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Monday, June 22, 2009

RevGalBookPals: Abide With Me

Welcome to this month's edition of RevGalBookPals . For the summer months we are choosing fiction and giving reviews of some favorite books or series. I've chosen Elizabeth Strout's novel, Abide With Me. Set in the late 1950s in a small Maine town, it tells the story of a Congregational pastor who struggles with life and ministry and parenting after the death of his young wife. A beautifully written book, Abide With Me raises questions we might ask today about our relationships with church members and what it means to have social and emotional boundaries without losing the chance to be authentic human beings.

The central character, Tyler Caskey, lives with his young daughter, a traumatized and grieving kindergartner, while his mother cares for his younger daughter at her own home. He cannot see how troubled the older child is and resists the efforts of school authorities to intervene. As he stumbles through life trying to process his own grief while still performing his job, everything he does (or doesn't do) seems to cause people to talk.

I suspect any small-town pastor can relate.

As a person who lives in Maine, and who married into a native family, I find Strout's characterization of the people and the places to be pitch-perfect. Olive Kittredge, her recent Pulitzer Prize-winner also set in Maine, but mostly in this decade, is so real as to be painful.

Rather than give away the plot entirely, I would like to encourage us to talk about themes from the book and how they might touch on our own experiences in the life of the church, whether we're read the book or not. I highly recommend both of Strout's books for your summer reading lists!

So, some questions or conversation-starters:

1) Have you ever been the target of gossip in the church? How did you handle it, if so?

2) Strout portrays Caskey as a father who is reluctant to take the opinion of the school teacher and administrators about his daughter's emotional and academic situation. For pastors reading, if you have school-age children, do you find your role helps or hinders or makes no difference when you relate to school officials?

3) The Caskey family lives in a parsonage given to the church after the congregation sold the beautiful former parsonage in the center of town. The physical isolation of the house serves as a metaphor for the emotional isolation Caskey's wife felt as a young pastor's wife. Can you relate to that sense of isolation? Do you have techniques or practices to try and overcome it?

4) Contemporary seminary education instructs us to have some pretty strict boundaries with church members. But anyone who has lived in a small community while doing ministry knows how hard this can be. If something really goes wrong in our lives, people will know about it. Can we risk being vulnerable in our ministry, letting our sorrow show?

5) If you've read the book and have things to add, please do so!

Edited to add: if you're reading a good book, let us know in the comments!


  1. Sort of stream of consciousness:

    I'm a fairly private person. Both the congregations I've served have wanted more knowledge of me than I feel comfortable sharing. I wonder if they would want the same degree of intimacy with a male pastor. Some folks were put out when I told them I didn't want visitors when I was recovering from surgery from cancer.

    In Michigan, I lived in a very isolated village. I escaped to Cleveland about once a month (my son is there) and often to Ann Arbor. Just to go to Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Borders. I tried very hard to be with friends. It was pretty awful, though I loved the congregation.

    Think I'll download the book and read it.

  2. It's funny, I like to think of myself as transparent, but there are certain categories of things I wouldn't want anyone to know, or rather wouldn't want them to know how I FEEL about them.

    How about showing emotion in a sermon? Have you ever done that and if so, how did people react?

  3. I, too, tend to be very private. I now serve a small church and find that "stuff" gets out fast. If I say something in passsing to one person, i have learned it will be "out" pretty quick.
    In previous congregation, I found myself being gossipped about by my predecessor. Basically, she wanted her job back and would say stuff to others about me. Frequently she would turn my words around or tell untruths.
    Initally, I tried to put an end to it or undo her damage.
    I finally got tired of it and shut down. I have sense then learned to handle things more directly (most of the time).
    St Cass recommended
    In Sanctuary of Outcasts not too long ago. I read it over vacation and loved it.
    I highly recommend it. Good preaching stuff in it

  4. One of your questions struck home with me: I was stunned when my 8th grade son told me this year that he was certain several of his teachers were intimidated by me because I'm a priest. I probably shouldn't have been so shocked, but I was, because in those relationships I make every effort to be respectful and even deferential of the teachers' "status" (for lack of a better word); at school, they are the professionals.

    After 22 years, I am so used to myself as a priest that I can be oblivious to the weight my ordained status carries for some people outside the church. My son has had need of a strong parent advocate at school, and it didn't dawn on me that I was seen as anything other than just another parent. You can bet that next year, when I have a meeting at the high school and come from work, I'll change out of my clergy shirt!

  5. Great book I've read recently: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

  6. I have the book waiting for me at library, but didn't get over to get it yet. :(

    Not having pastoring/small town experience I don't have much to add. I did LOVE Olive Kitteredge, especially having visited Maine. I look forward to reading this book!

    I have been reading diabetic cookbooks (my dad is visiting) and re-reading Harry Potter the Seventh. I need some real good escaping!

  7. Haven't read this one (though I'm on my way to the library & will put it on my list...) but I can recommend "Still Alice," by Lisa Genova - the story centers on a linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, and is told from her perspective. I devoured it in two nights. Also recommend "The Wordy Shipmates" by Sarah Vowell.

  8. I'm reading Aunt Dimity's Death, which is REALLY light reading (even more than I anticipated), but what I need right now.

    My book club read this a couple of years ago. They found themselves pretty exasperated, sometimes, with the young pastor being clueless about his wife's needs.

    I served in a small town in the midwest for four years. While there was some social isolation, for a time there was a good single clergy group, and that helped. I think the social isolation for a pastor's spouse would have been much more severe, though.

    I was the subject of some gossip, but didn't hear about it until after I left. It had to do with musing about why I was single.

  9. I was so pleased to see the book selection was Abide With Me--I had just finished reading it!
    I have pastored in a small Midwest town of 4000 for seven years now. If there has been gossip,(and there probably has) it has not reached me. The isolation is hard to bear sometimes, even for an introvert like me. I am also single and have no children. The congregation is very German in heritage and is reserved, respecting privacy almost to a fault.

  10. Living in a town of 170, in an isolated rural area whose only entertainment is school sports and gossip, you bet I have been gossiped about! I do find the isolation and the gossip hard to bear, and unfortunately haven't found a helpful or graceful way to deal with either.

    I'd say about half of the teachers at my daughter's school are members of one of my congregations, so the gossip also extends to include my daughter, sad to say.

  11. I read this book a year or more ago, so my memories are not completely reliable. I am afraid that when I read it I didn't have much sympathy for Caskey's wife. Looking back I was probably judging her by our more contemporary standards. She was in the time when "pastor's wife" was a job description and she had not been prepared for it at all; I think I was perceiving her as a spoiled rich girl.
    My layperson's perspective on knowing one's minister -- I knew my previous (male) minister very well and I think a lot of people did; but I don't think most of us were aware of his depression. When he was hospitalized for it he made sure that we all knew, partly for his own healing and partly because he knew we cared. I think there has to be some distance, but also some closeness, because if you're going to love your people, can't they love you too?

  12. Betsy, I'm fascinated. Perhaps because I don't wear a collar, people don't make that automatic association when I arrive at school for a meeting or conference.
    Auntie Knickers, I found myself irritated with the character while reading, but find my attitude toward her is considerably softer from a distance. You raise a great point about allowing oneself to be loved. I know it meant a lot when we received the sympathy of the congregation after our beloved dog, Molly, died. I talked about our sadness and also their kindness in a sermon, and it allowed many people to feel some things they needed to feel but had been bottling up carefully. On the other hand, I don't want the congregation to feel I'm dependent on them. In my first call, when I had all three kids at home, I avoided offers of rides, childcare, etc., but I did accept help when I had a flat tire!

  13. I do struggle with how much to share with the congregation about certain personal matters, not because I don't trust them or because the issues seem to be crossing boundaries, but because it's hard to be their pastor if they are worrying about me.

    I've found that my fellow staff members (hooray for them!) are a great support, and friends outside the congregation. Then there are some folks w/in the church that I share with more, but they are people who I am confident can shift gears with me--from priest to friend and back--as needed, for both me and them. And if something is quite public, I try to think about exactly what you all mention: I am modeling good community and good self care by letting them love me, too.

  14. Oh, A book for wonderful hillarity (sp???) is Pontoon.
    I literally laughed until I cried. Three/ four words:
    Bowling Ball
    Lake Wobegone

  15. I agree about the excellence of "Still Alice"--though the resemblence to my recently-deceased sister (also diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers) was a bit too painful and I had to put it down more than once. Ordering Abide With Me from library asap!

  16. I read this book last summer and could relate on so many levels.

    I don't live in a "small" town (population ~ 100,000) but it has a small town feel to it. By that I mean, everyone knows the pastor's business in every congregation. Fishbowl living at its best.

    When I read it I was on Restorative Care (short term medical leave) - a part of which includes very strict confidentiality. Under Restorative Care, the congregation has no right to know "what is wrong" with the minister. I had a strong advocate through the Restorative Care Program who responded to those who insisted that it was there business to know. It wasn't and he told them so.

    Privacy of any kind is tricky in ministry, and the main character in the book found that out quickly. Having everyone know your business can be good if you need and want their help - but if desperately need to be left alone to heal, it can make life very hard. By the end of my leave, I felt a bit like a prisoner - anywhere I went in town, someone would come and ask me "What happened?" or "Do you have cancer?" (that was my all time favourite)

    I've said this before, but one thing my partner insisted upon when I entered ordered ministry was that we NEVER live in a church manse. He grew up in them and came to despise them - especially those impromptu "inspections". Bleh. I've honoured his request and we have always had our own place.

    Overall, what I've found with congregations is that whatever they are not told outright, they will fill in with their own information. Some of the stories that came out of my need for confidentiality last summer were unbelievable. If people don't have information about the pastor, they just fill in the blanks.

    Odd, isn't it?

    As for sermons, emotions and such....I share very little personal information from the pulpit and what I do share is only for the reason of illustrating the text. For example, a few weeks ago I told the story that I shared on my blog about the young couple I encountered in the Phoenix airport on the way back from BE 2.0 - because it fit the theme for the day. Otherwise, I keep my cards pretty close to the chest in the pulpit.

    Thanks for the discussion Songbird!


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