How We Write Clergy

I am a character in a book.

I learned of this news from a Facebook message. A member of the community had written a book and he wanted to know if it was alright to name the church in the book. That wasn’t my call anymore. I was no longer the pastor there, except that I was in the book.

While I was still in ministry in that place, I had had coffee with Ned Hayes many times. He was someone who came to worship on occasion. It was always clear to me that he was seeking something. He was incredibly well read. He’d read all kinds of theology and had even gone to seminary but there was still something he was looking for. I did not know in the middle of writing another book and that I would end up being a character. Of course, I said yes. By all means, print it. Publish it! I can’t wait to read how those cups of coffee and mornings in church translate into a character like Pastor Ilsa.

See what he did there? He changed the name by one letter. No doubt he was trying to avoid the connection to Disney’s Frozen that I cannot quite escape. Smart move. I borrowed a copy from my goddaughter and started to read at the pool.

14045951_1068662506550170_8991399356609680619_n.jpgEagle Tree is the story of a boy growing up in Olympia. He is a boy that is somewhere on the spectrum of autism and it is his voice that leads the reader through the journey of saving this tree in the LBA Woods. When I lived in Olympia, there were signs all over town to save this particular park. This is the fictional story of how that park is saved from the hands of developers by this boy named March who sometimes goes to church at the United Churches of Olympia. Church is a confusing place for March. It is a place where the pastor tells strange stories that are true, but not factually true.

This is how Pastor Ilsa is introduced. His mother drags him to church and March offers this narration:

Ilsa says she likes to talk about God because she cannot entirely understand God, but that is not how I feel at all. I need to understand things all the way down to the root.

Though Ned denies it, this could have been a note he jotted down while we were having coffee. This is totally something I would say. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I did say something exactly like this. There are, however, other things that don’t line up about me. It is fiction, after all. Pastor Ilsa is married to a professor at the local college by the name of Pierre. His name sounds equally exotic to my husband’s name but their careers are totally different. Ilsa was also a botanist before she came into ministry. There was some kind of accident that shifted her focus. Again, this is not me but makes for a good character. Most surprising to me: Ilsa is old. He husband has grey in his beard. This is not a young pastor. For this, I am admittedly sad. Clergy are so often imagined to be sage and wise because of their many years. It somehow makes them approachable.

I’m not complaining. Not exactly. I’m just interested in how we write clergy. I’m interested in how clergy are portrayed in the media. Consider AMC’s Preacher for example. This is nothing like the pastor that Ned Hayes writes.

Ned portrays someone far less of a bad ass, though she is a police chaplain which I thought was pretty cool. Maybe because Ned isn’t worried about ratings or sensationalism that television seems to require or maybe because he sees that there is something that good that does happen in church. And he thinks that clergy are a part of that. The pastor he writes is approachable and caring. She has an incredible bond with March. She is able to get on his level and welcome him as a full child of God. I can only pray that I do this every day in my ministry, then and now. It is really what I hope not just for clergy but for all Christians.

Ultimately, this is not a book about Christians or even clergy. It’s a book about connections. It’s a book about how we relate to each other and how we relate to the world around us. No matter what separates and divides, we can come together to do good. We can change the world around us. We can make a difference. I am not in the least bit surprised that this is Ned’s heart or that he still sometimes worships with this brave group of people in Olympia that shares the same hope.

Until Sunday

Last month, when this video appeared on Facebook, I was amused.

I laughed out loud but it didn’t feel like my story. Not anymore. There was a time in my ministry when I heard these comments said every single day. There was a time when I felt like I needed to fight for the rights of women to lead in the church with every good bit of exegesis that I could muster from Paul’s would-be mandate that women should be silent. But, it hasn’t felt like my fight anymore. That is, until Sunday.

I had heard that this little church had had some hesitancy about hiring a female pastor. It was said in passing once or twice before. Even if it hadn’t been voiced, I could see in their history. They had been blessed by countless women who have preached and presided in the years since their beloved pastor died but they had never, ever hired a woman to lead them. Until Sunday, I hadn’t thought much of this. There could be a thousand reasons of this. After all, in the United Church of Christ, according to the 2015 statistical report47.9% of all active, non-retired authorized ministers are female. 

Until Sunday, I wasn’t especially worried about the majority of men holding that 52.1%. It was on Sunday that I heard both the fear and the welcome of women in ministry. It wasn’t the focus of the conversation. But, somewhere in the middle of discussing John Dorhaurer’s Beyond Resistance, we got onto inclusive language. That was when the dear 90 year old woman seated beside me told me that she didn’t think that women should ever lead. She didn’t think that women should be pastor and she didn’t think that a woman should be president. It was then that I heard every hesitation about women in leadership that had bubbled under the surface.

So, I asked this dear 90 year old woman why she felt this way and she struggled for an answer. She told me that that was how it had always been and she didn’t understand why it needed to change. Even so, she saw that it was changing. Everything around her is changing so much so that she kept repeating the question, “Why can’t I change?”

On the third or fourth repetition of this question, the conversation within that small group turned to my leadership. It wasn’t about women’s leadership but what I brought to this group of people. I get up each Sunday to preach but I do not like being the center of attention. I hid under my book as they started listing off my strengths. I didn’t want this to be all about me but I heard every word.

 

They were ready to not like me. They were ready to reject me on the fact that I was a woman. And yet, there is something different about the way that I lead. They’ve noticed that only in these few months that I have been their interim pastor. I preach differently. I ask more questions. I want to know what they think. I don’t assume that I have all of the answers.

When that dear old lady asked again, “Why can’t I change?” I told her she didn’t have to because it is enough that she loves me. There is some truth in that but it is not enough to love only those that you can see. It is not enough to celebrate the strengths of those that God puts in your way. Until Sunday, I did not realize how comfortable I had become with my own privilege.

In that same 2015 statistical report, it states that over half of co-pastors (51.5%) and interim / supply pastors (53.4%) were female, and over two-thirds (70.3%) were associate / assistant pastors. Next year, I will be counted in this percentage. I am so grateful to have meaningful work but that is not true for every woman. There are women that can’t bust through the stained glass ceiling because the local church refuses to celebrate the strengths of women in ministry or the gifts of people of color or the gifts of LGBT pastors.

In his book, the same one that was supposed to be the focus of our conversation that Sunday, John Dorhauer makes the point that autonomy is what will kill us. Autonomy is what allows every congregation to dismiss women’s leadership. There is no hierarchy to insist that God might be up to something. There is no one to hint at the strength of women because the “basic unit of the life and organization” in the United Church of Christ is the local church. Nothing in the denomination’s Constitution and the Bylaws “shall destroy or limit the right of each Local Church to continue to operate in the way customary to” the local church. Until Sunday, I had ignored that this is still my fight. It’s still my struggle. It’s still my task to push through the stained glass ceiling (and every other ceiling) by reminding myself and everyone else that yes, yes, you really do need to change.

Lessons from the Past

After worship was over, in the middle of the Annual Meeting of this tiny church I’m serving as interim pastor, we shared in the work of memory. Earlier that week, I had taped a blue line upon the wall of the church hall with my trusty painter’s tape and chartered those significant events that I could cull from the archives and records.

There was a fire many, many years ago so that some records have been turned into ash but there are gaps in the present too. There are dates overlap from annual reports that don’t seem to have all of the information that we might hope to find but I was able to find when the women’s group started and when most recent bylaws were approved.

Inspired by Roy Oswald’s Discerning Your Congregation’s Future, we shared in what he calls an Evening of Historical Reflection but it was daytime for us and we attempted to do too much too fast. I knew that there was a risk of this. I grimaced a bit inside when the Consistory offered that this would be the best time because there would be so many more people present and engaged, but it was too much. It really should have happened on its own.

This church has had a particularly challenging recent history. I came to be their interim pastor after an abrupt departure of their previous pastor. This is a guy who had come from faraway to be their pastor after their beloved pastor died during Holy Week not too many years before. Theirs is a familiar story of a new pastor not measuring up to the old pastor. Maybe there were other factors that contributed to the abrupt ending of the relationship between this pastor and church. It was one of the things that I had hoped to become clear in this act of memory.

As Oswald suggests, we worked backwards in time. We started with the present and attempted to work through each pastorate which meant that we started with me. So, I asked: what has happened since this relationship began? The responses were all about how it feels now. There were no particular events offered as they would struggle to do moving backward in time but it was mostly about feelings. There is more energy. There is a sense of togetherness. There has been healing. All good things but are these the type of things that we would record in the records of the church history? I don’t know. Then, it was time to talk about that previous relationship with that former pastor. Again, there were more feelings. So many feelings that it was hard to name the events that we might want to name as points of historical significance.

We moved on to talk about another interim and the beloved pastor and everything that was said was about how wonderful these men were. Of this, I have no doubt. They sound like amazing men who loved these people with such depth and power. It’s hard to argue with that. But, I do want to argue. I want to argue because the role of clergy is changing. With the increasing distrust of institutions, there are big questions about the role of professional ministry being raised. Clergy have gotten more and more professional but churches have been less and less able to afford their services (and their student loan debt). Questions have been raised about not paying clergy while others wonder if bivocational ministry should be the new normal. And yet, it is not just financial realities that are changing how clergy function.

Clergy were long ago seen as the theologian in residence and the only one that could offer pastoral care but that seems to be changing as much as how clergy lead. So, I want to argue with these good people about why and how clergy matter. (To be clear, this is my vocation. I loved what I do. I hope there are churches that want to pay me a salary with benefits and a pension in the future. I am called to this as I know that there are other clergy that are just as called to this work as I am.) But, should every church bear that financial burden of paying a clergy person? Should each individual congregation assume that the only measure of success is having their very own pastor?

I look back into the history of this church to see that they shared a pastor with the other United Church of Christ just a mile down the road. They decided in 1931 to dissolve that relationship but the history observes that the congregation always struggled with membership and finances. Would the best option for their future be to reignite that relationship? Are there other possibilities of partnership with the several other United Church of Christ congregations in the area? Is there only one mode of success? Does success only come with calling a new pastor? What might the past teach us?