A Women in Ministry Thing

“Why don’t you leave the Church and get ordained in (insert other denomination here)? It’ll be easier.”
Those were the first words I heard from a priest after finally gutting up enough to go and talk to someone “official” in the Church several years ago about thinking I might be hearing God calling me to ordained ministry. The conversation got worse from there. I’ll spare you, and myself, a walk through that painful discernment experience. Opening your deepest spiritual wonderings to another person is never easy – doing it with someone who doesn’t honor the vulnerability of that act is traumatic. Suffice it to say by the end of the afternoon, I was curled up in the fetal position at home, sobbing like my dog had just died. Sorry I didn’t spare you that image, but there’s a reason why:
At home on the couch that evening, still crying, I said to me husband, “I can’t stop. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”
Being at times a redneck sage, he nailed it right on the head when he thought a moment and said, “You’re grieving your call.”
And I realized that he was right. That was exactly what was happening. The best way I know to explain it is that it felt like a part of my heart was dying.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women to the Episcopal priesthood. On this day, July 29, in 1974 in Philadelphia, a group of 11 women, known as the “Philadelphia 11,” stood, and then knelt, for ordination to the Sacred Order of Priest. The Church is celebrating this wonderful anniversary. Still, I can only imagine how many times before that July day that they must have felt like their hearts were dying.
Today is also the one month anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Woodville, Texas, where I serve bi-vocationally as vicar in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. It is because of those foremothers, and the people who supported them, and those who listened, finally, to their call, that I was finally able to answer mine at age 43. For all those who have supported me, and listened, I thank God for you.
My journey to ordination was a bumpy one, to say the least. Raised in and having left the Southern Baptist tradition after years of extensive involvement in children and youth ministries, I was deeply devoted to the Episcopal tradition I’d adopted in young adulthood. To have experienced a tersely closed door on my first attempt at approaching my own Church with an ordination discernment question was rough. But I am sure it was nothing compared to the huge splinters that were surely imbedded in the noses of those 11, who must have become well-versed at doors being slammed in their faces.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori with some of those involved with the Philadelphia 11 ordinations Photo Credit: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori with some of those involved with the Philadelphia 11 ordinations
Photo Credit: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

But I would also guess that they, like me, found a measure of strength that allowed them to keep moving forward by understanding that those were collective doors slamming – not a rejection of whether they personally were being called to ordination. The Church was struggling to free itself from the burden of holding all those doors closed, and those women were bearing the strain.
There is empowerment in realizing that a struggle is universal. In that, you feel less alone. But the good news is that if it is God calling you to serve, then God will make a way. Our work is in understanding that his time frame, and the grace and mercy he has to pour out on many along the way, will not be what we picture – it will be much more than that.
Obedient justice was one of the hardest disciplines I had to practice in my journey toward ordination. (I am sure God has much to teach me about it post-ordination, too.) Obedient justice means to work without fear or shame for what is right and good in the Church, while staying true to the form of Jesus Christ’s Church as we have received it. For me, that meant quietly taking another year of personal discernment, and truly honoring that, and all the other difficult tasks that first priest required of me, in order to follow my call. But it also meant reaching deep into that call for the boldness to ask for guidance from other leadership, and to continue to walk back up to that door – and knock. I remember having a dream during my discernment process about making my way around a huge castle wall filled with an endless row of doors.
The Church has a ways to go in accepting the ministry already being done by the women God is calling. Our sister priests in the Church of England have just this month been voted permission to put themselves forward for election to stand, and kneel, to join the Sacred Order of Bishops. My heart and prayers go out to those unknown women still standing silently behind a door. I encourage you to reach out and knock, and to keep knocking.

In the United States, our own Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, preached this week about the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia 11. On the pulpit beside her was a pair of red heels, as she reminded the congregation how women priests have experienced even being told what not to wear, including red high heels and dangling earrings.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during her sermon at Church of the Advocate uses a pair of red high heels to illustrate the expectations set upon ordained women. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service www.anglicannews.org

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during her sermon at Church of the Advocate uses a pair of red high heels to illustrate the expectations set upon ordained women. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service
http://www.anglicannews.org

Those shoes were particularly interesting to me –  I was part of a group of female students advised by a female priest a few years ago that we were NOT to wear red heels at our ordinations. Of course in my diocese, we’re likely to be wearing red cowboy boots! And I know a woman who gave away all her dangling earrings after a male priest told her she couldn’t serve with him at the altar if she was going to wear them. A long way to go yet.

“Women in all orders of ministry – baptized, deacons, priests, and bishops – can walk proudly today, in whatever kind of shoes they want to wear, because of what happened here 40 years ago. We can walk proudly, even if not yet in full equality, knowing that the ranks of those who walk in solidarity are expanding,” the presiding bishop said. “Try to walk in the shoes of abused and trafficked women. Walk on to Zion carrying the children who are born and suffer in the midst of war. Gather up the girls married before they are grown, gather up the schoolgirls still missing in Nigeria, and gather up all those lives wasted in war and prison. March boldly, proclaiming good news to all who have been pushed aside, and call them to the table of God, to Wisdom’s feast.”
Thanks be to God for honoring his call in me, blessing me with a strongly supportive husband and children, wonderful friends, loving and praying church members, two amazing groups of classmates in the Iona School for Ministry bi-vocational training program, bishops who are not afraid to be wise and bold iconoclasts for the good of the Church, and many good deacons and priests here in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
“I’ve never seen anyone so excited about their own ordination before. I guess it’s a women in ministry thing?” said a supportive community clergy colleague at our first ministerial alliance meeting after my ordination last month. “I wish all pastors were so excited about being ordained,” another minister said.
There is really no way I can fully explain the daily joy I feel in being able to live this amazing ordained life, after nearly 10 years of doors and doorways. It’s a women in ministry thing. It’s an Episcopal thing. It’s a bi-vocational thing. It’s a God thing.

Vested for the first time as a priest on the night of my ordination, June 29, 2014, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Woodville. Beside me are two friends who are recently ordained transitional deacons, the Rev. Paulette Magnuson, left, and the Rev. Terry Pierce.

Vested for the first time as a priest on the night of my ordination, June 29, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville. Beside me are two friends who are recently ordained transitional deacons, the Rev. Paulette Magnuson, left, and the Rev. Terry Pierce.

Texas Independence and the Transfiguration of Jesus

So what exactly do Texas Independence Day and the Transfiguration of Jesus have to do with each other?

My daughter, pointing out our ancestor's name on the list of signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

My daughter, pointing out our ancestor’s name on the list of signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

On this day we are observing Transfiguration Sunday. Also on this day, March 2, in 1836, 178 years ago, a group of convention delegates gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence. One of those delegates who signed the declaration was my Uncle Elijah Stapp. My great-great-great-great-great uncle, actually. A few years ago, my father, my husband and I took the kids to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park. We toured the museum and grounds, took in a stage show and made a point of hunting for Elijah in group portraits, and in the list of signer’s names on the monument outside.

One of the more interesting parts of our visit was seeing people in period dress re-enacting pioneer life in the 1830s at an outdoor campsite. My favorite was the guy who portrayed Sam Houston – you know, the guy that huge city in Texas is named after? That’s the one. I’d first seen him leaning against a wall inside the museum, and confess I got a bit giggly with excitement. I’m not sure if there’s a Sam Houston fandom, but I might be the de facto fan club president. Years ago, I started my college career at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, and several of my friends graduated from Sam, as SHSU students called it. My best friend in college (now my kids’ godmother) was studying to be an archivist, and she and I spent a lot of time wandering around the Sam Houston museum on campus. My husband and I were actually engaged right on the museum grounds. So that day visiting Washington-on-the-Brazos with my kids, seeing Sam Houston in person was awesome. Like the original, reported   to

He wasn't really this big - he just acted like it. This is his statue at Huntsville, Texas.

He wasn’t really this big – he just acted like it. This is his statue at Huntsville, Texas.

be about six-feet-six-inches tall, this guy was imposing, with great-big mutton chop sideburns. He was the well-dressed version of Sam Houston, in a cutaway Southern gentleman’s coat and shiny, knee-high leather riding boots. The actor really got into the part, striding about confidently on his long legs. He was what you would picture a larger-than-life character from the pages of Texas history would be like. He WAS Sam Houston.

 Later, while touring the grounds, we spotted Sam Houston walking across the lawn. “Look kids! There goes Sam Houston!,” I said excitedly, my outstretched arm tracking his trajectory. “Look, he’s walking into the parking lot…he’s looking for something. ….He’s – getting in his Nissan Sentra and driving away. Um. Bye Sam Houston.” My pointed arm turned into a wave at his departing vehicle. Talk about bursting my bubble. Of course, the kids didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all – it was really me who was reacting like Santa Claus had pulled off his beard in front of my kids.

This last Sunday in the season of Epiphany we are observing a transformation that doesn’t disappoint – Transfiguration Sunday. Christ’s physical revelation of himself as the Son of God, described in Matthew 17. There’s a sense of completeness as we finish Epiphany as we began it all those weeks ago at Christmas with the first incarnational revelation, God revealing that he has become flesh and blood in the Baby Jesus. And today, we end Epiphany with the Transfiguration, the flesh and blood man revealing that he is, in fact, also God. For Peter, it’s just a few days after he acknowledges that the One he is following is the Messiah, the Son of God. Peter is the rock on which Jesus plans to build his Church. Yet Peter, James, and John are struggling to accept the news that together with Christ, they are journeying into Jerusalem and toward his sacrificial death, and resurrection. We’ve all lost friends, but I can’t imagine how hard it is to ponder losing the one you’ve give up everything to follow, who is your hope for the salvation of your people.

Jesus takes Peter and James and John up the mountain with him, and before their eyes, he is transformed. His face shines like the sun, his clothes are radiant white. And if that weren’t enough, appearing with him are two pillars of the Hebrew faith, Moses and Elijah (the original one, not my uncle). Suddenly Christ’s disciples see in him a real, tangible vision of who he really is – God’s son, the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.

Transfiguration, abstract. Lewis Bowman.

Transfiguration, abstract.
Lewis Bowman.

And Peter, the Rock, the Foundation, has a predictable reaction. He suddenly wants to start building right there and then. This is great, Lord, to be here, he says. We’ll build three places for you, Elijah and Moses. You’ll stay in them here awhile and….God cuts him off. While Peter is still talking, God interrupts and makes his pronouncement over Jesus, the son with whom he is well pleased, calling Peter to stop building and to start listening. God demands Peter acknowledge the moment happening before him, the moment of God revealing himself. Understandably, they are terrified and fall on their faces. The next sensation they experience is Jesus, his hand touching them, his words gently reassuring them to get up and not be afraid. It’s not like they’ve been through much – seeing God’s glory, hearing his voice, and all. “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this until later,” Jesus says, as they’re walking down the mountain. That may seem less than compassionate for their fears, even harsh. But in today’s reading from 2 Peter, we discover the wisdom in Jesus’ response. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the work ahead. They need time to process their growing understanding of who he is, and they will need these epiphanies as anchors to hold them through the rough times, to hold up against their experiences in both the glory and the dark days of Christ’s ministry to come. They are witnesses to the fact that the Gospel is not a myth – because they have seen it with their own eyes.

Get started slowing down for Lent. paulist.org.

Get started slowing down for Lent.
paulist.org.

As we get ready to enter Lent this week, it’s time to slow down. To look at how we encounter the revelation of God’s glory in our life and ministry, particularly when it comes to suffering. This Lent, as we walk with Jesus through Jerusalem and toward his cross, we understand again how he suffered for us, and how we are witnesses to the fact that he is with us in our suffering.

 Because of this epiphany – understanding God’s sacrificial love for us – we are a people whose particular ministry can include the ability to sit with those who are suffering in a way nobody else can. People who are dying, who are ill or who have lost dear loved ones want a safe place to talk about it. We can be that safe place. Fear of what to say to the grieving is what keeps us from doing ministry. It’s what keeps us from making a hospital or nursing home visit, or picking up the phone, or going to the house where somebody’s lost a loved one. But the good news is that we don’t have to know what to say: Instead of the typical response of shutting up the grieving with “Everything’s going to be ok,” or telling a joke or whatever we think we have to say instead of listening, we can stop building excuses and instead be quiet enough to listen for what nobody else will let them say: I’m scared. I don’t want to die. I don’t know how to live without my child.

The reason we can do that is because we don’t serve a myth. We serve a God who offers us freedom and independence from sin in Jesus Christ. We serve a God who reveals himself in the midst of suffering. And because of this, we are witnesses who can tell the firsthand story of his glory, revealed in shining moments, or in a gentle touch on our shoulder, saying, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

The Coach’s Perspective

Lots of different kinds of people need Jesus, and they need him in lots of different ways. That thought remains with me as the conversation warms up among Episcopalians about our church language, and its inclusive or exclusive nature (read more about it here).

While a city editor at a community newspaper earlier in my bi-vocational career, my work included coaching writers. Frustrated reporters would come to me for help when particularly struggling with a story. Bogged down and writing in circles, they had climbed so deep inside their own experience, they had temporarily lost contact with the one ability every good news writer possesses: seeing things from the perspective of the reader. That is to say, writing as if the person reading the story doesn’t know what you know, and hasn’t seen what you have seen – because in reality, chances are they don’t, and they haven’t.

Here’s a technique that usually solved the problem: I’d ask a reporter to imagine they were home at the end of the day, relating to their friend or spouse what they’d witnessed. Very often, the first few words out of their mouth became the lead, the first sentence in a news story. Those initial words were usually the foundation on which they were able to build a stronger, clearer story structure.

It worked because they began to look at telling a story not as artificially rebuilding an experience, but as the evolution of an experience into the ongoing work of figuring out what a certain event means, and its impact on community life, related in terms that have no concern for maintaining social barriers. It works because it’s in our nature to want to communicate in ways we can understand and be understood, an expression of the God who is in us, who desires to know us and to be known. As a writer, if you stay connected to the reader’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you use simple or complex language, as long as you remember to take the reader along with you. Hard or easy, no one wants to read a story that makes no effort to address what they care about. We are all different, and we all need Jesus in different ways. The common link is that, differences or not, we all need him.

Differences can be important. It is important for me, as a foreign-born American child of two Caucasian-American parents, to listen and attempt a level of understanding about the impact of shared language on a community which includes various cultures. Before we get to cultural concerns, the Episcopal language discussion begins with an evaluation of churchy terms. Is the room you enter before reaching the worship space a foyer?cab57aa105cf6028fe7c8c6934f01a7c Nave? Vestibule? Lobby? Is it a worship space, Nave, Sanctuary, or just “the church?” After the temporal discussion, we move to the more difficult to put a finger on: How do we talk about what we call mission, without forgetting the very different historical experience of Native Americans and other people around the world, who have suffered at the hands of missionaries? How to integrate that into the different experience of those for whom mission holds important meaning to their historical identity as Christians, sent into the world in the name of Jesus?

It is certainly true that some language is exclusive to some cultures, and must be considered in the wider appeal and sensitivity of the Church. As both a female and a member of the clergy, I certainly appreciate gender-inclusive language in Scripture and liturgy, and have become so accustomed to it in the majority of my Episcopal community work that I feel with some difficulty its absence in other settings, evoking the lack of it in the Scripture and worship of my younger years in a different denomination. I can only imagine the pain of a native culture struggling to feel at home in a Church it cherishes, the same entity historically responsible for some of its cultural wounds. From these discussions unspoken questions emerge: “Whose experience matters more?” “What ground am I called to give up in preserving the dignity of other human beings?” “How do I find a comfortable space in the ground that remains?” “How do we achieve groundlessness?”

We are Episcopalians. Throwing our arms open wide and inviting others to join us is what we do. Gathering to sit at the table with those whom the world shuns is what we do. Kneeling in unity beside those who are different from us, to be fed together from God’s table is what we are called to do. Surely there is room in our broad and creative Church for both those who find beauty and acceptance in simplicity, and those nourished through the dance of complex language. Surely there is common ground for those whose cultural experiences are opposite but whose Savior sacrificed himself to bring all into communion with the Father.

Go Green Hands Collaborative Tree
by Karen Cappello

We are Episcopalians. We are the people of the Middle Way. As I heard Bishop Jeff Fisher say last week when he visited my church at St. Paul’s, Woodville, in the Diocese of Texas, “We are the Church of both-and.” Catholic and Protestant, male and female, struggling and free, we are all one in Christ Jesus.We are all different. And we need Jesus in different ways. But we all need him. Examining the changing experience of our shared language expressions in the Church is fine, as long as we don’t go so far in charting and languishing in our linguistic differences that we forget to approach everything we do from the perspective of the people who need the Gospel story we have to tell. We can focus on our differences, or we can work for unity strengthened by standing together and holding up the world’s needs to our Lord, inviting everyone to be a part of the varied and beautiful ways to experience Jesus.

 

One Bread, One (Ceramic) Cup

 Image

Somewhere in my training for priesthood, a teacher told my class there are three professions that attract people with the biggest egos: acting, journalism, and the clergy. Also being a former journalist, I figure my next stop is either Hollywood or humility training. The professor’s warning jangled in my head at my new church this morning as a broadly smiling member named Lou handed me a shiny coffee cup. “Hey, check out your new mug,” he said. Vaguely remembering hearing a conversation a few weeks before by members planning to restock the supply of St. Paul’s personalized coffee mugs, I looked down, noticing a large Episcopal Church shield covering the side of the mug. “Nice, looks good,” I said. “No, look at the other side,” he said, expectantly. I rolled the cup over in my hand, lines of text coming into view. A welcome, the church name, our Internet site, e-mail address and phone, and, finally, at the bottom in BIG BLUE lettering clear as day, was my name, “Rev. Ashley Cook.”

A couple of nervous reactions dashed through my head. “Oh no, what did you guys do?” I said to him, half-teasing, half-mortified. They had ordered a lot of mugs, he said. A LOT. Soon to finish my studies for priesthood in bi-vocational ministry, I’d only been assigned to the small, rural church in the deep pine forestland of East Texas for four short months. Egotistical is a label and a trait clergy have to guard against, and it probably wouldn’t help in that department if folks thought I’d put my own name on our mugs, I thought.

But then I took a second look – at Lou’s face, not the mug. His warm expression, his nodding approval, his big smile. These were signs of welcome, and I’d almost missed them. These were indications of a congregation ready to share both themselves and their new clergy with the wider community. Ironically, I’d almost let my ego about trying to control other people’s impressions of me overtake the open invitation to build a relationship with my congregation. Lou and his wife Carol, among the most faithful members at St. Paul’s, would shortly be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in the service that morning. The mugs were a symbol, I realized, of a congregation in it for the long-haul, stepping forward in faith to offer their part of a commitment to a long-term pastoral relationship. Swallowing my ego, I gripped the cup tightly, suddenly very conscious of its meaning. “Thank you, so much,” I said to Lou.

People are drawn to the Episcopal Church because of its connectedness. We are the people of One Bread, One Cup, as we say of our Communion practice of kneeling together to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, in the form of wafers and a shared cup. We are the Church expressing the transformational love of God, who draws all people to himself in Jesus Christ. And yet, a symptom of rural church life is that small mission congregations often go unconnected for years, without the guidance and pastoral care of having their own clergy, being fortunate if they have a series of well-meaning but short-term supply priests. Seldom having an opportunity to settle into a focused pastoral relationship, congregations may begin to feel neglected. Out of that neglect can grow a reluctance to evangelize, to build relationships in their community, or to foster a pastoral relationship when a newly assigned incoming clergy finally does arrive on the church doorstop. Bi-vocational clergy support in rural areas remains in short supply, which challenges the Church to re-imagine rural church structuring. It could be that an answer lies in our own connectedness.

To their credit, I received a warm and enthusiastic welcome on my arrival to St. Paul’s in September, from both the congregation and the local ministerial alliance. Still, there were questions asked of me regarding the longevity of my stay, most who asked assuming I was only placed there for training purposes, and that I would leave after graduation in June. Any reluctance to committing a lot of resources and energy to my arrival would certainly have been understandable. While it was yet unclear in their minds whether this would be a long- or short-term relationship, my experience of Episcopalians and their neighbors in East Texas was still that they are loyal and tightly-knit, whole-hearted and generous in their welcome. This innate spirit of strength and hospitality speaks of what may very well be the as-yet untapped full potential in small churches to creatively host and flourish God’s presence in their communities.

This morning as I looked at Lou, smiling at me over a new coffee mug, it was this welcoming gesture that reminded me of the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing us all together, to glorify God and to build up this corner of his Kingdom. Putting my worries aside, I thanked for Lord for his mercy, and heartily embraced the congregation’s tangible commitment to sharing ministry at St. Paul’s, evident in the shiny stacks of coffee cups now gracing the Parish Hall.

Building the Safety Net

It was getting late on Sunday afternoon and I was sitting alone in my church office after services, catching up on various administrative details while thinking about the week ahead, and musing on the week  behind me. As a bi-vocational minister serving a rural church 50 miles from where I live and work a full-time weekday job, quiet time in the church office is rare. In my senior year of studies for priesthood, I’d been at my new church for four weeks. Most of my time in the office to this point had been about unpacking, organizing, planning, and figuring out what I’d forgotten to put in the car on the other end of the drive between church and home.

In neglecting our personal time for non-essential ministry tasks, we weaken our own support system, and endanger the one we are called to build for our children.

In neglecting personal time for non-essential ministry tasks, we weaken our support system, and endanger the one we are called to build for our families.

That Sunday, I’d meant to get out of the office early to go home and enjoy the rest of the day off with my family. But as was getting to be usual for me, it was nearly 5 p.m. and I was still trying to wrap things up. Hearing a soft tapping on the glass doors in the hall adjoining my office, I poked my head out and saw a petite woman who looked to be in her 30s standing outside. Walking to the door, I noticed an old minivan in the church parking lot loaded with belongings strapped to the roof, a man sitting in the front passenger seat. The woman’s story wasn’t unusual. At first, it sounded like most other stories pastors hear from folks who come asking for help. They were traveling through on their way out of state, and needed money for gas and food, she said. Not really keen about giving out cash, and not having a gas card on hand, I loaded her arms with food from the church Pop-Top Pantry, a dry goods feeding ministry for walk-in traffic.

Ready to send her on her way with prayer and encouragement, the conversation took an unusual turn at the door. She’d stopped at our church – one of a number in our small town – because the name, St. Paul’s, called to her, she said, thanking me for the food. “My father was a priest,” she added.

That casual addition to the conversation caught my attention. Her father had died, was all she would say further about him. But she’d been raised in the faith, she said. We shared a hug as she left. “Peace be yours,” she said, unprompted, voicing a traditional Church greeting embodying God’s healing love in exchanged words of reconciliation. As we parted, I invited her to stop by the church again on her next journey through the area. As she got back into her van and left, I had doubts I would ever see her again.

Back at my desk in the church office, I sat thinking. What if her story were true? But how could it be? How does a priest’s daughter end up so desperately low as to go begging at random church doors for money? Not that clergy families are insulated from the turmoil and tragedies of life, but I just couldn’t fathom how it could have come about. Surely there was some safety net somewhere that should have kept this from happening. It frightened me to think of my own two children, and my new, busy bi-vocational life. I have no idea what happened in her family, but I could see the future of what might happen to mine if I allowed my new ministry, as much as I loved it, to completely consume all my extra time.

The complete story of who the woman was and what had brought her to my door would remain a mystery. Maybe God would bring us together again, but it was sufficient for now that he had done it today – a visit I was sure was anything but random, for either of us. Thinking of my own daughter at home 50 miles distant as I whittled away a free afternoon on non-essential paperwork and ministry self-analysis, I suddenly visualized a weakening in the portion of her safety net I was responsible for building. God had blessed me with two wonderful children, one already in college and one preparing to enter high school. In the midst of establishing a new clergy presence in this small rural congregation, I was on the cusp of forgetting that my call to motherhood had not ended because God has added a call to priesthood. In fact, my family was his gift to me, and spending time with them was a loving, supportive place to experience his restoration and joy. I closed my laptop, packed it and my papers up, grabbed my keys and headed out the door. The long ride home provided lots of time to think. There was no guarantee that my husband and I would be able to save either of our children from the kinds of decisions or circumstances in adulthood that could veer their lives off-course like the woman at my church door. But it was a virtual guarantee that if we didn’t keep family and personal time a priority, then all of our lives, and by extension our ministry, would suffer in the long run. No minister stays healthy for long if our lives at home, the foundation of our safety net, born in relationship with God and one another, are unraveling through neglect.

The best we can do for the children God places in our care is to continue as godly parents building their spiritual safety net, loving one another and our children within the holy covenant of the relationship between our family and our Creator. This model of family calls us to teach our children by word and example the image of the Body of Christ as his Church: holding each other up, guiding younger members, supporting older ones, offering accountability with love, encouragement in times of need, relying on God as our ultimate safety net. May God bless that woman in need at my door on a late Sunday afternoon as her words of peace blessed me, speaking into my need – to many a busy minister’s need – to recall that reconciliation begins at home.

The Eyes Have It

The Sliding Eyes: A definite welcome-spoiler.

The Sliding Eyes: A definite welcome-spoiler.

We church folks are coming up short on our welcome, and it’s our eyes that are giving it away. Spending the last few months in a sort of clerical no-(wo)man’s land has given me an unusual opportunity to make an informal study of hospitality at a variety of places, both church and non-church, and I think I’ve found something. As a vocational deacon in studies for priesthood, I’ve concluded my parish deacon assignment, and am waiting a few unassigned weeks to begin my new post as head of congregation to a small Episcopal congregation. It was on a visit to St. Somewhere Else that I first noticed the issue. I was there relatively incognito, having introduced myself to host clergy shortly before the service, but I was in my civvies and nobody in the pews knew me. As the service approached the exchange of peace, a traditional time of open greeting in the pews, I was a little giddy with excitement at the rare prospect of being an actual visitor, and receiving a real newcomer’s welcome. When the time came, I waited, small nice-to-meet-you smile in place, turning slightly side-to-side to be sure I didn’t miss anyone. I needn’t have worried. Busy hugging and saying hello to familiar friends, nobody on any side offered a welcome, asked me my name, or extended a hand. Finally, a woman in front of me, looking slightly annoyed she’d accidentally caught my eye, reached her hand out and said hello. And then it happened: The Sliding Eyes. That’s when a visitor gets a handshake, a greeting, but no measurable eye contact. Mid-handshake, the greeter’s pupils are sliding over to one side, anticipating the next person to talk to, instead of focusing on the visitor right in front of them. It happens when we are engaged in what I like to call Automatic Welcome Mode, an absent-minded, I’m-not-really-interested kind of greeting. The greeter may be a perfectly friendly person, perhaps even one of those tagged as gifted in hospitality, but this kind of welcome leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, as clergy, I wasn’t the newcomer anyone needed to worry about. But, even as clergy with somewhat thickened skin, I had to admit the Sliding Eyes still hurt a little. Nobody likes to feel like they don’t matter, or to discover they’re seeking spiritual or emotional inclusion in a closed system. I can only imagine what an actual first-time visitor would have felt in my shoes, and I shudder to think how a lonely, hurting visitor would feel. I started paying closer attention after that, and discovered the Sliding Eyes in a number of places – more churches, unfortunately – but also routinely in community activities and business situations.

Nope. Nope.

Nope.

Of course, nobody wants to be stared down. But hospitality training should include making basic eye contact to authenticate a greeting or introduction. It could make a world of difference to the visitor. It conveys you are engaged/interested/invested in the Other. And isn’t that what we want our church visitors to know? Isn’t that what we believe about ourselves? There is so much out there on websites and social media about The Welcome. But from my experience in trying to prepare for church leadership, there is a lot published on welcomes about the What, but little about the How. It’s time to make eye contact with ourselves and the specific quality

Hello. I'm glad you came today. I hope you come back again.

Hello. I’m glad you came today.

of our welcome. We need to go beyond merely identifying those gifted in hospitality, tapping as well those in our churches who have the gift of making others feel like they matter and are included, drawing on their experience and encouragement to make out of us churches that aren’t afraid to look somebody in the eye and make them welcome.