-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Six months on the internet is a really long time! Memes are born and die in that time. Campaigns rise and fall. A collective can feel the pride of success and the bile of defeat. When I took on this six month endeavor is was to do more than follow through on having a male pastoral handle for six months on Reddit. It was also to keep track of my feminine experience IRL (in real life). We don't often pay attention to what's happening around us, because it is our "normal." I didn't want to do something digitally without questioning what was physically happening at the same time.
Cub Scouts had to accept girls: I know that's a bold statement to make. There were many who were openly livid, like their verbal descent would somehow upturn the already voted and approved decision, but their bed was actually made months earlier in January of 2017. That was when the Boy Scouts of America decided they would not discriminate if the person who checked the "I'm a boy," box didn't appear to be a boy. It made headlines across the nation. While everyone was focusing on the transgender side of that decision, I saw something else. Now a girl could join Cub Scouts in a co-ed den.
I just want that last sentence to really sink in. Right now the BSA has stated girls can join Cub Scouts as long as their dens are separated by gender. I just wrote girls could be in co-ed dens. All girls had to do was fill out the youth form, check "boy," and they were in.
That's how I already knew my daughter had an in to Cub Scouts a year before the BSA made the "Scout Me In" campaign a reality. I seriously wonder if they were aware of the potential can of worms they had opened in 2017, and moving to add girls was being preemptive to that blow up. Even today, as those small Packs struggle with keeping the girls separate but equal, all they have to do is just mark everyone a boy on the form, and be co-ed. It's legal. Just questioning whether those girls were boys or girls would be against their own rules.
Why does it matter? I was ultra aware of gender exclusion and inclusion because I was Pastor Jerome. My daughter was joining Cub Scouts, and eagerly so. I heard arguments against girls joining Cub Scouts that were terribly hurtful. There were definitive comments made based on absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever. I heard that girls will degrade the Cub Scout program because we would have to cripple the learning environment to help the girls accomplish the requirements. I heard that girls would take away one of the only places left for boys to be boys. I watched actual Boy Scout leaders tell stories where they broke BSA rules to keep mom's out of the program.
The experiment helped me separate hypothesis from fact. It is hypothesis that girls would cripple the program. People were stating it like they had evidence to show otherwise. Knowing that hypothesis, my district chose to run the Day Camp program as normal (with girl dens). No one was treated differently. I found the girls ability brought everyone up, not down. The irony did not escape me as the crying child I nurtured with a scraped knee was a boy, and the child terrified of the spider in our den area was a boy. The girls who scrapped their knee came for a band aid and went right back to playing. The girls were actually interested at getting a closer view of the spider and helped me shoo it back into the woods. Our girls are tougher than we realize, and making definitive statements about them before those statements can be tested is dangerous.
When one treats a hypothesis as a truth, we look for validation instead of testing the hypothesis. When one woman fails, all women fail. Personal failure becomes universal failure. It's difficult to digest the reasoning I cannot be considered as a minister in some congregations is because, "we've had one of those and it didn't work." (Exact quote, btw.) On one side males find their slip of verification and burn it all down. On the other side females become extra critical of one another because we know the stakes. It's an unhealthy dynamic that has existed since women openly entered the workforce.
And, I'm not done. I also can't help to see the parallels between the Girl Scouts and Women's Ministry. As guys throw out the suggestion that girls can just join the girl scouts, it echoes to my experience as a minister.
Speaking from my denominational background, we have struggled with keeping ladies in the Women's Ministries. I know I'm not terribly excited about them. Truthfully, it doesn't connect to me or my needs. Knowing the irony, in some cases it's the heightened expectations of work meeting the heightened requirements of motherhood. Also, many of the programs make outdated assumptions about femininity, and if I never see a floral cover again it wouldn't be too soon! I know not all women's program is made alike. Just sometimes it's not a gamble I want to make.
Now, just like women's groups in churches, Girl Scouts troops are not all made the same. To get your Gold Star you have to go camping and hiking with the best of them. That's great, except the women who lead the program were raised in an environment where they were not campers and hikers. Then, the Girl Scouts don't offer the resources to be trained in those areas like the BSA offers. It makes it so much more difficult to earn the BSA equivalent, the Eagle, not because girls are not capable, but because the resources are not available.
Final Thought: I know what I just wrote can be turned around and weaponized. Let me defuse it before it explodes: There are great Girl Scout Troops out there and there are great Women's Ministries. I personally know some amazing leaders on both sides. They serve a purpose for so many women and girls. I don't want to dismantle the programs, I was to deactivate the reaction to women trying to engage in the discussion. Men are not listening when women speak from women's group. Beth Moore is a great example. She is a powerhouse within the Baptist world, but has her words changed the system? No. Because the people who are breaking the system unconsciously believe the women's side is somehow less important. They never even read their words. Their wives did. and maybe that left some cracks, but they do not hold the power in the evangelical church.
The story of God can be followed through the changing of power dynamics. God chooses the youngest to inherit (David). God chooses the broken to redeem (Samson). God chooses the least of these to come forward (the children). Systems change from a place of power. We want to believe God can just appoint the right person and it magically changes, but often our power requires our sacrifice.
The forward movement to end Apartheid was the white South African college students speaking up. They had everything to lose, and nothing to gain, but still fought for what was right. I'm using the small amount of power I have to speak up for others. I think our big problem is we are not coming to the table to discuss. We are coming to the table to shut it down. We need male support. Not just the support where you pull a gal aside to tell them they are doing great, but the vocal active support. Join me.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
There is nothing communally special about today. Most of you will just go about your lives being none the wiser. But for me, seven years ago to the day, a small contingent of powerful church members put me on the path I'm on today. During a secret meeting, they decided it was time for me to go.
I was once a minister who was never whole. A three-part call of being without family, healing with a broken ankle, and finally pregnant. They would tell me to leave one week after my daughter was born.
Seven years later, to the day of their decision, I have a crystal clear perspective on church. I've been haunted by three spirits: The ghost of ministry past, the ghost of biblical truth, and the ghost of the church yet to be. They have all stayed with me, sometimes keeping me awake for hours on end. They were reminding me the cost of silence. The ghost of silence is the harbinger of death. It drives everything good and noble into the darkness and suffocates it. These spirits came with fierceness these past six months to remind me the cost of my silence. I must speak to my experience, or all would be lost.
On March 16th, 2018, I embarked on an experiment that would last me six full months.
About a year ago I wondered, am I being treated differently online as a female minister to my male counterparts? I wanted to do an informal study to find out. I would seek out a male minister to take on a female minister Reddit username. Meanwhile, I would create a male pastor name. We would have a site to record our data, and discuss as the project progressed. Only... every male minister was too busy for me. They all thought it was an interesting concept, but their schedules couldn't fit me in to find out how interesting.
Eventually, I knew I had to do it alone, if it were to happen at all. I meditated on the lack of male support early on, and I realized I didn't want it for comparison. I wanted a guy to walk six months in my shoes. I wanted a male minister to truly empathize and not just sympathize. It was my biggest defeat these past six months.
I created /u/PastorJerome as a way to peak into the online male pastoral world. I didn't anticipate much, but I went ahead and made a hypothesis.
Hypothesis: PastorJerome would get more karma each week than RevMelissa even though the same person is writing the posts.
I clearly had no idea.
Just as a side note, I was mostly raised by my father. He taught me some important lessons about gender equality. Many of them I still believe today. Like, if I want equality, I'd better be prepared to kill my own bugs and open my own doors. There were also lessons that were implicitly taught, and I took to heart. I already knew not all paths were paved equally. I knew childhood situations meant I had further to travel to reach equality. Basically, life isn't fare. I just also had this naive belief that the gender war had been fought and won. This whole experiment didn't obliterate my hope. I know major battles have been conquered, but I'm not sold on the equal part of all that.
What I Learned:
We have an unhealthy trust for male clergy: As /u/RevMelissa I had to earn the trust of other users. My first few months was spent being questioned about my education and my faith. I earned the title "Lady Pastor" from a Reddit user, and I carry that badge with pride. As /u/PastorJerome, I was immediately accepted. No one knew me from Adam, yet people willingly called me Pastor without any reservation. I just happened to be an ordained minister. Anyone could create a ministry username. That's not accreditation, but our society so willingly gives our trust and love to our male clergy. Lesson: I think men should be held to the same standard women have been held to for generations.
Our grace for our female clergy is too low: Part of this is personal experience, but because of the experiment, I can reflect on that experience. I have watched multiple male pastors who have crossed some serious boundaries be forgiven and given new jobs. Paige Patterson is going to be teaching a class on ethics after crossing some serious boundaries himself! Meanwhile we are looking for reasons to bury our female ministers. It's not that we shouldn't hold them accountable when they fail. It's that we want them to fail so we are merely looking for what we assume already exists. If congregants find anything, even something we'd brush off if it were male, we hold that woman twice as accountable. There is no winning in that world.
Everyone is male on the internet: (Unless you're female,) I was blown away at all the third person, personal pronouns being used for /u/PastorJerome. I immediately considered the possibility that I just didn't notice it as /u/RevMelissa. So, within two days of the experiment, I began to keep track. As Jerome, I got "Dude," "Brother," "he," on multiple occassions. Once again, I think it's the unhealthy trust, that basically everyone just believed I was male because I took on a male username. Meanwhile, /u/RevMelissa got one personal pronoun, and it was said by a person who personally knew me. When she called /u/RevMelissa "she," it made me cry. It was like being given personhood. Aside from my personal experience, I was hyper aware of gender being assigned to pretty much everyone, and it was all masculine. I asked a bunch of female Reddit users about their experience, and they all told stories about being given male pronouns. I saw a post where a woman showing a craft. Just her hands were showing, and the user base fell into male pronouns to describe her. I noticed when people drew non-gender specific animals, they were naturally called male. When it was brought up that we don't know the gender based on the drawing, it was downvoted. We disqualify our females with our words.
Social Femininity is a joke: I think this is the real reason no male minister wanted to join me during this experiment. Socially, I'm encouraged to explore masculinity as a female. When women are presented in media gender swapping, it usually ends with the woman having learned a valuable lesson about being human. Think along the lines of "Mulan," "Boys Don't Cry," "Just One Of The Guys." An important lesson is learned in those movies about life and being human. We look to the opposite direction and it's farce, "The Hot Chick," "White Chicks," "What Women Want" these are all examples where a guy taking on femininity is seeing as comical. The male becomes the clown, and we all laugh at him. Even in "Mrs. Doubtfire," a movie that successfully gender swaps, Robin Williams is not exploring femininity, but rather parenthood.
In this experiment, I was encouraged by the males to explore masculinity, as long as it didn't involve them exploring femininity. Only, I was never exploring actual gender, but the social construct of gender. It would have been nice for a male minister to explore the social world of what it means to be a female minister on the internet, but that will never happen.
When I tell people I'm a minister, I get reactions that range from confusion, to interest, to obvious disgust.
My son's Troop made me their Chaplain, and I don't think they have realized what a scandalous move that was for a Troop anchored in the deep south.
I'm scary for obvious reasons. I'm a paradox. On one hand I've professed my belief in a risen Lord, and therefore I've checked the salvation box. Meanwhile, the idea that I would be preaching that salvation has many thinking I'm wrong in some way but no one can verbalize to my face.
After this experiment, I understand why the only visible members of Fig Tree have been the females. I understand why the males have to tell me their support in private. Like I said two days ago, private support doesn't do anything. It is merely Nicodemus in a back room. He was a leader of the Jews. He was a member of the Priestly order that was part of the group that eventually succeeded in getting Jesus crucified. His actions would have spoken far louder than his private words. It's not until Jesus is arrested that Nicodemus speaks up, suggesting that true justice requires the accused to face trial, that he attempts to put actions to his belief.
I became ultra aware that a man's talent can be viewed ministerially while a female's is viewed as a skill. I'm good and teaching, that must mean I should become a teacher. I'm good at leading in scouts, that must mean I should be a future Scoutmaster. I'm good at planning and organizing, so that must mean I should be a secretary. I have great public speaking skills. Once again: teacher! Wow, I'm really good at at recording and editing video! I missed my calling! I've heard all of these. All but the last one in the past six months. At the same time, there were two male ministers who were earning money in another vocation. Their skills in that vocation was raised up as ministerial qualities. The sum of their parts was a whole minister. The sum of my parts, as a female, are quickly moved away from ministry.
The blunt truth is this: The only things that grows in darkness are things that fester and abscess. Things that are right and good (even tough truth) flourish in light. The #churchtoo movement exists because we've kept things in darkness. Speak up about your awesome female minister! Be an open advocate! See the parts as a whole minister! Stand boldly together, or die separate and alone! God is good.
Recently the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church released a video that struck a chord with me. Female clergy shared real words spoken to them by congregants, read out loud by male clergy. The shared comments became so terrible that the male clergy had trouble even reading them to the camera. Some even went as far as to preface with their non-belief before reading the line. (The video has been included at the top of this post.)
Meanwhile, most churches across the United States are oblivious of this video. They will go to their churches on Sunday morning, and continue to say the same scandalous things to their female clergy. Why? Because male ministers are so supportive of their female colleagues, until it comes to putting action into words.
How we have failed as clergy! How can our fellow ordained sisters live in this world without our ordained brothers rising up and speaking to this injustice? Have we learned nothing from Jesus?
One of the more frustrating aspects of being a minister is hearing fellow ministers swing the bible around like a mallet. They do it to take away the voice of the disenfranchised, smashing their sincere critiques to ribbons with quick take-away lines. One of those discussion smashing lines is Jesus came in masculine form to fortify that God puts power in exclusively male hands.
I'm here to say that nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, Jesus was born male for a purpose, but that reason was never to subjugate women to masculine rule. In truth, God took on the power of the Ancient Near East male to give that power away to others.
The Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42): If Jesus were made male to retain power within masculinity, he would have been the person to preach to the Samaritans. It would have been his words who would have changed their hearts and minds. Instead, he spoke truth to femininity and put the power of evangelism in the hands of a female. That power was purposefully given away.
Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42): If Jesus were made male to retain power within masculinity, he would have worded his response to Martha differently. Jesus' response to Martha empowers her. All he had to say was, "I'm allowing it." This would have ended the conversation, and Martha would have returned to the kitchen. Just the fact that Mary was allowed to sit where men were traditionally only allowed was scandalous enough, but he also allows Martha to counter his decision as an equal.
Mary Magdalene (Matthew 28:1-10): If Jesus were made male to retain power within masculinity, the first words of a risen Christ would not have been given to a female. Realize Mary didn't have to tell the Disciples anything. Jesus would trump any words spoken for or against a risen Lord. Why give Mary the opportunity to tell the Disciples first, when just shortly afterwards they would see for themselves? It gave power to Mary to preach the Gospel.
All three of these examples would deflate if God had taken feminine form. Power was purposefully put in masculine form to share that power with females. No one saw it back then. Everyone was still looking for power for powers sake: A mighty Warrior King that would smite everyone and take back Israel. Instead, Jesus came as the Prince of Peace. Jesus came in male form because no one back then would have listened to a female. Then, God incarnate, at multiple occasions, gave power to the opposite sex.
Speaking directly to my brothers in Christ: That's a direct call. That's a call that is scandalous, and difficult. Jesus leaves Christendom with more than a backroom support. Jesus calls all males to act towards gender equality. To speak truth to the truths my sisters in Christ are already speaking.
To borrow from John Mayer:
...Even if your hands are shaking
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Whether it's communion, the bible, or a person's life- most heated arguments about God are less about if God enters the picture and more about when and where. The Bible might be a divinely inspired book, but that means something different depending if your Bible is inspired or literal. God is present at Communion, but is it in the symbol or the literal body and blood? You might feel you need an intermediary to connect to God or you can pray directly. Knowing these little pieces of information can help you traverse the spiritual talk with fellow believers who just don't believe the same way you do.
If the above paragraph was confusing, I will pull it apart. Let's talk Communion.
The Communion Table Tells Us Our Theology
The truth is, there are many elements of worship that speak to a larger belief system. The better a congregation or denomination is about laying out their beliefs about God and the world, the clearer one can see the meaning and purpose in their actions. Don't confuse this with healthy or good. Just because you step into a tradition that is transparent in their beliefs, doesn't mean they are good beliefs.
For example, Ken Ham recently sent his book, Gospel Reset, to churches across the nation. For those who don't know, Ham is a hard-core creationist. His theology begins with a literal creation that took literally six days. He believes in the inerrant (meaning without mistake) and literal Word of God so much he has built a creation museum and Ark Encounter. Both spaces are projects that took millions of dollars. Sending a hardback copy of ones belief system also cost tons of money. Every action he makes is centered on creation. Ham is transparent and connects the dots to all areas of his faith. I personally believe his transparency doesn't make the belief system good, and I believe it's not. That's a post for another day.
How a Christian Church traverses the table connects too. Who can serve? Who can partake? Where and when in the worship does it happen? Is it intentional or is it slapped together last minute? What materials are the chalice and patent (cup and plate)? What kind of bread is being used? What liquid is in the cup? Is it grape juice or actual wine? All these questions seek a deeper understanding of the church as a whole. Ken Ham starts at Creation. I start at the Communion Table.
Who is Serving?
This is a two-part answer that fit most Christian experiences.
First, the person preparing, and serving communion could be ordained or not. Being ordained means the person was chosen by the church for a leadership role, usually the minister. This could also be congregants who were chosen for a specific role, like passing out the bread and cup. Who is making the communion available to the congregation is a statement of the sacred responsibility. If only clergy is allowed to meditate and pray over the pieces of communion, than there is a very high and sacred trust given to the clergy.
The Catholic Church has a very high trust given to clergy, probably the highest trust of all the Christian faith traditions. The sex abuse scandals are scandalous because it first breaches that sacred trust. It was made worse by others trying to others trying to hide those indiscretions. The Catholic church has dealt with the repercussions of our fallen nature before over 1,000 years ago, but in relationship to being openly christian and baptism. Would the baptisms done by Priests that were not open about being priests, or gave up their books to be burned really baptized. The ultimate answer was yes, but it tore the church apart in the meantime.
Secondly, the individuality of the person is an image of God. This idea, the first time I heard it, was offensive to me. I was counselling or co-directing at Church Camp. (Which one is not really relevant right now.) I was quietly discussion the image of Christ with another adult. We were commenting on how different cultures naturally illustrated Jesus to look like them. I was a purist at the time, and felt that was not how God should be depicted. Thank goodness other adult was a minister who knew the zealousness of youth. He patiently told a story where he was with a bunch of elementary school kids at his church. They were asked to draw God. He was shocked to see they were not drawing a guy with a long white beard, but many of the kids were drawing him! He explained to me that they knew and he knew he was not God. What I've come to realize is God shines through the person we have chosen to lead communion. Can we truly understand God until we see the Divine shine through our very neighbor?
God Meets Us
When one partakes of Communion, it is generally believed God is present somewhere in that rite. There are faith traditions, Catholic and Orthodox being the two biggest, that believe the Spirit enters the bread and wine literally transforming it to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. You might notice these traditions have high standards to partaking of the elements of Communion. One must be prepared to partake of communion, because the presence of God is always understood to already be there. God is real to the entire community.
The opposite faith tradition still has God present in Communion, but the bread and wine (usually grape juice in these traditions) are symbols of Jesus' sacrifice. The Spirit isn't literally imbuing the elements. Instead, the Spirit is with the believer. The act of Communion is still done by the entire community, but the presence of God in that meal happens after the elements leave the table.
The Elements of the Table
My favorite church Communion set was completely wood. It was gorgeous. It reminded me God being present in nature. It sat right next to that classic metal cup and plate that is standard fare for most Protestant churches. Once those rich wooden discs were placed was next to it, all imagery was gone, but symbolism wasn't. This was a church that was broken by a large group leaving and starting their own church. Those who stayed behind kept a theology of believing it is right to make it work, instead of letting go of what no longer fits. Understanding where they were, helps us see this is a table in pain.
The table itself and what is physically holding the sacred elements can tell us so much about a church and those who worship within it. If there are sharpie'd circles on the glass overlay to make sure the elements are placed exactly where they belong each Communion, that could be a sign this church holds order very high. If Communion is in a to-go packet (where you peel the top off to get to the elements) it's very possible your church puts ease pretty high on their weekly requirements.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
My Kindergarten through the first half of my third grade year was spent at Burke Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. I have a few vague fond memories of playing with friends in the giant tires on the playground, or laughing at teachers pretending to be fortune tellers, but beyond that my memories are haunted. See, I went to this school during the darkest time of my childhood. It was a school that added to the pain I experienced, and made my situation even worse than it already was. These specific people, who are etched in my brain for all time, were not the real problem. It was the system in which they lived.
Before there were accounts where parents checked a child's balance for breakfasts and lunches, kids brought their coins and dollars to school. At my school. that lunch money was traded in for a plastic medallion. It was round, red and about the size of a half dollar. It made lunch something magical. A single coin for a well balanced meal.
First and second grade I lived in the magic of that coin. It was the innocence of childhood at it's best. But, halfway through second grade my world was turned upside down. Divorce. Neglect. Hunger. These were all words I learned and knew. at a very early age. At home I had to sneak food to eat. I lived off oranges, raw potatoes, and white bread with sugar sprinkled on top. We feared leaving our room, believing our step-dad was capable of anything. School became my escape from all that.
When classes started back up my third grade year, I saw that red medallion like a salvation. Only, one morning I had no money to take to school. When I got to class I had nothing to trade for the scratched up red plastic. When I got in line for lunch, the lunch lady's kind demeanor turned dark and foreboding. "What do you mean you don't have your coin?" She let me get my lunch, but warned me to come back with two coins the next day. That night I asked my mom for the money. She was confused. She didn't understand why she had to pay twice. I had to explain I wasn't given my money that morning. After considerable discussion, she gave it to me, and the next day I gleefully payed two coins. (After having the conversation again with my teacher.)
Only, a week later my mom didn't give me money again, and this time grace was in short supply. The lunch lady took my meal, and I watched her throw it in the trash. Dejected, I sat with my classmates as they ate. I was hungry, but no one was going to feed me.
I didn't tell my Dad when he picked us up for the visitation he had every other weekend. I should have,but I felt I had done something wrong. I didn't want him mad at me too.I did, however, steal from his coin bank, enough to buy meals for the two weeks until I'd see him again. That magical coin was no longer magic. It was old and dirty. I was being punished for something I couldn't control.
Many years later I took a Disciples of Christ Polity class at Columbia Theological Seminary. It was a night class, the only one I took my three and a half years earning my MDiv.
In the combined study of my denomination, I can remember Alexander Campbell's breaking moment more than anything else. It spoke directly to me.
As part of the Campbell's membership to his particular Presbyterian sect, he had to receive a coin to partake of weekly communion. In class, I watched the Hollywood Christian Church's reenactment of the event. Campbell stood outside the church. He looked at his coin, the one his minister had given him for being "good enough" to receive the holy meal. Then he looked at a homeless man lying in the street. No words were spoken, but the point was clear. Where was this man's coin? Was he not worthy of the same meal? Then he marched into worship, threw his coin in the collection plate, and marched back out without communion.
That moment sealed it for me. Alexander Campbell gave up his meal, so I could have my own. My physical meal, and his spiritual meal melted together into one truth: We are all worthy! Knowing Camp Counselors made fun of me after hours at Church Camp didn't matter anymore. Knowing I was not the daughter of some well known minister wasn't the point. Watching a perfectly good lunch being thrown away, while I ate nothing, came back with a flaming purpose. I was called to the table without the coin, because Campbell did away with the coin many years before I was even born. I could consume God's love without qualifiers. I could fill up with the Spirit just like anyone else. I didn't have to steal it or negotiate the terms. It simply existed because it was always meant to be my place at the table.
If you want to know why I've spent my life in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), there it is. It's knowing all really does mean all, and all includes me. Broken, hungry me. It includes you too. Thank God Almighty, it includes you too.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Months ago I connected our inability to see church decline with the growth of the mega-church. Basically, congregants go where the resources are. Most don't understand the problem, because from their view there isn't one.
Eighty is the magic number in understanding church decline. About thirty years ago eighty percent of churches are small, but eighty percent of congregants go to a large church. Eighty percent of churches are dying. This problem was first seen in, you guessed it, the eighties. Going where the resources are is increasingly about going to mega-churches- because they are increasingly the one ones who can do things. I'd be interested to see that 80/80 statistic redone. I'd guess that it has changed as smaller congregations are dying out, and more and more are forced into larger churches.
As churches try to understand the problem, ministers are neck deep in it. Here are some blunt truth about ministers today and what they are currently living through:
-Rev Melissa Fain-
This was supposed to be a sermon I was going to write and record. Then the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report hit, and it all of a sudden seemed relevant now.
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 2 He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. 3 You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. 6 If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.
-John 15:1-8 CEB-
My watch vibrates me awake at 5:15 in the morning, just as it always does every week day. Bleary eyed, I turn the alarm off, get up and begin my morning ritual. I start my coffee, turn on my computer, and check out what’s happening on the subreddit, /r/Christianity. “Is it me or God?” “I’m scared and overwhelmed with anxiety.” “My mom has cancer.” These are real titles that greet me as I sift through the posts, and decide where I’m going to comment. Many of these I’ll leave be, as some great users have already given some great advice and emotional support. There are some good ministers on the internet. Sometimes I step in just to let the user know I’m saying a prayer for them. Sometimes I step in, because there are always trolls lurking, and they say stupid and hurtful things to those who show up online hurt and broken.
Then there are the ministers trying out the internet. Full forty minute sermons show up all the time in YouTube format. Those are never watched and always end up beyond zero- though we have no idea how far beyond zero, because reddit doesn’t go to the negative on posts. I always shake my head at those, because it’s clear this is an evangelism tool where the minister never got to know the community before trying to evangelize to it. The short 15 min videos are sometimes watched, and almost always brutally responded to.It’s harsh and real. Really smart people are pushing in the right ways. They are pulling apart the bad theology. It’s like looking in a 360 mirror. It makes a person resolved and stronger, or forces them out. All the good ministers on Reddit started out as one of these critiqued newbies. It’s a rite of passage if you want to stick around.
It’s also a way to protect those who were wounded. I’m a minister called to the wilderness of the new wild west, called to those who have digitally come to learn, grow and heal. Especially heal. The internet is where many of the individuals broken by the church go.
I'm not the first "Minister of the internet TM." I’m not even the first in our denomination. That title goes to Rev. Debbie Adams-Phelps. It was also not the call in which I anticipated to find myself. For me, starting online was only supposed to be the diving off point. I had it all figured out. I’d announce Fig Tree’s launch. I’d write a few meditations. Start a Facebook page. Get Twitter up and running. It would be awesome. A few months later we would physically launch and everything would be amazing. Then no one showed up for the launch. I was left with an internet site, and some social media connections. It was sad.
I’m sure many would give up and move on at that point. I gave it the good ol’ college try, right? But, you’d be wrong. I did something unheard of. I listened and learned. Instead of packing up shop, I learned what the people were doing and saying online, and I began to talk about the love of Christ in a language they could understand. Some of that was how the language looked. Three quarters of the words we use online are not even understood outside church doors. Some of that was how the language acted. The internet is snarky. It requires seeing things as jokes instead of taking them seriously.
One day a user tagged me with the title #ladypastor. That was my moment. Was he being intentionally cruel, or was it a genuine statement of my calling. I took it as a compliment, and everything changed. People began to seriously talk with me; not at me. In that moment, I began to learn the real trauma of the Christian internet.
John 15 sets up something that is really comforting. Being connected to Christ is like being connected to a vine. We are nourished and we grow on that vine. If pieces of us are cut, it is for our growth, not our death. Sometimes it’s important to hear we need to let go of something healthy so an even greater health can take its place! It’s also important to hear that things that hindered us, and kept us from growing need to be let go as well.
What I found online were complete branches, healthy Christians, lopped off the vine due to church trauma. There was confusion regarding why their faith was drying up, and why entering a new church didn’t naturally attach them to the Spiritual vine they used to drink from so deeply. More than that, I could relate. I was cut from the vine, and returned to a land that was no longer my own.
In 2010 I was called to a small rural church. By the looks of it, it was a great fit. They answered all my questions correctly, and they seemed to be searching for the talents and gifts I had to offer. Unfortunately, the church was broken. This had slipped through the Regions purview because the church had just been moved into a new region, having the old region dissolved. There were ways I could have known. Looking at old yearbooks to see the quick turnaround for ministers was the easiest way. It was my first and only full time call, and when everything went down our family was left homeless, jobless, and with a newborn baby to care for. Also, when we moved back to the Georgia region the regional minister called to welcome me back, but gave me the tough news. He was leaving within weeks. I was coming home to a state in transition, to people who no longer knew me, and frankly, I didn’t know who I was either.
Ministers don’t want to talk about their own trauma. I think there’s this fear of looking weak. I probably would have been the same way, but I could relate with those hurt and bruised voices online. I knew what these broken congregants were saying, and I knew their pain. So, I began to get honest. Brutally honest. I knew what it was like to feel the weight of depression, and not have the money or resources to seek counselling. I told that story. I told the story of having just enough pennies to purchase food for the week. I visited churches to get a feel for my new county. I felt hurt by the local church. I would be ignored time and time again when I'd visit with just myself and my son, but giving too much attention when my husband and daughter would tag along. People thanked me because my stories told them they were not alone. They too had had these experiences. My trauma as a minister was helping them heal.
The church has a problem. The hashtag, #ChurchToo was created to show sexual abuse on the heals of #MeToo, but people have been using it to show abuse in general. The pain is deep and wide. The recent Grand Jury report truly shows that. These people know that immense feeling of being connected to the vine- to God. Then, trauma happens or it continues to happen, and the person finds themselves disconnected. Instead of cutting away the bad parts, we cut away the people that are too close. The church is dying because when you do that, you are taking away the people who gave life to the church, and leaving the pieces that can give little or nothing back. You can't do that. God is the vine, but Christ is the Son. Without a way for the Son to shine on the church and feed the Church with energy- the church dies.
Listen, I know God can breathe new life into theses dried up branches. I know this message was not meant for a General Assembly. It was meant for us. It was meant for those who wonder how they will ever properly connect again. You are not alone, and my focus is on finding new health for those who are with you.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Ever hear the phrase "the Bible is a double edged sword?" That's because it's technically from the Bible, specifically, Hebrews 4:11-12.
11 Therefore, let’s make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following the same example of disobedience, 12 because God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.
The "word of God" means, in this case, the words spoken specifically by God. Simply put: What God says is truth, and it will cut through the BS.
But, so many choose to translate this text to specifically be talking about the bible, so let's talk bible. I think every word in the bible has the capacity to be a double edge sword. How?
In the right hands, the Bible is a surgeon's tool, able to cut out the damage and leave the justice, peace, and Salvific Love of Christ.
In the right hands, the Bible is a cook's tool, able to prepare us to become something amazing.
In the right hands, the Bible is an artist's tool, cutting away the unneeded parts; refining parts.
The Bible is like a sword. When properly wielded and used as a tool, it can be a wondrous document. You don't want to give someone with no skill something that can separate the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow.
In the wrong hands, the Bible is a bomb, crumbling faith to dust. It leaves a person without even a solid foundation on which to build.
In the wrong hands, the Bible is a battle sword, piercing the heart, and stopping compassion; lopping off Body parts haphazardly and without care.
In the wrong hands, the Bible can still be a good tool but in amateur hands a meaningful act can still deeply wound.
If you read all of Hebrews 4, you would realize what was meant by using the word "rest."
At the beginning of the chapter, the words of God at Creation are used and (just a few verses later) sat against disobedience not getting rest because God cut them out.
Now some has taken that to be a legalistic mandate to cut others out instead so rest will belong them. But, that's not what Hebrews 4 is saying. It's not our word. It's not our ability to choose who's in and who's out. It belongs to God. The disobedience doesn't belong to those beautiful heathens on the outside. That word belongs squarely on our incredibly misguided shoulders. Rest is achieved by remaining a faithful community. It's really hard to be a faithful community when we've pushed or cut out members from within it.
That's why we need to realize the power of our words. After all, at it's most basic level, the Bible is a collection of words. Just as a collection, the bible holds no power. It's as helpful or as dangerous as a dictionary or thesaurus. The words themselves hold no power. It's the meaning behind the words that choose whether you are wielding a bomb or a balm.
Which do you have? Are you sure?
-Rev Melissa Fain-
I wish to preface this. I don't personally have an Uncle Felix, or if I do I have no recollection of it. I also don't know another Uncle Felix in another family. The name was chosen to be generic. Also, I should give a trigger warning for family and church abuse.
I'm the type of person who needs to understand actions and reactions. Often times the action itself are not as important as the reason that action was taken. It keeps me from drawing lines in the sand and putting the entire world against me. We live in a very reactionary world. It's easy to write off, or choose to dislike, someone based on a past action. It's easier to hold them accountable for what they've done, without understanding the reasoning behind those actions. The actions themselves could be superfluous in relation to the motivation.
This brings me to poor ol' Uncle Felix. Uncle Felix was beloved in the family, but a little off. Every family reunion he'd sit and tell jokes about family members who have since passed on. He's nostalgic that way. He always praised the pie, and always exclaims that they need to do a family pie contest one year. When he finishes eating, you could find him with the other guys on the porch smoking a cigar.
But there was a problem...
After a reunion, one of the moms found her daughter crying in her room. Trying to peel the information away, the daughter was ashamed. Eventually the mother hears something horrible: Uncle Felix had inappropriately touched her. The mother knows it's true, because Uncle Felix had done the same thing to her when she was a kid. Hugging it out with her daughter, but not sharing her story, she is without words what to do.
Here's where the average person, sitting outside this situation has clear answers.
You directly talk to Felix. You call the police, or at least get a professional third party involved. You take healthy action towards wholeness.
This is very difficult to see when the abuser and the abused lives in the same family system. Yes, the family wants to keep their daughters safe, but they also love Felix. If they call the police, Felix would be put on the sex offender list at the very least. At the most, the poor old man would be in prison.
(It's here I'm going to stop for just a moment. I'm not justifying anything. I'm trying to understand actions and reactions. I'm going to turn this to church in a moment, because I don't think we've been framing these discussions correctly. So, if you need to, walk away: Take a breath, and please come back.)
The family quietly talks about what to do. They decide to keep the kids separated from the adults. Have their activities, and adult activities in different areas. If anyone sees Felix headed to chat with the kids, they would redirect him to the adults. For this family, the problem was solved.
Only the girls struggled with body and self-esteem issues well into adulthood. More than that, Felix wasn't just touching his families girls. He had a history of abuse outside the family too.
In the 1950's, Dr. Murray Bowen came up with the concept of Family Systems. The basic idea being that an individual cannot be understood apart from his or her family. The family creates this intense unity that makes it difficult for someone to form a "differentiation of self." The Family System's Institute aptly puts it:
Bowen’s theory doesn’t focus on mental illness but on the challenges of being human in the relationships which affect us all. It’s not an easy theory to grasp, as it focuses on the big-picture patterns of a system rather than the narrower view of what causes difficulties for one individual. These ideas invite us to see the world through the lens of each family member rather than just from our own subjective experience; they don’t allow room for simply seeing victims and villains in our relationship networks. Seeing the system takes people beyond blame to seeing the relationship forces that set people on their different paths. This way of seeing our life challenges avoids fault-finding and provides a unique path to maturing throughout our adult lives.
Generally speaking, professors have adopted Family Systems to help understand the culture of individual congregations. While I was in seminary I was taught mapping as a way to understand the power structures already present in the system. It's a solid idea, that I've yet to find fault in.
This is why one of the big hurdles to overcome, when trying to triage church, is to understand the family systems at play in the smaller, and yes, larger system. I've watched multiple Regional Ministers coach local ministers to just quietly resign instead of dealing with the trauma head on. Then the church re-creates the same trauma again with a new minister. And, the situation goes the other way too. There are horrible ministers out there, that cross boundaries and hurt congregants. The church is coached to ask for the minister's resignation instead of firing him or her.
But poor ol' Uncle Felix.
When something breaks in the church the church reacts like they are dealing with dearly loved family members, and they spiritually are. It is in the church DNA to guard and protect everyone within the spiritual family. It's really difficult to go against the tidal wave of emotion to do the right thing. The mindset of the congregation is that one side has already felt the pain, while the abuser can be saved future pain. As in, now that the damage is done, how does the system save everyone. Nothing is going to undo the abuse, but something is going to protect the beloved member of the system.
Now before you go type up your angry response play this game with me. Imagine a dear loved family member. It can be an aunt, uncle, grandparent, parent; even child. You are told that person was abusive in some way to someone else. Can you start the process to seek justice in the situation no matter what the outcome might be? Now imagine the issue is a dear loved one having abused another dear loved one. Can you do it? When I took the Youth Protection Training with the BSA, I discovered the answer is often 'no."
Realize those dynamics are what's at play in churches. This is made the most clear when you realize the best way to heal from a broken family system is to leave it completely. That's what broken Christians have been doing in droves for the past two decades. It's "easier" to let the victim quietly leave, than to fix the abuser's problem. Churches justify this by telling themselves the victim chose to leave, instead of being forced out by neglect.
Everything I have shared is the reason there is a disconnect in the conversation. The abused knows how to verbalize his or her abuse, and many have courageously spoken. Many churches even quietly affirm the abuse happened. For example, I can remember a congregant whispering to me, "They did it again." Denominations and churches are aware of the problem, and can name it. It's when we get to the action to fix the problem that everything falls apart. Why?
Because Church is a family system, sometimes literally. It requires us to engage in the problem differently. In a company, they can simply fire the problem. You can't fire a family member, and you can't expect the problem will magically return to normal if a Church could. Instead, we need to see the problem as systemic. How does one fix that?
Love. Churches need to see outing abuse as the loving action for the abused AND the abuser. It's time to stop and think with our heart. Yeah, it's scary to think that the most loving action is to seek justice, but it's biblical.
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible-and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: "Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
Think of it this way: If the church is a family system, we are all connected. We are all guilty in our own way of the past three decades. We could have been the abuser, we could have willfully ignored the problem, or perhaps we protected the abuser to allow the abuse to continue. We must take that guilt to the table, and seek forgiveness and healing. Grace only happens if we are willing to admit we need it.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humans
to see if anyone is wise,
to see if anyone seeks God,
but all of them have turned bad.
Everyone is corrupt.
No one does good--
not even one person!
Are they dumb, all these evildoers,
devouring my people
like they are eating bread
but never calling on the Lord?
Count on it; they will be in utter panic
because God is with the righteous generation.
You evildoers may humiliate
the plans of those who suffer,
but the Lord is their refuge.
Psalm 14:2-6 CEB
I’ve been having a hard time lately.
I know there will be suffering in this world. I know some of that suffering will be inflicted by people.
What I can’t wrap my head around is how blatantly people are dehumanizing one another, and even rejoicing in the suffering of those who aren’t like them. I expect people who revel in evil to do evil, but these are people who claim to delight in good.
Sometimes it feels like we’re hopeless. We’ll never get past the fear that motivates us to hate other people. This will always be a world where people jump to judge those in need as unworthy instead of jumping to help. I wonder if we can set aside our pride long enough to witness Christ in one another.
Will we ever weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn? Or will we always stay safe in our comfortable, unearned, bubbles?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had so many moments of despair.
So many times I’ve heard “good Christians” talk about other human beings like they were garbage. Literal, inhuman garbage.
So many moments I’ve seen people quote the Bible to justify evil, and I ask, “Is anyone seeking God?”
Sometimes it does seem like everyone is corrupt. That nobody is wise. Nobody is seeking God. Nobody is doing good. Not even one person!
But it’s not true.
There are people out there doing good. There are people out there risking what they have to help people in need. People who don’t prioritize their comfort above the needs of others. People who value every person’s life, not just their own.
It’s hard to notice them sometimes. They don’t tend to get flashy with it all and draw attention to themselves, so they’re easy to miss.
When I want to know where God is in all of this, these people are my answer. God is with them, working through them.
I know that’s not enough because there aren’t enough of us willing to allow God to work through us like that. We need more people who are seeking God.
And that’s our challenge. Are we wise? Are we seeking God? Or are we seeking to protect what we believe we deserve because we’re afraid of losing it?
Are we people of faith or are we people of fear?
When someone is despairing, asking where God is, and they look at me, what do they see?
The Lord is the refuge of the suffering. If Christ is in is, we’re that refuge too.