Good Pastors, Bad Congregations

Parish ministry: It’s good I left when I did.

I was shaped as a congregational leader in the 1960’s and 70’s: heady days of steady church membership, confident budgets, and familiar ethic traditions holding everyone together. Despite the daily pain of Viet Nam, race riots, assassinations, and a rising violent drug subculture, middle class Americans believed in the power of their institutions. It was this general optimism that brought the votes to ordain women in my Lutheran tradition in 1970, to start new congregations in blossoming suburbs, and to grow the church publishing houses that served tens of thousands of congregations.

By the time I was a few years into ordained ministry, I could see that church culture had started to change; America was changing. The explosion of affordable, personal technology began to change the way we communicate, socialize, learn, do business, and understand the world. We’ve become a worldwide, 7 days a week economy. We have seen the rise of extremist religious groups around the world threaten our allies as well as our own nation, with youth from our own region joining them. At the same time, religious conservatives calling out for us to become a “Christian nation” ignore the almost daily media stories of clergy sex abuse, its cover-up and current lawsuits. 

Our culture has not stopped adapting. In a matter of a generation, church seems completely unnecessary to large numbers of people. Congregations have been slow to notice, even as theologians, seminaries and clergy have scrambled to adapt.

Our churches still use models of volunteer, non-profit, church building- and clergy-centric ways of being church, while our children hold in their hands tools that open the whole world to them. Their schools, their sports teams, and the internet, social media, e-publishing, and online gaming, are the communities that connect our children. While my children have been in worship with me their entire childhood, they do not connect with that community ritual the way I do. The prayers, hymns, creeds and sacraments that shaped me are just a small part of the huge flood of words, music, beliefs, actions and symbols their lives encounter every day. 

We as members of churches must stop behaving as if these changes will all go away. If we keep electing lay leaders to manage our congregations who have this perspective, that “we just have to keep doing what we have always done,” we will continue to have buildings that are too big for the budget, clergy who get sick or quit from the stress, and lots of meetings where people wring their hands, demanding some shiny new youth program in order to bring in younger families. We need the best, brightest, most faithful lay leaders to join their pastors in helping recreate congregational life. We who care can’t give up.

Those who live, breathe and study the changing church point to the opportunity for us all to grow into what we have always claimed to be: people set free by grace to embody grace in the world. We must somehow take the best of our institutional life – our worship, our education, and our service – and do that well when we are together, and then keep living our faith in our lives. That’s what we need our clergy to be doing; equipping us through worship, conversation, training, teaching and example to live Christian lives. Not sitting in their offices, overwhelmed by the endless phone calls and paperwork of a shrinking intuition. If you have a pastor who is a good teacher and preacher, who loves God and is constantly out in the community meeting with people, trying to grow the church in the world, love them and join them. They know what they are doing.

 

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Please Don’t Lie to Me

I know as a person and therapist that Truth with a capital T is often a very subjective target. Your truth about an experience doesn’t have to be anywhere near my version of the truth of that same thing. You may LOVE Taylor Swift as a musician, and me? Well, I’m more Bruce. We went to the same concert perhaps, but did we have the same experience? No.

But when it comes to arriving at some shared version of what is or has happened in your family or marriage, or where you went on a vacation, or what your child said to both of you when she arrived after curfew last weekend, we should be able to agree on a mutual version of facts. We won’t get the details quite straight, but we should be in the same county. Even the same neighborhood. When we can and do, we can begin to talk about what is painful, or good, or what is not working or what you may want to talk about changing.

What sets us all up for failure, however, is when one person in the conversation is lying. Omitting facts or key feelings, covering up important details, scamming the rest of us in the group. I have to tell you, I’m a pretty good judge of people, most of the time. But I get slammed rather regularly by clients who have been lying to their spouse or to their family and friends for so long they are great deceivers. We will go session after session, even month after month, and I will notice that we aren’t getting much traction for emotional or behavior change. I will hear reports from one side of funny feelings or vague worries they have, and I keep working to be optimistic and focused.

And then the phone call, or the teary confession. “I’ve been having an affair.” “I want out.” “I can’t do this anymore.” Hits me up the side of the head every time.

If you are going to spend the money and time and energy to do therapy, please know that I will begin by trusting you to tell me the truth. Maybe not the Whole Truth, and Nothing But, but some version of truth that helps me know what we are all talking about. If you want some help uncovering that secret in the rest of your life, you will need to start by trusting me to hear it. Please don’t lie to me. I can’t help you when you do.

My Month off Social Media

My daughter took a course in college last year that considered the impact of social media on the well-being of young women. In short, it’s not good. While it can connect people who are geographically apart, share ideas and inspire reflection, the way we have come to use most social media doesn’t inspire much. Except social comparison. So she left her social media accounts for the month of January. I was impressed. She announced she was doing it again this year, so I spontaneously decided to join her.

I had been growing increasingly sick of my News Feed on Facebook. I noticed myself spending many minutes a day, at various times in my day, just searching for something new or different to catch my attention. Surely I had enough contacts there that someone was doing something inspired, sharing an article I needed to read, or offering some news that was important to know. Well, it seems that those enlightened folks were increasingly off Facebook and living their lives. Who knew? Instead, I fed myself a steady diet of unimportant videos, repetitive misattributed inspirational quotes, and photo after photo that were the central cause of my quiet poor attitude: everyone else was having such a wonderful time, and I was just doing my work, the laundry, going to the gym for the millionth time, and thinking about what to make for dinner.

Twitter, my other account which promises more than it delivers, was much more idea, news and event driven, and to give that up for a month seemed a bit neglectful. But I didn’t miss much. Instead, I spent my Twitter time looking at the Star Tribune, MPR, NPR and NYT websites. I got the news from journalists themselves, and got less snark, smirks and repeats than I might on the Twitter.

The only social media account I let myself check this month, without much guilt I must add, was the beautiful professional and personal photography on Instagram. I always smile, feel calmer and more optimistic after looking at what shows up on my feed. I see yoga poses, black and white photography from NYC and Egypt, fountain pens galore (because, that’s my thing) and smiling faces of acquaintances and friends all living daily life and pausing to share it without much commentary. That is something that I will keep.

So, as January comes to an end, I will say that it was like stepping back in time, before I had a smart phone and two laptops and a tablet. I read more news, listened to more music, and read novels as much as I used to. All that needs to keep happening. I need to reignite the personal free time activities I enjoyed before social media stole my attention. I felt I suddenly had more space in my thoughts and emotions, and was more aware of my own present moments and less consumed by the gloat and glitter of my contact’s vacation photos.

I will be coming back to Twitter and FB but I have committed to myself to be a minimalist user. Twitter gets a check once a day on both my personal and professional profiles. FB? I’m first going to reconfigure what I see when it opens, stop following those who have nothing original to say, and only look at it once a day. And I think I need to get off several group pages, particularly those of the ELCA clergy. Those pastors need to stop arguing online and read some books and go for a walk, for heaven’s sake. Pathetic.

Instagram gets a pass on any changes. I’m there to stay. And Reddit? SnapChat? et al? Forget it. I’m a new Spotify user. Enough said.

 

Joshua Dubois: What the President secretly did at Sandy Hook Elementary School

I don’t know anyone who could share sorrow for hours and hours like our President did in Newtown, Connecticut three years ago. What an amazingly loving and sacrificial gift.

Vox Populi

Below is an excerpt from The President’s Devotional by Joshua Dubois, the former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He’s recounting events that occurred Sunday, December 16, 2012 — two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members. Dubois had gotten word the day before that the President wanted to meet with the families of the victims:

I left early to help the advance team—the hardworking folks who handle logistics for every event—set things up, and I arrived at the local high school where the meetings and memorial service would take place. We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how…

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Racism and Trauma

For decades, family therapists and other mental health professionals and researchers have believed that trauma in one generation can be expressed in the genetic code and passed as psychological suffering and vulnerability in following generations. This fact has been demonstrated in animal studies for years, but few human trials have followed.

A research team at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, studying the DNA and mental health of survivors of World War II Nazi atrocities and their children, have newly demonstrated genetic changes in the children of these survivors. The Guardian article of August 21, 2015 describes the changes in a specific gene sequence associated with the regulation of stress hormones. What therapists have seen in their practices has begun to be proven in the laboratory: when emotional and mental trauma happens to us in our early life, it can change our genes, and those changes can be passed down to our children.

It helps to explain the increased mental health issues in children of Holocaust survivors, victims of political terror, accidental trauma, severe poverty, famine and the progeny of African slaves in the United States. This “epigenetic inheritance” can linger for generations and effect the culture, as it has done in the Jewish communities around the world after 1945.

The continuing hurt, vulnerability, anger and rage expressed in the African American community in the United States against the majority white community can be understood as both cry for justice in the present, and a echo of generational trauma that was endured for nearly 300 years on our nation’s shores.

We have a responsibility as a nation to be struggling to heal the racial injustice and majority privilege that still stains our daily interactions. And therapists need to recognize the layers of trauma that their clients of color may bring to their offices, seeking healing for individual pain that may have been generations in the making.

Do People Ever Really Change?

The final episode of the season of AMC’s Mad Men has aired, and many of us who have watched the series have spent some time in reflection on its many observations about human behavior. The main character Don Draper, a premier ad man in New York City during the 1960’s, is such a deeply flawed character, it was often painful for me to watch. But with such wonderful writing, I was compelled to watch hour after hour, as I would read a great novel.

One of the lasting questions of this masterpiece of television is an astute observation about the nature of human development and the possibility of change. Since I am in the business of helping people achieve some measure of self understanding, often leading to attempts at change, I was struck by the perfectly wrought words of one television critic, Matt Zoler Seitz, as he wrote his piece about the finale for the online site, Vulture. In sum, yes, people can change. But it takes more sustained effort and energy than most of us may want to muster. (Hence, our need for help, i.e., psychotherapy.) Here’s the core of his essay. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

“… Mad Men was never so cynical as to say people are never capable of deep and lasting change, only that it requires more sustained concentration, work, and self-inquiry than most of us can manage. The show’s characters tended to be comfort-driven creatures who didn’t know themselves well enough, or understand psychology deeply enough, to repair the damage done by conditioning and trauma, much less the dedication required to follow through on anything they did figure out.

If anything, the series excelled at showing us how people think they’re moving forward, yet keep ending up in a place that looks eerily familiar…

A lot of epiphanies don’t stick, but one that often does is the realization that other people are in just as much pain as we are at times, and that by reaching out, we momentarily heal ourselves as well as them. Once you’ve learned that lesson, you don’t forget it. It colors all the other problems that you continue to deal with, and suggest solutions to them. Whether you decide to pursue them is, of course, entirely up to you.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture: “Mad Men Understood Human Behavior Better Than Any Show on TV”