Thursday, June 21, 2012

Our Own Story

Last Sunday I chased my 2-year-old daughter around the church after worship.  She ran with the abandon of a toddler set free—up and down the halls, around the kitchen and fellowship hall, belly laughing while I tried to keep up with her in my heels.  People stopped me to chat or give me reservation forms—the regular church business of Sunday mornings—always understanding I had to run as soon as her blond head raced around a corner out of my sight.  We are used to this pattern.

In the middle of her freewheeling, she ran into the dim and empty sanctuary, still scented with the smoke from recently extinguished candles.  She jumped up and down the chancel stairs (I can’t believe she is big enough to go up and down stairs without holding my hand), her stuffed Minnie Mouse jingling at her side.  She then came to me and grabbed my pinky finger, her warm little hand gripping it with confidence, and led me down the quiet aisle.  She brought me behind the altar and stood next to me, her chest puffing out as she yelled 2-year-old gibberish with authority into the empty sanctuary.  I suddenly realized what she was doing and the hairs stood up on my arms.  This was a holy moment for me.

Not only did she see my place as in front of the congregation, but she placed herself there with me.  I’ve spent too many hours weeping and gnashing my teeth over my dual roles as pastor and parent.  Many days I see them as mutually exclusive, especially when I have to leave right after supper for an evening meeting and she and my son stand at the top of the stairs with tears in their eyes.  But it took her simple gesture that morning to remind me we are in this together.  My whole being—good, bad, job, play—will form my kids, and they in turn will form me.  God’s grace weaves through it all, releasing me from debilitating guilt and allowing me to see, enjoy and learn from my children.  For grace gives life and freedom.

As my lovely husband likes to say to me, “We are writing our own story.”  And we are. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Collar

I don’t wear my clergy collar very often.  I only own one plain white clergy shirt and it’s usually wrinkled (and why do clergy shirts get such a bad ring around the collar?).   I don’t like feeling set apart from the congregation.  I perceive people acting stiffly around me and—the worst—making uncomfortable jokes about how they can’t swear or drink beer around me.  It seems to get tighter the longer I wear it.  When I put it on, I feel a deep sense of the loneliness of the office. 

I don’t enjoy it.

But it’s necessary, because when I walk into a room, no one points at me (a young woman) and says, “Hey, you must be the pastor!”  I wear it at funerals and weddings and when I know I’ll be around strangers or in unfamiliar settings.  It’s logistically easier as people don’t need to run around to find the pastor.  But when I drive or make a stop at the grocery store while wearing it, I always take out the tab so no one will know.  My introverted self does not like the attention.  (My extroverted husband, on the other hand, likes to wear his to big-box home improvement stores, as he claims it gets him really fast service.)

Last week I stopped by a hospital on my way to officiate a burial, so I had my collar on.  My previous visit to the patient in that hospital frustrated me.  I felt like I was fighting the medical staff to get a moment with him.  I know it was more about me than them—it was a bad time and they needed to do their work—but that experience left me struggling to find my pastoral voice.  I decided to leave the collar on.  I had to keep myself from unconsciously slipping the tab out of the collar as I stepped out on the sidewalk.

Everyone around me quickly identified my mission.  In my collar and black suit, walking quickly toward a major hospital, I was immediately recognizable.  I felt like I was wearing a clergy sandwich board, or in some futuristic video game where everything rearranges around the protagonist.  Cars stopped for me so I could cross the street.  Front desk workers at the hospital ushered me to the elevator.  The doctors greeted me and motioned me into the patient’s room.  Granted, this was a much more critical visit than the previous one, so my presence was greatly needed.  Yet the collar really did make a difference.  Most importantly, the collar brought a sense of respect and God’s presence to a family’s heartbreaking situation.

It’s yet another reminder to me that being a pastor is who I am.  It’s not simply what I do.  My life is different whether I have the collar on or not.  Sometimes it’s lonely to be set apart.  But sometimes being set apart is exactly right.  It’s not about my need for privacy or building my ego or trying to fit into a crowd (or even getting fast service).  It’s about bringing God’s presence as efficiently as possible.  I won’t be wearing my collar every day, but sometimes God needs to work despite my own misgivings—so I’ll put it on.          

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Woman Pastor

I don't often talk about my views on women in the church.  My opinion is obvious when I stand in front of a congregation in a stole and preach a sermon.  I don't know why I tend to keep quiet about it.  Maybe it's because I'm so fortunate to be in a denomination that has been ordaining women for over 40 years.  I am privileged to follow many women who fought hard to be ordained, and I reap the benefits of their dedication.  I have known respect and honor from the congregations I've served over the past eight years, even when I was a brand new and inexperienced pastor who looked (and often felt) like a teenager in the pulpit.

Yet when I saw that Rachel Held Evans would be hosting One in Christ: A Week of Mutuality to promote conversations about egalitarianism in the church, I had to say something.  I love how she notes, "people of goodwill and sincere faith can disagree on these issues."  I agree, and I am glad to offer my perspective.

At a recent conference I attended, I sat down to have lunch with a table full of strangers.  The man across the table looked at me over our fried chicken and asked, "Do you ever wonder if the people in your congregation sit in the pews on Sundays and secretly wish you were a man?"

No, no I don't.  I was a bit taken aback by his question because, honestly, I don't get questions like that very often.  I don't think he was trying to be rude, but rather was trying to understand my perspective (and maybe just trying to make conversation with a bunch of strangers over lunch).  The relationships I have with the congregation I serve are hard-fought and earned, not only because I am a woman but because it takes time to create trust and mutual respect.  I told this man as long as I show the congregation I am competent and care about them, often other concerns fade away.  I don't want to simplify the issue, but that is my experience.  And I'm guessing the people in the pews wish I were a lot of things, not just a man.  Yet we work with one another's imperfections as forgiven children of God embracing true community.

At a different lunch at the same conference, I talked with some women.  One asked me what I do.  I remember telling her I am the pastor of a church in Minnesota.  Later in the conversation, she asked me how I like doing associate ministry.  I reminded her I am not an associate but a solo pastor.  She became defensive and said, "Well, the way you initially phrased it, I just assumed you were an associate."  I think associate positions are essential and difficult and wonderfully specialized.  What bothers me is her assumption that, because I am a young woman, I naturally belong in an associate position rather than on my own.

As long as I am in ministry, I will deal with questions and comments about my gender.  I could go into my theological and Scriptural views on the worth and dignity of all people, which have informed me and my decision to pursue ordained ministry as a career.  But when I think about the role of women in the church, I am simply overwhelmed with gratefulness.  I am so thankful I grew up seeing a strong woman stand and preach in the pulpit of my home congregation.  Because of her and the congregation's willingness to call a woman, ministry was always an option for me.  I am so terribly relieved I can fulfill my sense of call to serve the church.  I was thrilled to see a woman recently elected bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA--not because she is a woman, but because she is qualified.

I know there are still many places in the larger church where women struggle to find respect, and I stand with those women.  Yet in my own denomination I worry about the balance of gender as the face of leadership changes.  I am concerned as the church becomes more and more feminized, we will need to work hard to define new and different roles for men.  How will we engage men--and boys--in this new type of church?  This question haunts me as I think about our future together.