 15 years old when I first got caught up in Holy Week. I don’t remember how it started, but I was swept away by the emotional roller coaster between Palm Sunday and Easter.  I felt like I was right there on the streets of Jerusalem, bearing witness to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. I wrote about it at length in my journal, which I dug out tonight from inside the trunk, under the pile of laundry. On Good Friday that year, I wrote with great youthful earnestness:

I was with Christ in Spirit throughout today. I learned that I have the wonderful ability to withdraw from this world and put myself in another. … Thank you, Jesus.  I am just beginning to understand Your love for me.

My journal from 1989, when I was 15.

Every year since that discovery, I have tried to recreate it—to step outside of the ordinary during Holy Week and get swept up in the ancient story. I don’t think of it as “another world” anymore, nor do I invest much energy in imagining myself in the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. However, I still love to get absorbed in it, to experience its meaning anew, and to forget all other concerns. Some years there are more distractions than others, but the act of walking through the stories and services every year never fails to transport me to a holy place, with deep conversations with God and exhausting emotions.

Because of my life in ministry, I not only can throw all my energy and focus into meditating and understanding and retelling the story of Jesus’ betrayal, death and resurrection, I must. During Holy Week, with all the writing and preparation, I spend all day every day praying and thinking and writing about the story of Jesus. I abandon all other church work, give up on housecleaning, let J take the role of lead parent, and just live into the story. There is no negotiation about whether or not to attend services on Thursday or Friday or both, because I have to be there for all of it. There is no conflict over soccer games or meetings with the boss or anything else—everyone knows that, during Holy Week, the pastor has no more important task than preparing for services through prayer, meditation and writing. If I am wrought with emotions and wracked by the Holy Spirit throughout, so much the better for my preaching. What a privilege.

So today, Good Friday, I celebrate 10 years of ordained ministry. Ten years of throwing myself into Holy Week with all my heart and soul, and having no one think it strange. Did I know in my 15-year-old self where that blessed Holy Week would lead? Could I have imagined the opportunity not only to let myself get lost in Jesus’ story every year, but to devote my life’s work to getting other people caught up in the story as well? There is no better time to celebrate my call, to give thanks to God for this pastoral life, than during Holy Week. Thanks be to God. Soli Deo Gloria.

The phone message my mom wrote about the accident, and the memory ribbon we wore for weeks. Both were tucked inside my journal.

Postscript: There is another connection between the spring of 1989 and my ordination date that cannot go unmentioned. Just a few pages after my passionate account of Holy Week in my journal, the April 22 entry shares the news of a car accident that took the life of one of my dear friends, and injured several others. It was another pivotal moment in my faith journey. When I scheduled my ordination years ago, I recognized the confluence, but still cannot impart a meaning to it. Still, this year, all three converge–that transformative Holy Week in 1989; my friend’s death on April 22, 1989 (both 22 years ago); the 10th anniversary of my ordination on April 22, 2001; and Good Friday. The day feels deep, rich and complex. God sees the web of connections, and perhaps even their meaning. I, as yet, do not.

Copyright oracorac, flickr.com

Our family drove to Florida a few months ago. If you’ve ever made that journey, you know that the highways in Georgia and Florida are lined with billboards advertising pecans. Both J and I have mild allergies to nuts, but B loves them and seems unaffected. So, to pass the time, we were pointing out the billboards and asking him, “Hey, B, they have pecans! Wanna get some pecans?” His consistent reply was “Eww, yuck! No.” We assured him they were good and he would like them, but he refused. It became a repeating pattern: “Look, B, more pecans ahead! Good stuff! Don’t you want some pecans?” followed by “eww, yuck! No.”

We finally relented in pointing out the billboards, and another hour or so passed in the car. B spontaneously said, “I can’t believe you guys wanted me to eat that pee in cans. Yuck. Pee in cans. I wouldn’t like that at all.”

As hilarious as that moment was, and as revealing as it is about how I say “pecan,” it got me thinking about vocabulary. Since the advent of Willow Creek and other “seeker churches,” there has been an ongoing conversation about how the church’s extensive insider vocabulary can be intimidating, confusing or exclusionary for newcomers. Words like narthex, doxology, anthem and chancel have been replaced in some churches with less fancy (and more secular) terms like foyer, praise song, choir song, and stage. Other churches continue to use the traditional words, but make the effort to explain their meaning on a regular basis.

A church map to help orient newcomers, filled with words I don't even know.

We may be doing a better job of explaining those words, or putting things in terms people can understand,  but what about the more important words of our faith? Are we taking the time and energy to explain what we mean when we talk about forgiveness, resurrection, disciple, Passion, trinity, sin, prophet, Kingdom of God, grace, or the Body of Christ? In my experience, many of the people in our congregations, whether newcomers or lifelong members, have only a passing familiarity with these words. For example, I recently used the word Messiah in teaching a class.  While most of the class knew that referred to Jesus, that was the end of their understanding. They understood it as another name for Jesus, not a theological proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior for the world.

It’s easy to teach people to understand that the narthex is the foyer, but how can we teach them that disciple does not just to refer to the original twelve men, but to all who seek to follow Christ—and what that act of following means for our lives? Are we explaining that forgiveness, both human and godly, is more than saying “it’s fine, no big deal”? Do our references to the Kingdom of God include a clarification about where that kingdom resides, and our access to it? When we talk about grace, are we sure that people are hearing about the power of God’s love and forgiveness, or are they just thinking about a formulaic table prayer?

I wonder whether our preaching, teaching and evangelism sometimes resemble our car game: “Look, Jesus died on the cross! Forgiveness from sin! Grace! Want some? They’re good–you’ll like them!” It’s no wonder we hear, “eww, no, thank you,” because people don’t even understand what it is we are offering. Let’s be honest with ourselves. To those who do not know the vocabulary of our Christian faith, talk about sin and death on a cross, even with the promise of forgiveness and grace, is about as appealing as pee in a can. If we want to get past the “eww, yuck,” we need to find a way to explain what we’re talking about.

One of the great joys of serving as a pastor is bearing witness to so many intimate moments in people’s lives. When a baby is baptized, I get to stand right up there with the family and even hold the child. When young people give their lives to Christ at Confirmation, I get to place my hands on their heads. When a couple is married, the three of us stand alone atop the chancel as they make their vows. When someone is facing a health crisis, I am invited into intimate conversations about life and death, and I can sit with people in very deep moments of contemplation. When people discover faith for the first time, or when they take a new step in devotion or understanding, they talk to me about it. I am regularly privileged to be at someone’s bedside to pray as they take their last breath. When a loved one dies, I am honored to listen to the stories their family tells about how much this person meant to them, and then to give them back those stories during the funeral service. It is an honor and a privilege to be a pastor in these holy moments.

However, it is also a disconcerting experience at times. These beautiful moments that I participate in on a regular basis are not my moments. It is not my mother or father or spouse who is dying or being buried. Neither I nor any member of my family is being baptized, confirmed or married. For those at the heart of these life-altering days, these are unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For me, they are just another day at the office. What they are doing once in a lifetime, I may be doing several times that week, or even that day.

I am not being flip. As I said before, these are holy moments, and it is an honor to be present in them. But the reality remains that they are not my moments, I am only a witness. And this can leave me feeling a bit disconnected, not just from those around me, but from my own life.

B makes a drive to the goal, a part of the game I missed

This was brought home to me last Saturday, when B played in his first-ever soccer game. I had a memorial service at nearly the same time, but I managed to make it for part of the game, cheering from the sidelines in my black suit and heels. After a quick hug from a sweaty kid at halftime, I jumped in the car. Twenty minutes later, I was somber-faced, leading a gathering of people saying goodbye to a beloved mother and grandmother. An hour after that, I was handling a phone call from another family in crisis, then heading out to Red Robin for B’s victory dinner (even though his team lost badly) and home to finish the sermon for Sunday.

I was fully present and attentively caring to the grieving family, and I felt genuine love and concern for them and even some small grief for this woman I had come to know. Yet I floated above their level of heartache, distant from their absorbing grief. For them, the moment itself was overwhelming, an emotional experience that knocked out all other concerns. For me, it was not even the most emotional event in my day.

This happens regularly in pastoral life, as we travel alongside people and accompany them through life’s major moments. As witnesses, we are present and compassionate without being fully immersed in the experience. That distance is a sign of a healthy self and functional pastor. Yet, I sometimes think that it keeps me distant from my own life as well. While I was cheering and clapping on the sidelines, I was also distant there, wearing my funeral clothes. I couldn’t give myself over to pride and jubilation, because the 15 minute drive from the game to the funeral home wasn’t going to be enough to change gears so fast.

What does this quick-change pastoral life do to our own emotional depth? Am I a ghost, a hovering specter in other people’s lives, somehow untouched by their hardship?  Am I a chameleon, changing my emotional colors to blend in with my environment? Am I a prop, playing a functional part in other people’s scenes? On some days, I think this distance is an obstacle to diving deep into my own emotional well, because I am always present and subject to the varied emotional states of others.

On other days, I look over the richness of these experiences and understand that they equip me to journey deeper. As a frequent traveler over the terrain of death, of birth, of sickness, of joy, of love, I come to know its contours well, and I can engage my own experience with a richer perspective. Because I have witnessed so many holy moments, I can recognize them more easily in my life. I may have frequent roller-coaster experiences from one extreme to another, but that’s because my pastoral work always keeps me close to the heart of what matters most—which includes both the soccer field and the funeral home.

Yet another tension we hold on to in this pastoral life.

What do you think? Do you ever feel this tension in your personal and pastoral life?


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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