In the midst of the election season, I was asked if I would write a blog post supporting Barack Obama. I had to think about it for a few days. I believe in the separation of church and state, and I would never support one candidate from the pulpit.

But, it was a moment in the election when Sarah Palin had been picked and the Republicans were all energized, which was great. Except then I would turn on the television and listen to “Drill, Baby, Drill!”

After a couple of years living in “cancer alley” in Louisiana, I learned what drilling and processing could do to the environment and people’s health. I could just imagine the earth under the feet of those crowds crying out with a muffled, “Help me. Please.”

You know, there are not that many people qualified to do these jobs, and John McCain had, like, a hundred years of political favors to pay back. Even though I realize McCain stood up to his party, I also knew that he would inevitably be stuck hiring the same advisors who have driven our country into this big, scary ditch. Or, he could find some more beauty queens to hire. Either way, it wasn’t looking good.

I figured that I needed to do what I could, and if that meant writing a blog post, as a private citizen, then I would. So, I did.

Go ahead. You can pick that decision apart.

There is a lot to say about whether pastors should publicly support one candidate. Typically, I would not, because I would not want Christianity tied to one political party, or one candidate. We’ve had an awful lot of that in recent decades. Unlike many of my colleagues (whom I respect deeply), I am not middle-of-the-road. I’m not a moderate. I do not refuse labels. My views are not that complicated, although they are also not the same as whatever the Democrats are cookin’ up in their kitchen at this moment.

I am progressive. I want to see social justice happen in our country. I want people to be fed and sheltered. Men and women, who go to work for forty hours a week, should make a living wage. We have enough resources in our country to ensure that everyone has health care. Children should have equal opportunities, equal education. We should protect the environment. I could go on… but you get the picture, and I’ve spent enough time digressing.

The point of the post was actually not about pastors picking presidents. The point was more about presidents picking pastors. I know we’ve all read more about Rick Warren than we ever wanted to, so I won’t rehearse his views on same gender relationships again. But, the selection of who will lead the Inaugural Invocation and the fury that ensued made me realize what a strange moment in history this is.

Billy Graham, the man who was the “pastor to the presidents,” and, therefore, (some people thought) pastor to the country, is in his nineties. He’s probably not able to swim in the White House pool anymore. He needs to be replaced.

I wonder if Barack Obama realized that he was picking Billy Graham’s successor. I wonder if he should.

Maybe it’s time to go to a new model. I mean, maybe we don’t need a one-size-fits-all-presidents pastor. Maybe half of the presidents didn’t even like Billy Graham, and they just felt obligated to invite him to pray for this or that because it was the custom.

Some people say that Obama has a pastor problem, but shouldn’t presidents be able to go to whomever they want for prayer and spiritual guidance? Why should we assume that it will be the same person for the next fifty years? Can you imagine the pastor for that job? I mean, it’s hard enough to keep a small congregation happy with you, how could you keep a large country happy with you? And what about the strange positions that the pastor might be put in? Anyone remember Philip Wogaman (the man who wrote my ethics textbook) defending Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities on CNN? Can you say, “Awkward”? Would it even be possible for a president to have a pastor nowadays without the blogosphere getting all in an uproar? 

What do you think?

The photo is of the Billy Graham Library by Carolina Tim. From what I’ve read, I think the barn has an  animatronic milk cow, named “Bessie,” that will lead you in the prayer of salvation. Anyone been there? Is it true?


Merry Christmas


I should post more later… but for now, I need to finish my sermon.

I do want to wish you all a wonderful Christmas. Peace be with you.

Family business

I asked some pastor friends, “Looking back on your career, what would you do different?”

And one answered, “I would have never been a pastor. If I knew what kind of toll the pastorate was going to have on my sons, I would have never gotten into the job.”

“Really? Then, what would you have become?”

“Anything. A secretary in a law firm. Anything other than this, really.”

It was shocking to hear. I had a sinking feeling that made me want to run home and hug my daughter. Because my husband is also a pastor, we have to be vigilant about not letting it completely consume our lives. It’s easy to go from doing something that we love doing, to letting that something grow like a cancer, until there is nothing left of our lives.

There are certain things that we can’t avoid. We have to work evenings and on weekends. And on most holidays, we have to ratchet the hours up even more. We all have cell phones and email, so that we’re on-call a lot. (But, lest I sound too pathetic–we have perks too. I take my daughter to work a lot, and everyone is happy to see her. And we have vacations. Four weeks of holiday that I have learned to relish with great intensity.)

The message of how a parent’s work can destroy a life was certainly one that stuck with me when I read Crazy for God. It’s an interesting memoir, filled with the antics of a missionary kid, who had a fantastic childhood, in many ways. 

But, there are the strange, painful realities too. Francis Schaeffer, who was known as the intellectual evangelical, who was educating the world about art and literature, was letting his young son, Frank, flounder without basic schooling.

Edith Schaeffer, who was an extraordinary hostess, setting out fine china every night, and treating every person as if he or she was royalty, welcoming anyone in their home, was also crowding out her introverted son.

As Francis and Edith allowed themselves to become martyrs for their work, they could not be there for the person who depended on them the most, who needed for them to be very much alive.

The memoir wasn’t sad. It was an interesting, inside perspective of a far-from-perfect famous Christian family. A third-culture kid (as many missionary children are called) who never felt at home in Switzerland or the U.S.

As with most dysfunctional families, there is always a scapegoat, someone who calls attention to the unhealthy system and is subsequently discredited. We’ve seen them. It’s the rebellious teenager, who seems to be sole source of the otherwise flawless family’s problems. Until you spend about five minutes with the family together and realize that he’s probably the healthiest one.

Frank Schaeffer plays that role perfectly.

Although the memoir wasn’t sad, subsequently, reading some of the reviews has been heartbreaking. It seems that Frank Schaeffer has destroyed the life work of his parents. How? By telling his perspective. By choosing a different path. By allowing himself to have his own voice.

Frank Schaeffer is in his fifties, sorting out his complicated family history, as we all must. And yet, I think the most dismal part of this story is what was not written. It’s that there is still no space for him, for his feelings, and for his voice. His parents’ ministry led to a neglect that shattered his life in very basic ways. And, as a writer, in order for Frank to put his own self back together, he will have to continue to tell his sordid story, with all the truth he can muster, even if it destroys our glossy image of what his family ought to have been.  

The tragedy of this tale is in the fact that even though his dad is dead and his mother is in her nineties, it seems he still can’t have his own room.

Culture war weary

As most of us know, Barack Obama asked Rick Warren to open at the Inauguration, and there has been a bit of frustration sparking around the Internet around the choice.

Why is it? After all, Obama also invited Rev. Joseph Lowery, a great Civil Rights leader, to close in prayer, showing a balance in judgment and religious convictions.

Warren is an affable guy, who has sold a gazillion books. He has a rigid stance against abortion and same-sex unions, but he has been willing to invite Obama to Saddleback (Warren’s mega-church), and sit at the table with Obama, even with many evangelicals wanted Obama to leave.

Warren refuses to publicly endorse any candidate [12/19 edit. I was wrong. He endorsed W in 2004], which is a switch from so many religious leaders who once handed out “voting guides” to their congregants. Although Warren strongly holds to the social positions of the Religion Right, he has also pushed them to be compassionate on other issues, like AIDS.

On one hand, this move shows that Obama is willing to reach out. He’s been smart with how he extends his hand to evangelicals, realizing that they are a strong force, but also not willing to bow to their staunch convictions. He has not flinched at talking about his Christianity, and been able to capture the votes of a new generation of evangelicals. And, Warren helped him do it, so it makes sense that Obama extends the invitation.

So why is this move so distasteful to so many religious leaders?

The Post says that the furor is because of the Internet. They explain that the views of most preachers used to stay within the walls of the church, but now with YouTube, sermon posts, and iPod downloads, all of our thoughts and opinions are open for public consumption beyond the flock.

Strangely, The Post writes:

Although Warren’s views are not far from those of other clergy members who could have been asked to deliver the invocation, Obama found himself emphasizing his own record as “a fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans.”

Which made me scratch my head. “Other clergy members who could have been asked to deliver the invocation”? They must be talking about Billy Graham and Co. Are they implying that there’s a short list of pastors, comprised of leaders who are good enough, and they are all fighting against same-gender rights? If they want another list… I can think of a lot of wonderful pastors upon whom they can call.

Frankly, I don’t think there’s a sudden awareness of what evangelical preachers are saying behind the guarded walls of their sanctuaries. They have been very clear about what they believe for the last couple of decades. They don’t need YouTube. They have  their own publishing houses, radio broadcasts, and television stations. Their message has been heard regularly by millions.

I don’t agree with Rick Warren on many issues. I left the Southern Baptist church that he is a part of, but I know he’s a Christian, doing good work on most days. That said, I think the negative reaction is more from evangelical fatigue than from YouTube suddenly awakening us from our ignorance.

In the last decades, we’ve watched as our nation has become divided and our family dinner tables have become unpleasant, because the debates over abortion and homosexuality. Facebook “friends” write, “How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for Obama?” on our wall. We have listened to evangelicals whole-heartedly support President Bush, even when he has driven our nation into some horrendous ditches. The evangelicals have been calling for a culture war that has made us very, very tired. And so we shake our heads at the thought of continued evangelical influence.

As another Post article cites:

“It’s nice to see a conservative evangelical pastor play such a prominent role in such an important event,” said Tom Minnery, a senior vice president at Focus on the Family, which has fiercely criticized Obama over his support for abortion rights and other issues. “I think what it does is it underscores the importance of evangelicalism in the country.” 

So the gesture will be spinned, not as Obama reaching out to a once-powerful, but now-slightly-wounded, religious movement, in order to build bridges of understanding. Rather, it will be seen as a sign of the importance of the Religious Right. Which just makes me tired.

The photo’s by digitalpotato

Filling the pulpit

In our Head of Staff/Associate Pastor discussion, another interesting point came up, and that is… the amount of time that it takes to get a new pastor.

I’m not sure how it is with most denominations, but in the PCUSA, it seems to take forever to call a new pastor. We have watched it happen in our neck of the woods over and over again lately. A church—a really good, healthy church—goes without a pastor for two to three years.

What’s going on? I often hear different reasons for the delay.

Often, the church has had some trauma, and they have to go through a long period of self-examination and reflection before they can call another pastor.

Or it’s just hard for the nominating committee to find the time to do what they need to do, considering that they’re volunteers.

Sometimes, the committee is overwhelmed by the number of applicants. They look at the huge stack of resumes and they don’t even know where to begin.

Other times, they are completely underwhelmed by the quality of candidates (a complaint that I have very little patience with when I consider my colleagues…).

The upshot is that committees are often taking two to three years to fill a position in which most pastors only stay for two to three years. I understand the logic of having a long interim, but I’m not sure that I agree with it. Why is an extended interim important for healing? Why can’t healing take place with an installed pastor? What is it doing to our congregations to have as much time with an interim as they have with an installed pastor?

A gifted interim is a real treasure, and not always easy to come by. I have followed a couple of interims who were just filling up their retirement hours, using the church for a little something to do. A chance to dust off their sermon file. And their To-Do List did not include any robust transition work at the church. It was more of a hobby job for them.

One man in our congregation, after hearing the travails of a search committee, has talked about starting a head-hunting business for our denomination. Not a bad idea, considering how long it takes for a match to occur, and how often mismatches occur…. 

So, what could we be doing better? Is an extended interim a healthy solution? How could we make this turn-around time quicker?

Staffing models

So, the Head of Staff and I were talking about ideal staffing arrangements in a congregation….

Let me begin this discussion by saying that officially/denominationally I am an Associate Pastor, but the church just calls us both “pastors.” When I’m introduced by people in the congregation, I hear “This is our pastor” most often. I sometimes hear, “This is our co-pastor” or even “co-director.”

All that to say, it’s not like the HOS is wielding a great big power stick around, telling everyone that he’s the boss. We have a very collegial relationship, where my ideas and opinions are encouraged.

That said, when the HOS and I were talking about ideal staffing arrangements, the HOS repeated that he does not like the idea of Co-Pastors. At all. He listed a variety of solid reasons. Most of them were practical—i.e., when churches have tried the model in the past, it has often fallen apart. Then, they have gone back to HOS/AP models.

(It is a disconcerting trend… are many churches thinking in the CP model much any more? Is it failing? Or did it just fail in such high profile cases that it seems like a failing model?)

For me, if I had my choice, I would rather be a CP than an HOS. I’m not afraid of power, I am a natural leader, and I like being in charge of things. It’s just that I like a team leadership approach better.

And there may be more to it than that. I’ve got to say, I have seen many women become APs for life, even when they wanted to move into a different role in the church. In my years, I have seen women discriminated against over and over again in the HOS selection process.

They have tremendous abilities and gifts, but they have not been able to move into HOS positions, even when their less qualified male colleagues have. After ten years, the statistics in most denominations become quite startling. Men often move up, women often do not. Then if the women stay in AP positions, they often make half of their HOS, even with comparable education and experience. After banging their heads on the stained glass ceiling, soon, women drop out of parish work, and become chaplains or something else.

Many women are not serving in the positions that I am, a collegial situation where my experience and gifts are valued. Instead, on a multi-staff congregation, many female clergy are seen as the pastors to the women and children, and therefore, they (the pastor, the women, and the children) are worth less. Maybe I just want a bit of justice for them.

We can’t force churches to accept female Heads of Staff. We can’t force congregations to have keener imaginations, and see that sometimes the best man for a job is a woman. But, maybe we can begin to re-imagine our church staffs. Instead of paying one person twice the amount for doing all of the “big jobs” (preaching on Sundays) while we pay the other person less for “little jobs” (doing pastoral care, Christian education, and caring for children and moms), we could begin paying on the basis of experience and education.

Instead of having an HOS who stays at the position for decades, getting (well deserved) pay increases every year, while the AP gets chewed up and spit out every couple of years, ensuring that the position will stay at the minimum salary, we could create congregational environments where all of the pastors are valued and appreciated. Not just the tall-steeple pastors (whose demographic make-up seems to be very homogenous). Perhaps that would create a bit more equity in our congregations and our denominations. I certainly think they would create healthier church systems.

What do you think? Would you rather be an HOS or a CP? What are the problems with the CP and HOS/AP models? What are the advantages? Is there a generational shift occurring (people under 45 tend to appreciate less hierarchical models)? A cultural shift? Is this a shift that the church should embrace? Would a flattened-out model help gender inequity? Or would it just be a bogus liberal attempt to create a false equality?

Photo by L Plater

Taking it back

I heard this interview with Frank Schaeffer yesterday and it was really interesting. He wrote a book entitiled Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. He explained how he convinced his father, Francis Schaeffer, to start preaching about abortion after Frank had gotten his fifteen-year-old girlfriend pregnant.

I remember the stories clearly when I was growing up. I visited L’Abri, the Schaeffer’s community in Switzerland, as a teenager, and I had a boyfriend who lived there. It was sort of an artistic, cultural, and intellectual center for many evangelicals (alright, my mainline friends… you can stop snickering. Yes, there are cultured, intellectual evangelicals). “Franky” (as I remember it), was the MK, the missionary’s kid who had gone wild, then with rapid repentance, he became a fiery politico, much more avid than his father.

His reflections revealed a much deeper struggle. Always a reminder that things are often not as they seem.

There are many poignant parts of the interview, especially as Schaeffer’s clear regret reverberates through the answers. He’s saddened by the culture war that he helped ignite, and his words come through with a tone of deep sorrow.

But the most amazing bit for me was when he talked about his conversion from being an evangelical to Greek Orthodox. He clearly articulated the struggles of being raised in such a strong tradition as evangelicalism, and then realizing that there is no way to unlearn many things. He chose the GO church, because wanted to go to a church that didn’t hinge on one person’s charismatic personality, he wanted to be a part of a tradition and a liturgy that was there for centuries, and would be there long after he was gone.

It was shocking to hear because they were almost the exact words I told my sister, ten years ago, when I graduated from seminary. I tried to explain to her why I became a Presbyterian pastor. I didn’t want to be the pastor of a church that was going to live or die, according to whether I was standing in the pulpit or not. I wanted to be a chapter in the long history of a church, not the sole plot line.

I’m buying the book today. I’ll keep you posted….