"Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises.... Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting."

Frederick Buechner

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Five: New to me....

Jan, over at RevGals offers this Friday Five:
Only afterwards, do we realize that we have “found” something that we like–like a new way to look at something; a new (to me) author; a new song or hymn; a new food. Today share with us something that you like that seemed surprisingly “new” to you sometime in the near past. It could even be a RE-discovery.
Here is a list, but you can choose your own five items you would like to share! Please join us today in playing FF.
1. author - When I find an author I like I tend to read all of the books written by that person. Lately I've read a lot of Anna Quindlan. I also really like novel written by Amanda Eyre Ward. But mostly I am reading books for the Spiritual Direction Internship and the Family Systems workshops I am taking this fall. They are excellent books - Extraordinary Relationships, by Roberta M. Gilbert, for example, is fabulous. 
2. shampoo - My latest favorite shampoo is a brand I found at "Sally's" that does not use any of the usual sodium laureate, etc. to make the shampoo extra bubbly. It's a clean product with less stuff in it, a gentle fragrance and never leaves a residue on my scalp. I seem to be particular sensitive to shampoo and conditioner residue. For example as much I love the concept of AVEDA it's products are too rich. Other brands like Redkin require me to switch my shampoo every so often to give my scalp some relief. But this shampoo (I don't know what it's called) has not had that affect of me. 
3. food - Poblanaro peppers and Spanish smoked paprika are two of my favorite food items this summer. I've used them in a lot. Also, a colleague made a jar of jalapeƱo jelly (if you attended the RevGals Re-Group last week you may have tried it), and it is delicious on corn bread.
4. activity - I don't really have any new actives in my life - except working to make sure I find time to rest.
5. music - I don't listen to much music these days, either. I used to listen to music in the car, and spent a lot of time driving, but not so much these days. Now when I drive I listen to the radio but never really know the names of the bands being played. It's sad, I know. Some day I'll get back to listening to music again. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ministering to Ministers

Several months ago I volunteered to host a RevGal event called "ReGroup." This is the second time I have organized a RevGal event, and the first time I've hosted one. The first event I helped organize was the BE 2.0, held many years ago, when I lived and worked under very different circumstances. I was really sick that week - some crud that blew through the Arizona dust storm

Sun shining through a dust storm

and left me with a high fever and serious sinus issues that made me foggy-headed.

But it was still fun.

I met a lot of RevGals and learned much from Wil Gafney and her book, "Daughters of Miriam." The exercise I remember most from that event was "She-verbs" - replacing some Bible text with "she." (okay, maybe I don't remember that well, after all?).
Part of our worship space at the BE 2.0

Some of us went into town to a knitting store
We told stories around a bonfire

This was view of the retreat center grounds outside my room

The most fun of that week for me, however, was our after-the-event road trip to the Grand Canyon.

Dinner at the Bright Angel

Sunrise


This time the event was held at the church I work at and the focus was very different. We gathered to learn a tool to help us in our ministry, which by and large involves a lot of administrative work. Tending to the administrative stuff can keep us overly busy, we can use busyness as an ego boost, as a means to feel more important. But that can come at the risk of our own well-being and even our overall effectiveness as ministers.

We spent time reflecting, singing, praying, worshiping, and creating. It was a good day and half.

Opening worship led by the Rev. Martha Spong

Learning how to use the "Administry" tool

Some time to reflect on the "Administry" tool...

We got a little creative 

Closing worship

Sharing the feast of Christ

And, of course, the feet

And for fun, cookies decorated as feet made by one of my parishioners...

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Five: Randomness Returns

RevKarla, over at the RevGals offers this Random Friday Five:
1. If you could sneak away anywhere this weekend, right now, all expenses paid,
where would you go and what would you do? If I could go anyplace in the world for the weekend? I've always wanted to go to Paris, but a weekend trip wouldn't be long enough. I'd settle for a quiet place in the country - high up in the mountains or near a body of water. A place where I could walk, sleep with windows open and feel the cool fresh air blow over me, have someone else make all the meals, drink delicious tea with cookies, and have a great glass of wine. I'd read, and sit. Oh, and having yoga classes provided, would nice too. 


2. What is for lunch today? (one of the very first FF I ever played asked this.) I'm not sure, but I do know lunch will be with Martha Spong, who I knew first as Songbird when she helped me launch this blog in 2006. Martha is in town for the RevGals ReGroup program called Administry - finding ways to be spiritual while be an ordained woman in the church. (It's harder than one would think).
3. Along that first-FF-I-ever-played theme, what are you wearing today? (Seriously Karla, you remember your first FF?....) I don't know what I'll be wearing today - comfy clothes that will enable me to be present for the ReGroup.....
4. Along the Today Theme, what are you doing today? First, having coffee. Then a little yoga. Then picking Martha up at the hotel and coming to the church to get ready for the ReGroup. Then participating in the ReGroup. Later, some social time with those who are attending the Re-Group. Excited to meet a group of RevGals I know only on Facebook and the blog.
5. Along the random theme, what is your favorite scent, and why? Freshly brewing coffee in the morning delights me. Lately I've made a lot of homemade enchilada sauce with my homegrown tomatoes using garlic, Poblano peppers, Jalepeno and Habanero peppers, onions, cumin, etc. THAT always smells amazing. But I think my favorite scent is the smell of the air on a summer morning that is not yet too humid, the sun rising, and a gentle breeze blowing. I also happen to really love the way my husband smells, is that weird?  Puppy breath is sweet, too. 
I guess I don't have one favorite scent. 

Monday, September 08, 2014

Creatures of...love?

We are creatures, creatures of love
We are creatures, creatures of love
From the sleep of reason, a life is born
We are creatures, creatures of love
-Talking Heads


Walking to yoga I tend to keep my eyes aimed toward the ground, on the look-out for uneven sidewalk, fallen branches, and other potential trip hazards. Of course I am also looking around me, aware of bicyclists, other walkers, and four legged and winged creatures who inhabit the woods that border the sidewalk. The smell of the river, buried in the woods, but visible in places along the way, is usually potent. It’s a river under going significant cleaning from waste that has polluted it. Lately, however, the river does not smell, it must be the overabundance of rain water and fast moving current, keeping it clean?

Inevitably as I walk with my gaze toward the ground I see crawling creatures, and at least this summer, a ton of hopping tiny frogs. So many frogs on the sidewalk, in our backyard and in the garden that I’ve been on the look out for Moses and Pharaoh. The potential for a plague is not that far-fetched. 

Honestly, it seems like all the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. I live with a perpetual sense of existential despair, fueled by the state of the world and probably a little bit of God stirring up some kind of transformation within me. Really, God, now? You have my attention and I am listening, wondering how all of this is going to be transformed, like Israel after the Exodus. Forty years in the wilderness? I hope not. 

So I do my small part to ease the angst of creation. It’s weird what I do and I’m sure people driving by must find me a little nutty. Here’s the thing, I see a lot of crawly things on the sidewalk. Many of them are dried up and long gone. But some of them are struggling across the concrete, literally drying out from friction, no moisture, and hot sun. It bugs me, no pun intended, to just walk by a creature who, in its own way, may be suffering. So, when I see a still living crawly creature on the sidewalk, usually a worm, I pick it up with a stick and toss it back into the deep, moist, shady grass. 

I remember reading an article about a group of Buddhist monks who were building something and some of them were dedicated to removing worms from the digging process so none would be hurt. I don’t know if it’s true, that the monks did this. Maybe it was a joke. But it struck me, that our attention to life can include the smallest of creatures. Somehow that idea has stayed with me and over the years I’ve found myself unable to just walk past a worm that is struggling across the sidewalk, I always toss it back into the grass.

This year I’ve seen, and helped more than worms. (To the degree that I have a serious ear-worm in my head: “Little creatures all come out! We are creatures, creatures of love.”). One day I saw a very long slug, head up and antennae high, slinking its way down the sidewalk, headed to a sure and certain demise. No way was I going to pick that thing up. But I did find a good long stick that I used to pick it up and fling it into the grass. Another day I saw a tiny snake, so small it could have been a very long worm. I wasn’t about to pick that up, either, not being certain what kind of snake it was. Now, I am not afraid of snakes. But I am cautious. Poisonous baby snakes are more toxic than the adults. I found myself tapping my water bottle on the sidewalk near the snake which encouraged it to move along in a certain direction until it was once again in the grass and headed into the woods.

Obviously I am a little odd in this regard. I suspect that people who knew me in high school and college may not be surprised at this behavior. However, I am not always this considerate of human beings. Some people just stand on my last nerve and all consideration is blown away by that part of me that is made up of spit and vinegar. Which is, as I wrote recently, one of the reasons I walk, to have some time to examine what stirs up that side of me, before I react.

Tomorrow I start my spiritual direction internship. I will spend the next two years examining my interior prayer life, my relationship and conversation with God and how to journey with others who wish to do the same. I will spend time pondering more deeply the parts of me that are compassionate and the parts of me that get all knee-jerky and reactive. Add to this the upcoming nine sessions, three this fall and six next spring, where I will study my family systems: family of origin, family I have created with my husband, and the church family I work in, and consider all the ways these systems influence my compassionate side and my knee-jerky side. 

No doubt God is stirring stuff up inside of me. I better get my glasses and my walking shoes and hone my observation skills for the journey ahead.

It's okay to be afraid
When the blue sparks hit your brain
We can love one another
I've been told that it's okay

Doctor, doctor, tell me what I am
Am I one of those human beings
Well I can laugh or I can learn to think
So help me now to find out what I feel

We are creatures, creatures of love
We are creatures, creatures of love
We've been here forever, before you were born
We are creatures of love, We are creatures of love

- Talking Heads (Writer(s): Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz, David Byrne

Copyright: Index Music Inc., WB Music Corp.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude


Several years ago a woman and her friend and their 5 children, all under the age of 6, attempted to go to the zoo. The friend had season passes, making for a fun, inexpensive day out! However, it was obvious from the minute she got in the car, that the friend was having a bad day.

They arrived at the zoo and it was packed! They had to park in the farthest parking lot, the one that wasn’t even paved. Then they trekked to the front gate pushing strollers overflowing with kid-stuff. After waiting in line for nearly an hour, the friend realized that she’d lost her wallet. She started to panic so they pulled the caravan over to the side and started looking through everything. The backpack, the diaper bag, the under the stroller storage area… nothing. She ran back to the car while the other mom watched the kids. Nothing. She searched her bags again, no luck. 

So they told the kids that they weren't going to the zoo. The kids started crying. Then the mom’s started crying. They were all disappointed and frazzled. 

Then a lady came over and took the mom’s hand. She said,  “Here, take your kids to the zoo.” When she walked away the mom saw a $100 bill in her hand. $100! She tried to give it back. She explained that her friend just lost her wallet, they’d changed their minds about the zoo, and they didn’t need any money. But the lady refused to take back the $100.

Eventually the moms and kids hiked back to their cars. While packing up the car the friend found her wallet in the trunk. With a sigh of relief, they decided to just go to the park and have a picnic lunch.

As they were leaving the park one mom thought about breaking the $100 bill and handing out $20 to people. How fun would that have been?! But she actually felt embarrassed to do that. Who would think it would take courage to give away money?

The moms agreed that they would spend the money doing something fun for the kids, but they never spent it. For two or three years the money sat in a sock drawer in the home of one of the mom’s. 

And then a friend’s husband got laid off and after six months of looking was still unemployed. The women knew that their friend had 4 kids to get ready for school, and a very tight budget. So they decided to give this other friend the $100, including it in a bag of hand-me-down clothes. They typed up a letter explaining the history of the money, put it and the money in an envelope and dropped it off along with the bag of clothes. Later that day the friend called to thank them for the clothes and the money. 

I wonder if the woman at the zoo, who gave the $100 bill in the first place, carries around a $100 bill so she can help people in need? Think about it. $100 is enough money to actually change someone’s situation if they are stuck. It will fill a tank of gas. It will get a room for the night. It will replace a flat tire. It will feed a family. It will take a couple of women and their kids to the zoo. Story adapted from Enemy of Debt

Today the Stewardship Commission invites us into a season of Gratitude, into an opportunity to nurture an Attitude of Gratitude.

Nurturing an Attitude for Gratitude takes practice. 

One way I nurture gratitude is through prayer and intentionality. Every yoga class begins with the teacher asking the students to sit comfortably, close our eyes, bring our hands to our hearts, and dedicate our practice. I always dedicate my practice to gratitude. I don’t always think more deeply about what that means, practicing gratitude. But I hope that the daily act of centering my yoga practice on gratitude infiltrates my being, like my breath, in and out.

Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude requires effort to pay attention to the small voice of God, to things that seem coincidental. As Americans we are taught that what we have is the result of our good hard work, we earned it through our own effort. It’s a challenge to see, however, that in reality, everything we have and all that we are, come from God. Life is a gift. 

Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude opens us to notice all the ways God is interacting with human beings, ways that can be overlooked unless we are paying attention with a mind for seeing God in all things.  Like placing a tea bag in a cup of water, and watching the tea slowly seep into the water, flavoring and coloring it; when we practice having an attitude of gratitude, gratitude will seep into the core of our being, enabling us to see God in the world around us, and turning us into grateful human beings who share their gratitude with everyone around them. 

When was the last time you received a free gift? Not a gift for your birthday or Christmas, but a gift just because?

God’s grace is like that - a gift, just because. God’s grace manifests in unexpected ways and can even go unnoticed if we aren’t paying attention. 

Have you ever been surprised by grace, by some unexpected blessing that could only have come from God? Would you know grace if it came your way? How about a beautiful sunset? Or, the delight we feel at being back in our church following the summer of outdoor services and chapel services, which are grace-filled in their own way? Perhaps you’ll experience grace during the amazing pot-luck that will follow this service? Maybe you were touched by the unbelievable work of many many people to clean up this building, or your home, following the flood? Do we notice the kindness around us? Or is it lost in the haze of violence and despair that exists in the world and fills the daily news?

Do you happen to notice moments of kindness or beauty, as gifts, as grace, from God? Or do you think they are just random events? What happens if you begin to see life as a gift from God, to be lived with gratitude, giving thanks to God who loves us? 

Gratitude is one of the fundamental aspects of our Christian faith. But it takes practice to form it inside of us. Gratitude needs to be nurtured and nourished by the way we live our lives. 


For the next eight weeks the Stewardship Commission invites us to nurture our attitude of gratitude. You will be provided with incentive to do this, and opportunities to share with others how this practice is taking shape in you. You’ve heard of the “Pay It Forward” concept? Well, think of this as a season of “Grace it Forward.” May it be a season in which we come to see the many blessings we are given by the grace of God, and may we, as the hands and heart of Christ, share the blessings with others as we Grace it Forward. 

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Walking

I needed to walk. I needed to walk a lot. 

It was one of those days when a snarky email got me going, interior-wise. That kind of interior work, choosing to not be knee-jerky, is hard for me. When my initial reaction is loaded with spit and vinegar, I know I need to move my body, but not my fingers on the keypad. It’s part of my on going effort to become better at self-differentiation, better at not responding to some comments or emails, better at letting the other person just sit with their words, not having my reaction to justify their immature behavior. 

So, I walked.

I walked to yoga, one of my favorite (almost) daily walks. The walk takes me along an urban forest that lines a small river. Looking into the trees I always see something beautiful: deer eating leaves, nestled safely behind the dense branches, but really only a few feet away; a red-tailed hawk standing on the edge of the grass, who looked me straight in the eye until I was a three feet away, and then it flew off; a family of beavers building their den; blue heron’s and of course birds and squirrels of the usual variety. I always see something that delights me and reminds me that there is much to be grateful for. 

Yoga class itself, was good - a long meditation restored some sense of equanimity and peace. Yoga serves to provide me with the time and practice to distance myself from any emotion I am feeling. It is particularly good when I am angry, it settles me and helps me gain perspective.

After yoga I walked across the street and had breakfast at the Panera Care’s. Panera Care’s is an experimental restaurant that gathers day old food from all the other nearby Panera’s and resells it. People are invited to pay full price, or any amount they can afford by dropping your payment into a box, so no one knows exactly what you do pay. If you are unable to pay anything you can have one free meal a day. People are also given the opportunity to work in exchange for a meal. So I had breakfast and then headed out on my errands.

I walked to a nearby market to purchase a large jar of raw honey. I use raw unfiltered honey in my coffee and in my protein shakes - good for seasonal allergies and the immune system - assuming one is not allergic to the honey itself. 

Then I walked home carrying my yoga mat strapped across my back, water bottle in one hand, and this heavy jar, (think two quarts), of honey in the other.

 This walk took along a different route, through a park and across the river. The park offers multiple covered pavilions used by groups and families for picnics and parties. On this particular day an Arabic group was using one of the pavilions. The air was filled with smell of hot dogs and burgers. Live sitar and drum music played loudly through a portable sound system.  The music echoed off the concrete sidewalks, asphalt parking lot, and the grass and trees, I could hear it blocks before I came upon it. The sound followed me home, reverberating off the trees in my backyard.

What a town I live in, I thought. Few places on earth enable a walk through such wildly diverse  terrain as this composite of land and culture. 

I needed to walk. 

I’m grateful I did.


Oh, and that snarky email. I never replied. Really, there was nothing to say after all. 



Saturday, August 23, 2014

Our Spiritual Foremothers of Justice

A radical Islamic militant group moves through Iraq and Syria killing civilians including American journalists, touting an extremist ideology and terrorizing a minority religious group in the region, forcing them to seek safe harbor on a mountain top.

A police officer shoots an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and a week of riots erupt. News reports cite years of conflict between a black community and it’s mostly white police force are coming to the surface.

Hamas and Israel enter into open conflict once again in a fierce and seemingly endless battle over land rights. 

Russia invades the Ukraine in a play for power.

A woman runs into a hotel in Libya, begging for help. Government agents are captured on hotel video hauling her away. Mayhem erupts in Libya. 

Genocide - people killing other people because of race, ethnicity, or religion, from Rwanda to South Africa, to Guatemala and countries in South America. From the Holocaust to the war between Serbia and Croatia, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, there seems to be a prevailing attitude that it is not only okay, but a right, to kill people who differ from one another. 

Even here, in our country, we have open conflict over race, gun rights, and human sexuality. 

An Egyptian Pharaoh  grew worried about the increasing Hebrew population in his country. He started a campaign of fear and anxiety that soon infected other Egyptians. Before long the misleading information fueled enough fear in the people that Pharaoh garnered support for genocide. The Pharaoh ordered the local midwives to carry out the killings, intending that no baby boy survived the birth process. 

It’s not a far-fetched story. All around us are stories of similar atrocities. 

What is amazing, however, is how the five women in this story all conspire against the Pharaoh, each in their own way and without any preconceived intention of working together. First of all we have the two midwives who recognize that if they follow the Pharaoh’s plan they will lose all credibility in the community of Hebrew and Egyptian women. They will lose their integrity as professionals whose job it is to bring forth new life not end it. So the midwives develop a brilliant plan that saves their reputation and save the lives of the babies being born - they women give birth before the midwives can arrive.

So then Pharaoh insists that the baby boys be thrown into the Nile. One Hebrew mother takes a risk at saving her son, placing him in a basket near the water where Pharaoh’s daughter bathes. The Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby and before she knows it the baby’s sister is there offering to find a wet nurse, who ends up being the baby’s real mother. As if that were not enough, Pharaoh’s daughter pays the mother to be the wet nurse. The baby grows up in Pharaoh’s own home, and thus defeats Pharaoh’s plan to rid the nation of Hebrew boys. It’s brilliant! What makes it even more amazing is that because of these five women, the rest of God’s salvation history is possible. The story that began with Abraham and Sarah, continued with Isaac and Rebeca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, is able to continue with Moses - a descendent of Abraham - from a family of Hebrew people living in exile as slaves in Egypt. Moses will grow up to leave Pharaoh’s house and lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt and back to the land of their ancestors. 

A number of years ago a group of us in the parish watched the PBS series, “Women, War, and Peace.” The series told the story of women who worked together to bring about justice and peace in war-torn areas of the world: Serbia-Croatia, Liberia, Colombia, and Afghanistan. It was a powerful, eye-opening series that revealed the behind the scenes work and the up front and center civil disobedience that was being done by women in war torn regions of the world to bring forth justice and peace. Much of the work included an interfaith movement of women; Christians, Jews, and Muslims, who joined together as one voice to end the genocide and division.

Likewise, the five women in the story from Exodus all come from very different backgrounds. None of them plotted to work together. But each of them was wiling to do the right thing, they took a risk for justice. In the process they entered into God’s hope and desire for human kind and all creation. 

As Episcopalians we describe God’s desire for us through the words of the Baptismal Covenant, where in with God’s help we will: seek justice, respect the dignity of others, serve Christ in one another, share bread, resist evil, repent and return to God, proclaim the Good News of God’s love in Christ and each other, and strive for peace. 


The women in Exodus exemplify these characteristics of people of faith. They are our spiritual foremothers. May their wisdom, tenacity, courage, and  strength live on in us, fortifying and inspiring us into acts of justice. May we be the living hands and heart of Christ in this broken world of ours. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Five: End of Summer (nooooooooooo)

Deb, over at the RevGals, offers this Friday Five:
There’s no real theme today, just some random topics. Have fun and don’t forget to post your link in the comments!
1. True or False: You can wear white shoes after Labor Day*. (Please explain to me why!) For me the real question is, who wears white shoes anymore? 
2. If “the dog days” are in August, when are “the cat days”? Every other day of the year, and really, cats just give dogs the month of August because it's too hot for cats to care.
3. Share a memory from your life of going back to school. Shopping in the fall for new clothes and school supplies. The beginning of each year filled me with anticipation and hope. I loved school.
4. My dad had a rhyme he used to tell us: “I eat my peas with honey; I’ve done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny, but it keeps them on my knife!” What’s the strangest use for honey you’ve ever heard of? I put raw, uncooked, unfiltered honey produced from the region I live in, in my coffee. I've been told that honey is good for the immune system and helps with seasonal allergies. 
5. Post a picture from this summer that shows us one of your favorite memories. 
My daughter's wedding. It was a fun week getting ready for it and a wonderful celebration.


BONUS: Summer gardens! Got one? What are you growing

Our garden this year has been prolific - cucumbers, zucchini, beans, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, lettuce, tomatoes. Sadly the tomatoes are not ripening so yesterday I picked a ton of green tomatoes, put them through the food processor with jalapeno's, onions, garlic, cumin, cilantro, a small amount of vinegar and sugar, salt and pepper, poured it into a pot and reduced it, making a green tomato enchilada sauce. I poured some of it on homemade chicken and black bean enchiladas for supper last night. I also froze 4 quarts for another time. 



Monday, August 18, 2014

A Tale of Three Churches


One story: The months preceding the formal “New Rector Installation” service were relatively calm and easy. Afterward, a member of the Vestry claiming to have “issues with authority,”  began blatantly opposing every point raised by the Rector in Vestry discussions. The wardens and Rector teamed up to listen to and work with this Vestry member, enabling better communication and more effective Vestry meetings.

Later, another parish conflict arose over human sexuality and whether openly gay and partnered persons should be bishops. The Vestry and Rector along with other community faith leaders organized a series of ecumenical and congregation-wide conversations on human sexuality. Although a few people left the parish because of the Episcopal Church’s stance on partnered gay bishops, most people stayed. The leadership encouraged open conversations which revealed more diversity within the congregation than was previously assumed. Eventually the anxiety eased and the congregation was able to focus on mission and ministries. 

A second story: Six weeks into a new call the new Rector hired a consultant to help navigate complicated interpersonal dynamics, which revealed themselves in the first week of the Rector’s arrival. That week, in separate incidences, three different people closed the Rector’s office door and then proceeded to insist that the Rector fire the Parish Administrator, who had been hired by the interim. Members of the congregation continued to tell the Rector what the Rector could or could not do, in no uncertain terms. Six months later there was open conflict in Vestry meetings. Ten months into the call the Rector arranged for the consultant to meet with the Vestry in an effort to learn more about the conflict. Despite great effort to identify issues and concerns, the “Problem” could not be clearly articulated. A pattern emerged, as soon as one issue was addressed another one reared its head. 

Not long after, following the New Rector installation service, the Bishop had a closed door meeting with the Vestry, without the Rector present, in order that the Vestry could speak “freely.” A few days later the Bishop called and told the Rector how to respond to concerns that were raised by the Vestry. When the conflict continued to rise the Bishop made a second visit with the Vestry, this time with the Rector present, and told the Vestry what to do. Seventeen months into this call the Rector began receiving daily emails, carbon copied to undisclosed recipients,  that were personally and professionally demeaning. The Bishop had a second closed door meeting with the Vestry, again without the Rector present. After that meeting the Bishop told the Rector to resign and laid out a plan for the Rector’s departure. The Bishop stated that the Rector’s leadership style was not a good fit for this parish. 

A third story: The priest was called to a parish that felt like a “perfect fit.” The first two years were filled with enthusiasm and joy.  However, in the third year conflict arose. For the better part of an entire year the leadership team and Rector wrestled with concerns about process, who had authority and how were decisions made. This culminated in two public conversations with representatives from many of the parish committees. The conversation was facilitated by a parishioner and a member of the diocesan staff, both trained mediators. These conversations eased the anxiety in the system by providing an opportunity for everyone to speak and be listened too and a plan was put in place for moving forward.


Conflict is a normal and natural part of human relationships and congregational life. The absence of conflict does not mean that a congregation or a relationship is necessarily healthy. Absence of conflict may indicate a system or relationship that is stuck in patterns of behavior that ensure a false sense of comfort at the expense of interpersonal growth and well-being. This comfort is false because people are suppressing their true feelings in an effort to get along. Christians congregations have a tendency to “be nice,” believing it’s the Christian thing to do. Paradoxically being nice usually means people are quietly tolerating other people who are not being nice to one another. It also manifests as unspoken pressure to accept values, beliefs, and behaviors that are not one’s own.

A normal aspect of congregational life, conflict can play out in healthy and unhealthy ways. Typically conflict manifests as anxiety over seemingly random issues or an insistence that a particular person is the problem. Successful resolution can happen when individuals in the leadership team (Bishop, priest, Vestry, Commission Chairpersons, etc) are able to navigate the situation by monitoring their own feelings, choosing to respond thoughtfully instead of impulsively by separating feelings from action and recognizing their particular role in the conflict. A group of mature leaders, not just the clergy person, need to be willing to seek reconciliation rather than blame, confront, by meeting face to face, the unhealthy behaviors, and strive to create and maintain boundaries for healthy behaviors.

In the parish in which the conflict ended with a forced pastoral exit, the underlying anxiety over congregational and cultural changes in leadership were similar to what other churches face in the world today. However this congregational system exhibited symptoms of unhealthy behavior well documented by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and numerous books written on church conflict. The symptoms included an unwillingness to adapt. This manifested as inflexible and insistent behaviors intended to protect a few and hurt others. The instigators used scare tactics and anger to spread and increase anxiety. There was an expectation that the female Rector would “behave like the obedient daughter and do what she was told,” a typical experience of women in leadership. The Rector’s efforts to hold open conversations among the leadership team in order for the members to grow in understanding of one another failed because certain members would not publicly speak about their feelings and intentions. Instead they circulated emails undermining the leadership with distorted information intended to raise anxiety. Meetings of the Vestry and other groups, without the Rector present, perpetuated a pattern of covert behavior and silencing of the Rector. The ensuing “flight-pattern” of people leaving or threatening to leave the parish added to the anxiety. This was exacerbated by a tendency to look after self-interests and not the good of the whole. There was the presence of demeaning verbal and non-verbal communication. The destructive behavior was marked by domination and subordination patterns. The parish had a history of alcoholism and a long history of conflict with previous Rector’s in which people left the church rather than reconcile. The conflict escalated so quickly that the Rector was unable to establish and maintain trusting relationships with key leaders.

Underlying the behaviors were significant cultural shifts. During the months in which the conflict was elevating the country fell into an economic depression which impacted this congregation of predominantly retired people. Incidents of undocumented people crossing the border increased the tension in local neighborhoods. The first black President of the United States was elected, a challenge for even the most liberal members of this community. And, the parish was experiencing leadership from its first female Rector. These cultural and systemic-wide changes aroused anxiety in people who, as is typical, played out their anxiety through congregational life. Within eighteen months the conflict in this parish had reached an “intractable” level of intensity, the stated objective of at least one person was to humiliate the Rector and punish her by getting her fired. Arbitration was necessary and the end result was a forced pastoral exit. Intervention from professional church mediators may not have salvaged the relationship but it would have enlightened all parties to the unhealthy dynamics at play. 

Forced clergy exits have a tendency to focus on “cause and effect” - who did what or what caused the conflict. In church settings the Rector or lead pastor, the most vulnerable person in the system, is usually determined to be at “fault.” (See Lombard Mennonite Peace Center Mediation training.) Focusing on cause and effect fails to recognize that the set of circumstances that force an exit in one congregation will not have the same end result in another. Unhealthy responses to conflict seek places outside the self to lay blame, thus moving the anxiety from self to other. Navigating conflict toward a resolution that retains the clergy-congregation relationship requires each person involved to recognize their role in the conflict.

As human beings grow from infancy to adulthood we learn patterns of behavior that influence how we respond to challenges and differences of opinion, personalities, cultures and societal norms. Because individuals have emotional connections to other people we are all affected by the behavior of others'. Our ability to recognize how we feel as we experience other people informs our options for responding. When we are able to understand that a behavior causes us to respond in a certain way we can intentionally choose to respond in a different way.

When responding to congregational conflict and anxiety, leadership needs to remember that an emotional system has been activated, one that resides beneath the issues being raised. The issues are symptoms of the underlying emotional system. Recognizing the underlying emotional dynamic requires making constructive decisions to separate feelings from actions. Feelings are natural, but nurturing hurt feelings and acting destructively from hurt feelings perpetuates unhealthy conflict. This can be accomplished by: stepping outside of one’s own subjective responses to what one “feels" is happening; actively listening to others, with the intent of learning, rather than reacting to emotions or positions; staying clear about one’s own goals, values, and beliefs while simultaneously being a non-anxious presence; and remaining in relationship with all the people involved. Being willing to change, adjust, and compromise can lead to healthier conflict transformation. Healthy communication practices rely on direct conversation with the individuals involved instead of gossiping about others. No one person holds the whole truth of a situation, it takes enormous effort to honor everyone’s perspective. Compassion, empathy, and a desire to stay in relationship are key factors in reconciling conflict.

Conflict is a normal aspect of human relationships, reminding us that we are vibrant and alive. When our motivation to resolve conflict is toward relationship building instead of self-preservation, bullying, or power and control, conflict can be transformational, building trust and deepening our awareness of ourselves and others. Scripture provides us with examples of how to do this as we grow up in every way into the body of Christ. 

(See in particular 1 Corinthians 13Ephesians 4, and Matthew18).

The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski serves as the Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Dearborn, MI and as the Convener of the Episcopal Women's Caucus. She holds a dual degree M.Div/MSW with an emphasis in Family Systems for Congregations and is trained in Mediation for Congregations and Healthy Congregations by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and Appreciative Inquiry with Rob Voyle. In addition to serving on the board for the EWC she previously served on the boards of OMNI Youth Services in Chicago and the RevGalBlogPals, as a regional Dean in the Diocese of Chicago, and as a regional liaison for Episcopal Migration Ministries. 


The above essay was written out of a partnership between The Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) and The Network of Episcopal Clergy (NECA.) This project developed following  a watershed moment when in January 2014 the Diocese of Newark passed a resolution seeking that their Bishop appoint a task force to explore Dignity of Work issues related to clergy and workplace bullying.  This essay was written as part of a collection of essays written to begin to address the challenge of challenging calls and the issue of workplace bullying. While the views in this essays are the authors own and we acknowledge that no one essay will be able to identify all the issues involved, our hope is that in and  through the collection of pieces we might support what has begun locally in the Diocese of Newark and more importantly, further the conversation in the wider Episcopal church. As these essays are both sponsored and being released jointly by both NECA and The EWC please read all the essays at The Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog and  The Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls Writing Project.




If you are a clergy person in the midst of a challenging call or you have gone through it and would like to see the beginnings of a set of resources that might support you, please see the  NECA Resource Page

Monday, August 11, 2014

One Bread Broken Open

Ordained fourteen years, I have gathered around the table with a community of the faithful three or four times a week. “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”

Into countless open hands I’ve placed a piece of bread, broken off of a larger loaf. “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life.”

 

communion rail hands


A holy and sacred moment shared. “One bread, one body.”

We become this body through baptism, partaking of meals together, sacred and ordinary, opportunities to connect with our friends and colleagues, and as we care for friend and stranger. We share our lives and find ministries in common that help make life more meaningful. We serve on committees and commissions, boards and teams, striving for vibrant and transformational relationships with God and our neighbor.

Scripture, such as Matthew 18, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 13, remind us that we are called to be in relationship with one another. This means we are to lead a life worthy of that to which we have been called; to build up the body, be mature, speak the truth in love, and don’t let the sun go down on our anger.

In truth, following the wisdom of scripture can be challenging. Broken human beings, we gossip and speak behind the back of the one who hurt us. We point fingers and lay blame. We tend to blame someone else for how we feel, project our hurt onto another person, but fail to see our role in the breakdown of the relationship. Instead of gossiping, blaming, and projecting we might focus on the self and wonder, “Why am I so anxious? Why am I so hurt? Why am I so angry?”

Then, you might also ponder “How might I have responded differently? What could I do to stay in relationship? Am I brave enough to really embrace the notion that the only person I can change is myself?”

Jesus reminds us to first explore the log in our own eye. Then, go to the person with whom we feel hurt and have a conversation, with the intention of learning more, instead of blaming. This is how we love God, and love others as ourselves as mature people building up the body instead of breaking it.

May the Body of Christ be broken open, not apart, and shared with love, that we might be made whole.

The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski serves as the Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Dearborn, MI and as the Convenor of the Episcopal Women's Caucus. She holds a dual degree M.Div/MSW with an emphasis in Family Systems for Congregations and is trained in Mediation for Congregations and Healthy Congregations by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and Appreciative Inquiry with Rob Voyle. In addition to serving on the board for the EWC she previously served on the boards of OMNI Youth Services in Chicago and the RevGalBlogPals, as a regional Dean in the Diocese of Chicago, and as the regional liaison for Episcopal Migration Ministries.

 

This reflection was written for <a href="https://readymag.com/mwm/36339/">Fresh Day</a>. Check it and consider subscribing!