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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Keep the 'elf' in 'self'

When I was getting ready to go off to seminary, my rector gave me the best piece of advice which has stayed with me all these many years later.

He said, "You really have no idea what you're getting yourself into. Which is probably a good thing. When things get tough - and they will get tough - try to remember this: "Keep the 'elf' in 'self'."

My bishop said a very similar thing. He gave me something to hang on my wall. It was made of cloth and held together by a piece of wood at the top and at the bottom. There was a very colorful rainbow stenciled on the top, and these words stenciled across the bottom:
"If you are being run out of town, get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade."
I got the message. When in ordained ministry - especially as leader of a community of faith - a sense of humor is probably the most important thing you can have in your back pocket.

They were both right. Even though I had been around the church for most of my life, when I began my seminary career, I was terribly naive about the institutional church. Surprisingly so.

Which, as my rector said, was probably a good thing.

If I knew then what I know now. . . well, I probably wouldn't be here right now. Nor would I have learned half the things I know and have become half the person I am today.

In anticipation of my time as Proctor Fellow (or, 'Scholar', as they are apparently calling it now), I've been thinking about the questions seminarians might ask of me. That has lead me to think about the questions I had when I was first in seminary which followed me until I was just about to graduate and be ordained.

Actually, the 'burning issue' at that time was the ordination of women. When I entered seminary, it had only been seven years since the church had made canonical revisions to allow women to be "regularly" ordained.

Indeed, I was the fifth and the last woman my bishop ordained to the priesthood before he retired. Mind you, he had voted against the ordination of women and made impassioned speeches against such "theological innovations" on the floor of the House of Bishops.

Just as we were - or were not - making the adjustment to "the new" (1979) prayer book, and the presence of women at the altar, the AIDS crisis hit.

I still have my button that says, "Our church has AIDS."  It was a scandalous statement to have made at that time. 

I clearly remember Ms. Conroy raising her voice to me - which she rarely does (I'm much more often the culprit) - about my resume and CDO Profile. I had included both my work with Integrity as well as my work with the Boston Ecumenical AIDS Task Force.

Please Note: it was a 'Task Force'. As if we had a task to do and, when it was all over, we could all go back to 'normal' again. Guess I wasn't the only one who was naive, eh?

She begged me to remove those two references from my resume. "You're one of the first 100 women to be ordained in the church. You'll have a hard enough time getting called anywhere. For goodness sake, don't wave the 'lesbian' and the 'gay' flag when you've already got a red flag on the playing field."

In one of the rare times when I have not taken her advice, I kept it in.

We laugh about it now. It wasn't funny, then.

Here's the burning question I remember asking, and how I would answer today, twenty-five years later. Since I'm a woman,  and the time being what it was, I asked every male and female, lay and ordained:

What advice would you give to a newly ordained woman in ministry?

The following will probably appeal mostly to women, but I think there are enough corollaries to keep a male audience attentive.

First thing: Understand and accept - right now - that you will be watched CAREFULLY. Everything you do. Everything you say - and lots of things you didn't. Everything you wear.

So, first: women, get yourself a good bra.

I'm serious.

There's nothing more distracting than to watch a woman preside at Eucharist and begin the Sursum Corda ". . . .Lift up your hearts . . ." while she adjusts the straps on her bra. I have seen this happen too often not to say something.

And men - whether you wear tighty-whiteys or boxers, make sure you "adjust" yourself before you leave the sacristy. The altar will not hide what you are doing. We see you. We know. And, it's not a pretty picture.

People will watch every movement you make. Indeed, Ms. Conroy once said to me, "We see you, you know. We know when you are 'counting us'. Stop it. Lead us in prayer."

Easy for her to say.

If you're going to wear lipstick - I do, otherwise people ask me if I'm okay - make sure you blot it carefully before you put on your alb and certainly before you leave the sacristy. The 'old school' Directoresses of Altar Guilds are still out there - no matter how old or young they are - and they won't hesitate to place a big pile of lipstick-stained purificators in your mail cubby with a sweet little note that says, "You stained them. You clean them."

By the same token, I know one male priest who was given a box of colored handkerchiefs by the Altar Guild Directoress after a few parishioners had falsely accused him of using the purificators to blow his nose. True story.

Develop your own style of dress. Wear what you want, not what you think is expected of you - except, of course, in those situations like funerals where you want to be formal and respectful. You don't want the attention on you but on what's happening in the liturgy.

It's not about you. It's about who you represent.

When I learned that a few of the older folks at the 8 AM service were distracted at Eucharist by my red nail polish, I stopped wearing colored nail polish, unless I'm on vacation. It's a small sacrifice I'm willing to make.

I know some women who take off their rings before presiding at Eucharist because they don't want to be a distraction. That's fine. I don't. Won't. Just me. You'll figure out for yourself what works for you.

Here's a pet peeve - clergy who wear blue tooth phones on their ear or have their cell phones in their pocket. I actually know of one clergy person who wears her blue tooth - in procession and during the service - and has been known to have phone conversations while doing ablutions.

This is as directive as I'm ever going to get: Don't. Do. That. Ever. Okay?

Long, dangling earrings are fine, but they do tend to make an annoying sound as they hit your plastic clerical collar. To each her own, but don't say I didn't tell you.

Bottom line: dress like the person you are. Know that, whether or not you intend it, what you wear makes a statement about who you are and what you think of your ministry.

It also says something about authority - which is another subject for another time, but it's more important than you know.

Personally, nothing makes me cringe faster than seeing a woman in a black pants suit with a clergy shirt and a 'Roman' tab-style collar, but if that's who you are, then bet the absolute best at it. If it's authentic, ultimately, it will carry the day and people will come to accept that.

Or, not.

If you are true to yourself, at the end of the day if you can still look in the mirror and like what you see, it won't really matter much.

I've been accused of dressing like a "crunchy-granola Earth-mother". I've also been described as being a "gay man in drag". I don't think I look like either, but that's not the point. That's how some perceive me. I've learned that, ultimately, it tells me something more about them than it does me.

By the way, I still have the pair of black penny loafers which Ms. Conroy bought for me as an ordination present. She got them as a wee bit of a joke because, at one point, I fretted that I wouldn't be taken seriously unless I wore what seemed to be the "standard" for Episcopal clergy.

The loafers are still in excellent shape, twenty-five years later, which tells the story of how infrequently I've actually worn them.

One quick story: As I was preparing to head back to Maine for my "candidacy hearings" - yes, that's what they called them in those days - I ran into Sue Hiatt, one of my professors who was also one of the Philadelphia Eleven. She noted my anxiety and asked what was going on.

Perhaps it was because, in retrospect, a silly question to ask - or, perhaps it was because Sue was somewhat renowned for being a rather 'dowdy' dresser that she was surprised by my one question: "What should I wear?"

Always kind and gentle with a marvelous subtle sense of humor, she chuckled and said, "Well, don't wear a wool plaid skirt, a button down shirt and a cardigan sweater, or argyle knee socks and penny loafers." Which was exactly what she had on at the moment.

After we laughed, she said, "Dress like a priest - your understanding of who a priest is and what a priest is and what a priest does - without the collar. Let them see you. Let them see the priest in you."

She was great. I miss her, so. Somehow, being back on campus won't be the same without her gentle but strong presence.

It was Sue who told me about HALT. Do not make a decision or respond to anyone when you're Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. HALT. It sounds trite, but it is good advice.

Remember that while a priest has "life tenure" in parochial ministry, you are not necessarily called to a community for life. You are called to lead a congregation at a particular point in their life cycle, to use the skills and talents God has given you to build on what your predecessor has done and to take the community to the next place they need to be in their community faith life."

It's important to recall the words from that song, "The Gambler": You gotta know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run. You never count your money while you're sittin' at the table. There'll be time enough for countin', when the deal is done."

And, if you do have to run, remember the words of my ordaining bishop and "get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade."

I've blogged on his advice before, but it bears repeating what he said about priesthood: "
A priest is, first and foremost, a Christian, and a Christian is, first and foremost, a grateful person. The life and witness, the ministry and mission of a priest is to be an outward and visible sign and symbol of a grateful heart - whose life is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for all God has done."

"Once you understand your priesthood - whether or not you are ordained - you are also compelled, when required, to be a prophet and a pastor. Ordained priests dedicate their lives to being a manifestation - a living epiphany - of a Eucharistic life of the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving."
Probably the best advice I got came from Katie Sherrod. It was at another time and in a different circumstance, but it was so good, I printed it out and still have it hanging above my desk here at Llangollen:
"Tell them the truth as you always have, hold fast to what you know of love, and live as if the church were really what it says it is.

Be safe. Take care of yourself. Try to have regular massages.

Be with people you love as often as you can.

Ignore the small-minded, the sleek and the petty.

Stoke furry animals who love you.

Keep fresh flowers around.

And, remember, before every human being go 10,000 angels crying, "Make way for the image of God."
Which brings me to another point: find an "escape hatch". Someone to whom you can address your questions and concerns - no matter how seemingly insignificant. Maybe a few someones who are not part of your community of faith.

I don't know what I would have done, over the years, without an Anam Cara (my Spiritual Director), a therapist, a clergy support group, a parochial supervisor, a massage therapist, and a group of friends who really don't care as much about the institutional church as they do our friendship.

An "escape hatch" can also be a place you can go to in order to connect with your core again. Maybe it's the quiet of a chapel, or a place in the woods or by the ocean or in the desert. Maybe it's your bedroom or in your car, where you can roll up the windows, turn up the heat or AC, and sing your favorite songs at the top of your voice as you drive absolutely nowhere.

An escape hatch is a place where you can let it all go. Because, if you hold onto half the stuff that comes at you in the ordinary course of ministry - from the pew to the purple shirts - it will drive you absolutely 'round the bend.

It's okay to get angry. It's what you do with the anger that's important. Anger is a secondary emotion. It's always in reaction or response to something that's really important to you - something in your past or something in your present.

If you can visualize anger as a large rock, in your mind's eye pick it up and look under it. You'll probably find something that's very, very important. Deal with that first before you attend to the problem which mad you so angry in the first place.

Having said that, it's also important to cut yourself some slack. You're not always going to be able to do that. It's not bad, once in a while, to growl. Even Mama animals do that with their cubs. It's sometimes important to let folks know that they've crossed a line - and, that you're human, too.

Oh, some will never forgive you for that - for being human - but, as my Grandmother used to say, "That's on their soul, not yours."

A spiritual director once told me that some people are like "Divine Sandpaper." They are people God sends into your life specifically to "rub you the wrong way".

She said, "How else would you be able to get rid of all the layers of protection you've built up over the years of developing a 'thick skin' and find your 'natural grain'? How else would you be able to shine with your own natural glow?"

Even so, in the process of being "worked over" and "sanded down", you'll need to scream, occasionally, and let it all go.

When you do let it all go, I hope you'll be able to see what is at your core - who is at your core - who has been there with you, all along.

Laughing with you as you roll your eyes and blot your lipstick and adjust your bra strap before leaving the sacristy to preside at Holy Eucharist.

Weeping with you when someone hurts your feelings with a thoughtless, careless, mean-spirited comment and helping you to see that this person was trying to tell you something, not so much about yourself, but about how hurt s/he feels inside. Maybe if s/he hurts you, you'll know just how much s/he's hurting.

Inspiring you to take creative risks for the gospel - or simply trying to help a congregation grow and deepen and move along in their faith development - even when your leadership thinks you're being "insensitive to the needs of some of the older members" or "not understanding the community you serve."

Helping you to move away from looking for someone to "save" you - the bishop, your senior warden, your spouse, or, God forbid, alcohol or food or other substances that change your perception of who is really in charge and the different nature of spiritual and institutional authority.

If you keep Jesus at the center of your life - ordained and private - you'll not only be an effective priest, you'll be an effective Christian.

One theology of priesthood holds that you are ordained to be an "alter Christus" - another Christ re-presentative - at the altar and in the pulpit, in the sacristy and the vestry room, at the bedside and in the nursing home, and anywhere you go with anyone you may or may not know.

Here's the great mystery of priesthood: You can't be that "alter Christus" unless you are authentically yourself.

You are ordained to hold up the 'ordinances' of the church, but you were baptized first to "grow into the full stature of Christ". Don't ever forget that. Probably more important than hanging your ordination certificate on your office wall is to keep your baptismal certificate clearly visible.

There's more stuff - practical, pragmatic stuff about administration and management of staff, etc., but that's where I begin - with the mundane and miniscule things which, if you don't pay attention to them, can loom large and trip you up when you least expect it.

Unless, of course, you keep the 'elf' in self.

And, be grateful.


David Donnell said...

RE: People will watch every movement you make. Indeed, Ms. Conroy once said to me, "We see you, you know. We know when you are 'counting us'. Stop it. Lead us in prayer."

I've been keeping my eyes closed during the Eucharistic Prayer for the last forty years or so, ever since the altars were dragged out from the wall and the majority of the clergy adopted the Bartender Position, providing a show for the congregation rather than leadership in prayer. I can't be "led" by someone who's not facing the same direction I am!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I understand dbdonnell. For two Lenten seasons, I tried "East facing" (but it was really South). During the 8 AM, Rite I service, it felt right. Not so during the 10 AM Rite II service.

From my perspective, it's not a "Bartender" Position so much as one that is more "incarnational" - the way Jesus faced his disciples during the Last Supper.

I know that won't change your mind about this - I'm really not trying to do that - but I hope it gives you another perspective. Another way to think about what's going on.

I hope the only time you close your eyes is during the Eucharistic prayer. I never counted people then - usually while the lessons were being read. Anyway, closing your eyes during the Eucharistic Prayer when you'd rather have the clergy facing at least liturgical East is a good coping mechanism. Good for you.

RevMama said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, for great wisdom straight from the heart.

I've only worn a black suit with a Roman collar a few times - and it was to piss off the boy priests. But, hey, that was Dallas back when there were only 3 of us women priests.

And if someone, clergy or lay, answers their phone during a liturgy, it had better be Jesus calling. I'm just sayin'.

David Donnell said...

Oh, I have my eyes open whenever someone's speaking to me (except occasionally during a reading by an obviously unprepared lector). But since the EP is not addressed to me, I'd just as soon not "watch." Knowing myself as I do, I would no doubt be critiquing the priest's appearance and his/her personal idiosyncrasies. Not a Good Thing!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

db - I understand. Really. It's such a sacred moment that I confess I really have all I can do to stay centered in the moment. Looking at people picking their noses, or scolding children, or chattering and giggling with each other, or (in the case of my last congregation), knitting just breaks my heart.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

RevMama - I finally put up a sign in the Narthex 'Please turn off your cell phones. God can hear you just fine.'

That was after several people had their cell phones go off during my sermon. I just stood there and said, "Shall I wait while you get that?"

Finally, I used to begin the service by welcoming people and then asking them to turn off their cell phones now. I hated it, but it was effective. After about 6 weeks, I didn't have to say it again.

Your point, though, about wearing a black Roman tab collar really speaks to my point about the message our clothing gives. It's very powerful. It can be used - and abused.

I've never been able to wear one - gives me the creeps - but I might be persuaded to if the occasion were right. As you say, just to piss off the boyz.

Suzanne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mary-Cauliflower said...

The other day I visited a Haitian storefront church in Chelsea. There was a sign on the door to the sanctuary that said, "God is most certainly calling you, but not on your cell phone. Please turn it off."

textjunkie said...

"Before every human being go 10,000 angels crying, Make way for the image of God..."

--fantastic. Now that is really something to meditate on (in our daily life and work etc. ;). If only we could all keep that in mind at all times. Thank you so much for your writing!

In one of my several job transitions I thought about seminary and going for priesthood, until I talked to one of the women priests about the process. It made getting a PhD (which I had already done) look like a walk in the park. Everyone one of the clergy has my deepest admiration for having made it through that succession of firing lines. ;) You want to adjust your bra strap and blow your nose during the service, you go right ahead--you earned it. ;)

Derrick said...

Dear Mother Kaeton and RevMama,

Isn't your vocation as a priest to be a priest? And not to be a "woman" priest? Equality is achieved through action and attitude. As a college-aged Episcopalian, hearing women priests joke about dressing certain ways just "to piss off the boyz" is disheartening. I hope you will reconsider the way these comments come off to laypeople who wish to respect all priests ordained by the Church equally.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, Patrick, of course you're right. My vocation is to be a priest. I'm also a woman in a traditionally male role. I am reminded of that every day - sometimes more often in one day than I care to remember. If I have the luxury of forgetting from time to time, my biweekly paycheck is a sharp reminder of the inequality that is my daily bread. It helps to have a sense of humor about it - even if it occasionally disturbs some members of the laity who are listening in on conversations between two ordained female clergy.