I recently ended up eating lunch alone after someone had to cancel a last minute appointment. No big trouble, especially because I had a gift card, so I'd be eating free! At Applebee's, so let's not get too excited, but I'm still too close to graduate school to turn down a free meal.
When I sat down, though the restaurant was half empty, I could tell my server was overwhelmed. Since I'd planned on a working lunch anyway, I plopped my computer down on the table and began to type, figuring that she had enough anxiety from other customers and that any delays would only give me more opportunity to finish a few writing projects. I got my usual drinks - a water and a Diet Coke (or Pepsi, depending on the location) - and continued to type. She took my order, and I continued to type. What you must know at this point is that I've had much, much worse service than this day. Were the drinks a bit slow? Sure. Did she forget something when she first brought my meal? Yes. But, in all, these were incredibly minor, and almost negligible infractions even by American service standards.
What I didn't notice until far too late is that this was affecting her more deeply than it was affecting me. Her other tables seemed a bit more impatient, but even so, there were no uncomfortable confrontations. Just reminders or a request to have some stale chips exchanged for a fresh batch. Pretty normal stuff for food service, but again, this was affecting her deeply.
I only fully noticed how bad when she brought me my check, with tears in her eyes. I had noticed her go to the back, just thinking she was getting an item for another patron. At this moment, I realized it was an unsuccessful attempt to to hide her tears. As I took the check, I smiled to her brimming eyes and thanked her for her service. At that point, I planned to write a note on the back of the check, something like, "There will be better days. Hang in there!" You know, a phrase that seems like a good idea at the time and always feels trite upon reflection. What I should have done was share those words with her, to name them to her face, because what happened next was almost unbelievable.
One of her coworkers began to disparage her, not so loud that we could hear what was said, but loud enough that I, across the restaurant, could hear the conflict rise. I looked over to see the coworker point toward the door, and my waitress, in shock, shook her head. The coworker once again thrust her pointer finger, this time first at my waitress and then at the door. After a moment of shock, Nikki grabbed her purse from under the counter and left.
I don't know if she left for the day, for the week, or forever. I don't know what else may have been going on in Nikki's life that complicated the day for her. But I do know three things.
First, the coworker did more to turn me away from this restaurant than the slow service, because after Nikki left, the coworker began to berate her to other tables. Not just explain the situation, but to gossip about this clearly grief-stricken woman.
Second, the food that day did much more to turn me away from Applebee's in general than the slow service. It seems that, across the country, this chain has mastered the displeasing art of overcooking food, then serving it cold. It's bafflingly reproducible.
Finally, I know that Nikki needed a word, some compassion, that reminder that I wanted to offer, trite though it sounds, and I know that she didn't get it from me because I delayed. I was moments too late, and as she walked out the door, my heart sank.
Whatever it was that caused her so much anxiety that day, I wanted her to know that her identity, that her value in life, was not wrapped up in serving appetizers to ungrateful putzes like me. That, even as mistakes were made, she there was still a brighter future ahead. Compassion is a nice feeling to have, but it's worthless if we don't actualize it when it is needed most.
That's what I learned this week. Feeling compassion is useless without immediate corresponding action, because if we're moments too late, that means our compassion goes nowhere.
In the last post, I offered the first five learnings (#10-#6) from my first ten months in ministry. This post continues that countdown.
#5 – Take vacation & continuing education seriously.
This is one of those areas that always gets tricky. Written into my call documents are four weeks of vacation and two weeks of continuing education. That means six weeks away from the congregation, even before you begin to count required denominational events like the Synod Assembly, the Gathering of the Ministerium, and the First Call Retreat. Taking this much time out of a fifty-two weeks for ministry can seem, at times, too much time away.
Yet, without intentional time for further learning and for Sabbath rest, pastors quickly become overwhelmed. Congregations deserve excellent pastors, and those who choose not to utilize all their time away risk exhaustion, burnout, or perhaps most invasive, complacency. Even further, these times allow for healthy differentiation, reminding congregations and pastors that their identities, though related, are not one in the same. Long after I’m gone, there will still be a Christ Lutheran Church, and it is a healthy reminder to have other preachers and leaders step up at various times to remind everyone that while we rely on one another for effective ministry, we’re not called to become codependent.
Even as I’m in the middle of a vacation week right now, I feel the strength returning to my mind and body. New ideas are flowing for ministry and I’m genuinely excited to return to the people of our congregation. Recharging my batteries with family has helped prepare me for the next steps we’ll take together as CLC.
#4 – Create consensus.
This requires the long view on decision making. Consensus comes not from immediate problems, but rather discerning together how to adapt to particular issues facing your community. Perhaps the most important part of this is opening up to the possibility that the decision you want is not necessarily the decision that will be made.
As a congregation, we recently decided to commit to a sanctuary full of portable furniture rather than pieces like pews that must be nailed to the floor. This decision wasn’t easy. In fact, it took us nine months of prayer, of using moveable furniture in our worship space, and of discerning what other options this opened up to us. When we took the vote, as a congregation we made the decision almost unanimously. This potentially divisive decision instead became a discussion of God’s mission for ministry through our congregation.
#3 – Empower others.
Creating consensus also works to empower others. When leaders open up to the work of the Spirit within their communities, other leaders begin to arise. Recently, we’ve seen ministry coordinators arise to become leaders in our Across the Spectrum outreach and on our property team. This sharing of new perspectives, skills, and ideas helps to hone the ministry we share at our church, as well as offers me renewed energy to direct in other areas of our church’s life. Again, the decisions you want won’t necessarily be the decisions that are made when you empower others, but good leaders help to foster growth in leadership as well as develop a shared vision, one created by the aforementioned building of consensus.
#2 – Don’t always lead from the same place.
Some leaders naturally lead from the front, gathering a group around a dynamic personality, vision, or cause. Others lead from the center, emanating direction from the core (which is, in general, consensus building). Still others lead from the rear, getting a full view of the battlefield and calling out troop movements informed by that panoramic perspective.
What I’ve learned is that, while I’m most comfortable leading from the center, which is where it’s easiest to build consensus and empower others, there are times when I need to lead from the front. Certain times require a leader at the front in order to blaze the trails necessary for ministry. This often requires more hierarchy than I prefer, yet it produces results when none seem likely. Yet, when the terrain seems so muddled that I can’t gain a full view of what’s best, it helps to step back to the rear and allow others to lead particular ministries while I gain a sense of the entire system at work. From this vantage point, I may help to shepherd us all in the same direction, under the same vision, toward the shared goals we’ve identified together.
#1 – Remember who’s really in charge, and that it is not you.
Perhaps the worst thing that pastors can do is assume that they’re in charge. We’re invited into the life of Jesus, the mission of Jesus, and the ministry of Jesus. As soon as the churches we serve begin to look more like us than like Jesus, we’ve done something wrong. As we’re called into this holy work, we must remember that we’re always subject to the guidance of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, there's much more that could be said about the first ten months. Further, I know there's much more learning yet to be done. Thankfully these things have helped me to embrace my role as a pastor more fully, and my place in this community more faithfully. I hope they help others to embrace their vocations more authentically and effectively. As always, I'm available for further discussion if processing this would be helpful for any readers.
Finally, I pray that the next ten months are even more blessed than these first ten. That's a tall order, but the God that we love and serve loves and serves us beyond measure. God's vision is surely beyond my wildest expectations, so I'm excited to see what that future looks like with the people of CLC.
There's no way to quantify the things that you learn as you step into ministry. No one is grading your knowledge, but how quickly you adapt practices to that new knowledge greatly shapes the future of ministry. No professors hold office hours, but congregants and colleagues stand by as willing teachers to help reinforce the development of faithful ministry.
In short form, here's ten things that have become vital learnings in my first ten months in ministry.
#10 - Don't be confined to your office.
This is a tricky one because people want to find the pastor, and the pastor ought to be accessible. Fortunately, with the advent of cell phones, this isn't much of a problem anymore. Yet, people need help with that transition to calling first rather than assuming you're working in the office rather than the coffee shop, the park, or somewhere else in the community. Getting out of the building helps to build relationships in your immediate mission field, which is an invaluable tool for increasing awareness of the congregation's ministry.
This also applies if you're bogged down in work that's sapping your life force. If your energy is draining in your office, find a comfy chair in a classroom to prepare for council. Write your sermon in the church yard. Do your devotionals in the sanctuary. Changing space can help to change attitude and rejuvenate your body and mind for mission.
#9 - Visit when asked.
This is fairly simple, but it's so essential. If someone asks you to come to their home, go. It makes a huge difference in building positive relationships. If someone wants to introduce you to their workplace, check it out. It helps you to understand how the people you're called to love and serve spend their time. Make the time for these uncommon and holy moments, and you'll see how God works in the lives of your people.
#8 - Change...
Seriously, change is a good thing. In a congregation that deeply wants to see new life, taking the risks to change for the better is a huge gift. We've changed our worship space, incorporated screens to display the liturgy and images, and brought in new styles of music. We've started a new campus ministry (Highlander Lutherans) and a new outreach ministry to people on the autism spectrum and persons with disabilities (Across the Spectrum). Each of these has paid a clear dividend in our community: life. We've become excited about the opportunities, and enlivened by the new relationships built because of these shifts. We've seen new members join and old members return for a new, healthier experience of relationships in church.
#7 - ...at the right pace...
This happened, in part, because we've been pacing our change. For instance, when we first put up screens, we didn't start displaying all the words for worship right away. That would have been too quick. They first sat covered for a few weeks as we finalized the audio/visual system. Then for about two months we displayed images that related to the sermon, the readings, and the liturgical calendar. Then one of our longest tenured members, a strong leader in her eighties, said to me, "Pastor, why don't we just put all the stuff in the bulletin up there?" All of the sudden, change became a valuable move for the growth of the congregation, even from the perspective of this matriarch. Rather than a forced idea from a new leader, it developed from within the community as we created consensus to move forward together.
#6 - ...for the right reasons.
These changes also had a clearly mission mindset in mind. We're installing a chair lift as we speak in order to make our building fully accessible to all people. Since we don't have a large fellowship hall, we've removed the pews in our sanctuary to make it more flexible not only for Sunday worship, but for use by community groups throughout the week. Highlander Lutherans and Across the Spectrum were born out of the realization that our congregation had particular gifts and passions that could help to develop invaluable relationships with these populations. The changes we made weren't without forethought or reason, but rather came from a commitment to help better serve and live life with the community in which God placed us to minister.
#5-#1 will appear on the next post!
It's not enough to not be racist. We must be anti-racist, in our words and deeds.
These wise words came from a friend on Facebook recently. For me, they've never rung more true than the last few weeks. The murders of the Charleston 9 while in Bible study at Emanuel AME, the death threats coming to black female pastors, and the fires at black churches across the South grieve my soul.
The amount of white silence and white fragility from white Christians that arose in response to these events brings me much more than grief. It brings me shame. A few days ago, just a week after the terrorist attack at Emanuel AME in Charleston, Rozella White, a Black Puerto Rican 3rd generation Lutheran who is the Director of Young Adult Ministry for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote a powerful reflection on how she struggled when the opening worship of a conference she attended made no mention in prayer, song, or proclamation about the attack upon this black church. Her critique of the silence of a predominantly white community was followed by various forms of white fragility from those of us who were worried more about the execution of her lament than the fact that we didn't mention Charleston or the suffering of the black community in our time of worship together.
If I'm honest, I was at that conference. I shared in that silence. Though I wasn't on the worship team, I didn't even think to bring the people of Mother Emanuel to one of the leaders as a prayer concern. I also shared in the fragility. Though I didn't voice my own discomfort, I was first taken aback at how our unabashedly progressive community could be perceived as insensitive to racial issues, and especially shared so publicly. To be clear, I’m not pointing the finger at anyone else at that conference without pointing it directly at myself. This wasn’t anyone else’s fault more than it is my own.
At some point - and fortunately that point came rather quickly through conversations with close friends - I realized something. The most important issue at hand was that our community needed to lift up Emanuel AME in prayer, that we needed to lament alongside our sisters and brothers of color, that we needed to cry out for justice, and we didn't do any of that in our opening worship. We didn't take the first chance we had to weep with those who weep, and weep ourselves for the siblings in Christ that we lost. We waited for another colleague, an African national and a personal friend of mine, to break our silence with the news that she was on call that night in a Charleston hospital that cared for Emanuel’s victims.
It wasn't enough that we weren't overtly racist. Our silence was and is complicit in the continuation of racism. Our fragility at our own hurt feelings is a mask for the gaping wound of racism in our society that leads to prejudice, to oppression, to brutality, to death threats, to murder. In our predominantly white churches in a predominantly white denomination, we must forego the complacence of our silence. We must, instead, become actively anti-racist, speaking and living in ways that combat racism.
White people like myself must admit that even the statement that we’re not racist belies the false assumption that we’re free of society’s prejudice toward people of color. We must be honest with ourselves that, somewhere deep in our bones, the racial formation of Western culture by European colonization shaped who we are and how we think about the world. It shaped how we see people with skin darker than ours. When we speak and act in anti-racist ways, we seek the transformation not only of society, but of those hidden areas of prejudice bred within our cultural context.
Yet, the shame that this silence and fragility brings me is not the same as despair. From this disgrace, we must turn to seek the grace that transforms our world. We may actively work to become public advocates, allies, and accomplices in the movement to true equality, toward reconciliation. Our grief at the brokenness of this world seen in continued acts and systems of racism ought to lead us to conviction that things not need always be this way. That, through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, we may become coworkers in the reshaping of this world into a place that embraces all people equally, that honors the integrity of every person regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, ability, or whatever other potential dividing lines separate us.
Here’s the kicker. For Christians, this begins in worship. This begins in shaping our songs and sermons, our prayers and liturgies around a prophetic hope for justice. This begins with calling upon God to be faithful to all people, to cure us of the disease of racism, and to make us an antidote of anti-racism that reveals the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom. It begins with an awareness that the suffering the black church is the suffering of the entire church. We must become active agents of grace in the world, conduits of Christ that carry God’s reconciling work to all people through our words and deeds. We can’t stay silent about that, nor should we be surprised that our silence in worship is offensive and heartbreaking to those whom we alienate through our quiet.
From here, we move out to advocacy. To confronting racist systems and structures. To not standing for racist language at the grocery store or racist hiring practices in our country. We must become actively engaged in the transformation of this world into a place where people of all races are embraced as creations of integrity, created in the image of God.
It's not enough to not be racist. We must be anti-racist, in our words and deeds, for the sake of the world, for our sisters and brothers of color, and for ourselves.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.