Tag Archives: pastors

In Defense of Sermon Illustrations

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I just finished reading Craig Barnes’s fine book, The Pastor as Minor Poet. I agree with my friend who said it should be required reading for new pastors—so long as they agree to reread it every few years. This is one of those books that begs to be revisited.

Barnes’s book is a welcome counterpoint to the numerous blogs, articles and books out there that trumpet the pastor’s need to be an entrepreneur, fundraiser, change agent, CEO, family systems guru, social media expert, etc. Those skills are important, but Barnes’s book calls pastors “to continually search for the deeper, truer understandings of what they see–both in the text of scripture and in the text of their parishioners’ lives.”

In other words, our attentive study of the scripture and of the human condition isn’t superfluous. It’s our primary vocation… not least because we’re likely the only ones in our parishioners’ lives doing that.

As pastors, our job is to notice and to name. It’s just that simple and just that complicated.

One place where I quibble with Barnes is in the area of sermon illustrations. He seems pretty down on them, for reasons I partly understand. Stories within the sermon are tough to get right. Karl Barth used to talk about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I told someone recently that I also feel called to preach with the Bible in one hand and popular culture in the other, but it’s a tricky business. (Part of the reason I enjoy tackling it. Remember, I’d rather be wrong than boring.)

I’ve done sermons about gospel lessons in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, children’s literature, reality television, and comic book characters. On reflection, some have probably worked better than others. You have to bring people up to speed, and I can remember a few sermons in which I thought “this is requiring too much setup to get to the point.”

What I hoped all these sermons did on some level, though, is to model for people a faithful engagement with the world we live in: to sleuth around for the living Christ at work in (and/or standing against) those works of culture we consume every day.

Anyway, here’s Barnes’s critique:

There are two great dangers that accompany every sermon illustration. The first, and most common, is that the illustration will overpower the gentle revelation of Christ that the preacher is trying to hold before those in the pews. The second is that it will be only ornamentation that distracts the listeners from the pristine beauty of the message. This is not to say that preachers should avoid using illustrations. There are times, especially when preaching out of the epistles of the New Testament, when a good illustration is necessary even for the minor poet. But even then, it is important that the illustration not get in the way of the preacher, the congregation, and the Holy Spirit.

At this point it seems like Barnes isn’t against illustrations, just against bad ones. But he goes on:

The longer I preach, the fewer illustrations I seem to use. Mostly that is because I have learned to trust the incarnational nature of the biblical text. The vast majority of the Bible presents not abstract theology, but theology embodied in sacred stories. These narratives are profoundly compelling, and they don’t benefit from being interrupted with similar contemporary stories.

Did you catch that? Preaching without benefit of illustrations is a matter of trust. Do you agree?

I’ve heard it said (and Barnes intimates) that if people leave the service remembering the story you told more than the story you read from scripture, that you somehow didn’t serve the people well. I don’t think it’s that simple. What is the goal of our preaching? For people to leave with the scripture passage on their lips? One hopes so, and a good sermon can provide some biblical education, but it shouldn’t be the primary aim of our preaching. Rather, our hope in preaching is that the gospel message continues to live in the hearts of the listeners. Why can a well-told story not do this?

I find it peculiar, this idea that the gospel is somehow threatened by our stories, as if the illustration and the scripture are somehow in competition with one another. This is a false dichotomy. A good illustration doesn’t pull attention away from the text, it breaks it open further.

Preachers and listeners: what do you think?

~

By the way, you can read those Harry Potter sermons (and lots of other stuff) here.

By the way2, thanks to everyone who’s subscribed to my email list. I promise a big juicy update this week. Subscribe here.

photo credit: Randy OHC via photopin cc The Word became flesh and lived among us. BOOM.

On Competition and the Church

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I ran a race on Saturday morning, the Fairfax CASA Run for the Children. Our church has gotten connected to this organization, which provides volunteers to support abused and neglected children making their way through the court system. It was a beautiful day for a run, and we had 8 folks from Tiny Church participating in the 8K run and 3K run/walk.

I love road races for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones is that it gives me perspective on my competitive nature. I’ve always been competitive, which is strange since I’m not much of an athlete and never have been. So my competitiveness would come out in other ways: trying for first chair in the junior high choir, taking part in speech/drama events, and competing with the Academic Decathlon team.

A drive to improve and achieve can be an awesome thing. It can also be harmful to one’s self and one’s relationships. (Sometimes it’s neither great nor harmful, it just shuts down the fun. Just ask Robert about The Canasta Incident.)

But road races are a great check on competitiveness. Half a mile into any race and you get how ridiculous it is to compare yourself to other people. Yes, there’s a certain kick of motivation you get when you turn on the gas to pass someone. But how meaningful is that? For all you know, they’re nursing an injury, or just started running a couple months before. (Then there was the woman who passed me in my first half marathon wearing a T-shirt that said, “I just finished chemo three days ago.” Fierce!!)

I spent most of Saturday morning ten paces behind a guy who looked to be at least 75 years old. OK, that was a little depressing. Until I realized he’s a living reminder that I can keep doing this for the next 30 years, maybe not breaking any speed records, but keeping fit and having fun.

The drive has to come from inside yourself, and be directed internally.

You’d think the church would be a good model for cooperation and mutual support, especially among clergy colleagues. We are educated in a theology of call in which it’s all about “fit” and the work of the Holy Spirit. But it’s complicated. Search committees still look for certain traits, whether overtly or subconsciously. The deck is still stacked against women and people of color. Sometimes youth is an asset; other times the congregation wants “experience.” In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have cleared the way for LGBT people to be ordained, but it’s a tougher sell in many congregations.

And as church membership rolls continue to shrink and full-time positions decrease, there will be more and more contention for fewer and fewer slots. If you’re one of those folks whose livelihood is on the line, it’s natural to read those glossy Meet Our New Pastor brochures and think, “Why did they choose that person and not me?” We take vows to be a friend to our colleagues in ministry, but jealousy rears its snarky, catty head. All the time.

This stuff was on my mind as I spent time with The Well last week. We have “tall steeple” pastors and pastors of small churches. We have folks who’ve been open to a new call for a long time, and others who frequently get contacted by churches even though they’re happy where they are.

But just like the road race, it’s silly to think comparatively. There are too many factors at play. Several of our members are geographically limited because of their spouses’ jobs or other factors. Others have had the benefit of stay-at-home spouses who manage home life so the pastor can pursue a career more intensively. And then there’s the fact that many of us simply don’t want the kind of positions that others might clamor for. (God might surprise me, but I am having too much fun doing writing and part-time parish work to imagine going back to a full-time pastoral position.)

All that said, members of the Well have been in contention for the same ministry positions. This has happened at least five times in our six years together.

So far, we’ve weathered these situations well. We’re not perfect at this, and it would be hubris to say that we’re immune from the hurt or resentment that can come from being passed over, or the “survivor guilt” of being the one chosen. But we have learned some things along the way. Again, I offer our experience for the benefit of other colleague groups.

Transparency. Our norm is that if we find out another member is interviewing for the same position we are, we talk to that person. It’s tricky because we don’t always know, but we do our best. (Third parties who are in the know can help this along.) We picked this up from another group’s experience. One year they met and had a member of the group come down at dinner time wearing a suit and heading off to an interview. The next day another person came down, similarly dressed… and off to an interview at the same church.

Grounding. Within the safe space our group, we see our role as to build one another up when a tough call is wearing the person down, AND to keep the person’s ego in check when he or she starts to believe her own press. And outside of the group, we have that person’s back 100%.

Increased Accountability. We’ve started talking about how we can hold one another accountable to good self-care and boundaries. We have a check-in time at the beginning of every week, but it’s easy to gloss over the hard stuff. A member of the group suggested an intentional question to ask each person: Is there anything else going on that you need to tell us?

Discernment among Friends. When I was discerning whether to stand for vice moderator, I talked with members of The Well. All were helpful in making sure I was thinking well about the situation. And one person put it plain: Give me three reasons why you want to do this… and be honest. I am grateful to her.

What do you think? What is your experience?

~

photo credit: mino2006 via photopin cc

Pastors: Help Your Successor Succeed

Funny: I was planning to write about my predecessor in ministry, and then I read Jan Edmiston’s post, “Please. Get Some Non-Church Friends,” which is about much the same thing. Here’s a personal perspective from the other side—not as the pastor who retires, but as the pastor coming after that pastor.

I hit the jackpot in terms of predecessors. J was pastor of Tiny Church for almost 30 years. When he retired, he retired. He maintained good distance during the interim process, and when I first arrived four years ago, we got together so he could wish me well and make clear that he had no intention of inserting himself into the day-to-day operation of the church.

Here are a few things that retiring (or otherwise departing) pastors can to help those who will come after them.

1. Please, please. Make the most of your retirement. As Jan said, some people find themselves floundering in retirement. That’s understandable on one level. Ministry is a lifestyle and can be all encompassing. But with all due respect, it’s on you to find friends, interests, hobbies and a ministry to engage in. How does this help the pastors who will follow you? Let’s just say that J is having way too much fun to get sucked into the particulars of life at Tiny. He still cares for the people, but the administrivia? The inner workings of session? Please.

2. Know whom to call. J has maintained warm relationships with a few people in the church. I appreciate this, because they are friendships, not pastoral relationships. But sometimes people call him in a pastoral capacity. I don’t take this personally. Old habits are hard to break, and what good would it do me to feel threatened? But I do appreciate that in those cases, I’m his first phone call. This happened just this week when our dear patriarch of the church was near death. It was my day off and I had a car full of girls on the way to choir and didn’t get the call right away. When a church member couldn’t get me, she tried him. By that time I had picked up the message and was doing the mad minister-mom scramble to figure out how to get the girls taken care of so I could speed over to the hospital. When he called me I was able to say, “I’m on it.”

3. Blame the policy, not your successor. In the PCUSA at least, it’s the norm for a departing pastor to step aside and no longer fulfill pastoral roles. Keep any attempts to draw you back into that role focused on the norms, not the personalities involved. That is, say stuff like “This is the practice of our denomination and why,” not “Mean old Pastor Jane-come-lately won’t let me bury your beloved great-aunt.”

4. Be your successor’s biggest fan. I know for a fact that J sings my praises to Tiny Church folks he does come in contact with. This is a choice and a practice on his part, and I deeply appreciate it. This helps inoculate him from any attempts at triangulation.

5. Share stories and information that might be useful. A member of the church passed away earlier this year. By the time I met her, she was at the very beginning of some dementia, so I never got to know her as the force of nature that she truly was. J is a great source of information and stories, and he shares these freely.

6. Give your successor a wide berth in terms of colleague relationships. There’s a group of Presbyterian pastors in my area of town who get together for lunch once a month. J intentionally stayed away from this group for a year or two so I could get to know them without him lurking about. He probably would have stayed away longer if I’d asked, but the truth is, he’s a great part of that group and I enjoy his company.

7. Come back when asked. J preached while I was away a few times this summer, and people loved having him there. I’m not threatened by his presence because of how he’s conducted himself regarding numbers 1-6 of this list.

Here’s the irony of being a good predecessor. I know pastors who never really leave a congregation, which puts the next pastor in a terrible position of having to impose boundaries and thus be “the bad guy.” Because J is so clear about who he is and who is not, I feel more free to invite him to participate in the life of our congregation. By letting go, you are invited in.

What would y’all add to the list?

Ten Years In

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This Saturday is the 10th anniversary of my ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

2003 was a hell of a year. My father died, I had my first child, I graduated from seminary, we moved to Northern Virginia, I was ordained, I took my first pastoral position, and we moved a second time, into the house we still inhabit. That brings us up to July of that year.

In August I started therapy.

When I began seminary, a non-religious friend told me he didn’t see me doing this forever. “It’s great what you’re doing; I just don’t see you doing the same thing long term. You’ll move on to something else.”

He didn’t mean it unkindly. I wondered myself whether ministry would stick. I had worked for several years prior to seminary, but never for more than a few years at any specific job. Now, ten years in… I don’t know. Is that long term? I remember when we started the Ask the Matriarch feature on RevGalBlogPals, I thought that those women seemed so experienced. Now I’m at that same vintage! Wow.

The great thing about ministry is that it’s always changing. Maybe it’s the last great generalist occupation. Depending on the day, I am a grief counselor, teacher, building manager, grant writer, desktop publisher, camp counselor, thought leader, fundraiser, community organizer, social media specialist, meeting facilitator, sandwich-maker, dispute mediator, contract negotiator, artist, and of course, preacher.

I’ve served two churches as pastor, but really I’ve served many more than that. Communities change as people come and go, as mission and ministry changes—as the world changes. My seminary professors were very clear that the era of Christendom was over; the idea that “everybody” goes to church, especially out of duty or societal expectation, is a thing of the past. The church of the future would have to be flexible, missional, risk-tolerant, creative. So I was prepared for an ever-changing vocation and an ever-changing church.

Still, I have been astounded by just how quickly things are changing. I harbored a secret hunch that there would always be a place for traditional worship, structure and church practice, provided they were offered with integrity, warmth, authenticity and excellence. I’m doubting that assumption more and more—and I’m someone who’s generally comfortable with alternate forms of church! I imagine how hard it must be people who aren’t prepared, who are still looking around flummoxed at how the world has moved on, asking “Why can’t we just plan a really great VBS and have that do the trick?” I think this is why I’m drawn to NEXT Church—it’s a place where churches of all shapes and sizes can acknowledge that doing “the old things better” is not going to work. So now what?

I happen to be walking with several friends who are discerning next steps in ministry. Some of them are actively interviewing with congregations. Others would like to be, but are waiting for a nibble. (In fact I wonder whether I am called to complete some training in spiritual direction/spiritual guidance.) It’s interesting to be the sounding board for these friends during my own 10th anniversary milestone. I feel very fortunate to have pieced together a vocation that works for me and that feels fruitful and right. But it’s not what I would have predicted for myself. More on that another time, perhaps.

~

Image source: Columbia Theological Seminary Vantage, Summer 2003. That’s me with Shelia Council and David Knauert, of blessed memory. Still can’t believe he’s gone.

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.