Admitting Complicity

Am I complicit if I do not know I am participating in oppression?

Yes, because in that case, I am also in denial.


I know I claim and benefit from privileges based on my race, country of birth, class and religion. It is that very privilege that keeps me from seeing all the ways I am complicit in keeping my own interests at the center, instead of other people’s worth. I believe this about myself, my own faith tradition, my country. But I grasped the reality in a new way when I read Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.

The first reason why I couldn’t parse this out before, is a simple view that the way things are is how they’ve always been. I know that’s not true, and have myself pointed out, (for a low stakes example), that the “traditional” worship service based on a hymnbook that was published the year I was born is only a tradition of those few decades. It does not define who we are or what “traditional worship” must be like. But the present is so… present. We are gladly led to believe that the way we understand an issue in our time is the culmination of all history, and therefore RIGHT. The Color of Compromise gives several examples of major, defining issuesfor a group of people, but the biggest is tracing the development of “race” as a distinguishing feature to justify race-based chattel slavery, and all of the points when Christians could and should have disrupted that concept because of our faith. Disrupting racism today should be one of the main tenets of our faithful witness.

Secondly, I was not aware of all the coded language and concepts that function around me, and in which I participate. This book has made me wary, more so than I was before, of any re-framing of conversations leaning into “states rights” or “individual freedoms” or even “law and order”. All of those phrases have been code for racial oppression, as slavery was outlawed and Jim Crow laws defeated. Racism adapted, inside and outside the Church. I did not recognize this thoroughly enough to challenge coded language about “the neighborhood” or different “worship styles” for different racial or ethnic groups in our midst in my last permanent pastoral position. How could the conversation have shifted if we talked about race and the Church, instead of trudging ahead to divide up who got to choose what music we sang when? In the final chapter on strategies to move forward, Tisby powerfully urges us to name specific examples. “Loving people” in generalities (All Lives Matter, anyone?) is code for doing nothing for specific people.

I had been thinking – desperately hoping – that if people just realized they were hurting children or could understand the root causes of migration or systemic poverty, they’d vote, legislate and behave differently. They just didn’t have a clear view of what they were doing. I sometimes picture Martin Luther thinking he would nail the 95 Theses to the church door for debate and they’d see the error of their ways and change. Instead his actions seeded a peasant revolt and entirely new churches. But maybe, just maybe, many more people understand the coded language and objectives behind the issues they champion, better than I do. Maybe they thoroughly believe the surface story for whatever their virulent stance is, and wouldn’t knowingly advocate for something that is essentially racism in a different guise. For example, abortion rights, which Tisby traces back only a few decades to when Southern Baptist preachers supportedthe cause in the 1960s, before it became part of the platform of the Religious Right (whose first galvanizing issue was actually not abortion, but segregated “Christian academies” in the South). Limiting abortion access used to be acknowledged as disproportionately impacting poorer and minority women. Maybe those virulently opposed to abortion access now think it is all about the potential life of a developing human. Or maybe it is consciously or unconsciously about making access more difficult for poorer, minority communities, because that effect is repeatedly exposed.

In the midst of reading this eye-opening, engaging history, I also saw the film about the Emanuel 9 at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, who were killed by a white supremacist after welcoming him into their Bible study. A white supremacist who was raised in my denomination. The theology of the survivors drives the meaning of the documentary, and initially I was a bit skeptical. I didn’t want them to jump to forgiveness so soon – I wouldn’t. I was quick to judge their theology instead of trusting that it was exactly what Black people have needed to survive with faith intact, all that white supremacy has put them through. One of Jemar Tisby’s ideas in the final pages of ways to restore what has been broken in Christianity by racism, is to value Black theologians as highly as we automatically do white ones. The lived experience of oppression may indeed carry more theological significance than anything I read in seminary or since. I am here to learn.

When Naptime Is No More

There will come a day, and that day is more-or-less rapidly approaching, when our lives will no longer be subject to the tyranny of the nap. It must happen: my youngest is 4 years old and headed to Pre-K in the fall. The nap must go. I am deeply ambivalent. What will I do then?

1. I will make lunch dates and afternoon plans (before 3 pm!) again.

We can go on day-long trips on the weekend as a family! Attend birthday parties that start at 2 pm! Did you know there is a whole world out there happening during naptime? I imagine the experience will be like when I was a child out of school for a dentist appointment, marveling at the traffic and people all out and about while I thought it was only school that happened in the middle of the day. Freedom!

2. I will no longer kid myself about accomplishing anything during that hypothetical block of time.

My naptime frenzy of accomplishment ebbs and floes, sometimes frittered away because I addressed the urgent needs too quickly then wasted a surprise extra stretch, or at other times when I desperately need to be productive, the dear child boycotts the nap or severely truncates it, waking a mere 30 minutes later and declaring it finished.

3. I will nurture deep empathy for those parents and children in that volatile space of “giving up the nap.” Tis a fragile time for all involved, and while some, I understand, pass through it with little fanfare, it can be a STRUGGLE. I remember attending a 4 year old birthday party when my older daughter was that age, and the twin sisters whose party it was took turns bursting into tears. “They have had to stop napping in preparation for Pre-K, which is going to be in the afternoon,” another parent whispered to me. I exhaled a sigh, re-calling how I had anxiously plotted when my daughter was originally assigned to the afternoon class (thank heavens a spot opened up in the morning). Godspeed to those teachers, I say. The necessity of naptime with my oldest was a constant reminder that I was not truly in charge. If I didn’t honor the nap, we would all suffer.

4. I will certainly yearn for the days of naps gone by (despite how pleased I am to be freed from the tyranny of the nap over our schedule). For that break in the day to be by myself, to clear my brain, restore my patience, recover my chill, especially on the weekends and holidays. For the chance for my daughters to recover the ability to regulate their emotions and behavior, the re-set that divided their days into more manageable halves, for the built-in reason to take a break. We will all miss it.

5. I will resist stereotyping the nap as something only toddlers and babies need!

I first took the memes of The Nap Ministry as a bit tongue in cheek, but the founder and “Nap Bishop” Tricia Hersey is absolutely serious. In a meme posted on Feb 4, 2019, she declared:

The toxic systems at work do not want you to embrace rest. On a spiritual level rest has the ability to wake you up to your true power and divinity. Rest connects and heals us. A healed and rested mind allows you to truly see who you are. This sight can change the world.”

And behold, I felt like I had been to church! As a pastor for whom a post-church nap is a necessary part of the liturgy, I recognize I am already inclined in this direction. But you feel the truth in that too, don’t you? Napping, even for adults, is an antidote to measuring our worth by our accomplishments. It is in line with mindfulness, an act of resistance and healing. I want my kids to experience such practices their entire lives.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Get Thee a Consultant Fluent in “Church”

I could feel my eyebrow itching to raise as the non-profit director described sending out an appeal letter to congregations on their mailing list who hadn’t given in awhile. It was the middle of Lent. I am a regular supporter, not the target audience. But I have been on the receiving end of those mailings many times, to a church address. And I have recycled some immediately.

I had so much advice, both in the moment and afterward! While a “tips and best practices” sheet seems woefully inadequate, it is a starting point. Smaller non-profits cannot afford to rely on supporters finding them, as those like Habitat for Humanity can perhaps rely on their own reputation to draw new people or congregations into support. And those organization with faith roots certainly could dove-tail with a congregation’s mission. So here as a gift, is some direction from one who knows what it is like to be approached, especially in the church office.

1. Timing Matters

There are rhythms to the life of the Church. In churches that follow a liturgical calendar (mostly mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics) there are seasons of preparation: Advent (before Christmas) and Lent (before Easter). I will ignore you and your organization during these times. If you call me during Holy Week, I will not only ignore you, but probably form a bad attitude towards you in general! For churches of any stripe, the school year also sets a rhythm, with a launch in the fall and anticipated lighter engagement in the summer (except sometimes in youth ministry). Summer may be a more difficult time to reach church leaders, but when you do, we are more likely to take a meeting or phone call. Spring (post-Easter) and mid-autumn are your prime time for planning ahead.

By all means, worship with us. But do not attend worship in order to try to talk with the pastor about your initiative afterward. Instead what could cross your lips is something like, “I wanted to experience the congregation for myself and will be e-mailing you information about our organization’s mission later this week.” If the pastor appears to be in her 50’s or younger, please e-mail your literature. Our desks are cluttered enough with brochures already.

2. Provide Ready-To-Use, But Adaptable Programs and Marketing

You have the best chance of holding our attention with:

  • a pithy, meaningful elevator speech, clear about how your organization’s mission aligns with that of the congregation (we put our mission and vision statements on our websites or newsletters, so do your research)
  • specific, engaging activities that could be handed off to volunteers and
  • incentives for positive PR within and outside of the congregation

Easily-adapted projects and promotional materials tell a church leader that you value their time and have thought about stream-lining their efforts. For example:

a. Make educational materials available online in a way that can be edited.

b. Provide preaching illustrations that tie to specific Scriptures

c. Offer guides for talking about your programs with youth, children and elders

Congregations of any size may be looking for tangible activities, especially for teens, young adults or families with children to physically do together. Tying quilts, packing health kits, assembling backpacks with specific school supplies make us feel good (even though we may know that giving money is more effective). This is not always practical, especially for development work overseas, but I am simply naming the self-interest of congregational leaders. We know that it will stick with people longer if we do something physical (but we are likely to be choosy about when and where and age appropriateness).

You will need to contend with committees. A group of committed people (remember they are mostly volunteers) who form the “outreach” or “missions” committee may be your best way of gaining a foot-hold in the congregation’s life. Sometimes, however, as a pastor I was pleased to hand things I didn’t care about off to a committee because I suspected it would get lost. Make sure you have a contact who is on the payroll, in addition to a committee.

Once you’re in, you might inquire about designated funds. We all know that volunteerism is great, but (ahem) you are actually seeking funding. Many congregations have designated funds, memorials or endowments whose interest must be given away according to some specifications your organization might actually meet. Hallelujah!

3. Distinguish Your Values

I wish this was more important than ready-to-use programs, but alas it might not be. There is, however a growing awareness of the inappropriateness of some organizations’ approaches to service, so this discussion does matter to many church leaders. For example, if your organization provides a less religiously coercive approach to meeting basic needs, or invests in development rather than charity that creates dependency, I am all ears. I am more likely to put the effort into replacing something we’ve “always done” if I can clearly express why the new organization better lives out our religious commitments.

The Finale

But my best advice, you’ll need to value enough to pay for. If you want access to congregations, you need to value those who can help you to understand and adjust to a world we know very well. You will need a champion in any congregation you want to draw into long-term relationship, who feels valued and heard and as if your values align with hers. She might even be able to connect you with other organizations such as their affiliated synod/diocese, universities, or seminaries. Congregations have a lot to give in relationship with faith-related non-profit organizations, but you need to know how to ask.

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

Will the Outside Ministries Sustain Us?

I realize this sounds weird. I said to another clergywoman at a party that I think I’ve developed enough of an outlet for my calling beyond the congregation (through writing), to make congregational ministry sustainable for me now. She gave me a side eye and said carefully, “That doesn’t sound like a very compelling case for serving in parish ministry…” Maybe not on its own, but I have a theory.

There is a shortage of clergy that is only getting more serious as the size and viability of mainline Protestant congregations decline. How will we care for the people within these communities, with only the leaders who just love the Church so much they are immune to the frustrations of dwindling commitment and influence in the lives of even the people who do show up? I bet we need the skeptics and cranky and disgruntled-enough-to -really-push-us-forward leaders too. If our egos (in both needing affirmation and needing to make an impact) are not bolstered by preaching to 40 gathered on a Sunday, then we do need some additional outlets. Many congregations can only pay a leader part-time, so we talk about being bi-vocational for financial reasons, but isn’t the conversation about meaningful impact just as crucial?

I have noticed a pattern. Some of the pastors I relate to and admire most have a common survival mechanism. They have developed a calling-related but outside-the-parish form of ministry for a greater impact and sense of meaningful work (and yes, they probably get some positive attention and affirmation too). These pastors have cultivated a variety of other ministry outlets:

  • Part-time chaplain at a nearby university
  • Marriage and Family counseling
  • Writing for magazines, online platforms, and even books
  • Steering an initiative for ministry leaders
  • Consulting and teaching on areas of specific expertise (digital media, inter-generational ministry)
  • Cultivating a demographic, faith-related fellowship (young adults, adoptive families, LGBTQIA+)

When the congregation was the center of civic life and pastors were respected public figures by default, it must have felt different to lead. I wouldn’t know, since this hasn’t been the case for awhile. As mainline Protestant churches diminish in size and significance in people’s lives, we have to constantly give ourselves pep talks about how “two or three gathered in (Jesus’) name” is enough and how even playing a bit role by hosting a wedding or funeral could “plant seeds” that we just don’t know how they will grow. Smaller parish ministry is hard on the leader because no one else is as invested in the life of the congregation as those on the payroll, except some in unhealthy ways. For me at least, the smaller congregation’s life in this day and age is not the level of impact I went into the ministry to make, the influence I hoped to have (for the Gospel).

Author, pastor and professor Walt Wangerin Jr. is a role model for me. He wrote the stories of parish life while living it, the lives of people like his parishioners, the Bible as a novel, the things a pastor thinks about (before becoming a writing professor at my college). A writer needs something to write about. And obviously, writing doesn’t pay the bills. I could do this too, I thought. But I didn’t start right away. I didn’t know that I had valuable things to say that anyone would want to read, beyond sermons.

When I was preparing for ordination someone recommended I get a hobby that produces results – something like knitting, they said – in order to have a sense of accomplishment and measurable outcomes. Ministry involves a lot of open-ended effort, relational investments that we might never see come to fruition. But I don’t gravitate towards handicrafts; I’d rather read a book. The advice of one leadership program I participated in was to turn where you are into the “next call” that you want to be in. But that was still about the small, struggling congregation and what I could get them to do. I wish I would have heard that advice as, “Turn this into the time when you write, get published, build a platform. Trust that you have unique perspectives, things to say that no one else has seen from your angle, even if you haven’t magically transformed the congregation you serve, rocketing to success against all odds.” The advice I truly needed was to find a way to do ministry that stretched beyond one particular congregation, although I was indeed on several non-profit boards and coordinated synod projects.

My theory: For longevity in smaller parish ministry, this “outside” work needs to be a required, protected, essential part of the call, because it is what can sustain a leader thru the disappointment, or bearing the brunt of anxiety in a dwindling congregation. Not everyone will find that compelling. But to me, it is essential.

Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash

A Mother’s Résumé

Demonstrates Advanced Administrative Skills;
Multi-Tasks Mentally, Physically and Emotionally;
Curates Attitudes;
Engages With Diplomacy;
Excels at Holding Diverse Realities in Tension

My résumé definitely has a bias towards the experiences and qualifications from my last full-time employment 4 years ago. Also listed are the part-time gigs I’ve done while “on family leave” at home with my kids, and my writing credits. But something is clearly missing: The Mom Qualifications. The education, skills and experiences developed in this role deserves their own résumé, so here’s my attempt at a narrated version.


Demonstrates Advanced Administrative Skills: Designs, coordinates and communicates regular appointments to promote optimum health, education and social engagement of all members.

Example: No one would ever get their teeth cleaned without her scheduling, switching providers when insurance changes, reminding and in some cases bribing and physically carrying certain members to such “wellness” visits. They also might never get together with friends, enjoy maintained facilities or vehicles, or have any toilet paper.

Multi-Tasks Mentally, Physically and Emotionally: Keeps track of all members allergies, permission slips, uniforms, clothing needing washed, favorite comfort items, contents of the pantry, fears and abilities. Example: Making dinner with a child in one arm, a snack that is nutritious but not too filling to quell the cries of another, in time for the entire family to eat before the evening schedule begins. Becoming ambidextrous helps.

Curates Attitudes: Functioning as the PR department, convinces, plans and carries out every opportunity for organizational bonding, enrichment and recreation. Curates organizational blog and creates photo books, cards and mementos for extended organizational membership. Interprets past experiences and current events, defines terms and explains bodily changes while in moving vehicles. Example: “Mama, what’s slavery?” “Why don’t (classmate)’s parents live together?” “When are we going back to _____?” Respond immediately – but watch – the light’s changing.

Engages With Diplomacy: Negotiates with members at all levels of authority to reach goals identified as primary values of the organization. Mediates between members in conflict and integrates long-distance member participation in the life of the organization with expertise in family systems theory. Example: As one member emerges from their room with an item to announce to another, “Hey, remember this? It’s mine,” she assesses the situation, time until they need to leave for school, and how much teaching, coaxing, or quashing of dynamics needs to take place.

Excels at Holding Diverse Realities in Tension: Balances the confidence and humility of knowing that she fulfills the most important job in the world that simultaneously looks like she does nothing all day, and is in service to the most demanding bosses of all time, over whom she holds the most authority and influence of anyone else. She somehow comprehends that it is fleeting and yet will never end. Example: A member of the organization refuses to partake of a dinner that is carefully prepared to include things she actually eats. Repeat ad nauseum.

Acts with Self-Awareness: Demonstrates ability to compartmentalize, analyze own biases and pursue goals for the good of the organization despite personal reactions.

Example: Attempting to practice any parenting advice beyond what is internalized from her own childhood.

Love You, Church

You love watching our daughters grow up. I can hear it in your voice when you greet them, chuckle under your breath at their antics (especially the younger one), and I notice the way your eyes twinkle watching them run, skip or dance down the aisles. Sometimes they interact with you adorably, and sometimes they’re not in the mood. They are real kids. I know how much my own mother, who lives at a distance from us, misses our kids and delights in seeing kids their ages at her own church. Our extended family in other states delight in the private family blog I keep up, watching the kids grow week by week via photos and videos, phone calls and visits. But you are the people we see in person every week. You remember when the little one was “Baby Jesus” in the Christmas pageant, and her big sister was a sheep. You’ve heard their “milestones” when one got glasses, they both got bunk beds, and celebrated their birthdays.

Still, I was nervous about Girl Scout cookie sales. My goals for this thing were our oldest daughter making eye contact and speaking to adults. This is a challenge for her. For several years she had a speech delay and I probably stepped in too often to speak for her, trying to alleviate embarrassment. Then when her little sister came along, she started using the distracting little one as a way to look away, and avoid engaging adults. Now she has to engage. When our girl stood up in our pew during announcements/milestones and announced that she’s selling Girl Scout cookies, our pastor noted how brave of her that was. Then after service, you all walked right towards her. She’d made 2 sales before we even had the change envelope ready. I took little sister upstairs where I was helping in her Sunday School class, and my husband helped our Brownie take the time and space she needed to do what she was determined to do, even though it was hard. He reported two things: Her whole face including her ears were flushed red with nervousness. And everyone was so patient and sweet with her. You love, watching our children grow up.

It seems silly for this to make my eyes well up with tears. But it is not just one day of selling Girl Scout cookies. You are a safe place for us to try things that are scary, to be cheered on in our joys and embraced when things fall apart. You delight in our children as they grow, and that has a cumulative effect on my tear ducts and all of our lives. This is love. We love you too.

Why Mothers Make Great Pastors AND It Is Doubly Hard To Be Both Simultaneously

Our days are filled with the details that hold the family together: checking in on people, planning ahead, teaching, patching up a disagreement with the neighbors, waiting, being there just in case, and endless repetitive tasks which we do because somebody has to do them. We know implicitly that we are building trust, building their capacity to face adversity when it comes, but the waiting can be excruciating.

Words are our greatest tools for this undefinable process of building spiritual (or frankly any kind of) maturity. We know how to use our words to manipulate in the best sense, quote other authorities and call forth the better natures from those we love and care for. We find ourselves thinking of new and creative ways of saying the same things like, “Let’s make good decisions,” over and over again, reminding everyone of whose they are, and the vision we agreed on pursuing. Alas, the crucially formative moments rarely happen on a schedule. We have to be able to drop everything when someone needs us. Most of our time is spent on things nobody notices, unless they complain because it didn’t get done. It might be cleaning out the fridge, making sure something is washed, rescheduling appointments, overseeing repair work or making sure someone nearly-forgotten gets invited. It might be making sure our home is presentable enough for people to visit, that it feels like our home but also reflects what we say we are all about instead of having everybody’s individual projects scattered about.

You tell me whom I described above, a mother or a pastor? It turns out there is a lot of overlap.


Mother/Minister Job Description:

Set and Enforce Boundaries

Everyone in our care needs limits and boundaries to mature in a healthy way. All the books, workshops, and research back this up. We could each give a half dozen specific examples right now of cases where failing to set clear boundaries led to somebody acting out in ways that hurt everyone involved, and to correct it afterward took twice the effort. But those in our care resent when we set or enforce boundaries. They repeatedly explain why the boundaries do not apply to them, or why this time should be the exception. They need us to do what they refuse to let us do.

Cultivate Trust

We understand the great privilege it is to be trusted, not just with the happy news, but also with the vulnerable, heart-breaking details of our people’s lives. Then, because we hold all their secrets and have seen them at their worst – they don’t consciously process this, but – we become lightning rods for sideways emotions with no other safe place to go. The mothering memes assuring us that our kids act their worst around us because we are their safest place can only elicit a cynical chuckle.

Navigate Family Systems

We have so much practice navigating family systems – not only our own, but the big “extended family” – because it is a matter of survival. We have to recognize our own baggage from our families of origin and how we react because of our roots, so we can separate the symptoms from actual illness or “objectively” talk about what might be underneath any given reaction. It can be a justice issue, to stand up to the way our system has always handled a particular issue, because not all the ways any family system behaves are healthy. And when we look at the whole system, it is clear who is being excluded. Nobody likes when we name this, so sometimes we just know it for ourselves, and it helps us to not feel unhinged.


Mothers make excellent pastors because the skills and details we learn to pay attention to in our family life are so often drawn upon in our professional roles. Which is also exactly why it is so draining to do both simultaneously. To need to drop everything at a moment’s notice for both children and parishioners means someone is always feeling short-changed (often it is us). Clear boundaries around our time and actual responsibilities are necessary for balance, but no one likes when boundaries keep them from getting what they want. It is a lot of emotional weight to carry everyone’s stories, the details of every personal history, trauma, allergy, triggers, etc. How do mother-pastors do it?

Moms make incredibly capable pastors. But what we need at home and church are more capable co-parents. A lot of them. Not just the kind who do things when they are asked, or assigned a particular task with a pointed amount of guilt or in a serious tone. But the kind of co-parents that see our household/congregation as their own equal responsibility, as much as it is ours to take care of, and do the work of holding everything together on their own initiative. And these blessed co-parents will do so not only because someday Mom won’t be around to clean up all the messes (that apparently only she can see) but because we are all part of this family too. It is our role to see it and deal with it and care for each other too. That is how Mama can do all she does without screaming into the night too often.