Is there a nest in your hair?


As soon as I saw the title, it was impossible for me to pass up reading Dr. Mike Bechtle’s book, People Can’t Drive You Crazy if You Don’t Give Them the Keys. And I was not disappointed!

One the highlights for me is summed up in the following quote:

“You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head,
but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair.”

In other words, you cannot always prevent a negative thought from entering your mind, but you do have the ability to prevent that thought from taking root. I find this encouragement incredibly liberating because it acknowledges a struggle.  Negative thoughts inevitably arise. They cannot be completely avoided, no matter how hard we try. And yet, we have the ability to to combat them. Spiritual warfare, anyone?

I’m sure a few pastors have had to wrestle against thoughts like, ‘They think I am a bad leader!’ or ‘I wonder if they think I’m qualified for this?’ or ‘There is no way I’ll ever get this weight off!” or “Did God really call me for this?” Negative thoughts exist.

Behavior change is hard, and our society can be pretty unforgiving about our humanity, our propensity to try and fail. And try again and fail again. Rinse and repeat. But a lot of the challenge is in our heads. And we don’t need to let a nest form by dwelling on our failures.

Regardless of where you are in your pursuits of health and wellness, please consider encouragement from Philippians 4:8 that says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

I would also like to offer a less theological, but nonetheless insightful perspective from a 3-year old named Jessica who takes a more proactive approach to positive thinking.

– Angela MacDonald
(Image courtesy of

Pastor Spotlight: Rev. Laura Hayes Mitchell: Minister, Mom and Marathoner


This piece is offered by my fellow wellness advocate, Lisa MacKenzie:

I first met the Rev. Laura Hayes Mitchell, pastor of Burgaw UMC in Burgaw, NC, at the 2011 Spirited Life winter workshop at Oak Island. While there, she shared with me that she had a vision of where she wanted to be with her health and what she wanted to do about it.

Before having children, Laura was a runner; therefore, her vision included wanting to run a 5K. But when you have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, how do you find time to get yourself conditioned for a race?  Talk about a challenge! Laura explained, “It’s fine if you have a live-in nanny, but some of us have to learn how to juggle responsibilities, and it’s particularly difficult if you’re a pastor without a predictable schedule.”

So Laura set goals based on her vision.  She made time for the gym, followed Naturally Slim, and began to think a 5K was within reach. She began to see that she needed to carve out the time regularly for herself. She noticed that she felt good and had more energy when she exercised.

Then, it was time for the first race. “What a hoot!” Laura reported. She finished the race with a “respectable time,” but more importantly, she emerged with even more motivation for longer races.

Since then, her family has cheered her on at her races, and her boys have discovered that Mom is quite the athlete. In fact, Owen, her youngest child, likes to stretch with her, and TJ, the big boy in the family, runs the last block with his Mom on her way home on Saturday mornings. After two years of hard work and perseverance, Laura has moved on to half-marathons and is feeling well. She says that “running has now become a habit.”

I found her last statement interesting, especially as I’m reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg draws on research in experimental and applied psychology along with neurology, highlighting just how interesting — and powerful — the brain really is!

Thanks, Laura, for inspiring us. It’s amazing how quickly habits can change!

— Lisa MacKenzie

The Pain Behind the Mask


The holidays are expected to be a season of joy, benevolence and (frequently) a LOT of shopping. However, studies reveal that the holidays can also signal the recurrence of past emotional pain and an increase in ‘the blues’ or ‘holiday depression.’ As such, many pastors also deal with an uptick in requested pastoral counseling sessions. This means that pastors may hear countless stories about the memories of lost loved ones, the absence of family due to travel or family conflict, and strained marriages.

Pastors are expected to be caring, available, and safe receivers of this information. And society conditions all of us to present a brave front in the midst of sorrow. So how can pastors manage the weight of sadness heard from congregants while it may inevitably remind them of their own losses?

One way is by recognizing depression, which often gets masked or overlooked.

Drs. John Lynch and Christopher Kilmartin have written a compelling book entitled The Pain Behind the Mask. Although the book’s subtitle says that it addresses masculine depression (an often undiagnosed condition), the authors provide incredible points throughout the book that can be useful for everyone. The authors specifically mention female professionals who decide to adopt a less feminine persona as a survival skill in male-dominated professions.

Lynch and Kilmartin explain that women are diagnosed with depression twice as often as men. However, they note that those statistics may be inaccurate since men experience depression differently than women and are expected to display “traditional masculinity” (hyperindependence, toughness, unfeeling, detached from feelings).  While the definitions are not absolute, Lynch and Kilmartin describe the differences in masculine and feminine depression using the figure below:

The book delves deeper into these and other topics, featuring chapter titles such as  ‘He Sure Doesn’t Look Depressed’ and ‘Empathy for Self and Responsibility for Change.’

It seems to be human nature for all of us to wear some type of mask in our everyday lives. Whether it is at the workplace, a social event or even church, our masks serve to disguise or protect us. For pastors, it can be especially difficult to find a safe place to remove that mask. Further, it may be difficult to recognize that you’re actually wearing a mask when you believe it has been removed.

The Pain Behind the Mask goes on to provide a list of helpful questions to consider if you or a loved one notice that there is a strong disconnect between one’s public appearance and private appearance. Most importantly, The Pain Behind the Mask includes very helpful information and tips to assist you in improving relations with your peers, family and yourself.

Do YOU have an outlet, reliable support person or system that gives you a safe place to take off your mask?

– Angela M. MacDonald

Image credits: Puppy photo courtesy of Bill Weaver, via Flickr/Creative Commons. Book cover and image on male/female depression courtesy of ‘The Pain Behind the Mask.’

Advent Meditation :: Part II


This post is the second of two reflections on Advent by Wellness Advocate Caren Swanson.  For Part I, click here.

It is easy to romanticize Advent and the Christmas season as being full of special time with family and friends, when the reality is often much more complex.  No matter how much we try to “simplify,” dealing with family is NEVER simple, and neither is shepherding a congregation through this sacred season.  Though I do believe that God longs to draw us into a holy Advent, and nourish our souls with the wonder of the Incarnation, the kind of holy waiting that this calls for can be difficult to cultivate in the midst of work and family responsibilities.

Over the years of creating my own traditions with my little family, I’ve found some resources that help me “wait well.”  The first is candlelight.  Much to my daughter’s annual delight, for the four weeks before Christmas, we actively limit our use of electric lights and illuminate our house with candles and a few old-fashioned oil lamps.  This helps attune our bodies to the gathering dark outside our windows as the days grow to their shortest, and powerfully quiets our spirits in a way we have come to cherish.  It’s pretty hard to be stressed when your home is filled with candlelight!  (Don’t worry folks, we don’t let them burn unattended!)  Listening to beloved Christmas music in the semi-darkness is one of my favorite ways to spend a December evening.

Another thing that helps me “wait well” is a handful of books that help me dig deep into the mystery of the Incarnation and my soul’s own deep longing for the Light of Christ.  My favorite such book is called “Watch For the Light.” It contains selections from a diverse array of writers, fromthe Elizabethan poet John Donne to the contemporary essayist Annie Dillard, not to mention countless spiritual greats like Bonhoeffer, Merton, and Nouwen.  My family has also enjoyed the study guide, “While We Wait: Living the Questions of Advent,” by Mary Lou Redding.  A new Advent book that I am looking forward to reading is by the recent Duke Divinity graduate, Enuma Okoro, titled Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent.  (Read an interview with her about the book here.)

There are numerous other single-author collections of Advent meditations, designed to be dipped into daily, or meditations on the daily lectionary passages.  Find one by an author you enjoy, and allow it to speak to you and draw you deeper into the riches of the season.  Or find some small tradition that quiets you in the midst of the busyness.  Allow yourself to be nourished by small gestures of stillness, even in the midst of mounting responsibilities and expectations.  Trust that God will light your way.

–Words and images by Caren Swanson


Book Review: Total Money Makeover


See if this sounds familiar.

We navigate the beautiful, busy Christmas season, with its joy, excitement, reminiscence, gifts (and possibly negatives too, but that’s the subject of another post).  After the holiday festivities settle back into normalcy, and we sit down to balance our checkbooks like the responsible adults that we are, the cold hard numbers staring back at us are daunting. As it turns out, we went slightly over budget this year.

If that’s been your experience, you’re not alone.

Finances continue to be the number one stressor in households, and we feel the pinch most acutely over the Christmas season.  That’s when the combination of daily expenses (day care, tuition, utilities and/or car maintenance) and holiday gifts and/or travel delivers a one-two punch that can do a real number on a pastor’s sense of wonder and holiday cheer.

Despite housing allowances and other UMC benefits, some pastors still grapple with concerns about (1) mortgages on family homes not occupied due to very distant church appointments; (2) college tuition; (3) retirement planning; and (4) personal funds used to subsidize a church’s financial needs. And what if you have to deal with a sudden pastoral move and  associated costs that may or may not be covered by the denomination?  Below is an image courtesy of that shows how these financial issues can cause fear, embarrassment and/or stress:

Given that those pesky household bills don’t take a well-deserved holiday themselves, Dave Ramsey’s book Total Money Makeover can provide helpful insight about how to get wayward finances back on track.

Although Ramsey is also creator of the highly recommended Financial Peace University program, Total Money Makeover is a much more accessible reference tool for beginning financial resuscitation. This book can be purchased, but can also be checked out at your local library if you want to skim through it before making a purchase. One item included in the book is Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps that provide a general road map that can be followed.

Below are some pros and cons about the book:


• It’s very simple to follow — there’s no financial jargon.
• Ramsey is upfront and direct about what his book is about and what it’s not.
• It’s motivational.
• It includes true life stories, including Ramsey’s own.
• It includes many worksheets.


• He seems to put an emphasis on mutual funds, although he does state that his book should not be treated as an investment book.
• You may or may not agree with the theology included, depending on your hermeneutic or understanding of the Bible.

Theology aside, Total Money Makeover offers a logical approach to financial fitness, therefore stress reduction.

– Angela M. MacDonald

(Images courtesy of and

“The world did not have to be beautiful to work…”


It has to be close to freezing this morning. Seriously. It’s the second week after “falling back” out of daylight savings time, and I wake, surprised by the sun and wincing at the idea of leaving the warmth of my bed.

I shuffle through my routine – read, pray, gulp down some coffee – then throw on my coat, and brace myself for the gust of wind that I know will meet me on the other side of my front door. Head tucked down, I make it to the driver’s side of my car, throw my briefcase, purse, and lunch bag into the passenger seat, and set off toward work.

It’s all pretty routine. I’ve noticed that it’s easy for me to slide in and out of my days in this habitual way. I am, after all, someone who finds comfort and peace of mind in the predictability of a steady rhythm and pattern.

But then my day changes.

NPR is airing an interview with one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, who has released a new collection of poems, A Thousand Mornings.  Her aged and crackling voice breaks into my oh-so-regular morning: “The world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?”

I am haunted and challenged by the question. Have I encountered unnecessary beauty in the way my world works?  I revisit the events of my morning through this lens.

Mornings are growing colder. Today I wake with a start and a shiver, aware of the clear but cool morning light pouring through my windows, and noting that the days now spend themselves racing toward sunset.

I tug on a pair of socks to protect my already-cold feet from the shock of the chilly hardwood floor they are about to encounter. I wrap my hands tightly around a ceramic mug, thankful for its smooth glaze and intensely satisfying heat. The comforting scent of my daily coffee ritual rises, steaming, into my face.

I ease the muscles of my hands into the day’s work as I write in my journal, offering prayers and petitions for those I love, those with whom I work, those who are sick, those whose weight my heart already bears at 6:30 AM.

As I prepare to leave, my mustard yellow coat falls softly against me. Its collar is twisted and sticking up, but I choose not to fold it down, anticipating its protection against the wind that tosses red and brown leaves onto my sidewalk. I unlock and open my glass-paned front door. Thankful for the extra buffer of the collar, I quickly bounce down my stairs, around the corner of my house, and into the driver’s seat of my car. Closing the door, my belongings piled beside me, I slide my transmission into reverse and leave for the day.

There is beauty hidden in the rhythm of my morning. It doesn’t have to be there – and if I don’t notice it, it’s wasted – but it is there, nevertheless.

To you, I present the same question that has changed how I see my days: “The world did not have to be beautiful to work, but it is. What does that mean?”

-Ellie Poole

Images by adamknits and SSJE via Flickr

Oliver’s interview aired on NPR Morning Edition on October 14, 2012.

The Truth of Illness and Health Limitations


In a book drawn from her experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, author Kat Duff writes about the reorienting power of illness:

Symptoms crack through the hardened facades of “health,” that mesh of habitual attitudes, assumptions, and successful behaviors that can so easily steer us off course from ourselves. Like all intense physical sensations, whether painful or pleasurable, they force the mind back toward feeling and the visceral truths of our immediate experience. When I am bone tired, I cannot pretend to be happy or gracious, nor can I pass as perfectly competent; I am what I am and that is all there is. As a result, the ongoing exhaustion of my illness has slowly undermined my “good girl” persona and perfectionist habits I had learned as a child to steer my way through the land mines of adult psyches, and it has cultivated in me a self-attentiveness I now need in order to survive. I could not say that I have the self-possession of a master…, but I do have the ability to pause and check in with myself while collapsed, and the license to say no to the things I do not want to do, and yes to that which I must do for the survival of my body and soul.

Sometimes I think we would lose ourselves altogether if it were not for our stubborn, irrepressible symptoms, calling us, requiring us, to re-collect ourselves and reorient ourselves to life. The longer I am sick the more I realize that illness is to health what dreams are to waking life–the reminder of what is forgotten, the bigger picture working toward resolution.

(The Alchemy of Illness, 32-33)

– Tommy Grimm

(Image by flickr user Stitch, via Creative Commons)


Can We Be “Good Busy?”


How many conversations have you encountered that go something like this:  “Hello friend, how are you?”  There is a pause, the shoulders sag, and the universal answer is exhaled: “BUSY!”

“Busyness” seems to be ubiquitous in American culture today.  It is often even claimed as some kind of twisted medal of honor–Who’s the busiest?  The strange thing is, for all our embracing of busyness, there still seems to be a great deal of unease about our frantic schedules.  Every January, stores fill up with calendars and products designed to help YOU take control of your time. Oprah magazine articles and myriad self-help books pile up promising the secret to time management.  And yet, if it were as easy to manage our time as buying the right product or reading the correct article, wouldn’t we have it all figured out by now?

North Carolina author, Ph.D. candidate, and mother of two, Julia Scatliff O’Grady, set out on a bold adventure to see if she, and the people in her life, could have a different relationship with time than the push/pull of “never-enough.”  She wondered: if busyness is an inescapable part of modern life, is there a way to be GOOD busy?  She interviewed 10 people, and found that while each had a slightly different take on how to relate to time, all had something to offer her.  They also encouraged her to find her own path to good busy.

She put her findings together into a new book, Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination and the Endless Pursuit of Balance, which is generating some interesting conversations already.  If you’re in the Triangle, come to one of her book signings that include a reading and discussion with one of the people profiled.  She also participated in a fascinating NPR show reflecting on how we use time in the modern age, which you can listen to here.  Even if you don’t have time to read a new book, perhaps just thinking about the question of your relationship with time can bear fruit in your life.  After all,  as Ecclesiastes reminds us, God makes all things beautiful in their time,  and God has placed eternity in our hearts.  (Eccl. 3:11)

–by Caren Swanson

What’s your passion?


In The Happiness Project, both a best-selling book and popular blog, author Gretchen Rubin takes a whole year to explore various techniques for adding joy to and removing stress from her life.  She identifies several aspects of life such as marriage, friendships, parenting, work, money, play, and passion, creating resolutions for each area and then chronicling her experiences as she works through them monthly.

The book and blog have some really interesting and concrete suggestions of even small steps you can take to feel happier, more organized, and more grateful.  Here are just a few of Rubin’s experiments: going to bed earlier (and how she accomplishes this!), giving “proofs of love” to her husband, taking time to be silly, starting a gratitude journal.  Readers are also encouraged to come up with their own happiness projects.

Rubin’s September task is to “pursue a passion.”  What’s so important about pursing a passion?  Rubin remarks, “happiness research predicts that making time for a passion and treating it as a real priority instead of an ‘extra’ to be fitted into a free moment (which many people practically never have) will bring a tremendous happiness boost” (p. 223).

For the author, this resolution is simple; she knows what her passion is:  she loves books – reading, writing, and even making them.  Identifying a passion is not easy for everyone.  In fact, Rubin learns from her blog readers that the question “what’s your passion” can “seem so large and unanswerable that [people] feel paralyzed” (p. 223). Rubin says,

If so, a useful clue to finding a passion to pursue, whether for work or play, is to ‘Do what you do.’  What you enjoyed doing as a ten-year-old, or choose to do on a free Saturday afternoon, is a strong indication of your passion… ‘Do what you do’ is helpful because it points you to examining your behavior rather than your self-conception and therefore may be a clearer guide to your preferences (p. 223).

Have you discovered your passion and taken steps to make it a priority in your life?  We’d love to hear about your experience.  Not sure what your passion is?  Check out Psychology Today‘s five steps to finding it.

Katie Huffman

Photo by Flickr user CHEZ ANDRE 1 (via Creative Commons)

Spiritual practices: A few resources


On this blog, we’ve mentioned a few different kinds of spiritual disciplines: daily reading and meditation on a specific prayer, centering prayer, and spiritual retreats (here and here).  But there are also many other types of practices we can use to keep us spiritually fed and alive.  Listed below are three books written for those who are interested in exploring new spiritual practices and deepening current ones.  Let us know if there are other resources you’ve found to be helpful in this area.

Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster

The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges

Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney

-Katie Huffman

Photo by Flickr user Antonio Cubello (via Creative Commons)