What do You Do?

Joanna preaching“So, Joanna, what do you do?”

My comfort level with this question depends on the context. In this case, I was at a neighborhood get-together with several new neighbors I didn’t know very well. The 79-year-old man asking the question is active in a local conservative independent evangelical church. The 60ish-year-old man also listening in attends the Weslyan church and home schooled his children. And there I sat, on the couch, nursing my plate of Chex mix.

I was kind of hoping everyone would assume I was a stay-at-home mom and avoid this question all together. (O.K. Not really.)

“What do you do?”

“I’m pastor of the Mennonite church in town.”

Continue reading “What do You Do?”

Just Like Jesus

Please note that these are not actual prisoners. They are my daughters at Silver Dollar City.

Lately, I’ve kinda felt like Jesus.

Not Jesus when he was kind-hearted and compassionate–blessing the children and touching the lepers.

Not Jesus when he was in the miracle groove–oozing healing power onto everyone who touched him or turning a few iffy fish into the best potluck meal ever.

Not Jesus when he was impressing (and intimidating) people with his deep, godly thoughts–preaching the Sermon on the Mount, telling funny yet provocative parables.

No, I kinda feel like Jesus when he insulted the Canaanite woman. (Matthew 15:21-28)

You remember the story? She stops him in the street to ask him to heal her daughter. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . It is not right to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”

He doesn’t want to be bothered by this woman. He doesn’t feel like dealing with a Canaanite. He wants to do his ministry the way he has envisioned it–with people who are like him, with people he likes.

Oh, how Christ-like I am. I put off answering that email from a stranger who is clearly needy and confused. I let the letter from the man in jail sit on my desk for days before I even read it. I hesitate to pick up the phone and call the pastor of the conservative church.

“I’ve come only to the lost liberal sheep of Lawrence, Kansas.”

The recent political season and the continuing debates within our conference and denomination only make things worse. The more hateful and divisive and exhausting the public rhetoric becomes, the more I want to hunker down with MY people. Let others worry about the Canaanites, the mentally ill, the prisoners . . . the conservatives.

But the woman, of course, did not take “go away” for an answer. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Her extension of Jesus’ metaphor exposes it for the lie that it is. This woman is not a dog, she is a human being who is suffering deeply. And so Jesus, humbled, consents and heals her daughter.

And the people reaching out to Christ through me are not “crazy” or “prisoners” or “conservatives.” They are not the labels I try to put on them so that I can dismiss them and move on to my real ministry. These people, like me and like those in my congregation, are children of God; suffering and searching children of God.

So my prayer is that I will be less like Jesus at the beginning of his encounter with the woman and more like him at the end. My prayer is that my frustration and exhaustion and fear will not prevent me from showing compassion to those around me. My prayer is that my vision of the ministry to which God has called me will not prevent me from doing the actual ministry to which God has called me.

And I pray the same for you, as we are all called to reach out with the love of Christ in this hurting world. Amen.

Money, the Church, and those Dang Brass Plaques

A few weeks ago I was a guest in a church. A church of kind-hearted, hospitable people, I’m sure. At some point, as is to be expected, my tiny bladder and I needed to use the bathroom. I did not use the main bathroom with stalls and fake flowers and smelly lotion. I used the little bathroom off of the kitchen. The toilet in a closet.

And right there, gleaming in gold against the shining white top of the porcelain toilet tank, was a brass sign. You’ve seen these little plaques in churches before: “In memory of Mary Jane Schilermacher.”*

I couldn’t help but wonder how old Mary Jane feels about all of her Christian brothers and sisters (and let’s be honest here, especially the brothers who will be facing the toilet as they pee) thinking of her each time they look at this toilet.

A few months ago I was a guest at another church. A church of Jesus-loving, justice-living people. And I noticed a nice sign in front of the building. The kind of sign that sits heavily on the ground. The kind with a clear cover that you can unlock and change the big black letters inside: “Honk if you love Jesus.”** Below the panel with the big black letters was a little brass plaque: “In memory of Vernon P. Buttlebitter.”***

I couldn’t help but wonder what passers by thought of this plaque. Maybe Mr. Buttlebitter was an exemplary human being and his name on the sign encouraged people to attend this church. But I never met the deceased Mr. Buttlebitter, and my thoughts were more along the lines of, “Why can’t people just give money for a sign and leave off the distracting plaque?”.

Our small and growing congregation is in the midst of discernment about how to access more space for Christian formation and worship. These discussions are reminding me how emotional we can get about money. How much fear it can cause. How much anxiety. How much pride and shame and guilt.

Some people have money, and they don’t want to give it. Other people don’t have money, and they want to give it. Which means that basically everyone is uncomfortable talking about it.

But money is just money. We need a certain amount of it to live in our culture. We need it to feed people and clothe people and provide medical care. We need it to buy or rent spaces for education and worship. We need it to pay the water bill and the electricity bill and the babysitter.

Yes. We need money. But if we are going to go around slapping plaques on everything in and around the church building that represents the contributions of faithful and generous people, we’ll need to substantially increase our plaque budget.

We’ll need plaques on the rosebushes in honor of all the gardeners who plant, water, and weed. Plaques on the clean floors, for the volunteer who cleans them every week. Plaques on the pulpit for everyone who reads scripture and preaches the word. Plaques on my children’s foreheads in honor of every Sunday School teacher they’ve ever had, everyone in the church who has taken them out for ice cream or sat down for a heart to heart.

We could litter our church buildings with plaques. Or we could just go faithfully about our business of being the body of Christ. Each contributing what we can, knowing that, by God’s grace, it is enough.


*This is not the real name on the toilet plaque.
**This is not really what the sign said.
***This is not the real name on the sign plaque, either. It’s not that I’m trying to protect anonymity, I just can’t remember this stuff.

On Being a Woman Pastor

I am grateful to Rachel Held Evans for taking up the topic of egalitarianism this week and instigating (inciting?) a synchroblog on various aspects of gender equality within a Christian context. I encourage you to go to Rachel’s blog and check out #mutuality2012 on twitter. Good stuff.

As you might imagine, some of the stories shared are heartbreaking. There is a lot of Kingdom work to be done before the church mirrors the reality of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The good news, however, is that there are places of safety and equality and grace within the church. That it is possible for a girl to grow up and become a pastor without once thinking she can’t or shouldn’t use her gifts for the church.

I know that it is possible, because that is my story. I grew up in American Baptist churches in Kansas. I went to a United Methodist college in Virginia. I have degrees from two American Baptist seminaries (in Pennsylvania and Kansas), and I now serve as a Mennonite pastor in Kansas. (Yes indeed, Kansas!)

I always believed that pastoral ministry was a career option–even during my phase of wanting to be anything BUT a pastor. (A phase I think all pastor’s kids go through, God help us.)

I was encouraged every step of the way on my spiritual journey and my academic pursuits. I was allowed to take every class I wanted to take in seminary–even the preaching classes.

I have never had a church refuse to consider me for a position or allow me in the pulpit because of my gender. They don’t even complain when they have to bring out the little step for me to stand on so I can see over the pulpit.

If people have said that I, as a woman, have no business leading a congregation, they have said it behind my back. (Or possibly I’ve just blocked it out of my memory.)

My entire congregation lives in a happy bubble where women in ministry is a non-issue. Seriously. I once asked our worship committee if a friend of mine from preaching class could guest preach at our church. My friend needed to preach to a congregation for our class, and her church wouldn’t let her preach. It took forever for me to get them to understand that her home church would not let her in the pulpit because she is a woman. I kept telling them, but they just had these quizzical looks on their faces. These lovely people that I pastor.

Just last month I attended the Festival of Homiletics. Nearly every time there was a break, there was a line at the women’s bathroom.  As I waited in line I thought, “We’re at a preaching conference. And there is a line at the women’s bathroom. Praise God!”

I don’t write a lot about women in ministry, because that is not a battle I have to fight. I often take my acceptance as a pastor for granted. But I do realize that my ability to simply serve God and the church without having to stop and justify myself every five minutes is a great gift. A gift provided through the work of the Holy Spirit and the hard, stubborn work of many men and women who have gone before me–and are continuing on!

As we all know, when you are given a gift, the proper response is to write a thank you note.

So “thank you” to those men and women who continue to articulate the biblical call for equal status for and full recognition of the gifts of women within the Christian church and family. I know there is still a great deal of work to be done in this area, and I’m grateful to those who do it.

“Thank you” to the women and men whose theological work, spiritual work, relational work, and personal sacrifices have created safe and nurturing spaces within the Christian church for women to fully serve God.

“Thank you” to all women who followed the call to ministry despite discouragement and outright hostility from those within the church and seminary. My early mentor, our American Baptist regional minister, Barbara Eldred. My first Mennonite Conference Minister, Dorothy Nickle Friesen. My mom, pastor extraordinaire. My friend Susan, who was the only female student at a southern episcopalian seminary (a while back). The incredible scholar, Molly Marshall, now the first female president of a Baptist seminary. Thank you to all of the women who were told they couldn’t and shouldn’t and did it anyway.

“Thank you” to all of the men who emptied themselves of male privilege to stand beside their female colleagues. To Mike Graves and David May who were forced out of their teaching positions at a Southern Baptist seminary for teaching that women could be pastors. To Linford King, a Mennonite bishop who ordained women even though his conference said he couldn’t. To my husband who thought it would be fun to take the “pastors’ wives” classes at a nearby conservative seminary. (You know, “Ministering Wife” and “Leading Bible Studies.”) To all of the male pastors who treat their female colleagues as equals and all of the male parishoners who treat their female pastors as pastors.

And you–if you have ever supported a woman in ministry, thank you.

Here’s hoping ever more girls will have “pastor” on their list of things they want to be when they grow up–next to doctor and baker and paleontologist and ballerina.

Here’s hoping that ever more worship committees–and search committees–will be stunned into confusion at the thought of anyone having a problem with a woman in the pulpit.

And here’s hoping (maybe this is a bit of a selfish hope) that the pulpit manufacturers will start building those things a little bit shorter.

Super Spectacular Sabbatical: Day 1

Today is my first official day of sabbatical! I have four months to read and pray and write, to rejuvenate and refresh, to deepen my pastoral identity and hone my pastoral skills. And it all starts today!

According to “The Plan,” I was supposed to be on retreat today and tomorrow. Then I looked at “The Calendar” and realized that I was gone two weekends ago and will be gone two weekends from now. I figured that it really isn’t fair to stick my husband with a single parenting gig too terribly often in the name of my personal spiritual enlightenment.

So “the NEW plan” was a daylong retreat—maybe hang out at the wetlands or a friend’s beautiful garden. Time for prayer, contemplation, prioritizing, dreaming, maybe even a nap!

Then came the predictions of rain. And the loose ends that still needed to be dealt with for church. And the project that had to be done by today. And the fact that I’ve been so busy getting ready for “The Sabbatical” that I haven’t even been to “The Grocery Store” this week. Which is a near-disaster in a house with two teenagers.

So here I am, living out my actual, real-life first day of sabbatical. Which looks nothing like the “The Plan” or “the New plan.” It’s probably for the best that reality is joining me right away on this sabbatical adventure. I’d hate to get too far down the path without it.

My actual, real-life first day of sabbatical has so far included:

  • a trip to the copy store
  • working on a project while listening to a This American Life episode about the Ten Commandments
  • about half an hour in my prayer corner reading lovely notes from people in my congregation and praying that God does something with me over these next four months (dangerous, I know)
  • eating lunch while reading my current mystery novel (which is about a crime solving Episcopal priest, so that’s pretty spiritual)
  • and soon a major trip to the grocery store
  • plus a little side project of dying my hair red because I LOVE red hair and I’m always worried that if I dye my hair everyone at church will be thinking more about my hair color than the words I’m speaking—and now it doesn’t matter! (This stuff will wash out long before August.)

Plus, I’m really looking forward to having a weekend. An actual weekend! As in no work to do on Saturday or Sunday so I can stay up late tonight and sleep in tomorrow morning.. (The fact that I will likely be in bed by 11 p.m. and up before 7 a.m. is not the point. Not the point at all.)

So far this is a good day. A gift of a day. Even if it has not gone according to “The Plan.”

I’m trying to let this reality sink in: my sabbatical consists of many, many days. I am excited and grateful and hopeful!

One project I will begin soon is getting this blog in shape. Indexing sermons and worship pieces. Finding some sort of rhythm that seems to be missing right now. (I almost wrote “finding focus,” but I’m really trying to honor this whole reality thing. This blog will never be focused. Unless I split it up into different blogs, which just seems like way too much work.) Writing about the books I’m reading, the Festival of Homiletics, and whatever else pops up of interest in the next four months. (Like maybe the fact that my ministerial credentials will be voted on by the entire delegate body at our annual Conference assembly in July. Oh yes, fun times ahead.)

Suggestions about the blog are welcome. Tips on living into a faithful sabbatical are welcome.

Peace of Christ to each of you.



Last week I took a couple of sick days off of work. This may sound like sad news, but I was actually quite thrilled. Because in my five years of being a pastor, I’ve never been able to take an actual sick day. Sure, I’ve been sick. And my kids have been sick (though thankfully, not too often). And I may have even canceled a meeting or two. But to actually work fewer hours in a week because of illness . . . it just never happened.

Until last week. And while I’m not glad I was sick, I am thrilled about being able to take sick days . . . thanks to our newly-hired administrative assistant, LaVonne!

I have had lots of great volunteer office help in the past, and I do not intend to diminish their volunteer work in any way. Still, there is something different, something wonderful, about having office staff. Even part-time.

Fortunately for all of us, LaVonne is a much more organized person than I am. I have a very efficient filing system for various paper materials that come into the office: I put everything in a pile, and then once every couple of years or so I put it all in the recycling because it’s all outdated.

Apparently LaVonne has a different system in mind, because she is going through these strategic piles. Our recycling box is full, to be sure. And I gather she is putting some things in file folders–which she is labeling. (You can tell this woman is a professional!) And then there are some things I just have to go through myself. She piles them in the middle of my desk. We’ve begun referring to these papers as “randomness.”

“I put some more randomness on your desk,” she’ll say.

Lot’s of the randomness papers are old to-do lists, which are quite fun to look through. And some of this randomness is definitely more random than others.

Here is my absolute favorite so far. It’s an 8 1/2 by 5 1/2 sheet of white paper with my hand-written notes on it.

One side reads, in part:
Lisa w/ budget blinds
Ps 40:79
p 319-wax
lust, laughter, loyalty

The other side reads, in part:
E-News, Order, Announcements
Ocean Mist
chain saw
weed whacker
Send reviews
return church books

Now I do not know what all of this randomness refers to.  I don’t remember what I was reviewing; I don’t know if “Ocean Mist” is a color or a fragrance or possibly a computer template; I have no idea what “wax” has to do with anything.  But apparently during the time I was writing on this particular piece of paper I was making arrangements about blinds, studying the scriptures, preparing for pre-marital counseling (? at least I hope “lust” was apropos of something), getting ready for a church work day, and taking care of basic office administration tasks.

Sometimes I feel like I am pulled in too many directions. I want more time to be still and to focus. And I think that, at some point, I will enter a stage of my life that will be a little more focused, a little less scattered.

But I also think the truth of the matter is that I enjoy the randomness. This little piece of paper with squiggles and scratches and disconnected notes makes me smile. And when I think that it represents what I get to do for my vocation–it makes me smile even more.

Despite LaVonne’s best efforts, I’m sure there will always be at least one pile of randomness in the church office. And I may just keep this paper in it indefinitely. When I get tired or frustrated or discouraged about my work as pastor, I can pull out this paper and say a little prayer: Thank you, God, that whatever challenges I may face, at least my job is not boring. Amen.

Adult Spiritual Formation?

I’m not preaching this  Sunday morning. I had no committee meetings this week. No crises. Well, not major, time-consuming crises. And so, during this anomalous week of few pressing tasks, I had time to think. (Yes, Peace Mennonite folks should be getting worried right about now.)

I’ve primarily been thinking about (and googling) adult spiritual formation. Our congregation has few consistent opportunities for adult formation beyond weekly worship. Discussion groups and Bible studies pop up now and then. Just this year we had our first Lenten spiritual retreat. I lead new member classes and baptism preparation classes as the needs arise. It’s not that we do nothing. It’s just that what we do is pretty spotty and inconsistent.

We are not a program-sized church.  It’s understandable that we do not have a developed program of spiritual formation with organized small groups and multiple class offerings every week. But it seems to me that even a small church can—and should—have a coherent method of spiritual formation.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about. How can our small church best nurture adult faith? What core information do maturing Christians need to learn? What key spiritual experiences will most nurture growing faith?

In my idealistic bubble where the church has unlimited resources and the church people have nothing to do but church stuff, spiritual formation opportunities would consist of a solid small group ministry and a formation/education program roughly modelled on the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C.

Of course, in reality I live with you in the real world. I am a solo, part-time pastor. Most people who participate in the congregation I lead have jobs and family obligations. Plus they insist on sleeping and eating on a regular basis. So new questions arise: How much time can I realistically give to coordinating small groups and leading classes and retreats? Who else in the church is gifted to help with adult spiritual formation? What classes would people actually attend? When is the best time to offer them?

And here’s where I put on my Super Pastor cape and reveal to you the perfect model for spiritual formation in a small church . . .

Or not. I’m pretty sure all churches, especially small ones, have to figure this out on their own. I will continue to read and pray and discern the next steps for our congregation.

In the meantime, I found some unexpected encouragement from a blog post I stumbled across: “Can Creative Writing be Taught?”. I clicked on the article because I was a creative writing major in college and I taught English at the college level for a few years. It’s an intriguing question. The blogger, Gillian Holding, is a visual artist, and considers the parallels between writing and art. I was surprised to realize that there is a parallel with spirituality as well.

There are certain technical aspects of writing, drawing, design, the spiritual life, that can be taught. Grammar and perspective and prayer forms. Then there is the stuff that can’t be taught. The most technically skilled painter is not necessarily the best artist. For writers and visual artists, that stuff that can’t be taught might come from what we would call “inspiration” or “genius”–what Holding calls a “mindset.” In the Christian life, that stuff that can’t be taught comes from the Holy Spirit.

Holding, himself an art teacher, says that while we may not be able to fully teach art or creative writing, we can “provide an environment in which [the mindset that leads to great art] can be facilitated and encouraged and nurtured.”

This is good for me, as a pastor, to keep in mind. I cannot teach the spiritual life—no matter how many classes I offer or small groups I facilitate. I can help our congregation be a place where people’s spiritual life is “facilitated and encouraged and nurtured.” A place where the work that the Holy Spirit is already doing within us and among us is recognized and celebrated.

So my reading and googling and praying continues.  But I’m no longer looking for the perfect spiritual formation program. I’m more interested in forming a spiritually nurturing space.


[Potter image from Life in the Trinity Ministry.]