From the brilliant mind of…

reflections from the ISI community

10 MINISTRY TIPS FROM THE THEATER

by Rev. Chrissy Westbury (ISI ’23)  |  May 2024

The place I feel most alive and most myself is, paradoxically, when I am being someone else. Theatre is my emotional outlet, my intellectual challenge, and the primary way I make friends outside of my ministry context. Amelia and Emily Nagoski write in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle that one of the factors that contributes to burnout is failure to express emotion. Onstage, I can scream and cry and laugh and sing and dance with abandon.

Recently, I played M’Lynn in a production of Steel Magnolias. The very powerful monologue at the end of the show, when she falls apart in grief, was cleansing and healing. Being able to sob openly and yell at God about the unfairness of it all broke open scar tissue in me I didn’t even know was there. As a pastor and as a presbytery leader, I don’t have a lot of opportunity to be so openly wounded and to allow others to care for me. As M’Lynn, I had to. It was in the script. And it felt good.

Here are ten other lessons theatre has taught me that translate into ministry and leadership:

  1. Project to the back of the house – In ministry, we often have so many demands coming at us that we have to triage what needs to be dealt with first, and what may be able to wait. Sometimes, that translates into the loudest voices and the most in-your-face people getting a lot of our attention. Don’t forget about the folks you can’t see past the footlights, those whose voices aren’t always heard.
  2. Listen, listen, listen – Even a carefully rehearsed script does not guarantee that things will go as planned. Sometimes your scene partner will lose their place or skip over whole pages of dialogue. You have to be ready to go where they go and to do the work together to bring the conversation back to where it needs to be.
  3. Go big or go home – Commit to the scene, commit to your character, commit to the action. If you hold back, it shows.
  4. Respect the folks behind the scenes – Without the tech and front of house crews, you have no play. You have actors standing on an empty stage in the dark, with no clothes, nothing to do, nothing to say, and no one to hear them. Honor the people who do their work in the background.
  5. Deeply know and embody the character – Step into the mind and the spirit of another. Don’t just put on the costume and walk in their shoes, really try to understand their motivations, what it is that makes them react in certain ways and say the things they do.
  6. Don’t take it personally when you don’t get the role – You can be the greatest actor in the world, and not be right for a particular role or for a particular director’s vision. Sometimes you won’t connect with a person, or fit in a congregation, and it’s not necessarily about you.
  7. The ensemble can make or break the show – Dynamic and engaging leads matter, but if the ensemble isn’t committed, engaged, and fully immersed in the show, it will pull everyone out of the story, out of the moment.
  8. Yes, and… – This is the first rule of improv. When your scene partner offers something, you take it and build on it. Don’t automatically shut things down without giving them a chance to live and breathe and explore the possibilities. Resist “we tried that before.”
  9. At some point, you have to put down the script – you have to trust in what you know, even if it’s not perfect, even if you have to call for a prompt. You can’t fully immerse yourself in the action when you’re constantly checking yourself.
  10. Don’t forget to have fun – “There’s a reason we call it a play!” Find the joy in your ministry, find the places where you can play, laugh, experiment, let go. The audience can tell when the actors are having fun, and it translates to enjoyment, engagement, and commitment for the audience as well. The same can be said for ministry partners and congregations.

A FULL CIRCLE, LOPSIDED OVAL MOMENT

by Rev. Dr. Yvette R. Blair-Lavallais (ISI ’23)  |  April 2024

 “Everything is connected. Life is circular but sometimes it looks like a lopsided oval.”  This wisdom from my mother, a symphony of words, plays on repeat as background music in my life.  I heard it loudly and clearly earlier this year and traced its lopsidedness to a pivotal point two years ago.

When I arrived on the campus of Memphis Theological Seminary on January 8, 2024, and stepped out of the car, the first person to greet me was President Jody Hill. When he smilingly said, “Hello Professor,” it was a full circle moment for me that I was here not as a doctoral student in the inaugural Land, Food and Faith Formation cohort (starting in the summer of 2018), but as an adjunct professor six years later to teach students in the Doctor of Ministry program. This was my opportunity for my iron to sharpen their iron.

This moment had been in the making for a while.

We want you to come back and teach.” This invitation, spoken to me by the Academic Dean following my May 2022 graduation, was very present for me.  I didn’t know if that meant immediately, the next academic year, or when. I just know it became a rhythmic tune in my mind. Arguably, these lyrics were the refrain of the song that I had played over and over. You see, in my Apple Music career playlist, I have two songs asterisked in my favorites: “It’s Pastoral Ministry For Me,” a contemporary gospel song of sorts, and “Some Day I’ll Be a Seminary Professor,” my personal anthem.  Both are noted in my heavy rotation mix. And now, here I was making my way to Cumberland Hall where I have the honor of teaching DM50002, “Theologies of the Land,” this semester. Music to my ears!

The experience is humbling for me. As a student, I dreamed and prayed that I would one day return to the seminary – the very place where I learned so much about the intersection of faith, food insecurity and land injustice – to teach.

The invitation was extended, and the details were finalized Fall 2023. I was given the freedom to create my own syllabus (design thinking at work), introduce students to theologies of the land through an ecowomanist lens, and to assign readings and papers that center the voices of the Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) community in the narrative around ecological justice and food insecurity. Teaching now takes center stage in this work that I do as a leading voice in food justice, advocating for equity and parity, and dismantling the systemic injustices at every level in our foodways system.

Of course, our prevailing question is: how do we become ecclesial disruptors of land/food injustice? That’s my hallmark question that I always ask the faith community. It is a call, like a blaring trumpet, to do some holy wrestling and to sit uncomfortably in the tension. My class explored land as the body of God, water as our relative, ancestral practices of agriculture in the BIPOC community through a womanist lens and examined the horrors of legalized land theft in this country dating back to 1617 at the hands of the church.

Since we were in Memphis leading up to the MLK Holiday, we went on a learning journey at the Historic Clayborn Temple, the site of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike, that brought Dr. King to Memphis one last time (everything is connected). We looked at the layers of injustices that the Black sanitation workers faced, including environmental racism, and applied an ecotheological lens to it. After discussing it over lunch, we explored the US Farm Bill, land iconography in songs (This Land is Your Land & God Bless America) and reimagined a sacrality of land that is inclusive of all God’s people.

Mom was right. This is truly a full circle, lopsided oval moment!

WHEN LEADERS GRIEVE

by Rev. Amy Wiegert (ISI ’23)  |  March 2024

When I was about 11, I was taking swimming lessons. On one particular day, the fumes of chlorine were nearly overpowering, and I slowly started to sink. My pregnant swimming instructor dove in and boosted me to the side. After catching my breath and talking with my mom, my teacher did a smart thing: she insisted I get back into the water—if only up to my waist—so that I was not afraid of the water.

These past few months have brought that sort of sinking feeling back. I’m fully clothed on dry land. Emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, I am drowning.

In the past 18 months, my spouse and I have buried his beautiful sister, weeks after a cancer diagnosis; we’ve moved our daughter to college and buried my father-in-law three weeks later; a few months after that, my mom died unexpectedly in her sleep. Somewhere in there we’ve said goodbye to two cousins and just last week, my aunt—my baptism sponsor. In those same 18 months, I’ve taken a new lead position at my church.

Grief comes in waves. At first, I tried to fight it, but it comes back more intense. I’ve learned to let it come, to stop what I’m doing and listen to it, even if that means crying in the grocery store. I’ve learned which congregation members actually want to hear my response to, “How are you doing?” and who asks to be polite. I’ve learned that caring for the congregation is an integral part of my purpose, and it’s not my only purpose. New life arrives in the folks who tell me not to start the new project right now but instead let’s get lunch. It is the finance guy who says let’s do what we need to today, the rest can wait. It’s in being my true self that the work takes places, even if there is visible sadness. Life feels precious, and a bit more urgent. This morning when my son invited me to watch him play basketball on the driveway, I put on my coat and watched.

When I went back for swim lessons, my new instructor was somebody’s skinny grandpa, who insisted that first I learn to float on my back. Why? So, I could see the sky—see there was more to the situation than me and the water. “Amy,” he said, “you’re working too hard to swim. You don’t need to fight the water, let it carry you the full stroke.”

Grief is borne out of deep, deep love. These months I’m learning I don’t need to fight grief, but let it carry me, and remember to notice the sky.

MICROAGGRESSIONS HAVE A MACRO MINISTRY IMPACT

by Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney (ISI ’22)  |  February 2024

“I didn’t know what to think when I heard we were going to have a Black intern, but you’re good!”

This quote came from a woman who came up to me after church the first time I preached as a vicar. I was the first Black person, the first person of color, to serve as an intern in this congregation. Without knowing me, because of my race alone, I was met with an air of skepticism that had to be deemed good, according to her standards.

Who are the people whose inclusion in ministry is still being debated in your context? People who we may not be quite sure we want to let in our building or go to their side of the tracks. People who – sure they can be members – but not leaders. I mean we’re not going to elect them treasurer or anything. Perhaps, there are people we’ll welcome if they are good with our ministry exactly as it is; but we are sure not making any changes to the way we’ve always done it to help them feel more included.

People who are homeless, people who are from a different side of town, people with disabilities, people with little children who make little children noises, people from a different race or country, people who are poor, people who identify as LGBTQIA+. Are there parameters by which certain people can be included? Parameters by which they cannot?

Far too often, there are people – people who we may find in our congregations – who take on the posture of treating those who are defined as “other” with fear; and regard them as “less than.” There is a fear that even interacting with the “other” will somehow diminish, pollute, or confuse their understanding of self and faith. Sometimes these feelings, these biases, are unconscious; and, these unconscious biases may show up as microaggressions.

Microaggressions are subtle, verbal or nonverbal insults or messages directed towards people of marginalized identity groups, targeting some aspect of their identity. These insults convey hidden messages that cause a hurtful impact. The term, microaggressions, was coined in 1970 by Chester M. Pierce, M.D. to describe insults and dismissals inflicted on Black Americans by non-Black Americans. In 2007, Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. expanded the term, acknowledging people in any marginalized group in society who are targets of microaggressions.

I frequently have the opportunity to speak in both ministry and business settings; and, of all the things I talk about, microaggressions is, perhaps, the one thing people from underrepresented groups most thank me for including in my sessions. This is because microaggressions are infrequently discussed but so frequently felt.

Often conversations about racism, sexism, homophobia, and all kinds of oppression focus on large scale, macro-level systemic acts of oppression. Less frequently discussed are insidious acts of microaggression that are also very painful. Often called the papercuts of oppression, microaggressions may have a small mark but result in big pain.

People experiencing microaggressions are often questioning whether they interpreted what they know they experienced correctly, asking what the person meant by their comment or action, and debating whether saying something will be helpful or harmful. These mental gymnastics are what make microaggressions so painful and leave the recipient deliberating for hours, days, or longer about what they should do about their experience.

You may be wondering what I did about my internship microaggression. I shared the experience with my internship supervisor, who was very embarrassed this happened; but, to my knowledge, never said anything to the person who made the remark. And, as much as I respect my supervisor, I have never forgotten that this comment went unacknowledged. As a leader, it is important that we do not allow these acts to go unaddressed. It is important to teach about unconscious bias and how it impacts our ministries. It’s important to unpack these beliefs that might lie below the surface and influence how we treat people.

If I had a similar experience as a visitor seeking a new place to worship on that Sunday, instead of as a new vicar needing this internship for ordination, I likely would have walked out of church that day and never come back. Oftentimes microaggressions are excused as “that’s just the way they are.” A consistent, long-standing pattern of inappropriate, harmful behavior does not excuse it. An important part of leadership is having the courage to address those small acts of oppression, just as we are, hopefully, addressing large acts of oppression.

In our ministries, what boundaries do we need to encourage people to reconsider? What unspoken thoughts and acts need to be unearthed and addressed? Jesus heals us from the temptation to cling to stereotypes and biases that keep us from loving our neighbor. The goal here is not to assign blame; but, to move continually to a place of living transformed lives focused on inclusion.

There are no outsiders in the family of God. Jesus is in the business of meeting one deemed an outsider and giving them a place at the table. We should be also. When we abandon the urge to debate who’s in and who’s out, we can all the more attune ourselves to the persistent welcoming of those who we might once have considered best left on the margin.

Windsock Visitation, by Michael O'Neill McGrath, OSFS

MARY’S MAGNIFICAT REVISITED

by Rev. Shéree Jones (ISI ’21)  |  December 2023

Come Celebrate With Me! 
I have found favor with the Lord
At the tender age of thirteen 
I was chosen to do something never seen.

It’s like Lauryn Hill said: 

An angel came to me one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man child would be born.
Oh this crazy circumstance,
I knew his life deserved a chance

but I feared what would be said about me
Would they ridicule, criticize or question my integrity? 

I’m the first, no one has done this before
But I will tell you what I know for sure
People with nothing else to do
Will find reasons to talk about you! 

I was scared and afraid
I didn’t know what to do
So of course I prayed
I think you would too
I prayed and I prayed I prayed so long
That my words became a notorious song. 

I was unsure who would believe
I’d been chosen to birth Emmanuel
I hastened to visit my cousin Elizabeth
Who had a Divine encounter as well! 

I received confirmation
As soon as I walked into the room
Elizabeth felt baby John
As he leapt in her womb! 

Can you see us?
Two unlikely women
Who found favor in God’s sight
We were too excited to sleep
So we talked all night.
 

We celebrated each other’s blessings
Like a private baby shower
One day turned into three months
Afterwards I left feeling so empowered. 

Now ready to answer God’s call
Scales from my eyes began to fall
I saw that people in positions of power
Really had no power at all. 

God has power to cast down wicked rulers in high places
God has power to exalt the righteous from lowly spaces. 

It was through prayer that I found my voice
Yes, this pregnancy was not my choice
But I willingly accepted God’s plan for me
Who knew my choice would make history? 

I was silenced by some Gospel writers
They’ve given me no words to say
Like I didn’t scream and cry
In childbirth surrounded by hay. 

Yes, I’m portrayed as a woman
Worthy to carry God’s child
Yet, they only show me as meek and mild
There’s more to me than what they see
There’s more to all of us, indeed 

Ladies, you are more than your womb
Men, you are more than your seed. 

You were born with a purpose
You can do more than just survive
God sent His only begotten son
So that you can THRIVE! 

So what is this about
What am I trying to say?
If you want to thrive
The first thing to do is pray. 

Stand humbly before the Lord
Know there’s nothing you can hide
God sees and knows all
So put away your pride. 

Be willing to surrender your will
For God’s perfect plan
You know how the song goes,
“My life is in Your hands”.

CULTIVATING FERTILE SOIL

an interview with Camille T. Dungy and Tess Taylor |  October 2023

Rev. Dr. Anne Stewart, Executive Vice President of Princeton Seminary and Director of Iron Sharpening Iron, interviews acclaimed poets Camille T. Dungy and Tess Taylor about their most recent work and how the garden is an apt metaphor for the work of leaders: rooting and growing, stewarding and tending, knowing when to weed or wild, and cultivating hopefulness. 

WHO NEEDS A SABBATICAL?

by Rev. Jennifer Andrews Weckerly (ISI ’22)  |  August 2023

In my tradition (The Episcopal Church), sabbaticals are part of letters of agreement. After five to seven years of ministry, the priest is typically granted eight to twelve weeks of sabbatical. In my own vocation, I have moved around a bit, so I accumulated fourteen years of ordained ministry before being in place long enough to earn a sabbatical. 

After fourteen years, including three years of pandemic-ministry, I wasn’t convinced I needed a sabbatical, but I certainly wanted one. For me, as someone who works at “full steam ahead” speed, I am not the best at assessing when I need a break. To my credit, I always take my full allotment of vacation, I tend to my physical, spiritual, and mental health, and I am intentional about work-life harmony. But to need a sabbatical seemed to me a sign of weakness. Surely I, who was more invigorated by the constant pivoting of pandemic ministry, didn’t really need a sabbatical.

But the experience of sabbatical has been incredibly eye opening about my own rhythms. It took me a solid week to truly put down the work of church. Even though I was not working, the remnants of work were lingering in my mind. The constant emotional labor of ministry just could not be turned off quickly. But the end of week two brought the most helpful insight. I have often taken two weeks in a row of vacation and thought I was being luxurious with my time. But by the end of week two of sabbatical, with ten more weeks ahead of me, I realized work was not seeping into my mind like it often does on day ten of a 14-day vacation. Somehow that realization made me understand how much ministry is infused into my body, and how long it really takes to get work out of my system. 

I am not sure what one does on sabbatical really matters – whether you long to intensively study something, whether you want to travel to sacred sites or bucket list locales, or whether you just want time to not be doing ministry work. What really matters is the time of extended break. Your mind, body, and spirit need time to deprogram seven (or fourteen) years of rhythm. Your normal way of piecing together connection to God needs the food of time away from your ministry setting and ministering to others. Your family and friends need to see you outside of a collar, without the yoke of ministry weighing on your shoulders, and with the lightness that only extended time away can bring. 

Not having reentered from sabbatical yet, I can only attest to the research on sabbatical that says clergy need sustained times of renewal for healthy ministry. But what I can tell you is that sometimes the things we are convinced we don’t need or even things we just want, are the things you, your support system, your relationship with God, and the people entrusted to your ministry really do need. 

ENCOUNTER & INQUIRY

by Rev. Joanne Gallardo (ISI ’22)  |  June 2023

“Waitlisted.” That’s what the letter from Duke Divinity School said in early November of 2018. I was an associate pastor, unhappy in my job, wanting to be stretched intellectually. I wanted more opportunities, more connection to people like me, and for God’s sake, something outside of my Anabaptist tradition. Undergrad, seminary…surely not everything centered around the Radical Reformation.

I withdrew my name at Duke because I didn’t feel ready. I was already making a big life step by buying a house at that time, but I was also concerned that I was applying as a means of escape.

Enter a life-changing email from fellow ISI participant Megan Ramer saying she was recommending me to this “sort of new” program from Princeton Theological Seminary. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting into, but I did know that the aim was to grow my leadership skills. I had previously attended the Engle Preaching Institute through PTS and found it to be a great experience. I was eager to go back to Princeton!

The executive leadership part of the program was especially timely as I exited my associate pastor job and entered the role of Conference Minister for Indiana and Michigan. This was an executive role, and I had no clue how to be an executive.

Through cohort and class work, I learned 1) Yes, I do know how to be an executive and 2) Here are some skills you should have. The support of my cohort was invaluable. Lois “coached” most of us to leave our jobs! I say that tongue in cheek, but it’s true that 3 of us left jobs that were no longer lifegiving and entered jobs where we felt our gifts were being used. I needed the courage to do that, and I received it from ISI.

In my cohort I discerned that I did indeed want to go back to school, and the direction that would best suit my needs would be a D. Min. program. I bounced a “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” mantra around in my cohort gatherings. Their support, combined with the ISI program leaving me hungry for more, gave me the final push I needed to fill out Christian Theological Seminary’s lengthy application.

The degree I’m pursuing would be in executive leadership, inspired by my time at Princeton. My hope is that I can build on what I’ve already learned, along with my intuitive wisdom. I want to focus on the spiritual abuse of pastors, as in, congregations that do them harm. My own experience, along with that of many other women clergy I’ve encountered, calls for at least an inquiry. I don’t know what exactly this means or how it will change as I encounter coursework, but exploring this is important to me.

I am grateful to ISI for the gentle push in an academic direction.

THE ADVENTURE OF A LIFE(TIME)

by Rev. Frenchye Magee (ISI ’22)  |  April 2023

“So, what’s next?” my friend, Marilyn, asked as we sat together at her table. The delicate fragrance of basil and tomato teased our palate. Fresh bread with its salted crust was in our mouth, and the sheen of good olive oil glistened on our hands. Before I could answer, she winked and continued, “If I know you, it’s going to be an adventure.”

The last three years have been an unsought adventure—a global pandemic can do that. It’s hard to believe that 36 months ago, I sat in my office, reviewing a disrupted Holy Week schedule, wondering how to plan an online retirement party. Staff and I shared naïve jokes about the amusement park life, but I had no inkling that my own roller-coaster ride would see my life double back on itself in hairpin turns and force me to ask big questions.

‘What do you really want?’

‘Where do you want to put your energy?’

And, the ultimate, ‘When are you going to listen to the voice inside instead of all the voices around you?’ 

All the answers came to bear with a decision in 2021 to decline a new appointment. For the first time in a decade I was no one’s minister, servant-leader, pastor, chaplain, or preacher.  Unlabeled, I left Marilyn’s home and arrived at the ISI fall gathering without a church, a plan, and (mostly) without my self. I felt like an imposter. How could I participate in a program for clergywomen when I wasn’t sure if the “clergy” label even fit me anymore? What was I doing, other than finding an excuse to fly to New York and see The Lehman Trilogy?

And yet, in the conversations and connections, the panels and preaching, the lunches and laughs, the stories and steps, I heard voices pitched at a frequency I hadn’t heard in years. Women…clergy…leaders. Unashamed to confess they didn’t have all the answers; unafraid to share that they too, had occasionally lost their love for the drudgery of ministry, even while they retained their love for the One who had called them into it. Most of all, undeniably committed, they pressed forward for the next thing.

Imposter or not, somehow, God had placed me right where I needed to be. The voices around me were ones I needed to hear. The faces that went with them were interested without being invasive, curious without being convicting. I felt safe and seen—in community, not competition. Space—our spaces—became holy ground, healing ground, a haven for a tired heart. I flew home with gratitude, carrying the experience with me. Over the next months, when I revisited it, I heard her (my voice) join the conversations. She emerged with strength, insisted on bold steps, and asked new questions. The most important one was ‘Is it life-giving?

“What’s next” is still developing. But I already know that the answer is “life” in all its fullness as woman…clergy…leader. One who is centered, whole, and grateful.

A wonderful adventure? Yes, indeed.

Thanks be to God.

THE DIVINE IS IN THE DETAILS 

by Rev. Dana Allen Walsh (ISI ’22)  February 2023

“In the beginning was the word.”

The concept of Jesus as the Word of God is closely connected to the idea of preaching. In this way, John 1:1 provides a foundation for the work of preaching, affirming the power and authority of the message that is being proclaimed.

This reflection on John 1:1 was from ChatGPT, written with generative artificial intelligence. It’s everywhere now. A.I. Chatbots can easily create text for your next social media post, a newsletter article, or even a sermon. 

This new technology begs the question: are Chatbots only a threat to the high school English essay on Grapes of Wrath? Or might we see it impacting the preached Word in our pulpits?

The preached word is not a didactic essay – it is the beginning of a conversation. It’s not about answers or explanations – it is the opportunity to live into the Word – to encounter it and experience how the Word connects to this particular kairos moment.

In Advent, I gave these instructions to ChatbotGPT: “Write a sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent for a progressive Christian church based on the lectionary reading, Matthew 1:18-25.”

ChatGPT provided 250 words of text (too short for most preachers) that were vague and generic. Although I believe that generative artificial intelligence will only get better with time, the role of the preacher cannot be replaced by a Chatbot.

Preachers find a home in the Word. We inhabit the sacred intersection of the Word found within the ancient text, our own faith lives, and the community we serve. The act of preaching is rooted in our incarnational theology, embodied in the beautiful messiness of this human experience.

Will A.I. Chatbots be the ghost writer for preachers from now on? No, the preached Word requires the embodiment of our paradoxical faith: one that is both ancient and relevant, traditional and innovative, particular and universal, pastoral and prophetic.

Scroll to Top