A Whiff of the Divine: Lent at Tiny Church

Here at Tiny, our focus in worship this Lent has been the last week of Jesus’ life. Using Borg and Crossan’s book, we’ve been look at the stories leading up to the crucifixion. The sermon series is called Journey to the Cross.

The ‘journey’ bit ties into another initiative here at Tiny, the Journey to Jerusalem. We are encouraging folks in our church to walk, run, bike, etc., then submit their mileage each week. We’re trying to make it to Jerusalem before Easter!

So far so good. We set a modest goal of 100 miles a week, which when multiplied by 10, will hopefully get us there. But the initiative has been so popular we are using a factor of 5 instead… and we may still make it to Jerusalem and back. Check it out:


Just a small way we’re trying to encourage health and wholeness here at the church.

And yes… as the map indicates, we walk on water here.

I’m also making an effort to change up the look of worship each week, primarily on the communion table, but also through the kids’ activities in the Upper Room. Of course I haven’t thought to take pictures—sorry, I’ll do better!—but I’ll describe what I’ve done in case others want to adapt:


The first week, we looked at Jesus’ “cursing” of the fig tree (Peter’s word, not Jesus’, which I talk about in the sermon). For that Sunday, I had a black piece of fabric laying flat on the table with a vase with several nice branchy twigs sticking out of it, sort of on the left, with the communion elements towards the right. I had a long piece of purple fabric that I snaked around the table, with one side wrapping around the vase, then curved around the communion chalice/plate and hanging off the  front. (By the way, you need to experiment with levels when you do focal point stuff. You can use books and things underneath the cloth to create some variations in height.)

We invited the kids to do this simple activity (sans leaves) in the Upper Room, which was meant to represent the withered fig tree:

Paper Bag Fall Tree2

The kids took these home to have on their dinner tables during Lent.


This past weekend was the anointing of Jesus. I used a different multi-colored cloth for the table and put a large glass bottle (actually a decanter) on the table, along with a copy of the St. John’s Bible (which I talked about in the sermon), propped open to the gospel of Mark. I also included this figure I got on a trip to Mexico during seminary:

photo copy

We’re fortunate at Tiny that we’re, well, tiny, so people can see what’s on the table pretty well. Also, folks came forward during the prayers of the people and we did an anointing with oil, so they could see the table elements even better.

For the kids in the Upper Room, I gave them a bit of nard (the oil mentioned in the story), which is smelly stuff. They were invited to make cards for each person in the church service, using construction paper, markers, stickers, etc. I asked them to put a little smear of nard on each paper so people would have the scent as a reminder of this story of extravagant love.

The children did a wonderful job of this, and stood with me at the door following the service, handing them out. Most of the notes were small, but Caroline did do an oversized one for Robert and me:


It has been a very good Lent so far.

Design Your Own Preacher Camp — A Re-reprise

Photo: Meg Peery McLaughlin

Photo: Meg Peery McLaughlinIt’s become a tradition now, to re-post this piece as I prepare to head to preacher camp. Some of the details are different now [see brackets] but the basic idea is the same.

Are you a preacher? Get yourself a preacher camp:


I leave on Sunday for my yearly meeting with a group of clergy that calls itself “The Well.” (The story of how we ended up with that name is a post in itself. Suffice to say that the Hebrew word, ha-beer, had something to do with it.)

We patterned ourselves after a group of hoity-toity pastors that have been meeting together for something like 25 years. I think there are other groups like ours too. This is our [sixth] year to meet, and here’s how it works:

We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, and for each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing and presenting an exegetical paper. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” There are currently [18] people in our group, which means we leave with a head start on 36 weeks of preaching.

People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s really not that complicated to put a group together. I would love to see these groups propagate. So to encourage people to give this a try, I thought I would write down a few things we did to get started or keep going. I think most of this is taken from the hoity-toity group, so no claims at originality.

1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider. Decide what kind of denominational/regional/theological/seminary diversity you want, or don’t want.

2. Have a covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two.

3. Have a “dues guy.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on how big people’s continuing education budgets are, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.

4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person draws names out of a hat to figure out who’s assigned to which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations about 9 months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on as we speak). We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t mean it necessarily takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are “the decider” for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group (if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”) so it’s good to have someone in charge.

5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. Now we upload our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptop and/or print them, if they’re a scribbling type. We make them due two days, and if you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies of your own paper for everyone.

6. Schedule for the week: We do [35] minutes per paper. The person reads the text, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and we even try to schedule a free afternoon. Heaven.

7. Leave evenings free. I’ve heard that the hoity-toities do papers into the evening, and honestly, I don’t know how they do it—by the time we finish for the day, I’m fried. Guess that’s why they’re hoity-toity. [I have since learned that’s not correct—they are mortal like the rest of us!] Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy.

So, there it is. The Well is one of the best things I do as a clergy person and one of my happiest weeks of the year. And I say that despite the fact that I preach the lectionary less than half the time. The scripture study is awesome and stimulating, and of course, spending time with other people who “get it” and with whom you can be real is HUGE. I think I laugh more that week than I do the rest of the year.

Note: Friday Link Love will be back in two weeks.

Presby-Agitation: A List of Links and Resources for the Board of Pensions

If you’re connected with me on Facebook, you’ve gotten updates from me about the proposed change to the Presbyterian Board of Pensions medical plan. We currently have a communally-based plan, in which the burdens and costs are shared in an equitable way, but this could change, and change quickly. In fact, the proposal means that in many cases the costs will be borne by those who are least able to manage them. This change will be very difficult for many young pastors, pastors with families, and small churches.

I’ve felt very discombobulated with all of the stuff floating around out there, and worry that any advocacy efforts will be blunted as a result. So here is my attempt to put a bunch of stuff together in one place. Please let me know what key items I am missing.

Here’s your kit for your own presby-agitation around this issue:

Understand What is Being Proposed:

  1. Here is the original news article that describes the proposed change. Read the comments for a sampling of responses. In a nutshell, the Board will decide next month whether to reduce dues across the board from 21% to 19% and cover dependents at 65%, leaving the rest of the cost for churches and/or pastors to cover. They claim if they do not do this, dues will have to go up to 25% across the board. Which they say could be crippling for churches. So instead, their plan would severely cripple a subset of plan members, in many cases people who are least able to bear the brunt. This flies in the face of call neutrality and the communal nature of the plan, both of which are long-held and cherished values.
  2. And here is an Excel spreadsheet which allows you to calculate what the proposed change might mean for you or your pastor. UPDATE: Here is another from the same source that purports to be more complete and accurate.

Get Organized:

  1. Cynthia Holder Rich writes about how we need to approach our advocacy on this issue. See her footnote for many other articles on this issue.
  2. Join the Facebook Group that’s been organizing and conversing on this issue. There may be a group coming together to attend the BOP meeting in Philadelphia on March 8-9.

Make Your Voice Heard:

  1. Here is the change.org petition. Petitions have limited value in such cases; on the other hand, they’re easy to sign, so no harm in adding your name. We know that the Board is aware of this petition.
  2. Here is the address list of Board members. These are the people you want to contact with letters. Include both stories of how this will impact real families and churches, as well as counter-proposals. We have heard from allies and other knowledgeable parties that they want and need to hear both.
  3. Write a letter to Andrew Browne, corporate secretary of the Board of Pensions, at abrowne@pensions.org. In the words of my friend Ken Sikes, “The quantity of letters they receive as much as the content will indicate the power of our protest.  Ten letters would be a whisper, 100 moderately audible, but imagine how loud 1000 letters would shout.” Andrew’s snail mail address is The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Attn: Andrew Browne, Corporate Secretary, 2000 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-3298

Some Examples:

I believe the Board when they say that something needs to change in order to respond to rising health care costs. With the caveat that I am no insurance expert, here is my modest counter-proposal:

Our current dues are set at 21% of salary. The proposal is to go to 19% across the board and set dependent coverage at 65%. The board committee who studied this warned that if they did not act, dues would go up for everyone, to 25%. It makes no sense to bemoan a fiscal crisis in one breath and lower rates in the next. So how about we raise rates from 21% to 23% across the board, and if dependent coverage is what’s bankrupting us*,  then cover dependents at 80%. Call neutrality takes a hit, but it’s much easier to come up with 20% of dependent coverage than 35%.

*By the way, I don’t think it is dependents. Or at least, not completely. It’s aging boomers, who are living longer, and I celebrate that. We made a commitment to care for them; they have served the church faithfully. So let’s do that—all of us. Shared burden, shared sacrifice.

I have no idea whether this would get the job done. This is a back-of-the-napkin proposal, but it has the benefit of preserving the communal nature of the plan.

(Another friend proposed that if 25% is what it takes to cover people, then raise rates to 25%, for heaven’s sake!)

Here is another counter-proposal, actually three, written by my friend Ken Sikes. It’s within a letter that he wrote, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of letters we should be writing, so I quote it in its entirety below.

Again, please let me know what critical links I’ve missed.



January 18, 2012

The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Attn: Andrew Browne, Corporate Secretary

2000 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-3298

Dear Mr. Browne,

My name is Ken Sikes and I am the pastor of Manitou Park Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA.  For several months, my wife and I have been a bit anxious about the recommended changes to the medical plan.  I am writing to request that the board adopt a different and more equitable plan.   If the board chooses to adopt the current plan, the consequences will be dire for my family, our church and our community.

According to the estimates I heard on the Webinar and personally from my regional representative, Mark Frey, covering myself, my wife and my three children will cost an additional $475 per month.   There is no way we can meet this bill. I know the church will get charged only 19% instead of 21% but this is only about a $75/month savings still leaving us with $400 left to pay.  This is no where close to feasible for us or the congregation.  I implore you to choose a different option.

When I asked Mark what I could do to stop the board from affirming the recent recommendations of the Healthcare Committee he said the best thing to do is to share my story with the board.  He gave me your contact information and said you would ensure my story, and others, were shared with the board before their vote in March.  I thank you in advance for passing along my story.

Through a series of experiences to long to share in this letter I felt God’s call to pastor a small, struggling, urban congregation.   Aware of the financial constraints of redevelopment congregations, my wife and I prepared for this call while in seminary by making sure all of our school, car and credit card loans were paid off before I searched for a call.  This allowed a fair amount of freedom in our search which God blessed with a call to Manitou Park in 2003 at the presbytery minimum salary.   Since arriving we have been blessed with three children who have made Manitou their home as well.  Despite the single income, we have been able to stretch this salary to cover the cost of our modest expenses.  Through simplicity, the kindness of family and God’s grace we have been able to end each year with no more money in the bank, but no less.  With the Lord’s help, we are making it.  And this is why it hurts so bad to hear that the straw that might break our back comes from the very organization pledged to support us.  If the current plan passes I fear we will not be able to remain at Manitou.  For the sake of our call to this ministry I implore you to choose a different plan. 

Manitou is a small struggling congregation in a low-income neighborhood of Tacoma.  From its formation in 1912, it has been committed to the people of this community.  Though that commitment has never been met with financial wealth it has resulted in the sharing and nurture of faith in Jesus Christ to thousands of people over its ten decades of life.  Our food bank serves over 3,500 a year. Our building serves as meeting space for two Narcotics Anonymous groups, a summer tutoring program and a Latino congregation.  For the last five summers several dozen neighborhood kids have participated in our Arts Camp which shares God’s love through drama, pottery, music and the other arts.  All of this, and more, has been done on a budget of less than $90,000.  Everyone from pre-schoolers to the homebound have shared not only with financial gifts but with their time in volunteering to keep this budget so low.   Such efforts have led to a reduction in our deficit from over $40,000 five years ago to less than $12,000 last year.  Every year has led us a little closer to the goal of a balanced budget.  That will all change if you vote to approve the recommendations of your Healthcare committee.  If Manitou were to attempt to continue to cover my wife and three children, it would cost the church approximately $4800 more per year.  Manitou, very simply will not be able to pay this.  If this change takes place, there is a good chance that Manitou will soon move the full-time position to part-time making it impossible for me to remain their pastor.  For the sake of the Manitou congregation and community I implore you to choose a more equitable plan.

I, and my colleagues, recognize health care costs are rising and the board must do something about it.  Some one must carry the burden.  Unfortunately, the current recommendation unfairly distributes this burden.  As one who preaches each week, I can’t help but steal a tactic from Jesus and offer this parable.

The plan of the health care committee is like ten hikers ascending a mountain, each of them carrying 21 pounds on their backs.  Half-way up the mountain they come across an additional 40 pounds that must be carried.  Instead of distributing the weight evenly by giving 4 pounds to each hiker, the leader only divided the weight amongst 4 hikers by adding 10 pounds to each of their packs.  Oddly, the leader then proceeded to remove 2 pounds from 6 of the hikers and put 3 more pounds in the packs of the 4 hikers bringing their total load to 33 pounds while the other six carried only 19. Where is the kingdom of heaven in this parable?  For the sake of our commitment to share one another’s burdens I implore you to choose a plan that shares the load more equitably 

I was encouraged by a mentor never to critique a problem without offering a potential solution.   Here are three.

Option 1. Keep the 21% rate for all congregations yet require members to pay an affordable flat rate for spouse and dependents.  We recognize there is a need for change and we are willing to incur some additional cost to cover dependents.  My hope is that this flat rate can be brought to a more reasonable amount.

Option 2. If 21% leaves the flat rate too high, then raise the rate one percentage point to 22% for everyone.

Option 3. Phase the change over time to give ministers and congregations time to adjust.  Keep the rate at 21% in 2014, but begin to require members to cover spouses but not dependents at an affordable rate.  In 2015, keep the rate at 21% but begin to require members to cover children at an affordable rate.  Make another adjustment in 2016 if necessary.

Let me close by thanking you for your service on the board of pensions, I believe this is your way of serving God by serving others.  As you meet and discern God’s will in this plan I strongly encourage you to listen for God’s voice so that what Paul wrote to the Corinthians might be true for Presbyterians, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 1:26)

Thank you,

Rev. Kenneth W. Sikes

Pastor, Manitou Park Presbyterian Church

Thank You for Asking… A Response to Larissa Kwong Abazia

question-markLast week I wrote a guest post at Jan Edmiston’s blog. Today Jan shares her space again for a great post. Larissa Kwong Abazia writes about the sticky (and in some cases illegal) questions that search committees have asked her in interviews:

I’ve recently started interviewing for ministry positions and felt I was prepared for the onslaught of what I deem “inappropriate questions” from churches.  As a 30-something woman of color, I am familiar with comments that pose doubts about my age or experience, ability to minister to people older than me, slotting me right into youth ministry roles, assuming that hiring me will automatically grow the young adult population, or blatant misunderstandings surrounding race.  I’ve learned to take them as par for the course, as sad as it may seem in the life of the Church.  I was not ready, however, for questions surrounding my role as a mother.

Every single interview (Did you read that?  EVERY SINGLE INTERVIEW) that I have had in the past several months has included some form of the question, “How do you feel about going back to work?” or “What will your son do once you start working?”

I started to comment on the post but it got long. I want to give Larissa’s post a hearty “Yes… and.”

Every person’s experience is different. I know many women who have experienced a level of sexism, paternalism, and intrusiveness that I simply have not. That said, I’ve been asked similar questions, though not in an interview setting. In almost every case, the person was asking out of curiosity, concern, and in good faith.

Curiosity: The idea of women serving as pastors is beyond a no-brainer for me, but it’s still new to many people. Many of them are not looking for a reason to weed you out, or a reason for you not to succeed. They are simply trying to picture how the life of the pastor works, what with night meetings and hospital emergencies. Our busiest times in ministry coincide with the school’s winter break and spring break. (Fairfax County schedules spring break during Holy Week every flippin’ year. Grrrr.) So… “how do you do that?” they want to know.

Concern: Many church people I meet are genuinely interested in the well-being of the pastor and her family. Many church folks get the stereotypes surrounding the minister’s family—how kids are put under the microscope and spouses are expected to be a de facto “second pastor”—and conscientious ones want to mitigate that through expressions of care and concern.

Yes, in some cases, “How do you feel about going back to work?” is a trap. But not necessarily. Remember, the church is a community, a place where people care about people. Many people sitting on search committees have felt ambivalence about going back to work—and joy at being there. The question is not necessarily a wall. It can be a bridge.

Good faith: Again, I know women who have been the victim of appalling examples of sexism. That has not been my story, for whatever reason. I wonder all the time why that is. It could be that I’m simply clueless, that there’s sexism going on and I’m not paying attention. Or I got lucky with the congregations I’ve served. Or I’ve decided to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when those potentially iffy questions and comments come my way I see it as someone trying to establish contact and relationship, albeit in a fumbling or even frustrating way. Probably it’s a combination of all three.

(This is an aside, but I was asked some time ago how I view my leadership style as a woman—how do I understand authority and assertiveness, especially with people who may not be keen on a woman pastor? My approach is twofold:

1. a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor

2. really knowing my… stuff.

Both are vital. The former is what disarms one’s detractors; the latter ensures that they can’t write you off.)  

Recently I highlighted a pair of articles that touched on issues of clergy health and clergy burnout. I suggested that the traditional understandings of authenticity, boundaries and pastor-parishioner friendship are changing as the demographics of pastors change. So how do questions like the ones Larissa writes about play into these changing boundaries?

Am I suggesting that religious communities should be allowed to ask illegal questions in interviews? Well, no. But I want search committees to care about work-life balance. And if I have children, their child-care arrangements are a part of that. That’s just a fact.

Larissa writes:

It seems as though the underlying concern in [intrusive] questions is a distrust that a woman can care for her congregation if she is also a mother (and therefore caring for her family).  Perhaps, then, congregations should consider if they are asking for too much time and energy from their leaders that won’t allow them to maintain healthy boundaries outside of the church.  We aren’t parents of, but partners in ministry with our congregations.  It’s long overdue that we begin thinking about the ways we support our clergy, male and female, in their calls in ways that allow them to be whole people both inside and outside of the church walls.


I completely agree with the second part (we are partners in ministry), but am not at all sold on the first part (the questions show distrust). Of course, it depends. But if we are partners in ministry, don’t we have to hold one another accountable? Aren’t questions about self-care part of accountability?

I guess I’m arguing for more questions, not fewer. They need to be good ones, of course, Generative ones. But ask. Ask everyone. Congregations should be similarly concerned about male pastors, with or without children. They should care about single parents, and single folks without children.

I want churches to care about, and ask about, the self-care of their leaders.

Face Time — A Guest Post by the Righteous Jan Edmiston


Jan Edmiston, pre-broken nose.

Jan Edmiston is the ‘curator’ of A Church for Starving Artists — which is a must-read if you are passionate about ministry and church transformation — and a great friend. We decided to do a blog swap this week. That’s like a pulpit swap, but in our pajamas. My post is here. Take it away Jan!


Note:  MaryAnn and I first met as pastors in National Capital Presbytery, quickly meeting regularly in a group we called Lex Girls.  Later we were in an excellent writing group together.  I consider her a hero and treasured friend.  -Jan Edmiston (Aww thanks! I’ll always be grateful to the Lex Girls because I walked in to the first meeting, VERY new in ordained ministry and in the presbytery and feeling unsure of myself. Within minutes one of our members had shown us her skydiving video and another had dropped a choice expletive, and I thought, “These are my people.” -MA)

I broke my nose Wednesday, so my mind’s been on Face Time – not just in terms of the temporary new look on my own face.  Ministry involves using more than using a phone and computer.  We who do professional ministry are pastorally and institutionally required to do lots of Face Time with our people.  Even Skype falls short.

Actually my favorite part of ministry is the Face Time.  I love talking face to face with pre-inquirers pondering professional ministry. I enjoy the face time with elders trying to be faithful as they look for fresh ways to expand their ministry.  Face time with pastors excited about a new call is like dessert.

What’s also true is that Face Time is:

1) elusive because the administrative tasks overtake our lives

2) emotionally draining because that’s what it means to be compassionate.

We need to pace ourselves.

If you’ve ever been at the hospital bedside of your own child or parent or spouse, you know that you wouldn’t be anywhere else but holding that beloved person’s hand.  But it wipes you out.

People in pastoral ministry – pastors, deacons, Stephen Ministers, elders – do this with multiple families at the same time.

If you’ve ever had a vision for What the Church Could Be, you know that you wouldn’t do anything else, but shifting a church culture or starting something totally new can be exhausting.

People in church development and re-development – church planters, core leaders – know that this is relentless work.

Real Life Ministry demands some serious Face Time in which we must be focused wholly on other people.  To avoid utter depletion, we need to figure out how in the world we can cling to and practice our Sabbath.  You could start by reading this book.  And I’m not just saying this because I’m guest blogging on her site. (Heh. -MA)

It’s a holy thing when we pace ourselves. My hope is that my medically required Ice-Bag-On-My-Face Time will also prove to be a holy thing.

How is the Administrivia-Face Time balance going in your life?

The Trouble with the Trenches

A chair just for you! (You can move it indoors. Chicago is cold in January.)

A chair just for you! (You can move it indoors. Chicago is cold in January.)

Some words for everyone, but written especially for the Presbyterian teaching elders, pastors and church professionals in the Chicago area…  


It was the week before Christmas. There were details to attend to: Who will read scripture on Christmas Eve? Do we have enough little paper tutus for the candles? There were additional pastoral duties: the visit to the woman in the Alzheimers care facility to bring her communion. The check-in with the folks whose son died just a few months ago, to see how they were doing amid all the holly-jolliness.

And then of course, there was Newtown. I suspect untold numbers of pastors scrapped their sermons that week in favor of Saturday Night Specials, fumbling in the midnight hour for the right words of lament and hope to offer in worship the next day, illumined by the candle of joy. Joy, of all things.

In the midst of all that, I was grateful to have several kind friends check in with me: “How ya holding up?” they asked. “I’ve been thinking about you. What are you doing to take care of yourself? This has got to be a heavy, busy time of year.”

It was.



(Luminous too. But still.)

I feel fortunate and humbled to have friends such as these. What’s significant about these particular friends is that every single one of them is someone outside of pastoral ministry, outside of the church, outside of religion altogether.

You’ve probably read articles about the rise of the “nones,” people who claim no religious tradition. It was my friends the “nones” who asked about my well-being, who doggedly inquired about my mental health, who provided pastoral care for the pastor.

We forget sometimes, down there in the trenches of ministry, how tough it can be. We’re capable church professionals, after all. We love what we do. It’s a joy and a privilege, this calling. But sometimes we need people to help us take a step back and breathe. We need that perspective.

I hope that you have some “nones” in your life… or maybe just friends who can help you take a step back and say, “Whoa. You’re dealing with a lot. Go gently, now.” We will do that for each other in just a few weeks at the Presbytery of Chicago clergy retreat. The topic is Sabbath; the agenda is Sabbath.

At this retreat, we will explore the rich and complex biblical, historical and theological underpinnings of the practice of Sabbath. We will reflect on the incredible challenge of keeping Sabbath in our modern world. And we will explore strategies and tools for introducing and supporting regular Sabbath-keeping, not only in our own lives but in the congregations and institutions we serve.

Are you a teaching elder? I look forward to meeting you on January 27. Are you a clerk of session, ruling elder or other church leader reading this? Forward this post to your pastor and encourage him or her to come.

Clergy Burnout, Clergy Health

Yeah right.

Yeah right.

A couple of articles are making the rounds among my friends right now. The first article is by Craig Barnes (the new president of Princeton Seminary) and provides his reflections on why pastors cannot (or should not) be friends with parishioners. Of course there can be close and intimate relationships, and pastor and flock are friendly to one another. But Barnes argues that the clergy role is such that true mutual friendship is impossible, or at least inadvisable.

The second article is about a pastor of a large church in Charlotte who’s on a leave of absence at a treatment center after struggling with depression and alcohol abuse.

Lots I could say about these articles. To the question of friendship, I give it a big “it depends.” It depends on the church and it depends on the pastor. I think small churches ask for more transparent relationships than larger churches do. It also depends on what we mean by friendship. Human beings have a lot of different kinds of friends. Hopefully we have deep soul friends who know all there is to know about us. We also have friends with whom we can relax and be ourselves but who don’t necessarily know where all the bodies are buried. We have friends who help us remember to have fun. We have friends who are friends for a season of our lives. Pastor-parishioner friendships, to the extent that they exist and can be healthy, may be in that category.

As for the second article, I wish Pastor Shoemaker and the congregation well, and I commend the vulnerability and authenticity required to be up front about what he needs at this time.

But two quotes stuck out to me. First, Craig Barnes:

The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships. Or at least that’s what pastors tell themselves.

It sounds like that’s what he tells himself… since he goes on to say:

I suppose I could have pulled back from the church and tried to meet more people through the PTA, the Little League, a political party or the volunteer fire department. I could even have convinced myself that this is part of my local mission as a Christian. But I love being a pastor, and I love the churches I’ve served. And they are demanding lovers.

The other quote is in the second article and is from Jody Seymour, pastor of Davidson United Methodist Church and someone who works with clergy who are struggling with burnout:

If you’re a good pastor, you’re never ‘off.’ If you’re on vacation and somebody dies, you have to come back.

Really? Because even Jesus took his time getting back after somebody died.

Look. Are pastoral boundaries important? Absolutely. And different kinds of friendships have their boundaries too.

And have I responded to a pastoral crisis while on vacation? Yes.

But generally speaking, both of these comments (and perhaps the articles in general) reveal a model of ministry that is, frankly, passing away as the guild becomes younger and less male-dominated. Younger people want a leader they can relate to more than one who holds up a lofty ideal; they seek identification more than inspiration. And women, well, we have a different way of negotiating boundaries than do men. Again, I’m speaking generally.

Also, as churches get smaller and more and more pastors become part-time, the dynamics will change even more.

What do you think?