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.

1 comment:

  1. Nancy, the Covenant denomination is the most recent denomination to which Susan and I belonged. I started taking their classes to become ordained. I also had a spiritual director from the denomination. The spiritual director seemed to constantly bring up the likelihood that if I were to be ordained in the Covenant Church I should be prepared to move to anywhere USA. I felt my calling was not to anywhere USA but to New England. Later she, the spiritual director, told me that many churches in the Covenant would think me too old. Ultimately, I couldn't see the Covenant as great enough to be willing to go begging entry anywhere in the USA all in the name of asking them to excuse my advanced age. I was then in my mid to late fifties. 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, denominatioal 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.