Sunday, April 26, 2009

Welcome? by the numbers

Where are LGBT people welcomed in Massachusetts churches?

While the following numbers don't tell the whole story, and none of our stories are represented fully by the numbers, the following sets of numbers are indications of where LGBT folks are welcomed as congregants, and perhaps as clergy. There seem to be some correlations between denominations that have ordained women and those that welcome LGBT people. Is there in fact a cause/effect relationship between congregations that hire women pastors and who are welcoming and affirming/open and affirming or vice versa, and if so, what does that mean for women or LGBT clergy?

But first a poem about welcome by George Herbert that I read quoted in Gifted by Otherness by L. William Countryman and M.R. Ritley. This poem has also been famously set to music by Ralph Vaughn Williams in Five Mystical Songs. (I'm listening to the setting as I write. Also included in this set of five pieces is The Call—I included that one in my iTunes playlist about calling.) This is the kind of welcome I want the numbers to represent. Love calls us to welcome—are we/can we be the kind of host that Love is?
"Love" from The Temple
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.
A Massachusetts LGBT-friendly congregational cameo
The UUA, Quakers and UCC have been leaders in welcoming LGBT people into their churches. In Massachusetts, there are more UCC churches that are open and affirming than there are UUA churches, but there are three times as many UCC churches in total in Massachusetts. Even among these historically progressive or liberal denominations this has not been without turmoil.

At the denominational level, the Unitarian Universalist Association is open and affirming to LGBT people and to the ordination of LGBT clergy. I was actually somewhat startled, given the denominational stance and publicity, to see that the percentage of officially welcoming churches in the UUA in Massachusetts is only 55%, just over half. Congregational polity means that the local church does not necessarily pay attention to or act on what the denomination thinks is important.
The leadership of the 1.3 million-member United Church of Christ has been foremost among denominations seeking the full inclusion of homosexuals. In the 1970s the UCC allowed the ordination of the first openly gay man and the first openly lesbian woman, and in 2005 the UCC endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples. Ordination of practicing homosexuals was officially accepted in 1980, and the blessing of same-sex couples is allowed. But the issue still roils the UCC. Because the UCC believes in local autonomy, some regions and congregations bar gay clergy and gay couples. Some congregations are threatening to leave over the denomination's official tolerance of homosexuality, while some liberal members want the UCC to be more active in promoting gay rights as a denomination-wide standard.
The American Baptist Churches-USA has a national denomination resolution, "We affirm that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," The ABC-USA "resolutions are adopted by a 2/3 majority vote of the General Board of American Baptist Churches, a resolution represents the position of the ABC on a specific issue and calls for some type implementing action. All resolutions must be based on a policy statement. General Board policy documents are binding on national staff only and not on regions or local churches."

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), not a big presence in Massachusetts, has not taken a national stance on ordination of LGBT people, leaving that to regional committees on ministry. There are regions with openly gay or lesbian clergy, as well as welcoming and affirming churches nationally.

With the exception of the American Baptist Churches, denominations with congregational polity, rather than institution-centered denominations have higher percentages of welcoming/open and affirming congregations. As a barometer of liberal theology, this seems to be the reverse of the finding in Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling on the ordination of women where institution-centered denominations, once committed, do a better job supporting women, but it could also reflect that the institution-centered denominations clearly have not made the commitment to being open or welcoming and affirming, so it then is impressive that 7-11% of Episcopal, Presbyterian USA, United Methodist, and Lutherans-ELCA congregations in Massachusetts have made the commitment in the face of national stances that are negative toward LGBT people or clergy.

Institution-centered churches with episcopal or presbytery polities have similar percentages of open and affirming/gay friendly churches, but it is not clear how many gay or lesbian clergy they have. I personally know openly gay and lesbian Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian clergy, or at least LGBT clergy with really, really big closets. But of course, a quick internet search will reveal national news stories about lesbian and gay clergy being defrocked in the United Methodist Church and in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Presbyterians seem to be getting more mixed press on the subject today, and have a resolution being voted on by their presbyteries to change the denominational rules on LGBT clergy.

Openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire is not recognized as a bishop by the worldwide Anglican communion. And despite the publicity surrounding him, Episcopal churches don't list themselves as so gay friendly. Only one Episcopal Church in Massachusetts was listed as a partner member of Integrity, the gay Episcopal group, so the eighteen churches noted above were found on the listings at lists 5,301 churches worldwide, mostly in the USA and Canada, that have identified as gay friendly, welcoming and affirming, open and affirming, reconciling in Christ, etc.

I found no historically black church denominations that had welcoming or open and affirming churches listed in Massachusetts from any of the national gay church lists. None of the denominations' Massachusetts websites or national websites for African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, National Baptist Convention, or Progressive National Baptist Convention had any mention of gays (pro or con). The gay or lesbian Afro-American Christians I know have found their way into more diverse, but primarily white, welcoming and affirming congregations, or lead divided lives about their sexuality and their Christianity.

Here is where this info comes from:
Mass. UCC
ONA UCC congregations

Mass. UMC congregations
UMC reconciling congregations in MA

Christian Church/Disciples of Christ in MA
Disciples of Christ open and affirming congregations in MALink
MA Presbyterian churches
More Light Presbyterian churches in MA

ELCA Lutheran congregations in MA
Reconciled in Christ ELCA Lutheran congregations in MA

ABC congregations in Massachusetts
Welcoming and Affirming Baptist churches in MA (all of which are ABC-USA)

Quaker meetings in MA

gay friendly/welcoming Quaker meetings and Episcopal churches in MA

Episcopal churches in MA
Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts

UUA congregations and welcoming UUA congregations

So there are some of the numbers. I have spent much of this week turning the musings of this blog into a final paper, and yesterday in a timely fashion, my friend PB sent a morning devotional reflection based on Acts 5:34-35, 38-39:
One in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.
PB wrote:
Lord, your truth will be with the world, even when we are not. It is our choice to be a part of it or apart from it. In the end, you will not be overthrown.
I think we can see in vibrant and faith-filled people and churches what is the work of God, and today I pray that those who do the work of God will be sustained by the truth and power of God's word, and those who do not hear the voice of the Spirit will be gently led to hearing. If God is calling women and LGBT clergy to ministry and leadership, this is the work of God, and God will not be overthrown.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Articulating Call: How are you called?

Grant us … in our direst need, the smallest gifts:
the nail of the horseshoe,
the pin of the axle,
the feather at the pivot point,
the pebble at the mountain's peak,
the kiss in despair,
the one right word.
In darkness, understanding.
Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold, (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), p. 44
This week has included some of those small gifts in need for me: a conversation, the prayer, the one right word, the insights, the reminder: "We are all, every living one of us, doorways between the two realms, that of matter that gives us birth, and that of spirit into which we are born in death." Paladin of Souls, p. 385 (See last week's post about doorways...)

This past week I met with my association's representative on ministry and ordination. She asked, "How were you called?" Not, "where were you when you were called?" Not even, "what are you called to do or to be?" And not, "how are you confirmed in your call?" Those are all good questions to be able to answer, but they are not the first question.

People preparing for ministry or priesthood often get asked if they have "a call." For some, it's an embarrassing question. They think the pastorate or priesthood may be what they're supposed to do with their lives, but that word "call" suggests some kind of voice from heaven that corresponds to nothing in their experience. Perhaps it evokes memories of an old Bill Cosby routine about Noah's ark, in which a deep bass voice calls out from above, "NOAH! NOAH! THIS IS THE LORD, NOAH!" Cosby, a nervous grin on his face, looks upward and says, "Yeeeah! Riiiight!"

Is that what it means to have God call you? Could most of us imagine such a strange event happening to us?
William C. Placher, ed., Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), p. 2
As I have been reviewing the facts, figures and stories about clergy and congregations, and in my own experience of being a part of the ordination process, something has become clear to me: in order to do "right" by clergy placement and retention, as well as by the congregations in which we minister, we need to provide ways and frameworks to understand, articulate and nurture our calls, both as clergy and as members of congregations, and as congregations as a whole.

How are you called?
In many traditions, calls—in the form of sounds—precede prayer, rites of initiation, spiritual healings, and major life events. The purpose of calls is to summon adherents away from their daily grinds to a new level of awareness, into a scared frame of mind, into communion with that which is bigger than themselves. The calls may come from bull-roarers, trumpets, rattles, wooden clackers, songs, bells, or the chanting of muezzins atop minarets.
In the primary creation myth of Western cosmology, the very first call came through the voice that said "Let there be light," and there was light, the words then becoming flesh. Every call since then has also been a call to form, a call to each of us to materialize ourselves.
Greg Levoy, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997), p. 2
What is your trumpet, your bull-roarer, your song? How are you called? Since I heard this song by Mary Chapin Carpenter in 2007, it has been helpful in the way I understand calling, perhaps as "stumbling and falling," but as something that is deep, that I can't turn away from, perhaps as something in my blood that I can't quite articulate, even though people still ask. It's not certainty or lack of fear—that I know, even though I would like it to be.
Deep in your blood or a voice in your head
On a dark lonesome highway
It finds you instead
So certain it knows you, you can't turn away
Something or someone has found you today

Genius or Jesus, maybe he's seen us
But who would believe us
I can't really say
Whatever the calling, the stumbling or falling
You follow it knowing
There's no other way, there's no other way

There are zealots and preachers
And readers of dreams
The righteous yell loudest
And the saved rise to sing
The lonely and lost are just waiting to hear
Any moment their purpose
Will be perfectly clear

And then life would mean more
Than their name on their door
And that far distant shore that's so near
They'd hear the calling
And stumbling and falling
They'd follow it knowing
There's nothing to fear
Nothing to fear

I don't remember a voice
On a dark, lonesome road
When I started this journey so long ago
I was only just trying to outrun the noise
There was never a question of having a choice

Jesus or genie, maybe they've seen me
But who would believe me
I can't really say
Whatever the calling, the stumbling and falling
I followed it knowing there's no other way

Jesus or genie, maybe he's seen me
But who would believe me
I can't really say
Whatever the calling, stumbling and falling
I got through it knowing there's no other way
There's no other way
"The Calling" by Mary Chapin Carpenter, album: The Calling

How do you articulate your call or calls? Call is mysterious. Call is scary. I often think of the prophet Samuel as a boy, wakened from sleep, hearing his name called, "Samuel, Samuel!" and thinking that it was Eli whom he served, he ran into Eli's room: "Here I am, you called me?" Eli said, "No, I did not call. Go back to sleep." This happened three times, and then Eli, who was a priest, realized that perhaps some more powerful call was happening, a call from God, and told Samuel that if the call came again to answer, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." God called again, and Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening." God then told Samuel what would be happening to Eli's sons because they were not fulfilling their hereditary priestly duties. [1 Samuel 3]

Most of us though don't get the kind of call that Samuel got: God's voice speaking to us in the night. Or maybe we do, and we don't have an Eli nearby who tells us to listen and respond. Or maybe the Eli in our life doesn't appear for a long time. When I was a girl, I pretended that our high backed recliner was a pulpit and I was the preacher. Even then I felt silenced by the church where I was raised that didn't ordain women or even have women deacons, because I never preached a sermon aloud, only in my head, looking out the window. Was that God's call? Over the years, I forgot that I had ever stood behind the chair imagining…

God is patient, … and persistent. After college I left the church, sure that it had no place for the person I was. For a while, I stopped being involved with music and singing because music was and is a pathway to God for me. I sat at desks and computers and looked at numbers and systems and was disgusted by corporate politics. I learned to make presentations, and became more comfortable with public speaking. Then, one Easter Sunday, on a whim, I went to an ecumenical sunrise service in a park near where I lived. The minister was a woman who had brought along a portable tape player for music. Even at 6 a.m., I could sing out, "Christ Arose." I think the minister was surprised, because she only expected a mumble from the dozen of us there, as was I, for different reasons, that I found that song in my heart and memory. And, after a while, I joined a community chorus and started singing again. A year or so later I started going to church, mostly to sing in the choir. I left that church to look for one that felt more like home. My church home became a small, welcoming Baptist congregation with an emphasis on inclusive language and lay ministry among other social justice concerns. Once there, I began to participate in worship leading, and then occasionally as a summer preacher.

My Eli came along nearly 35 years after standing behind the high backed recliner in my parent's living room, in the person of Harvey Cox, theologian, author, professor at Harvard Divinity School, and member of that church, who came up to me after I preached one summer Sunday. "Nancy, do you know why you are walking funny?" I may have looked down at my shoes to see if I'd lost a heel or something. "No. Why?" I asked. Harvey replied. "It's because God is kicking you in the behind to get you to go to seminary and do this work that you are called to do."

"Speak, Lord, your servant is listening."

Who is your Eli? How do you articulate your call or calls? How are you called?

How do you nurture and clarify your call, as clergy and as a congregation? This is the work of the Spirit, perhaps the work of the church—to begin to know and understand what we really are to do, and then to do it. Frederick Buechner is often and aptly quoted,
The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've probably met requirements (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either.
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.
Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, San Francisco: Harpers, 1992, p. 185-6

We need to find ways to know or find our deep gladness, our passions, and our joys, and then find ways to hear and understand the world's deep needs and hungers. In an individual, we might ask what are your gifts, and I turn to Ephesians 4: 7-14 or Romans 12: 2-8 for a list of the gifts given to members of the body of believers. From there, in a congregation, we might use a tool called appreciative inquiry, and appreciate those gifts.
Through structured interviews the process identifies the healthiest, most life-producing aspects of a congregation and then builds upon those strengths to create a new future. … Appreciative inquiry poses questions that ask us to attend to the best of the past and present to ignite the collective imagination of what might be. The aim is to generate new knowledge that expands the "realm of the possible" and helps members of an organization envision a collectively desired future. It enables them to carry forth that vision in ways that successfully translate images of possibility or intentions into reality, and belief into practice.
From the work of David Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry Consultant's Manual, quoted in Dennis Campbell, Congregations as Learning Communities, (Alban Institute, 2000), p. 27
What are your gifts and deep gladness? Where are your strengths? How are you called? I'd be glad to hear your comments about your calling(s).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Doorways: Whose Call is it Anyway?

Praying by Mary Oliver

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
(from Thirst, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, p. 37)

It seems fitting to be writing on Saturday before Easter when historically, traditionally, candidates for baptism would keep vigil along with those who were their mentors and sponsors. Before you cross that threshold, before you go into those waters, consider well what you are doing.

As I begin to try to wrap my head, heart and arms around the findings of this directed study to write it up, I realized that really where we: I, you, clergy, congregations, denominations, must start is by considering God's call. Whose call is it anyway?

Thanks first to PB for the comment last week: "Too many churches need pastors for any one called to clergy to allow cultural denominations to compromise their calling. No matter how spiritual they profess to be, denominational hierarchies always seem to be represented by humans in the flesh, people who are sinners like you and me, people who did not initiate our calling. Why give them power they do not own? Having said this, now I will continue writing answers to questions posed by the UCC for ordination. I expect not to be stopped by age or beauty or geography. The need is great and few are called."

Indeed, why give them power they do not own? Whose call is it anyway?

Last night I was reading Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church by L. William Countryman and M.R. Ritley (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2001). They discuss the tensions that gay and lesbian Christians have in trying to live both as GLBT folks in the Christian church where they are often reviled and scorned, and as Christians in the GLBT community where many GLBT people see most Christians oppressively denying GLBT civil rights and being anti-gay (side note: despite Rick Warren's comments to the contrary this week). Gay and lesbian Christians are called to live between, on the boundary, not really in one place or another.
From the perspective of Christian faith, this awkward business of living on the boundary looks very much like vocation—a call from God. When you answer such a call, you discover the meaning of your life. God has drawn us to this difficult place in order to reveal God's grace to us and in us and through us. The boundary where we're living, however inconvenient, is a place rich in spiritual discovery—which mean, of course, that it is also largely uncharted territory. (p. 6)
This rang true for me, that I experience much of my own call and the strengthening of my call in doorways and as a doorway. It is in liminal space, that transcendent threshold space, between one thing and another, in holding paradox, that I know I am called and that I know God's presence. And I think that what they write about doesn't apply just to gay and lesbian Christians: all followers of a spiritual Way are called to live on the boundary, between secular consumerism, or whatever other idols we pursue or are tempted by, in and of the world and the sacred path of a life in and with the Spirit.

Where are our thresholds, our doorways?

Music often opens doors for me and I rediscovered the power of reading the Scriptures through singing the Psalms, and that remains true for me (see my Maundy Thursday post). Let me share some other musical doors with you. I often use the iTunes playlist as a contemplative musical medium.
Hear the call is an
iMix playlist that has songs to remind me about my own calling.

Yes…holy…God has been my Holy Week contemplative listening iMix playlist while driving.

When I rediscovered prayer it was as a doorway. John Koenig in Rediscovering New Testament Prayer (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1998) talks about our prayer opening a doorway for God to be in the world. In discussing "thy kingdom come" in the prayer that Jesus taught us (the Lord's Prayer), he writes, "We do not stand alone at the doorway to the feast but in the company with the Go-Between God. And somehow, through God's overflowing mercy, our prayer helps to bring the kingdom in, and us into the kingdom." (p. 47)

My own call comes from, and contains, a strong commitment to hospitality, which includes holding the door open and welcoming people in.
Matthew 25.34-40 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
In ministry, in my preaching, in my pastoral calls, in leading worship, in teaching, I am often aware that I am the doorway. Somehow, through me, people get a glimpse of God. Not that they can't get to God on their own—I firmly believe that we all can, but God calls and gifts some to stand by the door, to hold the door open for others. When the breath of the Spirit comes through, it sometimes feels like holding open a really heavy door in a gale force wind, and I am exhausted afterwards, but I know that I have been in that ancient intercessory role of priest, or even prophet—the vehicle through which God is known or heard. Sometimes the Spirit moves more gently, and it's not so obvious—more like opening the window a crack. That is all part of my call.

Whose call is it anyway? Who should define my call?

Here is good advice, for all of us, again, not for just gay and lesbian people, but all people on the margins, who know what is to be "other" from Gifted by Otherness, p.24
The time has come for gay and lesbian people as a community to give up the futile attempt to justify our existence in the church or in the world. We are here. We have always been here. The fact that most of the churches have lived in blissful ignorance of our presence means nothing. Our task—our ministry to ourselves and to the church—is not to justify our presence, but to tell the church who we really are by our own definitions, rather than by theirs, because we know who we are. And it is a kindness neither to them nor to us to continue pretending that they have any superior knowledge or authority on the subject.

In other words, it is time we took the high ground, and began reeducating ourselves to what the task really is. It is not for the church to admit us. The church did not call us; God did. It is not the church's gospel; it is Christ's. In asserting our right to the selfhood that God bestowed on us, we are not in fact threatening or attacking the church, the gospel, God, or Christ, but asserting the primacy of the creating God and the liberating news of Jesus Christ.

Granted, this is bound to upset the church a great deal, but the fact is that if the church is not upset, it is not doing its job. If there is not heated discussion going on in Christian communities about something, we are not following the gospel (that is, we are not allowing ourselves to be pushed beyond our comfort zone or our personal interest).
Whose call is it anyway? "The church did not call us; God did." Claiming our call, defining ourselves, living into our call, is what God desires for us, no matter if we are gay or straight, rich or poor, male or female, slave or free, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3.28).

One disappointment so far in this study has been not being able to figure out how to get inside the thinking of one or more congregations who are in the process of calling a pastor. Anyone have any hints or connections or resources about that?

When congregations call a pastor, how do they really go through the process? Or does a call come from just a few key people in a congregation? How [well] do the representatives really discern the congregation's needs and will in this matter, or does it resemble the union bargaining table I'm familiar with where the interests of the people at the table are most well represented? Those who are not at the table are occasionally consulted, but their best interests aren't always represented. I would like for the church to be different from labor negotiations, but I am also fairly pragmatic about human nature.

Whose call is it anyway? Who is opening or closing the doors in the congregation?

And, on this Easter eve, my personal question is, where is the congregation to whom I am called? How are they discerning what kind of pastor they need?

May God show us the open doors, may they be in our own hearts and minds and congregations, and may we know ourselves and claim our calls. Amen.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lament on Maundy Thursday

Last night at Easter choir rehearsal, our choir director shared a tragic story about friends of his—the wife is dying of cancer, the husband lost his job because his company wanted 80 hour weeks from him, and their nine-year old son doesn't want to talk about how mommy is going to be getting a lot sicker. They ask for prayers.

After rehearsal I stopped to talk with a fellow choir member. His wife is taking a job in another city after two years of a local job search because she's a woman of integrity and is tired of being the only person at her workplace who understands that you have to say no before you start down the slippery slope. Her husband is taking an "early" retirement package and he and their girls will stay here until school is out, and then move. They have been and will continue to be in my prayers. I'll miss them.

As I drove home last night, and again tonight as I was driving home from a particularly thought provoking Seder (we used the Freedom Seder by Rabbi Arthur Waskow), the setting of Psalm 130 by Martin Luther, translated by Catherine Winkworth, with a blues arrangement by my friend Arthur Hock, came to my mind (sorry, not published or recorded for public use). On this night in the Christian tradition, where Jesus supped with friends and then was betrayed, and as we pray for friends in these kind of tough situations, surely this is one of the Psalms of Lament that we can and must sing to the blues.

Out of the depths I cry to Thee;
Lord, hear me, I implore Thee!
Bend down Thy gracious ear to me;
I lay my sins before Thee.
If Thou rememberest each misdeed,
If each should have its rightful meed,
Who may abide Thy presence?

In the face of loss and grief, I feel called to witness, to hold the pain for a bit, to make space for lament. Tonight we sit in the garden, falling asleep, while someone cries, out of the depths of pain. God hears, God knows. Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Pastoral Listening, the Economy and Capacities for Ministry

In saying good-bye at my CPE site, I had a conversation with a staff member whose father, father-in-law and mother-in-law all had been American Baptist ministers. She said that one of the things she had always liked about being American Baptist was the ability to come together for fellowship despite differences about some issues, but she has seen that change. Her husband was the minister of music at an ABC church and they had been members there for 15 years when they called a new minister. They had asked how he would approach his first year and he said he would listen to people first.

Within a couple of months he introduced a resolution for a congregational vote that restricted any homosexual from teaching in the church. When she asked if there were any currently teaching or wanting to teach, he said no, but that the young couple running the youth group were concerned about the behavior of some of the young teenage girls who were sitting with their arms around each other and playing with each other's hair. [I have a teenager—that's what girls do in 6th and 7th grade, and in 8th grade they apparently start to pummel one another—looking for ways to have touch in a socially acceptable way, but these people didn't know that, I guess.] While this woman probably wasn't going to initiate a welcoming and affirming statement at the church, she and her husband were quite disturbed by this push to exclude and they ended up leaving the church shortly thereafter, using changes in her husband's job demands as an excuse. It wasn't clear to me if her family had looked for or found another church after that. So much for the minister's promise to listen to all of the people: 15 years of relationships tossed away by someone who wants to exclude for a case that didn't exist.

On Thursday, I had an hour and a half conversation with the manager of the American Baptist placement system. They've stopped doing research and the data in the clergy data base is suspect. So the gist of his anecdotal evidence is that if I were willing to move anywhere in the United States, I probably would get a clergy position as a woman in the ABC, even though the national placement statistic is at 7.5% for women as senior/solo pastors. If I am not able/willing to move, it's going to be tough. My first reaction: "Be not dismayed whate'er betides, God will take care of you."

I am somehow oddly unfazed by this at the moment, mostly because my research to date leads me to the same conclusion. He says that the placement system is broken because not enough ABC area and regional ministers support women in ministry, and if those gatekeepers block the way, or cave in to any one person in a congregation who says "I can't imagine a woman minister," then it's unlikely that women will be getting jobs, especially as senior or solo pastors.

This has perhaps gotten worse since the late 1980's when the denomination was making a push to get congregations to accept women. His success story from that era: the ABC region with the highest percentage of women pastors, and women pastors leading large churches is Puerto Rico at 35%. Women pastors lead two of the largest or most prestigious churches. Thirty or so years ago a Puerto Rican woman called to the ministry convinced the regional executive to give her a shot, and he gave her a little church up in the mountains. Today that church has 3,000 people. Seeing one women with success meant that at some point a regional executive (and apparently the region has been fairly authoritative in suggesting pastoral appointments—more like a typical Methodist than Baptist placement process) decided that getting women into churches was a good thing. The result has been vibrant, joyful and growing churches.

Side note: Here in Massachusetts, perhaps one or two, if any, of the Spanish-speaking ethnic congregations have women co-pastors, although several of the Brazilian congregations have women pastors or co-pastors.

He went on to say: If God is calling women, and GLBT folk, and women and men of color to ministry, and churches are not paying attention, then no wonder mainline Protestant churches are dying. God is providing leaders for these times and the church is ignoring what God is giving them.
I am reminded of this verse: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (Revelations chapters 2-3) How do churches listen to the Spirit? How do clergy articulate and maintain their call, so that churches can hear the Spirit in that call? More on this below about Capacity.

Whether or not I could live on the clergy salary that I might find if I moved anywhere is a different question. The constraints of location and economics are real for both men and women--lots of people with working spouses and partners can't move because the spouse couldn't find work where the churches are, or they have family caregiving responsibilities, and they can't live on one clergy salary. There's not a clergy shortage, there's a clergy salary shortage. Clergy are also impacted by economic labor market ills.

Last week at the library I picked up a copy of the February 27, 2009 Commonweal Magazine (Volume CXXXVI, Number 4) and a book review (p. 34-5) entitled, A Different Ponzi Scheme by Robert DeFina, caught my attention. DeFina writes: "If nothing else, our current economic crisis has exposed the financial system’s rotten core. The various claims of efficiency, dynamism, and innovation spouted by its most ardent boosters were, it turns out, simply a façade hiding unbridled greed, unethical lending, and unfathomable financial assets. … It would be remarkable if structural economic decay were limited to the financial sector alone. It turns out that it is not. The light shined by Steven Greenhouse's new book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for American Workers, reveals a labor market rife with the ill-treatment of workers, a market that conjures up Dickens and the worse excesses of the industrial revolution."

Greenhouse describes five squeezes:
wages which have stagnated for the average American worker in the last 30 years;
benefits reduced or eliminated so that workers pay for their own health care and pensions out of shrinking wages;
thus causing debt squeeze for health care, especially catastrophic health care, for housing and for higher education;
so many workers are working more hours or more jobs creating a time squeeze with less time for leisure, recuperation and family;
and finally a dignity squeeze where workers are too often treated without respect and decency in a stressful, degrading or even dangerous workplace. See this excerpt from Chapter 1.

I suspect that bivocational or part-time clergy are squeezed in these ways just as easily or often as any factory worker or any other white color worker. And then we have this other way we are squeezed—how do we maintain our call?

Since my directed study is on clergy placement and retention, I am looking at not only how people get into ministry positions, but also what it takes to stay healthy in a ministry position. I've found three important readings on becoming a pastor. One is an Alban Institute special report Becoming a Pastor: Reflections on the Transition into Ministry by James P. Wind and David J. Wood, available as a free download. This document focuses on the crucial first years in ministry and the Lily Endowment funded programs of the past decade that have tried to bridge the gap between seminary and the "real world" through congregational based community practice, peer learning and clergy mentoring programs.

A key feature of all of these programs is "reflective immersion," what we might call trial by fire or being thrown into the deep end with a buddy or coach on hand who help the new clergy person in a reflective practice on what worked and what didn't. (See the Ask the Matriarchs forum on the Rev Gal Pals Blog as one more mentoring forum.)

Lesson 1: Seek and find a clergy networking group and/or a clergy mentor who will reflect with you.

The second is Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul for Ministry by Jaco J. Hamman. Hamman outlines six capacities that you need to grow to nurture and maintain your calling as a pastor: the capacity to believe, the capacity to imagine, the capacity for concern, the capacity to be alone, the capacity to use others and to be used, and the capacity to play. A lovely blend of psychology, poetry, and theological reflection, I highly recommend this book. I'm only part way through, but can share a few good quotes:
Some theologians and religious leaders deny that our sense of being has any importance, arguing that what one believes in—the knowledge you carry about God—is the essential matter. Intellect triumphs over affect. Belief, however, needs to come 'home' to your self. And in what condition is the foundation of your inner being? p. 16
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once?

A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 27-28
One definition of imagination is having the ability to see what is not there and to know the unknown or the unuttered. Like the artist who sees a beautiful flower on her white canvas, or the sculptor who sees a mother and child in a piece of granite, you see God using you to tend God's flock, you see the Spirit of God moving between and among the members of your community, or you see the personal loss or relational pain behind the person who is criticizing your leadership. p. 41

Lesson 2: Find and use a spiritual director or a spiritual direction group. Read and go over the questions from this book with your spiritual director or group.

The third book I've just picked up is Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry by L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong. Since I am reading a book by each of several chairs, I just offer this précis from the back cover: "Resurrecting Excellence aims to rekindle and encourage among Christian leaders an unselfish ambition for the gospel that shun both competition and mediocrity and rightly focuses on the beauty, power, and excellence of living as faithful disciples of the crucified and risen Christ."

So far, I've gleaned an emphasis is on excellence as beauty. Imagine that!

Today at worship my church was treated to a lovely ballet piece by the young dancers of the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre as the proclamation and to a gorgeous rendition of movements of a Handel sonata for baroque recorder and organ as our music for reflection after Lenten confession and during communion.

Lesson 3: Look for beauty.

My prayer is that we take time, especially this week, to listen to our own hearts and reflect on our own calls, to listen to the stories and be present with those suffering in economic and other distress, and especially to listen and attend to music and art and things of beauty, as we journey this week toward and through our celebrations of redemption and resurrection.