First job!

The following is an unpublished post from 2016. Although my son has since moved on to a different job, the lessons learned are still valid.

It all started in music theory class.

Well, sort of. It really all started with being part of a loving Christian community.

My boy, who is on the autism spectrum, is 16. And like many parents of kiddos with disabilities, I worry—more than I like to admit.  We are in the transition phase of his life, when we start to focus on his transition from high school to whatever is next—the workplace, post-secondary education, or a combination of the two.  Will he be able to get a job? Will he be able to navigate life as an adult? Will he be able to live on his own?  Most of all, will people give him a chance to get a job and see past his stims, developing social skills, and odd behaviors?

Before I get to the next part, let me just mention that I have been more in tune with this year’s (2016’s) US Presidential campaign and election.  I have been feeling afraid that one of the leading candidates, should he become president, would be disastrous for my family and especially for my sons, who are both disabled. I imagine program cuts and the things that we have to fight for so that our boys get a fair shake in life just being gone.  I also fear their being victims of hate crimes.  Without going into specifics, just keep in mind that I had been going back and forth in a heated, but friendly, political discussion with a church friend named Jay.  He passionately supports this candidate and I passionately oppose this candidate.

“Jay” and his partner “Troy” had gotten to know my son when they sat together in a music theory class held at our church.  And of course, anyone who sits with my boy and enjoys him wins my heart.  I shared with Jay, who owns a flower and home accents shop, about a non-profit that a friend and I considered starting up.  We would be teaching work ethic and employability skills to older youth and young adults with developmental disabilities. (We since discovered that there were other organizations doing this. Hooray!) Jay then sent me a link to a video that showed a young man with autism who got his dream job as a barista.  I replied to Jay that I hoped that my boy would find a good first job, and that the video gave me hope. He assured me that my son would find a good first job.

Of course, in between all of this, we were discussing the controversial presidential candidate, sometimes heatedly.  I remember worrying that maybe Jay would “unfriend” me on social media. We are both very firm in our beliefs!

So imagine my surprise when Jay messaged me and said that my son had been on his heart and he wanted to help my son by offering him his first job.  (I think this was right after I accused Jay’s favorite candidate with hating people with disabilities.) Jay said that my son could come on Saturdays to clean flower buckets, sweep out the walk in cooler, and perhaps eventually help unload flower shipments.  I talked to him, first reminding him who Jay and Troy were by showing him their pictures on facebook.   He remembered them from music theory class and was open to working at the flower shop. Hooray!

We took a family outing to flower shop as soon as possible.  My son prepared a list of questions, with our help, and asked Jay what he’d wear, if he’d be inside or outside, if he needed to bring anything, and what he’d be doing.  Jay patiently answered his questions and showed my son the back room where he would be working. My son saw the cooler, buckets, sink, and cleaning supplies. He kept saying, “That’s cool!” and a couple of times said, “I can’t wait to earn money!” He found out ahead of time that there was a pug that would be in the back room, too, which was good because he can be uncomfortable around animals. As we left the shop, He said to Jay, “Thank you for your plan to hire me.”  And Jay said, “You’re welcome. It will be fun.”

The whole time we were there, Jay was so warm and welcoming. Troy came out and welcomed us to the store, gave me a hug, shook my husband’s hand, and introduced himself to my daughter.  He informed me that when my son begins, our family will get the employee discount! 

I expressed my deep appreciation to Jay and Troy.  Jay heard my concerns and reached out.  My boy was getting a chance to work and earn a paycheck! And I was hopeful!

Several things I learned through this experience:

1. Affirmation of my parenting: I tend to “interest” my son in things and make him go to things that he’d not choose.  Music theory class was one of those things, and that’s where he met Jay and Troy.

2. Be open- minded and don’t burn bridges: someone who seems to be on the opposite side can actually bring blessings and hope.   If I had said “No” to Jay’s offer because he and I were political opposites, my son would not have this opportunity. Likewise, if Jay would have only been wanting to help someone who shares his political views rather than his faith views, this opportunity would not have come to my son.  I think that, not only will Jay and Troy bless my son, but my son will also bless them.

3.  From a pragmatic point of view, sometimes it is still “who you know” that gets you employment .  Even though I am so very grateful for this opportunity for my son, I know there are others who still are waiting for someone to give them a chance.  This is why we considered beginning our non-profit organization.

4. From a faith point of view: living out the Christian faith despite differences will make a huge positive impact.

My boy got his first job.  And that brings me hope.

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You want to do what? (Why I’m in the mediation biz Part 2)

As I said in a previous post, experiencing embarrassment as a 4th grader and experiencing church conflict as a pastor’s kid made me want to run from speaking out, ministry, and sometimes Christianity altogether.  I still hate conflict.  So, how did I end up here?

God’s call.  Plain and simple answer. The following story, which I edited and reedited to make it shorter and failed, helped shape my call. It is a story of how I set myself up to fail, of people knowing and not warning me of the situation I was entering, and unhealthy communication issues that led to my getting fired from my first ministry position. Looking back on this story, I see how God was at work in my life, shaping my current ministry. So read on if you want. I understand if you don’t because it’s long.

In my third year of seminary, I took my first ministry position as part time student associate pastor. I would be at the parish Friday through Monday and help provide pastoral care, lead the youth group, and preach every Sunday at two of the congregations in the 4-church rural parish, under the guidance of a retired “Full Bird Colonel” Army chaplain who had been there for 20 years.  Tuesday through Thursday I would be at the seminary, about two hours away.

Turns out a lot happened on those Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I was away. I was fired after 9 months. 

What happened?

  1. Month one: I set myself up. I told everyone when I started out at the parish that I wanted to stay for 2 years. Big mistake! I made a “promise” without knowing exactly what I was getting into.  Keep that in mind as you read further.
  2. Months 1-4: Clash with the supervising pastor. My“Full Bird Colonel” supervisor was an authoritarian, where as I was an equipper. In my search for adult volunteers for the youth, I thought first of “Tim and Judy.” My supervisor told me that Tim and Judy were too busy with their toddler and suggested that I not even ask.  I asked anyway—not realizing I was given an “order.”  Their answer was a gracious “no,” which I accepted and I found other adult volunteers.  My supervisor scolded me at staff meeting and suggested that I follow him around with a steno pad and take notes so I would remember what he told me.  I didn’t. Friction ensued and escalated.
  3. Months 1-9: Parsonage issues of the emotional kind. I was the first to live in the brand new parsonage, which the parish was loudly proud of. They were so proud, in fact, that they put a plaque in the hallway–never to be removed — in honor of one of the nicest men in the church who led the building committee (and who didn’t want a plaque.) Three things I did that alarmed them:
    1. Month 1: Accidentally stepped through the ceiling of attic storage (and bruised the heck out of my leg, but they seemed more interested in the hole in the ceiling). 
    1. Month 2: I locked the door behind me as I left the house and forgot my key on the kitchen counter. No biggie; I just went over to “Thelma’s” house—a church member who lived nearby—and borrowed her “emergency” key. At the next staff meeting, my supervisor told me that he heard about the mishap and again scolded me for “losing” the key, wondering if I was up to living in the new parsonage.
    1. Month 5: Risked getting the carpets muddy by not canceling an open house to show everyone the new parsonage after Christmas Eve Worship. I figured it was a good time to let everyone know I was taking good care of the place.  At a “meeting” right before the service that someone forgot to invite me to, they decided I should cancel. I didn’t. The open house went without a hitch, there was lots of laughter and good food, and people loved the décor. But the parsonage committee was not amused! 

It just went downhill from there. The final straw:

  • Month 8: I messed with the church building. Some “mover and shaker” church ladies asked me for suggestions on how to attract young families, who were rapidly moving to our bedroom community. I suggested a room swap between the nursery, which was in a dark room with no windows, and the “office,” a bright and airy space that was underused.  Of course, I told them, they would need to get approval from the church trustees. They didn’t. People were upset. It was my idea so I was blamed. Not only had I been putting the parsonage at risk; now I was messing with the church building.

Other things started to snow ball.  I didn’t preach long enough, I didn’t visit the nursing homes enough, I spent too much time on school work. I began to dread going back to the parish.

Back at the seminary, the internship faculty saw me burning out and losing my confidence. They advised me to go to another place they had found for me, even though I had “promised” to stay two years. After lots of soul searching, I finally decided to go, but only after I had served at least one full year at the parish.

It was the last straw for the supervising pastor, who then called a last minute SPRC meeting (personnel committee) where I was fired. They believed they could get a new intern over the summer, so no need for me to stay the full year.

The seminary didn’t send them any interns for a few years. Turns out I was the second intern to report being treated in this fashion. Some advance notice would have been nice.  

Key learnings:

1.  I now realize that my supervisor and I had very different points of view.  In his point of view, a young female student had come in and disregarded his position and seniority. In my point of view, I was equipping the saints to do ministry and making human mistakes.  Knowing what I know now, I still believe I was treated unfairly but also believe I unknowingly set myself up to fail.

2. I needed to learn how to diffuse, communicate through, and deal with conflict. AAAAACK.  I would see similar patterns of behavior in my first appointment as the solo pastor.

3. I wasn’t alone in not knowing how to deal with conflict. The previous intern, the internship faculty, and the church hierarchy knew about this situation, but didn’t know what to do about it. Too many pastors like myself were burning out and too many churches were dying due to issues like this.  No wonder the church was declining.

So here I am, doing my best to understand my past, learn from my experiences. It feels weird putting myself out here like this, being so vulnerable, knowing that someone who reads this may remember these events differently. My hope is that someone learns something from my experience that empowers her in ministry.

Music, Church, and Family

I post this in celebration of Autism awareness and acceptance month. Those of you who followed my other blog know that I have three kids, two of whom are boys on the autism spectrum and one who is a girl that is “gifted” and very creative. This post is about my middle guy, written in December 2017.

Music is a huge part of my family’s life. We sing, play instruments, and / or enjoy listening to one another at concerts. Church is also a huge part of our lives, of course, since I’m a pastor. What’s awesome, though, is how much my middle guy is invested in our church.

Here’s how much he’s invested in our church:

  • He memorized the locations of all the church campuses and how to get to each from anywhere in the area. He’s a freakin’ GPS.
  • He wants his senior pics taken at each campus.
  • In his piano lessons, he is working on a prelude, offertory, hymns, and postlude as well as the Doxology and Gloria Patri so he can play for church.
  • He once pointed out the location of a campus to some strangers and invited them to go to that service, even though it wasn’t the campus where we attend.

And that’s just the beginning. He also has phenomenal musical skills, so naturally he took part in the Christmas Cantata percussion section last weekend. He played vibes and chimes, and best of all, learned how to play crash cymbals (I got an education in how they aren’t easy even though they look like it) and tympani for the performance.

Let that sink in for a moment. At church, he learned how to play difficult orchestral instruments. Most churches that I have been part of have been squeamish about worshiping with kiddos on the autism spectrum, and teaching them has been waaaay out of the comfort zone. Like knocked out of the comfort zone ballpark.

I knew that my son’s teacher at the church, Mr. Matt, had a music ed degree. I was surprised to learn that was a support staff person for people on the autism spectrum prior to moving to our area.  I’ve known Mr. Matt for a few years and never knew this.

Church family, music, autism acceptance in one place? God is good. That’s how church can be!

Expertise, church size, and location are not what make a church able to minister with those who are different. The key is the willingness to follow Christ and accept those who are different, even when it is uncomfortable.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that my son started in the bell choir. The director and my son had to adjust to working together. The director needed my assistance to learn how to work with my son and my son needed assistance in order to accept direction and learn how to be in a group setting. It wasn’t easy, but the director and my son hung in there. The director was (and is) willing to learn how to work with my son, encourage his abilities. My son has now been a ringer for about 6 years and has some skills! I was shocked when he played 4 bells and 3 chimes at a fast tempo! He’s a confident ringer and has just blossomed!

Not only has my son learned, but the most important thing is that he has a place where he belongs. I’ve witnessed many times how the other teenage bell ringers treat him like family– greeting him, bossing him around, putting up with his bossing them around, etc. I’ve seen my son tell adults in charge that they are in the wrong key or off a beat, and the adults either realize they are indeed wrong and thank him, or tell him where he’s wrong, and they all move on. My son feels comfortable enough to offer and accept correction here. He knows that he belongs.

My prayer for the church is that we put our comfort aside and welcome all, regardless of their circumstance and be a place where those who are different belong. Because they do. We all do. It is the way of Christ. May you, dear reader, know the love and belonging that comes from Jesus.

Checklists

Sometimes I read something seemingly unrelated to my life because I think it might be interesting. Such is the case with my latest read.

I just finished reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, MD. Gawande explains the vital use of simple checklists in operating rooms. These simple checklists have saved patient lives by catching seemingly routine things that are easily forgotten, like administering antibiotics prior to surgery in order to prevent infection. Gawande led a study with WHO to implement these checklists all over the world. The result was that surgery-related deaths and infection rates plummeted– so much so that Gawande questioned the findings ruthlessly before submitting the results.

Interestingly, it was the teamwork and communication around the checklist lead to greater outcomes. Gawande studied multiple disciplines that utilized checklists in order to develop the surgical checklist. In the construction firm he studied, even the lowest-ranked was counted as a valuable team member and could stop the process if she or he saw that something on the checklist was missing or incomplete. The success rates increased dramatically!

I felt really validated by this book. You see, when my sons were little, we developed checklists for EVERYTHING. Kids on the spectrum know when something, no matter how small, is missing. My kids also followed instructions very literally, and if a step was missing that we just figured they’d know, like taking off their shoes before hosing the mud off of them. So our checklists became very detailed, indeed! My checklists continued to be helpful for my ADHD self, and we have packing checklists saved that we print out for every trip, a decorating checklist for Christmas, and detailed checklists for cleaning chores.

Checklists even came in handy when we were in intensive family counseling, when we had a crisis surrounding our oldest kid. We made checklists for outings, play times, after school routines, hygiene, and safety. Each family member gave input and agreed to the checklists. We even had a checklist in place to determine if we needed to call a crisis line if my son was having difficulties. It was, ahem, intense. But it was also helpful to know that there was a plan in place if something were to go wrong.  And many times, going through the simple and intensive lists, we corrected mistakes before they developed into major issues. If we did have to take uncomfortable steps in a crisis situation, they weren’t surprises. Everyone was prepared and on board, even if they didn’t like it. This dramatically minimized the power struggles.

For 2018, I am making new checklists. One of the first I am going to develop is a Response Checklist, which I will go through before I respond to something that really ticks me off. I don’t think I’ll have to reinvent the wheel. There’s always the THINK list: Is what I’m going to say True?…Helpful?… Inspiring?… Necessary?…Kind?  I will also consider carefully and prayerfully my definition of “necessary.” For example, it’s not always necessary to prove I’m right! Another is a checklist of what to do if we face a financial crisis. That one is definitely a family project.

I am hoping that my checklists will be useful tools to navigate 2018. I know that by praying and planning when I am calm, God’s guidance and our preparation will allow us to handle whatever comes our way.

What checklists do you use/ think would be helpful?

Happy New Year!

 

 

Cage the Tiger

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One of my favorite books is Friedman’s Fables by the late Edwin Friedman.  This classic contains fables for life.

One of my favorite fables is “The Friendly Forest.” In this story, a lamb and a tiger live with other animals in a friendly forest.  The lamb is understandably very afraid of the tiger.  The tiger is aggressive toward the lamb.  The lamb expresses concern to her neighbors. The other animals think that the lamb is being silly when it cowers from the tiger’s growls, stares, and other actions.  The tiger is just being a tiger.

After attempting to ignore the tiger, accept that the tiger is what it is (aggressive in nature), living in fear, and trying to get the other animals to support her, the lamb decides to leave the forest.  The other animals think she’s being silly, plead for her to stay, and decide to appeal to the tiger’s reasonable nature by having a meeting to work out the conflict.  The lamb is not so sure about this— her life is in danger! And if the tiger just being a tiger, and nothing is going to change, what’s the point? Finally, one of the less subtle animals speaks its mind.  The animal says that if they want the lamb and the tiger to live peacefully in the forest, they need to give up on making them communicate and cage the tiger.

This fable describes how I felt in my first parish as a pastor. There were tigers.  I was a lamb. When I complained, or asked for help dealing with the tigers, I was advised several times to talk to the persons, or think of what their gifts were and put them to work so they’d feel useful, or just ignore them because they’d always been that way and let things go in one ear and out the other, like everyone else did. No one thought of caging the tiger—especially not me.  I blamed the situation on my being ineffective or just plain incompetent.

Wrong.  After I left that parish I discovered that at least three young pastors had left the ministry after serving there. Another pastor shared that he stayed because he was just plain stubborn and wasn’t going to allow them to push him out. The person that followed me was burned out and anxiety-ridden at the end. A retired pastor said that that church was really hard on him and he had to take time to heal after his time there.  And when I shared with a past bishop what my first appointment was, the bishop’s reaction was, “Oh, dear!” and a shake of the head. I was one more lamb sent to a congregation of tigers.

I am really sick and tired of the tigers being free to destroy the lambs.  So sick of it, in fact, that I heard God’s call to conflict transformation ministry, and interim pastoring, in order to strengthen churches and cage the tigers. The church at large was slow to respond to my offers. I realize now that historically, we “nice church folks” just haven’t known what to do with those pesky tigers.

So, I write this post to give you pastors and other church leaders out there some guidelines for caging the tiger.  If you are in a situation where this process below seems too insurmountable because there are too many tigers at each step, have a consultant like myself come and guide the process.  (Pick me! Pick me!)

Constructing the Cage: Conflict Guidelines

  1. Study the scriptures about conflict. Lead Bible Studies on conflict. Make conflict an okay subject to discuss. Matthew 18 is a great starting place.
  2. Make ground rules, or conflict guidelines, based on these scriptures. Seek wisdom from people in the congregation that are trustworthy, wise colleagues, and your spiritual mentors.
  3. Share the ground rules and get buy-in from the non-tigers. (The tigers will only thwart this.) Discuss different scenarios.
  4. Make the ground rules official. Work according to your church’s polity / bylaws so that each step is above reproach, whether you are led by staff, council/board, elders, etc. (That way, for you UM’s, if they call your District Superintendent and complain, you can document the steps you have taken.) Have a congregational meeting and review the process that has led to the ground rules, remind them of the scripture, and if appropriate, have a congregational meeting to approve the ground rules. Note: Make sure that the ground rules state specifically how your congregation will handle conflict. Make it clear and appropriate to your context. You may want to keep your supervisor (District Superintendent, etc.) in the loop, too.
  5. Go over the ground rules and call attention to them ad nauseum. Read them at administrative meetings, post them in the hallways and bathrooms, put them on your office door, above the water fountains, make a puppet show… anything to make them part of your congregation’s culture.  Take time at your gatherings to go over a ground rule or two and explain it.
  6. Practice, practice, practice. Model how to carry out the ground rules through role plays. For example, show them what to do if a “tiger” comes along and starts complaining.  Here’s a scenario when Matthew 18 is being followed.

Tiger: “I’m really sick of what’s going on around here.”

Person: “What do you mean?”

Tiger: “Pastor is awful.” (Proceeds to start gossiping and trashing the pastor.)

Person: (If necessary, cuts in) “Have your talked to the pastor?” (First step in conflict resolution is one on one conversation with the other person.)

Tiger: “No.”

Person: (Points to the rules on the wall as indicated in step 6.) “Well, then, that’s your first step.  When will you make time to do that?”  (Hint: offer to accompany the tiger if the tiger won’t go alone.)

With this simple role play, you will have equipped people in the meeting to take the first step of caging the tiger before a possible bloodbath.

  1. Follow the ground rules yourself. As a pastor I have had people come to me complaining about other congregants.  Rather than listen to gossip, I learned to direct the person back to the one they were mad at.  If they didn’t want to go alone, I offered to go with them.  It was surprising how many times huge conflicts immediately dissipated.  Funny how that happens.

These are the first steps to caging the tiger.  I’m here if you need active support!