Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Starting Superlatives.

I find superlatives very difficult. Questions that begin with "What was your best/most/worst/favorite..." Almost always leave me scratching my head, saying, "I'm not sure I can pick just one!!!" I can't pick just one favorite movie or song or book. I can't decide on just one favorite food or most embarrassing moment. In fact, the only time a superlative came easily to me was when I was elected "Teachers' Pet" by my senior class. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone, either. I think a lot of people struggle with superlatives like that. Yet evaluations and applications are always full of that type of question.

This evening I found myself working on annual reports for the ministry process, writing about my learnings this year, how I'm addressing my growing edges, that sort of stuff. It was all quite ordinary and relatively easy to answer until I reached the last question: "What have you learned in the past year that has most affected your practice of ministry? Where or from whom did you learn it?" I have no idea how to answer this question, because I can't identify just one thing.

In the last ten months of my ministry, I have learned more than I ever imagined I would. I've learned how to lead a committee meeting while speaking very little. I've learned how to preach more effectively. I've learned how to draw boundaries to protect my time and personal life. I've learned how to say no without alienating too many people. I've learned how to preside at communion, how to baptize, how to lead a funeral, how to officiate a wedding. I've learned a bunch about self-care, balance, and prioritizing. I've discovered the importance of having good relationships with colleagues and asking good questions of trusted mentors. I've learned how to slow down and dig into the history of the congregation before moving forward with actions that might rock the boat. I've realized things about myself and my authority, and I've found strength and confidence I didn't know I had.

But, out of everything I've learned, I can't identify just one thing that "has most affected my practice of ministry." I have a feeling that whatever it is probably came from one of two sources: either from actually being in ministry, which has taught me a TON, or from conversations with my lead pastor, who is a brilliant leader, a very intelligent and articulate theologian, and a generally wise person. This first year, those have been the most important influences. It makes me very thankful to get to work with a senior pastor that I respect and admire, and to have opportunities to try new things.

I finally gave up on discerning what one thing has been most important for my practice of ministry and just chose one thing at random from the top twenty. I finished the report and sent it in. But I'm still pondering all that I've learned; I'm still thankful for the chance to learn it and the grace of those who are guiding me through the learning.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad...

This has not been a great week. In fact, it has been a discouraging week filled with people complaining about things. I really, really dislike it when people complain about things, particularly when the complaints are not said in kindness and not accompanied by suggestions for improvement. This sort of thing always leaves me frustrated, discouraged, and tired.

It's on weeks like this that I fantasize about throwing in the towel and moving to Tahiti, or giving up this job for something like collecting trash, which doesn't involve working with people. It's weeks like this, when I spend more time working overtime than I do sleeping, that I think, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could have an hourly-wage job where I could go home at the end of a shift and actually stop thinking about work for a few hours."

Yes, folks, it has been one of those weeks.

Fortunately, these weeks are few and far between. Most of the time I like my job. But on weeks like this, I find it annoying to have to hold up a professional, moral standard of conduct. It would be so nice, at least in the moment, to respond to the vitriol spewed at me with equally venomous comments. Unfortunately, that is not an option.

Instead, I choose: singing. Yup, singing. I find the angry songs in my CD collection, and those that speak of lovely escapism, and I sing away the frustration. I get into my car and blast music that matches my mood. It is, really, the response of the angsty teenager. But when the alternative is shouting at the people who drive me crazy, angsty teenager is infinitely preferable.

So, my suggested playlists:
Want to throw something at a client or co-worker?
"Bad Reputation" - Halfcocked
"One Girl Revolution" - Superchick
"Just a Girl" - No Doubt
"Stay Home" - Self
"Defying Gravity" - Wicked
"Dumb Girl" - Lucy Woodward
"Just You Wait" - My Fair Lady
Anything from Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill album

Want to run away to Tahiti?
"Some Beach" - Blake Shelton
"It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" - Alan Jackson
"Take Me Away" - Fefe Dobson
"Bye-bye" - Jo Dee Messina

May your week be less painful than mine, and may you find these songs, or some of your own, helpful on your less-than-pleasant days!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


All of my coherent thoughts lately have gone to writing sermons. In lieu of those, I offer you the following sarcastic questions, which have been floating through my head in the last few days:

How do you tell the difference between the silence of awe and the silence of lead balloons passing over?
I tried something new in our emergent worship service on Sunday. Instead of a traditional sermon or even a first-person narrative sermon, I preached a poem. I wasn't planning to do it, but I woke up on Saturday morning with the poem in my head and felt inspired to write it out and preach it. The congregation greeted it with silence, mostly. The worship attendance for the service varies wildly, and this week we had a large number of children; I suspect the poem went a bit over their heads, but I'm not sure. I wish I could get some feedback, but I wasn't sure how to ask for it. I think I'll give it a while before I try something that out of the ordinary again.

Why did fondue ever go out of style? You're dipping things in cheese and chocolate. How did that ever not seem like a good idea?
Seriously, the only ways I can think to improve good food are to add cheese or chocolate, and fondue does exactly that. It's SO good!!! I had the opportunity this evening to go with a friend to the Melting Pot for Ladies' Night. It was a fantastic form of sabbath. We had great, supportive, fun conversation and enjoyed a delicious feast. The only problem is that now I feel like I'm going to have a food baby...

Why is Charlie obsessed with eating grass clippings? Does he think he's a cow?
Every time I take him out for a walk, Charlie makes beeline for the grass clippings in the yard and tries to eat huge clumps. I don't understand the attraction dead grass holds for my puppy. I feed him plenty and give him good treats, so why is he so interested in the grass? I mean, I can see taking a little taste as an exploration, but huge clumps of dry grass every time we go outside? I'm starting to think he has no taste at all. On the other hand, grass is probably healthier for him than fondue would be.

Who thought THAT would be a good idea?
I went to the circus over the weekend, and it was fantastic! But I kept wondering, as I watched death-defying and amazing acts, who was the first person to suggest this stunt? Who was the first person to say, "Let's put seven people on dirt bikes in this little sphere and have them all drive around and try not to kill each other." Or, which person suggested putting nine tigers in the same cage with a person and hoping that they don't tear him to pieces? I enjoyed the show and was very impressed, but you have to question the wisdom behind the initial suggestions for these acts.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Just Keep Swimming...

Holy Exertion, Wholly Exhausted
Holy Week is only seven days long. Eight, if you count Palm Sunday. But for church staffs, it seems much, much longer. The church I serve, for example, had ten services in those eight days. I would never even think of comparing our experience to Christ's, but in terms of scheduling, there are some similarities, at least in the rhythms of darkness, work, and celebration.

Palm Sunday is a big day. It's a day of celebrating. We have parades with palms and an Easter egg hunt, everyone is excited. And the staff is happy. But we know that there is still a long way to go. In the back of my mind through all that celebration was, "This is just the beginning. Everything seems OK now, but the insanity is coming..."

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday seem quiet, but they aren't. You're working constantly, but things are relatively calm. At the same time, the tension is building. Monday is calm--nailing down the last details of the orders of service and finishing the bulletins. Tuesday is a little more strained: getting ahead on visitation so that you're not overwhelmed at the end of the week, trying to figure out exactly who's doing what for the services and, in my case anyway, working on Powerpoints for the upcoming services. On Wednesday, I began to really absorb the fact that we were looking at seven services in the next four days. That was when I started getting nervous.

If Monday-Wednesday was the calm before the storm, Thursday was when the winds started picking up. It was the first of the four days of intense worship services and, while it was contemplative, I could feel the stress coming to a head. The Holy Thursday worship was beautiful, but as soon as it was over, as soon as we had finished communion and stripped the altar, I started worrying about how Good Friday would come together.

On Friday full panic set in. I spent the morning and afternoon wrestling with my theology of the resurrection, attempting to write a sermon for the Easter Vigil. I rushed to the church to put the final touches on the liturgy and sacred space for the Good Friday service. Ironically, the Good Friday service was probably my favorite worship of all of the Holy Week services. We did a riff on the Veneration of the Cross, and it simultaneously emphasized our role in Christ's suffering and our call to social justice. We involved tactile experience, poetry, Scripture, music, and visual images to bring the crucifixion to life. I felt moved and strangely exhilarated afterward.

Saturday broke the pattern of my journey paralleling Christ's. On Saturday, at least according to Protestant tradition, Christ was dead in the tomb. I would think that would have been restful. My Saturday, on the other hand, was a little crazy. I spent the whole day writing liturgy and putting final touches on the Easter Vigil for the evening.

Sunday was just plain exhausting. The church had four worship services. I attended all of them and helped lead three of the four. I enjoyed the worship and it was wonderful to see so many people gathered to celebrate the resurrection. But by the end of the last service, I was completely worn out. Christ arose, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep.

Never-Ending Story

"Treading water to keep from sinking,
'Cause I'm not one for reaching..."
- Jars of Clay

Sometimes in ministry, I think we all feel like we're just treading water, trying to keep moving just to keep from falling behind. Each week you're preparing to lead worship, writing sermons and liturgy, creating bulletins, visiting in hospitals, and running meetings. Through liturgical seasons things ebb and flow, but the Sundays keep coming and the meetings keep appearing on the calendar. This is a marked difference from school. When you're in school, everything builds toward midterms and finals, but once the semester ends, you get a break. But in the church, there are no breaks. Things build up to Christmas and Easter, and other major liturgical seasons and holidays, but a week or less after those big days, you're facing another Sunday; you have to prepare another sermon, another worship service. This rhythm has been called the relentless return of the Sunday, but I'm just beginning to understand what this feels like. Two months ago, I started a new service and I began preaching once a month. And it didn't seem too bad at first, but after dealing with the insanity of Holy Week, the fact that there's a Sunday coming in another three days is driving me a little crazy.

On the other hand, it's a great reminder that these holidays are not ends in themselves. Christmas is just the beginning of the gospel story. Easter is a triumph, yes, but also the initiation of a new challenge: the church is to go out in mission to the world to proclaim the truth of the risen Christ. We can't just say, "Christ is risen, that's the end." We have to say, "Christ is risen, now let's go tell the world!" And that is demonstrated by the arrival of another Sunday. The work continues, the mission continues, the worship continues. We are Easter people. Easter isn't just a day, it's a way of living. Holy Week is a journey, but also a part of the larger narrative, the ever-cycling story we relive each year. Let the story continue.