A few good men


Alright, those of you who know my writing realize that I’m a feminist who typically decries the fact that women are not cracking through the stained glass ceiling. Through personal experience, through watching friends bust their heads, through seeing women before me work hard and not get far, I realize that we’ve got a long way to go before we can fully claim that “in Jesus Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.”

But… I’m curious of another trend of late. Something that goes against my “guys float through this profession easily” attitude. Men–young men–are not making it through the PCUSA ordination system. I mean, the kind of intelligent young men that would make John Leith bust with pride, are somehow not making it through. They are dropping out from frustration, irritation, lack of support. Many of them are the primary bread winners and need jobs before they can get through the hoops.

Do you hear me? Louisville? Something’s wrong.

There is a pattern for some of the men. Often they are conservative when they leave for seminary, and they end up broadening their thinking a bit. They become imaginative regarding what they think the church should look like orthey become more inclusive on their views on homosexuality.

It seems like, for some Presbyteries, we have gotten to a place where we not only reject LGBTs, but we reject anyone who might accept them.  If this continues to be the case, we can pretty much write off the next generation of pastors.

Not all are liberal, many are conservative. Like any broken family, it seems like our worst dysfunctions are being played out upon our weakest members–our candidates. At a time when we are about to lose a huge number of retiring Boomers, we are doing all we can to discourage our up-and-coming pastors. It makes no sense.

Of course, I only have anecdotal evidence, but it’s pretty overwhelming. And perhaps there are just as many women and I don’t know about them.

But I really don’t like the pattern. A lot of women are resourceful, we have learned how to work whatever system we are in, and we can be compliant to get what we need. Is this the characteristic that’s helping us get through easier?

Tell me. What’s going on?


Victims of circumstance or too entitled?

I’m in Jackson, Mississippi, for a UMC Clergy Leadership Conference. Last night, I went out with a group of wonderful clergy, and we had an animated discussion over dinner about young adults and debt. At the heart of the conversation was this:

I would say that many young adults have to go into debt because of low wages, increased housing costs, and student loans.

But, some of the young clergy were talking about the Dave Ramsey programs that they are taking part in, and they were saying that the reason why young adults are in debt is because they want to live like their parents right out of college. They don’t realize that it took years and years for their parents to build the wealth. (I’m pretty that this was the same thing my grandmother told my mother….)

I said this was a myth. I mean of course it’s true in many, many cases. People often go through the reality check of finding out how little they can actually afford, and that their expectations were too high.

But, when my parents were my age, they owned a home on the beach of Florida and they were adding on to it to double its size. They went to really nice interior decorating stores for all of the new furniture, and they had a decorator consulting them. My dad had a 40-hour per week government job and mom was a writer. They were very comfortable.

Compare that to my husband and me. We live in a fabulous house, but we could not dream of owning it—even with 2 full-time professional salaries and a small income from writing. We only own two-thirds of it, and our church owns the other third. We rarely ever have more than one car.

Our furniture is a strange array of things that we have picked up at thrift stores and flea markets. Ikea and auctions. I waited seven years before buying a dining room table. And that I got because of an insurance settlement.

Am I whining or saying that I have it terrible? Of course not. I have health insurance and a pension. I am very, very blessed. But…when I look at my friends who cannot imagine owning their own homes, who started out with 35K in student loan debt, who are picking up their furniture at Goodwill, it’s hard for me to say that the only reason they aren’t making it is because they want to start out where their parents ended up.

That may be the case for some. That may be the case when a person’s first starting out. But, I’m not sure that it’s generally the case for an entire generation. We know we are going to be much worse off than our parents. Most of us figured that out pretty quickly.

I just remember starting out, being extremely frugal and not being able to make it. Buying groceries on the credit card, freaking out every time the car broke down. Then I would hear things like, “You just want everything your parents have, and you don’t want to work for it.” I believed the line and berated myself for a long time. Too long, really. Then I finally looked at the economic realities of my generation, and figured out that it wasn’t so simple as that.

But, of course, I get defensive, and the truth is probably somewhere in between. What do you think?

Sacred Practices Leadership Series

I’m learning a lot about different continuing education formats. The most challenging format: having one keynote and  50 workshops of really dynamic people. Then, we have to choose one, when we really want to go to ten of them. Another difficulty: having a pep rally experience, where we go, hear a speaker, get all pumped up, and then leave with nothing. 

Of course, some of the most important things to come out of these event are the lasting relationships and a vision for effective change in our congregations. 

I’m going to be helping to lead this series that has taken these challenges into account. They have designed a wonderful course with amazing leadership (which sounds really bad after I just said I was helping to lead it… but seriously, check out this list). There are a lot of leaders in missional thinking and spiritual practice. 

The participants will be meeting for six three-day workshops over the course of two years. Each workshop will focus on a sacred practice (visioning, discernment, relationship, prayer, proclaiming and interpreting Scripture). Our time together will be marked with practice and interactions.

The information can be found here. I just found out that there are still some spots available.

Yes we did.


A group of us spent the night in my office, which is located a few blocks away from the mall. We put on layer upon layer of clothing, in order to stay warm while we stood in one place for hours. We were pretty peculiar, a group of pastors, plus my daughter. And we were surrounded by an incredible array of people, white hippies wearing Grateful Dead concert souvenirs, New York liberals wrapped in fur coats, young Latinos with cell phones, older African-American women with hopeful histories. Our hearts lifted as Barack Obama was sworn in and they soared when he spoke.

Change is upon us.

Hopefully, there will be immediate policy changes—like the end of torture, health insurance for children, and an implementation of a wiser foreign policy. And there will be hard changes that will take time—like better education for all children, health care for all Americans, rebuilding of our crumbling infrastructure, and environmental stewardship for our exhausted planet.

This event also marked significant cultural changes—like a move from the greed of the individual to the care of the community. With giant corporations begging for bailouts, and huge banks collapsing, we know that we need to do things differently.

What does all of mean for our congregations? What is changing on our religious landscape? Well, there is a new passion for social justice, for living out the words of Jesus. And I cannot help but notice the Joshua Generation—the young Evangelicals who cannot swear allegiance to Christian Right, who are finding their own way.

Newsweek recently had a portrait of a man who represented so many of my friends, as well as myself. We grew up in conservative Evangelical households, but when we became adults, the political alliances that our parents made no longer made sense. The sexism, homophobia, and (sometimes) racism of the Religious Right did not seem to match the ministry of Jesus.

There are a swarm of young Evangelicals who are wandering right now. Twenty-six percent of young Evangelicals support same-sex marriage. They no longer have a spiritual home in the congregations of their youth. So, how are denominations going to respond? Can we begin to open up our doors to a new generation?

I am a Presbyterian. I have been a PC(USA) pastor for ten years and a member for fifteen. I love my denomination, but I am still uncomfortable in it. Often, when I’m around denominational types, things are said that make our denominations inhospitable for people who grew up Evangelical.

I guess I should just spell it out. Because I love my church, I need to let you know that if we want to reach out to a new generation, we will need to learn to accept Evangelicals or ex-Evangelicals. You may not agree with me, you may not have had the same experience, but still, personally people communicate to me regularly, “You’re not one of us, and you never will be.” Sometimes I don’t know exactly how it’s being said, but I’ll try to put my finger on some of the more pernicious habits of the mainline.

In my denomination, many people say, “Well, they obviously don’t know what it means to be Presbyterian.” Wake up, my friends. No one knows what it means to be Presbyterian. We are a small group that will keep getting smaller if we think that everyone needs to know the Book of Order before being able to sit in a pew.

“Christianity has not been a force in our society since the sixties.” Wrong. Mainline denominationalism has not been a force in our culture since the sixties. Evangelicals have been a strong tradition since the birth of our nation, and they grew tremendously in the ’80s. They have been creating think tanks, educational institutions, and grass-roots political movements. And they are Christians too.

“Evangelicals are dumb.” Whether we say it outright or not, this is often our message. I know. I went to Bible College. And while I have friends who went on to do social work and their degrees were seen as an asset, mine has always been seen as a hindrance in my work as a minister. I have an education that allows me to understand inside-and-out the largest religious movement in our nation, and people in my denomination regularly mock me for it.

I can tell you that there were smart people at Bible college, and not-so-smart people in seminary. So, please, can we get over ourselves? Just because we worship in a denominational church doesn’t mean that our IQ is any higher.

I could go on. But I won’t. I’ll just wrap it up by saying, things are changing. And the biggest change on the religious front is that young Evangelicals are leaving their roots. Can we put aside our elitism? Can we reach out to them? If we can, this could be a time of tremendous growth and renewal for our congregations.

Making a space

There is no doubt about it. Intergenerational ministry is difficult. It is hard for a congregation to realize that their church was formed in the fifties, and so the culture of the congregation caters to people who were born in that era. And most young adults–even though many of them love the historic spiritual traditions–are not able to jump into a time machine and go back to a time when our church culture made sense.

We don’t understand the world of women’s circles that elect officers. We don’t know what these special offerings go to. The church uses words all the time that are not even in our dictionary: vestibule, fellowship, and per capita.

At an event that I went to recently, I said that a lot of churches won’t be around in the next twenty years if they don’t begin doing something to reach the next generation (I base this on the fact that the average age of our members is 50-something, and the average life span is 70-something). Later that day, I was told by the Executive Presbyter that many churches don’t have twenty years. Because of the dwindling energy level, it’s more like five to seven.

In other words, it’s crisis time for many of our congregations.

So, the church-at-large can vigorously do two things: (1) learn to make space for a new generation to grow up in our congregations (which is what a lot of my writing is about) and (2) plant new churches. Both of them will be extremely important in order for us to engage a new generation.

Unfortunately, I’m realizing how difficult it is for some of our denominations to imagine new church developments. The same Executive Presbyter explained that struggling churches will often take in immigrant congregations and allow them to use their space and rent their sanctuary. But, the same struggling congregation will not allow a young new church development use their space. That, of course, puts young NCDs at a terrible disadvantage.

I understand the resistance. The struggling congregation can’t understand why the new church can’t just become a part of the existing congregation (EC). They don’t want the competition, or they don’t want to lose the very few young adults who are attending the existing church to the NCD. I’m sure there might even be some jealousy, that these young upstarts can attract the demographic that the EC has been trying to reach for years.

And yet, this is a crisis time in our denominations. And what does it say when the local theater or elementary school is more willing to rent out space than our own congregations? Shouldn’t struggling churches be excited to support a new ministry?

We don’t have much time left and we have a whole lot of pastors who want to start congregations. (There are at least five pastors in our Presbytery alone, but we’re getting ready to tie up all of our assets into a camp, so NCDs will be unlikely for 30 another years. But that’s another story.) So we need to make a way. Any way for the young upstarts.  

Photo is by impastorrick

Job insecurity

A friend from Texas was coolly telling me about constant run-ins she was having with the church matriarch. It’s pretty common, you know, for the new woman pastor to have difficulties with the matriarch. It just screws up the dynamics when there’s more than one Mama-in-charge.

Anyways, the pastor was remarkable. My clergy friend explained how after every nasty note and comment, she would just make it clear that she wasn’t going anywhere. Everyone in the church was going to have to get used to the fact that she was the pastor now. It took some time, but the minister prevailed.

The pastor was doing the right thing. When church leaders cower to bullies, then it creates a really unhealthy situation. She was breaking the cycle of dysfunction by saying, “I’m not going anywhere.”

My own reaction, at least a few years ago, would have been different. It would have been, “Are you going to fire me? ‘Cause if you are, just say the word. I’ll be happy to clear out of your way.” I guess my response stemmed from a fear of being canned.

The fear has some basis. These are difficult economic times, and as Kathleen Parker reminds us, pink slips are the new black. And these are times when young professionals are greatly affected.

And for pastors—it’s really weird—sometimes a church will hang on to a minister who drinks on the job, sleeps with the organist, and hides shady accounting for twenty years. But then the next person, they’ll axe in a heartbeat.

I’ve met really wonderful pastors who are negotiating severance packages.

Or, in difficult economic times, many churches have to go through the excruciating pain of downsizing, and it doesn’t matter how gifted or talented the pastor is, or even how much the person is loved, congregations have to make tough choices.

The fear of being fired is sometimes based in reality. But, as it’s never good to live your life based on fear or threats, it’s certainly not good for the church for a leader to be reacting out of fear. 

So it was a learning curve for me. An internal resolve that I just needed to figure out. 

Autonomy, complexity, and results

I wanted to expand on this thought regarding success and the three things that Malcolm Gladwell says are the most important ingredients to a satisfying job: (1) autonomy, (2) complexity, and (3) a connection between effort and reward.

It seems to make a great deal of sense in the context of the church. Pastors have this interesting conundrum. We have high job satisfaction. In fact, recent studies have shown that clergy have the most job satisfaction than any other profession.

So then, why do we have such a high burnout rate? It seems odd that the two go together.

I wonder if these three factors have something to do with it. We do have autonomy, in a sense. Most ministers work within a community, and (hopefully) have a lot of checks and balances, but (at least in Presbyterian Churches) no one can dictate what we say in the pulpit. And if you think about it, to have an hour a week where we can be creative is an amazing amount of time.

But, when that autonomy is hindered it causes problems. For instance, if you’re an associate pastor and the senior is a relentless, micro-managing control freak, and you can’t seem to go from day-to-day without him or her pointing out something you ought to do, or something that you did wrong yesterday, then that can make your job into a pounding headache.

Or, if you’re a solo pastor and you have a governing body that functions with a lack of trust and they like to look over, say, your cell phone bill and ask what each and every line is about, then your chance of satisfaction will be greatly strained.

When our autonomy is compromised a great deal, the job can become miserable.

When we look at complexity, I can see a lot of that in our jobs. I have learned so much about everything from the Bible to the boiler. There’s a huge knowledge base that’s foundational to a pastor’s job—community issues, poverty, homelessness, demographics, and the environment. Then there are skill sets that we need to develop—preaching, counseling, managing, teaching, and financial development. Then, of course, there are the biblical studies, theological concepts, ecclesial movements, spiritual disciplines, and Christian education pieces that we can continually learn about and practice. All of this, plus whatever else becomes your passion while you’re at your job (writing, in my case), can make this one of the most satisfying professions that a person can be in.

When this sense of complexity is gone, then we can dry up. Much of what we learn is self-motivated. And there can be desert times, when we don’t meet up with our colleagues, we feel isolated, and we get really scorched. The same fights over the budget can become monotonous, or a person is stuck in a tiny pigeonhole that they don’t particularly enjoy  (like, children’s education) for their entire career, and the job can get boring.

Finally, there is that connection between effort and reward. Which can be obvious sometimes, and then other times it’s terrible.

Since being in the ministry, I’ve learned to set goals. I know that some pastors hate this, because they say that ministry is not about the attendance, and the buildings, and the cash. It’s not about the things that you can count. I understand this.

But, sometimes, I like to count. I like having things that I can point to and say, “While I was at the church, we started that program” or “we built that garden” or “we’re learning to pray” or “we have a gazillion children that we didn’t have before.” I just like to know the connection between my effort and the results. I think our entire church needs to hear about those connections. After all, they’re working really hard too, and they want to be reminded of the results.

If we look at causes of burnout, the top one is financial stress, or family stress (which is often rooted in financial stress). Barring not being able to pay the mortgage or rent, it seems like we can see a lot of our reasons for burnout in these three areas.

Women (who burnout at a higher rate than men), especially, often stay in associate positions, where they don’t always have autonomy or complexity. And if there is a connection between effort and reward, most of the congregation is pointing to someone else as the reason for the accomplishments. 

So what do you think? What are the causes of satisfaction or burnout that you’ve noticed? Are there things that our denominations, churches, and pastors can do to maintain autonomy and complexity? Do you think that results are important? 

photo’s by ultramookie