My Disembodied Head... Or, On Not Being Two Places at Once

So what the heck is this all about? Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 5.45.33 PM


The Presbyterian General Assembly starts on Saturday, but most members of Team Wilkinson/Dana are already in Detroit today, meeting with young adult advisory delegates, having meals with interest groups, and attending a prayer gathering to get fortified for the work ahead (whether as moderators of the gathering or as among its 650 commissioners).

I am not with them.

I already knew that I would miss Margaret's dance recital on Saturday afternoon, which coincides with the opening plenary of the assembly. But my heart sank several weeks ago when I discovered that the girls' piano recital was Friday evening. In an ideal world, I would already be in Detroit today. But working parents never live in an ideal world. (Does anyone?)

Thankfully John, my co-conspirator on this great adventure said, "This one's easy. Don't miss the recital." So I asked the girls' piano teacher to schedule them in the first half of the program (which she was happy to do) and am booked on the last flight to Detroit tonight. If the timing works out, I will listen via conference call to the prayer gathering while waiting at the gate, but I am holding this and all things lightly.

I remember hearing about pastoral boundaries during the call process. Ministry is a demanding job, emotionally and spiritually, I was told. You have to protect yourself! And yes, there are more opportunities for caregiving than you could ever complete. Sunday seems to come every 39 minutes. The average congregation is not going to guard your mental health, people warned. (Guess what? Your kids don't do that either. They want all of you.)

I don't know whether this antagonism was intended, or whether I misheard it. In either case, I entered ministry thinking of boundaries as thick walls. Sometimes family life took precedence and sometimes the church had to come first, but there was a clear right answer---or at least, I convinced myself that there was, because the ambiguity was too uncomfortable to acknowledge.

Thanks to my friend Julie Johnson, I now think of boundaries not as brick walls but as semi-permeable membranes. Think about the wall of a cell: some things get through and other things don't. The cell changes shape depending on a number of factors, but it retains its basic integrity. And most important, it is an organic thing, alive and changing.

To be sure, it's disconcerting to see yourself as a semi-permeable membrane. There is vulnerability in it. You're... squishy. But also, stuff can filter back and forth more easily. Case in point: this afternoon I was playing Margaret's recital music from my laptop and got a private recital. As I closed my laptop afterwards, a "thinking of you as you get ready for GA" email caught my eye. So it goes.

Today I am here, but I'm thinking about my colleagues in Detroit---my heart is partly there. And Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m., I will be at the dance recital, in spirit if nothing else. And that's OK. In Sabbath in the Suburbs I talked about the importance of being present, of fully doing whatever it is you're doing. And that's true. But it's also OK for your heart to be somewhere else too. That's the way of the world.

AND! Permeability gives you some grace to be playful. Today I'll be in northern Virginia in the flesh, but in Detroit in spirit... and, it turns out, in image. Some of John's friends suggested a MaryAnn cardboard cutout that they will carry around with them, just for fun. We decided a MaryAnn mask, pictured above, would be more manageable. I'm hoping for pictures today, a la Flat Stanley, or perhaps Waldo.


If you're in Detroit today, look for my disembodied head! And tomorrow, I'll be all there. Except when I'm thinking good thoughts about the little girl dancing hip-hop to Run-D.M.C.

Clergy Burnout, Clergy Health

Yeah right. A couple of articles are making the rounds among my friends right now. The first article is by Craig Barnes (the new president of Princeton Seminary) and provides his reflections on why pastors cannot (or should not) be friends with parishioners. Of course there can be close and intimate relationships, and pastor and flock are friendly to one another. But Barnes argues that the clergy role is such that true mutual friendship is impossible, or at least inadvisable.

The second article is about a pastor of a large church in Charlotte who's on a leave of absence at a treatment center after struggling with depression and alcohol abuse.

Lots I could say about these articles. To the question of friendship, I give it a big "it depends." It depends on the church and it depends on the pastor. I think small churches ask for more transparent relationships than larger churches do. It also depends on what we mean by friendship. Human beings have a lot of different kinds of friends. Hopefully we have deep soul friends who know all there is to know about us. We also have friends with whom we can relax and be ourselves but who don't necessarily know where all the bodies are buried. We have friends who help us remember to have fun. We have friends who are friends for a season of our lives. Pastor-parishioner friendships, to the extent that they exist and can be healthy, may be in that category.

As for the second article, I wish Pastor Shoemaker and the congregation well, and I commend the vulnerability and authenticity required to be up front about what he needs at this time.

But two quotes stuck out to me. First, Craig Barnes:

The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships. Or at least that’s what pastors tell themselves.

It sounds like that's what he tells himself... since he goes on to say:

I suppose I could have pulled back from the church and tried to meet more people through the PTA, the Little League, a political party or the volunteer fire department. I could even have convinced myself that this is part of my local mission as a Christian. But I love being a pastor, and I love the churches I’ve served. And they are demanding lovers.

The other quote is in the second article and is from Jody Seymour, pastor of Davidson United Methodist Church and someone who works with clergy who are struggling with burnout:

If you’re a good pastor, you’re never ‘off.’ If you’re on vacation and somebody dies, you have to come back.

Really? Because even Jesus took his time getting back after somebody died.

Look. Are pastoral boundaries important? Absolutely. And different kinds of friendships have their boundaries too.

And have I responded to a pastoral crisis while on vacation? Yes.

But generally speaking, both of these comments (and perhaps the articles in general) reveal a model of ministry that is, frankly, passing away as the guild becomes younger and less male-dominated. Younger people want a leader they can relate to more than one who holds up a lofty ideal; they seek identification more than inspiration. And women, well, we have a different way of negotiating boundaries than do men. Again, I'm speaking generally.

Also, as churches get smaller and more and more pastors become part-time, the dynamics will change even more.

What do you think?

Sabbath: What Does It Mean to Stop Working?

As our family gets more into a regular practice of Sabbath observance, I find myself thinking about how to define work, i.e. that thing that we're supposed to stop doing during Sabbath time. I tell church folks when I speak about this that the Sabbath is given as a "delight" (Isaiah), so Sabbath time can include those delightful activities that bring us joy. For some people, gardening is restful and appropriate for Sabbath; for others, it is drudgery. I was talking to a friend about the Jewish observance of Sabbath, with its many guidelines handed down over generations, which he good-naturedly described as "OCD." (By the way, this friend is Jewish, or was raised Jewish, or is nominally culturally Jewish---I'm not really sure how to describe him, but trust he'll chime in shortly.)

I've done some reading about the Jewish Sabbath, specifically what is and is not, well, kosher to do on that day. As I understand it, many Orthodox observers will turn on the lights they need before Sabbath begins, because while it's OK to use electricity, it is off-limits to operate it. And they may pre-tear toilet paper so as not to have to tear on the Sabbath. (Hey, Ecclesiastes specifically says there is a time to tear; I'm calling that a biblical basis.) Blu Greenberg writes in the above-linked book:

Preparing paper in advance seems so remote from holy time. The objective outsider might say, 'This is pure legalism and highly ridiculous besides; there's no work involved in tearing a piece of perforated toilet paper on the Sabbath.' To which an insider might respond, 'Look how clever the Rabbis were: even in as mundane a place as the bathroom, one is reminded of the uniqueness of the day.'

I must admit that I can relate to both perspectives. To the second, I find that Sabbath is more meaningful when I have prepared for it rather than have it be something that suddenly befalls me. Last Friday night I hurriedly finished folding the clothes, not because the next day's Sabbath would be ruined if I didn't finish, nor because I wouldn't let myself begin Sabbath until I'd done it, but because it felt like a clear act of delineation: Tonight, I bring a little order to the chaos in our household. Tomorrow I rest.

But the question remains: What is work? When you have a child who's still in diapers, and daughters who are only self-entertaining for periodic bursts and certainly not for a whole day, and klutzy parents who spill things on the kitchen floor, there's just a basic level of upkeep that's necessary. And while caring for family is a great joy, it is also work. And if you're already doing that kind of work, it's easy to find yourself lurching, zombie-like, into other kinds of work without even realizing it.

Another grey area: I am a hopeless Cleaner As I Go. If I'm walking upstairs anyway and I see the pair of shoes I left on the stairs that need to be taken up, what do I do? Does it undermine the restful, leave-it-be mindset to pick them up and take them with me? What if it's a 30 pound laundry basket instead of a pair of shoes? Does it matter? If I don't do it and it continues to nag at me, is that a mindset to be overcome, or do I just complete the task, because hey, I have the freedom to define this as I please?

Circling back around to my friend's "OCD" comment---yes, it does seem that way. But I'm also very sympathetic to an observance of Sabbath in which the boundaries are clear. It's not the doing of the stuff that's a burden per se, it's the deciding whether it's in or out that causes angst. We've all heard those stories about how crippling it can be to have too many choices.

What is work to you? And what does resting from that work entail for you? Here's an answer from a friend. Here's my current line in the sand, just because I need one: the work I end up doing on the Sabbath can only grow out of things that occurred on the Sabbath. So of course I'm going to change my kid's diaper, but I'm not changing the overflowing diaper pail. So I will clear the breakfast and lunch dishes, and may even wash them if we won't have clean ones for dinner otherwise, but I will not unload the dishwasher from the night before. I will clean up the Thomas track that my son insisted that I build and has now abandoned for other delights, but the pile of library books leftover from a mid-week reading blitz will stay untouched. So there is still work on the Sabbath, but it is all self-contained in its own temporal parentheses.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a Getting Things Done fanatic, and part of that system is getting the details out of one's head so as to cultivate a "mind like water"---an uncluttered, unworried mind that can focus on whatever is most important in that moment. Having some boundaries in place feels like a way to have a Sabbath like water.


Forthright Clarity

I'm thinking this week about bullies, and dealing with bullies, and how we speak the truth in love, as I prepare for this Sunday's sermon, which will deal with these matters. (Any ideas? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.) I am remembering fondly an experience from last summer that didn't relate to bullying, but did exemplify assertiveness at its best:

We had taken the kids and Mom to a “family show” with our perennial favorite, Billy Jonas. I found out about the concert completely by accident—was planning to send a CD to one of our relatives and discovered that he was going to be in town.

Our family adores Billy Jonas. His music is imaginative, smart, funny, and very catchy. He uses a series of found items as instruments, including a bass drum made from a big blue plastic trash can, a Little Tikes chair, and a skateboard. He has drumsticks attached to his Vans which he uses to hit salad bowls, bells and horns. His CD “What Kind of Cat Are You?” was the only thing that quieted baby Margaret on a road trip to Maine several summers ago, and the effect was instantaneous and almost spooky.

And Billy's concerts are wondrous. He is like the Pied Piper up there, able to teach words and motions in a way that is not at all tedious. Family concerts are a tough gig—you can tell immediately when you’re losing the audience. Yet he got the crowd back when attention spans waned.

For his final song he brings people up on stage and has them “Bang and Sang” along with him on various instruments. We were sitting on the front row and somehow Caroline got invited up on stage.

She is a reserved child in all but the most comfortable settings, and while she had just finished drama camp the day before and had declared her stage fright “cured,” this was a whole ‘nother deal. So I decided to give her one and only one verbal push: “Go on, sweetie!”

Then I stopped to see what she’d do.

caro_billy.jpgShe went up on stage and Billy gave her the Nimbus 2000—a broom stick with a tambourine on top. He showed her the rhythm, a slightly complicated combination of shaking and tapping, which she did perfectly.

Billy then proceeded to fiddle with some of the other stuff on stage to get ready for the song to begin. Meanwhile I readied the camera. I looked up to see Caroline conferring with this idol of her childhood.

I heard her say, quietly but clearly, "I don't want to do this after all."

He offered her another instrument which she declined.

What was he going to do? I wondered.

He turned to the audience and said, “Wow, folks... such forthright clarity. Well, it’s always good to know what you don’t want to do. Everybody give her a round of applause!”

She came and sat back down and nestled into me, her eyes rimmed with that red that I remember so well from childhood, when I felt that I had pushed myself too far and felt embarrassed. Another girl was called forward and completed the task, looking at her parents the whole time with an expression of combined terror and shyness.

It is so tough to know how hard to push a child. We don’t grow unless we stretch ourselves. On the other hand, being able to tell someone—especially an authority figure—”I don’t want to do this” is an incredible thing. I hope she will remember how to do this her whole life.

We greeted Billy after the show and he thanked Caroline for coming on stage and also for saying what she was comfortable with. “That's a very brave thing to do,” he said.

One of our friends who was at the concert was impressed with Billy’s ability to handle the moment so graciously. And then he said thoughtfully, “Forthright clarity. Yes, that’s Caroline in a nutshell.”

...Have you had a moment of forthright clarity? What images come to mind when you consider what it means to "speak the truth in love"?

No is a Complete Sentence

So I'm doing this sermon series called "What's Love Got to Do with It: Creating Functional Families and Communities of Peace." We're dealing with the command to "love our neighbor" and looking at some of the complexities of that (it sounds simple but it's not, eh?) I have not yet donned a Tina Turner wig... Anyway, here is this week's offering:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church September 19, 2010 What’s Love Got to Do with It: Sermon Series Exodus 18:13-27

No is a Complete Sentence: Setting Healthy Boundaries

The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’ 15Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’ 17Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. 18You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’

24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.

I love this story and I don’t understand why we don’t hear it more often. The situation is such a modern one. It would make a great addition to one of those “Jesus as CEO” management books, in a chapter called “The Importance of Delegating.” The story has such a genuine ring to it—these biblical heroes so often seem too good to be true—or too dastardly—but here we see just a little bit of Moses, the stressed-out middle manager. He doesn’t have it all figured out. He’s a bit of a workaholic. He doesn’t know how to say no. My pastoral care professors in seminary would say, he doesn’t have good boundaries. It feels like it could have been written last week… except that we don’t meet a lot of people named Jethro anymore. Which is a shame, because everybody needs a Jethro.

Jethro takes one look at Moses and sees all the signs of trouble. Maybe it’s the bags under his eyes. The brittleness in his voice as he snaps at others. The way he slumps his shoulders and can’t find enjoyment. Moses is overworked.

Jethro says, What are you doing? And Moses, perhaps a little defensively, says, I am doing God’s work. The people need me. This is important stuff.

Moses has fallen into what I’ve heard described as the Messiah Trap: a net that pulls people in because they believe these two lies: "If I don't do it, it won't get done," and "Everyone's needs take priority over mine."[i]

And Jethro says No to that. In one of the most blunt statements in all of scripture, he says, “What you are doing is not good.” Remarkable. Moses is doing good! And yet something about it is not good.

Do you have a Jethro? Someone who can take a long loving look at your life and say, “What you are doing is not good”?

I have a few Jethros—people who help me not to be consumed by good work. But my most effective Jethro is one who is no longer with us. As most of you know, my father died suddenly many years ago. It was two days after accepting my first call to ministry, and two weeks before becoming a parent. Dad died of cardiac arrest. It was shocking, but if I'm completely honest, not truly surprising. He generally ate what he wanted. He didn’t really exercise regularly. He used to be a faithful blood donor until the Houston Blood Bank started putting the cholesterol count on the cards as an “added service”—he didn’t want to know. And he worked too much in a very stressful job.

There’s something powerful in the timing of his death, wedged as it was in between two of the most important events of my life, ordination and parenthood. So he’s my Jethro. At the end of the day, when I am faced with the decision of making just one more phone call, or walking on the treadmill, I think of him. Or when I have an article to write, and the kids want me to read them a story, I think of him.

Who is your Jethro?

* * *

I spoke last week about how we are created for harmony—we are created for community. So I’m not suggesting we remove ourselves from the needs of others. There are people who depend on us. But we can’t let ourselves be consumed. “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.” –Thomas Merton

We have to say No sometimes.

One of the ways we say no, one of the ways we set a healthy boundary around our time, is through the practice of Sabbath: taking time each week to rest from our labor, to let everything go for a little while to rest and to remember that the world will turn without all of our good works. Sabbath shows up two chapters later in Exodus, when Moses receives the Ten Commandments. I have to think that his conversation with Jethro helped him to receive more graciously the commandment to keep the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath day is a gift for the Jewish people even to this day, because it reminds them of the time when their ancestors (Moses’ generation) were slaves to Pharoah’s command—when they were forced to work, not five or six days a week, but every day of the week. There was no freedom, there was no relief, just constant expectations of doing more, producing more, building more. Thus the Jewish observance of Sabbath is not really about “time management.” It’s not even really about resting and recharging one’s batteries. It is an exclamation to the world:

We are not slaves to the empire any more! We are free!

We make that declaration as well when we observe Sabbath time, when we say No to overwork, when we set healthy boundaries for ourselves. To be able to choose not to be captive to constant work---that is freedom. Sabbath is huge for me and for our family. Our Sabbath time fluctuates each week, but it is one of the most important spiritual practice we do as a family.

But it’s not easy just to lay everything aside and simply Stop.

One of the things I try to do is reframe those loose ends that don’t get done. Rather than looking at an unfinished task and seeing something I’ve failed to do, I see instead what that unfinished task represents: namely, something else that’s important that I have done:

For example, when I look at our stack of unread newspapers, I think about the hospital visit I did this week. Or when I see the unanswered e-mail piling up, I think about the trip to Baskin- Robbins I took with the family instead. When I look at a mountain of unsorted and unfolded laundry the size of Everest, I see the delightful novel that I read with my feet up the night before!

…Because saying No to something allows us to say Yes to something else.

Moses gets this, I think—Jethro says, By letting go of some things now, you’ll be able to endure in your ministry much, much longer. Moses stops being a Lone Ranger for the sake of longevity. Notice also that Jethro urges Moses to delegate the little things. He’s still in charge of the big stuff. And this may be a good starting point for those of us who have a hard time saying No. Start with something small! (Yesterday at the International Children’s Festival, someone asked me to fill out a survey. I always do those things, but this time I said “Thank you, but No”! It was so small but felt sooo good…)

Now, up to now we’ve talked about setting boundaries around our time. But we also know that there are sometimes people in our lives who are toxic. I’m not talking about dropping people who are inconvenient or even difficult. I’m talking about destructive relationships that drain the joy and purpose from our lives.

It’s hard to know the faithful response to these situations. I heard an incredible story this week from a church member who had a terribly abrasive colleague. She faced a choice: do I ignore, do I fight back? She decided to smother her with kindness. It was a true “slap on the cheek, offer the other one” experience. And that approach with her colleague improved, and opened up some incredible opportunities for her career.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Many of us grew up with the “good girl/good boy” syndrome. We were taught to be nice. We don’t want to make waves or raise our voice. However, to quote a colleague and friend, “It will not shock you to learn that sometimes the response to constant sweetness and niceness and affirmation is not honey but, in fact, vinegar. Sometimes you must raise your voice to be heard. Sometimes you have to hold up your hand and interrupt and say ‘You may not speak to me that way.’ Sometimes you even have to say No. [But] nobody thanks you for setting boundaries, it turns out. They don’t gush, ‘Oh, that was so nice of you!’”[ii] And so it’s hard. And yet it is vital work, being firm and enforcing boundaries. Sometimes, it is precisely the work to which God is calling us.

Read with me, if you will, the poem on the front of your bulletin. It is a favorite of mine and many other folks; I know people who have practically made this their personal mission statement:

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice-- though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. "Mend my life!" each voice cried. But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do-- determined to save the only life you could save.

--Mary Oliver, “The Journey”

I think there’s something in many of us that bristles at that. “But people are counting on me! I have to save them too!” Yes… and no.

I think the poet knows, as perhaps Jethro also knew, that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves only works… if we love ourselves! I don’t think it’s possible to truly love our neighbor effectively unless we love ourselves.

What’s more, I think loving ourselves is one of our ways of loving God. Not that we are God, but we honor the One who created us when we treat ourselves with reverence and care.

Maybe you’ve heard the mnemonic J.O.Y.—Jesus first, others second, yourself last. That’s the key to JOY, the saying goes, to put the needs of others first. I guess that works for some people, but I have seen that backfire in tragic ways, usually among women. I know a woman named R. who grew up with that message. I led a retreat one time on Sabbath and she argued with me—“I’m sorry, too many people are counting on me; I can’t afford to take time for myself.” Sadly, her health started to fail, but she refused to deal with it until it was too late. She passed away in her mid-50s. Now, there were many factors that led to her death. But I am convinced that the “others always come first” message played a role.

Love your neighbor… as yourself. You will wear yourself out. What you are doing is good… but you are doing too much, and therefore it is not good.

* * *

I’ve recently rediscovered what many know as the “serenity prayer.” It’s come back into my life in recent days, and I’ve realized that it’s really a prayer about setting healthy boundaries. Let it be our prayer today:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

[i] When Helping You is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap, by Carmen Renee Berry

[ii] Many thanks to “Juniper” for this excellent blog post: