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“Thank you, sweetheart…I mean, pastor”

“This is the body of Christ broken for you. And Christ blood shed for you.”

“Thank you, sweetheart…I mean pastor. Thank you, pastor.”

As the older gentleman put the bread soaked in juice in his mouth, I smiled.

This is what we need: self-correction, self-awareness. We need the simple acknowledgement that language that demeans and oppresses women creeps into our conversation and our interactions because language patterns are learned. Learned patterns that quickly and often unconsciously become habits. Habits that create a toxic culture of sexual assault, spiritual abuse, and violence against women.

Habits that can change without defenses or arguments, but simple acts like this one of self-awareness and self-correction. Self-awareness and self-correction that leads to hope and healing in those of us who have lived and swallowed these language patterns as we have pushed and strived to become who we are created to be.

This is the body of Christ broken for you. And Christ blood shed for you.

Thanks be to God.

When We Forget Natural Disasters, We Forget the Need That Surrounds Us

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This morning I took the puppies to the running trail we used to frequent once a week only to find that the majority of the trail was closed because of damage. I tried to remember the last time I had gone to this trail. I knew it was before Ben was born and then remembered that when we went to take newborn pictures a a part of it was closed as well. Had there really been parts of this trail closed for over a year off and on and I had no idea? How was that possible?

Certainly I have thought about the ongoing impact of the historic flood, especially in light of Hurricane Matthew’s recent visit. I have been involved in relief work off and on in my capacity as a local minister, but no matter how involved we are, if we are not directly impacted by natural disasters, then they slowly fade from our newsfeeds and slip from our minds.

In an effort to regain a sense of normalcy, we push the suffering of people out of our consciousness. When we do, we forget and by extension ignore the need that surrounds us. It’s a coping mechanism that is innately human and innately inhumane at the same time.

It’s not until our schedules, our routines, and our plans are impeded and have to be altered that our eyes are reopened. Thanks be to God for this reminder this morning.

When Church Walls Prevent Us From Being the Church

As Ben and I were enjoying our afternoon Panera coffee break (he just had water), we met an Assembly of God minister who was interested in what we were doing at ministrieslab. He explained that church starting had started to be a conversation in the AG church and church starters were encouraged to find a theater or a school to meet in. Then he asked, “Where are ya’ll going to meet?”

I responded, “We’re not going to have a place. We’re going to be the church and pop up in the midst of need.”

He considered that for a minute and then drew the connection to the early church movement. I smiled as he continued to reflect on the changes in church and the emphasis on having bigger and bigger congregations and buildings. He concluded his reflection by saying, “But a lot of those churches don’t have missions as their center. They just want to have more people.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “Whether we like to admit it or not, having church walls has changed our perception of church. Most people believe church is a place to go to and not a way to live your life.”

In working with the homeless population in Columbia, I’ve heard numerous stories of people who have invited the clients to church, but they can’t go to church because of their limited mobility. It made me think of the number of times I have been invited to church and these invitations have always been to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day, but didn’t Jesus command us to go?

Church walls confine our ability to dream about the future of the church. Church walls ask us to label and separate children, youth, and adults into age-based Sunday School classes. Church walls confine our ministers to office and office hours limiting their ability and mobility in the community.

Church walls limit our creativity in thinking about the future of the church. Perhaps it’s time to break down some of those walls that exclude and label and dream of what we could do if we were the church instead of if we went to church.

Because ministrieslab doesn’t have a building, Ben and I met a fellow minister at a coffeeshop. A fellow minister with whom we got to fellowship and who also provided a donation to the work we are doing.

Want to join us in our mission to pop up in the midst of need? We’ll come to you.

When Ministry Is Hard

 

Ministry is hard when you have to stand beside and pray on behalf of a mom who has lost her 7 and a half week old reminding her that she still has to take care of her postpartum body that hasn’t even healed yet.

Ministry is hard in a political climate that is divisive, filled with name calling, and high stakes.

Ministry is hard in the midst of decline church membership, declining budgets, and increased expectations on time and responsibilities.

Ministry is hard when you feel called to serve, but can’t find a place to call you to serve.

Ministry is hard when you see over and over again the hurt and pain the church has caused so many people.

Ministry is hard when you are ministering to the homeless and hear people remark about how people who are homeless are just lazy because there are jobs available everywhere and you know it’s not true.

Ministry is hard when you find your privilege exposed and your assumptions revealed.

Ministry is hard as our culture looks to our churches for guidance on how to interpret the violence we experience much too often.

Ministry is hard as you navigate what it means to be someone who is called God’s word to God’s people.

Thanks be to God for those men and women who are ministers, especially when ministry is hard.

 

On Needing Each Other

Whether I like to admit it or not, I need help. I need help as I learn to be a stepmother. I need help as I learn to be a mother. I need help as I continue to learn how to pastor. I need help as I continue to encounter the disappointment and discouragement that comes with being a Baptist woman who is called to be a preacher.

I need you, women who have traveled this road longer than I have, to continue to tell your story with openness and authenticity. I need you to tell me why you didn’t give up hope and why you’re still Baptist when it’s so difficult to be a Baptist woman in ministry. I need you to share your experience. I need you to revisit those dark and difficult places that brought you to where you are today. I need to hear your story.

And I need you, who find yourselves in positions of power and privilege, not to let guilt over that place of privilege distract you. I need you to be brave and risky. I need you to use your power and your privilege to speak for those who find themselves on the other side of power and privilege. And if you do, I promise to do the same should the roles be reversed one day.

We were meant to live in community with each other. We were meant to hold each other’s stories. We were meant to work together to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

Let’s get started.

You Cannot Serve

I remember in seminary, discussing a case study in which someone was asking to become a member of Baptist church. In the case study, the person had been baptized as an infant and did not want to be rebaptized. This was rich fodder for us as future ministers because many of us were serving in Baptist congregation who had similar membership requirements. The discussion was important because membership in the case study, and in many of our ministry contexts, was tied to the ability to volunteer or become a deacon. In the case of the person in the case study, the church refused to offer this person membership as many of my classmates concluded would happen in their own ministry contexts.

In other words, the church gets to decide who is in and who is out. Is it a wonder why there is a stark decline in membership? Every year 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity. Not only are people not becoming members of congregations, but those who are members aren’t involved anymore. If you can make it through the membership hoops that many congregations require, you still might be told you cannot serve based on your gender or your sexual orientation. For many communities of faith, wanting to volunteer to serve is dependent on fitting biblical interpretation that excludes and discriminates against women and members of the LGTBQ community.

If you have never been told because of your gender or because of your sexual orientation that you cannot serve as a volunteer at a church, then you have a privilege many people don’t. If you have never doubted that you would be able to be involved in church activities included leading Sunday School, chaperoning youth trips, and serving as a deacon, you have a privilege many people don’t. If you have never been told, you cannot serve based on who you are, you have a privilege many don’t. There is too much to do and too much need for churches to be deciding who can and cannot serve God and help those in need. This is spiritual abuse.

If you find yourself as one of the many who churches have told you cannot serve because of who you are, join us at ministrieslab.

 

 

I’m Sorry You Felt That, But…”

I haven’t always talked about the things that are difficult to talk about, the things no one wants to talk about.

I used to avoid conflict and difficult conversations like mosquitos in the summer SC heat. The reason I didn’t push or probe or question was because often when I did, I would get the response, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” followed by an explanation of how my instincts and intuitions were wrong. I heard it so often that I learned to silence and squelch the feeling I got that something was just not right.

And I know I am not alone.

I know there are many, many people, particularly women, who have found themselves in discriminatory environments and practices and have voiced what they instinctually and intuitively know is wrong only to be met by, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” This rhetorical dismissal of a legitimate concern about creating equality for men and women, members of the LGTBQ community, and immigrants and outsiders, is something we can’t say we feel sorry about and then dismiss the way we continue to protect and maintain the status quo with an explanation that alleviates our guilt.

This is privilege at its worst.

I simply can’t ignore the way rhetoric is used to create spaces that are unsafe for victims and the marginalized because when we do, we continue to create entitlement and privilege that leads to systems that protect the abuser and discriminates against the victim. We create systems where former children’s ministers are not held accountable for inappropriate behavior and are then employed by school districts and charged with inappropriate contact with a child. 

Dismissing and belittling someone’s experience by saying, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” sets the stage for continued silencing, oppression, and manipulation. Silencing, oppression, and manipulation set the stage for sexual harassment, molestation, and sexual abuse. And when this happens in communities of faith and theological interpretation is added for dismissing someone’s concern, it becomes spiritual abuse.

When you say nothing, do nothing, and dismiss others by saying, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…”, you are contributing to silence and oppress voices that matter; voices that have already experienced too much hurt and pain; voices of the people who Jesus ate with and healed.

 

 

A Story of Spiritual Abuse

She had been a member of the youth ministry for six weeks. She had just moved to the area and although her family had always been to church, it hadn’t been this kind of church. She was immediately picked out by her Sunday School teacher who told her she was a “bright young woman.” He explained to her that he hoped he could help her discover more about who God was calling her to be.

He offered her books. Books that explained a woman’s role and the importance of guarding her chastity as her most prized possession. She was flattered by his compliments and his attention, but something about the books and his Sunday School lessons didn’t sit right with her. At her old church, there had been men and women who gave announcements, who read scripture, who participated in the worship service. In this church, there was only a row of suits every Sunday facing the congregations like kings in the high-backed chairs waiting to be served.

Her Sunday School teacher asked her about the books he had given her and she explained that she had a lot of questions. He told her she could ask any question she wanted to and that it was good that she was learning and engaging with the book. The next Sunday, she asked her question in Sunday School in front of the whole class.

“So why aren’t there any women who take part in the worship service?” she asked as he finished announcements.

“I didn’t ask if there were any questions,” he explained as his face began to flush.

She looked down at the table, took out her Bible, and didn’t say another word. After Sunday School, he came over to her. She knew she had done something wrong, but she could’t figure it out. Hadn’t he told her to ask questions? She knew he was not happy.

“You’re rebellious. God is not pleased,” he uttered as he brushed brusquely past her.

Rebellious? For asking questions? Was God really not pleased with her? Surely, he would know whether God was pleased, after all,  he was a Sunday School teacher.

When We Carry Each Other’s Burdens

Although we might like to think the church models that are currently in place exhibit the gathering of people trying to interpret and understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the 1st Century, they don’t. Our American churches much more closely resemble corporate America with hierarchies, hiring policies, and operating systems implemented directly from the business world.

To think that this model is going to continue to survive in an economy where businesses are having to be innovative and creative in how they engage customers and consumers is naive. The business model from the 1950s isn’t working for businesses, so it certainly won’t work for churches.

Part of the issue with the way our churches are operating is that the pastor and ministers serve as the CEO, vice president, and COO of the church. In this model, the responsibility of the success of the church and the church’s viability falls on their shoulders.

But this isn’t the only responsibility of the ministers. The ministers are also the ones who are to bear the burdens of grief, guilt, shame, sadness, pain, abuse, frustration, confusion, hopelessness, and hurt of the entire congregation. Even in a single-staff church whose membership is forty people, the ratio of burdens to burden-bearer are much too high for sustainability. It’s simply too much for one person to bear in the current economic context of declined giving and membership. Is it any wonder that the rate of  clergy suicide and clergy burnout continues to climb?

Our model is broken and if the decline in giving and church membership and rates of clergy suicide and burnout aren’t red flags that get our attention, perhaps a look back at scripture will open our eyes:

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Paul is suggesting here that to be a community of faith is to bear each other’s burdens, not cast our burdens on those who have been called by God to lead and guide God’s people. In the midst of a letter that reminds God’s people that there are those who will come and deliver a false gospel (ahem model something of God after American culture), perhaps this is just the reminder we need as the people of God. When we commit to a community of faith, we aren’t committing to a preacher or a minister, we are committed to each other. To journey with each other, to hurt with each other, to carry one another’s burdens.

When we carry each other’s burdens, we become evidence of God working in and among God’s people. When we carry each other’s burdens rather than transforming our ministers into burden-bearers, we just might be working to ensure that there will still be pastors and ministers called by God who are alive and vibrant to lead the church into the future.

When It’s Too Much to Bear

So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

I’ve heard this passage preached many times and always the conclusion I heard was that God has not given you more than you can handle nor will God ever give you more than you can handle. The times in my life when the brokenness and pain and evil that exists in our world has been it’s too much to bear, I have always felt a deep sense of shame. I’ve put on a brave face and acted as if the brokenness and pain and evil doesn’t exist and refused to listen to stories or remember because if it’s too much to bear, than my faith is not strong enough.

But I’ve looked at this passage again and I think this is another example of a passage of scripture that has been misinterpreted through our individualistic, self-centered, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, American Christianity. This is a letter to the church of Corinth and when Paul uses “you” here, he’s not using the singular form of you. He’s using the plural form.

In other words,

God is faithful and he will not give y’all be tested beyond y’all’s strength.

It’s not that we as individuals have to be strong enough to bear the brokenness and pain and evil in the world. It’s that the church, the people of God, our communities of faith have to be strong enough to bear the brokenness and pain and evil in this world.

But our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop using the church for our own financial security, self-worth, and salve for our insecurities. Our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop avoiding looking at the brokenness and pain and evil in the world in our Bible studies, in our prayers, and in our preaching. Our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop making church about us and start being real and authentic and honest.

When it’s the brokenness and evil and pain is too much to bear, we need the church to stand strong, but in a time when brokenness and evil and pain are so prevalent, the church has fallen. Be careful, if you think your church is standing and not talking about the brokenness and evil and pain that exists. Y’all, too, will fall.