Sunday, September 27, 2009

Confession is good for the soul, right?

I have a confession to make. I sort of feel like as soon as I make it I will feel incredible guilt, but it's a fact I live with every Sunday and someone needs to know, so why not the whole world wide web? I think that's a logic leap that is only possible through blogging or twitter, but whatever.

Here goes....

I hate children's time.

There. I said it. Not that I hate children, that's not the case at all. I LOVE children. I love it when they come and sit in my lap during worship. I love when they run and give me hugs any time they see me. I love when they whisper in my ear when they are bored with the prayer time. (ok, so I don't always love that, but it does make me smile). I love kids of all ages. I love their questions and their answers. I love kids.

I just hate children's moment. There is no other area of life that makes me feel more inept at conversation and communication. I said once at my last church (after a children's moment that flopped) "Children's moments are like a box of chocolate, you never know what you're going to get." And it's true. You never know whether the kids will identify or give the right answers (meaning the ones that lead you to your point).

I always struggle to come up with some short, pithy, child-like story or object lesson that connects to the sermon. And inevitably, the days I feel like I have the best connection the story ends up aimed more at adults than children. Sometimes I feel like the kids are just pawns for me to better explain my point to the adults, and that doesn't feel right either.

Some of you may offer an easy fix--just ask someone else to do the children's moment--I could, but I feel bad because I am more of a last minute sermon writer and it doesn't feel fair to only give them a scripture or a theme (especially if the theme is not fully developed) or to only give someone a matter of hours to prepare. I have been working to be more prepared with sermon planning and preparation to be able to tell everyone involved in worship what the central theme is so they can design everything around it, but that has been a slow evolution for me.

So for now, I am stuck, in a sense, trying to be creative and use easy language to connect with the kids. Fortunately, our ministry fair is about 6 weeks away and there will be a possibility for people to sign up to help with children's moments and maybe that will relieve the pressure and make me get on my game with sermon prep!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Burn Out

For months I struggled to find the creativity and energy I was accustomed to. My fuse was short and I was easily upset and irritated by even minor things. I knew I didn't feel like "me" but didn't feel I was depressed like I have been in years past.

Basically I muddled through and got the job done. Generally I felt good about the work I was doing, but I struggled to muster energy or enthusiasm for Bible study (of which I taught 3 a week) or even Sunday morning worship. I knew something wasn't right, but had no idea how to name it or fix it.

One night, late, I sat down and talked with a friend/spiritual mentor/colleague. I shared how I was feeling: my fatigue, my frustrations, my lack of drive and he said, "What you're describing sounds like burn out." As soon as he said it, I started to cry. I knew he was right. I didn't want him to be right, but I knew he was. He asked if I had vacation time coming up and I said, "Well, sort of, but it's already scheduled and I will be running a major event and climbing a really tall mountain. It's time off, but not really vacation."

He recommended that I take some time away and said that I'd need more than just one week.

The next day I called my (official) mentor and shared what I had with G. When I said, "He said it sounds like burn out," her response was, "Well, it doesn't surprise me. You've been going full bore for so long, it was bound to happen." Her words stung (I didn't want to be burnt out) but I knew she too was right. She also asked if I had time off coming up and I gave the same answer. She recommended I take a full month off to recover and get restored.

She told me to talk to my SPRC and even my DS and ask for their support. She said, "Can you do that?" I said, "Well, I can do that, but I don't want to. I don't want to be the one who is burnt out. I'm only in my fourth year of ministry."

She understood but still urged me to take a break and ask for help. I didn't want to ask for help. And I didn't want to be the one who had to ask for help. I don't like asking for help in general (and that's when things are good), let alone when things are bad (and God forbid I should have to admit failure or weakness or some other frailty of the human condition).

I really struggled with the notion that I should take time off, or let go of some of my responsibilities. I also knew that one of the pastors I admire most had had a (self-acknowledged) mental breakdown because he worked himself into the ground (but took time off and has since recovered). I knew that if I didn't attend to things then, they would only get worse.

Fortunately, I had already decided to make August a month of sabbath for the whole church. I would not be teaching any Bible studies. I had encouraged all the committee leaders to give their committees the month off. In other words, aside from Sundays and staff meetings, nothing else was pre-scheduled for an entire month.

I scheduled a meeting with my SPRC chair and told her what was going on with me. She was very understanding and concerned and told me to do whatever I needed to feel better and be restored.

So, for the next month, I laid low. I worked a minimal work-week (30-40 hours instead of 50-60) and tried to do only the necessary things. I preached and led worship, answered phone calls, and did hospital visits. I ran staff meeting and kept the general planning for the church moving. I also took time to rest (sometimes probably more because of depression than an actual need to sleep--but either way it was important). I dealt with issues in my personal life and gave myself permission not to be a frantic workaholic (a task that is harder than it sounds....even on vacation I was compelled to answer phone calls and plan programs and sort out church conflict).

After four weeks of "part-time" work, I finally feel better. I feel like myself again. I get excited about teaching and preaching and have enthusiasm and energy and lots of ideas for the work we are doing.

Burn out isn't simply something that happens to the 'old guys/gals who have been doing this forever'. Burn out is something that can happen to any of us if we don't set good boundaries, if we have insufficient personal (or professional) support, or if we work far too many hours and do way too many things (even for all the "right" reasons). Burn out can happen, even to the youngest clergy member in the conference.

I am grateful for G and H who named it for what it was. I am grateful I had already planned August for sabbath so I didn't have to feel like I was bailing but instead just following the plan (it also made me think that every August should be sabbath as it was a nice reprieve for everyone from the routine of meetings and weekly Bible study commitments). I am grateful for B who called every day to make sure I was ok. I am grateful for R who did cooking and cleaning and laundry when I simply couldn't muster the energy. I am grateful it didn't take a bigger toll on my physical health. I am grateful for an SPRC chair who was 100% supportive and would send me notes of encouragement and reminders to take time away and to honor my weekly day of sabbath.

And now, as I feel "recovered" I keep reminding myself not to pick up a million projects all over again, to slow down and wait, for the busy season will come all on its own--I do not have to go looking for extra things to do. And, as of yesterday's staff meeting, it seems the busy season is nearly here...two weeks before there is a flurry of activity in the church associated with baptisms, stewardship, membership classes, major fundraisers, and special Sundays!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Abundant love

Over the last 15 months, I have blogged various times about our work with the homeless. We have struggled with what to do as a church, confronted those opposed to the ministries, expanded the work we do, wrestled with the city, wrestled with our own internal conflicts, and continued to grow in grace.

In my work with these ministries I have witnessed many relationships. Relationships are a quirky thing when you live on the streets. Rarely do you get something for nothing, there always seems to be a trade involved. People (at least from what I see and experience) aren't simply friends to be friends, there's always something at stake. People are befriended because they can get you something (food, shelter, cigarettes, information, or whatever substance your body is craving). Often the relationships are abusive and "transactional"--continued only for the trade-off that can be negotiated.

yet, in the last few months I have witnessed one relationship that stands out to me as exemplary of the true depth of love.

C is one of "our guys" who sleeps at the church. He has been sober for 8 months now and has been a model and example of what we hope for in our work (progress, sobriety, feeling loved by those around him regardless) and since sobering up, he has been able to reconnect with his ex and their young daughter. T and their daughter come to the church in the evenings to spend time relaxing and talking with C. Not the "dates" most of us would dream of (or even think of as reasonable or desirable) but they are faithfully trying to rebuild trust together and forge a new beginning in their relationship.

It is awesome to me that after two years of being estranged (and strained) that they are both willing to come together to seek redemption in their relationship with one another.

I am impressed and inspired by T's resilience and commitment to try and make things work. Regardless of the fact that C doesn't work (and hasn't for a long time), fights his addiction, he sleeps "on the streets" and cannot provide for her or her daughter, she still has hope for him and for their relationship.

Relationships are hard and they take intentionality and work. They are doubly (if not quadruply) hard when you deal with an addiction, let alone joblessness and homelessness. I admire C and T for all they do for one another and for their patience in rebuilding their relationship. I really am impressed and inspired by this example of love.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I’m a fairly competitive person. My family would say I am a sore loser. I would say I like to win. Growing up, everything was a competition in my mind. I competed with classmates for the best grades (getting angry and aggravated over a 0.02 point difference in our GPAs). I competed (in my own mind) with my siblings’ accomplishments. Everything was about being “the best” or “the top.” Competition was a way of life in high school. And, as salutatorian, class president, and cheer co-captain that worked for me.

When I got to college (UCLA) I fell of my pedestal as I met class president after class president, and valedictorian after valedictorian. At UCLA, it seemed, everyone was “the best”. In those early months, I made a choice. I chose out of honors and away from grades. I chose not to compete. I saw the things I had lost because I was so focused on the grade, rather than the learning. As a competitor, I would cut myself no slack. There were no excuses for second best. There was no grace. There was no justification for failure. And that first year of college, I pretty much walked away.

My whole attitude toward school and learning changed. (I would say that the classes with Chip Anderson played a MAJOR role in this as I learned to be a “learner” rather than a “student”.) I began focusing on what I was learning, rather than the grade I was getting. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t start failing school with this new approach. Rather, my grades reflected the fact that I was actually learning. (Go figure!)

I am still fairly driven, but I try not to compare myself constantly to others and ridicule myself for the ways I don’t measure up. I still have rigorous standards for myself (possibly too rigorous) and like to achieve things. I am goal oriented and like achieving the goal. But I try to steer away from competition. I don’t focus on sports or competitions. I can do most things, but don’t perfect many things because I get too drawn into the evaluation and competitive nature of being “the best” all over again.

Generally, I would say this has benefitted me (and my relationships). I am more relaxed. Less tense. More gracious (with myself and with others). And more easy going. I’m good with that.

Well, recently at Family Camp, I joined a game of spoons. I have played many times and used to be pretty good at it. A friend gave me her spot so I could play (I came in very late in the game) and I did fairly well. But as I acquired more letters, I got more and more frustrated. My fuse got extremely short and my patience for “friendly” banter and physical scrambles for the spoons became obsolete. I finally finished spelling “SPOONS” (much like you would with “HORSE” in basketball) and left the game. As I left, I could feel something in me raging. It was like my old self and new self were at war. My old self was disgusted with losing, ready to throw insults and caddy banter at the other players and to be the “sore loser” I am notorious for being; and my new self reasoned “it’s only a game” and “it’s not worth being physically aggressive.”

To be quite honest, my old self was winning the argument. I was grumpy and irritable and ready to let loose on the next person that mentioned it. I was no longer friendly and amiable and gracious. My old self was back in full force.

And all I could think was, “This is why I don’t compete! It does not bring out the best in me. Nothing in me is righteous right now.”

Fortunately, it was late, and I had a private room, so I could sulk on my own and then process what exactly was taking place inside of me. In many ways, being super competitive is an old habit. A habit I thought I had kicked. It’s amazing to me how guttural and entrenched my reactions were. I didn’t think, “I should compete.” It just happened, and so did the frustration and the bitterness at losing.

It’s no wonder that from a theological or spiritual perspective, we advocate fully leaving behind bad habits. If we continue to hold on, even to just a semblance, we hold onto the habit as a whole. Maybe it looms just below the surface, but it’s there ready to take hold at a moment’s notice. The further removed we get from that habit, the easier it is to rebuke the ugly and callous things that come out in us because of it.

I don’t think this means I shouldn’t ever play a game or sport again, only that I have to proceed consciously. I need to think about how I am engaging the game and making sure that I play to enjoy playing rather than simply to win.