A Pregnant Pause

As we have transitioned in this season from pastor and pastor’s wife to laypeople who quietly sit every Sunday in the back row at a church full of people whom we do not know and who do not know us, it has been a very curious thing to experience the slow change in posture from one-who-ministers to one-who-receives. It took us a few weeks to break out of the mindset of, “Oh I like how they do that; we could have done this in our services too.” Slowly that faded…and as we simply began to enter into Sunday services as our own weary, disoriented selves, we have begun to cherish the ability to just bring our empty cups and have them filled, or at least start to plug and repair a lot of the leaky holes, one by one.

I suppose at this point, I should stop referring to “we” so that my husband can speak for his own experience. For me, there have been at least two main things that have stood out to me in this time.

The first is this very large part of my heart that has tremendous need for God’s comfort, ministry and peace regarding the level of suffering and amount of death I witness regularly as a pediatric ICU nurse. When the husband was still pastoring, and I was leading worship in music on a regular basis, I realize now that for many of those years, I came before God with the posture of a conduit – “Lord, please fill me with Your heart and Your power so that I can give or minister to others.” But I wasn’t receiving what I needed for my very self, because I wasn’t acknowledging that I mattered too. Now, He is telling me that I matter too, and it’s time to pay attention to my own vital signs. I haven’t fully unpacked it yet, and I probably never fully will. But curiously, as I stand in the back row and quietly sing my prayers unmic’d, no longer preoccupied with the musical arrangement of my fingers or the tone quality of my voice, I weep largely out of my own sorrow and confusion and anger and BLAAAHHHH over suffering and illness and child abuse and poor-quality-of-life-on-machines and death. There is something deep in my soul that yearns for heaven, and sighs deep relief in knowing that the Suffering Servant who bled and died on the cross knows more than just a small taste of our agony. You know, Lord. And You overcame it. It is not just my spiritual rhetoric. You know.

The second thing that stands out to me is the very pregnant pause that occurs in conversations with people who don’t know us, who come over to welcome us. Sometimes it eventually comes out in the conversation that my husband was previously a pastor at a church in the area, and they never seem completely sure how to respond or how much to pry without overstepping their boundaries. I always feel this need to reassure them that it was a peaceful process, which I find unfortunate, perhaps because of too much media sensation about pastors who have resigned from their churches over contentious reasons. I don’t know how to explain where we are or what we are looking for, except that we are “just visiting.” There is so much more, but we ourselves haven’t fully figured it out yet, and hence the tongue-tie, I suppose. By simply divulging that detail about my husband’s previous role as a pastor, we distinguish ourselves from the “typical” visitor, and I can feel it in the pregnant pause. It is something that I both despise and also embrace. I despise it because I feel it comes from the same family of pregnant pauses that I felt separated me from a closeness in relationship that I longed for when I was in active standing as a “pastor’s wife.” I also embrace it because it is basically what encapsulates exactly where I am. In the middle of a pregnant pause. And I need people who know how to pick up the conversation with me, without intimidation, condemnation, or prolonged awkwardness, and who can help me complete my currently tongue-tied response to, “Hi, welcome to our church. What brings you here?”

Navigating the Complexities of Relationships in Formal Ministry

As my husband and I take a step back from formal ministry for an undetermined period of time to find rest and renewal for our own souls, I have begun the slow, deep and at times painful process of reflecting on both the joys and the pains that have come with being the “pastor’s wife.” One thing that stands out to me in my early reflections is the complexity of our relationships as people in ministry. We have all at once felt so close to people, and yet so incredibly distanced. We have felt so privileged in the intimacy granted to us and also so sorrowful because of the barriers that felt so hard to overcome. I have a feeling that much of the emotional fatigue that we are currently recovering from is rooted in the tremendous effort required to navigate such extreme dynamics in our relationships for a prolonged period of time.

Before going on, I need to preface the remaining reflections with the declaration that we had the most amazing and supportive congregation and Board that we could ever ask for. When my husband mysteriously lost his voice for many months, our church family did not give up on him and gave him all the time (and some generous financial assistance) he needed to get proper medical care. What is a pastor without his voice, and yet they loved and supported him as their pastor through the whole process. I could go on and on about how supportive our congregation was to us, but that merits a whole other post in and of itself. By sharing the struggles, I do not mean to be ungrateful. It is simply inherent, I believe, in being in formal ministry. Or at least it was, in our experience.

Joy and Privilege

In the years that my husband spent pastoring our congregation, he has had such privilege to officiate weddings, funerals, and baptisms. This is not just about ceremony. This means we have sat with couples as they prepare to make a lifelong commitment to each other. We have heard their more private struggles in learning to be so vulnerable with another person. We have heard about their hopes and dreams with regard to their relationship, children, career and ministry roles. We have sat with families in hospital rooms, in their living rooms, and in funeral homes as they felt either the cold shock or the burning slow grief of losing a loved one. My husband has sat with individuals who have shared their spiritual journey with him and have sought his counsel in the significance of making a public declaration of their personal faith through baptism. What privilege, what intimacy, has been granted to my husband, and at times to me, because of his ministry role. We have shared some of our friends’ most significant life moments in the most personal way. This has been a true gift, encased in trust that has been more valuable than gold, from each person.

Distance and Sorrow

It is so curious, and so confusing, to experience such depth of relationship and yet, simultaneously, feel so much distance from people due to factors that are often hard to identify, much less directly address.

One clear factor is the ever-present gap we feel between our own brokenness and the expectations you feel others may likely have – or the expectations you have of yourself – for you to have it all together, to have it all figured out, all the time. Of course there are, and there should be, high standards for people who assume formal ministry positions. That said, my husband and I are broken people. God has been unspeakably good to us, but our lives have been pretty ridiculously hard at times, and we have not walked away unaffected. If you get close enough, you can see the patchwork that sometimes strains to hold us together when we are stretched. I think sometimes people in formal ministry roles feel that patchwork shouldn’t be too obvious, lest it somehow hinder the confidence and faith of their congregants. I think sometimes the world pushes for untouchable leaders and the church expects the same, forgetting that God’s ways are upside down and He uses the broken before the mighty. But we forget that, so we don’t want to let the patchwork show too much. It’s a hard balance – being authentic versus being vulnerable to the point where someone might decide you are not fit for ministry – especially when everyone’s got a slightly different idea of where those lines are drawn.

The other factor is the sense you get that others struggle to let you in when you are in formal ministry because of their own shame, fear, theological / political / moral disagreements, or their own misunderstandings / misperceptions about your expectations of them. Some people decide they want a distance from your role and therefore must have a distance from you as a person because it feels near impossible to distinguish the two. This is especially painful if you as a person have had a relationship with them, and then they later decide down the road for their own reasons that they want or need distance from you because of your role. Sometimes, you just miss your friends.

As with all big topics, there is much more that can be said about all these things. For this season, what my soul longs for is two-fold. First, I want to come back to having a relationship with God not so that I can be something to or for other people in my “ministry,” but because He knows my name, He knows where I have been, He gave His life for me, and I love and need Him for all these reasons and more. Second, I want my relationships to be a bit less susceptible to the extremes I’ve described. I just want people who know me, know where I have been, who can sit with me and be stupid and shallow and real and deep and fun and serious and love God together in all our messiness because we’re messy people. I want others to feel they can be the same with me. I am hopeful during this season of coming back to the basics. Rediscovering God, rediscovering others, rediscovering myself.

I am not my pregnancy

I confess, I am 100% guilty of doing it myself. When I see other pregnant friends, my mouth says hi, but my eyes automatically drop to their belly. The first, and at times only, thing I usually ask about is related in some way to their pregnancy. Being now on the receiving end of this, I want to say sometimes, “I am really excited about this and think about this a whole lot. But I am not my pregnancy. There are other things going on in my life, heart and mind that I’d love to talk about too.” When I see moms with their very young children, I’m guilty again as charged. I say hi to the mom but my attention automatically goes to the little person in mom’s arms, and that’s what we talk about. I forget that the mom was her own person before this little critter took over her world.

I do this to my patients and their parents without realizing it. I see the patient, and see the vital signs. I see the tubes and the medication lines attached, and I form a list of tasks in my mind to define who this patient will be to me today. A busy patient. An easy patient. A high maintenance family. A helpful family. They are who they are in this hospital room until I see the photos and hear the stories that show me a fuller picture of who this patient and this family was before illness struck. A love for bicycles, art, and silly hand-painting projects. An honors student who got in some trouble here and there but was trying to work things out. And then I remember, this child is ill, but this child is not his or her illness.

This morning, I woke up to a busy day ahead at church. I was tired on many levels. I had just worked two busy 12-hour nursing shifts the previous two days. I said to the husband, “Sometimes it’s hard to be both a nurse and a pastor’s wife.” And then my Father in Heaven reminded me, “Well, good, because that’s not who you are today. Don’t be a nurse. Don’t be the pastor’s wife. You are a child of God. You are a friend to those in your church community, and they are friends to you. So just be who you are today because that’s what you need the freedom to be.”

Today, I kept conversations about my pregnancy to a minimum. I tried hard not to look at my church community through the lens of a concerned pastor’s wife, but just as one who was simply part of the community, just being me, being there. I know the roles are necessary sometimes. But today, it wasn’t about the roles, and that made today a really good day.

when my mess tumbles out and God comes in

In all the 20 years that I have been leading worship in music at church, I still get nervous every single time. It’s more than stage fright, though that remains a significant component. It’s anticipation, longing. Wanting more than a sentimental musical experience. Wanting something real, something deeper. Creating a space with the music for people to go beyond words in bringing their hearts, their hurts, their fears, their doubts, their shame, before a God who says to every broken soul, “Come to the cross, I will not turn you away there.” Creating a space where the heart is opened and everything tumbles out in the mess that we often feel we are, and we try so hard to contain our mess and apologize that we didn’t get it together before we came before this Holy One. Only to find ourselves caught up in the embrace of the Father who ran to us while we were still a long way off and says, “Welcome home.”

I long for this as a worship leader. For this real exchange to happen. For people to find themselves found by God, because of Christ. I am afraid of getting in the way with too many words, not enough words. Awkward pauses. Wrong notes. I’m afraid of a Sunday with a weak voice, an off voice that doesn’t inspire others to proclaim, “I am His beloved, and He is so good.” I used to think that quality and skill in music didn’t matter that much as a worship leader, but particularly after going through John Piper’s series, “Gravity and Gladness,” and reading Bob Kauflin’s book, “Worship Matters,” I am convinced that quality and skill do matter. Quality in music, quality in leadership style, skill and discernment in both. I don’t think I can take the ministry of worship in music too seriously. I am leading people, through song, to come before a holy, loving God. The Creator and King of the universe. Our Life-giver. He is holy, holy, holy. I tremble with this, every week. I don’t want to sing flippantly to this God who sees my heart of hearts. I want to be used by You, God. I don’t want my pride to get in the way. I don’t want my fumbles to get in the way. Give us Yourself. We need You. No one brings life the way You do. Not me, not my music. Give us Yourself and help me not to get in the way.

There is a deep joy I share with my fellow worship team members. I love musicians who offer what they have to worship the Lord. They get it. They get that the backing off with an instrument is a humble expression of worship, a humble act of service to the church family, just as much as the loud strums and beats. I don’t have to play, to be heard, to be recognized, all the time, because it’s not about me. We’re creating a dynamic with our music, the rise and fall of our hearts when we hurt and we hope and we fall and we get up, when our brokenness robs us of our words before God and when our joy can’t be contained so we have to sing and shout and clap. There are certain Sundays when we know that the Lord has been gracious to us in our time of music, He has been there. The weight of His glory lingers even after the benediction has been given. I exchange glances with other worship team members and we just know, He has glorified Himself through our offering, and our hearts are so glad. Sometimes, I have trouble talking with people afterwards because I feel so amazed that He would give us this gift of Himself, our little broken but beautiful church community. He is what we have longed for. We need Him to go with us into our traffic and our housework and our tense relationships and our Monday morning blues. Give us Yourself, God. As you always have, would you now, again, graciously give us Yourself.