Transitions

As I was driving away from a nursing home this afternoon I realized that as I get older, transitions between the different demands of ministry (which are, in fact, the thing that keep this work so constantly rich and fascinating)are more and more difficult and depleting to achieve. There was a time when I could go from the bedside of a sick or dying person right to a committee meeting, home for a quick meal and then jump into the study to start some worship planning or writing.

I find to my dismay that try as I may, I simply can’t do that anymore.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it means that I’m more present where I am and that the wide chasm between the the energy in, say, the hospital and a church social event is too broad to jump with my old alacrity. I find that when I expect an instant transformation from pastor to Minister, I get disoriented and just want to hide out because I know I’ll do or say something insensitive or out-of-it. Honest to God, I don’t know how anyone does this work without theater training: I can’t think of how many times I’ve walked into a room absolutely pretending that I’m fine, ready, and truly present when I’m grieving some sadness shared with someone in the parish. Oftentimes the energy of the group inspires and rejuvenates me and I go home feeling up and connected, but that half-hour to hour of transitioning can be really tricky to navigate. For one thing, I look around the room and think “who else just came from some emotionally draining situation to be here tonight?” That can be very distracting, because as we get to know our congregations better and better, we learn that the answer can often be, “Everybody!” And yet the Church calls us out to do the work of the covenanted community, and we respond. Thanks be to God, and dammit it to hell, if you know what I mean.

How do you transition from one emotional setting to the next?

I find that it helps to schedule pastoral calls in the afternoon and then some mindless errands immediately after them, or to head home to prepare dinner. Instead of seeing three people, I now only try to visit one or two and then move quietly around the kitchen (careful with those knives!) preparing nourishing food before heading out for evening meetings or the study (or just winding down for the day when the schedule allows). Through my thirties I was able to make several visits back-to-back, rush out for take-out food, run home and check mail/e-mail and rush out the door for the evening. No way, Jose. Not any more.

Similarly, I’ve noticed that I’ve become less and less coherent and able to get much work done on Sunday afternoons. Thank God I am not asked to teach or attend meetings after church except on very rare occasions. After presiding over a worship service I am more blotto than I used to be — good only for one-on-one chats with people (I love to stand at the periphery of coffee hour and watch the crowd hum but I can’t for the life of me concentrate on conversations unless they’re at least a few feet away from the food tables). When I hear of ministers who are expected to lead worship service (or services!) and then attend board meetings in the afternoon I have utmost sympathy. I honestly don’t know how they do it.

Living in New England with such distinct natural seasons helps me to lean into this aspect of my aging with more acceptance and not to fight it too much. We have to know our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s also only fair to notice how we change through the passing of time. I was talking with a Methodist colleague this afternoon about maybe (just MAYBE) trying to adjust our expectations for winter time, encouraging our communities and ourselves to slow down as the days get considerably shorter and the dark and the cold urge us indoors for more reflective pursuits. I adore the busy buzz of autumn, spring and summer and tend to get mopey and lonesome in the winter, but maybe it’s time to lean into that reality, too.

I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s marvelous book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where she reminds us that it’s neither ecologically sound nor spiritually mature to insist on bananas in January in the northern hemisphere. This makes me think that if it’s not good stewardship of the earth to demand kiwi fruit in Massachusetts in December, it’s also not wise stewardship to demand springtime brightness from myself as October rolls in. Nor is it wise to expect a 42-year old to have the same resilience as a 29-year old, or to get hung up about it. That almost-42-year old knows a lot more than that kid in her late 20’s knew, has buried a lot more beloveds and somberly marked their names as “deceased” on the church rolls, and has hung around a lot more hours with Lady Death and Mister Trouble. I used to be able to get up from the table after a lunch date with them, leave a few bucks for the check and get right on to the next thing. Nowadays I linger over coffee, haggling over the bill, and arguing, always trying to get them to schedule our next lunch for a much later date than they have in mind.

6 Replies to “Transitions”

  1. I’ll offer an “amen.” There were three of us women, roughly the same age, in my CPE group. Two of us figured out quickly that we couldn’t make the transitions well if we went from room to room without at least a “walk down the hall to the nurses’ station and back” break. The third started taking that little break during the last third of our rotation, and found she was more focused and able to respond.

    We cheat ourselves and those we minister to if we don’t do at least some basic breathing and mental/physical stretching between settings.

    And seasonally – a dear friend of mine basically hibernates in the winter. She continues to work her full-time job, and volunteer and have a social life – but she does her best to be at home when it’s dark, where she can curl up with her cats and write, or enjoy an old movie with her spouse, or just go to bed early if that’s what her body is telling her she needs. She’s one of the wisest and most balanced people I know.

  2. this is probably going to be a bit disjointed ~ I am very tired and seem to be ignoring my own seasons and rhythms ~ but I just have to say Thank You.
    As a lay person, I do not spend a lot of time thinking about the extraordinary twists and turns and unique way of being in the world that a pastor must navigate. I work in the medical field, and I’ve come to understand about the “superheroes” of my profession, but I’ve rarely contemplated what goes on when the robes and stole come off in the clerical life.
    You don’t whine about it, you just state simply the realities of your complex and complicated world. You have brought me to a much finer appreciation of the clergy around me. Thank you.

  3. I am still learning the fine art of self care. I have had a really rough week. The storm seems to have passed but I am so exhausted. Thank god today is my day off. I am taking myself out for a day trip.

    What I have trouble with in the transition department is this, what do you do when something distressing happens just before worship or just before a meeting and you have to put it aside in order to do the task in front of you.

  4. @ KQ, glad you wrote in. Take care of yourself.

    @God Guuuurll, wishing you a restful day off. It’s very tough when something distressing happens before worship or a meeting. I think taking a few moments to pray can help. I like to say, “Dear God, I have something that I have to do now, and I can’t be in two places at once. I know that You are everywhere. Please be with __________ as a healing presence and forgive me for being such an egotistic control freak to think I can do all this alone. Thanks, Love Vicki”

    Then again, is that “upsetting thing” someone’s failure to realize that it’s like 10 minutes before the worship service and expecting you to do something like fix the copier or start a new church program right then and there? In that case my prayer is “Dear God, please handle So-and-So right now, because if I try to it won’t come out well at all.” Instant serenity!

  5. Those who schedule board meetings on Sundays are destined for the “special hell” shared with those who talk in the theatre, to paraphrase a favorite tv character. 😉

  6. I am giving thanks for this year now that the Board meetings are on a weeknight and not after services on Sunday. It wasn’t good for any of us, never mind me.

    My approach to the things that come up in the 5-10 minutes before service came from having such things arise week after week for a while in my first ministry. If the questions weren’t pastoral, I developed the practice of asking whether this question needed to be addressed before service. Usually they could wait. If the concern was pastoral, I let the people know I heard their concern and asked if I could better focus on them after the service. Showing that respect for them seemed to work too. It did not take long before most of the church realized the service was the priority in those minutes beforehand and supported my focus on it. This is not to say things don’t come up, but I have the practice now to figure out what needs to be addressed and what can wait.

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