The In-Between Space, Part I

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This is the first in a special series on transitions by guest blogger Rev. Dianne Lawhorn.

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For UMC pastors, we’re all heading into a new conference year.  And for many of us, we’ll be moving on to new appointments, which means that we might find ourselves in the midst of a season of change.

We may find ourselves longing for the familiar during this time.  While we are hopeful that this season will have gifts to offer, we are quite unsure of what those gifts will be.  We find ourselves living in the land of the unknown, where uncertainty resides.  As we hang on to the land we once knew, while traversing into a new land, we find ourselves feeling very much “in-between.”  The in-between space can feel like a strange place, but there is much we can learn if we “lean into it.”

We live a seasonal faith.  With the change of seasons, there is a grief that goes along with letting go of the season that has just passed.  And there is a hope that we may grasp hold to the new season that’s arriving to replace the old.

Here are some questions that we might ask ourselves during this time:

What if we don’t want to move onto a new season?

What if we don’t feel ready for it?

What if we’d rather hang onto the season that has just passed?4 seasons

While we do have the option of holding onto the past, we also realize that it’s better for us to let go of the past and take hold of the future.  There is much we can learn from the seasonal nature of our faith that can help us in the midst of transition. Here is a quote from a favorite author of mine about the opportunities that each season brings:

“Each season bares a worthiness all its own… we live a seasonal faith and with that living, comes a time for everything—every joy, pain, frustration, surrender, sorrow, and celebration. Nothing in our lives is exempt from the cyclical process of our winter, spring, summer, and fall. We can choose to walk through these seasons, with little or no effect to our hearts, but we cannot deny the possibility of growth extended to us because of them. Each season of our lives is rife with eternal possibilities.  The soul shift happens when we bow low and lean into those possibilities.”   -Elaine Olsen

I love that last line, the soul shift happens when we bow low and lean into those possibilities.  Our scripture tells us for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.  That means that there is even a time for change, but change is scary, no matter how you want to slice it! 

I leave you with these questions for the week:

  • So, what are your tasks in this season of change?
  • What is it time for now- in this in-between space? 

Dianne Lawhorn

Dianne is currently the Minister of Spiritual Formation for the Lydia DianneGroup which is a resource for spiritual wholeness offering formational teaching, retreat leadership, and spiritual direction.

Image by Flickr user Rick Harris, via CC

Pedaling to Stop Traffic

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The following post was written by Mark Andrews, Spirited Life Group 3 participant and pastor at St. Luke’s UMC in Hickory.

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do is admit to my church that I need help.  Somehow, through almost thirty years of ministry I had taken for granted that as the spiritual leader of my congregation, I could never admit any weakness or vulnerability.  But keeping up that façade of invincibility has been catching up to me in these last few years.  In a new appointment with more staff and more administrative responsibilities I found myself less and less able to maintain the persona.

In the midst of this stress I began Spirited Life through the Clergy Health Initiative. At the same time I also took part in a year-long spiritual practices exploration called the School of the Spirit offered through The Lydia Group.  These two programs reinforced each other, and one of the messages that became clearer during this year was what Brene Brown calls the courage of vulnerability.  Somehow, if I was going to get better I must, first of all, admit I was needy, and secondly, ask for help.

With fear and trembling I went before my Staff-Parish Relations Team, then my Administrative Council, and finally, my congregation, asking for a three month renewal leave.  I told them I was weary and needed a rest from my responsibilities, with the hope that I would come back renewed and refreshed to continue ministry.  At each announcement, I received from my people powerful signs of grace, appreciative affirmations, and open-hearted permission to do what I needed.  Such an outpouring would have never happened had I not admitted my need.  And as a result, I have already begun the healing that I had denied myself but so desperately needed.Mark Andrews_bike

On June 1, I will begin my renewal leave by climbing on a bicycle and riding from the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina to the Pacific Coast of Oregon.  I plan to use this trip as a means of support for our United Methodist Women’s efforts to stop human trafficking.  As I ride 4000 miles, I hope to raise $10 a mile ($40,000 total!).  Your donations are welcome (Pedaling to Stop Traffic).

Most of all, I am making this trip for me.  I want . . . no, I need to do this.  I am anticipating a restoration of my soul as I use this time to reflect on my calling and how to fulfill it with greater vulnerability in the years I have left.

But I have already learned one thing — we who serve the needs of others must acknowledge that we have needs of our own, and we must be vulnerable to our congregations if we are ever to receive the help we need.

-Mark Andrews

Supporting your pastor

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8943594714_ae8f9a8656_bIn Spirited Life and on this blog, we typically offer up ways that pastors can take charge of their health and implement new habits in their lives to support their own wellness.  We realized that most of us Spirited Life staff and many of our blog readers are lay people.  What can WE do as parishioners, lay leaders, committee members to help promote the health and well-being of the pastors at our own churches?  Here are some ideas our team generated.

  • Ask pastors about their hobbies and interests and support them in doing those activities.
  • Encourage them to take ALL of their vacation and volunteer to help with tasks in their absence.
  • Offer ‘spaces away’ for pastors to go for time of rest and renewal or uninterrupted work.
  • Limit ‘dropping in’ on pastors, realizing that talking to them for ‘just a minute’ likely will end up as a 15 minute conversation and distract them from other tasks.
  • Affirm and encourage your pastor by giving specific feedback on a sermon or Bible study you enjoyed; mention an occasion where you acted on something she preached or prayed.
  • 5445646178_f8e9522b4c_bWhen it comes to gift giving, think outside of the pound cake.  Here are some alternatives: gift cards for massage therapy, candles, new books, houseplants, hobby-related items.
  • Agree to a walking meeting or suggest an alternative meeting location such as a local park or picnic area.
  • Generate energy around health and well being among your congregation and community: organize a church walking/running group, health fair, or health-related discussion series.
  • Meet with church leadership and discuss what current ministries could be led by lay people instead of clergy.
  • Respect your pastor’s day off and Sabbath time by not calling or scheduling meetings on those days.
  • Encourage your church to observe pastor appreciation month in October each year.

What are other ways that churches can support their pastors’ holistic health?

-Katie Huffman

Images by flickr users NCinDC and hellojenuine, via creative commons.

Resources on Grief

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Pastors are people, too. Just because clergy are used to presiding over funerals and sitting with people and families at the end of life doesn’t make them immune to their own feelings of sadness and loss at the death of parishioners or their own loved ones.

DynPicWaterMark_ImageViewerRecently, some coworkers and I were talking about how many pastors we had been on the phone with who had mentioned an increase in the number of funerals they’d performed lately. The quick succession of these deaths and funerals seemed to be taking a toll on the pastors’ physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. With the help of our colleagues and a few pastors, we compiled the following list of resources that may serve as a comfort or guide to clergy in their ministries as well as in their personal journeys with grief.

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” -Leo Tolstoy

Are there any resources on grief that have been especially meaningful for you?

-Katie Huffman

Homegrown: NC Women’s Preaching Festival

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In an article on sustaining pastoral excellence, the Rev. Sally Brower, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, writes:

“For women clergy, sustaining pastoral excellence is not only about spiritual practices and leadership skills. It is also about retaining gifted women pastors for whom ministry is all too often an ordeal of grace under fire.”

As a young female member of my church, my heart warms at the sound of a feminine voice resounding from our pulpit. Hearing the gospel articulated by a woman has a refreshing sense of strength and courage.

Women are not new to ministry — witness Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and her cousin Elizabeth. However, women are relatively new to the world of formal preaching and inclusion in denominational leadership roles, and this still-recent cultural shift can create unique challenges for female pastors.

img_2104 A pregnant minister once told me that the number one question she is asked is, “Are you going to keep preaching?” “Yes, Lord willing,” she frequently replies. It is not a harmful question or an unexpected one, but I don’t believe that male pastors get asked the same question when their wives give birth or when they adopt a child.

On top of the biases that color others’ view of women in ministry are the questions that female pastors often ask themselves (ones that are equally reflective of our cultural expectations): How will I pay for childcare on a pastor’s salary? Make time to cook dinner and clean my house when I’m on call 24/7? Make visits to the hospital with a nursing baby? How do I come across as nurturing but not too soft? How can I be feminine without being hyper-emotional? How can I, as a woman, be unique — but not too different from men?

Do you find yourself longing to be in the company of other female ministers? Worshiping with one another is a way of sustaining one’s ministry and diving into these questions.

Join us at Homegrown: North Carolina’s Women’s Preaching Festival this fall, October 10 and 11 in Durham, N.C. to receive the word from and worship with other female clergy and explore all that women have to offer the church.

–Kelli Sittser

Pastor’s Reflection: The Best Walk of My Life

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The following post is by Spirited Life pastor Matt Smith, who serves as the Associate Pastor at Guilford College United Methodist Church in Greensboro, where he paces himself on runs of moderate distances.  A version of this story appeared in the Crossroads Chronicle.

Matt w. Green STole 2In each of the last three years, I have run in Western Carolina University’s Valley of the Lilies Half-Marathon. This year, for the first time, I wasn’t able to run that whole distance. On a seemingly endless hill, my calves got as tight as bowstrings, and I was forced to walk the last two miles. It may have been because I started too quickly or because I ate too little or (more likely) due to my inadequate training. I was disappointed, but my disappointment didn’t last long.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving never walked much on Western’s campus, I had never realized how beautiful it is. I learned why the event is called “Valley of the Lilies” as I enjoyed the hundreds of white and yellow blooms lining the path. I encouraged the other runners as they passed me. I savored an energy bar. My feet were no longer racing, but my mind was. As someone who was gearing up for a new appointment, I thought about how it felt like my best running in this area is behind me.

My mild disappointment at my performance lead me to question other areas of my life where my efforts come in fits and spurts. In terms of my health: wouldn’t it be better for my health to commit to running three miles every other day throughout the year, rather than gearing up for such a long run annually? In terms of my motivations: in running so far this one day, was I just trying to prove something to myself or to others?

In terms of my work: hadn’t some of my most heroic efforts to do something novel and exciting fallen flat? In terms of discipleship: is it better to read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting or read a chapter every day? Maybe that’s why Eugene Peterson calls discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction.”

In a funny way, facing the answers to these questions wasn’t demoralizing but freeing. I beamed as I crossed the finish line, having been reminded that my worth doesn’t lie in my pushing myself to my limits or beyond them. It’s not our backbreaking toil, after all, but abiding in Jesus that enables us to bear great fruit.

Image by flickr user Jason A. Samfield, via Creative Commons.

Create Calm

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Picture this: you’ve just completed two parishioner visits in hospitals thirty minutes apart, you returned a phone call to the finance chair on the way back to the office, and you stopped by the craft store to pick up supplies for VBS.  Your mind is full of thoughts for finishing the bulletin, and your arms are weighed down with shopping bags and your favorite coffee cup.  You enter your office at the church (or parsonage) only to trip over a stack of books just inside the door and then to discover that there’s not a single surface for the craft supplies or even your coffee mug.  Shoulders tense and head pounding, you brush some papers to the floor and dump the contents of your arms on the desk.  You plop down in the folding chair and begin digging through the emails that arrived in your absence.

I’m feeling tense just imagining this scene, but I’ve been there.  Office space can truly have an impact on your stress level- for good or bad.  Wouldn’t it be nice if your office were a mini oasis where you could find solace on such a busy morning and instantly feel a sense of calm and relaxation?

2830454169_174c0d1a95_zHere are some tips for creating a calming and comfortable workspace, whether it’s in the church or a spare bedroom at home.

  • Declutter: Do what you can to remove clutter from visible surfaces (meQ has a great module on decluttering). This will cut down on frustration from things getting lost and will also make your office more visibly appealing.  Once you’ve got your space a little more organized, commit to spending 5 minutes a day keeping it tidy.
  • Lighting: Allow as much natural lighting in as possible; trim bushes or trees outside the window if necessary.  If your office doesn’t have a window, bring in a couple of lamps for a warmer glow and a homier feel.
  • 3181843446_f23b6e39d2_zPlants: Plants not only improve air and sound quality, but they also have been proven to lower stress and increase productivity.
  • Inspiration: In addition to the family/friend pictures you probably already have on your desk, consider adding one or two photos from your latest vacation for a mental getaway.  Hang artwork, tapestries, and/or Scripture on the wall, too.  (Be careful about selecting images– seeing the Titanic every time you walk in your office might be sending you subliminal messages).
  • Get comfortable: Ditch that hard, uncomfortable folding chair in favor of a chair that is ergonomic and adjustable; it may cost more, but it will make a huge difference in how you feel about being in your office (consider using your Spirited Life small grant).
  • Aromatherapy: Scents can evoke strong memories or emotions; certain ones have also been shown to reduce stress.  Candles, diffusers, and plug-ins can provide a subtle aroma.  Lavender and chamomile are two good options for stress relief.  See others here.
  • Sound: Background noise can help calm and increase concentration.  Try a white noise machine (or website), classical music, or water feature.
  • Fun: Add a couple of toys, a stress ball, or Rubik’s Cube to your desk to pick up and play with when you’re feeling stressed or need a distraction.  For a fun selection, check out this website.

How do you make your office space calming and inspiring?

–Katie Huffman

Sources: Careertopia, Mind Tools, PopSugar Smart Living, DesignM.ag

(Images by flickr users notashamed and brianyeung, both via creative commons)

The Healing Power of Nostalgia

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An article in the New York Times this week highlights the positive impacts that nostalgia can have on a person psychologically.  It turns out that historically, nostalgia was seen in a negative light–“living in the past” and looking back with rose-colored glasses.  New research, however, shows that fondly recalling things that have happened can enrich our lives, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of comparing the present to the past.  The article explains,

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer… Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

The article was brought to my attention by a pastor who shared it on our facebook page, saying, “This is good news for all of us who itinerate.” In this season of unpacking boxes and inevitably pausing to think about what has been left behind in a move, it is encouraging to know that these thoughts can be helpful–can anchor us amid life’s unpredictability.  One nostalgia researcher, Dr. Constantine Sedikides, says, “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.” Another researcher, Dr. Erica Hepper, says, “Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions.”

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If you’ve moved recently or are facing another transition, what helps you feel rooted?  What do you take with you move after move, and what gets left behind?  If you have a story about nostalgia, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.  And for all those who have moved, we pray for smooth new beginnings.

–Caren Swanson

Image by flickr user CliffMueller via Creative Commons

Also by Caren Swanson: To Love a Place

‘Tis the (moving) season

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‘Tis the season for moving in the United Methodist church. Even if this isn’t a move year for you personally, you are probably not immune to the associated stresses of appointment changes; from friends and lectionary group members to accountability partners and trusted mentors, there’s likely someone in your life who is gearing up for a move right now.  moving truckConsider these move-related statistics:

  • Individuals move an approximate 11.7 times during their life. (US Census Bureau)
  • In 2012, 12% of the US population, or 36.5 million people, moved residences.  64% of these people moved within the same county; of those people who moved to a different county, most of them still only moved less than 50 miles away. (US Census Bureau)
  • In North Carolina, approximately 14% of UMC pastors move each year, with elders moving more frequently than local pastors. (WNCC and NCC data)
  • Moving is the third most stressful life event, coming just behind the death of a loved one or divorce. (Employee Relocation Council)

That last statistic is pretty compelling.  Moving is stressful for anyone, and pastors have the added pressures of preparing final sermons, uprooting your spouse and children, packing up a house in record time, submitting conference paperwork, and making good first impressions with the new congregation.  And what about those moves that occur unexpectedly or against your wishes?

Whether you are in the midst of packing (literally and metaphorically) or whether you’re supporting others in this transition, we hope you’ll make time for some self-care in this busy and stressful season:

  • Schedule a massage or pedicure.
  • Write a letter of gratitude to the lectionary or accountability group you’ll be leaving behind.
  • tea and readingWhen the going gets tough, take a coffee or tea break, or read a pleasure book for a few minutes.
  • Keep to your normal routine and regular self-care habits (exercise, good nutrition, prayer time, journaling, Sabbath, etc.) as much as possible.
  • Grab lunch with a neighbor whom you’ll miss.
  • Stop by your favorite restaurant or park one last time. Take pictures of places and people that have been meaningful to you in this town. Do this with a sense of gratitude for these experiences, rather than of loss.
  • Take time to jot down highlights of the current appointment — ways you’ve grown, and ways you’ve been challenged.
  • Embrace your emotions and live in the moment; don’t try to power through this stressful time just by focusing on logistics.  Check in with your spouse and kids to see how they’re feeling about the move, too. Read more here about the emotional side of moving.

I leave you with these words of encouragement from an old standby, Isaiah 40:31–

But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

-Katie Huffman

(Top photo by Flickr user ishootreno, lower photo by Flickr user Anna Saarinen, both via Creative Commons)

Establishing Who Is Right

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We all have “others” in our lives — those people who somehow are so different from us, or see the world so differently than we see it, that it becomes difficult for us to really be open to learning from them. Sometimes it even becomes difficult to simply have an honest and heartfelt conversation with them. This especially hurts when a person like this is a family member. And what about the Family of God? These kind of disagreements NEVER arise in the Body of Christ, right?!?

As United Methodist pastors across the state of NC prepare to travel for Annual Conference, it is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of finding common ground, even with the “others.” This week, The Work of the People, a Christian video company, put out a short clip of an interview with the wise author and preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, talking about just this subject. In the clip she asks,

What if instead of wanting them to be better people and be made more in the image of God as I understand God, what would it be like to change the subject and try to find something that person and I could meet on?

She goes on to say, “I like to find something with the other that brings us both to tears.” What would our conversations look like if they started from a place of commonality instead of difference? How might we be changed by these conversations?

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Take a look at this 2 1/2 minute video, and watch how she explores these and other questions about “establishing who is right.” And know that we are praying for and with you all for God’s voice to be heard in conversations at Annual Conference.

–Caren Swanson