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.


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?

I Kinda Wish I Was Fat

Several months ago I wrote a post wondering whether we could reclaim the word “fat.” I’m still not sure it’s something the culture can or will ever get on board with. But if nothing else, it’s worth pondering as a mental exercise: can we redeem words that have been used to shame?

That question has spiritual implications, by the way.

Anyway, if you were still trying to get your mind around my argument, check out this video (3 minutes) of a woman responding to YouTube commenters calling her fat. (Once again let me remind you that Internet comments are the best proof for total depravity that we have. Score 1 for the Calvinists.)

I almost wish I were still [overweight, fat, BMI 29, insert descriptor here] just to stand with this sassy gal.

BTW, rarely have I heard the words “f*** you” delivered with such joie de vivre. It’s bleeped out, but still. If that offends you, don’t watch.

(h/t: Keith)

Generation Gap among Pastors: Some Anecdata

the generation gap

Recently I was with a group of pastors and we were talking about activities we found spiritually nourishing and restorative. We generated a long list, both stuff we did and stuff we wanted to do but found it hard to make a priority (sadly).

All of these pastors are talented, dedicated people. All are folks you’d probably enjoy being around. I know I do. Here’s what I noticed: when it came to the list of spiritual practices we cherished, the Boomer-aged pastors listed things like daily scripture reading, mission trips, and group Bible studies—churchy activities, all—and the younger pastors (Gen X and younger) listed those things, but added stuff like attending plays, connecting with friends (in person and [gasp!] on Facebook), and doing art.

There are a number of different ways to take this. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

1. It was a small, non-representative group and there is no broader trend.
2. Older pastors, who’ve been in “the system” longer, don’t feel as much permission to be expansive in their view of spiritual practices. (Is it a surprise that the younger pastors are the ones who brought up S-E-X as a way of nurturing one’s spirit?)
3. A related possibility: the further along you move in your career and the further “up” you go, the less time you have for stuff that’s considered superfluous. (Let’s face it, scripture reading does have a personal benefit, but it also has direct utility for your congregation.)
4. Young pastors have a particular gift for connecting a broad set of creative and cultural activities to the life of the Spirit.

If it’s #4, I am encouraged about the future of the church’s ministry and mission.


On the Eve of the Trip

Robert and I leave Thursday for a true dream trip, our “P2” trip to Paris and Prague. We’ll be in Paris on our own and in Prague with family.

We are grateful beyond words to The Grandmothers, who will be holding down the fort with the three amigos. We’re also thankful for our village of teachers, carpoolers, Brownie leaders, bus drivers, childcare providers, and surrogate grandparents who will care for them faithfully in our absence.

It feels very indulgent, even selfish, to be gone from them for a trip like this.

Then again… this wild and precious life is the only one we get.

I don’t intend to blog while I’m there, but I have pre-set some posts to go live while I’m gone, and I was thinking I might post a photo or two while over there. We’ll see.

I’ve written here about my work with The Happiness Project. Rubin is big on monthly resolutions, which I call intentions because it sounds a little more gracious and less rigid. I have a couple of intentions for the trip:

1. To have a “splendidly imperfect” trip. The term comes from the writer/artist SARK. In this context, it reminds me that snafus happen and that it’s OK and can be the beginning of an adventure. It also reminds me to live more fully in this experience, even if it means risking a faux pas. (I am nervous that we don’t know the language, and I can already predict that I will mistakenly lapse into Spanish in my effort to communicate.)

2. To experience the trip “Sabbathly,” that is, to be more about soaking things up rather than checking them off.

3. To spend quality time with Robert.

Robert and I have been amused to find our roles reversed for this trip. He is a P on the Myers-Briggs; I am a J. And yet this time around, he has been the primary driver on making plans, and I have felt very reluctant to do any planning at all, preferring to let our intuition and mood guide us. Part of that is because preparing our household for 10 days of smooth functioning is about all I can handle logistically.

Part of it is also the demon of perfectionism. I’m the procrastinating sort of perfectionist, which means I get stuck in my head, where everything can still be theoretically perfect. (Can I get an Amen?) There is no way we will be able to “do Paris well” in five days, so why even try? Heck, the Louvre alone is said to take 9 months!

This becomes a self-defeating attitude. Without at least a smidgen of planning, we will miss some cool stuff. So we have some general ideas of things we want to do, but will see how the weather and our energy levels guide us each day. I think we have met in the middle as we almost always do—it’s just funny that we started on opposite sides of the organizational divide this time.

Are you a planner while on vacation? Do you set goals or intentions?

And is there an adventure (far-flung or close to home) that your wild and precious life is calling you to?

Would You Work Part-Time if You Could?

Someone told me recently, “I work 10 hours a day and can barely keep up. I love what I do in my job, I just wish there were less of it.”

When I hear things like this I feel grateful that I am able to work part-time. I work 2/3 time and because I work evenings, weekends, and am always “on call,” the mid-week hours are more flexible. So I can take my kids to the park, or get my haircut in the middle of the day and avoid the rush. I don’t have to find time to squeeze in some exercise—it’s built into each and every day.

Yes, it’s challenging sometimes. There is a sense of “falling behind” career-wise. And as a friend and fellow PT pastor put it, “It’s hard, feeling like if you just had a liiiiiiittle more time to spend, this thing you’re working on could be REALLY great.” I knew what she meant. And I know part-time work is not economically viable for everyone. I choose to work part-time because I like it—it allows me to live a more well-rounded life—but I’m able to work PT because my spouse doesn’t. And I feel a pang of guilt when he pulls out of the driveway at 6:50 a.m. to beat the traffic to work, before the kids are even awake. (Getting them out of the house singlehandedly is no trip to the spa, mind you, but that’s another post.)

I hear people talking about what we’re learning from the economic downturn. Some of us hope there will be a resurgence in old-fashioned stuff like saving and living within one’s means. One thing I’m hearing again and again is that many of the jobs that are gone are not coming back. High unemployment could be with us for years. What are we going to do about it?

I’m wading into territory I know little about, but I’ve wondered whether we’ll see the rise of part-time work, and whether we can find ways to make that a healthy change and not just a “best we can do”  thing. There’s nothing sacred and eternal about the forty-hour work week. It became the national standard only in the 1930s, though its roots are much older. It was meant to protect workers from being forced to work too much, not to force them to work “enough.” Futurists in the last century predicted that labor-saving devices would allow us to work less and have much more leisure time, yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. We work more than the citizens of any other industrialized country and take much less vacation.

Could more part-time work be part of the answer? Churches all over the place are downshifting full-time staff positions to part-time ones, often with a great sense of shame. Of course these are people’s jobs we’re talking about. But I know folks who would work PT if they could—if they could work out the personal budgetary issues and if their workplace would let them. The person I quoted above would never dream of asking to work part-time because it would be seen as a lack of loyalty, or that the individual “can’t cut it.” If PT workers become more of a norm, maybe that reluctance would change.

Of course one of the major barriers is economic—would people make enough to live on? (That’s where the simplicity/saving stuff comes into play.) And we’d either have to make PT employees eligible for health insurance, or de-couple healthcare from employment (I favor the latter, but that too is another post.)

If the jobs really aren’t coming back… what will we do?

Would you work part-time if you could? And are there other barriers besides economics that stop you from doing so?

No is a Complete Sentence

So I’m doing this sermon series called “What’s Love Got to Do with It: Creating Functional Families and Communities of Peace.” We’re dealing with the command to “love our neighbor” and looking at some of the complexities of that (it sounds simple but it’s not, eh?) I have not yet donned a Tina Turner wig…

Anyway, here is this week’s offering:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
September 19, 2010
What’s Love Got to Do with It: Sermon Series
Exodus 18:13-27

No is a Complete Sentence: Setting Healthy Boundaries

The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’ 15Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’ 17Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. 18You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’

24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.

I love this story and I don’t understand why we don’t hear it more often. The situation is such a modern one. It would make a great addition to one of those “Jesus as CEO” management books, in a chapter called “The Importance of Delegating.” The story has such a genuine ring to it—these biblical heroes so often seem too good to be true—or too dastardly—but here we see just a little bit of Moses, the stressed-out middle manager. He doesn’t have it all figured out. He’s a bit of a workaholic. He doesn’t know how to say no. My pastoral care professors in seminary would say, he doesn’t have good boundaries. It feels like it could have been written last week… except that we don’t meet a lot of people named Jethro anymore. Which is a shame, because everybody needs a Jethro.

Jethro takes one look at Moses and sees all the signs of trouble. Maybe it’s the bags under his eyes. The brittleness in his voice as he snaps at others. The way he slumps his shoulders and can’t find enjoyment. Moses is overworked.

Jethro says, What are you doing? And Moses, perhaps a little defensively, says, I am doing God’s work. The people need me. This is important stuff.

Moses has fallen into what I’ve heard described as the Messiah Trap: a net that pulls people in because they believe these two lies: “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done,” and “Everyone’s needs take priority over mine.”[i]

And Jethro says No to that. In one of the most blunt statements in all of scripture, he says, “What you are doing is not good.” Remarkable. Moses is doing good! And yet something about it is not good.

Do you have a Jethro? Someone who can take a long loving look at your life and say, “What you are doing is not good”?

I have a few Jethros—people who help me not to be consumed by good work. But my most effective Jethro is one who is no longer with us. As most of you know, my father died suddenly many years ago. It was two days after accepting my first call to ministry, and two weeks before becoming a parent. Dad died of cardiac arrest. It was shocking, but if I’m completely honest, not truly surprising. He generally ate what he wanted. He didn’t really exercise regularly. He used to be a faithful blood donor until the Houston Blood Bank started putting the cholesterol count on the cards as an “added service”—he didn’t want to know. And he worked too much in a very stressful job.

There’s something powerful in the timing of his death, wedged as it was in between two of the most important events of my life, ordination and parenthood. So he’s my Jethro. At the end of the day, when I am faced with the decision of making just one more phone call, or walking on the treadmill, I think of him. Or when I have an article to write, and the kids want me to read them a story, I think of him.

Who is your Jethro?

* * *

I spoke last week about how we are created for harmony—we are created for community. So I’m not suggesting we remove ourselves from the needs of others. There are people who depend on us. But we can’t let ourselves be consumed. “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.” –Thomas Merton

We have to say No sometimes.

One of the ways we say no, one of the ways we set a healthy boundary around our time, is through the practice of Sabbath: taking time each week to rest from our labor, to let everything go for a little while to rest and to remember that the world will turn without all of our good works. Sabbath shows up two chapters later in Exodus, when Moses receives the Ten Commandments. I have to think that his conversation with Jethro helped him to receive more graciously the commandment to keep the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath day is a gift for the Jewish people even to this day, because it reminds them of the time when their ancestors (Moses’ generation) were slaves to Pharoah’s command—when they were forced to work, not five or six days a week, but every day of the week. There was no freedom, there was no relief, just constant expectations of doing more, producing more, building more. Thus the Jewish observance of Sabbath is not really about “time management.” It’s not even really about resting and recharging one’s batteries. It is an exclamation to the world:

We are not slaves to the empire any more! We are free!

We make that declaration as well when we observe Sabbath time, when we say No to overwork, when we set healthy boundaries for ourselves. To be able to choose not to be captive to constant work—that is freedom. Sabbath is huge for me and for our family. Our Sabbath time fluctuates each week, but it is one of the most important spiritual practice we do as a family.

But it’s not easy just to lay everything aside and simply Stop.

One of the things I try to do is reframe those loose ends that don’t get done. Rather than looking at an unfinished task and seeing something I’ve failed to do, I see instead what that unfinished task represents: namely, something else that’s important that I have done:

For example, when I look at our stack of unread newspapers, I think about the hospital visit I did this week. Or when I see the unanswered e-mail piling up, I think about the trip to Baskin- Robbins I took with the family instead. When I look at a mountain of unsorted and unfolded laundry the size of Everest, I see the delightful novel that I read with my feet up the night before!

…Because saying No to something allows us to say Yes to something else.

Moses gets this, I think—Jethro says, By letting go of some things now, you’ll be able to endure in your ministry much, much longer. Moses stops being a Lone Ranger for the sake of longevity. Notice also that Jethro urges Moses to delegate the little things. He’s still in charge of the big stuff. And this may be a good starting point for those of us who have a hard time saying No. Start with something small! (Yesterday at the International Children’s Festival, someone asked me to fill out a survey. I always do those things, but this time I said “Thank you, but No”! It was so small but felt sooo good…)

Now, up to now we’ve talked about setting boundaries around our time. But we also know that there are sometimes people in our lives who are toxic. I’m not talking about dropping people who are inconvenient or even difficult. I’m talking about destructive relationships that drain the joy and purpose from our lives.

It’s hard to know the faithful response to these situations. I heard an incredible story this week from a church member who had a terribly abrasive colleague. She faced a choice: do I ignore, do I fight back? She decided to smother her with kindness. It was a true “slap on the cheek, offer the other one” experience. And that approach with her colleague improved, and opened up some incredible opportunities for her career.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Many of us grew up with the “good girl/good boy” syndrome. We were taught to be nice. We don’t want to make waves or raise our voice. However, to quote a colleague and friend, “It will not shock you to learn that sometimes the response to constant sweetness and niceness and affirmation is not honey but, in fact, vinegar. Sometimes you must raise your voice to be heard. Sometimes you have to hold up your hand and interrupt and say ‘You may not speak to me that way.’ Sometimes you even have to say No. [But] nobody thanks you for setting boundaries, it turns out. They don’t gush, ‘Oh, that was so nice of you!’”[ii] And so it’s hard. And yet it is vital work, being firm and enforcing boundaries. Sometimes, it is precisely the work to which God is calling us.

Read with me, if you will, the poem on the front of your bulletin. It is a favorite of mine and many other folks; I know people who have practically made this their personal mission statement:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

–Mary Oliver, “The Journey”

I think there’s something in many of us that bristles at that. “But people are counting on me! I have to save them too!” Yes… and no.

I think the poet knows, as perhaps Jethro also knew, that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves only works… if we love ourselves! I don’t think it’s possible to truly love our neighbor effectively unless we love ourselves.

What’s more, I think loving ourselves is one of our ways of loving God. Not that we are God, but we honor the One who created us when we treat ourselves with reverence and care.

Maybe you’ve heard the mnemonic J.O.Y.—Jesus first, others second, yourself last. That’s the key to JOY, the saying goes, to put the needs of others first. I guess that works for some people, but I have seen that backfire in tragic ways, usually among women. I know a woman named R. who grew up with that message. I led a retreat one time on Sabbath and she argued with me—“I’m sorry, too many people are counting on me; I can’t afford to take time for myself.” Sadly, her health started to fail, but she refused to deal with it until it was too late. She passed away in her mid-50s. Now, there were many factors that led to her death. But I am convinced that the “others always come first” message played a role.

Love your neighbor… as yourself.
You will wear yourself out.
What you are doing is good… but you are doing too much, and therefore it is not good.

* * *

I’ve recently rediscovered what many know as the “serenity prayer.” It’s come back into my life in recent days, and I’ve realized that it’s really a prayer about setting healthy boundaries. Let it be our prayer today:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

[i] When Helping You is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap, by Carmen Renee Berry

[ii] Many thanks to “Juniper” for this excellent blog post: