Disrupted by Julie Anderson Love

This is cross-posted from the RevGalBlogPals site.

This is, on one level, a very extraordinary story. In Disrupted: On Fighting Death and Keeping Faith, Julie Anderson Love battles a brain tumor, something that most of us will not have to undergo, especially in the third decade of life. Love moves us with medical accuracy, spiritual awareness, and emotional depth through the painstaking decisions and healing.

On another level, however, Love’s story is an ordinary one. She is an Associate Pastor, she clashes with the Interim Senior Pastor, and he retaliates. Let me sound the spoiler alert here—if you have not read the book and want all of it to be a mystery, you can stop reading.

The heart of our discussion resides in the fact that the church fired Love while she was fighting for her life. Yes, you read that correctly. They took away her insurance and her livelihood while she had a brain tumor. When they should have been bringing her casseroles, flowers, and cards crafted by Sunday school children, they brought her a pink slip.

When Love’s pastoral counselor recounted the devastation that she had been through that year, he was pretty sure that the brain tumor was less traumatic than the church letting her go in the midst of it all.

As stark and traumatic as Love’s story is, what’s even more difficult is that we hear about this stuff happening all of the time. Something similar has probably happened to many of our dear readers. When it does, we are told to be quiet, gloss over it, and move on as quickly as possible. Most of us do. Then we try to negotiate a new job, entering another church, becoming a chaplain, or dropping out of the clergy ranks altogether. But does all of this playing nice help in the long run?

I don’t think so. I mean, it helps in our particular circumstance (and looking after yourself is the most important thing in these devastating situations). The opportunities for secure employment increase when we don’t make much of a fuss.

But how does it help clergy in general when we constantly cover up the sins of our congregations in order for us to come out less scathed? I think we need to find creative ways to be able to break the silence that so often enshrouds our positions.

We all know stories that make us shudder–women who have been sexually harassed, fired without cause, or paid unfairly. How can we tell these stories and still protect our positions?

Reading this book made me thankful that Julie Anderson Love was able to break through that code of silence under which we work. She told her story, with courage and honesty. She did not shy away from all of those secrets that we often have to keep. And for that, we all owe her.


What if it’s not men that men are looking for?

I got into a car recently, with another female pastor and an Evangelical man. I asked the guy about his church and he said, “I go to a church where men’s leadership is very important. Men don’t go to church any more. And so our church puts men in leadership so that it will attract more men.”

I was not very quick on my feet… it had been a long day… so I didn’t say anything and just swallowed the insult. After all, it’s not a new theory, I’ve heard it about a thousand times. It’s just one of those indignities that we endure as women clergy.

“Men are attracted to male leadership. We need more men. We will hire a man so that men will attend our church.”

Other than it being a clear affront to me as a female pastor, I also wonder if it’s true. I mean, overall, men have been running the show about 99% of the time. And if you look at the whole of Christianity, then the men have been in charge 99.99% of the time. And still, there are an overwhelming number of women in the pews.

What if these commonly held assumptions are incorrect? What if opposites attract? Maybe I should just start declaring that male leadership attracts female members (I mean, that seems much more historically accurate). And it must follow that female leaders would attract more male members. And so male pastors are really kind of obsolete.

Do I think that male pastors are obsolete? Of course not. But after being a pastor for growing congregations for the last twelve years, I’m really getting tired of the assumption that I’m obsolete, and that men won’t go to a church I pastor.

Diversity Still Matters

I was at a Presbytery meeting in South Louisiana, and a woman got up to the microphone. I shifted in my seat. I knew what she was going to say, because she always said it. She was going to bring up the fact that there was not enough diversity in our leadership. I have to admit. I rolled my eyes and thought, Here we go again.

I can’t tell you what happened between that meeting eleven years ago and now. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a dozen years watching my friends get passed over for jobs, book deals, speaking engagements, and board positions over and over again. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been told:

“You were invited to speak at that conference? You must be the token woman.”

“Male leadership attracts men, and female leadership doesn’t. That’s why we need more men in the pulpit.”

“Pastoring is becoming a pink-collared profession.”

“Since women were ordained, our denomination has been in decline.”

“You don’t have enough administrative experience for this job.” (Even though I was a business manager and oversaw 27 employees before I entered seminary.)

Never mind spending four years at Moody Bible Institute. I hear these things consistently in progressive circle, among people who claim to be committed to inclusion.

It seems like I have been in the midst of many discussions around diversity issues lately. The contexts have been different: in new church movements, denominational settings, academic discussions, conference planning, and pastoral hiring. The questions and resistance persist. In fact, maybe it’s me, but the resistance, even among my progressive friends, seems more prominent right now. And, many times, I have been shocked at the responses. I guess I want to attend to some things here.

(1) If I am a part of your conversation, whether it is around a movement, organization, institution, or conference planning, and there are great inequities, I will ask questions. Just expect it. I’m not trying to ruin your event, discount the work that you’ve done, or question your integrity. I know what it’s like to plan an event and have it turn out to be a white guy gathering. It’s frustrating. I’ve personally planned events where the diversity was not what I hoped. I know that sinking feeling when I’ve been called on it. But… we just have to keep each other accountable with this stuff, or it will never change.

(2) I have been told that it is racist or sexist to reserve certain positions for people of color or women. The logic goes that if there is a bias toward women/people of color then there is a bias against white men. And that is racist or sexist. I understand the logic, but I don’t agree with it.

If you look at the whole of religious positions, there are a tiny handful of positions with a bias toward hiring women and POCs. When an organization is looking for a woman or a POC, it is usually only to correct an overwhelming proclivity towards white males within the organization. If you’re a white guy who got passed over for a less qualified woman or POC, I sympathize with you. But I know the feeling because it’s what we face all the time. Most religious jobs are biased against women, and many are biased against POCs. Women often get better grades in seminary, they are outnumbering men at many seminaries, and they still make up a small fraction of Heads of Staff, conference leaders, and board leaders. We are usually relegated to second tier positions for our entire careers.

If you are a white male, and you were passed over for a job because it was given to a POC or woman, hold on to that feeling and outrage. Understand it. And realize that’s what we live with most of the time.

(3) I understand that I am in a position of great privilege. When talking about this stuff, people often look at me and say, “What the heck?” (Okay… so they use more colorful language than that….) “Who are you to talk? You’re a writer and a speaker. You have a great job in downtown D.C. Why are you whining about not having enough power?” I know that I’m a powerful person. And that’s the main reason I bring it up. You see… I would have never talked about this stuff if I were powerless, because I would have been afraid that people would think that I was trying to hone in on some position, job, or slot. Or, because I would have been afraid it would ruin my career. But now, I can speak out more on behalf of others. And I know how important it is for those of us with privilege to recognize our own power and do the same.

(4) I reject the notion that “organic” should be used as an excuse for leadership being all white men. This is used in emerging movements a lot. If “organic” means that only WM are stepping up, there’s a clear cultural bias that we’ll need to recognize and work to overcome. If we are working in a post-evangelical context, we are often laboring with a very strong and deep prejudice against women that we need to identify and name. Organic farmers spend a whole lot of time spreading manure, pulling weeds, and encouraging growth in certain areas. If we are claiming to be organic, then we need to do the same.

(5) I’ve left so many out… LGBTQs, those with disabilities, those in poverty. Sometimes the list seems overwhelming. And recognizing that makes me realize how we need to keep pushing….

Are things getting any better? Yes, I think they are. But it’s only because people like that woman in South Louisiana ignored my eye-rolling and kept speaking up. (In the subsequent year, I ended up in a prominent leadership position, thanks to her.) It is because all of the hard work of men and women who keep questioning, keep studying, and keep pushing on those stained glass ceilings.

GCR 3.2 Brian McLaren and Phil Shepherd: Navigating the Shifts in the Church

What do we do with dying churches? Is the emerging church male-dominated? Why? Which is more likely to reform, denominations or evangelicalism? Does Brian McLaren still claim the title “evangelical”?

These are some questions we asked Brian McLaren. Brian is an author, speaker, and activist. Most recently, he wrote the book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith.

Listen Here!

What Causes Pastors to Burnout?

Pastors have a fifty percent burnout rate. In the first couple of years of ministry, half of them will drop out. I expect this from nursing and teaching, but I didn’t know that the rate would be quite so high for the pastorate. Do our churches realize what we’re doing to our professionals? What about our denominations? When we put so much time and energy into preparing pastors for the ministry, isn’t it disconcerting to watch half of them leave within a couple of years? I have often seen people shrug off the burnout. They figure that the ones who were not tough enough left. We question their call into ministry, or find another way to blame the pastors for the failure.

But what if our assumptions are not true? What if blaming the pastor is not the solution to our problem, but compounds the problem? What if we’re losing our most gifted and talented professionals? What if it’s the healthy ones who are leaving? What if we ought to be looking at the employment situations instead of assuming it’s the minister’s fault? I wondered about this, so I asked my twitter community of pastors (I’m @CarolHoward) about why we fizzle out so quickly. This is the feedback that I heard.

The Financial Realities—No one entered the ministry to make a lot of money. We don’t expect to. But the problem occurs when it takes an awful lot of money to go to college and seminary. After seven years of no income and high tuition, most of us have tremendous debt, and when we take that first call in a small church or as an associate pastor, we simply cannot make the numbers add up. Too often, pastor salaries are decided by people who have never had to live with the reality of school loans, and the fact that their new pastor might be 40k in the hole never occurs to them. But the financial burden becomes too difficult for the pastor, and she has to walk away.

The Professional Loneliness—Clearly, after you become a pastor, going to a party will never be quite the same experience again. There are people who will tell you every problem they have had with religion, or every problem that they have in general. They will apologize for cursing or for drinking. Or they are entirely too happy that you’re a minister. And all of it can make a pastor long to be just an ordinary citizen of the world. The problem becomes compounded when the pastor is single. I recently went to lunch with a wonderful group of clergywomen, who explained that they do not tell guys their profession on the first few dates. They tell them that they work for a non-profit.

The Gaping Disconnect—There was also the sense that there was a detachment between the theory we learned in seminary, and the practical application that we needed in the church. For instance, we weren’t taught enough about finances, budgets, technology, or conflict management. I would add that we’re not taught evangelism in a way that is practically applicable either.

The Downward Trajectory—There was the difficulty of walking into a church that has been plummeting in membership for the last forty years. The frustration , anger, and longing to recreate the past looms large. Then when the new pastor walks in, he or she is considered to be either the bearer of salvation or the reason for the failure.

The Idea Dam—There was the palpable frustration over leaving seminary with great excitement and an innovative spirit for ministry, and then having all of that creativity blocked in the first few years. When a pastor is full of ideas, going into a declining church that is looking back, hoping to re-create the past, can be like a rush of water that hits a giant, concrete wall and has nowhere to go. As I look at generational theory, I can see that this could be a particularly frustrating thing for Generation X (those who are 28 to 48), because a leading characteristic that marks our Generation is innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. Yet, in our churches, our creative flow can get quickly jammed.

Then there was The Problem of Productivity–We live in a world of metrics, reports, and data. Our congregants want to see our output, they want measurable proof that we have been working, that our time has been used in a valuable way. But what do you do when you spend ten hours of your week, counseling a couple through a terrible divorce? What do you do when you read a theological text to prepare for a sermon? How do you measure those hours, when you sneak off to the hospital to visit the teenager who just tried to commit suicide, but her parents don’t want anyone in the church to know about it? What about those weeks when your work calls you to be out of the office more than in it?

So much of our time is filled with work that cannot be measured, sometimes it cannot even be accounted for, but it is incredibly valuable. Not only that, but there seems to be a lack of trust underlying much of this inquiry. It can be quite frustrating to be laboring overwhelming hours, and then have anxious members checking to see if your car is in the church lot or have others proclaim that you “only work one hour week!”

It is clear that we cannot continue to train so many people and have them leaving the profession after a couple of years. So can we begin to imagine churches in which pastors can flourish? How can we communicate these problems to our congregations? What can we do for pastors who are starting out that might ease some of these tensions? What do you wish someone had done for you?

Claiming Power Over Pedophile Leaders and the Church Institutions That Protect Them

Priests molested small boys in their beds at night. The boys were pulled into the confessional booth and groped. Horrors abound–stories that make our mouths fall open in shock, our guts wrench in grief, and our heads redden with fury. Predators are everywhere, and they don’t turn into something else when they put on a collar or earn an R-E-V for the front of their name. But the pernicious sins propagate when the church protects its institution over the wellbeing of children, when we hide pastors in far-away mission fields instead of in prison, and when we would rather not face the pain of upsetting an established school or congregation because of the tale of a small boy. When a religious person molests a child, trauma crashes through the child’s life, affecting the sexuality and spirituality of that person the rest of his or her years. The emotional turmoil ripples through the family and keeps reverberating through the community. For clergy to think that it is in our power to hide the assault, for us to turn our heads so that it can happen again and again, makes us complicit in the abuse. What can we do to stop it? What can church leaders and the people in the pews do to make sure that these things are not happening in their own congregation?

First, work on the local level, ensuring that practical things are in place. Wherever children are in a classroom, there needs to be uncovered windows in the walls or doors. Your faith community should have a child protection policy, which might include things like making sure there are two nursery workers or Sunday school teachers in every classroom. Leaders who teach children on a regular basis should go through a background check. All pastors should have a background check. Find out your church’s attitude toward reporting. Do they report sexual violations to the police, or do they feel that it is enough to alert the church authorities? When crimes are committed, clergy have a bad habit of protecting each other, and a nice retirement on the mission field or a cushy parish in a rural out-of-the-way area is not enough punishment for a pedophile pastor, and the move only puts more children in danger.

Second, find out how your church works. Just as corruption can spread in certain state governments, abuse can fester in particular church governments. Be wary if your church is a stand-alone congregation. If it is not a part of a denomination, then there may not be systems for background checks, reporting, or dealing with sexual abuse in place. On the other hand, if your church hierarchy is only made up of ordained pastors, then there may be a greater concern for the institution and not enough outside voices for clarity on sexual matters. When clergy and laity work together in the church, when they both have power, then there is less likelihood for the church to focus inward and protect itself.

Finally, make sure that women have appropriate power in your congregation or denomination. All women—and particularly mothers—can be fierce defenders of children in our society. Not only that, but in our country, many of us have been victims of sexual abuse ourselves. We know what it looks like, we know what it smells like, and many women will not tolerate it. Plus, if a church keeps the voices of women silenced, then you do not want to expose your children to a system of oppression.

The horror stories have to stop. Many of us feel powerless as we read about those who have been victimized in the past, but we can change what will happen in the future, if we take responsibility in our congregation and in our denominations.

Don’t you wish your members were just like me?

For those of you who are not Presby-geeks, I apologize for the series of posts that are about to follow… the short story is that Beau Weston wrote a paper for the denomination, which stated that we needed to Rebuild the Presbyterian Establishment.

I’m part of a group who responded to the paper. I joined the esteemed voices of Jose Luis Casal, J. Herbert Nelson II, and Cynthia Holder Rich, who are from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and positions in the church.

I’m white, and I’m a pastor. So as I thought about what I brought to the conversation, I figured that the one thing that I had going for me was that I was young (okay… so I’m 38… which means I’m really stretching this “young” label). I write about ministering to men and women in their 20s and 30s, so my responses center around that viewpoint.

Weston discusses my paper on his blog:

Merritt takes it for granted that the niche of the entire Presbyterian Church is to draw people like her – “writing as a woman who grew up a conservative Baptist and converted to Presbyterianism.” Her strategy for contextual evangelism is “in this particular time we can especially minister to those who are leaving politically conservative evangelical megachurches.”

Welcoming people who are leaving the Evangelical movement is not the core of my outreach strategy, it’s just one sentence from the paper, tacked on to a pleading hope that we “broaden our focus, from not only welcoming those who ‘know what it means to be Presbyterian,’ but also to inviting and accepting men and women from a variety of backgrounds.” So it seems a bit unfair to boil my position down to me wanting a church chock-full of people who look like me.

But, that’s okay. Pastors in growing churches often draw people with similar struggles and hopes. And, I suppose the same could be said for a certain latte-sipping academic white guy, who wants to make sure that the establishment is rebuilt with tall-steeple church pastors and executives. I mean, the last time I checked, most of those types are… well… white guys.

All snarky jabs aside though… reaching out to recovering fundamentalists isn’t a bad strategy. The fact that a new generation of Evangelicals is leaving their congregations goes far beyond my ministering from my small context and experience.

The Emerging Church movement is full of people who grew up Evangelical, and now they’re questioning what they had been taught. Sometimes EC gatherings feel like a Fundamentalists Anonymous group. UnChristian documents the negative attitudes of a new generation toward Evangelicalism. Christine Wicker reports a study that suggests that roughly over 1,000 people leave the Evangelical Church every day.

I’m not happy about this trend. It makes my heart ache, because most of those men and women are leaving Christianity, and leaving for good. So please don’t read this as some sort of sheep-stealing vitriol. (And, yes, I realize that there are PCUSA types who are Evangelical…)

It is just that my experience of the Presbyterian Church was different from the conservative Baptist Church in which I was formed. The leaders of my denomination showed me grace when I had been told that women could not be ordained. The church was there, giving me encouragement, education, and mentors to guide me. They taught me how to be a leader, even as a 22-year-old woman.

Not only that, but so many men and women surrounded me, as I wrestled with my faith, telling me it was okay to doubt, because my eternal salvation did not rely on my personal conviction from one moment to the next. I was held in a community of grace, and God could handle any question that I might spew at God.

It was such good news to me… and I have seen that it’s good news to so many others.

We have a strong and vibrant history of social justice and spiritual traditions. We have a connection with God and the world for which so many people long. And if I’m looking at the future of my beloved denomination, I’m not betting that efforts to rebuild its establishment is going to do much good. The world has shifted too much from the 1950s. We need a new strategy.

And focusing our efforts to reach out to a new generation–a generation who is ethnically diverse and longs to make a difference in the world–that is what gives me hope for vital ministry.