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Archive for November, 2007

Transformer Barbie

Barbie meets the 21st Century! Remember “Growing Up Skipper”? Well look at her now! It’s like Barbie as a Borg. Thanks to consumerist.com for the photo. See it on the Just for Fun page.

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Finding Thanks to Give

Being clergy in a small town is, so far, a lonely experience. Granted, I take responsibility for my part in that. I could be doing more to make friends. However, I was hoping to find some friendship among the folks my age and that is not easy to find. I really do think, in part, that the amount of gray hair I’m sporting makes people my age think I’m older. That and being a pastor seems to make people think you’re either older than you really are or you’re just so different you couldn’t possibly have the same interests. All clergy are exclusively interested in reading the Bible, praying and visiting the sick at all times, right? Couldn’t possibly share the same struggles or worries that other people have, right? Being so close to God and holy, everything works divinely, right?

Sometimes it is fun to tell people what I do for a living, just to see what kind of a reaction I get. It’s especially interesting to talk about it in an area where there is a large population of people who don’t believe a woman could be called by God to pastor let alone preach. And other times, it’s just plain sad. I know other clergy who tell people they are in not-for-profit administration. Nice, generic work. Yet wouldn’t it be nice to be able to invite someone to visit my church without them thinking they are being judged or heavily evangelized. I’m not saying we shouldn’t evangelize, but it would be nice for people to hear that I really am welcoming them to a very personal place for me and have it be a non-threatening invitation.

So this week is Thanksgiving and I’m trying to widen my daily practice of giving thanks for small things in my life. I am thankful that we do have a nice home in a good, safe neighborhood. I’m thankful that I was able to pay the bills this month. I’m thankful that I have an income with which to pay bills. I’m thankful that my husband has found his dream job. I’m thankful for my children. I’m thankful for my health. I’m thankful that someone prayed with me yesterday. I’m thankful that I live close enough to a city that I can go there once a week. I’m thankful for clear nights when I can see the Milky Way. I’m thankful that JM is sleeping better and so am I. I’m thankful for knitting and my group of knitters. I’m thankful that my mom didn’t have a heart attack last week when she was having chest pains. I’m grateful that my brother received his birthday present and seemed happy with it. I’m thankful my cat has recovered and is very happy in his new home¬† with my best friend.

With all of things I give thanks for, why do I still feel unhappy and ungrateful?

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There and back again

Home and back again. Eight years ago I never would have thought that I would become so tied to Indiana. And now that I’ve moved away, it feels like I’ve left home. The boys and I went back for an overnight this past weekend. RB got to spend the night with his best friend Ben, and JM got to spend the day with me shopping and visiting. Driving through our old neighborhood, it seemed that our car still knew all our paths and could navigate them without effort. We drove by the church, the schools, the shops and restaurants we used to frequent. We noted things have already changed dramatically. There are now four story condos across the street from the church! When we left they were just beginning the foundations. Other buildings have been cleared. Several new roundabouts are in place. Roads have been repaved. Businesses have closed or moved. Life goes on in spite of our absence.

I couldn’t help but feel conflicted as we made our way around. On the one hand it felt good to be back “home”, but on the other each familiarity brought with it the feeling that my heart was being ripped out. When we left in June, it was hard, but now that things are settling down into the new routine I am catching my breath and finding I’m trying to hold on to something that is out of my hands. As clergy we are told that it is wrong, unhealthy, conflictual, meddlesome, undermining and unethical to keep contact with a former parish. A regional minister told a clergy gathering that if you (clergy) feel a need to keep contacting former parishioners then you need help with your grief issues. This implies that one should be able to pick up and leave, essentially abandon, the people who have become friends. It seems to me, that we should be teaching clergy how to be friends after they leave and how to set appropriate boundaries. One of my former parishioners said of a former priest “How ridiculous! Why shouldn’t we maintain contact with (our retired priest or former associate)? It’s not like he died.”

It has occurred to me that teaching people how to maintain a positive relationship with appropriate boundaries is something we should be modeling and teaching. This skill is one that is lacking in many people and would go a long way in serving the families and friends of divorce. Serving a church is much like a marriage. It’s almost trite to say that, but it seems to me the most useful metaphor. You come to this new family and are welcomed in (some more warmly than others!) but you have to figure out how to work together, how to agree on a budget and the ways of doing different things to maintain and cultivate the household. The main difference is that the relationship starts out with the knowledge that divorce is inevitable. Rarely do pastors stay for more than a few years. Still, especially when you are a young pastor, you share significant life events with your parish. A parish may see you marry, have children, experience milestones with your own family and perhaps also walk alongside you during a health crisis or a great loss. Abandoning that relationship without looking back creates an unhealthy dynamic that facilitates hampered bonding with the new call.

In cases where a pastor leaves on good terms with a congregation, it seems appropriate even to invite a representative from the previous parish to participate in the celebration of new ministry. By doing that we connect churches to each other in a way that connects the Body of Christ and fosters awareness of the wider church. It creates the sense of continuity and perpetuates the recognition that life goes on, even in another place and time. Though we are parted, we are still grateful for the time we have had together and offer our blessings for each other’s future.

Now before I sound unbounded, I want to say a word about boundaries. I do think it is inappropriate to talk church with former parishioners, especially as it pertains to evaluating the work of the new pastor. I also think it is inappropriate for a former pastor to show up at events of the former church with great frequency. Invitations to participate in milestone events are one thing; but to attend the average church supper or annual event as if one is still there does hurt the new pastor. I also think it may not be as sticky for one who served in a junior position (not as the senior minister). The parish may not have the same view of the person who wasn’t the primary officiant of the sacraments.

So, I am working to maintain appropriate boundaries with the people I knew back in Indiana. And I’m mindful of the difficulties I’m having being in a new place. I wasn’t ready to leave and come to a new place. I’m still looking for a good buddy to plan and scheme with. I’m trying to deal with the anger, frustration and sense of not being told the full truth about the situation I was coming to; not to mention the feeling that my compensation reflects a disrespect or lack of appreciation for my experience and ability. I am trying to see this opportunity as a gift rather than a trap or God’s cruel joke. By Episcopal standards I was under compensated in my former call, however it was a more realistic compensation and about where I would expect to be at this stage in my career. I didn’t try to set myself up for a huge raise when I came to this position. Most people do try to build in an increase or expect to be compensated at a higher level when doing the same job, and especially when the new position has far more responsibility and higher expectations than the previous. At the end of the day, is it enough to be thankful that I even have a job? If there had been no opportunities at all here for me, I’m not sure we would have made the move. God help me be happy here.

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I’m caught in the realization that serving in the Episcopal Church has changed me. And likely changed me much more than I changed it. It has been a difficult adjustment in so many ways. First and foremost, at a time when I most needed to have a stable support system I had to move away from the one I had spent 8 years finding and cultivating. In all that was transpiring this spring and summer, I didn’t have the time or full conscience to understand the scope of the loss until recently. Truly, I would not recommend for anyone to have a major medical crisis and move to a new state all in the same 90 days. Sure, I knew for months that I would be having surgery. And I knew for months that I would be moving. But I am one of those people who don’t process much of that until after the fact. This is an attribute in times of crisis, as it allows me to respond to the need at hand, but after it’s all over you’ll find me quivering in the corner like a bowl of jell-o.

So part of what I’m missing here is that life that seemed a bit more stable and settled over a year ago. The one in which I had grown to appreciate the many amenities of the community I was living in and the good people I was priviledged to serve. The good thing about making a prolonged exit from my previous call was that a number of people took the time to thank me for the difference I had made in the church and in my social circle. Those comments, and the people who made them, help to pick me up when I start to get down in the dumps. Though it is hard sometimes to remember that and to not think of it as a lifetime ago having no current application. If nothing else, it should be a reminder that I am capable at something and those things I accomplished back there didn’t happen over night, but rather over a period of YEARS; a note which is terribly important to remind myself of here in the now. Yes, people here have a great many expectations, but so did people back there. And anything worth doing is worth doing well and that means to me that I shouldn’t go blowing ideas out like a cannon and expecting them to be received, embraced and expanded to great success. A good friend reminded me recently that I do have a deep streak of Zen Buddhism in me, and because of that I truly have come to appreciate the thought that giving the single task at hand your undivided attention means you are fully present in the moment and tends to result in the thing being well done, and possibly more successfully. As one who also suffers from distraction or the temptation to do big things on little time, it is all the more important to set about planning things from the imagined success back to the inception so that the road is clear and so are the expectations of those involved.

Case in point: I was educated in seminary to come into a new setting, get acquainted with the people and the local customs, assess the situation and then go about making appropriate and desirable changes. The time (12 – 18 months) of observation and settling in provides for building relationship and trust as well as an understanding and appreciation for who the new community is. My professor would say “you’ve gotta have change to make change.” You’ve got to become invested in the local “bank” before you can make a withdrawal from that bank that amounts to buying into a new program or way of doing things. I had been told this church was ready to start a workshop rotation model Sunday School program, and indeed that is true for some people involved. But I learned (by stepping my foot in it) that not everyone is ready and that in fact the questions that would determine the next move and the readiness for change have not been asked of all the invested players.

There is a point at which one must recognize how much change is enough change for now. Bringing a new Associate Minister on staff in a church that hasn’t had one for 5 years is a huge change for everyone. Trying to change a large number of things at once is ill-advised in the least! So how about small changes, one at a time. Any single thing that is new amounts to a change. One single change can be as big or bigger than many seemingly small changes. So for now I continue to try to live into new patterns: new community, new house, new neighborhood, new church, new worship liturgy, new job, new boss, new colleagues, new schools, new daycare, new shops, new shopping patterns; no wonder I feel overwhelmed! No wonder I long for the old familiar.

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1. Communion every week.

2. Ecumenical heart.

3. Diversity and tolerance.

4. Passion for social justice.

5. A Reformation church that doesn’t know it is.

6. Freedom of expression in worship.

7. Believer’s baptism.

8. Elders.

9. Long history of ordaining women.

10. General Assemblies open to all.

11. Youth involvement in the church.

12. Church camp.

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1. Traditional, liturgical worship done really well.

2. Receiving communion at the rail (on the days I wasn’t serving communion).

3. Serving communion to people who shared eye contact in a holy moment.

4. Saints! An appreciation of holy lives well lived.

5. The liturgical year in color.

6. Altar Guild

7.  Prayer

8. A deep theological understanding and appreciation of worship (at least among clergy!).

9. Denominational structures that require more of its clergy.

10. Respect for the church building as a holy place that should be reverently maintained and kept in good repair.

11. Vestries with a small number elected as representatives of the church.

12. Fun and creative parish events to raise money, and actually do both.

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Denominational Dismay

I picked up my denominational magazine this morning and read of further dis-ease in the denomination’s national offices. A good friend and competent individual had been terminated a few months earlier; the news article shed light on the circumstances. Another whistle-blower pushed out of office for expressing concern over the actions of a superior officer. Many of us had long believed the superior was not the best choice for the job, but it wasn’t our decision to hire that individual, nor our place to comment on it. It’s another case of “any person who has the skills to do this job well would have the good sense not to apply for it.” I don’t hate the unit president, but I do still grieve over the way this person handled my husband’s dismissal (due to budget cuts). And when employee morale continues to be low, and even decreasing, for better than 7 years isn’t it about time someone did something to improve it?

So what is to be done? About the state of the church and her people? What can be done to improve the lives and ministry of individuals who once had a boundless joy and energy in serving the Lord? And what of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who serve an institution that seems to have more dis-ease than ease? Our national structures are full of good people, and in some cases they are led by great people. So how are we, as a denomination, to bring about a revival of our national ministry offices? Yes, a revival is what we need! Imagine what could happen if every one who works in our national headquarters and regional offices were brought to a big tent or arena where prayer, praise and preaching brought down the Holy Spirit on each and every one in a powerful service of healing and renewal. But it couldn’t stop there. It must be passed on to our congregations, too!

Something must also happen to the building in which the national offices are housed. A major remodeling. No more would the elevator door open on each floor to a solid wall or closed door. No longer would one feel as if they were coming into an IRS office or an institution. What if each of our denominational units functioned as missions? Smaller bodies dependent on each other and the whole. These dependencies already exist, but the physical structures of the building and the structures of oversight have created walls and lines of demarcation that hinder rather than enhance our ministries. And what about prayer and study of the Word? Shouldn’t we expect our denominational leaders and unit employees to be living with an attachment to the word? Why should it be wrong or unrealistic to expect every person who works in that building for the denomination to take the first 15 -20 minutes of EACH day meditating on God’s word? If one works for a CHURCH there should be the expectation that one has a relationship with Jesus Christ. If it makes you uncomfortable, don’t work for a church.

Furthermore, knowing that there is not one single space in the entire building that could reasonably and safely accommodate the entire staff during this time, then why not assign groups made up of employees from each of the units and mixed as to job responsibility so that presidents pray and study with mail deliverers and secretaries as well as program staff. Why not bring people together to care about each other as well as their work? Relationships such as these could bring a new level of creativity and life to our beloved denomination. Oh but wouldn’t I love to call the national offices and have a pre-recorded greeting tell me “Thank you for calling, we are currently engaged in building-wide Bible study and prayer. Your call is important to us, please leave a message and we will respond as soon as possible. Thank you and have a blessed day!”

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