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Monday, March 26, 2007

RevGalBookPals Book Discussion Group: Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor

Welcome to the first of our monthly book discussions! In the sidebar you will see the books for the next two months identified, along with a link to our Amazon Store, where you can purchase the books and make a small donation to RevGalBlogPals, Inc. at the same time!

Our book for March is Leaving Church, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Harper San Francisco 2006.

The Author

I imagine that many of you seminarian and clergy types are long familiar with this and other of Barbara Brown Taylor's (BBT's) work. She is a priest in the Episcopal Church, the author of eleven books, many articles and recorded sermons and talks, and holds eight honorary doctoral degrees. She is, basically, a giant in the world of preaching. You may read more about her education, work, and upcoming speaking engagements on her website,

However, as a layperson who likes to hang out (virtually and In Real Life) with clergy and seminary types, this was my first exposure to BBT's work.

In a word, I found it explosive. It covers major questions about who we are to be as priests, pastors, and laity in today's church, and explores why, in many cases, the paths we are following are not leading where we want or expect them to go.

I am a dedicated and fairly picky reader. I read very fast and sometimes miss things; therefore I often read a book multiple times over months or years. However, as I read the last words of this book, I instantly, without putting the book down, turned back to the front and began again. I realized that I would need a pencil to mark things, so I stumbled through the house, still reading, until I had one; and I didn't stop reading until I'd finished the second time.

The Book

BBT begins by telling the story of her work on staff in a large suburban Atlanta parish. She was finding herself exhausted and used up, cut off from the nature which (as we see later) is and always has been so critical to her spirituality. "Why did I seal myself off from all this freshness? On what grounds did I fast from the daily bread of birdsong and starlight? (5)"

She and her husband begin driving out of the city to "see if we could imagine living anywhere else (6)" and found themselves drawn to the mountains of North Georgia.

The tiny church with which she falls in love (without even meeting its people) already has a priest, a long-time and well-loved character. His sudden, subsequent death opens the position, and BBT is called to be the new rector. She faces issues of parishioners opposed to women clergy (still fairly new in TEC at that time) and the difficulty of replacing a loved pastor.

She also finds that, despite her love for the parish and its people, she is falling into the same distress she encountered in the larger church: "I had once again become so busy caring for the household of God that I had neglected the one who had called me there. If I still had plenty of energy for the work, that was because feeding others was still my food. As long as I fed them, I did not feel my hunger pains (75)."

Certainly, there are many ways for clergy to refresh themselves, but as BBT says, "The demands of parish ministry routinely cut me off from the resources that enabled me to do parish ministry. I knew where God's fire was burning, but I could not get to it (98)."

In addition to the personal-level issues, there is what BBT calls "the hardening taking place, not only at (my church) but at every church I knew. The presenting issue was human sexuality (105)."

BBT finds that she is troubled by the litigiousness of the church surrounding this and many issues...and the necessity to be "a defense attorney for those who could not square their love of God and neighbor with the terms of the Nicene creed (111)."

Just as she is finding her position more and more untenable, and begins looking for other options to pursue in life, she is offered a position as a professor of religion at a local college. She resigns her church (though remaining a priest) and becomes a full-time academic. From that position, she is able to reinvigorate her love affair with God, especially through nature.

The Questions

It seems to me ironic (or something) that we should be reviewing this book just as the Anglican Communion is embroiled in some of our most divisive polity discussions in recent years.

The questions that this book raises, however, are well applicable to any and all denominations and believers who seek to serve Christ in his church - whether as priest, pastor, bishop, deacon, lay leader, musician, Sunday school teacher, nursery worker, potluck supper cook, person in the pew/folding chair.

BBT says, "All these years later, the way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it...We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium (220)."

Many of you who will read this are from churches much less structured and hierarchical than The Episcopal Church. However, I wonder, to what extent do these problems face all churches?

What are you and your churches doing to carry out the Gospel in its true sense?

I am also interested in the wisdom and experience you bring to your reading of this book with regard to self-care and renewal for clergy and laity.

What Do You Think?

The questions above are merely suggestions. I encourage you to write in any direction you please. Your reflections are needed and desired; that's what will make this a DISCUSSION. And the discussion will continue as long as there is interest, so please check back here in the days to come!

You may share in the comments here, or, if you wish to post longer thoughts to your own blogs, please let us know in the comments that you have done so and where to find you.

Instructions on how to link inside the comment box are found at the foot of any Friday Five (I can't get it to reproduce here!) For a complete how-to, click here.
Let the discussion begin!


  1. Oh, I forgot today was the day! And I need to get back to my workplace pronto. But I will just throw out -- I have heard BBT preach many x and have read all her books. When this one came out on 6/1, I ended up with 2 copies, finished (one of them)in the middle of the night, and sank back into bed in astonishment, since there I was just beginning the inquirer/seminary app process in the Presby Church. I am so looking forward to what you all have to say.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I am heading out for lunch with son who is on Spring break. I will post more later, probably on my blog...

  4. This book reminded me of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller for the way it left me with so many thoughts to ponder.

  5. I've posted my initial reflections for this discussion on my blog. You can find them here: leaving

    Thanks Mary Beth for starting this conversation...

  6. Mary Beth,
    Thank you for this super posting on this book. I am about midway through the book. I know both priests (one better than the other) who followed BBT after she left her parish. Though I have not discussed it with them, I would be interested in knowing how the congregation has adjusted since she has left AND after this book has been out.

  7. So glad you started this post. I too, have seen BBT preach many times (both before and after her move to the academy)and have really appreciated her homiletic gifts.

    That said, I found this book EXTREMELY frustrating-- whiny actually. I thought the tone was incredibly selfish. Admittedly, I'm not ordained clergy so I haven't fully walked in her shoes. But I am married to a pastor and am pursuing a PhD in religion. I have an M.Div., and did serious work to discern that my own call was NOT to the local church. After reading this book (admittedly some months back) I felt like BBT had just gotten tired of all the pressure and gave up. Instead of questioning her own lack of boundaries in the parish or looking for true possibilities for renewal she just quit and moved on to a place that celebrated HER and her gifts. I'm quite certain it wasn't that simple but I'd have felt better if I thought she'd realistically entered into the priesthood with a better understanding of what it entailed. I once heard her preach about all the things she thought the ministry would be (suffice it to say it was not a realistic picture!).

    Perhaps the book is more of an unintended indictment of theological education (or the lack of real prep. for the true work of ministry).

    Burnout is a reality and a problem for pastors. I just wish she'd dealt more with her OWN complicity in the problem.

  8. Prisca, You are not alone in that response to this book. Many of my colleagues (ordained clergy women) feel the same way you do: whiny, boundary issues, discerning issues, etc. I have not been able to read the book - the first few pages were enough for me and the space I am in...

    But I do think Mary Beth's questions are good and I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on them with this community of RevGals. (Although I have been doing lots of reflection on this in many other ways)...

  9. I have the same view of this as Prisca appreciate her posting it first, because as a layperson I was hesitant to voice that opinion. I also appreciate hearing from mompriest that other women clergy agree.

    I'm interested in hearing from more of the revgals about this book. Thanks, Mary Beth!

  10. I thought it was strange that she didn't really reflect much on how becoming a "rock star" in the preaching world impacted her experience as a small town priest. There must have been huge disconnects between being celebrated keynoter at Every Mondo Preaching Conference nationwide and then coming back to plumbing disasters and which VBS curriculum do we choose this year discussions. Her high profile must have intensified her sense that she had to "represent" her denomination and be a public Christian. It also must have made it hard to hang out with the peers among whom she might have found nurture and support.

    Also---and I say this with caution--I think the fact that she has no kids made a difference. I know it's not all about being a parent and I know many childless pastors who are wonderfully centered and down to earth. Still, I kept thinking while I read the book: if she'd been changing diapers and hanging out at soccer practice, she might have gotten past some of this. (and no, I don't think horses count as a substitute).

  11. I'm with PCIT on this one. Not once does she make any deal of the fact that she is Barbara Fireplacing Brown Taylor and could have any job she wanted.

    (I know how that sounds. "Bitter, party of one.")

    I'm not one to say that the Holy Spirit does not work at all through geography or topography, and mybe her tradition uses a different kind of call system, but gee whiz-- isn't it lucky for her?

    Having said all of that, I watched as people lined up by the hundreds to have her sign this book last year in Atlanta. She clearly has a very long reach and a big audience net. And--who am I kidding here-- if she scrawled the recipe for koolaid on a cocktail napkin, I'd probably buy it. Unsigned.

  12. My feeling while reading the book last summer was that she had not really finished processing her experience at all, and must have felt pressured to put it into a tidy form. I imagine that pressure was both external (fans, publisher, etc.) and internal (What have I done?!?!!).
    But when I have tried to express this in a clergy group, I have been accused of feeling jealous of her fame. I have to mull that over.
    I guess I continue to feel there is a danger in the pedestal, for those who erect it and for those who find themselves perched on it, too. The loss of any sort of peer group must make it very difficult to remain grounded.
    I love her bird imagery, but I found her breastfeeding imagery disturbing. If you really feel you're being bled dry through your nurturing of the congregation, you need help. The choice of metaphor alone is a, forgive me, red flag.

  13. Very, very interesting comments. I must say that the "right between the eyes" thing that I got from this book the first time was: "This is why God is not calling YOU to ordained ministry, honey...your boundaries are still so new and shaky, you'd be a basket case in no time."

    Actually I'd probably never make it through the first step in the discernment process for that reason.

    The realization has given me some further insights:

    1) the lay ministries in which I participate are incredibly important, mostly to ME!

    2) my admiration for those of you who are RevGals has increased immensely

  14. Right now I wish I had read this book already. It's next....

  15. purechristianithink,you make some good points. I totally agree with children piece, at least for me having kids and working as an Episcopal priest has been its own kind of discernment and hard work (but good work). And I think being a mom has made me a better priest and especially a better person, but that's me.

    In terms of discernment in the Episcopal church, it is really encouraged that parish and priest enter into a discerning process before issuing and accepting a call. I am in the midst of doing this as we speak and it takes months to do it well, I mean 6-8 months of working together (interviews, essay questions, site visits, etc...and usually the church is doing this with several people and the priest is doing this with several churches, although some priests prefer to discern one parish at a time...). Since I haven't read the book I don't know what BBT says about her discerning a call to this church, but I do know that my clergy colleagues were not impressed with her discernment - yikes - we expect so much more from her - because she is a ROCK STAR in the Episcopal church and in the preaching world...

    Still, I am also interested in what you all have to say about Mary Beth's questions and the state of the church...

  16. I've gone back to the book a couple of times and actually quoted it in a couple of papers. She moves in some of the same circles as I do(Candler, North Georgia, Piedmont) but on a different level so I know people who know her.

    When I read the book, saw the breastfeeding image (like Songbird) as a real red flag. I know they have a pretty rigorous discernment process down here among the Episcopalian; I wonder how she 'got through' the process. I think I would have recommended more CPE. But then again, I see CPE as a panacea for all ills.

    That said, I recognize each of her stages -- I feel I've left church like that at least once and then have been drawn back. I end up wondering about boundaries (I know, for some of us it's our favorite word.)

    I've developed a mantra "What profits a woman to gain a giant pulpit to lose her own soul?" Else, we end up in a love affair with the church and not in relationship with the entity we worship. (That'd be God/Christ for me!)

  17. What a fascinating discussion, you guys!

    I haven't read the book... and I am too new of an Episcopalian to have heard of her... but I am stunned to hear that there is such thing as a 'rock star' priest.

    I know that spiritual pride is one of the most insidious sins I have to deal with. I can't imagine having to battle it in front of millions of 'fans'.


  18. I am all over the map on the book, from "whiny" to "wow" and also ditto the mom thing (while double-dittoing the caveats of that statement).

    I blogged about the book here some months back.

    Lately when I've dipped into our denomination's database of churches seeking pastors, I get very twitchy with all the chirpy talk about programs. "We have wonderful programs! Our children's program is growing! Come help us grow our programs!" And I think, ugh, it just feels life-sucking, all these programs. (Life-sucking for *me*---your mileage may vary.) I know that real people are really served by programs, really, but where I am now mentally, it just feels institutional and service-oriented. Pastor as ISP (inspirational service provider).

    This may mean that I'm getting really tired and cranky over certain aspects of our program-oriented church. Whatever aspect of myself that's struggling with this is the same part that feels sympathetic to the post-Atlanta BBT in particular. Like her, I'm looking a bit covetously at the 80-member church. But unlike her, I hope that if I ever make such a move, I will do so with eyes wide open. The small church is not the cure for big-church burnout--and unless you do some serious soul-searching, you're just trading one neurosis for another.

  19. I wish she had dealt more with the effect of her "rock star" status (as some of you have described it) on the rest of her ministry. I know it affected her personally. I have met her a couple of times, the first being a three day retreat that she led. It was not on preaching, but everyone kept bugging her to talk about how she writes those phenomenal sermons. (This was before she left church.) She finally agreed to spend 20 minutes - and ONLY 20 minutes - on the topic. Even the pastor of the big steeple church in my presbytery sat on the edge of his seat and took notes. Later that evening I had the privilege of eating dinner with her and about 4 of my colleagues. Everyone was treating her with such awe - bowing and scraping for tidbits of greatness. It made even me uncomfortable, and the pedestal I had built for her was pretty doggone high! I finally asked her how it felt to receive all the attention we were giving her. She got very quiet, then admitted that she didn't like it. In fact, she said she hated it. It made her horribly uncomfortable. She would much rather be treated like another of our colleagues. We thought about it a minute and then everyone quit bowing and scraping at her feet. She became a completely different person! I imagine that experience is just one small snapshot of what her life became like once she was 'discovered.'

    Because of that experience with her, I was able to read the 'whiny' parts with a different kind of perspective.

    And as for the clergy self-care and renewal that Mary Beth asked about - I think that if it is not self-motivated, it may not happen at all. Many churches will take as much as a pastor will give - and then some. For individuals with boundary issues (there's that word again!), or guilt issues, or savior-complex issues this is a real problem.

    Hmmm . . . this is long. Maybe I should have posted it on my blog instead. Oh, well. Sorry.

  20. I'm not yet done with the book, but I'm having a hard time putting it down. I appreciated BBT's insight on how she beleived people saw her with the collar vs. without. I come from a tradition where we don't wear any clerical garb (to the frustration of some ministers in the tradition), and after reading that, I'm so glad that I won't have to deal with that set-apartness that comes with the collar. .

    Maybe it's because I don't know much backstory on BBT, but I did not find her to be whiny. I was grateful that I was finally hearing some realism from a pastor about the challenges of the work.

  21. As someone who has worked as a priest in small church, medium church, and big church... I can say that each church has its challenges and its joys...what is most important is to understand that size does determing, to some degree, how the church functions and what the "expectations" are of the clergy. Some of us have the gifts to function best in big church while others are best suited for smaller. The problem is that we are not always able (especially as women) to move from small church to big church even if we discern our gifts are best suited for big church. Lots of biases work against women and big pulpits...

    Some of the joys of small church - a close relationship with all the parishioners, a real sense of knowing the people and sharing in their daily lives, a sense of family or community, an intimacy, a sense of freedom with a lot of flexibility in ones schedule - just to name a few. The problem with small church, limited resources, limited opportunities, and a tendency to get stuck and limit creativity for the above reasons. The clergy person does a lot more work, administrative work in a small church. Clergy take care of, well hopefully not everything, but lots - and it takes work to get the members to realize that they can do stuff too...In some ways I loved my time at small church...but it does have its limits, like running out of money. Statistics say that a church needs 100+ members ASA to retain a full time clergy person...and soon that number will be closer to 200...which means lots of churches with part time clergy...sorry for so many posts and long ones, I have been doing this stuff a long while and it is really on my mind...blessings to all you who are discerning church and call...

  22. Thanks for starting this discussion - reading all the comments made me feel like my response to her book was not so far off (so many had said how wonderful it is). My take is that this is someone who is not cut out for parish ministry. I recommend it to all in process or discernment now. Also she did not seem to have an understanding of how to empower others in the church to take on ministries and give them support as they learn. Rather there seemed to be an expectation that she had to do it all. Our diocese is deep into Mutual Ministry so our view is all should be involved in ministry - not just gathering around A minister.

  23. Just a quick post - I'm past my bedtime. I read this last summer so some of the details are fuzzy, but I remember being amazed that BBT said she had three (?) units of CPE, but had so little self-awareness - I was actually sad for her that she never allowed herself to feel accepted by her smaller parish until she ended up in the swimming pool. It seemed to me that she did not allow herslef to be authentic to the parish or to herself - the chief cornerstone of self-care. I'll post more ont he questions on my Blog - but speaking of self-care, I'm off to bed now!!
    Thanks Mary Beth - Good job with the discussion and the questions -

  24. I haven't finished the book, because I was relating too much, and since I'm not a rock star, I can't "leave church." No honorary doctorates are floating my direction...

    But I feel like she put herself out there, very courageously. She didn't hide her whining with a braver face and she didn't hide her boundary missteps either. She was honest about a tough profession.

    Perhaps her gifts and her best self were more suited for academia. She's a preacher and a writer. She probably wouldn't have been able to produce eleven books if she was a pastor of a parish too.

    I just wonder, why are we so uncomfortable with her feelings and mistakes? Do we need her to be something that she's not?

  25. Hmmmm....I have many thoughts.

    First, I agree that not acknowledging her growing status in the world of preaching and how it impacted her small church life (and it did---people would take little pilgrimages to her church, stuff the pews with people, want her attention afterwards--this didn't sit very well with the small church). Also, BBT has no earned doctorate. The opportunity that she had to join the faculty of a college without benefit of PhD was a very, very rare one based on her particular gifts--not a very typical experience.

    I've met BBT on numerous occasions at numerous points in her "stardom" simply because she's on the board for my alma mater. I find her, in person, to be gracious, self-aware and generous with her time and attention. I don't know that this comes through in the book as well as it might.

    But I don't think that having children would have made her more grounded or more anything. I think it would have made her a mother.

  26. just want to say I want to read this book. Given my situation in / out of our local church right now , it sounds (from what you've written) that this would be the book for me - in this time and this place.

    I wasn't burnt out by ministry - but I am in a tight spot - and learning to hear God's call into other things sounds healthy to me.

    I'm about to order some other books this week - and this one will go into the basket too. It's time I splurged again - and to be honest - book buying, while it is a luxury, and might even seem an addiction, is, at times, what keeps me sane.

  27. me again

    now I've read though the other comments I want to say a bit more

    P wrote "Instead of questioning her own lack of boundaries in the parish or looking for true possibilities for renewal she just quit and moved on to a place that celebrated HER and her gifts."

    my take on this - is that it's wonderful that there is and was a place where she and her gifts were celebrated and my hope and prayer is that the body of Christ would develop more in this area

    all too often it's become IMHO a choice ordained pastoral ministry or nothing - and it's really time that the church woke up to the fact that ministry extends outside of that framework too.

    We need priests (whatever we call them in each denomination) but the body of Christ - the church - needs much more than that.

    I know I'm writing from a place of having been rejected (for now) as having a calling to ordained ministry - but one of my personal reservations to my own calling, was that I just don't see it as always appropriate that there is one paid minister and we think s/he should do everything.

    I wish there were more possibilities for shared ministry, for bivocational pastors (not two full time jobs) and for the body of Christ to minister together -even in small parishes / churches.

    This might have NOTHING to do with the book (I don't have it yet as I've said ..) but these were my thoughts anyway

    and I'm loving the discussion.

    Let's have a look at MB's questions too.

  28. I bought the book for just this study. Didn't ever get to read it. Boohoo. I was going to follow the discussion, but I was gone from Sunup to Sundown and then some, so never got to join in. Love the post Mary Beth. Good questions and thoughtful probing.

  29. I appreciate too all you laypersons who wrote what you thought about the book. My Bishop, Will Willimon, was really upset with the book and felt like it would lead to more women leaving the local pastorate. It is draining. You do go through tough times and lonely times as female clergy. That said, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves in the process.

  30. Dear all..thanks for being a real (ok virtual) community. Often I feel that I never fit in anywhere (especially since I'm ordained and the "designated holy person" (NOT).
    I read Leaving Church when it first came out (I use BBT's homily books often) I wanted to throw it across the room. My first reaction was "Lady, you don't have a clue about small church ministry." (This is my 3rd full time call--all small churches, which I love!) I reread it for this "book review" and found I was more charitable, but still disappointed. The book bears little resemblance to her other books and homilies. I appreciated what someone said (in comments) about how gracious she was at conferences (etc). But the book is somehow, less than...less than what I expected, hoped for, as a clergy person (female) in a small (and blessedlyfor me) a healthy congregation. gail (Lutheran, ELCA in California, who doesn't know how to blog (yet)

  31. These comments have been so interesting. Gail, welcome to the conversation; I promise it's not hard to blog!
    Here's what I think gets to me most. The very things I have worked on the hardest (preaching for my context, learning to comprehend and maintain boundaries, participating in clergy groups where there is accountability, squeezing in a little self care wherever possible)are the very things I don't see her doing (although I can't really judge the preaching since I didn't hear it, I'm guessing that sermons attracting visitors from all over were not all that specific to the local context) in her description of her ministry. I don't want to be on anybody's pedestal; I'm not jealous of her fame. I'm really, truly not. I have a very satisfying life in ministry, and people are reading my writing and hearing my preaching and I'm keeping a roof over our heads in a place we love to live, and my family is well and blooming. Amazingly, doing what I was taught is working. I've never felt more creative or better-used by God in my life. I want to celebrate that it's possible to do ministry and take decent care of the private and the parish and not have to burn oneself out or bleed oneself dry. That's a crucifixion model of ministry. Now, has BBT ascended into the heaven of quasi-academia?
    I love the way she writes. I loved hearing her at the Festival of Homies last year. I loved hearing her talk about preaching. She didn't tell me anything I wasn't already doing, she just says it so beautifully it makes you feel good about having it be your work. Maybe that's enough.

  32. I posted on BBT back in February. You can find my comments here.

    After reading your comments, I realize this is not the place for me to add more - I think this book discussion is definitely for revGALS (and it should be). Thanks for revealing some stuff I hadn't considered!

  33. Wyoming is part of a consortium of dioceses working on developing baptismal ministry (sometimes called mutual ministry). Works especially well for small churches. Study and discernment results in calling various people for a variety of ministries - preaching, presiding, administration, teaching, deacon, etc - usually 2 or 3 our called by the church to each ministry - including ordination. You can read more at the Ministry Developers Collaborative

  34. I feel the odd one out here in that I've never heard of BBT ... and therefore could probably (possibly) read this book without being influenced by her "fame."

    MB does ask a question here about self care (and avoiding burnout) to women in ministry when they are the sole pastor in a small church -and I'd love to hear what the RevGals who are in this position have to say about that.

    Burnout and depression are very real ... and I read somewhere that healthy insurance for pastors in the USA is sky-high simply because the demands of the job are so high, and there is indeed a high level of burn out and associated health problems ... could someone talk about that?

    Sometimes church can be a really unloving place - both to the Rev - and also to members of the church - I wonder if the book talks about that at all.

    (oh and by the way apparently a copy of the book is winging its way to me ... courtesy and blessings of an Amazingly Generous Revgal who's sending me her copy!!!)

  35. You've hit on a great point Lorna. There is a great difference between pastoral burnout and discerning that you didn't have a call to begin with. Perhaps that's what bothered me most. She seemed to blame the church for being 'the church.' Does that make sense? We all know that our congregants will take as much of us as we let them. If we get burned out it's both understandable and sad-- but it isn't always the fault of the church.

    I'm still convinced she just had no clue about what she'd be doing in a small rural Georgia church. She'd worked at the gigantic and wealthy (and wonderful) All Saints in Atlanta during school at Candler (I might be wrong, but I think it was during seminary) and didn't realize she'd have to change toilet paper rolls and lightbulbs (those are actually her words from a sermon I heard her preach at Candler). Add those misconceptions to the rock star idolatry and it's a potent recipe for self-confusion.

    That said, I'm mighty thankful for her prophetic gifts in the pulpit and will be happy to hear her again when I have the chance. Ultimately, this book was just 'TMI' for me.

  36. I would like to say something about the rock star status of preachers in that I serve under a Bishop that has rock star status and everyone loves him, and he likes it that way. However he served briefly as a local pastor, and then went on to teach and write and preach. He has no clue about the small churches or small town churches. I would say more but it would incriminate me and I already said somethings yesterday at a meeting that I shouldn't have said. Me and my big mouth.

  37. I have to say that I had never heard of BBT until one of my fellow students (a woman) commented that she had not helped women who wanted to be ordained because of the "whine factor". I don't know about you, but I get plenty of "Pastor PMS" jokes from some of the (insecure, admittedly) males in the field...

    I did read the first couple chapters. It strikes me that yes, we all need to find our spaces and places for renewal. But some of us find it "in harness" and some of us find it "in pasture" (to use that horsey metaphor. Overall, I found it depressing and discouraging as someone who is just going back INTO vocational ministry. So I didn't finish it.

    It kind of reminds me of some of the Oprah books which have such negative and depressing world views. I can't live there right now...

    Just my penny...

  38. I have to say what this book meant *for me*. I felt frustrated reading this book. I felt set up -- in the sense that I cannot live up to the expectations that BBT seems to sense for women in ministry. This is all about my stuff, I am sure, but I felt like crap after reading this book. The first chapter BBT talks all about the "terribly important ministry" she is engaged in... uh, what ministry is not terrribly important? I feel cynical typing this, but this book did not make my breasts leak...

  39. I couldn't put it down...Despite having more or less no time at all, I read it in a 24 hour period. Suspect that this was partly because the issues that brought BBT into ministry in the first place are very much mine...Is she being disingenuous, or just incredibly honest with her account of how she came to small church (in the UK, a small church is one like that in my old village, with an average Sunday attendance of 18...but then, most things are different on your side of the Pond) and how she left, I wonder? I loved her for it at the time of reading, but understand the reservations expressed in other comments...As for the sort of issues that should have been addressed by CPE...Again, I'm hugely HUGELY envious about this aspect of eduction for ministry in the States. Nothing like it at all here...and its all too possible to be ministering to others with all sorts of huge unresolved/unrecognised issues still live.
    Will try to blog more about the book over at mine, but not tonight. Bed beckons, insistently

  40. Questions raised here and in the book, hit all churches in some way. Some may not show up in quite the same way, but they underlie many concerns.

    I am so glad that they are coming to the front and people have a harder time hiding from them. Not dealing with the deeper things creates a false sense of stability in our faith.

    The hardest thing is to bring people together to talk about these things without judgements being made.

    We have too much judging and subtracting people...God's!

    Education is a key thing here too as well as respecting differences. If God loves us all the same where do we get the idea WE can condemn anyone, including ourselves?

    Micah 6:8 is a good basic premise to walk with. "Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.."

    In our church...The United Church of Canada...we work at this and try to include all ways of being God's people. It's not easy, but it also seems that when we do something "large" about our faith, such as ordaining women, gays and lesbians, to name a few... others watch to see what happens before they approach it actively themselves.

    We are not perfect but are looking for wholeness, so actions and words come together as one, as they did in Jesus own living.

    There will never be full agreement on many things, but God loves us all the same...we all have the same value, no matter age, gender, sexuality, colour, creed, height, job, where we live...etc.

    It is how we treat each other that will and does make the difference. We are to love our neighbour as ourselves....poor neighbour if we don't think much of who we are ourselves...right?

    Don't be afraid to read and ask questions we all get them and have them in us, but are at different stages of doing this....that's okay.

    We are only asked to love and walk with the most extravagant Lover ...we cannot explain that which cannot be explained...revel in that.. It's like falling into a warm wonderful bath of love..yes, it requires attention, but at the same time...don't be afraid to drown in it.

    This book leads on to other learning...

  41. Y'all's comments pretty much cover my impressions of the book: I'm not sure I found BBT whiny so much as having quite unrealistic expectations and as others have pointed out, poor boundaries. And the shift from a big city church to a small rural parish much have been huge, but BBT didn't seem to think much about that beforehand--it seems like her move was based more on a desire for a different kind of life than on a sense that that was a ministy that she was called to--in that sense she may have set herself up for burnout and disillusionment.

    One of the questions was about self-care, and I noted the ways Songbird tries to enact this-all the ways we were encouraged to pursue in our seminar on parish ministry at seminary. I have to confess that I'm not as good at self-care as I ought to be. I've found it impossible so far to find a clergy support group--the ecumenical clergy in my area (all male) have pretty much excluded me since I arrived here, and the other Episcopal clergy I might seek out are good friends with my boss--and since I really need to vent about him sometimes, it just doesn't feel appropriate. I also live in an area where it's difficult to find friends outside the parish. I wonder if these factors didn't impact BBT as well. I compensate so far with email friends and phone friends but it isn't quite the same.

    Reading this book made me sad, too. When I was discerning my call to the priesthood I read "A Preaching Life" in which BBT talks about discerning her call. To hear her disillusionment and doubts on the other side was hard. If nothing else, her story is a cautionary tale to me to be as careful as I can about discerning where I go next.

  42. Great conversation everyone!!

    I'm just catching up as I didn't get to the computer until last evening, late.

    I read BBT's book last summer also. I agree with the comments about her lack of boundaries. I remember thinking that this would be a really unfortunate read for someone still in seminary. I would hate for someone starting out in ministry to think that she represents the norm.

    Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to hearing her speak in Nashville this year.

  43. You all inspired me to read the book, so I sat up last night and made it to chapter 8. I wrote some about it at my blog, because I felt it would be too much for the comment section.

    my post on the book. Having said that, I wanted to say to rev Dr Mom, that you and I have some similar issues. Having moved here has had me isolated from other females. I have an all male clergy group, but they have accepted me. I am slowing making friends outside of church, ever so slowly. I'll be thinking of you in your situation too. email anytime.

  44. I read the book in January. Certainly she could have taken better care of herself and set better boundaries. But I find her assessment of finding God on the margins, and of choosing to be outside of "church" as typically defined is an important critique. As a person who grew up largely outside of the church, and now inside as clergy, I think it is very important to remember that church must be able to change and is vital and Spirit filled. I think the church gets complacent about doing things as they have been done...while God is trying to do a new thing.

    I did find it odd that she did not talk about how her "rock star" status affected the ministry.

    But overall, I found it to be a good read. And I often think of her writing about not realizing she had the best seat in the house until after she left. I think of it sometimes as people say in unison (to me as worship leader) "in the name of JEsus Christ, you are forigven"

  45. I'm SO enjoying this discussion. Thank you all.

    What comes to mind is how desperately we need discernment in our calling and in our self care. Both are vital!

    And I wonder if anyone would be willing to comment how they got / ge help in these areas - or what help was not forthcoming but really would have been useful ... etc.

    I'm very intersted :)

  46. I'm a little late posting - but I read this back a while back. I do remember being so 'taken' with BBT's description of her call to this church. It reminded me of my own feelings when I happened into the church I now serve. I was surprised at how her service as pastor ended. I don't know what I expected, but it made me sad to think that she did not feel a 'part' of her church - never in the water with them! That was a warning to me though I'm not sure what to do with it. I've only been at my church 2 years, but I've felt as though I'm a part of the family. I have not felt that distance. Could be my own boundaries...or lack thereof. But, this I know, I don't want to walk alone on this journey!

  47. I read RevAbi's comments on her own blog and thought this point was extremely well made: BBT did not grow up in any church, really; therefore, she didn't have an "in the bone" idea of what being in or leading a church community could be like.

    Sort of like someone who grew up in an orphanage getting married to someone with 7 children and suddenly being expected to be their momma!

    Other comment:
    When my childhood priest ran off with our church secretary (I was about 12 at the time) it was the hugest shock and sorrow. But what I learned at that tender age is that priests aren't any more perfect than anyone else.

  48. First off, I am one of those who reads this blog but does not have one of my own. I identify with the struggles listed in your stories. I am in my last year of seminary, a second career person,and single. I was highly involved in a church for 15 years prior to seminary.

    Each week I hear the struggles of trying to make "more time" for more things. Those things may be family, personal time, or other church related events. I read about writing sermons after a full day of Saturday church events, of trying to squeeze in time with your life partners, and I different is that from what BBT writes about.

    I appreciate her candor and honesty about who she was/is and where she has found "The Holy" in her life.

    My bias comes from my contemplative nature, but I also think it is in that "slowing down" that both the "Church", pastors, and lay people will be transformed by the grace of God. I think BBT found a way to "slow down"...and it isn't what we expected...or what we wanted from "rock star" status.

    "Thanks for listening"

  49. It's funny -- I didn't feel sad at the end of this book or outraged or irritated at the whineyness. I felt GOOD at the end of the book because I know that some of my feelings are not isolated -- that I'm not alone in them.

    The whole book made me feel "Been there. Done that." It made me feel that she was able to emerge from the other side of her experiences and discern that she's been in the wrong place for a while and now she's in the right place.

    I wonder why she didn't deal with the "rock-star" status thing as well. Maybe it's her blind spot or just not that important to her in her daily life, being outweighed by the heaviness of the collar itself.

    Here's my take on the whole ministry thing. Each clergy person needs at least one other person that they can be their self with that is not their spouse/sister/best friend. Another clergyperson, a spiritual director, a therapist, whatever. Someone to talk with/to on a regular basis -- someone who knows the weird/strange/different tensions that are found in the position of clergy and particularly clergywomen. I talk to Jesus all the time, but it sure is nice to talk to someone wearing flesh and blood!

    And this person? Should NEVER be a congregant.

  50. Don't forget you can find next month's copy in the RGBP's online store or by clicking Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith

  51. What great comments. I have enjoyed the dialogue too. No we are not far from our sister Barbara. I struggle with that Messiah complex if you call it that, not wanting to dissapoint anybody, not saying no when I need to, wanting that rock star status, the list goes on. Sometimes I have a handle on those issues, and sometimes they have a handle on me. I appreciate Barbara's candor. I know that little town she served. And I served a little town like that. It wakens me to the fact that I too could lose myself and not in the way Jesus talked about. In our conference this year two women have chose to live the local church, take a live, go a different direction. I have spoken to one, and understand for her. Have not exactly talked with the other and am still sorting it out.

  52. Hmm... I tried to post a comment yesterday, but apparently it didn't work!

    I very much enjoyed this book.

    It did not at all come across to me as "whiny" or anything or the sort. I appreciated the honesty of it all.

    Even though I'm nowhere near being ordained -- I'm still working on graduating high school -- many of the stories she told resonated with me. For instance, the pool story. BBT was at a church barbe-cue or something of the sort when everyone began to push everyone else into the pool except her. I get that, and appreciate her telling that story.

    As for Bishop Willimon's (and others') fears as to women clergy leaving church even more so after reading this book, I think that is unfounded. At least, that was far from the effect it had on me.

    Did BBT go into the ministry for the "wrong" reasons? I don't know, I"m not the one who has to figure that out. I do know, though, that her congregations must have certainly benefitted spiritually etc., from her being their pastor.

    Again, I LOVED this book and really appreciated the candor.

    It was one big long reminder that clergy are human beings too. And that is something many many people forget too often.

    I've been enjoying the discussion! I would've joined in earlier if this computer would've posted my comment. Ah, well. I'll just cross my fingers this time around!


  53. I'm commenting as one who hasn't quite finished reading the book yet; I am also writing as one who having worked as a Lay Worker in the church has just been accepted for Ordination.
    I like the honesty BTB feels able to communicate in her writing, but am saddened that that same honesty did not it seems work its way into her day to day living...
    One of the most revalatory moments in my own ministry came when I broke down in tears of frustration over Christophers condition while I was supposed to be a listening ear at a mums and tots group. From that point on my relationship with the mums and theirs with me became more rel and open.... prayer became true prayer....
    I understand the representative role, especially on a Sunday morning- but even then I endeavour to allow my personality through. It seems BTB felt constrained by her role rather than released into it- something to ponder there.
    Interestingly reading the comments about preparatory training, the Methodist Church in the UK requires its candidates to undergo 2 years of vocational discernment and study before being interviewed for Ordination, more training then follows, this is a good pattern, hard but good- self awareness grows and questions/ problems brought to light- a significant number of folk go on to pursue lay ministry following Foundation Training!

  54. listening from the side yardApril 2, 2007 at 10:14 AM

    It has been interesting and helpful to me to read all the comments on BBT's book. I appreciate the candor and found the discussion very helpful in clarifying my own thoughts.

    The different responses remind me of the truth in Stanley Fish's book "Is There a Text in this Class"--that meaning in text does not sit waiting to be found--it is created amongst the community of readers. We all bring our questions, hopes, disappointments, and dreams to what we read.

    That being said, I found the book incredibly helpful. I served as a parish pastor for 8 and a half years and loved the church and the work. It was full and rich: sometimes wonderful, sometimes trying and painful. I wouldn't trade that time for anything. It was a gift. And I learned a lot: about the church, about myself, about call and God and all that.

    One of the things I learned is that the life of a pastor is incredibly demanding emotionally, spiritually, etc...and it does not readily provide a lot of opportunity to deal ask big structure questions. And our denominations are in such crisis that they do not provide safe havens of hope and nurture either--even the "clergy self care" stuff is one more thing we are supposed to do--for ourselves.

    I think a product of all that change and anxiety and pressure is the creation of a very narrow space --as I heard Walter Brueggemann put it one time when he was contrasting that space with the wide space of the psalms--a narrow space that typically binds our daily practice of vocation except for those extraordinary moments of epiphany when the world flashes open wide. That is as true for most laypeople as it is for us; the problem is that we are asked to claim and lead toward a much wider horizon--God's horizon. In that narrow space we can ask a lot of questions about how to manage--what tactics work, how to keep going, etc--but it is harder to ask BIG questions about the whole set-up we are a part of.

    The problem is, I think the church DESPERATELY needs us to be asking those big questions rather than plodding along in that narrow space that defines not only the church, but our whole busy, busy, production oriented culture. In fact, the world God so loved needs us to ask those questions. (This is where the church as "other" in society gives me a bit of a giggle).

    The need for people to point to that wide space is why I so appreciated BBT's book. In that book I see her following her vocation in powerful ways and doing it through a first person account rather than a diagnosis because that is the voice God is giving her to use right now. I in no way experience her as abandoning her call as a priest or invalidating what came before by where she is called now. Perhaps her present call is to love and respect what the church is doing, but to use her relative freedom, her powerful imagination, and her fame to raise bigger questions about how we are "doing church" and what that "doing" does to the people involved--lay and clergy alike.

    She doesn't offer grand answers; but she at least starts surfacing the questions. She does that in ways I think it is hard to do when we are in the daily demands of parish pastoring--hard precisely because the work feels so holy and important and their isn't time or energy for the vertigo such wanderings might trigger. She recognizes the power of the call to parish ministry; but she also recognizes she has a different call now. I don't think those two things are unrelated--I think God may have led her into one in order to prepare her for the next. Perhaps her call now is to to break open wider spaces for all of us to ask and imagine in ways that we can't frame while we are in the middle of doing the work. I don't think that present call invalidates her earlier call to the parish--or the possibility that she might be called back one day. In other words, I just wonder if God is doing holy work by allowing her the freedom to "bust trail" as my brother likes to say--to open new, big spaces for questions about how ALL of us are formed, limited, reformed by this life together we call church. And about how the church with all its good and loving intentions often fuels most of its energy on simply "being church" rather than on being scattered about in the world.

    Which brings me back to the Stanley Fish thing. I am, like BBT, a person who loved being a parish pastor, who respects the work, and who is camped out in the side-yard because God will not lift some of those "wide open space" questions from my heart. Painfully and haltingly I came to accept that I couldn't ask those questions the way I needed to when I was "in" the midst of it all, faithfully doing the work in the way I was formed to do it. So the text for my class--my reading of the book--is formed by that experience.

    For all those reasons I am wary of diagnosing BBT's situation as insufficient discernment or as inadequate boundaries or as a failure in self honesty. Is she still working through her experiences: of course, aren't we all still doing that always? Is writing a first person journey the only or best way to do that: who knows? Did she make mistakes or exercise inadequate boundaries? Probably--I have yet to meet a clergy woman or man who hasn't done that--even my mentor, the "king of good boundaries."

    I do think the rock star preacher thing is a piece or her journey; she does acknowledge that reality a bit when she talks about the church's discussion about not building a "preaching emporium" for her. I wonder though, if her relative silence on that issue is because it would reveal too much about her relationship with the church and the church itself--kind of like the questions people ask themselves about "how much do you tell people after a divorce if you still love the person but know you can't be married to them anymore." I haven't had that experience myself--but I have walked with many people who have. The need to express oneself and the desire to respect an important relationship create a hard line to walk--especially when there are "children" involved--as there are here.

    Is the book self-indulgent? Maybe, if writing about one's own life and reflections is self-indulgent. But as a favorite feminist aphorism goes, "The personal is political." I wonder if that isn't part of busting new trail--finding our way through the land mines of narrative as redemptive and narrative as self-indulgent.

    That is all to say, I have always found BBT willing to go to amazing new places with text and with life--whether or not those places are welcomed or encouraged. I think she did that here. And I wonder if what rattles us about it is that the questions are actually more about the space we inhabit and our desire to do well in that space but our lingering questions about whether it is the right kind of space...and whether God might be imagining new kinds of spaces that we can feel but can't yet describe.

    BBT has the gift of "describe". Perhaps she didn't reach it in this book, but I think she "busted trail."

    I'm not a regular with you, so thanks for letting me be part of the "conversation." This was an important book for me--a good text for the "class" where I am learning right now.

  55. Having been Anglican all my life, her experiences were not new to me. I agree that she could not set boundaries, but then I can't either. More teaching needed here for clergy and lay, I think.

    It seems to me that BBT fell in love with God long before she even found the church. So it follows that she probably thought this was the best way to serve and stay close to him. I see her as something of a recluse by nature, and there is no room for that in running a church.

    The most striking thing I found in the book is the concept of truly keeping the Sabbath holy. This fascinates me, and I am working toward it. I am sure God wants this to happen.

    I had never heard of BBT till I read this book - didn't know she was famous, but I think it is one of the most profound books I have ever read. Now to read her others.

  56. Finished the book in two days... Echoing other comments of boundary issues, lacking self-care, etc...

    All the same, I'm a seminary student, hearing a call, but still in the process of figuring out exactly how i'll live in that call - some of her words expressed what I've felt at various times, and that scared the hell out of me.

    Just academically knowing that we must take care of ourselves, is different from making that a practice in our daily lives, and i think i need to continue to think about that...

  57. I stumbled on this blog earlier this week as I finished BBT's book. I was disappointed that another "rock star" female pastor has abandoned the pulpit. How are we to ever get beyond people's ideas that women cannot do the job if the famous ones keep pulling out proving just that point?

    I am hoping for someone along the way to point to ways of boundary setting, coping, and sticking with ministry for the long haul. I am called to be a pastor and I want to do it for the rest of my life. I am realizing only a couple of years into the gig that it is tough and it is tempting to pack up and go back to the career world I left to be a pastor. But this is not what God called me to do. How do we cope day to day when we are feeling lonely and isolated? How do we set those all so important boundaries? I want someone to talk about these struggles from a triumphant standpoint and I was hoping BBT would do that. I was discouraged and disappointed in her work and in her witness to the rest of us.
    Quitting makes me sad and that is what I feel she has done with no wisdom for the rest of us.


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