book review: the pastor

the pastorIn this meandering memoir, Eugene Peterson invites us to take the long view. In a world of instant gratification, individualized priorities, and getting things done, this prolific writer tells the story of how he developed a pastoral imagination rooted in the art (and skill) of slowing down and paying attention.

From the early days learning the trade in his father’s Montana butcher shop, Peterson writes of the many ways he realized his life’s work, to attend more “to what God does than what I do, and then to find, and guide others to find, the daily, weekly, yearly rhythms that would get this awareness into our bones” (45).

Peterson takes us from his childhood following his mother on her preaching circuit to his days as a PhD student to his suburban church plant, filling the space after and in between with gentle (and sometimes repeated) narrative.

The stories are easily read, always authentic, and often entertaining. My personal favorite was the tale about a mischievous boy spiking the punch and getting Peterson’s teetotaling Pentecostal preacher drunk at a Mennonite wedding. As life would have it, Peterson meets that boy later, while he’s leading a retreat for Mennonite pastors!

Some of Peterson’s greatest growth comes through the “Company of Pastors,” a group that met each week, learning and living the pastoral life together. One particular member hadn’t been there long when he took his leave for a larger church, following a call toward more challenge and opportunity. In a direct letter, Peterson expresses his concern that his colleague is being guided by impersonal, functional, competitive values. Here and throughout this book he invites today’s pastor to be suspicious of the seductive appeal to public recognition, larger churches, bigger positions.

There are areas where the writer gives hints but not the full story: how he balanced pastoring and parenting; how he lived into and through congregational conflict; how he endured ministry in one place for nearly three decades, a feat that seems oh-so-rare. Other areas he leaves out all together: was justice work a part of his ministry? How did his family manage financially when his wife’s vocation was to be pastor’s wife? Yet while these may be my questions today in 2014, these were not the questions in this 1960s-80s story. It was not all that long ago and yet it was a wildly different era for the institutional church.

Peterson’s pastoral career began and blossomed toward the heights of the protestant church in the United States, or at least before we realized how dramatic and serious the decline would become. In that regard, we are missing important contextual distinctions that might make this rich memoir easily translatable for today’s youngish pastor. In some ways his work and the development of his pastoral imagination seems almost easy.

For instance, the Petersons are blessed immeasurably by a congregation that allows them to rest, read, write, be “unbusy.” At one particularly poignant church meeting, Eugene expresses his frustration with the administrative tasks that consume his pastoral time and the church leaders respond by saying, “Why don’t you let us run the church?” (279). He does, and they do in ways that I suspect would astonish many clergy whose lives remain filled to the brim with meetings and tasks. Furthermore, he pastored in an era when people were coming to church, not leaving it.

On the other hand, Peterson does wrestle with some strife in the congregation and some restlessness, leaving in their reflective wake pearls of wisdom for the taking. He reminds us that congregations “not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered” (137) and that sometimes we must submit “to the boredom, the refining fire of nonperformance” (220).

I am convinced by Eugene Peterson and mentors of my own that the pastoral life still requires the level of intentionality, the slowing down and paying attention that is demonstrated in a hundred ways in this worthwhile read.


book review: the enneagram: a christian perspective

ImageI remember the first time I read through the nine types of the Enneagram five or six years ago. I naively decided I wasn’t any of the types, but I did pick out my favorite qualities from each. Oh how that disillusion has long faded as I have come to know more intimately my greatest sin(s). On that journey I am assisted most recently by the clear writing and gentle yet astute analysis of Richard Rohr and Adreas Ebert.

Engagement with this work must necessarily be at least partly personal, because first and foremost, “the Enneagram uncovers the games we find ourselves tangled in” (24). It draws on deep patterns of the human psyche to point each of us toward our own gifts and our own flaws. The Enneagram is not merely a personality assessment, a system to shape beliefs, or a way to analyze and categorize people. It is rooted in deeply spiritual impulses that help to unmask the falsehoods that shape human life and community.

Rohr and Ebert describe it this way: “The Enneagram is much more demanding and much more dangerous than believing things. It is more about ‘unbelieving’ the disguise that we all are” (xix). In keeping with the Christian tradition, Rohr and Ebert call the disguises our sins. Over and over we as readers are reminded of the deep, paradoxical connection between our gifts and the ways we miss the mark.

For each of the nine types, the authors identify a fundamental need. Type One is the need to be perfect; two is the need to be needed; three is the need to succeed and so on. They describe motivations, fears, hopes and representative symbols for each type, thus giving the reader multiple entry points for engaging even those types to which one does not naturally relate.

The book includes a brief history and dash of numerology that begin part one and will fascinate some readers. Others will connect more readily with the detailed descriptions of each type, and still others will be most intrigued by the way the types relate to one another as wings and sources of integration. Other helpful features of this volume include a detailed index and charts that summarize each type in easily referenced form. This text has a little bit for everyone who would venture inside.

I have but a few small criticisms: The saintly examples of each type are disproportionately male as are the biblical characters used to highlight each one (though this points to a deeper flaw with the biblical sources). Also, while the authors did caution against misusing the Enneagram to categorize and critique other people, they did not take time to explore any external criticisms of the system itself.

All in all, I commend this book, not to those who want to just explore personal problems or analyze other people but to those who desire to go into the depths of self. It promises to be a difficult and yet rewarding journey: “The Enneagram can help us to purify our self-perception, to become unsparingly honest toward ourselves, and to discern better and better when we are hearing only our own inner voices and impressions and are prisoners of our prejudices – and when we are capable of being open to what is new” (21).

I find my work with myself (and hopefully my work with others) has already been enriched by reading this text, yet I can’t help but think I’ve only scratched the surface. If the Enneagram is truly for the second half of life, as Richard Rohr says, then I have only just begun my work.

insidious: a note on loving the sinner

insidious: operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with a grave effect

I’ve been thinking lately about insidiousness.

I talk to a community colleague, a straight, white, man who has recently adopted. I know he goes to an Acts 29 church in town, the kind where only men can preach (and don’t we know what that implies). He listens politely as I talk about how we found an agency that doesn’t discriminate against same-sex couples. Now we’re  just waiting to be picked. He politely tells his family’s story. Is it just me, or is he a little too polite?

I’m at a training for progressive community leaders and a minister is speaking. Things are going well. We’re talking economic justice, mostly, and voting rights and Medicaid Expansion, and then he mentions the LGBT issue. He urges everyone to put our differences on this matter aside, so that we can come together as a coalition to make an impact on our state. I turn a little red. I feel a little embarrassed.

The pastor of a local megachurch links to an article entitled “Showing how it’s done.” I think he wants to show how evangelicals aren’t what most people think they are. A sports columnist has written a rave review of young adults who stood up to Westboro Baptist’s overtly hateful message against our hometown football hero Michael Sam who recently came out as gay. Love-Hate-300x209The organizers were Christians who said, “We know that’s not God. God is love.” I was skeptical. I read the rest of the article. The columnist wondered how Christians could reconcile their faith with their actions. Their reply? “Yes, practicing homosexuality is a sin. But so is lying, so is cheating, so is coveting. I sin every day. God hates the sin, not the sinner.” I knew that was coming.

I’m a Christian too, by the way. So are all the people who’ve written here about why LGBT people actually belong in the church (according to scripture) as full participants with their partners and families. And I’m a sinner like everyone else, but my relationship is not a sin, and that’s not something I should have to explain or justify to anyone who asks.

Homophobia and heterosexism are everywhere, often bound up in polite language and increasingly civil Christian discourse. They continue to shift from the realm of overt prejudice into the more insidious realm of the covert, which is still mostly acceptable. But that doesn’t make it less harmful.

Consider these words from Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern: “To believe someone’s identity is inherently sinful is, to my mind, to be bigoted against them. If you believe black people are sinful and deserve fewer rights, you are racist. If you believe Jews are sinful and deserve fewer rights, you are anti-Semitic. I simply cannot see why those who believe gays are sinful and deserve fewer rights should be held to a different standard.”

Even if it is couched in unexamined Christian language and bad exegesis. Even if people are polite. The insidiousness is everywhere.

Stern also reminds us that prejudice doesn’t loudly announce itself when it walks into a room: “In reality it thrives in the cracks between superficially civil conversation.”

This is where the harm happens: those little looks of confusion or (heaven forbid) disgust that people get when they realize we’re not roommates. The internal judgment that we still silently feel. The unceasing opinions and measured dialogue that is respectful in tone (but violent in content). The sweeping theological statements about sin that render my personhood less than yours. I’m sorry, but polite as it may be, loving the sinner isn’t enough. It does too much damage of its own.

lessons from a mentor

weldonIn my dining room hangs a print from the Saint John’s Bible. The print is from the Gospel of Luke, and it was a gift to me from a mentor and his church. It reads, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” You never know how the light will break in, and this is that story for me.

I remember clearly it was March 2008, a Sunday afternoon. I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and was driving east from Nashville on I-40 headed into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on a spring break road trip when I got a phone call from the board chair at Seattle Mennonite Church. “Sarah, I’m pleased to offer you a pastoral internship for this summer…”

Two months later I landed in the Pacific Northwest and met Pastor Weldon Nisly for the first time.

It wasn’t an easy road to get there. My denomination of origin, Mennonite Church USA, has many good qualities, but accepting LGBTQ people in membership, marriage, and ministry is not one of them. Instead we have select local pockets of welcome, and so in 2008 I went searching. I wrote letters to several congregations, explaining my course of study at Vanderbilt, my lifelong involvement in the denomination, and my desire for a field education experience in a Mennonite church. One of them was able to journey with me.

The day we met, Weldon planned to orient me to the church, a repurposed movie theater in the middle of a busy northeast Seattle neighborhood. We got out of the car and were headed toward the offices with a full agenda: meet staff, tour building, set up office space, when a homeless couple approached. Clearly Weldon had spent a good deal of time with the two, who I later learned made their home in the blocks around the church. Pastor, will you pray with us? they asked. And so we did.

This was my first lesson: Pay attention to the interruptions.

Every week we sat down to talk theology, ministry, church politics, sometimes for hours. My questions were frequent as I struggled to make sense of the comings and goings of the transient congregation, but over good food and good wine I learned lessons two and three: learning (mentoring) takes time, and leadership is never about defining who is in and who is out.

I was nervous for my first regional gathering that summer. I didn’t know what other churches and pastors had been told about the young, lesbian intern in Seattle. What I did know was that Weldon had been through the ringer after this church began to welcome and celebrate gay people and relationships. His credentials had been suspended for a time, and he had been a polarizing figure across the denomination. Much to my relief, I experienced nothing confrontational that summer. Weldon had prepared the way. In processing my feelings I learned lesson number four: when others are critical, upset, or mean, it is about them and their experience, not about you and your leadership.

When I graduated from divinity school in 2009, my partner and I moved back for her two-year ministry position. I was once again given the opportunity to serve Seattle Mennonite in a year long role as Interim Associate Pastor. Taking the position would require me to leave another job. The decision to return to the Mennonites was made after phone calls to Weldon during his sabbatical at Saint John’s Abbey. Lesson five and six together: listen to what God has put in front of you, and trust your instincts.

No longer an intern, I led a worship team, young adult trips and youth retreats. I preached regularly, and only once did someone respond to a sermon with a harshly worded letter. But that turned out to be a good thing according to Weldon. Lesson seven: if someone is not pissed off and pushing back, you’re not preaching the gospel. Very often reaction and resistance gives witness to what is going well in spiritual leadership, contrary to the common assumption that resistance means something is wrong and someone must be appeased.

I got to be part of difficult institutional and interpersonal conversations: restructuring the church and staying in community through areas of chronic conflict. Watching Weldon navigate in gentle grace, I absorbed the two-part lesson eight: listen first and ask good questions.

Halfway through the interim year I started looking for my next call with the blessing and strong references of Seattle Mennonite, but as expected, the possibilities for ministry in Mennonite Church USA were slim. Again there were pockets of support and more of it in 2011 than in 2008, but to some I was still a huge risk. That’s when I sorted through lesson nine with Weldon, a lesson easier for us to see from here on the margins: Threat is a barrier to faithful, courageous action, but once we get beyond the risks, many things are possible.

We left Seattle for Mid-Missouri in 2011, and I began the slow process of affiliating with another denomination and the painful process of loosening ties with the church that formed me. The mentoring didn’t stop though. Lesson ten comes from an email that Weldon sent last September: “I encourage you to remain open to the Spirit and God’s call to pastoral ministry in the future,” for you never know what could be next.

A humble, grounded man, Weldon embodies the shalom that he so deeply values as a Mennonite pastor and maker of peace. Last fall he retired from congregational ministry, but I’m not the only one he has sent on the way. There are a trail of us who have been shaped by Weldon, from Newton, Kansas to Chicago, Illinois to Oregon and North Carolina.

In reflecting on these years of formation, the interesting thing is that I don’t think Weldon has ever told me anything prescriptively. But he has taught more about leadership than anyone I’ve ever known.

a mennonite letter

Disruptions abound in Mennonite Church USA these days. The very public debate about LGBTQ inclusion once again reveals that our peace-loving denomination is no better equipped to handle internal conflict than anyone else. Mountain States Mennonite Conference recently licensed a lesbian pastor, and behind a call to form another task force, the executive board shows signs of responding in a punitive manner. I’ve watched these patterns repeat on various church levels for years, and the actions from leadership are more frustrating than surprising. Responses and open letters and analyses are flying around the Menno-interwebs. Here’s my addition to the cacophony.
Dear Ervin,

My name is Sarah Klaassen, and I live in Columbia, Missouri. Among many other things, I am a lifelong Mennonite and a lesbian. As a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, a some-time preacher, an accidental church planter, and a community organizer, I am well-equipped to analyze power dynamics and speak about justice and inclusion.

But today instead, I want to write about leadership. My great friend and mentor Weldon Nisly who recently retired from Seattle Mennonite Church modeled leadership on the edge of the inside, something eloquently written about by Richard Rohr.The edge is a sacred space where considerations of job security, rules, and constituencies fade into more prophetic concerns. The people on the edge mediate that liminal place between those of you in seats of power and those of us who don’t have access to the institutional church. Mountain States Mennonite Conference plays that role today. Other leaders, groups, and institutions will play that role in the future.

I recognize the contentious ecclesial circumstances you face today, and so I respectfully say to you and others at the center: if you yourselves are not called to take the leadership risks required for this time, please do not be the ones who prevent others from taking them.
One last word, I also serve on the board of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. As always, we invite you to invite us to be part of your conversations, task forces, processes, and decision-making.

In hope,

joy of giving

Rock Bridge Christian Church, 1.26.14

In our house over the last couple of months, Jamie and I have been pondering some big purchases. You see, our ancient computer from way back in 2009 runs quite a bit slower than it used to, and it can be infuriating to say the least. And those couches we bought five years ago are a little worse for the wear now that our cat Wyatt has made them his favorite scratching post. We’ve been wrestling with how seductive it is, especially for those of us who have means, to just go get what we want. A new couch. A new computer. The list could go on.

Replace the old, acquire the new – get what we want when we want it. These are the gifts we give to ourselves – our little allegiances (to follow this morning’s sermon).

I heard a piece on the radio this past week about what is called “anticipatory package shipping.” Anticipatory package shipping is a system that will ship products before customers have actually bought them, and the online retail giant Amazon has a patent for this practice.

They will box and ship products that they expect customers to buy based on searches, previous purchases, wish lists, and – get this – how long a user’s cursor hovers over an item online. ( Basically they are developing algorithms that assess your behavior and then ship you the package before you even know you want it. My mind is a little bit blown by all of this – and all the consumerism that props up this kind of system. Let’s get what we want when (or before) we want it.

With these personal and societal impulses as my backdrop, I read today’s gospel text. It was a bit jarring to read about how Andrew and Peter left their nets immediately when Jesus called. No questions asked, no deliberation, no price comparisons or shopping around. And then James and John did it too. They left their boat and their father, and followed Jesus. In terms of possessions, material resources, money this story has nothing to do with what they acquired, and everything to do with what they gave up and what they gave away. Their allegiance shifted from getting to giving, and I think it’s the same for us when we choose to follow Jesus.