Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pitfalls: part two

Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were no pitfalls to pursuing the ideal of shared power in spiritual community? 

Wait. I think that is my internal kid voice. 
The truth is that we cannot and do not make change without trial and error. Without stumbling. And for me, even attempting to do it over a period of years hasn't necessarily made me any better at it.
Just because Godde is 'doing a new thing' doesn't mean the rest of us are up to speed.

I have also been remiss when talking about feminism as a critique of power and how we are using that critique to form new ways, hopefully more holistic ways, of being in  in spiritual community and not made much of the fact that Jesus life, teaching and ministry were a critique of power.

Jesus critiqued the power of the rich v. poor, of the government v. individual, the acceptable and the unacceptable ... in each case calling his followers and the world to turn their understanding of power upside down. 

Then he did this thing where he called his followers and his disciples friends. It is a model of leadership I love. Have tried to emulate. And wrestled with. And failed at.

Here's the thing: everyone comes to church with history and expectations of clergy. In an ecumenical community there is a plethora of differing expectations. Each one needing to be considered and addressed. (just thinking about it overwhelms me now) But I thought we could do it.  

We call ourselves a Circle of a reason. Non-hierarchical. All on the same level. Connected. Individual tasks and calls but equal in value. That's what we aimed for. I believe Jesus lived that model in his life and ministry. I thought I could. 

Newsflash: I am not Jesus. 

In seminary I learned that pastors could not be friends with parishioners.  I didn't believe it.
If we agree that I, as pastor, am the same as you: not better, not more holy, not more spiritual - then we share the journey in a different way. Friends fail. Friends share joy. Friends mark life passages together. Friends journey together. Friends dance together, pray together, eat together... often or seldom, but always as equals.

I learned at a time when I was brought to my knees in my personal life that the rules were still different for me as pastor. A heck of a time to have to learn that. In a community that lives compassion and inclusion for the hurting, for the mentally ill, for the emotionally crippled, it was not okay for the pastor to succumb to suffering. To fail utterly. 

I blame no one for that. Just now pondering why and how we could have been different. 
No answers here. Only questions.

Next up: what worked- and there is a LOT that did/does. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Many Pitfalls Redefining Power: part one

So trying to critique of power and trying to do power differently. When this began we were fueled by excitement and fearlessness. I love us for that. And we discovered new and exciting ways of making and being spiritual community.

But I'm going to start with a post on what doesn't work. Or hasn't worked.  And maybe some musings about why it is so difficult. And I will have several posts about this. That being said, it is still worth attempting. I still believe it is important and possible. The thing about reinventing the wheel is that there must be commitment to constant trial and error.

As pastor of this hodgepodge community the first changes were easy: don't use the  position of clergy to be coercive, abusive, oppressive or hierarchical. 
This has been a fount of joy and sometimes a thunderstorm of problems. 

When doing and being church with people from many different ages, races, classes, educational levels and traditions who may also have experienced different levels of rejection or spiritual abuse because of their gender or sexuality the pot is stirred before it is even placed over the fire. And everyone brings a personal brand of issue to the pot. 
Many hurts came seeking healing.

As pastor, the question was 'how can I help empower a deeply hurting people who also have no experience of exercising power in a church setting?'. 
I had a lot of teaching to do, inviting people to answer for themselves questions like:
to what do you give spiritual authority?
the bible?
the preacher? 
the church community? 
your personal experience of Godde/Holy Soirit?
some combination of the above?
and what does that mean for you as a spiritual journeyer and for us as companions on the journey?

If a community is used to giving the preacher authority, being feminist church means critiquing that and finding new ways. over and over and over again. 
A problem happens when the over and over again stops.
I learned this the very hard way.
When new people become a part of the community and haven't intentionally challenged their understandings of power and authority the system reverts to the preconceived and previously experienced understanding of clergy and church.

My very bad. 

This I have  learned: doing things differently requires vigilance. 
It means we must be mindfully engaged with the issues of power at all times.  

It was too easy for me to revert to unchallenged expectations of pastor in order to 'get things done.' 

Most feminists, especially those of us  in leadership positions, have experienced 'death by process'. We sometimes process our ideas or intentions into non-existence. Therein lies the rub.

More later on the woes of what doesn't work.
And stay tuned. There is much that does work, there is much that challenges, lifts, inspires and enlightens the shared sacred journey. 

Hard work required.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

the grand experiment: power

So what makes a church feminist? Or more to the point: how are we, as feminist church, different from any other church?  My first caveat is that we are like other churches in many, many ways.  But some of what we have been attempting to do hasn't been done before. Needless to say we have stumbled often and experienced  a few great, shining moments.

Bottom line, to be feminist means that we critique power. Power in the culture. Power in the institutional church. Power in interpersonal relationships. That's a big job for any group, much less a group of folks that are not, for the most part, academicians and are of many races, classes, abilities, educational backgrounds, and church experiences. 

And here's the thing. We not only critique power but we try to do power differently. We try to share- personal and institutional power - in ways that haven't been attempted before.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.  

One way it works well is in how we use language. We are committed to inclusive language about both Godde and humanity. We continually challenge our assumptions about gender, race, age, ability and sexualities. And we accept and value individuals not only in the things we share in common but for our differences.  We share the wisdom of our different perspectives rather than seeking one correct perspective that trumps all others. And before you ask: yes it is hard to do and yes it is glorious!

We must all commit to understanding and behaving in new ways. Each of us has to be willing to struggle with assumptions of the dominant culture as well as the assumptions we have because of our individual histories, gender, race, class  or...  
And just that is plain hard to do.

Another way we explore our understanding of power is to consider the nature of Godde.  You've probably noticed that  when I talk about Godde I use this alternative spelling. I do it because it is important that I/we are reminded of the inclusiveness or unlimitedness of Sacred gender. The word 'Godde' is an attempt to make us mindful of that understanding. It also informs our understandings of the many ways Godde's reality and power is expressed in scripture, in the world, and in our lives.

In a patriarchal system power can and is often expressed negatively as coercive, abusive, oppressive or  positively as just plain hierarchical (power over). One of the first things we did was to explore sharing power as new model of doing church.

It is a grand idea. Liberating. Filled with hidden pitfalls.  Almost impossible to implement. 
More on that next time. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

the grand experiment of making feminist Christian church: the background

I'm going to start way back.  Way back like thousands of years way back and I'm going to start this look at 'the grand experiment' by talking about how theology expands and changes. Not just mine. Or yours. But Christian theology all together. (as well as the theologies of other traditions I would imagine but that doesn't add to this train of thought.)

2014 years of Christian theology did not spring into being ex nihilo  (out of nothing). It is build on thousands of years of Jewish theology and carries into it many assumptions and understandings from the Jewish perspective, which also is fluid and developed and develops over time. As the church expanded, growing up in different cultures with different understandings of the world and different ways of  thinking and talking about Godde, the conversation changed. Because Christians sought to convert others Christianity they had to be in dialogue with other theological and philosophical concepts - most notably Greek thought. 

Theology evolves.  (yes I am giving a very brief lecture here) It is not static.  A perspective might be ascendant because of cultural or political realities prompting theologians to ask different questions and challenge heretofore unchallenged assumptions.  Most often concepts or definitions once considered sacred cows are refined or even discarded.  All of that is to say that theological conversations happen over great periods of time, are informed by politics, science, history and social movements, and are always in process.

So what has all that got to do with the 'grand experiment of making feminist Christian church'? I think it is because I have always seen us as being in dialogue with the the theology conversations throughout history.  Liberation, feminist, black, progressive and process theologies are in conversation with post World War II western theologies who are in turn in conversation with the Enlightenment thought and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

The assumptions of contemporary Western theologians (Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr) and the older but still important voices in Christian conversations (Augustine and Thomas Aquinas)  are limited by their cultural biases. Objective universal reality was assumed to be first world, white and male. This is one of the  first premises newer theologies challenge. 

The universal human experience is not first world. It is not white. And it is not male.
This is where Circle of Grace enters contemporary theological conversation. We did not come into being believing passionately that we have all the answers and that our answers are all 'right'.  We came into being as a way of challenging long-held beliefs by the Church universal.  

This is where we began. Challenging the assumptions that Godde is male only. That women have perspectives of faith and spiritual experience that are important contributions to theological understandings. That people of color have important contributions to make to theological understandings. And people with disabilites. And poor people. And oppressed people. And people with different gender identifications. And queer people. And old people. And children.

We began with knowing that none of us has all the answers and each of us brings wisdom  from experiences we do not and cannot share.

This is where we began. How we tried to make church differently.  To listen differently. To exist differently. The grand experiment of making Christian feminist church began and continues in conversation with the church universal, the church historical and the church expressed in multiple denominations.

What were we thinking?