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Behind the Scenes Stage Presence

When I first started preaching, I received advice from women preachers who had been preaching for years. Much of that advice centered around what to wear and what not to wear.

“Wear black suits because it will make you look more professional. If you wear lots of colors people won’t take you seriously.”

“If you are going to wear earrings make sure they’re stubs and nothing too flashy.”

“Wear your hair back because it will make you look more like a man, which people will be more receptive to.”

As a woman raised in a culture that constantly comments on appearance and bodies, I was used to hearing this kind of advice. I was raised at the height of the purity movement and was raised to believe if a boy made an inappropriate comment about my body it was because I was wearing something or doing something that tempted him. I didn’t think much about these comments that were centered on my appearance and wardrobe choices.

That is until I found myself in the middle of a worship service critiquing another woman preacher’s wardrobe choice. Even as I was listening to her message, my thoughts wandered to, “She shouldn’t be wearing…” Those comments and “advice” I heard had not only impacted the way I viewed myself in the mirror before I preached and was now creeping into my reception of other women preachers. It’s when I knew I had to stop the cycle.

Being on platform bringing the word of God to the people of God can become a competition, especially at denominational gatherings or conferences, particularly when there are stipends involved. Stage presence can easily turn into stage performance. Being called can easily turn into being heard.

The best piece of advice I ever received about preaching had nothing to do with what to wear or not to wear or how to present myself.

“If you ever enter the holy desk and are not nervous, then perhaps you are speaking on behalf of yourself and not from God.”

On Due Dates and Expectations

It’s been one week since Baby Girl’s due date and yet we are celebrating three weeks of having her as part of our family. We knew when we were given her due date that we wouldn’t make it all the way to that date because of our labor and delivery experience with our three-year-old, but we didn’t know that she would be a January baby instead of a February baby. As I walked through her due date day, I thought about how due dates really just give us an idea of when a baby might come and not a hard and fast rule.

I was shocked to learn while talking to some of my clergy colleagues that many of them looked at due dates on papers and projects as just that, a guideline. That isn’t me. A due date has always been a hard and fast rule about when something must be done. It would never be acceptable to turn something in after the due date. The only option would be to turn something in early.

But these conversations got me thinking. Why did I hold this perspective while there were many people who held a different perspective and understanding of due dates? To be certain, my place as a white female who grew up in a conservative upbringing plays a role in my understanding and perspective as does my family of origin, but even more so my perspective is tied to my desire for events to go by the calendar and by a plan. It makes me feel safe and indeed in control when I know what’s coming, but more importantly when something is coming. It makes me feel prepared and successful and productive to get something in by the due date. All of this whispers of my desire to have a handle on things.

In just three short weeks, that’s been challenged. Baby girl didn’t come on her due date and that’s exactly when she was supposed to come and when she needed to come. I didn’t get to make the decision on that but had to trust my doctors and their expertise and their experience. I had to depend on them to offer important guidance and I had to let go of my own expectations for when she would join our family. All of this whispers of what we are called to do as disciples. We are called not to be in control, but to depend, trust, and let go of our own expectations in order to be open and ready for what God is calling us to do and how God is inviting us to participate in bringing the kingdom of God here on earth.

Thanks be to God for missed due dates and upset expectations!

A Year of Strength

Setting intentions for your day, your week, your month, and your year serve to center your mind and connect your heart and your mind to each other. Many people use the approaching new year as a time to signal goal setting and intentionality. For some people, this manifests into a word or a mantra, something easy to remember,  repeat, and return to as life inevitably brings the unexpected.

For me, this process has always worked in reverse. I don’t choose a word at the beginning of the year instead about this time every year, the word that has followed me throughout the year finds me. Last year, the word grief found me. As I reflected on the amount of grief our family had experienced, I began to understand that what we had experienced and what we had walked through together would shape who we were as individuals and as a family.

This year has been a year of strength. I spent much of the first three months of this year running and training. I was able to move back up to running five miles at a time, something I hadn’t been able to do since I was in seminary. I began to understand in a real and deep way the role spiritual abuse has impacted me. I walked more closely to my incredible partner as I wrestled with my past and began to recognize triggers and address longheld hurt that I had buried deeply. I started a certification program in spiritual direction to engage the Divine in deep and ancient ways. We found out we were pregnant and wrestled through the grief and uncertainty and memories it brought back of our loss last year. This year has ended with an invitation to step out of my comfort zone and serve as the pastor of Garden of Grace UCC. Truly, this year has been one of strength.

After a year of grieving, these opportunities to experience the Divine and to connect more deeply to my partner and family overwhelm me with gratitude. Gratitude that the invitation to grow and learn still exists. Gratitude that the Divine still calls and invites us to participate in the bringing the kingdom of God here on earth. Gratitude that we are never alone in our journey and that even when we can’t comprehend or understand where our story is going, we are still surrounded with the love and presence of Creator God.

To be sure, this year has asked me to dig deep to places I didn’t necessarily want to go, but strength comes from the deepest and darkest places. There were tears and soreness and growing pains, but as I stand on the edge of a new year, I know I am walking into that newness and this new season stronger than I have been. This makes the journey worthwhile.

I can’t wait to see what 2019 holds!

The End is the Beginning

We’ve been waiting and hoping for this day to come. The day that we celebrate the Divine Incarnate in the form of the Christ Child. The end of Advent is the beginning of the Christmas Season. The twelve days of Christmas: a holy number for a holy journey to Epiphany. This stands in stark contrast to our culture that teaches us to count down to presents and today is what we have been waiting for.

12 days to wonder and awe at what the meaning of the Divine here on earth is. 12 days to look for signs in the sky that promise new life and transformation. 12 days to hold onto hope, peace, joy, and love and carry them close to the heart. 12 days.

And as I think of what these next 12 days will bring, I believe that they will bring assurance that God is with us. I believe that they will bring the promise that God loves us. I believe that they will whisper an invitation to you to join this great journey.

For Christmas is not over, it is just beginning.

On Missions

Last week I took six youth, one college student, and one young professional down to Conway, SC for Youth Missions Week. I am not a youth minister, but when I found that 25% of my current congregation was youth, I knew there was something missing in the life and work of our church. We needed our youth to have meaningful experiences. We need our youth’s questions and wonderings. We needed to invest in mission experiences and devotion times and jumping in pools and getting caught in the rain. These are the experiences that help our youth understand what it means practically to live a life as a Christian.

And so we packed up three cars with suitcases, food, and crafts and headed to the coast not knowing exactly what we would encounter. We knew of the good work Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church was doing with Palmetto Kids. We knew that partnering was powerful and so we showed up with willing hearts and willing hands to help pitch in. As it turns out, the teachers and youth groups that Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church usually have come to help them in the summers weren’t able to come this year: the same year we felt called to partner with them in their work. Crazy how the Holy Spirit moves and works things together, isn’t it?

As we taught and played game and painted and crafted, we were overwhelmed by the connection we formed with the Palmetto Kids. How could that happen so quickly? How could we do more to help at risks students? Our work was tiring, but inspiring. The faces of those kids, the laughter, and tears as we worked and studied alongside each other is not something we will soon forget.

This is church.

Accidental Resurrection

Three years ago during the Lenten Season, I felt such strong compassion for a bush in our yard that was being strangled by weeds. I could tell the weeds had so entangled this bush that the weed was literally taking the life from the bush. There were no blooms on the bush, but only dead limbs. I decided part of my Lenten practice was going to be to free that bush from the weed that was strangling it.

I am not a gardener. I do not have a green thumb, but I was determined. The weed was thorny and hardy. It didn’t come away from the bush easily. It put up a fight. In fact, it took me two sessions and numerous pricks in this bed to extract the weed from the bush. I watered this bush wanting so much for it to bloom. But it didn’t. I could see that there was life in the limbs again in the hints of green, but there were no blooms. The following Springs were the same, no blooms, but small pieces of evidence of life and growth.

I was disappointed. There were no Easter blooms. There were no butterflies that Spring to come to the butterfly bush. I was even more disappointed when I found out that what I had actually helped to resurrect wasn’t a butterfly bush at all, but rather a Bradford Pear tree that had been struck by lightning years ago. The tree had been removed, but the stump and roots remained.

My sweat and toil had accidentally resurrected a tree, not a bush. See I told you,  I am not a gardener. This accidental resurrection has been a running joke between me and Sam and the congregations I have pastored of my lack of gardening ability.

Yesterday as I pulled into the driveway, my breath caught. I spotted this white bloom. One bloom next to the rose bush we planted for our one year wedding anniversary. One bloom in the midst of a rainy and dreary day. One bloom after three years of no blooms. One bloom of hope in the midst of the darkness and wilderness of Lent.

For me, this is the picture of my own journey to weed out the effects of spiritual abuse in my life. The spiritual abuse that almost strangled me. The spiritual abuse that made me doubt who I am and my own worth. The spiritual abuse that threatened to overtake me. It’s been a long painful journey, but that one bloom is the perfect picture of the journey. I never thought I would be where I am, just as I never thought I was helping out a tree. What I’ve found on this journey of healing and wholeness is that my roots are strong. There is still life and hope. Resurrection does indeed come accidentally in the most unexpected and surprising ways.

Unexpected Turns

Last week, I found myself back in the classroom after two and a half years. Part of my position at Lutheran was to process applications for the Spiritual Direction Certification Program: a program and certification I had never heard of. Spiritual Direction has been a part of the Catholic tradition as well as central to Eastern faith traditions. While there are similarities between these faith traditions, “Christian spiritual direction is help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow intimacy with this God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” (The Practice of Spiritual Direction, William A. Barry &William J. Connolly)

The more I learned about the certification program, the more drawn I was to the idea that one could train to help people to hear and find God’s voice in his or her own life. In a world that is so full of words and noise, there is great confusion. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of power and privilege. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of greed and oppression. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of religious leaders who misuse and abuse their positions of leadership.

Our listening skills have been overshadowed by our quick responses and heated defenses. We speak over people wanting only to be heard, rather than to hear. In our desire to be heard, we miss the opportunity to commune with Creator God who has always been willing to listen and converse with us. We seek affirmation from likes and comments and retweets because we can’t hear God whispering around us, inviting us to something deeper and more meaningful.

Perhaps what we’ve been desperately striving for is alive and well in listening and responding to the Divine at work among us. Emmanuel, God is with us, if we but open our hearts and minds.

The Aftermath

We are living in the aftermath.

We’re living in the aftermath of a major universal event that many have never experienced. 

We’re living in the aftermath of protests that ended in death.

We’re living in the aftermath of the storm that has destroyed a major city and left thousands stranded and homeless. 

We’re living in the aftermath of a statement from an evangelical group who claim to know what God says about marriage and what isn’t marriage in God’s eyes.

We’re living in the aftermath in which people are waiting for you. They are waiting to see how you will respond. If you will respond with statements of support. If you will respond with donations. If you will respond with silence and awe. If you will respond with a theological crisis. If you will respond with an identity crisis. If you will respond by continuing to live unimpacted and unchanged.

We are living in the aftermath; the ground shifting under us, inviting us to change, inviting us to new insight and new understanding. Will you accept?

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Alternative Facts

I ran across an article yesterday that there is archaeological evidence that in the early Christian Church there were female priests. Female priest administering communion. Female priests depicted with raised hands offering benediction, blessings, or perhaps even the word of God. I was shocked because I hadn’t heard this story. I was convinced that this was breaking news only to discover that the article was almost four years old.

Four years that there have been discussions about the role women played in the early church. Four years in which I have been ordained and called to pastor and I had no idea the conversation was going on. How could I, a woman in ministry, have missed something so relevant to my own life experience and calling?

Because we hear what we want to hear. Researches have discovered that the power of stating something that is false, is just as powerful as stating something that is true because:

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Impression is just as powerful as Truth? Surely not! Doesn’t Truth win out?

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

Evidently not. We believe what we want to believe. We don’t research to determine if what we are saying or what we are passing along is Truth and once we leak these impressions, they’re hard to shake in our own minds and in the minds of the people we’re sharing with.

If there is a place where this happens again and again, it’s in communities of faith where reason is often placed on hold and making a leap of faith is encouraged, but when faith begins to be tainted with manipulation and coercion, when false impressions are giving with the purpose of oppression and silencing people, it is not faith. It is spiritual abuse.

It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are ministers and communities of faith who are interested not in the work of God, but in increasing their own wealth and their own power and their own prestige. But there are. It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are victims of spiritual abuse who have been told they aren’t good enough and shouldn’t trust themselves on purpose to ensure adherence to dogmatic teachings. But there are.

These are not alternative facts, but real people’s stories.

Perhaps churches wouldn’t be in decline if we were able to accept this Truth rather than clinging to impressions of what we want to be true, but I know some of you won’t believe this because you don’t believe study after study that reveals the churches are in fact in decline. This is what happens when the need to cling to impressions is stronger than the desire to search for Truth.

I Need Maundy Thursday

This Wednesday during our weekly chapel service at Transitions, we observed Maundy Thursday. We washed hands and took communion with the youth of New Hope Christian Fellowship and as we fellowshipped, we remembered the night Jesus supped with his disciples and gave them instructions to remember. Last night we gathered at New Hope to observe Maundy Thursday with foot washing and communion and darkness.

This day that is so often skipped in the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday has become important to me. I need Maundy Thursday. I need to know that those who walked closest with Jesus looked at him that night trying to understand what his was saying, but not able to understand. Because I too have these days of darkness where I hear the words of Jesus, but don’t know what they means. I need to hear the declarations that those who followed Jesus most closely would not deny him, knowing that in just hours, those words would prove untrue. Because I too declare I won’t deny that I have been called to follow as Jesus’ disciple and then deny that call. I need to hear the uncertainty and the confusion in the voice of the those who followed Jesus so closely on that night. Because I too find myself sitting in the midst of uncertainty and confusion.

I need this part of the story of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I need to be reminded that uncertainty about the future, doubt, and darkness are a part of what it means to follow after Christ. I need to be reminded that this journey asks me to be vulnerable and uncertain and yet to still follow, even when it’s in darkness.