On Pies & Bandaids

This reflection was originally posted as a Daily Devotional through the United Church of Christ on November 24, 2014.  

“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them.” – Luke 10:34a

I had a terrific idea for a November Sunday School Service Project.  It was awesome.  We’d gather pumpkin pie supplies – all but the eggs – and the kids would bag them up and decorate them with cute turkeys and pumpkins and it would be perfect for the Food Pantry we support because everyone loves pie.

Then I told the pastor and the administrator for the church* that’s hosted the food pantry for 30 years my wonderful idea.  Well, that’s awfully nice, they said.  But most of our guests don’t have ovens.  Why don’t we ask our folks what they would actually need?

This is what they asked us to do: to make first aid kits – band-aids and bacitracin, soap and washcloths. On that Sunday we told the story of the Good Samaritan – and then I confessed to the kids that I had made assumptions about our neighbors’ needs.  When I paused to listen,  I heard an unexpected story.  Our kids were able to offer them bandages, and salve, and respond to our neighbors’ actual needs, not my assumptions.


God, make us thankful people. Make us generous givers.  Make us humble listeners.  May we have some small part in your story of healing.  Amen.

*Thanks be to God for the hospitality of the Brighton Allston (Massachusetts) Congregational Church, UCC, which hosts a food pantry, a community supper and a thrift shop.

Bike Blessing

This reflection was originally posted as a UCC Daily Devotional on January 4, 2014. It is no longer available on ucc.org.

I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. -Ephesians 1:16

I often commute by bicycle through one of the most congested neighborhoods in greater Boston, Davis Square. At rush hour, this is an obstacle course requiring absolute concentration. My goal is to arrive safely, not quickly – and thus I must stay constantly alert in order to avoid pedestrians as well as car doors. On occasion I loose focus, and get a little too close to a turning vehicle. Sometimes I hear unkind words or blaring horns.

Last week was different. For five days in a row, my commute through Davis Square included a blessing of me and my bicycle. Monday through Thursday, it was the same gentleman, standing at the bus stop, who grinned, raised his hand and called, “God bless you, have a good day, be safe!” as I pedaled past. Once while I was stopped at a light next to him, I told him how much I appreciated his blessings, and he replied “I like to look out for the cyclists, and the moms and babies, and the blind folks who come through the Square.” Friday, it was a different gentleman, who asked me and a fellow cyclist if we were having a good time on our bikes. Yes, we replied. Good, he said – I had fun commuting by bike for thirty years! And then he said, “God bless you and be safe.”

This week, as I rode through the Square, I could not stop thinking about these gentlemen, and their blessings. What gifts of peace in the storm!  I do not cease to give thanks for them and I remember them in my prayers.


God, thank you for the folks who bless us on our way. And whether we’re commuting by foot, bus, bike or car, may we offer more blessings than blaring horns. Amen.

Associate Ministry

Associate Ministry

Thoughts from the Journey 


In recent months I’ve had occasion to consider best practices in associate staff ministry several times.  First, in the context of the new clergy group I facilitate which is predominantly associate pastors; second in the interfaith religious educators group I meet with in my city; third in the context of the boundary awareness training groups I co-facilitate for our conference.  


It was surprising to me to realize that I’ve spent more time as an associate pastor than as a solo or senior pastor.  This has not been a matter of feeling called to associate ministry. Instead, with each search process I’ve balanced the available positions with my life circumstance in determining which call to take.  At the beginning of my ministry I was the full time breadwinner while my husband was in graduate school. The full time position available was an associate position. When our son was born, we both worked 3/4 time serving as a solo pastor. I later served as a full time interim senior pastor.   More recently, I’ve served as a half time associate pastor while my husband works more than full time. This choice has made possible more time with our son, as well as additional paid and volunteer ministry. I am the denominational counselor to UCC students at Harvard Divinity School, a boundary training developer for our conference, and a climate activist.  I foresee a return to full time solo/senior ministry in the future.


I’ve reviewed this list of positions simply to show that I’ve seen both sides of the associate and senior coin and feel allegiance to both types of positions.  Thus when it comes to best practices, I’m more likely to lean into best practices for any pastoral position, whether associate or senior. I have also experienced the challenges and the blessings of both solo/senior and associate ministry.


It’s fascinating to look back and compare the challenges and blessings of associate ministry and senior/solo ministry.  In my current associate ministry, I am blessed that the buck does not stop in my office. I am not the only pastor able to or expected to respond to a pastoral emergency. My schedule is lighter and more flexible than it has been in full time or solo positions.   I have very specific responsibilities and when I go beyond those responsibilities it is usually by my own choice to take on a project that I am passionate about, and I do so with the collaboration and support of my colleague. However, I very much miss preaching weekly, and the spiritual and scholarly discipline that requires.  I am also aware that I am not the primary vision casting leader, and on the rare occasion when my sense of vision for the congregation varies from my colleague, her vision is the one we pursue. She has final day to day decision making authority, although our congregational polity brings congregants into most of the big decisions.  The power dynamics in a multi-staff context are also complicated, and I have less influence over those dynamics as an associate. Finally, in associate ministry, my professional satisfaction is closely intertwined in my relationship with my senior pastor.


The interview process for an associate position is one moment when we can get a sense of what we are  getting into. I suggest talking to someone who has served as an associate with this particular senior minister.  What is the level of trust and support I’ll receive from this senior minister? How does the senior pastor cast a vision, empower the full team, and manage power dynamics?


In the interview process, I would ask a senior pastor and their reference these questions:


How involved will you be in my day to day ministry?

Do you want someone to direct, or someone with whom to collaborate?

Will you listen to my opinions?

Will you have my back?

Will you honor confidences I share with you?


What follows are my suggestions for associate ministry based in my own experience in multiple settings.  Asterisks indicate these are suggestions for solo/senior pastors, too. I’ve noted where these suggestions come from specific books or resources.


*Get a life.  This is a word from Marie Fortune of the Faith Trust Institute and means, have a robust personal life outside of your professional setting.  Practice both sabbath and self-care, and attend to relationships outside of the congregation.


*Get support.  My clergy covenant group has saved my spirit, kept me in ministry, and showed me what beautiful ministry looks like.  My spiritual director reminds me I am a beloved child of God and a minister with a lifelong colleague, no matter what my current ministry setting is or what challenges I face in ministry.  Therapists have helped me figure out how my family history influence my reactions and responses in ministry.


Stay in your lane.  In my own time as an associate this has been the most challenging thing for me.  When I perceive a ministry need that is not being addressed, I want to step up, but I need to check in with the senior pastor before doing so. When people in the congregation ask me for my opinion about something, I always have an opinion, but sometimes the best response is, I support the senior pastor on this.  When congregants ask me to function in ways that are in the senior pastor’s job description, not mine, I have to set aside the ego bump I get from the invitation and remember not to overfunction.

Sam Sanders of NPR  recently shared in a podcast episode his daily prayer: “Lord help me find my lane, Lord help me stay in my lane, Lord help me move in my land at the appropriate speed.”  (It’s Been A Minute, April 17, 2018)


Have professional projects where you can fully lead, and about which you are passionate, outside of your congregation.  This is especially important if you are often feeling a desire to move out of your lane in your ministry setting.


Lead where you have the opportunity to lead.  Many associate ministers are specialists.  For example I am fully authorized to lead the children’s programming at my current church so I do my best to lead this program area well.


*Stay on your side of the triangle. Bowen Family Systems Theory describes relational triangles.  (http://www.vermontcenterforfamilystudies.org/about_vcfs/the_eight_concepts_of_bowen_theory/ ) As I understand it, I am not in charge of other people’s relationships.  I do not try to fix other people’s relationships. I attend to my own relationships.    The senior pastor may need to set behavioral norms between other staff members but the senior pastor cannot fix other people’s relationships.  I also cannot fix anyone else’s behavior.


Margaret Marcuson writes: “Here is the heart of what it takes to sustain leadership. We move from the impossible – controlling others – to the merely difficult- managing ourselves.” (Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry  This book has an excellent chapter on navigating ministry triangles.)


*Don’t triangulate.  When people come to you with a complaint about another person within the system, help them find ways to express their concern directly the person.  Don’t do anything with what they’ve told you.


*Generational Loyalty   This concept relates to the idea that parents must be on the same page with each other in terms of their decision making and then present a united front to children.  In the congregation, generational loyalty means that disagreements between senior and associate are processed behind closed doors. When the door is open, both show outward facing support for the decision made.  Whomever is leading a particular effort, the other follows their lead. We do not speak badly about one another with members of the congregation. We do not let congregants draw us into listening to negative commentary about our colleagues – we ask the congregant to take the concern directly to the colleague.  Additionally, generational loyalty means that the senior and associate give each other heads up about potential problems or conflict. As Kevin Lawson and Mick Boersma say, “We are family first, not just leaders of an organization….A radical love for one another, even if there are hard things to be faced and worked through, must characterize our relationships together on staff.” (Supervising and Supporting Ministry Staff: A Guide to Thriving Together by Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma) In another book  of their books, Lawson and Boersma write, “As an associate, when you recognize the benefits that can flow from a good working relationship with your supervisor, the logical question to ask yourself is, what can I do to help bring this about?”  (Associate Staff Ministry: Thriving Personally, Professionally, and Relationally  Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma)


 To the extent that I am able I try to show collegial support and grace to my colleague behind closed doors as much as in public.  For an interesting contrasting perspective on what to do with triangulation and generational loyalty, see Doug Bixby’s Navigating the Nonsense: Church Conflict and Triangulation.


*Go overboard on communication and transparency.  My first senior pastor made this a clear requirement of my position by telling me never to surprise him.  I work very hard to inform the senior pastor of what is going on in my ministry area and what I am sensing within the congregation.  


*Document.  Because it’s always a good idea.


*Game face / positivity  Once the door is open, I put my game face on.  For example: there is a very important Christian holiday that involves a special service.  In one setting where I served as an associate, I did not like the senior pastor’s design of this service.  I expressed my opinion behind closed doors, realized that it was outside my lane to design or critique this service, trusted that the deacons and the senior pastor had consulted, and painted a smile on my face for the duration of the service.   


*Stay calm.  Take a breath. Say a prayer.  Think big picture even if you aren’t the painter of the big picture.  Take notes for later. “In any crisis, our own response contributes to the outcome.”  (Marcuson)


*Integrity and Ethics At the same time, I am not obligated to behave in a manner that goes against my own sense of integrity and ethics.  In such a moment I have many resources available to me, within the congregation (the pastor staff relations committee or moderator) and in my judicatory.


*Tend one’s own relationship with God and celebrate a larger sense of calling.  Ministers are ultimately called by God to do ministry; the ministry of a specific time and setting is subordinate to God’s calling.  “It seems that for real thriving in ministry, nothing is as foundational as the quality of our own relationship with God.” (Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma, Associate Staff Ministry: Thriving Personally, Professionally, and Relationally)


Use the time to learn for the next ministry setting.  Some folks have stayed in the same associate ministry setting for their entire multi-decade career.  God bless them for their fortitude and patience. Even as I revel in the blessings of my current associate ministry setting I am simultaneously filling in the gaps of my experience and knowledge in preparation for a future call.  I am adding to my professional network and profile. 

As you consider an associate position – whether you feel “called to the second chair” or your current situation matches with such a position – I pray that you will be as blessed in your ministry as I have been.




Why I go to Church

Okay, I’m a pastor. It may sound obvious or even self-serving to talk about why I go to church, and why church participation is part of our family life. But I recently read a blog post written by a friend who is not a pastor, who wanted to explain to her friends and wider community why she and her family go to church. (It’s a great read – http://lillibet.livejournal.com/720229.html ) It occurred to me in this back to church season, celebrating why we make church part of our family lives is a good thing to do. When we’re acting counter-culturally by praying and singing and serving together, having reasons helps. When we’re choosing between Sunday School and the fifteen things that must get done before school on Monday, the big picture helps. When we’re trying to figure out how we might invite a friend to give Eliot Church a try, having our own love for this community articulated helps. So – here are my thoughts. And I really would love to hear from you: why do you and your family go to church?

A peace and justice centered vision of the world

There are very few settings in which kindness, joy, generosity, faithfulness, peace, mercy and justice are celebrated. This is where we teach our children to love kindness and do justice, where we become doers of the Word. In this place we learn to turn our energy outward to love and serve our neighbors. More than this, when we speak of our hopes and dreams for our lives and for the world, in this place we talk about God’s Dream, a dream of peace and justice for all people. And because faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, in a faith community we cling to the belief that this vision may become reality! But because this is a practical community, we work together toward that vision of God’s realm.

Space to Share Honestly, Question and Grow

In our prayer time in Sunday School and worship, we don’t just say “I’m fine.” Our kids can share worries about grandparents, pets who are sick, or bullying; our grownups can say out loud Parkinsons, cancer, forest fire, climate change, racism. We struggle with all of this together. A burden is lighter when shared. And our common sense of hope beyond hope gives us strength to minister to the needs of our neighbors and our world. This is also a place where questions are valued and doubts are welcomed, which is especially important to our older children as they come into their own sense of faith.

An intergenerational and inclusive community

  Everyone is welcome here. We value and treasure the two year old and the ninety-two year old. Other than his grandparents, my son does not have deep ties to people over 55 – except through our church community, where he makes cards and sings carols for elders, and they come over to him at coffee hour and ask him questions, and then they work together to serve our Thanksgiving meal. In this place, my family interacts will all kinds of different families, and builds friendships with people of all physical and developmental abilities, too. At church we talk about every single person being God’s beloved child and made in the image of God. That models for my son the way he walks in the world, seeing everyone with loving eyes, and treating everyone with compassion.

A touch of the transcendent

  Every once in a while, in the sanctuary or at coffee hour, we feel a love so tangible it doesn’t make sense. Every once in a while, in our prayers, we hear a wisdom so clear it astonishes us. Every once in a while, we hear a note so glorious that we are sure we have lifted up off our seats.

A connection across time and space

  People have been gathering around Communion tables for two thousand years, and Christian communities gather around the world. When we are together for worship we are connected to something so much bigger than ourselves. Where else can we say that?


Are any of these reasons on your list?

Do you have a friend or neighbor who needs this kind of community? Maybe they might like to hear why you & yours go to church.