Church peeves


We just had a new member class this week, which is always wonderful. We hear the stories from so many different people about why they decided to join. And, we get to hear the reasons why they didn’t join other churches:

“Not friendly, too friendly, too creepy, too old….”

What often draws people to our congregation is the diversity—a mix of ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic levels. Miriam’s Kitchen. The music. The preaching.

Pastors shudder at the term “church shopping.” It just sounds so crass in our consumer-driven society. But, I daresay, if I did not have my job tomorrow, I would be doing the same thing. I would not call it shopping, I would put a much more spiritual label on it, like “discerning.” But I would have my list of wants/needs/expectations. I would be visiting churches, to see which ones were not friendly, too friendly, too creepy, too old.

I would not go to the nearest Presbyterian Church in my neighborhood, because the pastor–who is a wonderful person–is also an evangelical guy, who hopes that the congregation will become a megachurch in a couple of years. (Actually, that was a couple of years ago. I wonder if he’s still going for that…). Not only would I chafe hearing his theology on Sunday morning, but I would also make his life a living hell. That just wouldn’t be pretty. So, I don’t think there would be anything wrong with trying to find the right fit.

What would I be looking for? I love church, so I could go on and on about that. But, maybe I’ll start with the things that annoy me in church:

•Boomers trying to play rock music to “get the kids in.” You know, when a church starts a “contemporary” worship service, even though the word “contemporary” evokes bad 80s hair, and everyone in the praise band remembers the 60s. They’re really sure that’ll bring in the young families, but they never actually asked anyone under the age of 40 what they wanted in church.

•Sexism. Okay, every church will claim that they are not sexist. Even the most sexist churches. And I’m still shocked at the number of women who think that the rules of sexism apply everywhere but inside the church. You know, wonderful businesswomen who work for equality in their place of employment, and then don’t think anything about worshiping in a congregation where they discourage women leaders.

What is the trigger for me? Usually, the wall of men.

You’ve seen it. You walk into the church and the very first thing that you meet is every pastor that the church has had for the last two hundred years. Sometimes they’re photos. Other times we run into a seven-foot oil painting of some man, with a benign smile, in his preaching robe, big cross necklace, holding his dog-eared Bible. I always stand in front of the gentle giant and wonder, Who had that portrait made? Was that the pastor’s idea? Did they make it when he died? When he retired? Was he embarrassed? How did the next guy feel when they didn’t make one of him? Which always makes me wonder, Have I EVER seen one of these with a woman in it?

We all love our histories, and they’re important… but if you have a wall of men, and you haven’t even thought of having a lovely portrait made of one of the female associates for that wall, then, to me, that just screams sexism.

Am I saying that having a history of male pastors is sexist? Of course not. But… if all the hallway space makes us want to belt out the chorus of “Now Let Us Praise Famous Men,” then you have a lot to overcome in the sanctuary before I have that image out of my mind. That is… if I would even make it to the sanctuary.

What about you? What little things set you off in your first impression? What makes you realize that a certain congregation won’t be the right fit?


Sowing and Reaping


Here’s my sermon from Sunday morning. So what’s best? posting the audio or the manuscript? I guess I’ll check the stats and see what gets the most traffic.

Our sermons can be found on iTunes, by searching “The Progressive Christian Voice.” Most of the sermons are John Wimberly’s, because I’m not good at the details… meaning… I stink at making sure that little stick is plugged into iRecord on Sunday morning….

I preached on the Lectionary passage, which was various verses in Esther, but I just incorporated the whole story. Because, it’s such a good story.,videoFile:%27,initialScale:%27scale%27,controlBarBackgroundColor:%270×778899%27,autoBuffering:false,loop:false,autoPlay:false

Join the conversation

Good morning! I’ll check in later today, but this morning, I need to prep for our conversation with Bishop Will Willimon on God Complex Radio. I’m sure that I’ll have a lot to reflect on when I’m done….

The show is going really well. We’re learning a lot, and it’s been wonderful to work with the staff, talk to Bruce Reyes-Chow and interview some amazing people, like Frank Schaefer, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Margaret Sartor. Our audience is growing, mostly with people who download. And interest is expanding as well… including funding/sponsorship interest. So, I’ll have more details later, but for now, it’s an exciting time of transition for us.

I get a lot of questions about how to listen to it. It’s pretty easy. You don’t have to listen to it live. If you use iTunes, you can download it from there (just search for God Complex Radio in podcasts), or you can go to the Blog Talk Radio Site, look for the episode you want, and press play. Or, of course, you can always listen to the last few episodes by pressing on the one you want on the Blog Talk Radio widget on the right column of this blog.

It’s not too difficult, and if you need help, just let me know (teammerritt at mac dot com).

One in thirty-three


I have a feeling that I’m going to be commenting on the old news for a while now… but this one was too significant to pass up.

A Baylor study said that “one in thirty-three who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader.”

To which I have to say to my clergy colleagues… okay, guys, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart here. First: Stop that. No one’s going to church for that. Second: You are just not that hot. Alright? You hear me? Now, remember that.

To the congregants who are reading this: This is a really good reason to hire women pastors.

Why does this happen? I’m not a guy, but I’m surrounded by male pastors all day and all night, so I’ll take some guesses. (Not that any of the pastors with whom I work or the one to whom I’m married would be sexual predators… it’s just that I’m trying to grasp for some reason for expertise here.)

(1) Narcissism–this is the most likely explanation. So many people go into the pastorate for the wrong reasons, and an unhealthy self-love probably tops the list. There’s some trauma in a person’s childhood, they develop the insatiable need for recognition and affection and they think that being a minister will give them that.

And what’s more? So many congregations love narcissistic pastors. When a congregation is feeling desperate, looking for a pastor, worried that they are going to close if they don’t find someone soon, and that guy who seems so confident and looks so good, walks in the room and tells you that he will fix all your problems, you hardly notice that he doesn’t care about anyone other than himself.

(2) Savior Complex—If you’re in the pastorate, you’ve probably heard the story a hundred times. A woman’s heart is broken, her marriage is falling apart, and she doesn’t know what to do. She goes to the pastor for help. Then, a couple of years later, the woman’s divorced and living with the pastor, who’s selling insurance in a different town.

You don’t know exactly what happened, but you can guess that in the course of “counseling,” she cried, a lot. He wanted to something to help. She was inconsolable. He really wanted her to feel better. She cried some more. His heart began to break for her….

And, I won’t put this up as (3), because it’s not a reason. But, I daresay, if you took a survey of the number of pastors who have been a target of sexual advance from members, it would be much higher than one in thirty-three.

The bottom line is that, for whatever reason, it happens. Before I was a pastor, I would get really angry about it. I thought that all men and women who got caught in this were unbelievable jerks. Then, I would hear the gossip and want all the information, like a rubbernecker at a car crash.

But now it just makes me sad. I realize the severity of it, but I also realize that, even with the honor of the office and all of the expectation, we are dreadfully human. We have personality disorders, savior complexes, and needy egos. We can rely on all the wrong things to get through the day. We form bad habits.

So, I guess that’s how I respond to the news now. Where it used to slap me in the face with disgust, now my heart sinks with the reality. Now, I have much more humility realizing that I could become that predator. I need to take care that I’m not.

Photo by flesheatingvirus

I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody, but I….


Image is by Margaret Sartor, copyrighted by Margaret Sartor, and from Duke University Libraries.

Margaret Sartor was on The God Complex yesterday, with a fascinating discussion (click “Carol and Bruce talk with Margaret” on the Blog Talk Radio widget to the right to hear the interview). She’s a documentary photographer, as well as an author, and I wondered if putting together this book of journal entries was something like forming a documentary.

She said that it was. In fact, she said that we are created to form narrative out of chaos, making a subtle nod to Genesis.

Her statement reminded me that the role of the narrative seems to be changing at this moment. Daniel Pink says that’s because facts are now easy and cheap. We no longer need researchers to hold them and dig them up. Facts are now on the Internet, and Google does the digging for us. So, there is a shift in culture: The story is now more valuable.

What do stories have that facts do not?

According to Pink, we remember stories. We’re just wired that way. Stories wrap the facts into a context, and then deliver them with emotional impact. According to Sartor, they help form narrative out of chaos.

How does this help us in our congregations?

(1) Do we know our church’s story? Pink explains that certain businesses are forming in order to harvest the stories from their employees and customers. Then, they take the chaos of those narratives to provide a mission statement. Testimony and mission are what we are all about in our congregations. But, I wonder, have we identified the narrative of our churches? Do we use it to reach out to our broader community and tell them who we are? And who God is? Can we imagine a process of harvesting our own stories?

(2) Do we preach our stories? We are taught in our seminary courses to gather all of those facts. But do we learn how to present them in a context, with emotional impact?

I know in my preaching courses, emotional impact was looked down upon. It was seen as manipulative. In my internship, I was criticized because my sermon made people cry. There was an actual complaint from a member of the congregation.

But shouldn’t that be our jobs? To stir people, emotionally and intellectually? Isn’t that what a good story is all about? Why should we expect to cry at Hollywood movies, and then be horrified if the Word of God moves us? I know that many have felt religiously manipulated in church before, but have we moved too reactively into the heady realm?

Testimony, evangelism, preaching… what am I leaving out? How have you noticed this creative power working through the narratives in your congregation? Tell us the story….

Know Thyself


It’s so good to be back. Hopefully, for a while now. I just had to go on a strict no-blogging diet while I finished my book. I’m not sure how I’m going to balance it in the future, but I think that part of the reason why it took me so long to write this one was because I was trying to blog and write at the same time. And pastor. And travel. And start a podcast. Anyways, a lot of things happened when I was away in the last breaks, so now I have a great deal to share with you.

For instance, my sister called the other day. My nephew was taking this photo of me and the First Lady Michelle Obama to his school. I got to meet her when she served a meal at Miriam’s Kitchen. Which is a great story, but not the one that I’m telling now…

My sister phoned to ask me what my nephew should call me. Obviously, he calls me Aunt Carol, but she wanted to know specifically, what would a classroom of third graders call me? She and my brother-in-law were having an argument about it, and I needed to settle the dispute.

I went through this whole big explanation. When I first got a call to a church, I chafed at the name “pastor.” My high school Latin kicked into gear, and all I could think about was “shepherd.” And that’s always a difficult metaphor. I mean, it’s a hard one for me to live into. I like Jesus being my shepherd. But, as a 26-year-old woman, I wasn’t quite comfortable looking at my flock as a bunch of half-witted animals whom I was protecting.

But, to be honest, the title “pastor” was what I called the man who stood in the pulpit when I was growing up in a conservative Baptist Church. The title seemed reserved for someone different. Or maybe it was because in Bible college, I heard the stern proclamation a million times, “Women cannot be pastors!” It was as if using “woman” and “pastor” in the same sentence was abomination. I knew that I had over come all of that… okay, not all of it… a certain amount of it still sticks….

So, if a person was going to use a title, I liked “minister” or “Reverend Merritt.” To me, to minister conjures up “to ameliorate,” to care for someone. It seems more appropriate.

Mostly, I don’t like the title at all. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I hate being introduced as “Carol” when I’m standing next to my colleague, “Rev. Wimberly,” but I usually like Carol.

But when it come to children, there’s something a bit different. I introduced myself to a couple of grandchildren one time, and I said, “My name is Carol.” Then the ordained, retired grandmother quickly corrected me, “This is Reverend Merritt.” It reminded me that I needed a title, but “Reverend” seemed like way too much pomp.

I finally complete my long ramble with the conclusion, “Tell them I’m Pastor Carol.” Yes, I’ve come to terms with “Pastor.” Then I hung up the phone, with a bit of heaviness. It dawned on me. I had been a pastor for ten years, and in all of that time, my very own sister didn’t know my name.

What’s sadder? I didn’t know my own name either.

It was a reminder of how hard it is to sort out our identities in this profession. With all of our baggage, histories, reactions, and longings, sometimes, it’s just hard to figure out who we are, and who we hope to be.

photo by nick.garrod