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Suicide, Church Folk and Spiritual Leaders

DepressionAfter hearing the news of a pastor, Teddy Parker, whom I do not know, it was clear to me that I should wait to post anything about it in this forum – first, out of respect for his family and those who knew and loved him; second, because of what it triggered for me on a personal level, I needed a minute.

Hearing stories such as this one, hits way too close to home. I not only ache internally, but it hurts so deeply that the pain becomes physical. As I sat weeping and sorrowful a few thoughts came to mind as I thought about not only this tragedy, but many more people who struggle to keep living – people for whom deciding to live or die is a daily decision; hell, never mind “daily,” but a moment by moment, hour by hour decision.

Relating to Parker, I did not want to assume mental illness played a role, yet I am not surprised as it is now being reported that he perhaps endured years of struggle with mental illness.

As an African American with a historical association and rearing in predominantly African American communities of faith, I was disappointed (not surprised) by a few of the reactions I read.

Most of the responses/reactions I read said things like:

Pray for pastors, they have a hard job

The devil is busy

Congregations/church folks need to take it easy on pastors

Pastors are human just like everybody else.

The above statements are not only lacking, they are also a bit. Let me explain.

“Pray for pastors.” It is easier to say “pastors have a hard job,” and we need to support them, not be a burden them than it is to address issues of mental health care. It is easier to spiritualize issues than to address practical needs. But easier doesn’t equal helpful. As a fellow struggler, many faith filled people sincerely believe that the way healing and wholeness happens is for me to go to church, pray, call on Jesus and trust God to make a way – period! I am not opposed to praying and such, but when that’s where it stops, first it make me want to cuss, then it moves me to educate and enlighten in hopes of dispelling ignorance.

Should we pray for pastors? YES! Should we pray for those who battle, and I do mean battle mental health challenges? Also yes! Is that all we need to do? NO. Will prayer alone keep pastors or anyone else from ending their lives? Not at all!

“The devil is busy.” OK, and the point is what? That’s my first reaction. But beyond that, I am not convinced that the devil had anything to do with this suicide. I believe we need to take a deeper look at reasons why people end their lives. As one who has walked through depressive episodes, I find that there are a host of “spiritual” people who take the easy way out by being hyper spiritual and glossing over real issues – somehow unable to open their minds to the realness of mental illness and mood disorders – medical conditions that need treatment, not statements like “the devil being busy.” Once it is discovered that such phraseologies are impotent, some walk away, abandon the struggler and just stand aloof.

“People need to take it easy on their pastors.” What the hell?! The first problem is that this statement is an indictment on congregations and to say such things in the context of this young pastor’s death is to accuse and make assumptions regarding how his congregation treated him. Second, though I have been in church all my life and have awareness that church folks are a bit trifling and downright cruel and unreasonable at times, there are some things that we as spiritual leaders have to take ownership of – our self care, utilization of the word “no,” refusal to play into being put on pedestals and the like. Perhaps ego won’t let us destroy that beast? Perhaps our passion and drive for ministry and serving God won’t let us quit or take regular breaks? Who really knows?

Pastors are human just like everyone else. This is true – very true, but the fact that there is such a big deal being made over the fact that a “pastor” completed suicide suggests we don’t really believe that. Perhaps a shift in thinking is necessary – the position does not make one less human nor super human.

So in thinking not only about Parker, but about how we relate to each other, more specifically those who endure mental illness, I offer these alternative responses:

1Give people permission and space to say “I’m not ok.”

2. Be a “safe person.” Meaning, when someone musters up courage to bare their souls and expose their hearts, be trustworthy, be loving and nonjudgmental and if you can, resourceful.

3. See pastors as “people who pastor” rather than “pastors who are people.” There is a difference. If pastor was no longer the profession, she/he would still be a person. Experientially I have been a staff minister (paid & volunteer) and in a few instances what I did/my work was important but my person/who I am did not. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge. Value people not simply positions.

4. Don’t assume the worst about people who end their lives. Ending their lives does not make them bad people. They are not selfish people. They are not weak people. They are not crazy people, they are not demon possessed. They are not Hell bound. They are people whose hope ran out, people who tried until they could try no longer. They are people who live with an illness, yes it is an illness, some illness is physical & some illness is mental.  They are people who would have continued to live if they could. And most likely, it hurt them deeply to have to leave those they love.

5. Check in on people. It’s not enough to be aware of a person’s struggle and distance yourself from them, waiting for the next time they reach out to you or if it’s a leader just wait for their faith to kick in. Check in from time to time, ask how they are doing, be a friend.

6. Remember that it is not necessary nor appropriate for you to fill every space or moment with your words. Presence is a priceless gift to offer, just be there.

7. Some situations don’t need a bible verse. Nuff said.

8. The absence of a smile does not equate to the absence of faith, but often an indicator of pain.

9. The presence of a smile does not equate joy and the absence of depressive conditions. Some of us are skilled at putting our smile on like we put on clothing. Not every smiling face is content and at peace, sometimes if appropriate it is good to gently go a little deeper [with a person’s permission of course].

10. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Some will appreciate that because it opens the door for them to share their story, open their hearts and help you with “knowing” more deeply.

11. Never ever never, under any circumstances be trite or offer empty platitudes or clichés. Mental illness for some people, at given points in the struggle, is a matter of life and death.

Well, that’s a long list but not at all extensive, so if you have other things you would add please do so in the comments section. Gone are the days when we can just keep the stigma going regarding mental illness and think it’s ok. Lives are lost because of our silence and refusal to engage the topic. People give up because they feel the need to suffer in silence and hide their truth rather than let people in. We can do better.

Here are just a few resources that might help:

Talking Mental Health in the Black Community (Huff Post Live recording)

Wrestling with God and Depression

Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – Monica A. Coleman

Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting – Terrie Williams

Hyperbole blog post – Part 1 & Part 2

Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes – Therese Borchard

Beyond Blue (the blog)

Say Yes to Grace: How to Burn Bright without Burning Out – Kirk Byron Jones

Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers – Kirk Byron Jones

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Coming Out!

For those of you who clicked on this link wondering if this writer was herself coming out as a same gender loving individual, I am sorry to disappoint you. You’re here now, so hopefully you’ll keep reading.

LGBTQ folks are not the only ones who “come out.” Coming out has a variety of implications and applications for those who have been silent regarding societal issues, subjects, and beliefs. Fear of negative reactions and rejection from friends stands in the way of honesty and transparency. Conversations with individuals who are now unashamed to speak boldly and courageously regarding their sexual identities has informed me of one reality – “coming out” is not easy!

Yet there comes a moment when we must decide to live by our personal convictions rather than be guided or controlled by other people’s opinions of us.

Over the last year or so I have felt compelled to “come out.” No, I did not come out as a lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender individual. Rather, I needed to “come out” as an ally and voice for a segment of society and even of the Christian Church that is often ostracized, treated as less than valuable, and excluded from participation in the life of local churches. I had to come out regardless of what people would think; I had to come out of a place of silence and begin to speak up and speak out in love for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have been hurt by the Church. We’ve done some serious damage to individuals and inflicted emotional pain that will not be healed by inflicting more pain – it will be healed by unconditional and radical love. We can and must do better, and I “come out” as a voice that says that we must do a better job of loving all people in the name of a Savior who shows us how to do that well.

I do not know the experience of being a same gender loving person, but I have been in far too many situations where I felt as though I needed to beg for acceptance and space, whether it was because I am a woman or because of my race. I’ve been there, done that, and don’t want to do it anymore. However, because of my familiarity with what it feels like to be an “outsider” – as a woman, and as an African American, it makes me more sensitive to the needs of others who are yet being ousted and shunned by the “majority.”

Recently I had the privilege of taking a seminary class on the topic of Sexuality and Spirituality with instructor Bishop Yvette Flunder. For some, it is problematic that I even allowed myself to be instructed by an openly same gender loving Christian leader (as though she has nothing of value that she can teach us).

It is imperative that each of us, regardless of where we stand on the topic of sexual identity, be willing to listen to one another and even learn from one another – whether they are individuals whose views are similar or different from the ones we hold. Willingness to take the course was a form of “coming out” for me.

This course was relevant in that it provided much needed dialogue among people of faith. I walked away with many insights and what was most impressed upon me was the need for transparency. In many communities of faith a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” regarding sexual identity is real. Cultures of shame and secrecy abound and thus fosters environments where people find it more safe to live life on the down low.

  • Who does this help?
  • Has closeted living really helped anyone?
  • When individuals do come out, do our negative reactions help or do they fuel hostility and push folks back into the closet and further encourage a culture of secrecy?

Perhaps it is time for all of us to “come out” and honestly discuss what we believe and why we believe it. Maybe it’s time for each of us to “come out” and come clean regarding bigotry, hatred and an unwillingness to listen and learn. Maybe it is even time to “come out” and question long held assumptions.

Think About It…

“The Christian community has only ever known one way to handle same-sex sexual behavior: take a stand and keep a distance. Productive dialogue comes from cognitive insight and can only be accomplished through an [embodied] posture of humility and living as a learner.” – Andrew Marin

 

The Church and The LGBTQ Community.

***This is the unscripted/unedited version of what’s on my mind***

About a year ago I fearfully shared my journey as it concerns the subject of homosexuality. You can read it HERE. Though it is not my tendency to cower in fear and be silent when the occasion calls for speaking, I found myself hesitant. Here I am a year later and the core of my being is moved to a point where silence is no longer sustainable.

I didn’t wake up one day and decide that I want to care about Gay/Lesbian folks. I sincerely believe that what is happening in my heart is the moving of God within me. I care about people – period. I also hold a special place in my heart for groups of people who have historically been marginalized and even ridiculed from pulpits in churches. Preachers have proclaimed messages of “get right because it is wrong” without providing love and support and seeing the LGBTQ Community as human. We can do so much better!

The reality is that caring will cost me. On some level it is costing me now. By caring and being a voice I risk losing friends, having people who KNOW that I love God question my role and calling as a spiritual leader or pastor; I risk being misunderstood, rejected and encountering those who believe that the only role I have as a spiritual leader is to tell the LGBTQ Community that they are living in sin and need to be changed. I believe there is a better way to interact with the LGBTQ Community – some of whom are my Christian brothers and sisters.

Human sexuality and God’s view of it is not nearly as simplified as some lead others to believe. The Church’s silence is at times deafening and our shunning is destructive. I absolutely believe that we not only should, but can do better.

Yesterday, President Barak Obama gave voice to his affirmation that same-sex couples should be able to marry. Members of the LGBTQ Community rejoiced. Some members of the Christian Community were outraged,others agreed with him, and still others were silent (whether because of ignorance, fear, apathy or something else). Whether we believe homosexual practice is a sin or not is really not the point to harp on. At the heart of the matter is the issue of humanness, equal value and learning HOW to love people well.

I don’t have all of the answers, but what I do know is that we need to be open:

1. To authentically enter into people’s stories

2. Listen for the purpose of understanding (not to fix or convince of our perspective)

3. To thoroughly think through what we say we believe & why we believe it

4. To consider that whether right or left, Christian or not, Gay or Straight, we each are capable of being right or wrong

More to come on this subject in future days. In the meantime I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or privately.

Do You Have a Process?

Image“What’s Your Leadership Development Process?”
I believe that every church needs a process for developing leaders. Without it, we miss the opportunity to cultivate the gifts of potentially great leaders. Many local congregations adopt the haphazard approach and I am fully aware of that. I realize that leadership formation is not a linear, cut and dry process such as take these five steps and presto, you are a leader, yet still there are practices and processes that can be put in place to help people move further along the path of service and live into their purpose as part of the body of Christ.
Here are some questions I believe that current leaders should ask themselves for starters.
  1. What are 3 to 5 qualities/character traits that you desire to see/expect of leaders?
  2. What is your ministry’s vision/mission/goals? What tasks need to be done to move you forward?
  3. Who do you need to accomplish those goals and fulfill your mission? What skills are needed?
  4. What needs to get done? Why does it need to get done? Who can do it besides you and the normal faithful few?
  5. What type of mentoring, and training is necessary?
  6. What types of administrative systems would help?
  7. What leaders are already in place? How are they developing leaders?
  8. What types of evaluative tools will you implement to keep people developing?
  9. What are some tools you can use to provide off-site training for leaders (blog, twitter, facebook)
Asking these and other questions will prepare you to start moving in the direction of developing a quality leadership culture.
Once you begin the process of creating a leadership culture, remember:
  • Assume that prospective leaders are in your church (even if you haven’t spotted them)
  • Recruit specifically rather than generally
  • Provide training/development and ongoing support
  • Delegate authority along with delegating tasks – be willing to give up control
  • Shepherd/care well for those leaders who commit to investing their time and energy
  • Invest in leaders by encouraging and supporting growth – fund a training, buy a book
  • Let leaders “catch” good qualities and practices from you – let them experience you leading them well so that they too can lead others well
  • Use technology to your advantage – training/development does not always have to happen on-site, in a meeting. Make the best use of a leader’s time
Creating a leadership culture is not a linear, regimented process, it is sometimes organic. However, haphazardness usually impedes progress forward if it is not balanced out with a plan, steps and structure of some kind. Church leadership is not about one or even a few “stars,” it is about a collective group of individuals serving and accomplishing what God has uniquely positioned a ministry to do
Remember, people are not shaped or developed overnight and character development is just as essential as skill development, and it is all a process.

5 Reason Why I Love My Church

After much searching for a place where I could worship God, and grow in character, relationally, and use my gifts to serve others, I have finally found a place to call home (or should I say, God has lead me to a place)! Though the demands of school, work and ministry interfere with my ability to attend every Sunday, I can honestly say that I love my church. Here are a few reasons why

1. Commitment to Diversity/Being Multicultural – Worship style, staff, and congregation mirror the neighborhood where we are located. It’s refreshing to see diversity not only in the people who lead up front, but also to hear it in the selection of music genres and preaching. Sure, we have some growing to do in in this area, but what’s already a reality is worth celebrating. There is an authentic commitment to celebrating a variety of cultural groups without pressuring individual groups to culturally conform to any other culture. In essence, there is encouragement to be ones authentic cultural self. What helps us is that River City Community Church is a learning congregation that is willing to have complex and candid conversations regarding social issues, race, and ways to build authentic relationships both within amongst attendees and within the community of Humboldt Park.

2. Casual Environment – Casual sounds too casual and for some it may even appear slightly irreverent. But casual takes some of the edge and intimidation off for those who walk through the doors (whether Christian or not Christian). Though I grew up in a local congregation that required wearing “Sunday Best” (and yes I know the history behind it for African Americans), it is so liberating for me to be able to come as I am, not feel pressured to look like a superstar, be able to stand or sit as I worship, and encounter people who are not stiff and unapproachable. Not to mention, it is a place of prayer where God is at the center of what we do. I love my church!

3. Children are Welcomed- As a former Children’s Ministry Pastor, one of the first things I noticed about my church is the commitment to children and families who attend. I also noticed that this commitment extends far beyond just those who attend and reaches to those in the neighborhood as we partner with a local school.

4. Pastor and Leaders are Authentic – In the past I have been in intensely hierarchical church environments (admittedly, I find that structure somewhat unhelpful). The leadership at River City is very difficult to describe. They are personable, approachable, humble, behave as though they understand that with God there is no hierarchy in the family of God, and yet their style of leadership makes you want to follow them, listen to them and learn from them and this can happen without leaving their presence feeling “less than.” Go figure.

5. Care for the Local Community where we are located – One of the aims of RCCC is to transform the city of Chicago through neighborhood development. There will always be more that we can do to work towards this goal, but the investment in the local community is at the heart of who we are. Whether it gets worked out through offering ESL classes, giving away backpacks and school supplies to local families, partnering with other community leaders and working together to learn more about the community and learn how to best serve them, this church is invested and it shows.

There are many other reasons why I am glad to have found a home with this group of Christians, but the above are a good start to a sneak peak into why the love is there.


The Flipsides of Seminary

SeminarySpeaking as a person who has some seminary education both behind me and ahead of me (Certificate in Urban Ministries, Master of Arts in Educational Ministries, and currently working on a Master of Divinity), I’ve observed some positives as well as some negatives regarding seminary education (not necessarily in this order)

Myths

1. Every Christian leader or aspiring leader should attend

2. It prepares individuals for ministry in a church context or otherwise

3. It qualifies one for pastoral positions within local congregations

4. All who attend have a general knowledge of the Bible and a deep enough level of maturity

Upside

1. You can meet and connect with some great ministry leaders

2. You can also meet some examples of leaders who behave in ways that you learn not to emulate

3. It can help you think more deeply and even dismantle some theological practices that you once held so dear but need to let go of

4. It can humble you as you become aware of how little you actually know/still have to learn

5. You can move from a place of being shallow to a place of greater depth as you preach, teach, care for people, etc rather than just repeat tired cliques and ‘churchy’ language and responses that you used to.

6. It provides the opportunity to consider and reconsider your “call” to ministry and define it more clearly

Downside

1. It can lead you to a place where God is no longer central in your life and ministry practice and beginning to rely on oneself rather than Holy Spirit power

2. It can lead to arrogance – believing that you are smarter and even more spiritual than those who have not been

3. You can study and learn church history and ignore current culture and eventually become irrelevant in your effort to do ministry

4. There exist contexts where your voice will be disregarded as that which is not credible or worthy of paying attention to without a seminary degree/theological training.

5. Moving to a place where you are reading so many books about the Bible and about God that you treat the Bible and God (by your actions) as though neither are essential for the life you live or the ministry you hope to do.

6. You can loose sight of the practical ministry practices that you possessed prior to going to seminary and begin clinging to theories that would never work/be effective in practice.

7. Concepts and teaching methodologies are not usually relevant to a diversity of cultures/ethnicities – can be very euro-centric at times (depending upon where you attend)

That’s just to name a few, are there others that I have missed?

Revealing the Real You

Many of us, leaders especially, are prone to habits of projecting a public image self and a private image self. I grew up in a church culture where I was left with the impression that appearing to be near perfect in public was the celebrated norm. Never weak, just trusting God, never worried, just “blessed and highly favored of the Lord,” too blessed to be depressed, put on your happy church face and keep it moving. On some level I believe it is good to project the positive, however when it crosses the line and becomes hypocrisy or when it moves us to a place where we are too proud to admit that we are human, thus becoming individuals who are placed on a high and lofty pedestal of perfection, I believe it crosses the line.

I listened to a sermon recently that addressed the topic of “influence,” and the speaker talked in depth regarding how easily people are influenced – whether for good or for evil, positive or negative. She eventually ended at a place of addressing areas of personal identity and asked – “how much of who you are is the real you, and how much of who you are is due to who and what you allow to influence you?”

The question is worth pondering. Additional questions worth pondering are: How much of who you allow others to see is the real you and how much of it is a facade? Who are you really? What are your goals, dreams, aspirations, plans, desires, unique personality traits and thoughts? Any self other than our true selves falls short of our ultimate best. So be bold enough to take off the mask and bless the world with the real you!

Is Church Diversity Possible?

Is local church diversity possible? Not too long ago I had the experience of joining the staff of a local church as the only African American staff member. During the interview process the church had mentioned a desire to become a diverse congregation where everyone was welcome to come. However as I spent time on staff I would soon discover many challenges that accompanied this plan.

Now that I have recovered from the experience of being there, I can honestly say that the experience helped solidify my convictions even more deeply regarding church diversity. Many lessons were learned and insights gleaned. Here are some that flow, not only from my experiences there, but from internal places within the fibers of my being.

Courageous Leadership
When it comes to diversifying local congregations, cowardice really has no place. (I will refrain from using terms such as being a wuss, punk, chump, etc). The Church needs leaders who love people deeply – all kinds of people and refuse to become satisfied with status quo and always doing what has always been done. Leaders who aim to lead the way in the area of diversity take hits that can be avoided if only we keep the majority culture in our individual settings happy. We could avoid criticism and having people question our motives if only we didn’t launch into difficult conversations about race, cultural injustices, and issues of discrimination. Are you up for the task – pain and all?  Today’s Church needs leaders who aim to please God rather than appease people/be a people pleaser. Are you that kind of leader? There are some noteworthy leaders in the conversation of diversity that model courage for leaders, individuals such as Soong-Chan Rah, Mark Deymaz, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Daniel Hill, and David Ireland, to name a few

Long-Term Commitment to the Process
I suppose I don’t need to say much here. But I include it because I realize that starting out in the pursuit of diversity is one thing, and continuation is another. Some never start. Others start and quit when things get tough and even give “God” the credit for their lack of commitment to continuance, assuming that if they encounter opposition then it must be a signal that they should stop. However, opposition can and usually does serve as at least one indication that we are on the right track. Keep God’s vision for a diverse, yet united humanity in mind and keep going!

Celebrate Rather than Tolerate
A few years back after visiting countless churches during my time in New Jersey and leaving disappointed, I decided to give it one last try by visiting a fairly large church. I went with low expectation, because I was weary with the search and on the verge of giving up finding the place for me. As I entered the area it became clear to me that this was “the” place! As I walked from the parking lot to the church building I noticed that I was surrounded by a variety of cultures – Asian American, African American, Caucasian, Latino, Middle Eastern, etc. I entered into a space where I was greeted at the doors by Greeters of mixed cultures, encountered people from these different cultures interacting with each other. As morning worship began, the diversity was visible and audible again as staff members of different races and styles were present and those who lead musical worship were not only a mixture of races, but the music selections were from genres that appealed to urban gospel, instrumental, contemporary worship, etc.

It became obvious to me that this church did not only invite all people to come and then ask them to conform to cultural norms that were not there own, but each person could come and be celebrated for who they authentically were and were encouraged to celebrate who others were. The presence of people different that you are should not cause us to simply endure their presence among us, but to rejoice in the beauty of our differences! Willingness to let go of things always catering to our particular group, styles, etc we much be willing to join with others and celebrate their styles as well.

Willingness to do What Does NOT Come Natural
I suppose the Caucasian gentleman that once said to me “it’s natural for people to gravitate to those who are similar to themselves” was correct. When I enter a crowded space it’s natural for me to look for other African Americans and move in their direction as a point of connection. But after thinking about this concept of doing what comes natural, I shifted my thinking to biblical text and saw that God’s design is the extend us beyond what simply comes natural to functioning supernaturally. What I mean by that is that we should be willing to let God empower us to reach beyond ourselves and do some of the things we would not naturally have the tendency to do. Even a brief skimming of the book of Acts gives us a glimpse of what it means to reach beyond our specific cultural groups. A look at the life and ministry practice of Jesus also gives us a clue – as He talked to Samaritans and other marginalized groups. The very purpose He came for was to break down walls that divide us from each other and eliminate the barriers (Ephesians 2). So, maybe God doesn’t excuse the Church from diversity as easily as we excuse ourselves from it?

Shared Power and Authority
It’s one thing to invite people of various cultures to the table – changing them positionally from being an outsider to an insider, it’s a totally different dynamic to share the authority that comes with the position. I learned this during my time on staff at the Caucasian congregation as I was repeatedly left out of important meetings and decisions, as my authority even in the area where I was invited to lead was even nonexistent. The dynamics of being a women on a male staff, and not only a woman, but the only African American made it nearly impossible for me to lead. I had a position, but I soon discovered that the authority that was to accompany the position was not a reality. Sadly, this eventually lead to feelings of tokenism. If you are a church leader, particularly if you are a member of the dominant group/race/culture, remember not just to embrace the lofty idea of giving positions to people of minority groups/race/cultures, but be prepared to also share the power and authority that is appropriate for such positions.

I believe that church diversity CAN happen! I must admit that it disturbs me to encounter diversity everywhere I go  schools, malls, neighborhoods, restaurants, etc and then attend churches where homogeneity is the norm. When I enter into neighborhoods that are clearly diverse, and then enter a church in that same neighborhood and see a homogenous group of people it creates a sense of unrest. And though this unrest is uncomfortable I am inclined to believe that God is in the discomfort in that the discomfort compels me to action. So maybe dissatisfaction is actually a good starting point? What do you think?