And the Oscar goes to…

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On one of the three television screens in the elevator that I used to get from floor two to floor one (all the stairs are marked “Emergency Only”), I saw the story about the cat that can predict death.

When I looked up the story in the NE Journal of Medicine, I realized it’s a bit more than that. Oscar, the cat, is attending to people in their final hour. He’s the ultimate, purring, unanxious presence, that can hop right in the bed with the person.

I’m visiting with a couple of friends in Nashville. One, CJ Sentell, just returned from hiking in Nepal and now he’s continuing the second year of his PhD program at Vanderbilt.

His mom, Beth, is a wonderful seminary friend, who decided to jump on a plane from Shreveport so she could visit us all at the same time.

Beth has been serving small churches in North Louisiana for almost ten years. For a while there, not long after she began her pastorate, she said she felt like the Angel of Death. People were passing, one after another, and she began to know when they were going to die.

“How can you tell?”

“I don’t know…it’s just the angle that their head is on the pillow…I don’t know. I can just tell.”

Death seems to come in waves in congregations. I went through the same thing in my church in Rhode Island. Sitting with people day after day, I could start to tell when death was imminent.

I visited the Steere House a lot, where Oscar the cat lives. One of my favorite church members lived there. Georgia was a fabulous artist who had about a dozen children, and was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Actually, she wasn’t suffering at all. She was having a great time with it. People around her may have been suffering, but she didn’t notice that either. The first time I visited her, she had eight unfinished watercolor paintings scattered about her bed. She looked at them and told me wonderful stories about being an artist and living in New York City.

Every few minutes, she looked up and said, “Now, who are you?” When I explained, she would scribble the details down in a small spiral notebook. “Okay, you’re the pastor.” Then she would look at me with surprise, “I’ve never met a lady minister before. And you’re so young.”

“Yes. I am. You know, they just make pastors in all sorts shapes and sizes these days,” I’d reply, and she’d laugh and laugh. Then she would tell me how she was an artist who lived in New York City. We would spend all afternoon on this verbal treadmill, talking and talking, but never quite getting anywhere. I hated leaving.

Georgia had to move out of the Steere House. I never got the details straight as to why. But after visiting so much, I’m glad Oscar’s there.

I wonder if the cat can smell death. Or maybe all animals are like those vultures circling in the sky. Maybe most of them know when someone’s about to die, and it’s just this animal instinct that clergy learn when they’ve been at bedsides so often.

Whatever it is, I’m glad the patients have a warm body, purring next to them, showing them the way.

the photo of Oscar came from the NEJM site

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Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful

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My husband’s at an annual conference/business meeting. He’s PC(USA), but he serves an ecumenical church in the International Council of Community Churches (the I triple C). He loves this gathering, and I can’t blame him. These people walk around, hugging each other like it’s a big family reunion. The ICCC’s so cool.

I’m sneaking around with my daughter, enjoying the free hotel, and pretending like I’m not a pastor.

There are two really annoying things about the hotel:

(1) There are THREE televisions in each elevator. One has airport departure times, one has CNN, and one has an old movie. Two of them have the volume turned on. But here’s the strangest thing about it: There are only four floors in the hotel.

So, I advocated for a DVD player on a long trip with children…but I had no idea America’s addiction had gotten so bad.

(2) There’s a little girl beauty pageant here. One of the Conference rooms is bursting with a giant, pink castle/stage. Of course, I’ve read about the JonBenet Ramsey murder and I saw the Little Miss Sunshine movie, so I knew these things existed, but it’s nothing less than surreal to see these little girls in the flesh.

My daughter wanted to sign up.

I said, “Oh…oh no. No, no, no, no, no.”

“Daddy said I could.”

“Oh no, he didn’t. Nope.” (He didn’t.) I couldn’t help but ask, “Don’t you think it’s strange…a little bit…seeing those little girls with wigs and makeup?”

“I think they’re beautiful.

“They are beautiful. I’m not talking about the girls. I’m talking about the wigs and makeup.”

“Well,” she thought about it for a moment. “It was kind of weird seeing that girl with two sets of teeth.”

“Huh?”

She explained that one little girl had her two front teeth missing, and so her parents bought her dentures for the pageant. She surprised C by taking out her “teeth” in the elevator.

I groaned.

C has her two front teeth missing. And, I’m telling you, there is nothing in the whole wide world that is more wonderful than seeing that toothless grin. Nothing.

This country has gotten really strange.

In gratitude

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We are, as I suggested in my last post, mooching off friends. One of our closest friends, all the way back from junior high, married a wonderful person and moved to Black Mountain, NC. Many Presbyterians know this territory well, because it’s the home of Montreat.

On this second day of my big vacation, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. A drive from DC to NC will do that to you, from the Shenandoah to the Blue Ridge, the serene views calm the stress of driving.

These mountains are not like the ones in the west (where I’m going to later this month). They’re not made up of that naked, stark grandeur that juts out of the ground and takes your breath away. Rather, they’re fertile and rolling. Each time we would round the corner, there was another vision of a hazy valley, inviting us a little farther down the road.

It was wonderful to arrive at the home of our long-time friends. The really amazing thing about knowing people for so long is that you really get the sense of how much has changed. Being in your thirties is an amazing time. We’ve shed most of the bad habits of our past. We’re in good jobs, or we’ve left them to take care of kids. Everything has changed now that we’ve become parents. Rumi said that when a child is born, a mother is also born. She will never be the same person again.

It’s true for the moms and the dads. We’re all attachment parenting, holding our children constantly, taking them everywhere, and breastfeeding the infants on cue (which seems unfathomable for so many people, unless, of course, you’re part of the cult). Our lives are all intertwined with these wonderful children.

I can’t help but notice that I’ve changed. And I have the pastorate to thank for the evolution. I grew up as a third child, forever the “baby of the family.” My siblings were seven and nine years older than me, which meant that I never won a game, a race, or an argument for the first seventeen years of my life. I had a lot to say, but it was all sort of bottled up inside of me, and I rarely had enough confidence to actually verbalize much.

But forming sermons helped me. I began to pray a little differently, listening and discerning more. I began sorting out my own opinions and feelings about things, first relying heavily on theologians and philosophers, and figuring out which ones made the most sense. I quoted a lot, and my sermons were like lessons on what so-and-so thought about the passage a hundred years ago.

Then I began to hear my own voice within the ancient discussion. I began to think about what God might have to say to us today, and realizing that God was using me to say it. It was shaky and weak at first, but now it’s growing clearer and stronger.

The church gave me this gift, in the form of fifteen uninterrupted minutes of speech (so rare in our society) each week. The church granted me the time and space to grow into a big job. The church allowed me to stand in the pulpit, at the table, and at the font, even though I was a young woman (something that I couldn’t do in the tradition in which I grew up).

As I drive through those rolling hills, and I spend time with my grown-up friends, I cannot help but have an overflowing gratitude for what we have become, and for all that the church has given to me.

I’m leaving, on a jet plane…

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…or maybe it’s just in a Honda Civic.

I am lurching toward a Sabbath. I can tell, because there’s one tiny sparkle of energy that’s competing with the rest of my body, which wants to smother the life of that pathetic flame.

A committee member left me a lovely email last night saying that she expected me to do a bunch of work while I was on vacation. It’s assumed that I will be answering my email. But I won’t. I’m going to have one of those auto-response messages. I love those things.

Everything in me needs a rest, rest, rest.

Whenever a member of the congregation meets with the HOS and me about going into ministry, the HOS always says (very first thing), “You get four weeks of vacation and two weeks of study leave.”

I add, “And a book allowance.”

It may not be THE reason to go to seminary, but it is really nice. I’m taking it in one big chunk, for the first time. I never did that when I was a solo. Partly, because I (secretly) had that fear that it would all fall apart if I left that long (shame on me!).

So, while your waking up from your Harry Potter hangovers, I’ll be taking it on the road in the Merritt mobile. Here are four vacation suggestions:

Mooch off of friends as much as possible. I mean, who can afford four weeks in a hotel? Plus, let’s face it. Most church leaders spent their lives making friends in church, right? Now that the church is also the job, we don’t have that important source of social interaction. We have other ways of making friends, but many of us have to move often, and we’re always starting over.

So, I say mooch off your college and seminary buddies, until they’re ready to kick your sorry rear out the door. Stay more than three days, become bad fish. Most importantly, enjoy being able to talk and laugh with the people who think it’s outrageous that anyone would call you “Reverend.”

Stay away from the parishioner’s second home. It sounds great, right? A free place, on the lake, for a week? But, I tell you, it’s a trap! Don’t do it! Here’s the reason: You’ll spend most of your time wondering why their second home is ten times nicer than your only home.

Buy the freaking portable DVD player. If you have children, it’s worth the outrageous amount of money. Even if it breaks down in a month. Even if you spent your life (before children) cruelly mocking the crowd who owned the minivan/DVD combo. It’s time to swallow that pride. Because hearing Sponge Bob’s laugh for sixteen hours is just WAY better than hearing “Are we there yet?” for sixteen hours.

Read some trash. Magazines even. If you’re like me, and you find the most entertaining books are still a bit spiritual, that’s okay. As long as it’s entertaining. Like Sue Monk Kidd’s fiction or Anne Lamott (SMK is kind of chic lit. Lamott transcends genders, but what do the guys read?) I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love right now. It’s on the top of the NYT nonfiction bestseller’s list, but it’s very entertaining.

Okay. That’s it for now. Any suggestions for me as I head out? Eat, Pray, Love is not going to last long.

Are you feeling like Judy McCoy?

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John Wimberly, the HOS, sat down with me when I was on the job for about a week. I spent six years as a solo pastor, and I was just beginning my first associate position. I never imagined myself as an AP, but when I began to apply for HOS jobs, some older, wiser friends told me that I wouldn’t get them because I needed more time in a multiple-staff setting.

Plus, Western’s amazing. It really is. I felt a strong call to this church and it’s a great honor to have the position here. I’m learning a ton of important things, and it began with that first meeting.

The HOS said, “You need to find a place for all of your energy.”

I felt exhausted. I wasn’t settled from the move, there were so many things that I needed to get done. I responded, “I don’t really have any energy.”

“Not physical energy, intellectual energy,” he explained. “Now that you’re not preaching every week, you need to find someplace to put it, or you won’t last six months here. You need to find something outside of the church walls.”

He was right. I had a month of waking up on Saturdays, saying, “I’m free! No sermon to write!” I made pancakes for breakfast and went to the park with my daughter. But after about six weeks, I missed it. I was writing sermons in my head, frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to preach them.

My job’s demanding. There’s a lot to do. An awful lot. But it’s a departure from a solo position. I preach about once a month. I rarely do the weddings or funerals. Plus, we have a secretary, sexton, janitor, and security guard. I’m not multi-tasking a hundred different things.

Do I miss running off the bulletin while I shovel the snow? Well, no. But the AP job is different.

I’m a general associate. Every once in a while, I teach a class, but that’s it. I watch my wise and intelligent friends, frustrated because they feel like “cruise directors” in their AP positions, channeling people from one program to the next. I didn’t go to seminary to be a cruise director.

So, I began writing. I’m applying for a think tank (a benefit of living in DC). And, I’m looking into local Doctoral programs for the fall.

(That’s another thing I’m told I need to get for an HOS position. “People like to be able to call their pastor ‘Doctor.'” I’m not real excited about that fact. Don’t get me wrong, I love to study and I’d love to get a doctorate. It’s just that we recently sent our “last” check to Sallie Mae. Gheez. Why are pastors expected to have doctorates when we barely make enough money to pay off our MDiv’s?)

The HOS has been in his position for 25 years. It’ll be thirty when he retires. The congregation has flourished from his long tenure. They went from being a handful of tenacious people who fought off the vote to close, who couldn’t afford to pay their pastor from month to month, to becoming a vital mission in the heart of the city. The HOS even stayed after a major building project–a time when most pastors bail.

When I asked him how he did it, he said he learned to channel his intellectual energy. While serving the tiny congregation, he’s gotten a PhD and an MBA. Then the church started a breakfast program for the homeless in our basement, an art program for children in transitional housing, and poured the foundation for a health clinic in Ethiopia. He keeps actively engaged in starting new projects, and he transfers them off to able hands.

Being wise with our intellectual energy seems to be important in almost every position in the church. What sort of things have you done channel it?

Growing pains

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I spoke to a young pastor recently, someone for whom I have tremendous respect. He said that he thinks of his church of 250 members as a new church plant. His last church was a megachurch, and he expects his present neighborhood congregation to supersize in a couple of years.

I wonder if it’ll happen. I think it’s possible, but only time will tell.

My first rural church was made up of just a handful of people, and I thought of it as a new church start, with a building. But I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t. There was a rich and long history there that I couldn’t ignore. The members didn’t necessarily want to grow. I mean, they wanted more people in the pews, more money in the plate, and more hands for the jobs, but they were a tightly knit body, and each new person took some getting used to.

I study a lot of church growth materials and I’ve always served growing congregations (even that first tiny one). I notice that some materials don’t address the growing pains when a congregation expands too quickly. Everyone says they want to grow, but what happens when they do? We can start seeing some ugly stretchmarks. They are real, and powerful, and can be blamed on the pastor.

Within a body, there are strong forces at work that fight to keep growth from happening, and I’ve learned to pay attention to them and respect them. I also realize that there’s only a certain amount of development I can handle as a pastor. As a church gets larger, my role changes, and I have to get used to it gradually.

I try to keep membership growth at 10 to 12 percent. That may sound absurd. It’s not like pastors have the power over exactly how much a church can enlarge, but when I set goals for the year, I figure that percentage. I think about the number, pray about the number. I sit in the empty sanctuary and imagine what the pews would look like with 12 percent more people in them. I work toward that goal. Most years it works.

One of the major pains come with a shift of loyalties. Often, a new person will join the church because s/he likes the pastor. A friendly congregation, good music, comparable theology, nice artchitecture, and solid programs are also important, but (let’s face it) the pastor’s often the deal-maker or breaker.

The people who are already in the church may or may not like the pastor. They might have had their heart set on another candidate, or they may have really wanted the church to hire a man, or woman, or mother, or father, or a childfree person, or anyone other than the present minister. Usually, they get over it in a couple of years, but sometimes the bitterness simmers for longer.

When the people who are dying to say, “I told you so” meet up with the people who really wanted to join the church “because of the pastor.” It causes a strange mixture. It takes a lot of time to build the bridge from the existing members to the new members.

So, what have you experienced? What sort of growing pains have you felt when new people join the church? Have you read any good books on this?