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.

The Pastoral Covenant

A case study we looked at in class today has got me thinking.

I know we’re trained as clergy to observe pastoral confidentiality, and that that’s part of the implicit covenant between us and our parishioners when they come to us for advice and counsel.

We are also expected to listen empathically and to represent God’s love to them. For non-theists, same general idea. Love is love and we’re expected to be in loving relationship with our people.

All good so far. Everyone knows those things.

But what about, for lack of a better word, chastisement? Or maybe I’ll say “spiritual correction?” Do we expect that these days? In the more liberal churches, I mean?

Here’s what I’m thinking. If I go to my minister and confess something I know is unethical, do I not, at some level of my being either expect or even secretly hope that he or she will bust me on it? I don’t mean in a judgmental, punishing way, but in an honest and theologically clear way? I think I would. If folks think of their clergyperson as someone they can tell anything to, that’s great! If they think their clergyperson will listen attentively to everything they say and never venture an opinion about it, I don’t think that’s so great.

In the case study today we looked at today, a female pastor (and D.Min. student) went to her seminary dean — a minister with whom she was friendly– and told her about the wonderful relationship she was having with a married man in the community. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist. In this situation, the roles are very blurry — of course, the woman receiving this troubling information wasn’t the confessor’s pastor.
In trying to work this out (“why did she reveal this? what should the other minister have done?) the class considered Jesus’ question, “What do you need from me?”
Some folks thought that the woman needed attentive listening and understanding.
I thought she needed that, too, but also the proverbial smack upside the head. I figured that if she went to a minister with this confession, she must on some level be ready to hear a dissenting opinion on her decision to carry on a long-term affair. I figured that it would be most UNloving to deny her that, in fact.

Which led me to think about the unspoken covenant between parish ministers and their parishioners — isn’t part of the reason we join a church and stay with it to become well-known and loved by our pastors? And doesn’t part of the strength and mutuality of that relationship come from knowing that our pastor cares enough about us to actually try to help us stay healthy, whole and out of trouble?

I hope we haven’t lost that. While I don’t condone clerical shaming and judging, I think we’re like the tough old auntie on the porch who, when she sees you come home way past curfew, smelling like gin and with your shirt on backwards, whaps you upside the head with the magazine she’s been reading and says, “Girl, what ARE you thinking?” Then she pats the step next to her and you sit down and spill it all out how you’re seeing that bad boy Mickey Santelli on the sly, and she listens and goes, “mmmm hmmm” and when you’re all done she says, “Well, I just know you can do better than that, honey. And the next time you want to sneak out with ole Mickey, you just come see me and we’ll find something more productive for you to do with those hands of yours.”

Do clergy feel that they can be, not just listeners, but honest responders? Or is that too, I don’t know, authoritarian these days?

I Had No Idea: The Third In A Series of Reflections on Ordination

This is my “serious” post written on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of my ordination. I am writing it on Wednesday night since I will be in Boston extremely early tomorrow morning to rally for marriage equality, and will be in the city all day.

When I was ordained, I had no idea what to expect of parish ministry. I had done my field education and my internship, taken however many classes one takes in order to earn a master of divinity degree from Harvard University, and endured the CPE and MFC and career assessment drill that we all go through in our journey to becoming a Reverend in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I had even sweated my way through a master’s thesis on the myth Persephone as a resurrection narrative for women.

And I had no idea.

When I went to divinity school, I had these various ideas for my future, presented in the chronological order in which they occurred to me:
1. I would be a mediator of some sort.
2. I would be a minister of religious education.
3. I would be a campus chaplain.

I was 100% clueless about how ministry works in the world and was, to put it kindly, grasping at straws. I had gone to divinity school as though shot from a cannon, arriving full of manic energy but absolutely no vision. I had been flitting in and out of UU congregations for many years and had never felt grounded or particularly welcome in any of them; I felt like a total fraud. My personal motto in those seminary years was, “The bush burned but was not consumed.” This helped me keep faith that God knew what God was doing with me, although sometimes the fire of unfocused commitment burned so hot I would wake in the morning looking as though I’d been “rid hard and put away wet.”

There was tremendous drama in this, and a lot of erotic energy. I feel very fortunate that I had an active romantic life in those years because once I had a “Rev.” before my name, men ceased to regard me as a big, wild playground of a woman and saw me as a Church Lady. Hence the end of my real romantic life. In the past ten years I have had the odd boyfriend here and there, and I do mean the odd boyfriend.

I had no idea when I began working in the parish that the church can be a dead serious place where it is very difficult to keep perspective.

I had no idea that smart, loving congregational leaders would sometimes allow three or four absolutely toxic individuals to abuse and well nigh destroy the morale of a minister. It happened to me in one of my earlier congregations, and I have since learned that it happens a lot. I had no idea that congregations could commonly tolerate vile, destructive behavior in the name of “community” or “inclusiveness.”

I had no idea that parish ministers did so much work in the community. I actually thought that my days would be full of preparing worship, visiting with and counseling congregants, marrying and burying folks, and working with lay leaders on church matters. It never occurred to me that so much of my time would be spent responding to a fascinating array of requests from outside the church. To name just a few: writing articles and editorials, speaking at events ranging from pro-choice rallies to vigils for peace, addressing college students on the subject of sexuality, serving on denominational and non-profit boards, planning and leading workshops at conferences, teaching seminarians, mentoring ministers in final fellowing, counseling friends or extended family of parishioners, guest lecturing, calling into radio shows to represent a social justice action group, lobbying legislators, participating in ordinations and installations, shopping/cooking for/hosting various receptions and special events, attending collegial meetings and retreats, providing references for all manner of congregants and friends, driving homeless men to shelters on winter nights, and giving opinions to reporters. When I bought a set of luggage soon after graduation from Div School, I stupidly thought I could buy the cheap stuff, because I was a pastor and wouldn’t be traveling much!!

Since I’ve been ordained I have traveled to Phoenix, St. Lake City, Harrisburg, PA, Rochester, NY, Nashville, Washington, DC, Cleveland, St. Louis, New York City, West Point, NY, Quebec City, Berkeley, CA, and God knows where else to attend meetings, conferences, classes, retreats or trainings.

I had no idea that so many people would trust me with their sexual secrets. Alfred Kinsey’s got nothing on me.

I had no idea that the most frightening part of the job would be feeling obligated to come up with something meaningful to say in the face of tragedy and inexplicable loss.

I had no idea that so many lay people choose to devote a huge portion of their time and energy to the church. I had no idea how many impressive leaders the church produces, and what an elegant and largely unrecognized work of art their service to our congregations truly is.

I had always heard that ministers have to earn trust and “cred,” and therefore had no idea that every congregation I served would instantly welcome me into their churches with trust and respect.

I had no idea that there would be so much anxiety about youth programming in practically every congregation I’ve ever known — (not just the ones I’ve ministered to).

I had no idea that I would worry so much about every single sheep of my flock, compulsively flipping through the pages of the directory and fretting about the condition of their hearts, minds, families, marriages, bodies and souls. I had no idea how often I would stay up late making lists of non-attendees, infrequent attendees, potentially disaffected absentees and trying to figure out how to reach out to them in a way that might get them back to church for good, even though every previous effort had failed.

I had no idea how invested I would become in the idea that membership in a church is a serious and important commitment. I had joined congregations in the past myself and disappeared without a word; I had no idea anyone would care!

I had no idea that grief could live in my body long past the death of a parishioner, and that I would henceforth spend a portion of my summer vacation weeping over losses suffered during the church year but never properly mourned.

I had no idea how protective I would feel of all my congregations, and that any threat to them, whether from inside or without, would fill me with a steady, venomous rage and cold clarity about how to strategize against the threat.

I had no idea that most threats to my congregations were actually very little of my business, and that I couldn’t much protect anyone from anything in the end.

I had no idea that conflict between my babies would tear my heart to bits.

I had no idea that I would feel deeply in my heart that all of my parishioners, whatever their chronological ages, were my “babies,” to love unconditionally even when circumstances or personal boundaries prevented my having a close relationship with them. I had no idea how much my upbringing would influence me to believe in the power of “tough love.”

I had no idea how much a casual, misinformed criticism from a peripherally- involved church member could cut me to the quick, but how much I craved honest feedback from those who genuinely shared the work of the church with me, and whose opinion I respect.

I had no idea that board meetings could be a lot of fun, and that there is no need to hold monthly committee or staff meetings just for the sake of it when you have extremely competent people in leadership roles.

I had no idea that the responsibility of preaching and leading worship most Sundays from September through June would feel like the most draining and intimidating professional responsibility imaginable, yet also the most exhilirating, thrilling challenge and honor.

I had no idea that it would be so ultimately healthy for me that my family would steadfastly refuse to make a big deal of my going into the ministry and would remain, for a decade, the strongest voice of reason, humor and love in my life.

I had no idea that life in the parish could be at once so intimate, affirming and relational and yet so painfully lonely and isolating.

I had no idea that my brothers and sisters in the parish ministry and religious leadership would become, truly, brothers and sisters and that I would rely on their wisdom, support and comaraderie so entirely through all the ups and downs of this work.

I had no idea that I would start publishing my random thoughts on the internet in a forum known as a “blog” and therefore become a kind of religious writer with an interactive, international fellowship of readers.

I had no idea that the Bible would become absolutely central to my religious thought and vision.

I had no idea that my daily experience of the living God would make it impossible to consider a world without the church in it. I had no idea that it would get easier, not harder, to love the Lord God with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul and all my strength. The l”oving neighbor as self” is still a growing edge!

As I explain to everyone, God doesn’t call perfect people to ministry. S/He calls the ones foolish enough to respond.

(PB a few years after ordination)