Thursday, March 22, 2007

of course it's difficult, i told her.

i received an email last week from a young woman who's on staff at a pretty traditional church. she'd read wrestling with god and wanted to know how to keep her soul alive, while working at a church. this is what i told her:

As you can see and have no doubt heard, I'm no longer on staff at a regular church - and it's great to be doing something else. Something not traditional, not connected to expectations by a large mechanism or hierarchy or ego structures or denomination. I'm not saying those things are bad - but my experience is that the gifts they offer of support and parameters almost always have strings attached. So ... and here you are - at a traditional denominational church with beliefs based on tradition and doctrine. a church which i bet has expectations for how ministry can and can't be done, what's acceptable, whom you have to please, what you have to do to grease the wheels, etc etc etc. Of course it's more difficult than you imagine. it's more difficult than any of us imagine before we go into it - i went into ministry thinking that i already knew that people are flawed and organized religion was often political and crappy - but it didn't prepare me in the least for the nightmarish struggles that would come. dysfunctional, egocentric, narcissistic senior pastors. angry and fearful and weird and weak and snippish church members. restrictions. fussiness. territorialism. small-mindedness. nastiness. cowardice. and the thing that really bummed me out more than anything was my absolute clear conviction that god had brought me to this, led me to it, called me to it, foreseen it.
that sucked.
and i was pretty pissed off at god because i had naively thought that there must be SOME good things about traditional religion. i served at a united methodist church for six years and then at a mega/seeker church for three years. it was all very hard. that's not to say there weren't lovely moments as well; my wife and family and i met many amazing and beautiful people, and grew spiritually and emotionally, and we learned and learned and learned. we've gotten stronger and stronger. which is all good. aaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllll good. resurrection following crucifixion ... over and over and over and over ...
so, why am i telling you all this? because i want you to know that it's not you, you're not crazy, it's not your imagination, church work is very hard, very demanding, full of lovely people and sick people. it's as if every person who's part of the church where we work thinks that we work for them individually - even the nice ones. the traditional church is based on a consumer model, and a membership model - both of which are territorial and self-serving at their worst. i saw people fight over the most amazingly stupid and trivial things. FIGHT. physically, emotionally, territorially. i'm still blown away by how much of it is just messed up. jesus weeps.
how to stay sane? well, i was lucky and blessed enough to be brought into community with a group of people who got the same vision and calling my wife and i did - and we started a church together. from scratch. it's been ridiculously hard ---- but so good. so right. because we just said, This is what we value, and this is what we believe about loving and following and serving jesus, and this is what we're going to do, and that's that. take it or leave it. we all said that together.

we left behind a safe income and security and plans and career to do it. and it has been totally worth it - partly because, after ten years of ministry before we started journey, we knew what we were and were not about.
how did that happen?
we read. we read everything we could find. brian mclaren. brennan manning. anne lamott. richard rohr. c s lewis. teresa of avila. gandhi. martin luther king jr. reallivepreacher.
we sought out people who were trying to stay alive in their souls, both close by and online and at conferences or retreats, by email, not in the same church as we were or in the same town as we were, or right around the corner. we actively sought wise friends and advice and support. we learned, after a few years, to rest - although with 2 children it's never easy to just be Off Duty. nor is it ever easy to be Off Duty when one is on staff at a church.
i try not to read too many christian inspirational books. i find them to be too much like candy - sweet, but not nutritious. too easy.
you did a good thing by emailing me - that means you're reaching out for support. smart woman. wise. do you have friends who aren't on staff or at the church where you're working? cultivate and keep those friendships.
soul-search. journal. think. pray. keep defining what your call from god is and is NOT. what other people tell you it is, is pretty much never right. that's the biblical pattern, anyway - nobody can tell you what god is telling you. a mentor can be helpful - but it's nobody's journey but yours.
therapy is good. finding a good therapist - and by the way, my experience with christian therapists is that they're usually too sappy if they label themselves as christian therapists, and their suggestions tend to be like christian bookstores (see above). nice, but not gritty or real or dirty enough for how complex and painful and weird life really is. but good therapy can be amazing, open the mind and heart. read books that are about what you came from - i came from a messed up family. i need all the therapy i can get, and i get it. i read books about what it means to be a child of that kind of family. i do whatever i can to find healing and awareness.
i feed my soul with art, with music, with reading for pleasure, with nature, with gardening, with walking. i feed my soul by eating foods i like and (mostly, but not always, and that's okay too) that are good for my body. i feed my soul by thinking a lot.
i also play. i play more and more and more, the older i get. it's very helpful. just to chill and keep things in perspective. draw, paint, watch movies, walk in the woods, ride bicycles, sit and watch people on the town square. watch hilarious and useless tv. take naps. go on retreats to cool places. write it into your budget and get the church to pay for it.
and i learned over time that momentary crises of faith, and fear, and feeling overwhelmed or angry or hurt, are real - but they don't last. they just don't. someone gets all upset about how i set up the sunday school room or handled a meeting or whatever? it'll pass. it's not that big a deal. it's only this moment. it's not as if it's jesus on the cross. and i mean that in the most reverent sense.
in those moments when you absolutely know in your bones and soul what your calling from god IS and is NOT, then you will inspire the people around you. they'll see something shining in you. or they won't - and that's about them, not you. it's not your job to make them understand it. you're young. you are free. you can go wherever you and god decide. you don't HAVE to be ANYWHERE. if you wanted to just take off and go do church work - or not - anywhere you could think of, you could. soon enough you'll be married and have children and a mortgage, and those joys all come with a price, which is, lack of mobility and the weight of responsibility --- or not; it's your choice; you have freedom. you don't have to be married and have children. you don't have to work for a church. god will bless you and be with you and love on you no matter what you choose.
if there are people - no, when there are people - who don't get it, who don't see what you're trying to do or be or share with the children and families you're ministering to, who don't understand you, who want you to fit a certain model or mold, who want you to be nice and tame and safe, who want your ministry to be cost-effective and to bring in the largest number of families and tithers ... when that happens, all you have to do is remember:
i am choosing this today, for myself, and for god. i am not trapped here. i can do whatever my heart tells me to do. i am choosing this today. and i am choosing to give this gift, with what i have today. it is a good gift to give whether anybody here gets it or not, understands it or not, values it or not. it is good because it comes from within my heart and my relationship with god.
that's where jesus is. because that's where openness is. that's where the poor are, the hungry are, the needy are, the hopeful are.
suburban corporate consumerist america is a pretty sick mess. it's full of goodness and hope, because that's what human beings are. they're created in the image of god. but the system itself is pretty twisted. it makes people afraid and worried and paranoid and fake. and inside, they're just hungry for love and acceptance and hope. so, give your gift and don't be sucked in.
and when it's time to take a break, take it. if pastors or church leaders or church members tell you No, it's about their crap. you can't change that. but you can be healthy, no matter what comes.
and, dare to be bold and dream big for your ministry. YOUR ministry - it's not anybody else's, whether you work for a church or not. you don't work for a church. you work because of your calling from god. the place you're working happens to be at that church on that day. it doesn't own you. you are free and powerful. so, dream big. say, "Why can't we do this? I think I'll plan it and propose it. let's try it." what's the worst that can happen? they say no? in which case, you've already dreamed it, you and god - so who knows, maybe they'll say yes later, or maybe you'll get to do it somewhere else. you do not owe the church ANYTHING. there's no amount of money, no salary and benefits, that make it okay to be a slave to the pastors and leaders of a church. anyone who doesn't understand that isn't worth listening to.
listen to your heart. that's where jesus is too.
i hope this is helpful.
you already know all this or you wouldn't've emailed me.
you already know all this because it's your truth. you want to stay alive and healthy and real. do. insist on it. don't let anything suck that out of you.
but you have to be responsible for making sure it happens, for you, and only for you. nobody will give it to you. i spent a lot of time being a victim - not on the outside, but inside - Don't they see what a hero i'm being? how hard i'm working? ... which is coupled with, Nobody gives a damn about me ... which is tied to, God, you stink. why'd you do this to me?
what i learned is that those are ways of avoiding the responsibility - and freedom - and power - of saying, it's my life, mine and god's, and i get to choose.
that's scary. and wonderful. that's what jesus did. read the temptations in the desert story again.
i wish you all, all, all the peace and courage and joy there is. i send you power and grace. i pray for you to know your truth and your calling from god, deep in your soul. it will shine.

much much love


Anonymous said...

I've never left a comment on one of here goes...
As I am struggling to finish my autobiographical essay to get into seminary, I took a break and read your blog for today. I was deeply touched by your honesty to this lady. It encouraged my own honesty in observing myself from what I've done and what I hope to do, which I believe a MAT degree will help give me tools, or complement my own gifts and resourcefulness to touch people for God.

In any ministry, even a ministry in a line of work like mine, or faith community arena, it's easy to forget that people are people, flawed and confused and not living in introspective observation of how they are affecting others. As you know, this even occurs at Journey, even with you and even though I may think I'm a little princess that can do no wrong, even with me too :-).

It's important to forgive and what I've recently learned is that it does not matter if we are liked, adored and awarded with affirmations and acolades. It only matters how much we love in spite of it all.

With self-effacing humility, one has to stay focused on God's bigger picture, roll up his or her sleeves, open his or her hearts and be brave, live, and take a risk.

What you could have added in your note to this lady is what you told me a little more than a year ago when I was facing the hurtfulness of people being people. You looked me in the eye, held my shoulders and reminded that I still had a faith communtiy that belonged to me and that when God moves, ineffably there is blood on the fence and on the floor but that's okay...

Martin Luther King in one of his last speeches in '67 said that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. What I say is that it also bends toward love. How's that for icky sweet sappy endings to comments in blogs.


Anonymous said...

You MFS!

This is it...

"i am choosing this today, for myself, and for god. i am not trapped here. i can do whatever my heart tells me to do. i am choosing this today. and i am choosing to give this gift, with what i have today. it is a good gift to give whether anybody here gets it or not, understands it or not, values it or not. it is good because it comes from within my heart and my relationship with god."

Don't hold back...let 'em clank.


Rick Diamond said...

Laurel Jeanne and J/RB - absolutely. The arc of time, the universe, love, bends toward justice. I believe our job is to choose to love and fight for what is right while that long arc curves.


nonprofitprophet said...

well good golly. if you take away my victimology, who is going to feel sorry for me and join my pity party! now i guess i gotta go love on somebody - see what a position you have put me in! (victim). lol