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.

Friday Link Love

Away we go:


Winners of the National Geographic Photo Contest — The Atlantic

My favorite:


New Orleans Pastor Known as ‘Da Condom Father’ Couldn’t Just Watch People Die —

According to the article, black people are 32 percent of the Louisiana population but, according to the state Department of Health and Human Hospitals, account for 73 percent of the newest HIV cases and 76 percent of the cases that progressed to AIDS. So this pastor hands out condoms to his parishioners and community. For him the ethics is clear:

Is such the Lord’s work? Davenport is convinced it is. What is he supposed to do? Stand back and see his people die ? Preach to them about sexual purity — then stand back and see his people die?


Julia Child Visits Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood — The Fred Rogers Company

A video from the archives, in honor of that wonderful dame’s 100th birthday:


The ‘Open’ Office is a Source of Stress — Time

The modern open office was designed for team building and camaraderie but is mostly distinguished by its high noise levels, lack of privacy and surfeit of both digital and human distractions. And indeed, several decades of research have confirmed that open-plan offices are generally associated with greater employee stress, poorer co-worker relations and reduced satisfaction with the physical environment.

Do you work in an open office environment? What do you think of it, dear readers?


War Some of the Time — Writers Almanac

A great one from Bukowski:

when you write a poem it
needn’t be intense
can be nice and
and you shouldn’t necessarily
concerned only with things like anger or
love or need;
at any moment the
greatest accomplishment might be to simply
up and tap the handle
on that leaking toilet;

More at the link.


Why Be Grateful? — Jana Riess

There’s actual science between the practice of gratitude:

In one experiment, students were given different topics on which they had to write a paper. Some students were then given scathing criticism of their papers, while others were praised lavishly.

Then all the students were given the opportunity to go up against their teachers/ graders in a computer game. Not surprisingly, the students who had been sharply criticized retaliated in kind during the game, blasting the heck out of the perpetrators who had made their lives miserable. The ones who had been praised were not aggressive in the game.

And then things got really interesting. There was one exception to the rule about students who had been criticized turning around and retaliating.  This was a small group of the mocked students who had been assigned in their papers to enumerate the things they were grateful for in their lives.

Here’s the thing: those students who had written about gratitude didn’t react negatively to the criticism they received on their papers. They did not retaliate in the computer game.

Apparently, the simple act of counting their blessings had given them enough positive reinforcement about their lives that any criticism of their papers just rolled right off them.

I’ve been working on gratitude this week. It’s been hard. I am very concerned for a family in our church whose little boy is battling ALD and he continues to struggle. I feel very weighed down on their behalf. But I’m trying.

Videos like this help:


My Own Rice — Church World Service

I love Church World Service. They are a modest organization but very effective, with low overhead. Remember that old Cadillac slogan, “quietly doing things very well”? That’s CWS.

Here’s a story of a young boy in Myanmar who was one of two survivors of a flood in his village. He received a micro-loan and is now growing his own rice.


Peace be with you, friends.

Treehouses, Letting Go, and the Definition of Food: Friday Link Love

Let’s start with a feel-good:

97 Year Old Woman Gets a Diploma — Washington Post

She had to drop out during the Depression:

“When I told her she was getting a diploma, she sobbed as if a pain had been relieved from her heart,” [her daughter] said. “I never knew what it meant to her. She wanted this.”


The Minister’s Treehouse — Colossal

A self house! Built over 11 years and without blueprints:

More at the link.


What is Food? — New York Times

Mark Bittman doesn’t mince words in his support of Mayor Bloomberg’s limiting the size of sugary drinks that are sold in New York:

If the mayor were to ban 32-ounce mugs of beer at Yankee Stadium after a number of D.U.I. arrests — and, indeed, there are limits to drinking at ballparks — we would not be hearing his nanny tendencies. (And certainly most non-smokers, at least, are ecstatic that smoking in public places — including Central Park — is increasingly forbidden.) No one questions the prohibition on the use of SNAP for tobacco and alcohol. And that’s because we accept that these things are not food.

Sugar-sweetened beverages don’t meet [the standard of ‘food’] any more than do beer and tobacco and, for that matter, heroin, and they have more in common with these things than they do with carrots.


You’re Not Special — Boston Herald

A high school commencement speech from David McCullough, Jr.

…do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.

It’s downright theological, the way it critiques an overly indulgent, everyone-gets-a-trophy culture… but then flips “you’re not special” at the end:

Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Watch the video interview too, as he talks about privilege.


A New Ministry Scorecard — Progressive Renewal

How’s your church doing?

% of people who can articulate a clear sense of vision and purpose for the church

% of active participants in all areas of the life of the church

% of first and second time guests

h/t: Jan Edmiston


The Art of Letting Go — Harvard Business Review

“You know what,” I heard myself saying, “I don’t think our work is right for you at this point.” He looked slightly stunned. In all honesty, so was I.

I couldn’t quite believe I’d let go of a potential client who had explicitly expressed interest in our work. But by the end of the evening, I felt lighter, as if I’d done the right thing for both of us.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. After reading this, I said no to an opportunity that had been shoulding on me for weeks. Wonderfully freeing.


Speaking of letting go…

The Good Short Life — New York Times

After posting this sad story written about a mother’s slow, sad and (yes) expensive decline unto death, “The Good Short Life” is a wise and pithy “yes-and”:

No, thank you. I hate being a drag. I don’t think I’ll stick around for the back half of Lou [Gehrig’s Disease].

I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

It’s an uplifting article, really. I discovered it while reading this post, about seeing life’s most profound challenges as not debilitating, but “interesting.” Easier said than done, but…


I’m on vacation next week, and The Blue Room will be closing up shop while I’m gone. Be good, and savor your life.

Friday Link Love

Jo Rowling

First, I love all the responses to the Sunday School post. Let’s keep that conversation going, shall we?

And now…

J.K. Rowling’s Writing Process in Her Own Words — Shelley Souza

This is just a fun read for HP fans, and obviously of interest for writers too:

Her compelling cast of characters came to life in her imagination because she never faltered in her belief that Harry Potter was the story she was meant to write.

It took me five years to work out this very long plot. On that train, I came up with lots of the characters you meet at the school. Loads and loads of detail, but not really the narrative. It’s as though, subconsciously, for years, I had been preparing for writing Harry Potter.

During those five years this mass of material was generated, some of which will never find its way into the books, will never need to be in the books. It’s just stuff I need to know, for my own pleasure—partly for my own pleasure and partly because I like reading a book where I have a sense that the author knows everything. They might not be telling me everything but you have that confidence that the author really knows everything.

Good list, geared toward pastors. They all resonate, especially the one about not just reading leadership/administration books. I easily get sucked into those, because they are required for the transformation training I’m doing, they’re easy to read, and yes, they’re useful. Instead I have this weird idea that in this, the first year of my fifth decade, I want to only read literature that was written before I was born. Sort of a way of getting perspective on just how short a time I’ve been on this planet. So much of what I read is of the moment. Not sure I’ll do that but the thought intrigues me.
The Seven Laws of Leanness — Women’s Health Magazine
Good reminders here. There really is no trick to it, folks.
So every six months I have an automatic tickler that reminds Robert and me to have the safety reminder discussion with the kids. How do you call 911 and why? What’s the fire plan? What about going with strangers?
I clipped this article several months ago, which talks about how confusing the “don’t talk to strangers” thing is. Because sometimes you have to.

It’s all part of rewriting the rules of stranger danger. “That message is not effective,” says Cirillo. “Stranger danger portrays a man jumping out of a bush with a trenchcoat on, and children are trained to look just for that.”

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children agrees; like Cirillo, the Center focuses on teaching kids to speak up for themselves and never go anywhere with anyone they’re not supposed to be with. But cases like Leiby’s happen and we need to talk to our kids about how to handle them — namely, scream loudly, “You’re not my mom” until someone pays attention and never, no matter what, get into a car or go into someone’s home unless you’ve got parental permission.

But in refining the stranger danger axiom, Cirillo prefers to teach children about “tricky people” rather than zero in on sinister strangers. Who are they? “Anyone who tries to get you to break your safety rules,” she says.


And on a happier note… if you are a pastor, educator or worship leader with kids in your congregation, you need to be reading Worshiping with Children. It’s just chock full.


Have a wonderful weekend, folks.

“A Church We Cannot Yet Envision”

When I was looking at seminaries 11 years ago (oy!) one of them had the tagline, “We are training leaders for a church we cannot yet envision.”

I didn’t end up going there, but I’ve wondered if they really did do that. I don’t think the tagline would have fit the seminary I attended. It’s not that I feel unprepared for ministry in the 21st century—I don’t. We talked a lot about the current cultural landscape and the need to do ministry differently, and the theological and scriptural grounding I received has served me well… but in talking to friends, who attended a variety of schools, seminaries trained us well for a church that is disappearing, less so for the church as it currently is.

(Maybe this is an unsolvable problem—people always gripe about what they don’t teach you in seminary, but maybe there’s only so much you can do before you’re on the job in a particular context. Unless you have psychic powers, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to need.)

The seminary I attended—which is a place I loved and continue to support—sent out a survey this morning asking a couple of questions.

“[Name of] Seminary is a community that educates and nurtures persons to be faithful, effective and productive leaders of the Church and world. [that’s part of its vision statement] Thinking about this statement, for what do students need to be prepared in our changing world?”
Here’s what I dashed off:
  • living and translating the gospel of Jesus Christ in an often hostile or indifferent culture
  • congregational revitalization–how to faithfully serve and lead churches that are graying and/or dying
  • small church ministry… since most churches are
  • tentmaking–how to support oneself when more and more calls are part-time
  • family systems work
  • leadership skills
  • entrepreneurial skills, that would serve both new church development and revitalization efforts
  • social media and faithful use of technology

What do you think? What would you add?

Friday Link Love

Lots of juicy links this week…

Female Pastors in the PCUSA: Some Stats

Women ministers report the same level of job satisfaction as their male counterparts… yet there continues to be a gender gap at the “highest level” of ministry (head of staff of large congregations). What do you make of this? I snarkily summarized on Twitter: “We haven’t been able to break the stained-glass ceiling, but at least we’re happy about it!”


Good Hours, Not More Hours

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about life over the past several years is that your good hours are the only valuable ones.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. There are a few hours during the day where you’re revved up. Your mind is clicking. You’re efficient at solving problems. You’re able to produce great things.

At other points in the day, though, you’re nowhere near as able to produce good work. You sit there staring at the computer screen or at your desk, not really achieving anything. You feel tired and muddled.

I’m going to take this article as evidence that my part-time hours are of higher overall quality than other people’s full-time hours 😉


How Your Happiness Can Save the World

Finally, a book/article about the impending climate crisis and accompanying economic tremors that doesn’t make me want to kill myself. I hope he’s right. I’ve downloaded The Great Disruption onto my Kindle and am saving it for the fall, after my fiction-only summer. Or maybe we’re doomed and this hopeful book IS fiction! Hardy har.


The Backfire Effect: You Are Not So Smart

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.


In 1976, when Ronald Reagan was running for president of the United States, he often told a story about a Chicago woman who was scamming the welfare system to earn her income.

Reagan said the woman had 80 names, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security cards which she used to get food stamps… The story solidified the term “Welfare Queen” in American political discourse and influenced not only the national conversation for the next 30 years, but public policy as well. It also wasn’t true.

Sure, there have always been people who scam the government, but no one who fit Reagan’s description ever existed. The woman most historians believe Reagan’s anecdote was based on was a con artist with four aliases who moved from place to place wearing disguises, not some stay-at-home mom surrounded by mewling children.

Despite the debunking and the passage of time, the story is still alive.

And just like that, I’m back to “we’re doomed” again.


Blessed Are the Uncool

I posted this on Facebook yesterday.

People sometimes assume that because I’m a progressive 30-year-old who enjoys Mumford and Sons and has no children, I must want a super-hip church—you know, the kind that’s called “Thrive” or “Be” and which boasts “an awesome worship experience,” a  fair-trade coffee bar, its own iPhone app, and a pastor who looks like a Jonas Brother.

While none of these features are inherently wrong, (and can of course be used by good people to do good things), these days I find myself longing for a church with a cool factor of about 0.

That’s right.

I want a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants,  and…brace yourself…painfully amateur “special music” now and then.


Read the rest to find out.

And as I said on FB yesterday, the church that ejected a 12 year old boy with cerebral palsy on Easter because he was “distracting” makes Baby Jesus cry.


And something to make you smile…

Conan O’Brien’s Dartmouth Commencement Speech

A standout in this genre.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Feasting Giveaway: We Have a Winner!

I’ve enjoyed reading all the nominations of people to receive the Feasting on the Word set. It made me wish I had copies to give to everyone… for everyone seemed to be doing great ministry and would have made good use of the series. (Hint, hint, to friends of mine who have the series but plan to buy the CD-ROM…)

I basically wrote down every nomination I received via comments, twitter and gmail, and assigned each nomination a number (people who were nominated several times were listed multiple times). Then I used a random number generator to pick one of these people.

The winner is…Catherine Foster!!!!

Catherine was not only nominated by several people, she also counter-nominated one of her own nominators (so he got listed twice too). Which is lovely and gracious in my humble opinion.

Catherine, contact me at reverendmother03 (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll make arrangements.

I was also touched to receive an e-mail from a reader, offering to pay shipping. How lovely.

Life is beautiful.