Eyes to See: A New ‘Normal’ in Pastoring

By Rev. Emma Loane

“You know that ministry is incredibly inefficient and perpetually messy, right?” This was the troubling realization I came to during a two-night solo retreat immediately after saying ‘yes’ to serving a congregation as their Associate Pastor. This was a retreat that I had planned several weeks earlier to set some time to prayerfully discern between two possible positions in the New Year. But here I was, my decision made, and so I was treating this discernment retreat more like an opportunity to rest and rejuvenate before launching into my first position as an ordained pastor. I had spent the best part of the last decade, more really, preparing for and practicing ministry, and as a lesbian woman that is no joke! The pressure for women to ‘prove’ their place in ministry (as in many workplaces) is well documented1 and is multiplied for every intersecting identity and system of oppression. But I felt confident in my call to this work, and in the efforts that I had put into equip and legitimate myself for ministry. Though I think I knew, at least intellectually, that ministry couldn’t (maybe shouldn’t) be boiled down to some well-defined, logical process. I had invested a lot of time and money in skilling-up as an effective and organized minister. But here in the middle-of-nowhere-Kentucky, the realization that despite all my preparations, ministry is and would continue to be inefficient and messy was unwelcome and, frankly, unfair.

I think that on the cusp of 2022, churches and whole faith communities feel a similar sense of betrayal as they contemplate another year of ministry in a pandemic. If it has been said once, it’s been said a million times; going back to ‘how things were’ is simply not an option. Congregations whose worship services have pivoted between multiple virtual platforms and unconventional venues, whose memberships have plunged, who have suffered hug-less funerals, delayed baptisms, and live-streamed weddings – these congregations feel a deep sense that the way that we practiced ministry in the ‘before-times’ is woefully inadequate for the needs of the collectively traumatized, and in many ways that is deeply unfair.

But where do we go from here? And what hope is there for longevity in ministry, particularity for those of us that have already had an uphill climb in this vocation? What does it mean to lead a congregation of people who have suffered and are still suffering? My former training and education tell me that we need to establish a set of SMART goals, recruit consultants and rally key leaders to attend workshops and trainings. And while these things are certainly not bad in themselves, the declaration that “ministry is inefficient and messy” rings in my head and forces me to take a different perspective on the needs of the people God has placed in my care. There’s an uncomfortable and vulnerable rawness that must be acknowledged in ministry right now. Two of the areas that I have and will continue to focus on developing and learning more about are trauma-informed pastoral care and liturgy that is informed by liberation theology.

Trauma-Informed Pastoral Care. Pastoral theologian Carrie Doehring identifies trauma as “a bio-psycho-spiritual response to overwhelming life events.”2 This is an area in which many pastors and leaders of faith communities have sought out additional training and education.3 However, it’s important to note that in traumatic responses, there is a breakdown of multiple systems that we rely on to protect us from harm and to process harm. In these cases, our systems are not simply slow to integrate the impact; they fail to integrate it. In broad strokes, this is what coronavirus has resulted in for many in our churches. Trauma marks a “new normal” in that there is no possibility of returning to how things were before, or who we were before. A radical break has occurred between the old self and the new one. This has become true for many if not all people within our churches over the past two years. Therefore, the minister must engage in the work of pastoral care in such a way that help individuals to visualize a way forward that doesn’t ignore the trauma experienced but integrates it in a new self-understanding. A new way of seeing is needed. Pastors can do this in several different ways. Namely, by being present to listen to the narratives people are telling themselves about their experiences, offering affirmation that these experiences are painful and leave a lasting impact on our lives, and being a trustworthy person that invites the co-creation of a new narrative together with the one seeking care. Ideally, pastoral care is concerned with the totality of the human person. Therefore, trauma-informed pastoral care, though a lot more that this brief sketch, must not ignore the collective trauma many have endured and still carry with them into this new year. Collective trauma can also open a door of willingness to see and seek collective liberation.

Liberation-Informed Liturgical Practice. One of the tools available to pastors and worship leaders, yet often overlooked or underestimated, is the very liturgy and words used in worship settings. Liberation theology challenges all ministry to become more aware of its involvement and complicity in the structures of injustice and is interested in challenging us to pursue wider social and political engagement in the cause of human flourishing and liberation.4 This new way of seeing ourselves in the world must also inform the liturgy, the very words and images employed by and within the worshipping community.5 Here are a few questions that I’m asking of my words in worship, including songs, prayers, and other readings:

  • Is there exclusively male-centric language?6
  • Does the wording assume a gender binary?
  • Are the rituals and practices in worship inclusive of differently abled bodies?
  • Are all the images of the Divine white, male and able-bodied?
  • Is heterosexuality assumed?
  • Are major current events mentioned or ignored?

People are aching for anti-racist, LGBTQ+ affirming, feminist imagery in their worship settings, and there are wonderfully talented liturgy-writers and creatives out there who are already doing this work.7

Inefficient and messy ministry is real and is with real people and circumstances. For those called to minister at this time, I believe that practicing pastoral care in such a way that considers the serious and pervasive nature of trauma is crucial, just as critically examining the words used in the communal experiences of song, prayer, and liturgy. There’s a grand uncovering happening in the Christian church and the challenge, for a congregational minister, is not to look away or hide behind some canned strategy from 5 or 10 years ago. Instead, engage this ‘new normal,’ listen to the experiences of the people in your care and weave the hope of liberation throughout your worship experiences.

Emma is originally from Northern Ireland though has lived, studied, and worked in the United States for the past 13 years along with her wife Sarah and three fur-babies. She is ordained in the United Church of Christ and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of St. Andrew UCC in Louisville, KY.



Notes / Resources

  1. The Real Lives of Women in Ministry” by Kelly Ladd Bishop.
  2. Doehring, Carrie “The Practice of Pastoral Care,” 131.
  3. Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) units are a fantastic way for pastors and others to learn pastoral care. CPE is both a multicultural and interfaith experience that uses real-life ministry encounters of students to improve the ministry and pastoral care provided by caregivers.
  4. Some classic literature in the field of Liberation Theology: “A Theology of Liberation” by Gustavo Gutierrez; “God of the Oppressed” by James H. Cone; “Introducing Liberation Theology” by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff; “The Liberation of Theology” by Juan L. Segundo.
  5. If you’re an academic type Cláudio Carvalhaes’ lecture for the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, entitled “A Liberation Liturgical Theology” is interesting.
  6. Possible resource, Winnie Varghese’s article in the Huffpost.
  7. If you haven’t already, check out M Barclay’s https://enfleshed.com.

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