Monday, March 30, 2009

Lessons from Isaiah and the Slinky about the Ideal Church

For a number of years now I have been receiving a weekly email called "Rumors" from Canadian writer Ralph Milton who along with writer Jim Taylor founded Woodlake Books. They continue to write and bless many of us weekly. Early each Sunday morning I get an email that discusses the lectionary texts for next Sunday, and it usually includes a wonderful assortment of humor. One person remarked recently that it becomes a ready made Sunday school curriculum--share the humor, read the texts, and then get into the reflections on the texts that Ralph and Jim share. Check out the blog link to the side, which also has information on getting the weekly email.

This week I was drawn to Ralph's summary of next week's text from Isaiah:
Isaiah 50:4-9a – Most Rumors readers, both lay and clergy, are leaders in the church. Which means that the very first sentence of this passage is directed at us. “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.”
The leadership instincts and skills we have are a gift, which we have received so that we “may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” But the most essential skill of the leader is to listen. God who “wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”
How are we teaching? How are we listening as learners? How are we sustaining the weary? What words might sustain us? I'd like to suggest the word: Slinky.

Yesterday was my "graduation" service from CPE. The turning point in our interpersonal relations group seminar was the day I brought in an antique slinky in its original box, and we played together and then were able to talk about the boxes we were putting each other in. Yesterday's graduation sermon had three lessons from the Slinky that I'd like to share (thanks, Michelle!).
1. Don't judge a Slinky by its box.
2. Slinkies are designed for movement.
3. Slinkies are made for delight and connection.
We are all slinkies.

I'm still reading Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling and have been mulling over their research question about whether the ideal church would require ordained clergy. I grew up in a part of the Baptist tradition that had more farmer preachers, not the learned clergy of the Anglicans, Puritans and congregationalists. Surprising to the researchers of this book, but maybe not to me given my own background and context, more Unitarian Universalists thought that an ordained ministry would be necessary for the ideal church, and fewer Southern Baptists thought that. If you think the Spirit can call farmers to preach, then all of that education and rigmarole might seem unnecessary.

I return to the Slinky for answers to these questions.
So, then what box do we put ordained clergy in and what box are lay people in? If women are not equally ordained, what box are they in? What does learning have to do with call or ministry?
1. Don't judge a Slinky by its box.
How does the learned ministry constrain or enhance our call to ministry?
2. Slinkies are designed for movement.
How might we balance the Isaiah text about being teachers and learners with the Baptist notion of the priesthood of believers?
3. Slinkies are made for delight and connection.

My prayer for today is that we reclaim and sustain the lessons of the transforming power of play and connection contained in the Slinky.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Connections from last week with postscript on "getting over fear"

Excerpted from Sublimation by Anne Michaels
Flesh moves to become spirit.
You were the only one to understand my conversion.
Many people have asked me about God;
my proof is manifestation,
that God can be called
"getting over fear."

I wanted badly that truth be a single thing;
now I know it won't be measured.

It wasn't Heisenberg or Hindemith, but you
who convinced me
that nothing can be unraveled to its core,
that truth is a field, a cage, a cloud of sound.
How else to reconcile the faces of those running away
with the faces of those turning away,
with the faces of those in uniform – that hair-shirt
that says more about a man than his eyes
because you can't tell the parts of his face
that are his.
How else to encompass both that crying and those
orders; the sound of my own voice
begging, and my voice telling jokes to the man
without shoes beside me on a train;
how else to encompass the moon's chilling scream
as it calls out in its bad sleep above the earth
and your voice on the phone,
waking me in Paris, Los Angeles, New York.
from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley.

God can be called "getting over fear." Yes, and amen.

Reaching out in this study has yielded its own rewards, so thanks to those who have intentionally or unintentionally provided these materials. This week my connections have taken me in several directions for my readings. One is a resource coming from someone at my luncheon last week, a doctoral study on the impact of openly gay/lesbian clergy who pastor mostly heterosexual churches in the UCC.

After discussing the study design with a friend who teaches statistics, I can concur that there are some unexplored questions about the results. For example, this study says that most of these churches with openly gay/lesbian pastors grew in attendance, Sunday school attendance, membership and giving. Survey design question that I don't know the answer to, can't find much research about: would a similar sampling of churches with a new heterosexual pastor show the same results? That is, is there a new pastor effect that causes growth? Or could the growth be attributed just to chance demographic factors—that these churches are in places where other churches are growing too and the gay/lesbian pastor doesn't make a difference? Even considering both of these caveats, what is clear from this study generally is that openly gay and lesbian ministers in the UCC, despite the worries and fears expressed by pastors and congregations, don't hurt a church's situation and may in fact be very positive contributors toward the Spirit working and growing.

Now how might we translate that information for/to other congregations in other places and denominations?

A second bit of reading followed a link from one of Rev Gal Blog Pal comments from last week (thank you for the warm welcome!) about the United Methodists and their women clergy.

UMC More Women Leaders Sought

The United Methodist Church, which boasts a history of ordaining women clergy, is seeking to shatter the so-called "stained-glass ceiling" blocking female pastors from its largest pulpits.

The nation's second-largest Protestant denomination has launched a new initiative, the Lead Women Pastor Project, to examine barriers to women being appointed pastors to Methodist churches with more than 1,000 members. The Nashville-based United Methodist Church has 44,842 clergy, and about 10,000 are female -- or 23 percent. Yet just 85 women lead those largest churches, compared with 1,082 men in those positions.

Church leaders say more women are needed to shepherd large churches, given that women make up more than half of those enrolled in master of divinity programs in United Methodist seminaries. Also, almost 58 percent of the 8 million-member denomination is female.
-- Associated Press
The details of what they plan are not given, but is something to watch: UM Lead Women Pastors’ Project Aims to Develop, Nurture Clergywomen
I guess we can check back and see what happens.

My reading for balance or pleasure recently has included a murder mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming about a woman who is a newly ordained Episcopal priest in her first church in a small town in the Adirondacks. Although I hope that the murder rate in any of our communities is nowhere as high as in this town, the author captures some really wonderful glimpses of what it means to start in ministry. The second book of the series, entitled A Fountain Filled with Blood, has a portion where the priest turns to the Compline prayer alone one night in her church as solace after discovering a particularly gruesome murder the previous day. The value of an ecumenical education is that this was not new to me, but, nonetheless, this portion lingered with me after reading it in this setting.
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
May we all be able to turn to God in prayer, turn to "getting over fear," and open to a realization of truth as a container, "a field, a cage, a cloud of sound," as we work, watch or weep this night. Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fear and Love: lessons from Deer, Engineering, and the Devil You Don't Know

This is a "one thing leads to another" posting. Meander with me.

This past Tuesday morning, shortly before leaving for my drive north where there are a lot more signs about deer crossing the road than on the city streets where I live, I read a poem about hitting a deer while driving: Penitence by John Burnside from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley, (Hyperion, New York, 2003). I quote just a bit from the middle of the poem:
I left the engine running; stepped outside;
away, at the edge of the light, a body
shifted amongst the leaves
and I wanted to go, to help, to make it well,
but every step I took
pushed it away.
Or – no; that's not the truth
or all the truth:
now I admit my own fear held me back,
not fear of the dark, or that presence
bending the trees;
not even fear, exactly, but the dread
of touching, of colliding with that pain.
I stood there, in the river of the wind,
for minutes; then I walked back to the car
and drove away.
Once I got to CPE, my colleague whose spiritual practice is from the Native American traditions led a devotion using animal medicine cards, and we each picked one. Mine was Deer. She then read the story of each animal's totem and characteristics. I share part of Deer's story:
One day Fawn heard Great Spirit calling to her from the top of Sacred Mountain. Fawn immediately started up the trail. She didn't know that a horrible demon guarded the way to Great Spirit's lodge. The demon was trying to keep all the beings of creation from connecting with Great Spirit. …

Fawn's eyes were filled with love and compassion for this oversized bully of a demon. The demon was astounded by Fawn's lack of fear. No matter how he tried, he could not frighten Fawn, because her love had penetrated his hardened, ugly heart.

Much to the demon's dismay, his rock-hard heart began to melt, and his body shrank to the size of a walnut. Fawn's persistent love and gentleness had caused the meltdown of the demon. Due to this gentleness and caring that Fawn embodied, the pathway is now clear for all of Great Spirit's children to reach Sacred Mountain without having to feel the demons of fear blocking their way.

Deer teaches us to use the power of gentleness to touch the hearts and minds of wounded beings who are trying to keep us from Sacred Mountain. Like the dappling of Fawn's coat, both the light and the dark may be loved to create gentleness and safety for those who are seeking peace. …

You may not be willing to love yourself enough to feel your fears and let them go. You may be projecting your fears on others. It may also be others whom you fear, reminding you of a time when you reacted to life in much the same manner. At any rate, love is the key.
from Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals by Jamie Sams and David Carson (Author), illustrated by Angela C. Werneke, St. Martin's Press, Revised Edition (1999), p. 52-54
In our CPE group this week, we talked about our fears of next steps. Mine are of finishing seminary and getting or not getting a call to a church, and what that would mean. Well, I can take a hint. The message from Deer was about how to deal with my fear with love. The scripture verse, "love casts out fear," came to mind and I looked it up.

1 John 4.18-20 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

And of course I looked for music to go with it.
Your love, O God, has called us here,
for all love finds its source in you,
the perfect love that casts out fear,
the love that Christ makes ever new.
~ Russell Schulz-Widmar (1944-);
© Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188.
Or an older version with several different tunes:
O love that casts out fear,
O love that casts out sin,
Tarry no more without,
But come and dwell within!
~ Horatius Bonar, 1861.
So perfect love casts out fear. But I don't have perfect love, so what will imperfect love do? I mull on this.

As a part of my directed study, I gathered a group of GLBT clergy and seminarians this week to talk about what confronts them in their calls and career journeys. One arrived early and described her current compassion fatigue: she just can't do one more visit to the sick, one more meeting with someone made jobless by this economy. She's going on retreat to refill her own well. Fortunately, she's wise enough to know that she needs to do that and in a church where she gets support in both time and money for her development and renewal. Over lunch she described some of her times of fear in coming out while in a pastoral role. Fear remains a theme for the week, but another definition is uncertainty.
One problem with clergy work is that there is no clear standard for what it means to be a "good pastor." One way to deal with the uncertainty is to work harder and harder until you are working sixty to seventy hours a week and then you burn out because there is still so much more you could do. (United Methodist clergy woman). Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling by Barbara Zikmund, Adair Lummis and Patricia Chang, p. 74
My wise colleague also had this to say about our current troubled times: that now is probably a great time to be a non-traditional pastor candidate because denominational organizations and gatekeepers are so distracted by the turmoil that the non-traditional candidate can slip through into a place where they will be welcomed.

Engineering stories confirm this: Because women are not male the way clergy have historically been, then when they are being evaluated against traditional, successful clergy characteristics they already have a strike against them.
This, combined with the structure of clergy work and the ambiguity that surrounds performance assessment, makes women more vulnerable to subjective evaluations of their performance.

What can be done to change this situation?

A clue can be found in a recent study comparing pairs of male and female engineers whose careers were followed through six organizations. In this research, women were able to advance most quickly in firms in turbulent markets and in firms where work tasks were structured in flexible networks. In flexible network settings, when work was done by personnel organized in egalitarian teams and when communication and decision making tended to be horizontal rather that vertical, men and women tended to be evaluated on the basis of qualifications and skills rather than gender. The chief characteristic of these work settings was that different ways of thinking, different values, and different opinions were considered resources for working out solutions to existing problems. …

The research found that, in contrast, women do less well than men in bureaucratic organizations that seek to ensure a "continual reproduction of the culture." In such bureaucratic organizations, women become professionally invisible… Clergy Women, p. 76
Engineering also had insights on the congregation's side.
A church in its Prime can begin to suffer from the presumption that it doesn't need to work at renewal, vision, assessment, and evaluation, believing that things will always be as good a s they are now. But a congregation that falls for that illusions would do well to remember what any first year engineering student knows about the Second Law of Thermodynamics—Energy spontaneously tends to flow only from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused and spread out. Or, to put it another way, "things tend to break down." The critical leadership function for this stage is to fight the forces that lead to atrophy and resistance to change. … The constant challenge for the pastor will be to develop and communicate the vision that will tip the church's direction from homeostasis to evolution, from complacency to resilience. The Hidden Life of Congregations by Israel Galindo, p. 70-71
Okay, lessons from engineering duly noted. Finally, in searching the internet for scripture, love casts out fear, I found the following articles. Read them and let me know what you think.

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear by Angela Rose, an amazing article about someone confronting fears.

And the sidebar led me to this article with this great lead quote about fear.
Embracing the Devil You Don't Know by Candace Chellew
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure ... We ask ourselves: "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?" Actually, who are you not to be ...? Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you... As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
--Marianne Williamson
And one link led to another article by the same author:
Clergy Cowardice By Candace Chellew-Hodge

As it happens this week I have just been reading the clergy survey that she references. Check it out for yourself. Clergy Voices: New Findings from the 2008 Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey. I am not sure that I read these findings in quite the same way, but I take her point.

My prayer for this week is to act in love to cast out fear, to begin to understand how to do that, teach that, be that, or just claim that perfect love that casts out fear, and that each of you may do the same.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Discovering Our Insides

First, this poem from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley, (Hyperion, New York, 2003).

From Blossoms
by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

I've been reading in two books about congregations this week. Journalist Gary Dorsey explores of the dynamics of a church in New England in Congregation: The Journey Back to Church (New York: Viking Penguin, 1995). Dorsey attempts to figure out the relationships between ministers and a congregation and answer questions such as: what is church, why go to church, what makes a church work; by spending a year as an observer, then as a participant/observer. This is a good read if only because it makes clear how complex the relationships are, and how a church cannot be all things to all people, and how when church is working it draws people in. Being an intense description of the life and work of one congregation and Dorsey's own journey back to church, it offers a basis for comparison for our own congregations and journeys.

The other book I'm reading is Israel Galindo's The Hidden lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2004). Galindo, like Dorsey but with a broader sweep, explores congregations as organisms, in relationships, as communities, not as just "organizations." Looking at churches through the lenses of Bowen family systems work, Galindo provides a good summary of a number of models of understanding church dynamics. In the chapter I just finished reading he writes: "The five organic relational dynamics that are at play during the lifespan of a congregation are: Systemic Anxiety, Energy, Organizing, Controlling, and Relational." (p. 52) Every congregational organism has some of each of these at play, and depending on whether there is too much high anxiety, too little good energy, not enough organizing, too much controlling, or not enough relational activity, one congregation will die and another with different dynamics will thrive. Recognizing those dynamics will make it possible to understand them and perhaps to change them toward a healthier way of being in relationship.

The usefulness of this book for my study is in and of itself, but also as background to understanding what might be the dynamics in making decisions about pastoral leadership. What dynamics would need to be in place for a congregation to handle or welcome a woman as minister, or to thrive with a pastor who is not like the perceived norm for a clergy person? In the line from the poem above, how do we risk a new love, something outside the box, how do we "take what we love inside, to carry within us an orchard, to eat not only the skin, but the shade, not only the sugar, but the days, to hold the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into the round jubilance of peach?"

The intersection of pastor, congregation and God is a complex relational dynamic. Where might congregations learn about managing the steps of the dance of engaging/having a new pastor, and where do clergy learn that about congregations? I'm thinking that the third player in the triangle is perhaps not consulted enough in this work: where is God in all this? Tony Pappas, Executive Minister for The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts wrote a response to the Pulpit and Pew study, What Do Lay People Want In Pastors, (referenced in March 1 blog posting) that starts to get at this question, "Where does the Spirit come into play? Or, to phrase it differently, without passion what good are all our procedures and practices? … What if we were to focus on matters of the Spirit? What if judicatory staff were to deliberately attempt spiritual interventions? What if incoming pastors were to concentrate on matters of the Spirit before launching off into the busy-ness of programs? What if local congregations were to seek God’s face with even half the energy they have heretofore invested in preserving the status quo?" (p. 42)

My prayer is for the Spirit to be with congregations who are seeking leadership, and with pastors who are seeking congregations, as well as those already engaged in working together, that we all work toward relationships that might carry not only the jubilant juice of the peach but the entire orchard inside us.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Outside of the Boxes

It was a good thing that I had finished my essay for the American Baptist placement services before I read the study from Pulpit and Pew reports highlighted/excerpted below. I'm never going to be a "married man with children, under age 40, in good health, with more than a decade of experience in ministry." Demographics aside, though, I regard myself as strong candidate for what congregations say they want according to this study—which is not necessarily what some of them really want. My call to ministry embraces change, my being a minister is a change from the desired demographic, and as a species, human beings most often prefer no change, so even though congregations may say they want a change, what they describe through demographics is not change, and the demographic they want is what was the norm in the 1950's and certainly does not describe me or many of my classmates in seminary.

As often happens, things weave together. In my CPE (clinical pastoral education) IPR (interpersonal relations) group sessions we have been talking about the boxes that we put one another in, and the assumptions we make about people because of the labels they give themselves or that we give them. We have devoted several sessions to working on our boxes and assumptions, and how now with that work and a facilitator it feels safe and accepting to be an evangelical, a Roman Catholic, an interfaith minister, an ordained lesbian, a straight white male, or a chief financial officer finishing seminary, all of us doing and supporting one another in ministry.

The question we tackled last week is, is it enough for one of us or each of us to feel safe only in the small group, or are we called both by God's justice and by our relationships with one another to work toward full acceptance in the wider world? This perhaps is the work in education that must be done in congregations—not when confronted with a crisis in the community but as a part of being church in a community. How can we be "church" in the best sense of that world when we confine ourselves only to our own safe group, inside our own walls, with a narrow notion that leaders of churches must fit one single demographic?

My version of "go ye into all the world and preach the gospel" surely includes this kind of love, respect and acceptance, welcoming the one who is foreign to you—the stranger, as well as caring for the poor, the widow and the orphan—those who have been neglected or abandoned by tragedy or misfortune. It takes a fair amount of confronting our own fears and stereotypes before we can not only accept but welcome those who are different from us. How do we begin the conversations to bring congregations outside of their own boxes? I hope in this study that I begin to find ways to bring people into that process or at least into that conversation.
What Do Lay People Want In Pastors?
Answers From Lay Search Committee Chairs And Regional Judicatory Leaders
by Adair T. Lummis
Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C.
© Duke Divinity School
Pulpit and Pew Research Reports, No. 3, Winter 2003

Gender, race, marriage, and sexual orientation of clergy. Lummis finds among other things that male gender still remains a criterion for most search committees, even in denominations that have ordained women for the past fifty years or more. Typically, search committees want pastors who are married men with children, under age 40, in good health, with more than a decade of experience in ministry. Such criteria are often not expressed to regional leaders but remain unspoken just beneath the surface, particularly in liberal mainline Protestant denominations, where lay search committees know it is unacceptable to refuse to accept a candidate because of gender, race, or ethnicity.
Age, experience and job tenure of the pastor. Laity often want a young married pastor as a way to draw in young families, but also a pastor with experience. The dramatic increase in older, second career seminarians, however, has changed the relationship between age and experience. Rather than having 20-years’ experience, many middle-aged pastors today may have just received their M.Div.

Other things lay people say they want (see the whole study for details):
• Demonstrated competence and religious authenticity.
• Good preacher and leader of worship.
• Strong spiritual leader.
• Commitment to parish ministry and ability to maintain boundaries.
• Available, approachable, and warm pastor with good “people skills.”
• Consensus builder, lay ministry coach and responsive leader.
• Entrepreneurial evangelists, innovators and transformational reflexive leaders.
The second half of this Pulpit and Pew study deals with the issues of a perceived clergy shortage or shortage of adequate pastoral salaries. Continuing my analysis of The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, I graphed the available data for weekly attendance in churches vs. the number of years the pastor
( by gender) has been ordained. In Massachusetts at least, the churches with over 300 in weekly attendance are historically black churches. You will note that women don't appear to move up into bigger churches the longer they are ordained, but rather stay in a band of churches under 100 in weekly attendance. The available data for churches' weekly attendance and senior/solo pastor's year ordained yielded this sample of twenty-five women and twenty-six men. In this sample, the majority of churches under 100 in weekly attendance are pastored by women.

The study suggests that in order to provide an adequate salary churches need to have over 200 or more active members. I am not quite sure of what the relationship between active members and weekly attendance is here in Massachusetts, but I know ABC clergy in congregations where the weekly attendance is between 45 and 90, who do have working spouses. That suggests that one clergy salary is not sufficient. The one single clergyperson I know has rental income as a supplement. What this graph says is that in Massachusetts American Baptist women have not moved into larger, more prestigious or more lucrative churches, and that in fact they may be facing economic discrimination because they are predominantly in smaller churches who cannot afford to pay an adequate/livable salary. Salary numbers are not available in this data set.

My prayer this week is to continue to pray for movement out of the boxes, both those I put others into and the ones others put me into.