A blessing for those who minister
We live in a culture of #blessed, not of blessing. Social media is riddled with #blessed, pointing to everything from new cars to beach vacations. Blessing, culture seems to explain, is for those who have it all together. The shiny. The most put-together.
Even leaders can fall into a sand trap of #blessed. Often, leaders are told, “You should be succeeding! Every difficulty should be a ladder, with you on your way up! Look at everyone else doing so well.” #Blessed leaves little room for our actual lives, our actual problems, our actual days.
But there is a long, rich Judeo-Christian tradition of blessing from which we can draw instead. Old Testament scholar Stephen Chapman calls blessing a kind of spiritual “placement.” This definition reminds me of a sort of divine interior decorating. “Oh look, this should go over here. Let’s try that against this wall.”
It is a way we can start to shuffle around the furniture of our lives into an order. Blessing is a way of telling the story of God’s work and purposes and our place in it all — not just when we have it all figured out but precisely at the moment when everything feels chaotic.
When we take up the language of blessing, we are being invited into a way of looking again at the often invisible ways God is appearing in the everyday work of community building, vision casting, trying and failing. Even the very average Tuesdays.
This fresh way of looking means having the eyes to see blessing even during those late nights sorting receipts, wondering how this will all add up. Or during those weekend hospital visits. Or during all the thankless work we do behind the scenes to make everything happen. But we can resist a false bright-siding or an inauthentic victoriousness when we say, “God, this is my best and my worst. Bless it all.”
Our hope is that our new book of blessings, “The Lives We Actually Have,” offers a language of acknowledgment for the full range of our days — our good days, our bad days, the sublime and the mundane. Blessings for the lives we actually have, not just the ones we hope for.
So here is a blessing for those who minister (… and might be tired, worn out and needing an infusion of grace for themselves too).
Oh God, we are surrounded by so many to love.
They need you. And we need you to carry them.
And us too, if we’re being honest.
Let love bear up the weight of us all.
Bless all the kids and grandkids.
Children here and those gone.
Bless the people who quicken our hearts,
now and in years past.
Bless our parents and grandparents;
strengthen our roots and our branches.
Bless our pets and your creation,
and the comfort they bring.
Bless our friends and chosen families,
all the bonds that hold us.
Bless our good, good work
that brings us purpose (or at least it used to
— and we long to discover it again).
God, I will openly admit
that my plan was to rescue us all.
Pry this out of my hands.
Absolve my guilt.
Calm my spirit.
Let me allow you to do the impossible
and bear up the weight of the world
I am determined to carry alone.
Give me enough for today.
And then some for tomorrow too.
As I share myself, my loves, my burdens
with you, oh God.
Thank you for this love,
this absurd and wonderful love.
“Whoever brings blessing
will be enriched,
and those who water
will themselves be watered.”
— Proverbs 11:25 (ESV alt.)
Introduction adapted from “The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days,” by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie (Convergent, 2023). Used with permission.
In this photo, we’re somewhere along the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. The air smells of pine and juniper as we walk and talk and laugh. This particular hike is just about 3 miles long, but we’re up at nearly 8,000 feet, and our breath sometimes needs a minute to catch up to our legs. I keep thinking, “It is so good to be here.”
“Here” is Colorado, and “here” is a long-expected gathering of women from various Christian institutions across the U.S. We are a group of peers, all of us in similar career phases, all of us committed to the work of the church and the ways of Jesus.
As we met in this beautiful place, I felt that these few days together summed up so much of what the past few years have shown us — about the ways we all need each other, and about the many ways, traditional and not, we can show up when needed.
This peer group was very much a product of the pandemic. It came out of an idea I had in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, when I participated in the first-ever virtual cohort of Foundations of Christian Leadership. My idea was to gather a small group of women who had jobs like mine, the kinds of ministry-adjacent roles where it was sometimes difficult to find resources and support.
I’m not a pastor, and I don’t work at a church, but the faith-based work I do means that the usual nonprofit or higher ed resources don’t always seem to speak to my context. I proposed this group as a place for emerging female leaders in Christian institutions to come together and learn from each other. Colleagues recommended various women who fit my description — women who’d advised us on our programming, participated in our grant activities. Ultimately, 10 of them said yes.
We met on Zoom for the first time in July 2021 and continued to meet that way monthly. A virtual setting was the only way these particular participants, scattered across the country, could gather. There were 11 of us in all, spread out over seven states (plus D.C.) and three time zones. (To this day, all 11 of us have not been on one call at the same time!)
For as much talk of (and experience with) “Zoom fatigue” as there has been throughout the COVID-19 era, this online-only group was a boost and a gift each month. I realized fairly early on that we didn’t need much of an agenda for conversation — really profound conversation — to thrive. We saw the promise and wisdom in one another, and more often than not, I was able to just sit back from my screen and drink it all in.
We’d met online for eight months before I even brought up the possibility of gathering in person, an idea my supervisor and co-workers nudged me toward. Ultimately, seven of us found ourselves meeting at the Denver airport in October 2022, 15 months after we’d first met via computer screens. We made our way into the mountains and ate takeout pizza for dinner while sitting on the floor of my hotel room.
The next morning, a member of our group led us through a time of confessional Bible study, where we examined stories of women in the Bible and pondered them and the questions they stirred up in us.
That afternoon, another group member led us in a circle exercise, where each of us would have a few uninterrupted minutes to muse on questions like, “What does a favorite quote of yours mean to you?” and, “Who are you carrying with you this week?” Someone in the group brought out a box of Kleenex — which we would all need over the next hour.
Over a couple of shared days, we spotted elk and watched them through binoculars. We went for walks; we window-shopped; we popped into a bookstore and bought books we’d been recommending to each other (“Braiding Sweetgrass,” “Gilead”). We went out for dinner and split entrees that looked good but that we couldn’t decide on for ourselves. We marveled at the golden brightness of the aspen trees and their quaking leaves. We said we would do this again next year.
At dinner on the last night, we tried to figure out whether any of the seven of us had actually met in person before — had none of us ever run into each other? The answer was no.
The pandemic forced institutions and organizations to be pretty creative when it came to what was being done in person that could also be done online, whether schools or churches or offices. Now, as we emerge from the age of lockdowns and figure out how to live with COVID-19’s ongoing presence, we are rightly relieved that so much of our lives doesn’t have to be lived virtually anymore. But I also wonder what we might lose if, in that relief, we run too quickly away from the possibilities of online fellowship.
This Colorado gathering was so wonderfully embodied — when we all first rendezvoused at the airport, a common refrain was “You have legs! You’re more than just a head and shoulders!” — but the whole reason the gathering even happened was because we had built up connections beforehand, via (dare I say it) Zoom.
While together in person, we talked about how valuable this group was — and how safe it felt — precisely because none of us lived in the same place. We could bring concerns about our day-to-day lives in confidence, knowing that none of us would happen to run across the person or place being discussed. We could offer support in person because we’d built up the proper trust virtually, and that rhythm of support, in person and on screen, will continue.
I wrote in early 2021 about how the pandemic showed us how much we truly needed each other. Nearly two years later, that remains true — and we’ve also seen, in our COVID-era creativity, how we can forge and foster true community in so many ways. I don’t want to look back on the months of Zoom calls and say that it somehow wasn’t as real or as meaningful as it would have been if we could have met in person. I wouldn’t know these women if it weren’t for the tools that provided us a community in COVID-19’s darkest days.
I can’t wait to see them again on my laptop screen — and I can’t wait to go on another hike with them in person next year.
Words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians have been on my mind lately. Most days and evenings, my husband and I, along with our two working-from-home sons, move from Zoom to Zoom.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).
The truth is, I lean into the screen and see only dimly. Yes, I love seeing dear faces, but I long for the days when we will meet in person as colleagues, church, family and friends. Then we will all be more fully known.
Meanwhile, I am resigning myself to Zooming for the long haul.
If we must Zoom, how do we do it well and graciously? As someone who loves to think about in-person hospitality, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about what good online hospitality looks like.
While I’m still in beginner’s mind, I’ve noticed that good online hospitality is not magic. Nor is there one single formula for success. And while doing our technical best for any online gathering is an important sign of respect for our audiences — an important part of hospitality — technology is not the heart of hospitality. You don’t need a computer science degree or fancy equipment to provide it well.
Instead, online hospitality is the dedicated effort to create the same ethos as in-person hospitality — but in a new land. For Christian hospitality to work — in person or online — it needs to be grounded in setting a place for God, paying attention, honoring participants and expecting transformation.
First, warmly welcoming participants to a Zoom gathering reflects that the love of God is present. Three tiny ants crawled out of the crevices of my son’s laptop the other day. Where ants can go, my guess is the Holy Spirit can go as well! God is with us, even in virtual settings.
Though not the same as the gathered-in-the-same-room body of Christ, the gathered-over-Zoom body can still experience an embodied welcome through the host’s facial expressions, laughter and gestures. You don’t want participants to mistake your expressionless face for a frozen screen.
As a virtual host, be clear about what will occur in the meeting, how participants can access what they need, and who will help them with technical glitches. This information, set out at the start, helps participants feel safe and cared for, and less anxious about their technical skills.
Consider offering social time 15 minutes before your meeting starts. The energy and warmth generated by this experience of informal chatter and fellowship will set the mood for the meeting that follows.
I watched a worship service last week where different segments were set in the homes of various pastors on the church’s staff. Each had carefully set the stage behind him or her — a vase of flowers next to a cross, a special cloth laid carefully on a small table, a set of candles beside a bowl of water. These details conveyed hospitality; they expressed a personal welcome that said, “You are in my home, and this too is sacred space!”
Second, good hospitality is about paying attention. How are others experiencing the format? One participant in a church formation group stopped coming because she saw only couples in each Zoom box and it reminded her painfully that she was the only “singles” face in a box. She had to see her singleness the entire time. How might you change her experience?
Pay attention to power dynamics and ways to flatten that curve. For those whom society has often silenced, how might it feel to know that the host can mute you? The chat function helps mitigate this by giving everyone an always-open avenue of expression. The host can also invite everyone to speak and make sure that no one voice is dominating. Even if you’re good at this in person, facilitating over Zoom takes practice.
Likewise, after you’ve placed participants in a breakout room, don’t automatically cut them off after the designated time. Instead, as host, visit each room and remind participants of the time limits or send a group message. This is more hospitable and more like what a host would do if participants were in a room together physically.
Pay attention to the ways in which tangible elements can unify us and bridge the gap of physical absence. One of my colleagues sent a piece of cloth in the mail to each participant so that everyone’s laptop would be resting on the same fabric. Similarly, you might have everyone light a candle for worship or as a symbol of a unified space. Each person could share a personal object and describe why it is meaningful. Even a bark from a neighborly dog in the background can root us to reality and be grounding and humanizing in a virtual world.
Third, good online hospitality honors participants. For longer Zoom events, consider sending a gift box ahead of time, with nice paper for note taking, a coffee mug, a bag of trail mix or some other small gift. The boxes need not be expensive; rather, they are a signal that you honor the participants and recognize that life and gatherings are more difficult for everyone these days. A pastor friend of mine drives through her town and places bags of pre-Zoom activities on the front porches of her congregation’s youth.
A sense of timing is also important for honoring bodies in virtual gatherings. We can’t simply roll over onto Zoom what we would normally do in a room. Zooming all day is exhausting. Zooming for half the day is exhausting. Keep whatever you do as short as possible and add stretch breaks, polls, screen-sharing times, music, play breaks, small groups or silence. Teach people to do the wave!
Set up trust with your audience. Those with social anxieties have a double burden to bear in these times. Honor all participants though your kindness and patience, especially those who may need to step away from being looked at for the entire meeting. Be kind as internet connections go out, cats jump onto shoulders, and children decide they need mom or dad NOW.
Finally, good online hospitality affirms that whenever and wherever God is welcomed in, God provides transformation. God’s work is still being accomplished even with so many of us confined at home.
For example, I’ve discovered that online meetings in a quarantine provide the blessing of multiplied hospitality — the hospitality of the host and that of all the households into which we are welcomed. As host, you may receive joy and blessing through all the other hosts who welcome you into their homes for the hour. Let them describe the history of the quilt on the chair, that plaque on the wall or the garden shed into which they are scrunched, seeking quiet space!
Online meetings are here to stay. Post-pandemic, we’ll continue to have options to work at home, because it’s cost-effective. We’ll continue to have online church committee meetings, because attendance is up. We’ll continue to meet as friends on Zoom, because some are unable to drive, travel or be away from home. So we might as well get it right.
Meeting virtually can be more than “see[ing] in a mirror, dimly,” if we offer good online hospitality and understand it as sacred space.
My grandmother tells a story, entirely in Spanish, of a viejita, an old woman, who collects small logs on her way to her casita, her little home, and gets caught in an aguacero, a downpour. My grandmother sings this story to life, inching her fingers up my arm to the rhythm of the song in a scissor motion like a small pair of legs.
At the point when my grandmother sings that the rain has caught the old woman, her fingers ram into my armpit, giving me tickles of delight.
In an instant, any trouble or pain is vanquished by laughter.
I had always assumed that my grandmother made up that song just for me. But recently, I told it to a group at a women’s leadership and spirituality course. At the end, a young woman in the audience started crying. Her grandmother had sung her the same song.
Suddenly, we weren’t just speaker and audience. The two of us shared a moment — we connected through this story, and a shared history.
Jesus was a storyteller. Stories were the way he reached the people to convey the message he needed them to honor, claim and synthesize. We learn from the Bible that Jesus spoke to the people using story as the vehicle for connection because it fulfilled what God had said: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world” (Matthew 13:35 NLT). The people called it wisdom.
That is still true today. Often, people gravitate to stories with happy endings or tales about everyday people — but even unpleasant stories can be a powerful way to convey a message. Storytelling can be used as a mode of healing, because stories carry in them all the voices of those who have recounted the same story time and time again.
When the church employs storytelling in a way that can reshape people’s lives, reflecting who they are back to themselves, the church becomes a shared space where each person is a part of history.
My priest tells a beautiful story about the origins of our community. He ties our origins to the Christian creation story as well as to the Native Americans, reminding us of our interconnectedness. Speaking to a congregation of predominantly Latino/a, Mexican and Tejano/a families, the connection to our origins is vital; it’s important that we understand our South Texas history, which is one of violence and colonialism.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which marked the end of the Mexican-American War, named the Rio Grande as the border between the United States and Mexico. Our families were given the choice to uproot and relocate to Mexico from what is now California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas or to stay on their land and in their homes and receive citizenship in the United States.
The offer came with a promise of full civil rights, but that was far from the truth. Mexican Americans were lynched by the Texas Rangers and continue, nearly 200 years later, to be questioned about their citizenship.
Because our priest understands the complexity of the land and our people, he weaves our history into stories of strength and hope. He acknowledges our indigenous ancestry and is open to the church’s choice to keep our Blessed Mother of Guadalupe, a figure highly revered in our culture. As a congregation in service to our community, it’s important that we are not only seen by God but also seen by our church.
When I faced that class on women’s leadership and spirituality, I knew that in order to convey how storytelling had brought me to my vocation and why storytelling matters to their individual and collective learning, I had to know their stories.
I asked each young woman what she was passionate about. Some were passionate about mujerista theology; some were passionate about family; some were passionate about writing.
I asked the question not only to help my teaching but also to help those women hear themselves. The answer was their reminder that in a room full of leaders, they were heard and they were validated. They were seen.
The same goes for our congregations. While it may seem impossible to spend some or all of a service asking our members what they are passionate about, it is possible to gauge what they respond to.
A sermon rooted in the tradition of story, relevant to the needs and lives of our people, transcends a typical Sunday morning homily. A story has the potential to get carried throughout generations. The story becomes a thread between generations as an intergenerational healing method.
The key question is, do the people see themselves in the story?
My grandparents were master storytellers. They could take any myth, legend or spooky cultural tale and turn it into a lesson that I needed to hear. My grandma and grandpa used to tell me stories that were relevant to me — even when they might have been considered too scary for a child.
My priest has shown me how important it is to know the history of our people — even when it is difficult and violent. How does that history affect the congregation, and how can storytelling be the vehicle by which they begin to heal?
Stories take history and make it possible to believe. Stories give us hope and allow faith to work in the details. When we tell stories, we acknowledge the people who hear them, and we connect with them.
Whether they make us laugh or make us weep, stories give us the power to see ourselves.