Tuesday, August 9, 2016

We Only Work One Day a Week...

Yep, all clergy have heard that joke.

And no, it's not funnier because we've heard it 827 times.

But I do suspect many people wonder what do we do all week. After all, how long can it take to plan  a service, write a sermon, and do all the pastoral care a church requires?

Well, since you asked, here's what a typical clergy week is for many of my clergy friends. Depending on church size, denominational affiliation, and full time vs part time, there will be differences (so don't print this out and take it to your pastor, demanding to know why her week looks different). This seriously not scientific study happened mostly over coffee.

Getting the church ready for worship: On Sunday, this means lights on, scripture set, coffee made, doors unlocked, information for worshippers set out, and a dozen other housekeeping items that must be done to make holy space ready. But it also means making sure the building is welcoming to the life that happens at the church during the week. My church has gatherings every day of the week, so carpets have to be vacuumed, chairs arranged, calendars coordinated, and doors unlocked. I'm thankful to have a sexton, an office manager, and many volunteers to help, but many of the clergy I spoke with do all of this themselves. And, even with volunteers and staff, the work lands on my desk if it doesn't get done. Many churches are busy on days of the week other than Sunday, as they should be.

Speaking of worship: Let me be clear - there are no worship service elves who come in during the middle of the night on Saturday and plan the service. Trust me, I've asked. This responsibility sits with the priest, pastor, and minister. Again, some churches have worship committees, but many don't. A typical Sunday service with no special additions takes anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to plan and prepare for, not including the sermon. And if it's Holy Week, Christmas, or a special day, double that time. Even in the Episcopal Church, where our Book of Common Prayer guides us, there are still prayers, music, and physical space considerations. And my favorite thing - bulletins preparation. An aside, I'm convinced the 7th circle of hell will consist of days alternating between church committee meetings and bulletin preparation.  Also, funerals, weddings, and other non-Sunday services demand and are given their own holy time of preparation, often in addition to the Sunday worship.

Then there's the sermon:  A young priest once said to me, "I really thought I'd spend half of my time as a priest reading, studying, and writing my sermon." I think coffee came out of nose as I snort-laughed. Yes, I wish I could spend that much time on my sermons. I think preaching the Word of God is one of the more important things we do. On a good week, I probably do spend about 10 hours on my sermon, but that time is almost never in-office time. It's evening time or early morning. I've learned once I get in the office, I have too many distractions to allow for the kind of focus I need. Other clergy friends of mine take an afternoon or block of time during the week. We all have what works for us. And yes, there are those weeks when there's too much to do and too little time where we punt. So please remember that if your pastor delivers what seems like an unusually poor sermon or you're certain you've heard that sermon before, ask the Holy Spirit to help you find something in the words to inspire, even if it's that the sermon ended.

Pastoral care: This happens every week, and it varies. If Ms. Jones is in hospice and her journey to be with God is imminent, a priest is there. Maybe it's a few hours. Maybe it's every day for two weeks until she dies. I've found that older church members appreciate and expect a clergy visit during illness or hospitalization, while younger members are quite comfortable with a phone call or even a text. People need to talk to a priest, not all of them church members. Marriage and baptism preparation happens regularly in many churches, often in the evening, as most people work. Visits to members who aren't able to attend are vital. And the reality is one person cannot meet the pastoral needs of an entire congregation. Volunteers are so necessary, and I give thanks each day for lay members who respond to God's call in this ministry.

Prayer: I hope every minister has time each day dedicated to prayer. Begin the day, end the day, interrupt the day - spend some time each day praying for those in our care, for our own ministries, for God's guidance. And yet, I hear so many clergy lament the lack of a prayer life. I don't think this is a negotiable for us, any of us.

Office and property manager: This is the one area where I heard more variance than any other. Some churches (less than 15% in most dioceses) have staff to help manager the office and the buildings and grounds. Most depend on volunteers and clergy. Answering phones, cleaning the church, taking out the trash, buying coffee, cleaning the church refrigerator (where everything goes to die, at least in my church), setting up for events, cleaning up after events, and keeping the books all happen at a church. It is, in one aspect, a business with the normal business things. And, at some level, except in the very largest churches, the minister is involved.

The councils of the church: This depends on the denomination and community, but most clergy I know are engaged in the wider life of the church and the wider life of the community, in addition to our own church meetings. We attend meetings at the diocese. We volunteer our skills as chaplains to organizations like police departments and hospitals who cannot afford this ministry. Clergy serve on boards and attend community events. We are innately engaged in the places we live, spreading the Gospel in word and deed by living in the church that exists outside the walls of our own spaces.

Study: Yes, most clergy do attend some type of continuing education, and I also hope we are giving ourselves time each week, even if it's an hour or two, to read, to learn, to expand ourselves. We also work to create and support ways for church members to learn about their faith, to share their questions, and to explore all that is our relationship with God throughout our life. We listen to member needs, explore curricula, and recruit volunteers, among other things. If we're teaching a class, leading a Bible study, or offering a presentation, we need time to prepare. So if you see your pastor sitting in a coffee shop reading James Cone, consider it for the good of the Gospel and your church.

Self-care:  No one can offer what they do not have. If we have allow ourselves to become drained, we cannot do the things we as clergy have vowed to do. We need time to fill up our selves and souls. Yes, a day off helps (and here's where I offer than most full-time clergy I spoke with admitted they rarely get 2 days off a week), but I'm talking here about focused self-care. Regular therapy, physical work outs, attention to nutrition, participation in colleague groups - all those places where we can share our worries, doubts, and fears; where we can get guidance from others; where we can care for this creation of self in a particular way.

And a life: I am not a good priest if I do not have a personal life. I am amazed each week at the depth of love I feel for the people who worship with me and who work with me as we share the Good News. And I need to have a life as simply Laurie that is not part of that, at least on the surface. At least some time of each pastor's week should be spent reconnecting to the person God created us to be underneath the collars and vestments. And while it is similar to self-care, it is also less structured. Doing the laundry, catching up with friends, going on dates, spending a day watching Baywatch (don't judge) - all give my soul time to catch up with my body, and all remind me of how beautifully mundane life is.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list - it's not even complete for me. But it does give laity some idea of what happens on the days between worship. And if you're really curious, just ask. Most clergy would love to share what they do with members.

Over coffee.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Violence of Our Words

Maybe we love violence.

Maybe that is one of the deep truths of our society we talk around, ignore, and orphan. 

I’m reading a book on the settlement of the American West from the mid-19th century. Contrary to our images of dazzling sunsets, mountain vistas, and settlers looking for a new life, the era was mostly one of violence. Deeply wounded and defeated former Confederates moved westward to find a new start, taking with them their anger and rage. Outlaws who shot people for money were and still are the stuff of legend (thanks largely to the media of the day). Sherman (yes, that Sherman) invoked a plan to “deal with” the Native Americans by driving the buffalo to extinction, thus starving the Native Americans to death. He and hundreds of white Americans executed it almost perfectly.

Layer this history on top of centuries of slavery, riots, laborers with no rights who were literally worked to death, executions and assassinations of those whose voices differed with the narrative of the day, and wars. So when I watch the news now, I wonder, maybe we love violence.

To Christians, this should not be news. On Good Friday, we gather to face our love of violence as we yell, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 

Preaching peace, love, and forgiveness will get you killed.

Pointing to the other’s sin, the other’s love of violence without recognizing our own complicity is not a particular helpful endeavor. Jesus in his ministry loved sinners; the people who got called out regularly were those who sinned and ignored their own sin by projecting it onto others (pretty much all of us). That’s the whole plank in your eye conversation Jesus has.

The Son of God wisely recognizes that what we are so quick to hate in the other is almost always the very thing we refuse to recognize in ourselves.

What does this say, then, about the speed in which people of faith are quick to condemn violence with “thoughts and prayers” and statements issued within 48 hours of a tragedy, but little action otherwise?

I wonder if we are asked to recognize the casual violence we inflict on ourselves and others in our own lives. Destruction often happens with a thousand or a millions small cuts that numb us until we stand with a gaping wound and our heart is in danger of falling out of the hole in our chest. And one of the most pervasive acts of violence we love in this country? 

Our violence of words.

Our words demean others. When we differ from another, when another does not agree with us or act the way we want them to act, do we recognize diversity?

My experience is no. My experience is we demean the other. We engage in triangulation. We start sentences with the accusatory, “You!” rather than, “I,” which requires us to take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. We use epithets and abusive language. We get mad and leave in a huff, planting ammunition against the person or people we blame for our anger as we walk out the door.

While the systemic love of violence in this country is overwhelming to many of us, we are responsible for our own acts of violence with our words. With this in mind, I wonder if we can commit ourselves and our faith communities to:

Confess our acts of violence through words. Talking about sin is not one of our favorite things. Doing so means we have to realize we participate in the violence of the world. This is one reason we engage in corporate confession on Sundays. Private confession is just as vital - taking time to identify our words spoken deliberately to hurt others and to justify our hurtful behavior and our words spoken which have inadvertently cut another’s soul (that beautiful encapsulation of things known and unknown in the language of confession). Maybe we make private confession to a priest; perhaps we spend time alone in honest inventory of what we have said. Either way, investing time identifying our violent words is a beginning point for turning from them and engaging in a more loving, peaceful way.

Recognize that another’s experiences, another’s truths, are not points to argue against, but an invitation to listen and understand. Diversity is necessary for life to thrive. We do not take a vote on whose truth is the most true. Instead, we are encouraged to recognize differences, even perhaps learn from them. As empathetic as male priests can be, they cannot fully understand the experiences of a female priests or transgendered clergy. As understanding as White people may strive to be, living daily with the racism inherent in this country as Blacks do is not something  we can feel in our bones. Instead of engaging in the sin of presuming everyone’s experience is the same as ours, people of faith are called to listen, to learn, to have our eyes opened and our ears unstopped.

Pay attention to our emotional flash points - they are often saying more about us than the person speaking. Spiritually speaking, these are showing us the planks in our own eyes we refuse to see. The people who speak the words that grab us emotionally are often the very people we need to hear, to encounter, and to experience as voices of the Holy. When we take our toys and leave (often in a rage), when we dismiss and demean, we cut our selves and souls off to transformation and healing. Richard Rohr has an excellent reflection and an exercise that can help us see the aspects of our selves and souls we would rather ignore here.

Eliminate broad speaking stereotypes from our language: all police, all Muslims, all Christians, etc. are almost never helpful. Instead, speak from your experiences. With this - confront hate speech. Using racist, homophobic, sexist, hate filled terms are acts of violence. If we would be unwilling to stand by silently as a person is physically abused, why would we stand silently as their souls are beaten with the words of another?

I statements. I statements. I statements. No one can fully and completely speak for another, and when we begin an argument with “you” (You always act like a jerk…) we are dictating and speaking for another. Own your feelings and experiences. Let others speak for themselves. And, as importantly, help create space for those whose voices have been marginalized and/or silenced to speak their truth without interruption. 

Talk with people rather than about them. People of faith love - and I mean LOVE - the sin of triangulation, which is talking to others about others (I talk to Jane about John's act, not to get her thoughts or insight or advice, but to proselytize for my cause or to justify my actions). This single act inflict so much violence. It creates hurt and distrust, because believe me, what we said almost always gets back to the person. Our act of peace is simply to go to the person with whom you have a disagreement or, if that feels too uncomfortable, get someone to go with you for support. Also, if we are the person someone is coming to with the information, WE are part of the problem if we don't collapse the triangle, so to speak. While it's seductive to be in the role of "people just come to me with their problems," kindly suggesting that this person go speak to the person in question is a godly way to engage in reconciliation. This also hold true for triangulating with entire groups. Rather than talking about what Muslims believe with people who are not Muslim or listening only to the media to learn about Black Lives Matter, be vulnerable and trust love enough actually to listen to people involved in faiths, organizations, and movements with which you are unfamiliar, asking about their experiences, their fears, and their hopes. And, asking how you can help.

Believe fully and completely that peace on earth, as the song says, begins with me. If you are active in a faith community, encourage your leadership to commit to non-violent conversation. Accept not only our complicity in violence, but our responsibility to peace. Let our prayers for peace change us.  

If you're looking for further resources, I commend Dr. Kay Collier McLaughlin and her insights. She gets to the heart of many leadership issues and offers practical responses (in other words, she doesn't use 'thoughts and prayers' as a euphemism for inaction; instead she gives us courage to face fears and tools to speak honestly of hard topics). You can find her resources here.  

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Seeing the Arc

"So are you here to tell me I'm a sinner?" he asked.

The question was a fair one. I was attending an LGBTQ event in Alabama and wore my clergy collar.

I had been ordained for less than a year, and while the national Episcopal Church was welcoming of LGBTQ people, that welcome in most churches in Alabama was still very much the Episcopal Church welcomes you, as long as you don't want to be ordained, or married, or open about your sexuality, or talk too much about your sexuality, or celebrate your LGBTQ community, or the myriad of other ways we welcome people with qualifications that have nothing to do with love or welcome.

When my friends invited me to the event, my initial selfish thoughts had been how this would affect me and my ministry, ministry being my comfort and ego. What would happen if the rector or church leaders found out? Would I lose my job? What would the bishop think? Would people think I was a lesbian? How would this upset my seemingly comfortable life and ministry?

You know, those questions that have little to do with being disturbed by God and much more to do with keeping things as they are.

When I mentioned attending this LGBTQ event to some of the church leadership, one couple told me, "We don't want our priests associating with those types and people will think you're a lesbian, so you can't attend."

Which, of course, made me call and accept the invitation faster than Alabama can score a touchdown.  God has long since known that the the voice of prejudice telling me not to do something trumps my desire for comfort and status quo.

The event was a lovely dinner, and I was seated next to an older gentleman and his partner of decades. He was polite and cautious in our initial conversations.

Then he asked, "Are you here to tell me I'm a sinner?"

I said, "No."

And I began to explain all about the Episcopal Church welcomes you and how we are created in God's love and how Jesus loves us all, no matter what.

I stopped. I stopped because those words were not entirely truthful. I stopped because in this moment, I didn't need to talk. I needed to hear, to listen. As an ordained person of the church, I needed to be a witness to how Christianity had behaved with anything but love to him. I stopped because the church has talked too much about loving our neighbors while refusing to love our LGBTQ neighbors. Too many clergy through the years have accepted the gifts LGBTQ members have shared with the church without accepting the full measure of their holy incarnation.

My voice shook a bit when I spoke. "No, but it sounds like you have been told that by the church. Would you share with me your story?"

In that holy moment, he did. His story is the narrative, I suspect, of so many whose church welcome is qualified if not altogether revoked because of who God created them to be.

He finished, and I breathed. Then he said, "Now, what will you do?"

Jesus is always calling us to love and serve. Sometimes we get very fortunate to experience it clearly.

Now, what will you do?

My do-ing is not all that spectacular. The work of love rarely is. It has been ordinary in the course of days. I've welcomed and petitioned and voted, as many have, for full inclusion and against thinly-veiled resolutions to exclude (if you meet me in person ask about when I voted against a resolution declaring Jesus as our Lord and Savior for this reason). I've marched in Pride and on Washington and married same-sex couples and celebrated the baptisms of their children. I've pointed out language, action, and inaction that empowered hate, sometimes with the Southern "Bless your heart" way and sometimes in a NSFW way. I have been one small drop of a great wave of love, and I have stood on the shoulders of saints who came before me.

I have, as many have, paid a price. The pressure to speak out against the ordination to the Episcopate of The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson was great in my diocese. My job was threatened because of my beliefs. All the while, I knew what I experienced was a small amount of the discrimination and hate LGBTQ people encounter. Let me reiterate that - what I experienced was a small, tiny amount of the discrimination and hate so many have experienced for decades and centuries from the Church and the community.

When the time came for me to follow God's call elsewhere, the first question I asked bishops was, "Is your diocese open and affirming? Because if it's not, cross me off the list."

Trust me, that limits your options in the Church. But God guides and shifts and moves us all on our journeys in time. The arc of time bends toward justice and love, almost imperceptively at times. But it does bend and move.

And sometimes we get to see the bend in all its rainbow glory.

I wore my clergy shirt - again - to an LGBTQ event yesterday. Lexington's annual Pride Festival was Saturday. The Episcopal Church - not just one or two welcoming churches - but the entire diocese, had a booth. As did 7 other churches of various denominations. I actually squealed with delight to see a local Baptist congregation, the faith of my childhood, with a booth.

No one from my congregation warned me about attending. In fact, many of them attended as well and spread the welcome. I commented that I could have just celebrated the Eucharist at Pride and slept in on Sunday. God, I love them so much for how welcoming they are.

As I walked among the booths, meeting and talking to people, an older gentleman approached me.

"Are you a priest? I was Episcopalian for a long time until I got tired of all the shit after Gene Robinson. My partner and I just moved back to town."

I nodded and introduced myself.

"Is your church open and affirming?" he asked.

I felt that place in my chest when my heart is overflowing and the love begins to spill out of my eyes when I get to proclaim an amazing truth. "Yes. You are fully welcome at St. Michael's...and these churches." I handed him our brochure listing the many open and affirming Episcopal churches.

Another couple approached. Both women were wearing tiaras. My kind of women.

"So your church marries people like us, right?"

"People who are committed in love and want God's blessing? Yes, yes we do."

One of the women fist bumped me, and I gave them all my card.

The prism of God's love focused the moment, and light fell on us all. I caught a glimpse of the arc, bending ever slightly, but indeed bending, toward love and justice.

Amen. Alleluia.

From the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Washington, D.C.
Photo by Laurie Brock

Saturday, May 14, 2016

She Speaks

Standing in my office, out of his sight line, I think I was as stunned as the person to whom he was speaking. I moved closer, hoping to hear what I thought certainly I’d misheard.

“I speak for Mother Laurie.”

A woman had asked a question of an older man in the church, a simple one at that, one that did not require the addition of my name for a complete answer.

But yes, he repeated himself. 

“I speak for Mother Laurie.”

Maybe in that moment I should have stepped out of the shadows and spoken for myself, but I didn’t. But I did find a chair and sit down, shaken by what I’d heard.

Because what I’d heard was not simply a man stepping well over his authority. It was - again - a man silencing me, a woman. Over the next days, weeks, months - and even years later, I’m still unsettled by the memory, the realization that one spoken declaration of entitlement slashed at the dignity of me as a woman, dismissed my leadership as a priest, and reduced me to nothing more than a girl for whom he felt authorized to speak without any authorization other than his own.

I, apparently, did not need a voice. He would speak for me. I wondered, did I need thoughts and opinions, or would he would provide them, as well? Why did he think this was an appropriate assertion to make?

When I’ve shared this account with other women clergy, they almost all draw a sharp breath. They, too, have known how effortlessly our leadership, our experiences, our very voices, are silenced by others in the church, often by men. Sometimes this silencing is probably unintentional. Other times it is well-calculated. Intention, however, rarely matters when we remove the voice of another by our actions or inactions. 

Speaking for others is almost always an act that leads to damage. We can speak our truths. We can even speak of our experience with others, but we must be very, very careful when speaking for others. Too often, we speak not for others, but for what we think others would say - which is almost never as rich and complex and true as someone sharing her own story. We speak for them to create responses to what we presume they will say that demand little sacrifice of us and almost no discomfort for us. 

Even when we have been clearly empowered to speak for another by the person’s implicit and direct communication, we must to do so judiciously and cautiously. And we must do so with the deep humility that however empathetic and aware we may be, we cannot fully understand the life experienced by another, especially the life wounded by discrimination, oppression, and hate.

When we decide on our own to speak on behalf of others who likely have very different experiences than us, we implicitly communicate we aren’t really interested in an authentic viewpoint; instead we are interested in our editorial comment on their experiences. When I hear the line echo in my soul, “I speak for Mother Laurie,” I hear words that have silenced women for eons.

Women, after all, have had commissions, committees, courts, task forces, and panels made up of entirely or mostly men called together to discuss the role of women in the church, in the business world, in society, in all the places we are. Men have spoken for us for centuries. Our voices have not mattered or carried as much weight because we were, after all, women. 

I’ve heard women make an observation in a meeting to no response, only to have a man make the same observation moments later to resounding, “What a great insight!” I’ve heard women who used their voices to speak truth to power told they were shrill or bitchy or bossy. When women are angry at injustice and at the sexism we face daily, we are often told to smile, to play nice, or asked if it’s that time of the month.  

For eons our voices were not heard and were diminished. Mary Magdalene’s proclamation of, “He is risen!” was diminished with, “Yes, but she was a prostitute and possessed by demons and not one of the 12 and a…woman.”

Stop speaking for us. Let women speak. Give us space to tell our truths and believe these are our experiences and hear us. What we say about our experiences may be uncomfortable to hear.  We sound angry because we are angry. After all, the church and its centuries of male domination have not been kind to women…or anyone who fell outside the narrow lines of power and authority.

Quite ironic for a community who confesses the faith of Christ, who preferred the company of those who fell outside the narrow lines of power and authority, and who talked with and listened to women.

Stop speaking to silence others and start speaking to empower others - all the others (and, in some way, we are all called to give voice to our otherness, to the labels and roles we have been given by society that have silenced our voices). Stop speaking to dismiss others and start speaking to demand the voices of those who have been silenced be heard and heard and heard again until their voices move us all to action. 

Start asking others their stories and listen. Start being aware of the messages we send when we presume to speak for others. Start honoring the voices of all the children of God.

Start saying, “No, I don’t speak for her. She speaks for herself.”