Discernment in Coronatide

I never expected that I would be a stay at home mom.

I never dreamed that I would find myself isolated in a city where I know no one because a pandemic has forced us to isolate since we arrived here. I’m not even sure how to begin new friendships with the risk assessment analysis of the various choices people are making in the pandemic. It feels like a bad place to start. I don’t really know where to begin with that.

I never imagined being here now on the other side of thirty-three. It has been eight years since that birthday passed but it still feels surreal. It was that birthday that I never thought I’d live beyond because that was when she died. My mother died at that age and so I was convinced that I would meet the same fate. My eldest daughter turned three just a few weeks ago and I felt a new wave of anxiety arise. I was four when my mother was diagnosed. I only have one year left. What will I teach my children in that time? What do I hope they will remember about my life and our joy?

These are the things that aren’t to be said too loudly but these are the thoughts that are drifting in and out of my daydreams. I never thought I would be here. What does it mean to be here? What is it that I should do with this blessed time?

I decided I wasn’t going to wait anymore.

I don’t want to wait for the right time because none of us are promised that time. It might come. It might but it is not promised. We are given the opportunity to live and to live in such a way that we love this world into something better. I pray I’m doing that.

I also never could have believed that my family would be picking up and moving overseas in a pandemic but we will do just that within a few months. My husband got a super fantastic opportunity for his career in the United States Army and we will be moving our children and our lives to Germany next month.

While the pandemic has caused lots of struggle and grief, it has also provided opportunity for a stay at home mom like me. It has allowed so many of us to be at concerts, classes and involved in conversations that we couldn’t have possibly been present to if distance and cost had been what it was in the Times Before. For me, it meant that I didn’t have to wait anymore on continuing my studies in spiritual direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The three-week January term with children and my husband’s intense work hours hasn’t been possible but the pandemic made it so that I could spend an insane amount of intense time on Zoom and explore discernment as a spiritual practice.

It means that I am now taking steps toward seeking new directees in my spiritual direction practice.

Holy Threads is how I’ve described my work which feels truer than when I first imagined this thing before my first child was born. Now there is quite a tangle of possibility and opportunity in those threads that I am trying to unravel and behold in wonder and delight.

It’s a practice I want to share with others — across the ocean and through the wonders of your favorite video chatting platform and mine — in wondering where these tiny threads are leading us in God’s wonder. And so, I hope that you will think of me in referring the people in your congregation and clergy circles for spiritual direction. You can contact me here.

It is only one of the loose threads that I am discerning right now. An opportunity has arisen where I might partner with a congregation to offer both spiritual direction and occasional liturgical resources. That pastor is very creative on his own and so I would be adding to his creativity but it leaves me to wonder what might be ahead for the pandemic prayers we have shared.

I am not sure what worship looks like as more and more of our communities in the United States are vaccinated. I know that many congregations in this country are taking steps toward hybrid worship in their sanctuaries and outdoor chapels and that many of those congregations are not ready to let go of the worshipful experiences that have been shared online. I started writing these prayers to support clergy in this bizarre season of Coronatide where the prayers in our prayer books were not quite right for the moment. I did it because I love liturgy. I needed an outlet. I wanted to do something that would matter. I wanted to be one of the helpers.

I have received so many kind words even in Holy Week when pastors are so very busy with gratitude for the things that I have offered. It feels like it matters. It has given me hope to share in this practice of imagining what worship should look like now so that now I’m wondering what might come next and I don’t know yet.

I do know that with the move overseas in my very near future, I am especially interested in more collaboration. I have written these prayers while my children have napped. It’s been a solitary practice and a good one. It’s been such a joy but after a long year of isolation and more lockdown in a foreign land, I am eager to share in some creativity in imagining worship in the next year of the pandemic. I want to be in more conversation about what is important and meaningful in this moment.

I had the honor of curating prayers for two pastors sharing in a preaching series through the Epiphany season and it was so wonderful to hear their brilliance and listen to what traditions are holding fast in online worship and where innovation is possible. It was amazing to hear my words in their voice while watching their livestreams. I loved all of the tweaks that they made. I want to do more of that.

I want to do more where we are encouraging each other and daydreaming together. I don’t know if it’s possible. It might be too much but I’m daydreaming about hosting seasonal worship planning workshops over Zoom. There would be a price tag because I’m slowly learning to claim my worth. I hope that’s not a deterrent after a whole year of free resources because I starting imagining how we’d share in this practice across so many different contexts and iterations of worship. I got excited. I would love if those conversations would lead to curating particular resources that you don’t have the time or energy to create, dear pastor, but you still can’t shake this great idea you had. I’d love to make that happen for you.

I feel like we are on the cusp of something right now as the pandemic shifts into whatever this next phase will be. It’s not over. It will not be over until our children are fully vaccinated and even then I’m not sure. I’m not one of the brilliant scientists leading us into this unknown future but it feels like there is a shift. There is enough of a shift that I want to make room for my spirit to imagine new wonders. I want to collaborate with you in realizing this goodness and if that excites you too I hope you’ll take 5 minutes and fill out this shared discernment questionnaire so that we can do great things together. I believe we can. I never would have imagined myself here but there is always resurrection and I’m excited to get to work in making that hope come alive for you and me.

Stay-at-Home Clergy Mom

On Christmas Eve, my daughter raced back and forth from table to pew, pew to table and back again, to ask for more Jesus. That’s what she called it with both fistfuls full of leavened grace as her little hands signed “more” over and over again. I was so grateful to our pastor, a mother of three, for her patience and her clear understanding that there are always second and third helpings at this table.

I had presided at that table same table while pregnant with her little sister but my daughter wasn’t there to see that. She was in the nursery “doing church.”  It wasn’t until three months into the pandemic that my little girl saw me in a collar presiding over a tortilla and a chalice of water before my computer screen. It was the first time she heard me say, to her or anyone, “This is the bread of life broken for you.”  

I wonder if either of my girls will ever hear me say those words regularly in congregational worship.  

Sometimes I fear they won’t.  

I left my last settled call before they were born, before my husband and I were even married and grew into a family of four. We have packed up our home and gone where the Army sent us. He has been promoted and received awards while I have stayed home raising my sweet girls. After he retires, it will be my turn. That was always the deal.

I will search for a new call and return to ministry. I will return but I will not be the same minister that I was when I was single.

Over ten years ago, as a newly ordained woman, I heard myself tell a church member that I didn’t feel called to motherhood. Her mouth fell open in complete shock. It might not be the thing that you want to hear from the Associate Pastor responsible for all the children and youth programs. That wasn’t what she said though. She didn’t comment on my vocation but only sputtered, “But you’re so good with children.”

“Thank you,” I said. It was an inadequate response. I don’t know if I ever got the chance to explain that I didn’t feel called to the only parent. As much as I loved children, I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. If I was going to have children, I wanted a partner. I needed someone with whom to share that journey and he had not yet materialized.

Nor did I explain in coffee hour that day that only a few months before I had been grilled in a church basement by a clergy man on the Church and Ministry Committee in the United Church of Christ about how I could have possibly been a wife, a mother and a minister in a answering a call to only one of those vocations at that time.

I didn’t know then that I would one day have to choose between those options. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with a man that would have a career that would not follow mine.

My ordination vows feel dusty and buried in one of the boxes tucked into the garage that we haven’t unpacked in the past three moves. We moved in the beginning of the pandemic. We expect another move in two years and it takes nearly that long to complete a search process. So I wait and wonder when I will embody both of these identities, both mother and pastor.

I wonder how the churches that might consider me to be the next pastor will view the five or seven or eight year gap on my resume. I don’t know if they will find any value in the gifts and strengths from this precious time where I’ve focused on my family anymore than I know how different the church might look after we emerge from the other side of this pandemic.

I wonder if they will think that there is no earthly way that I could understand the challenges that face the church when I haven’t been in full time ministry all these years, however many it may end up being.

I wonder about all of the ways that I fall short of my vocational dreams while I do my damndest to be the best mom I can be to these two tiny wonders God gave me.

This post is part of the book launch blog tour for Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God. Embodied includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter, to instigate conversations that lead to support and new perspectives. The book is available this September from Bookshop.org, Amazon, or Cokesbury

To find other stories of clergy mothers, including sixteen different women from seven faith traditions, please explore the author’s blog. You can find the internet home of Lee Ann M. Pomrenke’s writings here. The particular links to this blog tour can be found in this post.

Making Things Beautiful Or What Might Otherwise Be Called Nesting

I used to paint watercolors.

I was an art major in college. I thought that making things beautiful would be my life’s ambition until the overwhelming fear that I couldn’t hack it as a full time artist set in. I didn’t want to sell myself. I wasn’t interested in marketing beauty. I just wanted to make it but I never imagined that I would stop creating. Even as ministry and the church fostered new expressions of my creativity, I thought that I would still carry my tiny watercolor set into beautiful places to sit and paint.

My watercolors are packed away in some box now. My brushes have long since been dipped into water. I’m not even sure which box I’d find my watercolors and brushes in if I dared to look. Still, the desire to make things beautiful hasn’t gone away.

I make regular visits to my local ACE hardware store to acquire quarts of semi-gloss paint. Stools, tables and chairs are constantly changing hues in my home.

It’s been that way since I moved into my very first apartment. My brother worked for Sherwin-Williams at the time and got me my first quarts of paint that turned my coffee table bright yellow and the my bedside table a brilliant schoolhouse red. Since then, that $10 coffee table acquired at a church’s rummage sale has been green and is now blue and the bedside table no longer functions as a table.

I’m not painting watercolors anymore but I’m still painting. Layers of semi-gloss paint transform the furniture around my home to something eye-catching and surprising but it’s not the kind of beautiful I once dreamed of creating. It’s not something for a gallery wall or even an object that reorients the participants through the brokenness of life to find hope.

58067592004__d0c39b7f-846f-4c58-95a8-3b6211cdf976
The IKEA bedside table between coats of paint. Oh, and the other table I painted with the surplus paint.

It’s just a set of bedside tables from IKEA in my garage waiting to be slathered in paint. I spent several days this week hunched down on the floor of my garage attempting to add coats of baby blue paint to these tables. Pregnancy made it difficult to stoop and bend to reach the corners of these tables. My back ached and my belly was constantly in the way but it may well have been pregnancy that created the urgency to finally transform my bedroom.

Nesting is what they call it. The American Pregnancy Association claims that there is an old adage that once nesting begins, labor will soon follow. (Lord, hear my prayer.) It’s an old wives tale like most of the common knowledge about pregnancy but nesting is a common experience among pregnant women. It’s the overwhelming desire to make your home ready for baby. It’s the impulse to take on projects like painting and sewing and scrolling through pages and pages of curtains on the countless websites to create the kind of place that you hope your child will love to call home.

Or if you a military family, you spend extra hours agonizing over whether or not the movers will ruin this new thing you’ve just created with their carelessness in the next move. Will it survive that move? Will it survive the move after that? Will my child even remember any of this?

I lamented once to my dear friend Caitlin that I wasn’t making art anymore. We had spent one glorious summer together in upstate New York daydreaming about our future as brilliant artists. She has since realized that dream with gallery shows and exhibits where I was simply repainting the furniture in my home. She laughed and said that she does it too. Her home is her masterpiece. It’s the work that is never finished and so she keeps on adding layers of paint and moving furniture from here to there in search of beauty.

It’s all beautiful, she told me. There is nothing more amazing than making things beautiful. It will never be perfect but that just gives us permission to keep on creating.

What I’m Up to Now

Holy threads are hard to see. They are as invisible and hidden as God. Even when we can see threads stitched through the fabric of our existence, they are often jumbled and knotted. We try to pick up those threads but we cannot untangle them from all of the rest.

The poet William Stafford observes, there is a thread. There is a thread that you follow that can be hard to see and harder still to explain. And yet, even when it feels like it might all unravel, it feels important. It feels like there is something happening and so you can’t help but wonder. I’ve felt like this for a very long time.

If you’ve been following along with my adventures in the kitchen, you know already that I’ve tried many things. I got married and ministry changed. I would no longer be a local church pastor. I’m still holding onto this hope. It hasn’t yet gone away. It is still where I hope God will lead me when we finally stop moving every three years, but until then ministry will look different. And it already has.

I had this idea about somehow ministering to the military community. I began to get some training and tried to imagine doing this thing I had no idea. I went for some more training where I was asked to assert this purpose of the thing I was doing. I couldn’t do it. My heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t an entrepreneur. Or at least, I didn’t see myself defined by the enterpreneurial model of my training. I felt more called to the local church then ever. And so, I let that idea go. From there, I found myself as an interim pastor and then as a consultant. I’ve found myself to be a writer and even been published by some small miracle. You might also know that I’m working on a book. That project is ever in the background as I try to understand my ministry in this time.

Years ago, when I was interviewing for what would become my first call, the search committee googled me. In that internet search, they found two postings to my college alumni notes. The first bubbled with enthusiasm upon finding my first job at a place that felt every bit as exciting as the art studio where I spent most of my college years. The second was more sullen and downtrodden. I was disenchanted, only one year later, with that same job and was instead applying to seminary. They wanted to know if my feelings toward their church would be as dramatic. They’d already had a rotating door of associates and they wanted every assurance of security they could get. It was, however, the wrong question. What they should have and could have asked me was how I was discerning my call at that time.

Frederick Buchner writes that the “place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I was still looking for that place and the truth of the matter is that it is never one place that God calls us.

God continues to work through our lives so that that call changes as we learn of new hungers and discover things that we never, ever thought that could make us glad. There is a holy thread of gladness that I’ve struggled to name but one that I’ve felt the power of in coffee shops and living rooms. I’ve been blessed — as a pastor —  to listen to all of those little stories that are being carried around that seem so insignificant. But, I listen. I listen and I share my gratitude for these gifts. I assure those that have entrusted these stories with me that they matter. Because they do. That holy thread has woven through the words I’ve tried to write and the interim ministry I’ve tried to do and it’s led me to this place where I am embracing the many years of spiritual direction I’ve received and stepping into the role of director.

img_1648You may have seen on Facebook that I sent a letter off in the mail to San Francisco Theological Seminary. In January, I spent the whole month in rainy California where I officially began a program in spiritual direction and began to pull all of these threads together.

I do not dare to suggest that this is the last place that God is calling me but it is where God is calling me now. There are holy threads that I hope to hold. There are stories I want to cherish. There is something about the art of listening that compels me and draws me near. It is with this hope and this faith that I share HOLY THREADS.

I stumble over the words when I am asked what I’m doing right now. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to say that I’m doing the hustle {cue music} as MaryAnn McKibben Dana suggests. (I don’t think she really says that, anyway.) But, the truth is: I am learning a new form of ministry. I am embracing this art form of spiritual direction as one of the many ways that I try to be true to my calling. It is, of course, because it is my calling that the words get jumbled. It’s hard to talk about this new thing. It’s hard to feel confident or even capable while still being a student even though I am certain that this is what I should be doing right now. If you’re curious about this new practice or might know of someone that might be looking for a directee, I hope you’ll check out my new site.

 

Called to the Local Church

This morning, while on the second retreat as part of the Beyond the Call: Entreprenuerial Ministry, I offered this testimony. It is a truth that I struggled to say out loud. It is a truth I struggled to admit to myself because I’m not the quitting type, but I am in the thick of the discernment. I’m trying to figure out the right path in this new arena of (im)possible things and what I’m finding again and again is something I already knew to be true: I am called to a local church pastor. I’ve been afraid that it is not possible. Loving my future husband has meant big changes in my career but it hasn’t removed the fundamental truth that I’m a local church pastor. Finding this courage and faith within myself, I offered this testimony this morning. In doing so, I’m clarifying my call. I’m quitting this entreprenuerial thing and recommitting myself to the ministry to which I’ve always been called.

Here is how I tried to reveal this truth this morning.

I keep going back.

I keep going back to this one moment in my first call where I was sitting in a coffee shop with a young mother of three encouraging her to believe the crazy, impossible hope that she wasn’t alone. It’s what the church is all about. I made an impassioned speech that boils down to this: this is what we do as the body of Christ. We carry that great commission straight on through to this very moment only to say, just as Christ did, “You are not alone. I am with you to the end of the age.”
She was quiet before she challenged me with this question: “Who does that for you?”

I keep going back to that story with that mother of three and her frustrating question because for the very first time in my entire professional career, I get to have church. I get to have a group of people that are ready and eager to be there for me. I get to have church because I’m in the Army now.

I’m not serving a local church. I left my second call and moved all of the way across the country to begin my new life with my future husband, the Captain in the U.S. Army, where I get to be part of a community. It’s not church — not really — but in many ways it is.

And I’m not willing to give that up. I’m not willing to give up the possibly of having that community within the military because there might be ministry to do. There’s ministry to be done. Of that, I have no doubt. There are progressive people in the military that are hungry for something — but I don’t need to be their salvation. I don’t. I don’t need to be the leader or the entrepreneur or even the first follower. Somebody else can do that work.

Because I keep coming back to that conversation with that mother of three. She hit it. I need community but there’s more than that. Something I didn’t really know until I helped out a colleague out a few weeks ago. A member of his church was dying. He’s on medial leave. He couldn’t go. I got that call — and as my fiancé told me — there was a light in me that couldn’t be put out. That light shined so brightly because I got to do what I loved most.

And what I love most is church. It’s where my passion is. It’s where my heart is. What I told that mother of three is what I most believe because I am a local church pastor.

I am called to serve the broken, bruised and beaten people that make up the body of Christ. It’s my greatest task — my very calling — to remind each and one of those people who dare to proclaim the impossible truth that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior that there is abundant life ahead. I don’t care how many people might say that the church is dying. That’s a crappy story and will only come true if we continue to say it over and over again. But, go ahead. Tell your sob story. Because what I’ve got is hope. What I’ve got is faith. What I’ve got is unending enthusiasm for something as simple and boring and radical as pastoral ministry.

I keep going back to this: I was made to be a local church pastor proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

I don’t quite know what this means. It’s interesting to me that those that heard these words assumed that I’m still in this entreprenuerial thing. It wasn’t clear that this kind of work just isn’t in me. I only know that I’m actually supposed to be rolling up my sleeves not building a new ministry, but helping existing congregations renew and revive.

It’s this work that gets me most excited. It is my passion.

That Reverberation in My Soul

A true call — that which is a true reflection of one’s vocation which Frederick Buechner so well surmised to be the “place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” — must be a call where the totality of your deep gladness reverberates.

As much as I can say this, it’s hard to know what this means. It’s a line that appeared in the letter that I sent last week to a congregation who was ready and willing to call me as their next pastor but I had to say no. I had to say no because that reverberation just wasn’t there. I didn’t feel it. I wasn’t connected to it and I really didn’t want to be taking a job just to have a job.

reflections-887648_1280Because a true call is much more than a job. I have loved each and every church that I have served but my place in ministry in those communities never expressed the totality of my call. I’m not sure there is any one place that could ever speak to that possibility. For it has never been one place or one people but so many places and so many people.

My call has always included a call to family and a call to friendship — and now, it includes still another call. Now, I find myself answering the call to be a partner in marriage. We are only just engaged but we’ve moved across the country so that there is some part of me that already feels the weight of the vows to keep my promise to him in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, as long as we both shall live. To live into both my ordination vows and the promise of this relationship means that I sometimes I have to say no.

I had to say no this time. Maybe because I’m new at this and a little too overprotective of our relationship and its success. Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing. But, this is the first time that I’ve had to make such a choice. It’s the first time I’ve had to consider how a job might impact my relationship — and I had to say no for the sake of my relationship. Because this time, it felt like I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t be the pastor I wanted to be and still be the partner that my deep gladness requires.

Saying no has sent me back to the United Church of Christ’s Ordained Minister’s Code and the Marks of Faithful and Effective Ministry for some language about how that whole call might reverberate within my soul. It has made me wonder about all of the places that I hear the echoes of call. Those places of deep gladness I find in writing, in social justice and in community. That deep gladness that surprises and delights me in answering the call to preach and teach, to share in the work of creating meaningful, lasting traditions and to listen with my whole heart to the stories that are shared with me. The Ordained Minister’s Code doesn’t want me to miss the fact that there are some commitments I need to make to my self and my family, but it’s the last line that I most need to hear. That which says: Relying on the grace of God, I will lead a life worthy of the calling to which I have been called.

There is deep hunger in the world. It’s a hunger I feel in the church I could have served, a hunger I encounter reading the news in the morning and a hunger I feel within myself each time I try to find my words with pen and paper. There are so many things to be done. There are so many things that I could do — but I can’t do it all and I don’t want to do it just to have a job. I want to do this work because it expresses every part of my call so that I’m always leading a life worthy of the calling to which I have been called. I want that reverberation deep within my soul now and always.

That Hope is Stronger

I found myself today in one of those online conversations with a bunch of other clergy. I had asked for wisdom or a prayer. Or something else entirely. I’m still not sure what I put out there into the interwebs. To that posting, I got some feedback that I needed and some that frustrated me.

I edited my reply not once but three times before I hit send to the powers on Facebook. The first version was snippy. The next edit was evasive. And the third concluded with these words that I made into an image on Canva. (Because obviously that’s what one would do when procrastinating on writing a sermon.) LET'S NOTI don’t know where the hell they came from but they speak to me. They offer a truth that I’m trying to hold onto as I consider all that’s ahead in my vocation. I have so much hope tangled up and strangled by doubts, fears and concerns. I can only hope that my hope is stronger.

Maybe you’re praying the same thing today.

For you, for me, for the whole freakin’ world, may it be so.