Day 4: All the Nations will Stream (to) It

In the days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations will stream to it.
Many people shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that God will teach us the ways,
and that we may walk in God’s paths.”

-Isaiah 2:2-3

I will say loudly and publicly that the reason we pause our lives every four years is that we are watching the best soccer of the quadrennial and I know I am lying. This is my rationale for people who expect rational behavior. I know as well as any fan that a national team that comes together a few days a year will never play as elegantly as the club teams that play together day in and day out. We are unlikely to see such a concentration of talent on a national team as we do in the bankrolled European leagues. The conceit of the World Cup is the limitation of our nations, how 30 countries are eliminated and cheering for someone else. The act of collective national joy allows for unique bridge building between nations.

I used to think this passage in Isaiah described a moment where God unifies humanity by calling all peoples to a uniquely holy place. Today, I notice how it is only because people are “streaming (to) it” that they say “let us walk in God’s paths.” The act of noticing each other’s nations is what inspires them to keep surging up the mountain to God’s house. We are all in this together.

It is easy to read prophetic texts like Isaiah 2 as waiting around for God to do something grandiose to heal humanity, but perhaps what God is doing is creating the conditions for us to learn from each other. To perform small acts of healing together. Walking in the paths of God means not only learning to notice God, but noticing the best of other cultures and adopting those practices. 

This is not to say that the stadiums are temples of God–vanity construction projects won’t save us (*cough* Solomon’s temple *cough*). Or that the World Cup resolves geopolitical conflict. But the magic of the World Cup is that it is difficult to sustain nationalism when we all bring our joyful selves and cultures to the same place. The more nations you are connected to, the more you enjoy the games. And we catch glimpses of God in the way that a melting pot of nationalism begets the collapse of national identity.

In the Fields by Night: Daily Advent Devotions for a World Cup Season

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by the Word, and without it not one thing came into being….

-John 1:1-3 (NRSV, modified for nongendered pronouns)

Anyone who has been following the news for even a moment of the last decade, and happens to be watching the largest sporting event on the globe, begins with a disclaimer: “Well, FIFA can eat a dick, but I’m here for the beautiful game.”

More or less, but not necessarily, in those words. It’s a strange collision of events that the World Cup falls over the Christian season of Advent. As I prepare for the birth of Christ this year, I have never felt closer to the world in which Christ was born. A world in which we are all either sell outs or captives of the Empire which claims global loyalty and dominance. That is to say, I have never found a better metaphor for the Roman Empire than the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

But FIFA is not just a parallel for the government and culture that attempted and finally executed the murder of God’s Son. FIFA is also a direct descendant of the secularized, patronizing, self-aggrandizing form of the European church that formulated the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. Perhaps a milder form, but nonetheless a new force for justifying European economic and spiritual dominance. And so FIFA is also an apt metaphor for the modern institutional church, the necessary evil that we tolerate—or don’t—in search of a spiritual home.

In the beginning was the Word. A Word that preceded institutions and corruption and colonialism. In the beginning was the beautiful game. Like many, I fell in love with soccer as a kid who fell into sync with the rhythms of the ball, the players, and the satisfying whirr of a goal. I found something divine which I still believe lives somewhere within the institution.

A friend said recently that soccer is a religion, and he didn’t mean it kindly. He meant soccer fans treat the World Cup as though there can still be salvation in an institution that disregards humanity—we insist our paltry efforts to reform it justify our participation in it. I am guilty as charged.

This is why I am creating a daily devotional series for this Advent. As a former pastor who was shredded and burned out by the institution of church. As someone who returns to the pitch every week in search of a divine spark. As a person who stands in the fields at night and hears angels but is uncertain what they mean.

This Advent, I am searching for the Christ child who will be destroyed by the Empire. I am searching for ways to live faithfully as someone who has not yet been destroyed by the Empire. Join me through this World Cup and Advent for reflections on faith, hypocrisy, compromise, and—always—hope.

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1834, with apologies to Thomas Cole.

Why Some Christians are Pro-Abortion

While Christians in the United States have a reputation for being pro-life, Christians are, like many groups, divided on the question of abortion. Following the leaked Supreme Court draft decision on Roe v. Wade, my social networks exploded with Christian memes in favor of abortion, like the excerpt of the 2018 Presbyterian USA statement “Religious Freedom without Discrimination.”

"Personally choosing not to have an abortion or use birth control... is religious freedom. Making that choice for someone else, on the basis of one's own religious principles, is religious oppression." From "Religious Freedom without Discrimination," approved by the 223rd General Assembly of Presbyterian Church USA.
Excerpt from the Presbyterian USA “Religious Freedom Without Discrimination” statement.

Christianity has been so thoroughly linked to the pro-life movement that it can be confusing how Christians got from here to there. Christians who support abortion on the grounds of about bodily autonomy, feminism, forgiveness, social safety nets, or science can sound more like liberal talking points than claims about who God is and what God hopes for humanity. However, these beliefs are rooted in a coherent and deeply Christian theology. It’s called incarnational, or embodied, theology.

Christians who defend abortion hold a fundamental assumption about who God is: flesh incarnate. God chose to come to earth in a human body because human bodies are inherently good, and holy, and at times a little bit silly. With the birth of Jesus, God made the stunning claim that the world directly in front of us is as holy as the place where God dwells. To have a body is to be loved by God, even if your body is awkward or doesn’t work very well or comes with a uterus or has chronic illness or is a child. In short: Jesus’ arrival on earth was an affirmation that every body is a beach body.

For pro-abortion Christians, this view of Jesus leads to two other beliefs: (1) sex is not sinful and, in fact, is an inherently holy reminder of human dignity and (2) life and death are blurry categories that are both holy. These views come directly from the Gospels. The first is about Jesus’ birth, and the second is about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Quote from Benedictive Nun Sister Joan Chittister: "I do not believe that just because you're opposedc to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is."
This quote from Sister Joan Chittister, first shared by supermodel Gigi Hadid, is one of the popular images shared by Christians in recent weeks.

Through the birth of Jesus, God chose the human body as the means for salvation. God reiterated the Genesis claim that humans were created good, bodies and all. Bodies are good not because some intangible divinity (the soul) temporarily resides there, but because the body is where intangible divinity meets concrete matter. Where stuff meets not-stuff. This means that everything bodies do—get fat, get old, get pregnant, snore, poop, make silly noises, have sex—is good and is sacred. Sex does not need to be controlled or punished, but should be approached as a holy gift from God. Because this theology has low anxiety about sex, these Christians also have minimal desire to control the outcome of sex. Sex can result in a multitude of outcomes, from no pregnancy to miscarriage to full-term birth to termination of pregnancy, and all of these are natural and honor the diversity of what it means to have a holy body. In spite of, or perhaps because, Jesus’ conception did not involve sex in our traditional sense, incarnational theology calls for a more expansive and embodied theology of sex. It is the fact of God-made-flesh that makes the body and all it does holy, not the details of Jesus’ conception. Likewise, this claim about the divinity of the body, created and nurtured inside a woman, counters the reading of Genesis that because woman was made from man’s rib she is inferior to man (and therefore should be controlled by men). Body is a body is a body, and all of it is what God called good.

A quote from Raphael Warnock: "For me, reproductive justice is consistent with my commitment to [ensuring health care as a human right]. I believe unequivocally in a woman's right to choose."
Rev. Raphael Warnock does not share his theology in this brief pro-choice endorsement, but we can read Jesus’ healing ministry as a statement that health and care is a human right, Luke 1:38 as an affirmation of a woman’s right to choose.

At the other end of Jesus’ life, an incarnational reading views the death and resurrection as a redemption that blurs our traditional concept of “death = bad, life = good.” God empowered us not to fear death. Just as Jesus became flesh to walk alongside humanity, God stays near to humanity in death. This counters the “life-at-all-costs” ethic that runs deep in both Christian and American society. Jesus’ death teaches us that it is possible to die well, to die as a result of living in impossible and unjust systems, and to still be connected to God. Jesus’ resurrection, alongside the raising of Lazarus and others, also tells us that the line between life and death is blurry. There is a certain humility required of us in the liminal spaces, whether at the end of the lifespan or the beginning. This is why Christians are hesitant to assume that the fusion of sperm and egg equates to a baby—having a body is anything but clear-cut.  

A consistent incarnational theology results in not just greater openness to abortion but also to end-of-life care, such as being removed from a ventilator when the brain has stopped functioning. These liminal states are not binaries, not “life vs. death” or “good vs. bad”—they simply are part of the incarnational experience. God-made-flesh is a repudiation of binaries.  

Although Christians today are known as pro-life zealots, that is a relatively recent phenomenon (with a fraught history). The Christian theology of abortion is deeply nuanced. Pro-abortion Christians exist because of Christ, not politics.

A black and white photo of two young men and two young women standing on a beach in 1938, looking toward the ocean.
I didn’t fact check, but I’m pretty sure The Message translates Galatians 3:28 as “Every body is a beach body.”

For Pacifists who Find Themselves Justifying War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is existentially shattering, for so many reasons. For the Christian pacifist, one of the shattered pieces of existence is pacifism itself. For pacifist Christians with Ukrainian heritage—like many Mennonites—the existential disintegration carries an additional layer of heritage, legacy, migration, and identity. My own great-grandparents (Orthodox and Jewish) immigrated from Ukraine to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, and I write these words with the acknowledgement that I am only writing them—cozy in my peaceful home—because of some blood-stranger’s urge for survival.

So how does a pacifist cope? Is pacifism a valid moral stance in this war? What should we advocate for right now? What do we do about the complex emotion that surges through us when we cheer for the Ukrainian people’s resistance? How much of our existential disruption is rooted in our own unacknowledged racist notions of European exceptionalism and white nations’ post-World War II transcendence of violence?

This is existential disintegration with a side of moral crisis. A moral crisis is when something happens which is so profoundly earth-shaking that you question your most deeply held beliefs about what is right, even as you struggle just to survive day-to-day in this new crisis reality.

The pacifist in search of easy answers might gravitate to the claim that interpersonal pacifism is different from geopolitical pacifism. Perhaps we can simply say that pacifism is a policy of individual relationship navigation—“I do not initiate or support violence”—that doesn’t scale up. Geopolitical systems are too complex, the result of actions too unpredictable, the number of actors too high, to create any coherent global pacifist stance. I find this a deeply unsatisfying moral resolution. I do believe, however, that in any war there is a point of no turning back, before which there were multiple opportunities for redirection and prevention of violence, after which is acute moral crisis, survival, collateral damage, and entangled endings. From this lens, there is important work to do in acknowledging the points at which we could’ve prevented violence and didn’t. Political scientists and historians are doing this right now.

Secondly, pacifism, like any moral stance done correctly, is a check on the stories we tell ourselves. Our moral stances are designed to help us navigate moral gray areas, but often, we take shelter in them as if they will protect us from moral ambiguity. There is no protection from moral ambiguity. It is important to name Putin as the aggressor, but the West must also acknowledge their complicity in creating the conditions of violence.

A deeply held belief—like pacifism—should be a filter for decision-making, and what Russia’s aggression exposed is that preventing violence was not the deeply-held belief that guided Western actions. Instead, the West operated within a framework that allowed them to believe violence was impossible, given post-World War II reality and the narrative of post-Soviet Russia as a weakened state. The West followed the deeply held beliefs that protecting fossil fuel supplies is of upmost importance and the largest threat to global peace is China and our economic and military strength is an insurmountable deterrent. These beliefs were so deeply held that we did not question them, not in the decades-long dance between NATO and Ukraine, not when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, not even as the U.S. announced Russia’s military plans to invade Ukraine to the world. If we are guided by an ethic of peace, we should recalibrate in the face of evidence that threatens it. Yes, global politics are complicated and consequences aren’t always evident. Yet we, especially in the United States in its waning-but-still-present status of superpower, should have recalculated our foreign policy (even pre-Trump) with an eye toward what will preserve global peace. Instead, we focused on what will preserve our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.

Now, the suffering is immediate and daily. In the midst of this suffering, there is another critical reality: violence and creative nonviolence share a fluid border. Pacifists are tempted to frame their belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, but during periods of war, there is no hard line between violent action and creative nonviolent action. Creative nonviolence remains a tool, especially for civilians caught in violence. As the Russian invasion began, Ukrainians removed road signs to complicate the Russian military’s ability to navigate. This is a nonviolent tactic that bought time for civilians to find more secure situations and disrupted the narrative that military might equates to power. Pacifism is an extreme stance, but one that continues to lives in the nuance. It is a mistake to think that “the presence of some violence means the absence of all nonviolent action.”  

Black and white image of a quilt propped up on a stage with its pattern facing the camera, surrounded by an auctioneer, two men in distinctly early 1980s attire, and a young Mennonite woman in a modest dress.
Mennonite Quilt Auction at the Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale in 1981. Don’t you regret all the times you ever thought, “I’m so glad I wasn’t alive in 1981?” …maybe that’s just me.

At the end of the day, however, war is a threat to pacifist conviction. Pacifism might dissolve. That is sometimes the result of moral crisis. Pacifism functions best as a guiding ethical framework and, if it is a pedestal on which self-righteousness preens—as it has at times been for Mennonites—then some dissolution probably needs to happen. The great temptation of Mennonites has always been to use pacifism as a ticket out of hard conversations. Theologian Walter Brueggeman describes the Bible as a cycle of orientation (a state of homeostasis), disorientation (a state of crisis), and reorientation (a state of resilient response to crisis experience).

We are now in a state of disorientation. As Brueggeman reminds us, God is present in disorientation. Our task now is not to rush to reconcile our belief system or deny the deep, base level of dread that accompanies every day, but to calibrate to God in disorientation. To stay focused on who God calls us to be, to hold the honest chaos of our emotional state, to do what we can in the ways that we can and to remember that even curling up in a ball and collapsing is a way of doing that. Disorientation is a valid state of being.

I went to church on Sunday hoping that my church would help me make sense of what it means to be a pacifist Anabaptist during a twenty-first century land war in Europe. It didn’t, not because of the failure of pacifism, but because of the failure of sense.

Pacifists don’t need to be people with answers. Nobody has answers right now. We can acknowledge in these times that pacifism is an inadequate worldview, because at this point, all our worldviews are inadequate. Pacifism, like so many moral views, was never meant to be pinned down and displayed on a wall. It was meant to be a tool, taken out and used and repaired or set aside when broken. Right now, we are broken, and we can be God’s broken people, together.

Mennonite Church USA logo. MC USA does not endorse this blog in anyway, I just find the logo comforting.
Mennonite Church USA logo. MC USA does not endorse this blog in anyway, I just find the peace dove comforting.

Are Sermons are a Tool of White Supremacy Culture?

During the years I pastored, I loved writing sermons. But I was also haunted by a feeling that that sermons undermined the goals of the church. A sermon was just a chance for one person, typically someone who was paid to read and research Scripture, to monopolize as much as 30% of the worship with an extended and often scripted monologue, lecturing members with a single voice and few visual aids (except, perhaps, a slideshow), for the purpose of bestowing their knowledge on a captive audience.

It seemed to me that sermons were a coin flip on whether or not the presence of God would come down on any given Sunday. I’ve experienced many good sermons, but I’ve also heard—and written—many sermons driven by the expectation that worship requires monologues.

Too often, the sermon is a practice that privileges the voices of those already in power and exerts influence over those with less power. It is an overused habit that does not advance the church’s goals of building relationships and creating Christ-centered lives. It’s even an expression of white supremacy culture.

Tema Okun defines white supremacy culture as a set of principles that, when accelerated and overemphasized, reinforce hierarchies that privilege whiteness, incentivize homogeny, consolidate power, and subjugate those with identities outside the white, able-bodied, masculine norm. Among the characteristics of white supremacy culture, she identifies worship of the written word; objectivity; power hoarding; only one right way; quantity over quality; and individualism.

The sermon reflects many of these characteristics. It elevates the authority of written scripture and glorifies polished (often formal or academic) language. The speaker’s view is, by nature of the amount of space the sermon takes, authoritative and objective. The length of the sermon and the tendency to place the preacher in other significant parts worship, such as the prayer, benediction, or serving communion, hoards power in the preacher’s body. The centrality and normalization of the sermon implies that it is the only way worship can occur. Our frequent use of sermons also suggests that maintaining its structure should be prioritized over the quality of the worship time together. The single presenter’s centrality and the audience’s silence makes worship an experience of individualism.

Sermons are more than a chance for this guy to make you feel guilty. St. Augustine, by Philippe de Champiagne.

The sermon is an ancient practice that existed long before modern construction of racialized power. Preaching is central to the biblical story. Jesus and the evangelizing disciples of the early church were eloquent and sometimes long-winded preachers. These sermons were not inherently reinforcing hierarchy, and they were often accompanied by concrete actions (ie., the feeding of the 5000 or the healing of individuals) that nurtured community connectedness. However, the sermon grew up in the consolidation and expansion of the Western church, and the sermon as we practice it today is steeped with a legacy of patriarchy, racism, power, and control.

As the early church discouraged female evangelists, the sermon became an exclusively male  space. Through centuries of low literacy, sermons consolidated the power of interpretation in the bodies of leadership. In the Middle Ages, the sermon exerted control, entertained, enforced norms, and motivated behavior. Celebrated church fathers such as Bernard of Clairvaux preached extensively about the crusades and actively used the pulpit to build military momentum for anti-Islamic crusades in the 12th century. Still today, Bernard’s anti-Islamic teachings are treated as a dismissible quirk of a great spiritual thinker.

I am not calling for an end to all sermons, but rather a thoughtful examination in local congregations about whether the sermon is advancing the goal of spiritual growth. The pulpit we inherited systematically disenfranchise huge swaths of the church. Too often, because our legacy of male preachers, our implicit bias leads us to call on men to preach first. Because preaching is viewed a highly skilled task, it is neither designed for nor influenced by adolescents and children. Many people who are not auditory listeners find it incredibly difficult to absorb sermons, but feel a sense of shame or fear around saying so.

Congregations can and should explore alternatives to sermons that dismantle power structures and center marginalized voices. Worship Committees can support this through annual inventories of preachers—how many women preached last year? How many people of color? How many queer preachers? How many people under 18? If worship planners are struggling to find a preacher, just remove the sermon from worship.

Churches explore different models of sermons, such as inviting people to ask questions after hearing the scripture; following the sermon with a response from a designated “listener;” creating sermons that invite or require listeners to move; or incorporating congregational volunteers in embodying key concepts. The Anabaptist practice of sharing time, where congregants reflect on the morning’s worship, is another way of dispersing the power of the sermon. There are also many alternatives to sermons, such messy church, wild church, and Quaker meeting. For congregations that continue to meet via Zoom, why not replace sermon time with break out rooms that nurture community connections?

Lastly, congregations can redistribute the power of the sermon by actively teaching the skills of preaching. Few people even have a clear grasp on what makes the genre of sermon distinct, even if they’ve preached before. Nurture a culture of biblical interpretation and empower everyone to see where Bible stories can be interwoven with our own lives.

Let’s stop assuming the sermon is somehow inherently unquestionable or essential for experiencing God.

In order to dismantle white supremacy, it’s healthy to question our use of the sermon: Does the sermon feel obligatory or rote? Does the sermon obstruct a spirit of worship? Does it consistently engage and center the voices that already have significant power? Are groups of people tuning out or disengaged during the sermon? Does the sermon control the service, creating an undue burden for those involve in worship preparation or pressure to uphold the practice for the sake of upholding the practice?

If so, change it. There are many ways to worship.

Where Do Pastors Come From?: Solving the Worker Shortage in Ministry

Where do pastors come from?

Churches tend to behave as if pastors are a special kind of cyborg incubated for years in dusty seminary libraries and delivered, fully formed, to congregations as needed. It’s as if the shortage of pastors has something to do with the air quality of the seminary library or not enough dust on the shelves.

But generally, the pastoral path begins with one of three experiences: internal call, external call, or sense of obligation (legacy). Internal call does not necessarily come from inside of a person, but refers to any internal emotional experience in which a person encounters the divine and, as a result, feels compelled to enter ministry. That internal call can be supplemented by an external call, that is, trusted adults who affirm and invite an individual to participate and vision themselves in church leadership. (I have heard it said that women and LGBTQ people are more likely to experience an internal call first and heterosexual men are more likely to experience an external call first, because sexism, but I don’t know have the data to back this up.) Lastly, some people begin to pastor out of a sense of obligation, typically because they come from a family of pastors and the community expects them to do this work. This can be a set up for disaster, but many times, obligation blends organically with external and internal calls.

Most pastors experience both internal and external calls before they begin formal ministry, which means that it is us—collective adult churchgoers—who bear significant responsibility for identifying new pastors. Seminaries educate pastors, but these pastors come from the daily work of churches.

Which means that a decline in the number of pastors reflects something about churches rather than people. Churches no longer know how or they no longer believe their role is to call new pastors. Consider: how many new pastors has your church produced in the last decade? Two decades?

There’s limited utility in blaming churches for their struggle to pay people to serve them—blame doesn’t solve problems, and certainly denominational leadership and pastors themselves have demonstrated a short-sightedness in failing to nurture upcoming talent. The church has no coherent leadership development pipeline, and it shows.

Sometimes a leadership pipeline is just a clearly marked path.

The solution, then, lies in asking these questions: What can the church do to make ministry a more viable career? What does it look like when churches are intentionally calling their members—both young people and adults—into leadership? How do we affirm the gifts we notice in other people?

From the time I was about 15, my home congregation invested heavily in my leadership development, identifying retreats and theological summer camps and conferences, as well as inviting me to preach, serve on committees, complete a paid summer internship, and volunteer in other roles. The church invested significantly in my education at a denominationally-affiliated college, and their contributions covered roughly one full year of classes and saved me about $30,000 in college loans (before interest). They also provided financial support my first year of seminary, before they decided I had too much scholarship money from the school and discouraged me from asking for additional support if I was going to use the money for such ridiculous things as gas, rent, and living expenses (it was for books and tuition only, I was told).

Small moments of committee-driven discouragement aside, my home church made it easy for me to say yes to ministry. They invested in me with the church’s time, talent, and treasure. They made me feel that it was totally natural and reasonable for young women to become congregational leaders and affirmed my internal call.

Here are a few additional ways we can make it easier for people to say yes to pastoral roles:

  • Hire internally for the short term. In this bottleneck of pastoral supply, it makes a lot of sense to bring current attendees into 1-2 year paid roles both as a benefit for the church and to allow these members stepping stones to make other career transitions, whether post-college or into retirement. These laypeople may not have the passion or skills to stay in the role long-term, but relying on the old school Anabaptist practice of distributed, short-term leadership could be beneficial for both congregations and individual leaders.
  • Churches—supported by denominational leadership—should collect data to identify barriers to entry into ministry. Is the biggest barrier the high cost of graduate education, the low pay rate for most positions, the lack of boundaries and limited vacation time, the challenge of being given a stipend to “find your own healthcare” on the exchanges? Survey current pastors and seminary students and comb through existing data about what workers desire to identify 1-2 priority areas where church practices can be updated to better support the individuals in leadership roles.  
  • Search committees can review and revise their job descriptions in light of feedback from potential candidates and denominational leaders supporting the search process. This could include best equity practices like displaying the salary on the job description, describing benefits, or reviewing which job requirements are requirements and which are preferences. It could also include adding a section such as “People who tend to thrive in this role have the following characteristics…” or “This is a good fit for people with background in [insert non-church career areas, ie., social work, music, education, customer service, etc.].”
  • Speaking of boundaries and benefits, can you imagine a pastoral job description that pays a pastor for 12 months with one full month off every year? I can. It sounds like heaven. Rewriting rest into the job description—and committing to it and creating structures to support it—will make a position more attractive.
  • Search committees can also take the dramatic step of removing some of the job responsibilities. Because job descriptions are typically written by committees that have never worked in pastoral roles, they tend to write in too many job responsibilities. Recently, I was sent a job description that included four distinct competency areas and tasks that fell on all seven days of the week, within a 75% time role. I had a visceral gag reaction reading the job description. If you want to make a position more attractive, reduce the amount of things you’re asking one person to do. There’s nothing more beautiful than a job description that fits on two pages. 
  • Rely on cross-denominational hires. As denominations shrink and workers seek to live in areas that best fit their needs, it makes more sense to find someone who has the skills who can learn the traditions. This often feels risky, and it is, but if you believe that pastoral skills are essential, then you have to trust that the traditions can be learned. Or you can add a couple of years to your search timeline.
  • Churches who are looking for pastors—and those who are settled with a pastor who makes them very happy and will stay forever and ever amen—must ask themselves, “What are we doing to call forward the gifts in our own congregation?” How are we creating a culture of call and invitation? Are people given the chance to practice the pastoral role—through invitations to leadership, financial support for education and training, and affirmation of passions and competencies? At this point, churches must play the long game in order to play the short game. Calling forward new leaders (whether they choose paid congregational positions or other roles in church leadership) clarifies and strengthens the search for a new pastor.

The church is in a labor shortage largely of its own making. It will take years to rebuild a leadership pipeline and it will require intentional change in culture and practice. Which is all the more reason to start now.

It’s 2022 – Can I Keep my Pastor from Quitting?

It seems like everyone is quitting their job right now, including a healthy portion of pastors. Including myself. It’s been a long two pandemic years; churchgoers and pastors are exhausted; there are likely many, many more pastoral resignations coming in 2022. I know a number of pastors who are passionate about their work, have strong support systems, and are unlikely to leave. But I know a far larger number of pastors who are completely exhausted, stretched thin, and losing track of what called them into ministry. Is there any way to stop it?

You Can’t Make Anyone Do Anything

The bad news is no. You can’t make anyone do anything, and even if you could, your church wouldn’t be better off if you found a way to blackmail or otherwise guilt your pastor into staying. If you can somehow retain an exhausted pastor, they won’t be able to work at the level you’ve come to expect from them. Sure, they can make worship happen every week, but exhaustion disconnects us from creativity. Your pastor can keep things hobbling along, but they will struggle to keep things healthy.

I quit my pastoral role in June 2021, after the church had done some work to identify its priorities for the next three years. Those priorities included managing its new rental relationship; updating the child safety covenant; and evaluating and most likely overhauling the governance structure. All of these were things that I could do, and all were things that would suck the energy out of me at a point when I already felt isolated and overloaded. I knew I wouldn’t be able to lead the way I hoped, or lead the way I had for the first three years of my contract. I didn’t want to be a leader who functioned at half-capacity. I recognized that I could make a bigger difference in the world, with less strain on my own health, doing something else.

This is the second problem with trying to make a pastor stay: Just as God calls individuals to ministry, God may call them out of ministry. When God calls ministers, God does not specify how or for how long. This is frustrating for congregations, and it’s downright infuriating for pastors. My call into ministry was clear and undeniable and came from outside myself; a word from someone I trusted completely rewrote my future. My exit from ministry was the same—a dear friend made a comment which forced me to recognize that I was more attached to my perception God’s future than God was. I had narrowed my identity and perception to an all-work-and-no-play pastoral role that was not where God believed that I was at my best. And so God called me out of ministry.

Attending to Burnout Before Someone Gets Burned

While leaving ministry is often a calling, it’s often, also, a result of burnout, and there are some things churches can do to make it easier for pastors to stay in their roles.

Pastors often find that loving the people who inside the church does not equate to loving the work environment. The structure of pastoral work is practically designed for burnout: flexible, often inconsistent work hours; undefined goals and vague performance review processes; limited or difficult to take paid time off; infrequent validation or recognition; high expectations to complete products that are minimally used (bulletins, sermon manuscripts, etc.); minimal support structures with excessive supervisory bodies; and often low wages.

Churches that wish to reduce burnout should attend to structure first. Clarify committee roles and responsibilities. Create consistent and affirming review processes. Set an expectation that at the beginning of the year, the pastor schedules at least four full weeks off (at least four). Encourage and enable your pastor to plan for sabbatical. We have significant data that indicates working overtime does not increase productivity; pastors who invest significant additional hours might have closer connections in the congregation and be perceived as “more present,” but that likely won’t create higher quality sermons, better leadership in complex decision-making processes, or creative new ministries. Those will be best achieved by having significant time off for the brain to rest, repair, and be creative.

A burned out prairie with a seed head ready to release new seeds to the ground.

The leadership, pastoral support, or evaluation committee should also work with the pastor to set annual priorities; this allows the committee to have a comparison point during review processes. Be clear about what expectations the pastor can drop–and be consistent.

In one congregation I worked in, I consistently received feedback that I didn’t spend time with a population of the church (seniors) that was not in my job description (which focused on youth and young adult ministry). The review committee encouraged to attend more events with the seniors, without identifying other job responsibilities I could release—a disconnect that fed into the expectation of longer work hours and never-enough-ness.

Churches who are proactive about creating healthy work structures will find their staff able to remain in those work structures for longer.

No Person is Final

A pastor’s exit ought to be sad. If you’re happy to see your pastor go, it’s way past time for them to leave. That sadness, however, ought to be rooted in a relationship, not an existential crisis of church identity.

When I was in seminary, a professor told our large class, “Never think that you are irreplaceable. The church does not need you, in particular, at all times, in order to function. If they do, you don’t have a church, you have a cult of personality. Work at all times to make sure you can be replaced, and your church will be healthier for it.” All pastors leave eventually, and while they leave holes in congregational hearts, it is the work of the congregation to remember that it needs more than one leader. The work of the church is to be perpetually calling out new leaders.

Every church has a responsibility for raising up new pastors. This requires not just mentoring young people, but supporting mid- and late-career adults searching for new, more values-aligned work.

Ministry requires a core skill set, but the idea that it is a professional career with specialized training is overstated. It’s less rocket science than improvisational jazz. Pastoring is work that varies daily from building a miniature barn inside the sanctuary; digging a labyrinth in the church yard; performing music in worship; navigating Social Security Disability paperwork with a congregant; preparing a meal; managing technology for virtual worship; and more. Churches need pastors with an understanding of scripture, theology, and emerging trends, but churches also benefit from pastors with non-traditional education paths. We need pastors who bring their skill sets from entrepreneurship, social work, teaching, writing, organizing, computer programming, music, and other backgrounds.

Any thriving church, by nature of its thriving, is creating leaders with the core competences of ministry. That is, any church that pursues God’s kingdom-building work, nurtures healthy community, and studies scripture and ethics together, is naturally creating a pool of leaders who can do pastoral work.

No person is final. Very few of us ever experience a pastor who stays with us for a lifetime, or even a half-lifetime. Pastors are designed to be replaced. You will feel closer to some pastors than others and that is okay—a pastor is not your personal on-call emotional support (although they can sometimes serve that role in a crisis); a pastor is a community leader who nurtures collective growth. It is okay to have a favorite or most formative pastor. No one else may be able to replicate that relationship for you. But they can replicate it for someone else in the community who is in a moment of need.

Honor the past, and recognize the ways a pastoral change allows God to set you up for the future.

Disrupt Your Election Day Fear

So you and everyone else who lives in the United States is experiencing some kind of terrible paralyzing fear-infused parallel universe version of Christmas Eve. There’s an irony that the presidential election—the most divisive one of our lifetimes—is the one experience capable of unifying the country, if only in the feeling of anticipatory outrage. But it’s an irrelevant irony, because our primal brains are already ensconced in their anxiety responses. Here we are with a whole Election Day to get through when our anxious brains skittering us toward dread and fear in a cycle of escalating tension.

This afternoon, I walked my dog with lunging distance of one of those giant purple floppy balloon things used to advertise car dealerships (apparently they’re called air dancers, but we all know they’re actually floppy balloon things), Only as she prepared for a straight vertical jump did I notice her hackles up, and realize I’d mistaken her anger for curiosity. I turned her quickly around, throwing treats to bring down her stress.

Election Day has driven most of us into the human equivalent fear level of encountering a giant floppy balloon thing for the first time. Our bodies’ hackles are up, our monkey brain/lizard brain/what-you-will in a mode of existential threat response.

But the lizard brain is tucked in the cozy gray mass of so much evolving brain. We can’t change the fact that a giant purple (orange?) flapping creature on the street will send us into an fearful anxiety. But we can hold that soft primal fear of our brains, tuck it in, turn it gently away and feed it treats so that we can hold fear alongside our hopes, our love, our kindness.

Be clear with yourself what tomorrow is about. It is not about productivity or powering through the day—it is a kind of national anniversary of some great grief we have been carrying. Whatever else you do, your body will most likely be carrying a layer of grief.

I will spend Election Day working the polls. Back in August, when political divisions only ran as deep as kiddie pools, I’d volunteered to work the polls and it seemed like a satisfying, even noble, decision. But each day since I committed, my enthusiasm has ebbed a little more into dread. I know my temptation will be to sit behind my sneezeguard and worry, worry, worry.

I wish to go to the polls as faithfully as I can. And my faith—rooted in Anabaptist understanding of the nonviolent life and salvation of Jesus Christ—is one that disrupts anger and hate and violence through surprising, playful, invitation. What would invite, surprise, play? A few last-minute stops in Halloween stores and I was prepared to work the polls as a spandex-and-glitter tutued, winged Voting Fairy.

What, never seen a voting fairy before?

My goal as a poll worker is to provide a positive Voting Day experience to everyone who walks into the room. My goal as a Christian is to witness to God’s love everywhere I go. And my goal as a human is to hush the lizard brain with the gentle and persistent witness to the humanity of each human. All of these goals lead to the same answer: Voting Fairy.

Whatever your self-care strategies on Election Day—yoga, meditation, spending time with family, spending time alone, stress baking (eating), disconnecting from social media—all those care strategies are designed to disrupt your overactivated fear drive.

Tomorrow, be the voting fairy your lizard brain needs to see in the world.

Maybe that means taking cookies to a friend’s house, wearing your favorite outfit, wearing your Halloween outfit, cooking something elaborate, ordering in, bringing flowers to the polls, making extra time for your Trump-supporting neighbor, avoiding your Trump-supporting neighbor. It may even mean recognizing that you are too anxious to work the polls and need to stay home under the covers all day. Be the voting fairy your lizard brain needs.

Like the old instructions for airplanes, disrupt your own fear first, then disrupt the fear of the person next to you.

Anabaptists, Abortions, and Moral Ambivalence

Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.

Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-to arguments about why the other side is wrong.

There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?

However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views. Continue reading