Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Who is that hussy behind the altar: the (not so) subtle art of Ungifting Our Gifts and the challenge of reclaiming them.

(The title is a quote overheard by a clergywoman about herself)

One Sunday morning during coffee hour, as I was discussing the upcoming Lenten program with a parishioner, we were interrupted by a five year old girl who had something she just had to say to me. As usual she was articulate, brilliant, and a little bit hilarious. I mentioned to the parishioner that the girl was “pure leadership material in the making.” He commented on the challenges of being a woman in leadership and mentioned the difficulty his boss encounters because people say she is “bossy.” I said that it seems like people do not know how to respond to women in positions of authority and leadership. To which he said that when his son began to show leadership qualities he was moved into positions that would help form him in leadership through activities at school and in Boy Scouts. Girl’s, he said, are not provided with those same early childhood leadership formation opportunities.

My parishioner’s comment lingered with me and I pondered it for some time. In contrast to my parishioner’s statement, some of my female colleagues reported that they were in fact formed for leadership by the church and by Girl Scouts. I posted the question on Facebook and asked what others thought of his premise, that boys, showing leadership qualities, are formed from a young age to be leaders, but girls are not. I got nine pages of responses from many women, most of whom commented less on childhood formation and more on the challenges of being a woman in church leadership today, lay and ordained.

“Women have time and time again had the painful experience of the Church ungifting our gifts. Our gifts are deemed undesirable because they do not match the ecclesial furniture or because they are not like anything anybody has envisioned…Ungifting is a denial of the giver as well as the gifts…” Rena Yocum, UMC.[i]

Almost twenty years ago, when I first discerned a call to ordained ministry, and while I was working on a dual degree M.Div and MSW, I was determined to not work in the parish. I had enough lived experience of the church to know that parish ministry would be arduous and would require forging my way through a dominant male terrain. I wanted no part in it. But God, in God’s good humor, led me otherwise, and parish ministry is where I have served my entire ordained ministry, some fourteen years.

My primary reason for not wanting to work in parish ministry has been proven to be an accurate assessment of the challenges ordained women encounter in parish ministry. However, this same call has also brought me more emotional, spiritual, and professional growth than anything, other than parenthood, that I have done, or might have done, with my life.  I have been challenged to understand myself and others at a deep level. I’ve grown in and through conflict and the subsequent effort to stay in relationship with others. I have grown in and through the need to sometimes let relationship go, because others have chosen to leave. I have grown in skill and wisdom and compassion, often directly because of the intentional work required to be a woman priest in the ancient and traditional male paradigm of Christian patriarchy.

All Christian denominations are essentially masculine in their sexual orientation. Although changing, the world has been organized around the premise that men hold the standard for what is normal in psychological development, in medicine and physical health, and in corporate and parochial leadership. Religion in particular holds a negative view toward human sexuality, women’s in particular. Cultural and religious views on sexuality tell us it is frightening, uncontrollable, illegitimate, chaotic, unpredictable, and bad. Cultures try to limit, control, and keep sexuality private. Yet, women are sexualized in commercials, advertisement, television, literature, and movies. Girls are valued when they are pretty. Women and girls receive constant comments about our appearance, it’s a social norm to say “You like nice.” Or, “That looks good on you.” Comments on appearance are not normative for men. Appearances rarely define who men are.  Sexuality and gender are often used interchangeably, even as they can also have different meanings. Traditionally gender is understood as the sex we are, but sometimes that is not as clear as it seems. One can be look one gender but identify as another or both. Sexuality is our quality of being sexual, and that too can take many forms. Regardless, in the world of patriarchy, female is always “other,” the antithesis of normal male. I imagine this is even truer for how people who are LGBTQ experience the sexual tension inherent in the Church.  In patriarchal systems the heterosexual male is the authentic form of self-hood. Preference for male leaders is a cultural norm.

Statistics tell us that male clergy get the better jobs and make more money than their female colleagues. It is true that some women do land positions that bring good pay, a decent sized congregation, and have a fairly smooth ministry career. However many women end up in small churches with low pay. There is nothing wrong with working in a small church. The problem is that some small churches function from a state of desperation, fearful the church will close. They choose women clergy as a last ditch effort to find resurrection or lovingly help them die.  Over the last four years I have noticed an increase in the reports of clergy, particularly women, from all denominations, who are suffering from intense congregational conflict, often directed at the clergy person herself. A recent article by William Doubleday, printed on the Episcopal Café blog addresses this growing concern.[ii] (March 10, 2013, The Episcopal Café). Even more recently a resolution passed at the Diocesan Convention in Newark, NJ addresses the issue of congregational bullying of clergy.[iii] (Diocesan Resolution 2014_AC140_03: Dignity at Work). No doubt as women in leadership, particularly ordained leadership in the Church, we seem to have become a particular target for systemic anxiety in our worshiping communities. What is the cause of this systemic anxiety and conflict?

Most likely the cause of the anxiety is multi-layered. It rises from our inability to accept the changing nature and face of leadership. It rises from our growing skepticism for all voices of authority and most institutions. It rises from anxiety external to the church itself such as our personal worry over finances, health, children, our marriages, and our retirement. The list of reasons for the anxiety that is prevalent in our society today could go on and on. Regardless the way anxiety manifests in response to female leadership seems to be on the rise.

Is this increase because, as my parishioner suggested, (albeit not his intent to make this allegation)that women have not been adequately formed to be leaders? And therefore we don’t know how to lead? Why are the characteristics of women leaders viewed as “bossy” or “bitchy” or “aggressive” while the same behaviors in men are accepted and seen as being appropriately assertive and qualities of a good leader?

Carole Becker in her book, “Leading Women” suggests that some of the problem lies in women’s apprehension of power and our ambiguous relationship with authority. Becker and others acknowledge that much of the problem lies with the historical church. Despite indications that the early church may have embraced women leaders, by the fourth century patriarchy was the dominant paradigm.  A hierarchical structure was formed separating ordained and lay members of the church. Church teachings added to cultural tensions and suppression of human sexuality. Some of the problem lies with the changing role in society and subsequent skepticism toward institutions, the church, and all voices of authority in the Western world today. To some degree the use and misuse of email and Facebook to instantly post our reactivity and negativity has heightened tensions and increased conflict.

Underlying all of these potential factors is the way women feel as we try to be leaders in a church that seems to want to use us as emotional punching bags. Women, by and large, have been raised up in the church by male leaders. When women lead using the same skills our male colleagues taught us we are accused of being aggressive, bossy, even bitchy. Studies and literature suggest that women’s leadership is distinctively different from male leadership. These sources indicate that instead of hierarchies and authority, women lead by creating systems of collegiality and team work. Now, three decades into women’s leadership, team work and collegiality are becoming the norm for churches and corporations. Men and women alike are engaging in mutual ministry and collaboration.

However, women’s efforts to lead collegially are often undermined by people in the church who accuse women of meddling, doing too much, or doing too little. Susan Beaumont, in her Alban Institute workshop, “Stepping up to Supervision” describes churches as having “silos” of leadership. Groups, committees, or individuals have control over a certain area of church life. Initiated as a way to lift up and support lay leadership these silos can become barriers to collaborative leadership.  Women’s efforts to build relationship and understand the ministry in a comprehensive way is interpreted as “controlling.” Women feel demoralized, brutalized, and unjustly attacked by allegations that they are bossy or aggressive or out of bounds. The accusations waged against women are often confusing and painful because they run counter to how women experience themselves, their intention, and their leadership.  Often the problems cited are relatively inconsequential. Often the complaints reveal tiny infractions that should easily be worked out, but instead become insurmountable problems. It is difficult to wrap our heads around the degree of meanness directed at us from people with whom we are trying to love and be in relationship.

One clergy-woman said in response to congregational conflict,

“I finally figured out that I am not supposed to change anything here, I am just supposed to work here.”

Others wrote:

“…for girls it is "bossy" while for boys it is "strong" and "leader" - as a culture do we need to adjust our descriptives, or as women do we need to revel in our capacity to be bossy?”

“Some of us still live with those internal tapes that tell us to be nice and not to "let our light shine." I was a token woman in management during the 70s feminist movement and took a lot of flak, especially from other women. You'd think I would have gotten over this, but I still struggle with not wanting to be the bitch (or, in the day, "castrating bitch"). The discouraging piece is that even now, it seems difficult to move forward because those who don't want to listen blow us off with things like "you're just too touchy" or "what's YOUR problem."

One person on Facebook asked,

“…what positive reinforcement are we offering in our churches for young girls/women with leadership potential?”

This is what my parishioner was pointing too and is at the heart of what I am thinking about. How do we in society and in the church raise girls up to become successful female leaders? What cultural norms do we bump up against in the process? And how do the cultural norms impact women who are currently in leadership but who are wrestling with the tension of a society not yet fully prepared for a different voice? I suspect some of the tension in this anxiety stems from a culture of people who value the IDEA of women in leadership but have not yet come to a comfortable place of actually seeing, hearing, and working with women in leadership. Much the same can be said about our valuing equality for people of color and the rights of LGBTQ in marriage, families, the workplace and society. I could be wrong, but I believe it was Margaret Farley, noted Christian Ethicist,[iv] who once argued that with the equality of women and the movement of women in to all positions in society, the door is opened for all other marginalized people to find equality.

Carol Gilligan, in “A Different Voice,” her landmark study on the development of girls and women, paved a pathway to understanding women’s voices in contrast to what has been deemed “normal development.” Prior to Gilligan’s work normal development was determined solely on the formation of boys and men. Psychology defines “normal” development as a process of movement from infantile dependency on others to adult self-sufficiency that appropriately incorporates relationship while maintaining a solid self-identity as “other than.” As children human beings depend on the adults in their lives to keep them safe and to help navigate the complexities of daily life. As humans grow into adulthood “normal” development encourages a gradual separation from other people and a formation of a completely independent self that manages to also stay in relationship with others. In Gilligan’s article “The Future Difference” she writes:

“So equipped, he is presumed ready to live as an adult, to love and work in a way that is both intimate and generative, to develop an ethical sense of caring and a genital mode of relating in which giving and taking fuse in the ultimate reconciliation of the tension between self and other.”[v]

Researchers of human development, primarily male, have subsequently determined that women, whose formation does not follow this male model of “normal” development, are therefore “deviant” or deficient in their development. [vi]

“That there is a discrepancy between concepts of womanhood and adulthood is nowhere more clearly evident than in the series of studies on sex-role stereotypes reported by Broverman, Vogel, Broverman, Clarkson, and Rosenkrantz (1972). The repeated finding of these studies is that the qualities deemed necessary for adulthood—the capacity for autonomous thinking, clear decision making, and responsible action—are those associated with masculinity but considered undesirable as attributes of the feminine self.”

Gilligan argues that the perception of normal adulthood, emphasizing autonomy over relationship, is out of balance. Gilligan builds off of the premise that rather than being morally and developmentally deficient, women represent a different way of normal development.

“The relational bias in women's thinking that has, in the past, been seen to compromise their moral judgment and impede their development now begins to emerge in a new developmental light. Instead of being seen as a developmental deficiency, this bias appears to reflect a different social and moral understanding.”[vii]

Essentially women follow the same pattern of development from dependency to autonomous being but the mature woman manifests her adult autonomy in a different manner than the adult male. Gilligan’s point is that women have a different yet equally normal and valid formation and expression of mature adulthood than their male counterparts.

Citing a number of developmental theorists, Freud, Kohlberg, and Piaget, Gilligan articulates the dilemma in understanding normal development of men and women. Among the twelve attributes considered to be desirable for women are tact, gentleness, awareness of the feelings of others, strong need for security, and easy expression of tender feelings. However herein lies the paradox, the very traits that society endorses in women are also viewed as character deficiencies. Accordingly, the infusion of feelings into the decision making process and the emphasis on relationship, prevents women from coming to mature decisions. Male models of normal development and good decision making processes tend to support less emotional, more abstract, independent, decision making processes based on “universal principles of justice.”

The 1985 article, “Theories of Development,” describes Kohlberg's universal principles of justices as:

“Kohlberg’s conception of justice follows that of the philosophers Kant and Rawls, as well as great moral leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. According to these people, the principles of justice require us to treat the claims of all parties in an impartial manner, respecting the basic dignity, of all people as individuals. The principles of justice are therefore universal; they apply to all. Thus, for example, we would not vote for a law that aids some people but hurts others. The principles of justice guide us toward decisions based on an equal respect for all.”[viii]

To which Gilligan responds,

“…herein lies the paradox, for the very traits that have traditionally defined the "goodness" of women, their care for and sensitivity to the needs of others, are those that mark them as deficient in moral development. The infusion of feeling into their judgments keeps them from developing a more independent and abstract ethical conception in which concern for others derives from principles of justice rather than from compassion and care.”[ix]

Part of the question, Gilligan suggests, lies in how men and women define “moral.” Gilligan interviewed a number of women at Radcliff in the 1980’s asking them to define “moral.” All of the women said, more or less, that the moral person is one who helps others, is compassionate and caring, meets one’s obligations, and provides service to others, without compromising one’s self. The women articulated that their primary desire was to not hurt another person nor insist that another person think or believe as they do. There were no absolutes in the decisions of these women.

Moral decision making is defined as the capacity to exercise a choice and the willingness to accept the responsibility of that choice. For centuries women were deprived of the option to make decisions and therefore removed from the responsibility for what happens in women’s lives. This is most readily seen in the inability of women throughout history to determine their own reproductive lives.  The impact of contraception in the lives of women, enabling us to choose when and how to have children has dramatically affected the way women live in the world today.

Due in large part to Gilligan’s research development theories have moved away from valuing as “normal” male models of development and moral decision making. Gilligan and others are now formulating normative models of women’s development. Previously women were considered less developed in our thinking and decision making process because we “stopped” at the level of relationship whereas normative male decision-making “progresses” (in terms of developmental models) to a universal. In other words men “grow beyond” making decisions at the relationship level and “progress” into make decisions based on more impersonal universal principles. Women make decisions based on interpersonal relationships but Gilligan and others have argued that this does not make women’s decision making process less valid or less mature. Women move through the same primary three stages of decision making development that men move through: self to others to universal. However the details of each stage differ in that women work to balance the tension of remaining in relationship. Thus women move from “self” to “self in relationship to others” to “self/others and the ability to make an independent decision.”

The moral imperative for women is to care for others and a responsibility to alleviate the troubles of the world.  For men the moral imperative is to protect the rights of others and prevent interference with those rights.[x]

For men, morality is about rights, for women it is about responsibility.[xi] Perhaps paradoxically, validating the female perspective recognizes, for women and men alike, the central importance in adult life of the connection between self and other, and the universality of the need for compassion and care. Nonetheless, translating the way men and women function as adults and leaders in the church remains a place of conflict, even as the church continues to lift up both men and women into ordained positions.

In the 21st century much of the hierarchical patriarchal church paradigm is slowly being dismantled. But aspects persist which diminish or deny the full authentic leadership role of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Centuries of medical, psychological, social, and religious paradigms are being reformed by data that suggests that what is deemed “normal” cannot be solely based on development models of heterosexual white males.  Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people all exhibit healthy development that expands what can be understood as “normal.”

In a similar way the face of leadership is changing, but not without tremendous push back from those who cannot adapt to the change. Becker states that there are three mixed messages for women in leadership in the church: “we want you here;” “if you are going to be here you must act in a way that makes us (men, matriarchs and patriarchs) comfortable;” and, “This is the way things are, women are not to be too aggressive, too powerful, or too visible.” [xii]  The uprising of outright racism in this country, as a clear reaction to the election of a black President, supports Becker’s premise and acknowledges the challenge inflicted when we raise up new faces in leadership.

Both men and women can lead with similar characteristics including relational and collegial, but they come from a different point place of authority. For women, the heart (ie feelings) is the “point place” of authority in leadership. Male leadership tends to engage the “head” (ie unemotional) as the “point place” of authority.   Female leaders tend to be facilitators, finding, nudging, and encouraging people. Male leaders tend to be upfront, have all the answers and the information.[xiii] These are, of course, stereotypes of male and female leadership qualities based on the way men and women are raised and socialized. In reality both men and women share these characteristics of head and heart leadership, but with different responses from those who work with them.

Some of the women commentators on Facebook lamented the feedback they get from parishioners when they act from their head, using a more “male-like” voice of authority. These women were told by parishioners that they needed be less “aggressive” and learn how to “coax” people along. The challenge for people when they experience women in leadership is to not insist that women take a more passive voice. Coaxing people along, as the Facebook commentator stated, asks women to take a more passive role in leadership. Worse, the time it takes to “coax” people into leadership may take longer than the response time for a given ministry can tolerate. This leads to women often feeling as if we are “damned if we do” and “damned if we don’t.”

One Facebook commentator suggested that women need to claim their inner “bitchiness” and use it judiciously. Becker states that “Women need to claim power” and at the same time work learn to “deal with our interior ambivalence about power.”

Which leads to the question, “What is power?” Becker defines power as “the capacity to produce change.” Power, Becker says, is expressed in three ways as: capacity, commodity, and relationship.[xiv]

Power as a capacity means “to be able to do.”  Power as the “capacity to produce change” is a very different way of understanding power than the more traditional “power over,” also known as “power as a commodity.”

Power as a commodity means that the “authoritative power is external to the leader and accumulates or diminishes. Power as a commodity is like playing a “zero-sum game,” where in the more one has the less another has.

Power as a relationship is “power-with” and is based on the interaction of people and an organization to accomplish its ends. Power-with is the most diffused form of power.  Power as relationship, the power-with – is the typical form of power that women engage in. However “power-with” is experienced as the most passive form of power.

All three of these forms of power have strengths and weakness and the potential to be abusive.

As the number of women in leadership positions increase and as women rise into ever greater leadership positions we need to learn how to balance the challenges of our ambivalence to power, our need to be liked and build relationship, and our preference for collaborative leadership over hierarchical paradigms.

Women, whether in leadership positions or not, learn how to navigate hierarchy, encounter all forms of power, including abuse of power, and deal with misogynistic attitudes and language. Women learn to sustain all of these alongside our primary drive to create, sustain, and nurture relationships. Women in leadership need to learn how to do all of these while also learning how to not being afraid of our so called “inner bitch”(a term I don’t  like, but it is what strong women leaders are often called). Women cannot be afraid of the inevitable “pushback” that tries to stifle our expressions of power and leadership.

No doubt it would be much easier if our leadership was valued for simply being what it is. Some suggest the less ambivalent a woman is about her own power the more people around her adapt to her leadership. This, however sounds like a “blame the victim” argument and removes responsibility for bad behavior from the very people who are acting out in response to a woman’s leadership. Studies are inconclusive and it’s hard to know what true women’s leadership looks like because it is impossible to study women’s leadership outside the constraints of patriarchy. What would women’s leadership look like if patriarchy were not the norm and the standard?[xv]

What are the real differences in male and female leadership? How might these differences impact congregational conflict? Is there a correlation between the increase in church conflict and an increase in the number of women in leadership and the election of a black man as President of the United States? In other words is there an increase in congregational conflict because the face of leadership has changed and people don’t know how to name the anxiety that this change has caused? And, is this in part because people actually want the very change that makes them anxious? People want equality, in theory, but do not yet know how to really manage what it feels like in practice? And so there is push to have women suppress their leadership skills in order to keep people within their comfort zone while at the same time being able to say they have a woman in leadership? Is this another form of prejudice that lives just below the surface in such a way that enables people to continue to act as if the real problem is something else, like the way the person behaves, rather than the anxiety that is aroused by having a different face in leadership?

Furthermore, when women clergy find themselves in conflict with members of the congregation or with congregational dynamics, our anxiety is grounded in a different place than men’s anxiety in conflict. Men are able to remove their emotions from the situation and view it from the perspective of universal principles of justice – what is right and fair and just in this? Women navigate conflict in a more complex way. Like men, women consider what is right and fair and just in the situation. However, women need to understand both their feelings and the feelings of the others involved. How each party feels is important. Both men and women strive to work through conflict with an appropriate balance of boundaries and the intent to build healthier relationships. That women lead from a feeling state and work to balance feelings with facts and data adds another dimension and layer of complexity to how women experience conflict, solve problems, and function as leaders. Men, to some degree, are able to maintain distance from the feeling state which enables men to experience conflict in a less complex way. Neither approach is better than the other. Working through emotions, first, in order to arrive at the universal principles, is a process that needs to be recognized and honored as a strength instead of a weakness.

Naming our strengths and claiming the qualities women bring leadership, which may be distinctive from what men bring, is crucial. As women we need to learn to be direct and to speak our mind in statements not questions. [xvi] People who work with women need to become comfortable with a woman being direct. The uniqueness of women’s leadership and authority includes our ability to focus on the whole, our comfort with and need for relationship, engaging a process orientation, a willingness to share information and therefore empower others, the intimacy we bring to the workplace, and our risk taking.

Women want power in order to share and lead by collaboration. Men act powerfully in order to influence others and avoid their vulnerability. Women, because of the complex nature of our bodies (ie childbirth) have the capacity to show tremendous strength and vulnerability.[xvii]

“I think we need to claim our own strength and leadership - without apologizing for it - because we are going to get the flak anyway. We also need to support and mentor other women, because they deserve strong female mentors. Some personalities are more likely to be labeled pejoratively. Despite a desire to be liked I have recently decided that the work is too important to succumb to the anxiety. I have a loving spouse, wonderful spiritual director and a great therapist. Damn the torpedoes . . .(Facebook commentator)

For the most part I have come to recognize my role as a priest working in church leadership to be the best work I could possibly do. As a parish priest I get to do something different every day, my work is never boring. Parish ministry is creative, relational, analytical, and strategic. As a Rector and a priest I have developed a variety of skill sets. I have experienced just how adaptive I can be and also, where I can be stuck. I have had to learn many different ways to lead. In and through each of them I have been challenged with provocative and interesting interior work, like Jacob wrestling the angel coming out with a limp but with his rightful name. I have come to recognize within me a capacity to navigate conflict, criticism, and challenges that I did not know I had. I have been beat-up, broken, bruised, wounded, and scarred in the process. I have also become wiser and more capable of seeing situations for what they are, less about me and more about the persons causing the conflict. I have become more compassionate of the struggles of others. I have found an inner strength and a willingness to work through problems and stay in relationship that I did not know I had.  I have found that, like Jacob, we too can come out with our rightful name, “beloved of God,” called to lead God's people, despite all challenges to the contrary.

I have tremendous respect for the male and female colleagues who mentor me in leadership. We are all working to create and sustain good healthy relationships between individuals and for the Body of Christ, corporate. I despair that conflict is rampant and that women are often the targets of bullying. I despair that upper leadership does not always support clergy in and through conflict. Congregational conflict is often a pull to restore some level of homeostasis that has been disrupted by change. Often times all that has really changed is the face of who is leading. Women leaders, just by virtue of being women, present a significant change in what leadership looks and sounds like.  I’ve been told time and again that people can’t “hear” me because I speak in higher range than men. I’ve also been told my hair is too long, it’s in my face, and people can’t “see” me. In response to the anxiety aroused by having a different “face” and “voice” in leadership people begin to complain about small details. Over time the tiny details pile up and sometimes become seemingly insurmountable problems. What one said or did, which under other circumstances would barely be noticed, becomes the spark that ignites a flame of resistance and conflict. Sometimes homeostasis is restored by firing the clergyperson. This, however, is usually not a healthy approach, nor a long term solution. (I am not talking here, about true clergy abuse where one must be removed. Rather I am referring to more ordinary human misunderstandings that are blown up into major infractions and broken relationship). Assisting the congregation and the clergy to manage their anxiety, and the systemic anxiety, while working through the conflict with the hope of forging a deeper relationship, is crucial. To do this means that systems must not only adopt policies that support equality in leadership opportunities, but they must also grow in understanding of what it feels like to be the one on the leading edge of that change. Systemic anxiety arouses in us the desire to have someone to blame. If only we could remove the problem person the system could return it to its non-anxious state. Managing the anxiety in a system that is undergoing change or conflict requires significant intentionality by focusing on the mission rather than the anxiety. Managing the anxiety requires maintaining a broad view in order to move through the initial reactivity into a more reasoned perspective. God calls us into transformational relationships. But like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we are never assured that transformation will be easy.

My hope is that women, used to pain and struggle by virtue of what we experience in our physical bodies, are prepared in unique ways for the transformation God is calling us to lead. My hope is the “curse of Eve” will become the blessing of creation as women manage the birth pangs of bringing forth a new paradigm. There is every possibility that our children and our children’s children, having grown up with women leaders will no longer face these challenges. Then, perhaps, all will truly be equal.

That said, I am equally certain that if the Body of Christ remains as an organized institutional church, or whatever form it exists in, there will still be conflict. Church conflict has been with us since the disciples argued over how to include Gentiles into the life of the community and since Paul wrote to the churches in Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. My prayer is that every clergy person who is wounded by bullying and congregational conflict finds a place and a way to heal. Many clergy, following church conflict, end up with a kind of Post-Traumatic Stress. This lingering stress may cause clergy to have knee-jerk reactions to new situations, asking us to constantly assess and reassess themselves and others. Healing takes a long time and in between we need to remind ourselves that a new situation is not the same as a previous one. As the anxiety continues, and the emotional work continues, clergy grow weary. Many choose to leave ministry. Denominational leadership would do well to consider ways to support clergy who have been abused in church conflict and help them find healthy ways to care for themselves, recover, and move back into effective leadership. No doubt surviving church conflict gives one valuable insight into what is needed to support both clergy and congregations as they navigate anxious times. My hope is that congregations and their clergy leaders find healthier ways to live in more trusting relationships. Let us pray that the church ceases its attempts to ungift our gifts no matter who we are.

[i] Becker, Carol E. “Leading Women;” Abingdon Press: 1996, page 68



[iv] It might also have been Beverly Harrison or another Christian ethicist. I read this in an article from my Ethics class in seminary, an article on human sexuality which I cannot find.


[vi] Ibid

[vii] ibid



[x] ibid

[xi] ibid

[xii] Becker, Carole E. “Leading Women:” Aibingdon Press, 1996 pg. 48

[xiii] Ibid page 53

[xiv] Ibid page 164

[xv] ibid

[xvi]Ibid  167-168

[xvii]Ibid page 53

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Scars of gold

In the family of my childhood I am the oldest child and the only girl, I have three younger brothers. My brothers were mischievous, always getting into some kind of dilemma. One morning they decided to make peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Being only nine and six years old, they had to climb up on the counter to reach the cabinet and pull out the huge jar of honey. Somehow the jar tipped over and honey spilled all over the counter top. Although we cleaned it up there was a sticky residue for many days afterward.

On another occasion my brothers were playing outside. One brother threw a metal pipe, as if it were a javelin in the summer Olympics. Our younger brother ran straight into the path of the flying pipe, which hit him in the head. The gash was deep and required stitches. The scar remained his entire life.  My brother was remorseful for having thrown the pipe, but the one who was hit, just laughed it off. My brothers played hard and sometimes fought hard. But they love each other and always work out their differences.

I was never included in my brother’s shenanigans. Instead, I could be found reading in my room or playing my clarinet or attending ballet class. I helped make meals and clean the house and helped my brothers with their homework.  I went out of my way to always be very good. The church I grew up in taught that every sin was a mark held against you forever. God had score keepers in heaven.  I took to heart the words from today’s Gospel reading to be perfect in every way. It was an arduous responsibility, but I was determined to be holy and perfect.  I have a clear memory of having been scolded by mother for, who knows what. As I stomped up the stairs to my bedroom I said to myself, “Just wait, I’ll be even more perfect from now on.”

As an adult I have spent a lot of time and money in therapy untangling that self-perception and the family dynamic behind it.

When I was fifteen my family left that church, and I was relieved of the burden to be holy and perfect. However, I was unable to leave behind my prayer life. I continued to have conversations with God. I was drawn into an ongoing relationship with God like water poured on parched soil. I explored other faith traditions. But, Christianity was the lens through which I understood who I was, how I was to behave, and how I was to navigate my way through the world. Realizing this I knew that I had to find a faith community with whom to worship; one where I could ask questions, explore my faith, and not be held to standards of perfection I couldn’t live into. I needed a faith community that understood forgiveness and reconciliation. This is why I found my way to the Episcopal Church.

Our readings today deal with these same issues: what does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to be perfect? And what does it mean to be a Christian and worship with a Christian community?

Jesus was shaped by the laws described in the book of Leviticus, which provided the foundation for Jesus’ summary of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving others as Jesus teaches us, however, is not very easy to do. This love is about justice. Scripture teaches us that God’s vision of love and justice means enabling others to live a good, healthy life with all of their basic needs met. Our readings this morning remind us that we are made in God’s image, are made good to do good. And in doing good, as God desires, we are not only holy, but we are perfect.

Leviticus 19 is concerned with our interior thought process and our exterior behavior.[i] This passage, as well as the Gospel reading, asks us to be mindful of what we are thinking, saying, and doing. However, we should not make the same mistake I made as a child and focus too narrowly on certain kinds of behavior. If perfection does not mean choosing the right fork at the dinner table, nor does it mean attaining divine attributes of a heavenly being, what does it mean?

Contrary to Jesus’ point in Gospel reading in Matthew it sometimes seems that the values of this world affirm us when we are mean, hold grudges, and ignore those in need. If I turn the other cheek, I will get slapped again. If I get sued, I am hiring the best lawyer I can afford to find a loophole in my favor. If I love my enemies, I will be more persecuted or even killed. If I am too nice, I will be seen as weak, a pushover, a doormat. [ii] Ninety nine percent of the news is stories like these. As it to counter all of that the news will throw in one story about making a difference, one story where someone helps another.  The news is skewed toward the brokenness of the human condition. What do we have for inspiration? What helps us see another way of living in this world and making a real difference? If being holy, and therefore perfect, is about how we think and act in everyday ordinary circumstances of life, what choices are we making?


All three of our readings today, Leviticus, Corinthians, and Matthew, point to God’s love for us. One of the primary ways we experience God’s love and forgiveness is through living in community. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians spells out for us what it means to live in community: we are to work out our differences, not gossip or hold grudges. We are to be gracious, work toward forgiveness and reconciliation, and hold one another in love, the same kind of love that God offers us.


I’ve learned that my instinct was right, being members of a faith community is where we come to grow in relationship with God, with others, and even with ourselves. Through participating in a faith community we become formed as a holy people of God and in so doing we may gain insight and discover ways to faithfully work through the challenges life throws our way. Being members of a faith community helps us understand that we can make a difference in the ordinary everyday aspects of our lives when we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.


I no longer believe that God keeps track of our every infraction. Now I believe that God embraces the broken pieces of our lives and lovingly holds them in God’s hand, working with us to mend the brokenness into wholeness.


Becoming perfect and holy is not seamless; our lives retain the scars of our woundedness. However, being in a faith community, in relationship with one another and God, can teach us that there is something beautiful to be found in the process when love and justice work to restore brokenness, seek forgiveness, and strive for reconciliation.


This reminds me of an ancient Japanese tradition called kintsugi. It is the art of gluing broken pottery back together with a resin mixed with gold. Kintsugi holds the vessel together but it makes the cracks stand out. For the Japanese these broken pots, glued with gold, become more attractive and valuable. Likewise, the broken pieces of our lives leave visible scars.  But the love God offers us, the love we find in and through community, can, like gold, transform our scars into something valuable. With love our scarred lives may become holy and perfect.


[i] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Epiphany 7

[ii] ibid

Saturday, February 08, 2014

A little salt, a lot of flavor

The other day I found myself in a conversation with some other women about cooking family meals. It reminded me of a story in a Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor book I read called Traveling with Pomegranates. Ann, a newlywed, describes the complexity of blending two independent lives into a single household and marriage. Cooking for example, and the different ingredients one might use preparing a meal. What kind of seasonings and spices are used that create satisfying meals for people who have grown up with different expectations? How to blend this into a common meal?

My family and I have dinner together almost every night. Usually I am the one who makes the meal, mostly from scratch. Over the last 28 years I tend to fall into cooking trends – we will eat a similar series of meals for a length of time until I grow bored with them and come up with something else. Lately we seem to eat a lot of fajitas and tacos. These are really simple to make and usually I make enough to freeze for a second meal. Easy to make and left overs to boot is a win-win if you ask me.

I make fajitas from scratch using thinly sliced green and red peppers, a jalapeno pepper and onions, sometimes some beans if I have a container of frozen homemade chili, and thinly sliced chicken or steak. I like the fajitas to have a little bite, but not enough that it burns. One night I was surprised at how bland they tasted. I mentioned this to my son, who agreed. It was then that I realized that I had not added any salt to the mixture while I was preparing it. When I added salt to what was on my plate all the flavor of all of the ingredients popped up - suddenly the bland meal was much more flavorful.  I never use very much salt but this experience reminded me of the importance of a little salt in our lives.

Jesus has something to say about salt in our reading this morning from Matthew. Jesus is using salt as a metaphor for what it means to be Christians – as God’s salt our purpose is to bring out the fullness of God’s desire in the world. Jesus tells his disciples that they, and we, have the distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth. We are God’s salt because we strive to follow Jesus and live as God desires. Like salt, which is used to alter or enhance the taste of food our efforts to elicit goodness can have profound consequences for the world around us.

Conversely, not being “salt”, not working for the good as God teaches us, leads to many of the problems we face in the world today. These problems include, but are not limited to, the economic disparity that occurs when we support corporations that hire child and slave labor. For example, corporations who produce clothing, coffee, and chocolate, and who abuse employees with harsh working conditions, long hours, and a meager salary.  Also, many of us have no idea that trafficking of human beings for sex or labor is happening right here in our community.

Saltiness is an expression of faith, love and justice.   Jesus reminds the Disciples, and us, that when we fail to engage in practices that bring forth God’s love and justice we are like salt that has lost its flavor. When we fail to enable all people to have the basic essentials of food, clean water, education and a living wage job, then we are like salt that has lost its taste.[i]

This Friday and Saturday the Vestry gathered for its annual retreat. Vestry retreats are a gift to the members of the Vestry. The gift is an intentional time for formation. It is an opportunity for us to break out of our usual pattern of formal meetings and come to know one another in a new or different way. We participate in worship, share meals, consider the spiritual life of the congregation and our role as leaders, and have some social time together.

In 2011 the Vestry determined that we would work with Jim Gettel,  a parish consultant, to help us organize our Mutual Ministry Review Process (MMR). Mutual Ministry Review is a mandate from our Bishop. The Vestry realized that developing this process would take three or four years to complete, using our Vestry retreat time to determine a "step" and then a year to develop the "step" before moving on to the next one.

The steps are:
2012 - Who are we? What is our Mission?
2013 - Who do we serve?
2014 - How do we as a community reflect on the missions and ministry we are doing together?
2015 - How are we doing, is our MMR process working?

In 2012 the Vestry considered a number of models of congregational life to answer the question, who are we and what is our mission? The Vestry determined that a "Community-Centered" church was the model that best fit us. We then spent 2012 considering if it was an accurate model, and if so how we live into it. We define Community-Centered Church as engaging in the world around us in an inward and outward manner. Many ministries and organizations are able to exist because we give them a place to reside in this building. Many lives are transformed, included ours, because of this building. We also go out into the world – both in Dearborn and the wider global community – with the hope of bringing forth God’s love and justice through feeding children and families, providing wells for water, hurricane relief, building schools.

In 2013 the Vestry further developed the idea of a "Community Centered Church" by engaging in an organic garden model for discerning our Mission Fields. This model asks us to reflect on what "fields" are just a "seed" being planted - which at the time was the Liberian School Project; what fields need watering or tending too, or are flourishing or need to lay fallow. We put our various ministries in a number of these categories.

This weekend we moved to the next step - how do we want to organize our Mutual Ministry Review Process in order to have mutual accountability?  The Vestry met with Commission chairs and ministry leaders for a portion of our time together. We talked about how we want to organize ongoing opportunities for Commissions, Ministries, and Vestry to gather for mutual reflection on the work we are doing and discernment on what needs to be done.

By the end of the retreat we had some basic components outlined for how are we  are we going to come together and reflect on who we are and what we do to grow the mission of Christ Church.

You might say that, much like couples in a marriage, we are figuring out to blend the many ingredients of time and talent offered in this congregation.  The blending of these ingredients will require just the right amount of salt to bring out the full flavor in our recipe for hope. May the saltiness of our lives become the main ingredient in our attitude of gratitude.






[i] Feasting on the Word Year A for the Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Saints in light and life

The other day I posed a question on three different Facebook pages using something called “Crowd-sourcing.” Essentially crowd-sourcing is a term that invites a large number of people, usually from an on-line community, into a discussion. In less than 24 hours I ended up with over 15 pages of notes from the responses I got .These responses have come from people I have never met, who worship in a wide array of Christian traditions, all offering their perspective on the question posed.

In addition to having great discussions, Facebook is also a place where I find and maintain friendships from people I have known throughout my life. More than just a social networking site, Facebook has become a place of connection, and even, dare I say, formation.

A few years ago I was pleased to reconnect with a high school friend after almost forty years of lost contact. We had much to catch up on. I still remember the conversation that ensued after she learned that I am an Episcopal priest. She wrote something along the lines of, back in high school, with my long hair and earthy spirituality she thought I would become Druid, not a Christian priest. Now that really caught me off guard. I am certain I didn’t know what a Druid was when I was in high school and the thought of being one has never crossed my mind.

That is until I heard about St. Brigid – the patron saint of Ireland, a beloved Christian saint, and a druid. Brigid is known as the Celtic saint of fire, poetry, healing, childbirth, and unity.

Brigid was born in the 5th century.  According to legend rays of the sun emanated from her head. In Druid mythology, the infant goddess was fed with milk from a sacred cow from the Otherworld. Brigid owned an apple orchard in the Otherworld and her bees would bring their magical nectar back to earth.

It is said that wherever she walked, small flowers and shamrocks would appear. As a sun goddess her gifts are light (knowledge), inspiration, and the vital and healing energy of the sun.

In the Druid tradition Brigid became the wife of an Irish king. Together they produced three sons, each of whom became a famous warrior. Brigid and her husband came from two warring tribes and hoped their marriage would end the long feud between the two families. But that was not to be; at least not until after a battle between the two families took the life of one of their sons.

Brigid's grief at the death of her son was enormous. She lamented the rift between both sides of her family that caused the tragic death of her son. Family members along with others in the country were so moved by her grief that they made amends, forgave one another, and worked toward unity.

The Christian tradition tells another story -  claiming that Brigid never married and lived a monastic life. Who knows?

Regardless, the love and respect people had for Brigid brought unity between the Celts and Christians in the region.  She successfully merged Celtic and druid traditions with Christian theology and practice. Today the Celtic tradition is still known for its profound mystical spirituality within the Christian tradition.

Brigid is credited with the invention of whistling, which she used to summon her friends to her side.

One of the most popular tales of Brigid involved two lepers who appeared at her sacred well at Kildare and asked to be healed. She told them that they were to bathe each other until the skin healed.

After the first one was healed he refused to bath the other one. Angered, Brigid caused his leprosy to return. Then she gently placed her cloak around the other leper who was immediately healed.[i]

Ireland is full of springs and wells named after Brigid. Due to her powers of healing before long coins were being tossed into her wells and thus began the modern custom of throwing a penny into a fountain while you make a wish.[ii]

Other miracles associated to Brigid involve her producing an abundance of food. In Brigid’s presence, butter is replenished; the bacon she slips to a dog miraculously reappears in the pot; a stone turns to salt; water becomes milk, or beer, or, in one instance, an aphrodisiac. For Christians her ability to create abundance is likened to the miracles of Christ - turning water into wine, a few loaves and fish into a feast. The miracles attributed to both Brigid and Jesus reveal the abundant generosity of God. [iii]

Brigid was a charismatic leader who wielded influence in all avenues of life; she advised kings and bishops; she brought healing to body and soul; she had prophetic dreams. Brigid’s powerful spirituality continues to touch lives today. [iv]

There is even an Irish tradition that says that Brigid was present at the birth of Jesus and that she served as his foster mother. This tradition reveals the profound connection of Celtic Christianity revealed in a mystical relationship between Jesus and Brigid.

Another tradition in Ireland places Brigid as a character in the reading we heard from the Gospel of Luke this morning. Brigid walked before Mary carrying a candle. Brigid’s candle lit Mary’s way into the temple for the presentation of Jesus. And, Brigid’s candle lit Mary’s way into the temple for her traditional postnatal cleansing.  The winds were fierce and the walk was difficult, but with Brigid’s power of faith the candles never flickered, never went out, and Mary and Jesus made it into the temple.

Of course the legend is a bit of stretch since some four hundred years passed between Mary going to the temple with the baby Jesus and the life of Brigid.

The feast day of Brigid and the Presentation of Jesus merge into what some Christians know as Candlemas. Candlemas celebrates this connects in the early days of February, at a time when the long nights of winter turn toward greater light. On Candlemas we are invited to ponder the ways in which Mary and Brigid are spiritual guides in our lives today, guiding us with the light of Christ and God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus -  the light of the world. Brigid - the patron saint of fire connects her to the light of Christ.

It’s curious that the feast of St. Brigid, Candlemas, and the Presentation of Jesus also fall around Ground-hogs day.  Again dealing with a celebration of light, the eventual end of winter and the forthcoming of  spring and summer.

Today is also Scout Sunday. We have with us today members of our charter Boy and Girl Scout troops, their families, and leaders. Scout Sunday comes every year in early February. It’s a time for us to give thanks for the scouts, their leaders, and their parents. As a former Girl Scout I know well the benefit of being a scout. My memories are deep and fond of selling cookies door to door and going to summer Girl Scout camp.

As human beings, what we learn on Sundays such as this, when so many factors converge, is that we are formed by all the influences in our lives.

Today is a good day to spend some time giving thanks for those who influenced you in your life – teachers, leaders, parents, scouts, saints, and others who were important in your forming who you are.

Let us give thanks for these saints in light, from Mary to Brigid and beyond, where-ever and who-ever they are.



[ii] ibid


[iv] ibid

Homily for the Festive Eucharist at the closing of the Episcopal Women's Caucus

The readings that we chose for the service tonight were all picked specifically for this service because they lift up the role of women ...