“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Saturday, August 13, 2016

True Color

Six years. Well, I've lived in this house for almost six years and it was only recently that I noticed that the wall color in the living room did not work with the fireplace. The fireplace surround is a white marble with gray and black swirls and the hearth is black tile. However the walls were painted a dark brown/green, a trendy color six or more years ago. Before I moved into the rectory it was freshly painted. Some of the colors are really lovely even today: the pale yellow in the kitchen is a cheery color and works well with the dark granite on the counter tops; a warm white in all the halls and up the the stairs is gentle, neutral, easy on the eye. But the dark brownish-green in the living room and dining room was just too dark, the pea soup green in one of the bedrooms was really bad, and the sea foam green in two of the bathrooms reminded me of doctor's offices. So this summer I decided to use some of my vacation time to repaint the rooms.

Five rooms in five days, that's what I did. Removed curtains and curtain rods, and old and rusty metal blinds that we never used came down. I painted the powder room first, which was a huge challenge because it is so small! Then I painted my son's room. Those two are the same greige color, which looks more tan than gray, but is a nicer color than before. That took two days. On the third day I painted the bathroom - icky old oak cabinets and all. Cabinets are painted in a glossy gray, the walls in an eggshell gray, the same shade. On the fourth day I tackled the living room, the largest room in the house. It took me over 6 hours to edge, trim, and paint that room. I thought it would never end. The fifth day I painted the dining room, relatively easy, compared to the other rooms. The living room and dining room are in the same shade of gray as the bathroom.

The sixth day I put everything back in order. I hung new curtains in all the rooms, and I have to admit, I felt pretty darn proud of myself for measuring and hanging curtain rods. True it was made a lot easier because my husband has a drill with the screwdriver bit on it, so hanging curtain rods took seconds.

When it was all done I felt an immense sense of satisfaction. The look is new, fresh, calming, lovely, and makes sense.

Now I ask you, when, ever, does a transformation happen like this? In just a few days of work, granted hard, exhausting work, but one in which in the end, everything is different? Not only different but exceedingly satisfyingly different.

I've worked as a parish priest for sixteen years. My hope, always, is to journey with congregations as they encounter and come through their own transformation, becoming the congregation that is most authentic to them. Rarely, ever, has this actually happened. All work, not a lot to show for it, and little satisfaction for the effort.

I suppose that isn't really the point though, feeling satisfied with parish ministry? Or is it?

Certainly I thought, when I entered parish ministry with my new, shiny, optimistic M.Div and MSW (emphasis in Family Systems for Congregations no less) and ordained self, that journeying with people and whole congregations as they revealed their true strengths and were supported in that process, would afford some satisfaction. Who wouldn't want to become their most authentic self? (OMG, don't laugh at me! I know I was more than a little naive).

Yes, seminary taught me that parish ministry is about incremental change, tiny steps forward and giant steps back into homeostasis. Still, I thought that parish ministry is about revealing the inherent strengths, the true colors of congregations, and enabling them to come forth. It means the priest and leaders are talking about the strengths and colors over and over and over because it takes eleven times of hearing something before the general population acknowledges that they've heard it once. Yeah, yeah, I know a lot about the "technique" of leadership. I've read all the books and taken many continuing ed courses on it and been part of clergy group after clergy group. I did it all so that I could be the best possible parish priest, a wise, insightful, skilled leader.

Parish ministry has taught me a lot about patience and going slow and repeating the parish story over and over and over, and allowing for years to unfold while only little steps forward take place. Then, when it all gets reviewed, and people have some small amount of satisfaction, to hear that no one credits the female priest with any of the changes and support that has taken place.  It's a demanding dynamic to be a parish priest, particularly when female, to hold on to one's sense of purpose even when so very often one is actually diminished by the things others say and how one is treated. It's the reality of women every where in every position, even the female athletes in the Olympics know this reality.

The biggest lesson I've had in parish ministry is what I've learned about me.  The lessons have helped me become a better person and priest and how to understand how I can more effectively guide and support the congregation so that they too might grow.

Unlike painting five rooms in five days and ending up with a whole new look and feel, the transformation God is calling us to be about is not as immediate. Transforming ourselves into the best version of who we can be, the person God sees, requires a willingness to do that kind of inner work. It's about gaining self awareness and other awareness and being willing to grow in maturity and change. It is sacred work, good work, hard work, but rarely do we see the fullness of our efforts, for those can take a lifetime.

Yet, in the end, when we do this holy work, we find our true selves, our truest colors, and at last, perhaps, we find peace.