A reflection on Proper 24B: Job 38:1-7, (34-41) or Isaiah 53:4-12 • Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c or Psalm 91:9-16 • Hebrews 5:1-10 • Mark 10:35-45 The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski
I recently resigned from my position as the Rector of a parish. I was there a total of 19 months. I loved my parish and the position I held. It was big, busy, and dynamic. It required intense pastoral care to an aging population, something I am very good at. I preached and presided at over 30 funerals in those months. I comforted many suffering people and their family members too, as the end of life took its toll. I made more visible the children and young families, especially bringing the children into leadership roles in the Sunday morning worship. I tried to work with all the congregation, young and old alike.
My desire to work with all the congregation required navigating a road between those who wanted everything to stay the same and those who were ready for some exploration of life, faith, spirituality, and worship. Within a few months, as that exploration began, we encountered significant resistance from some members to maintain the status quo. Although I received help and advice from a congregational development consultant, our Canon to the Ordinary and my Bishop, and worked on leadership development and discipleship, I came to feel that the congregation could not resolve its conflicts. As a result it would be unable to move beyond the animosity directed to the “new priest.” With my resignation, both my Bishop and I hope that the congregation may have a longer intentional interim period, consider its conflicting desires, and reach a consensus about its values and direction.
The process of resigning, the actual doing of this and living into the aftermath, feels very Jobian to me. There is a lot of suffering within me. I feel a great and heavy sadness. I also feel as if it was the very thing I needed to do. The right and healthy thing for me and my wellbeing was to remove myself from the situation. The right and healthy thing for this congregation, was to remove myself from the situation so that they can do the work they need to do. I felt this deeply in my inner being and in my prayer life.
I am left with a lot of feelings. Feelings of failure. I failed. I was unable to do whatever the right thing was to navigate the conflict and restore stability. Feelings of loss. Loss of my identity as the Rector of this church, loss of work, loss of the ministries we were about, loss of direction. Loss of confidence. Others I know, both men and women who have gone through similar congregational conflict experiences, have similar feelings.
Another piece of what I have to work through is the experience of being “Told what to do” by members of the congregation and others in leadership. The parish consultant I hired said, “When women are called as Pastors to a congregation, the congregation views her as ‘their daughter.’ And daughters are supposed to listen to what they are told, and be obedient.” I have worked in three other congregations and not felt that this was the case, but it certainly mirrors a piece of my experience at this particular congregation.
And, another question I've been asked, "Would this have happened to a man? Would this have happened if the rector had been a man?" I don't know. I do know that I have several male colleagues who have had challenging experiences in churches, men who resigned as a result of the conflict. So, I really can't assess if this particular church would have responded differently had a man been there instead of a woman. It is possible that for some any change in leadership style would have been too much change.
More to the point, I have a lot of feelings to work through. And work through them I will. In the meantime, I am in a deep dark place. My hope is that my time of reflection is something like Mary Oliver describes in this poem:
"Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this too, was a gift."
Mary Oliver, "The Uses of Sorrow" in Thirst: Beacon Press 2006
There is a bigger issue here, though, than just my particular situation. This is a feminist theology blog and therefore by intent these reflections offer a particular feminist lens through which we view church, ministry, life, and faith.
That said, as women we struggle to have our voices heard. Numerous studies have been done, and in particular I think of the work of Carol Gilligan, on the developmental process of girls seeking to be heard and have their voices honored. It is a cultural dynamic and it feeds into our leadership as well. I think of how Hilary Clinton is portrayed by the media: how pictures of her tired and angry hit the news during a meeting in Africa. We never saw though, the many other meetings she held that were filled with hope. Of how an African-American President and a white American woman are impacting the world.
It is rarely conscious, the reality that individuals and groups, tend to “hear” male voices over female voices. Rarely intentional that boys are called on in the classroom more than girls. A social reality that men jump in to a discussion quickly while women speak up more slowly.
What then does this mean for women as leaders? Several books have been written on the way women lead. In particular I think of, “The Web of Women’s Leadership” by Susan Willhauck and Jacqulyn Thorpe, and “Leading Women” by Carole E. Becker. These books describe women’s leadership as “relationtional” and offers ways for women to work on being heard and lead without compromising who we are to “become like men.” They honor the differences in leadership, men and women, one not being better than the other, just more authentic to who we are. Men and women are different. It’s been years since I read these books and no longer remember exactly how they unpack this. Perhaps I will reread these books as part of my process of moving through my feelings during this dark time.
Our reading this week from Job is an incentive to move through darkness. It doesn’t really sound that way, perhaps; God scolding Job because he has missed the point. God reminds Job that God is creator of all, that Job is part of what God has created, and that Job plays a role, albeit small, in the ongoing recreation of the world, a re-creation grounded in love.
I think though of a book I once read, I believe it was “Job and the Mystery of Suffering” by Richard Rohr. I’d go back and reread some of the book to be certain, but it’s packed in one of many boxes of books from my former office, so I have to rely on my memory :-)
Following today’s reading Job responds to God. Scripture says, Job repented in sack cloth and ashes. (Job 42). Rohr suggests that one word is misinterpreted. Job did not repent “in” but rather he repented “from” sack cloth and ashes. In other words, Job, rather than sitting around feeling bad, needed to pick himself up and move on, certain that God was with him all the way. It seems God is telling Job that God will act in Job’s life when Job takes action in his life.
I hear in this that I need to reflect on what happened in order to learn from it. And, I need to honor my feelings of grief and remorse. I also need to trust that God is in this and therefore I need to move through my feelings.
Some time spent reflecting on what happened will be useful. I don’t want to become bitter and blaming, of myself or others. I hope an honest reflection will enable me to become wiser and more mature. I hope I am better able to understand my leadership style. Perhaps I’ll have some insight as to what I might do different the next time I encounter conflict and resistance. In time I need to forgive those who hurt me in this process and I need to forgive myself.
Perhaps I can learn from Job and trust that God is a part of all of this, the good, the hard, the painful. I don’t believe that God causes these challenging times in life. Loosely based on the systematic theology of John MacQuarrie, I’ve come to think that because of free will God allows life to unfold, the good, the hard, the painful. I also think that, as God did in the beginning of creation, when God created order out of chaos, that God helps us move through the chaos into a new created sense of order.
Perhaps as women we play an important role, at this time in history, helping God re-create from the chaos of the world. Perhaps God is speaking into the world in a particular way, through the voices of women and the way we lead. Perhaps in time relational leadership will pull order out of disorder and create new ways of being church? Perhaps we are called to lead in this challenging time so that the world can more fully understand what Jesus means when he says, “the first will be last and the last will be first.”