Friday, January 26, 2018

Reconcile or Leave

This is Part 3 in a series of articles about Sexual Harassment and the Church. To view other articles in this series, please click on the links at the bottom of the page.

Why don’t you just leave?

While trying to leave her abusive husband, Beth (not her real name) struggled with how her congregation might respond. “One thing that was advised to me was leaving the church. I actually ending up checking with (a clergy friend) and he agreed with the assessment” she told me as we commiserated over our shared experience of domestic violence. “Churches are sometimes too concerned with reconciliation to really handle these kinds of abuse situations well.”

In 2015, the ELCA completed its final version of a Social Message on Gender Based Violence, which includes the issue of domestic violence and abuse. The message talks about the church’s complicity in the victimization of women at the hands of their romantic partners, but it never says that those abusive partners are just as likely to be pastors as any other profession.

It also mentions reconciliation. In Beth’s case, the reconciliation she mentioned referred to churches who want to “fix” marriages by reconciling the relationship between spouses – even when one of them is an abuser. The social message, on the other hand, talks about being reconciled to God i.e., asking God for forgiveness for how the church has perpetuated violence and abuse towards women. Regardless of the distinction, I can’t help but remember my bishop asking me if there was “any chance of reconciliation” with my abuser, who is also an ordained pastor.

The church and those who represent it are in the business of forgiveness, so pushing the idea of reconciliation in relationships appears reasonable and dutiful. However, when one person in the relationship is abusive, the victim of that abuse is often forced to be reconciled to remaining a victim. The suggestion of reconciliation becomes an expectation that a victim has to stay in the abuse – constantly forgiving in order to be “reconciled.”

The other option/expectation granted to women who find themselves in abusive relationships is to leave. Asking women in abusive situations why they don’t leave may sound like a logical, reasonable question, but in reality it places full responsibility for the abuse on their shoulders alone. If a victim doesn’t leave then: it must not be that bad, the so-called victim must like it, or the victim must have made it all up. This option/expectation also assumes that victims have the resources to leave when, at best, their resources are usually limited and their choices are all scary.

Leaving isn’t impossible, but the consequences of doing so are manifold and have an impact on virtually every aspect of a victim’s life – emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, financially, and relationally. This isn’t just the case in married relationships. Imagine being a clergywoman who is being sexually harassed by a co-pastor in a new call. You’ve received little to no support from church authorities and the harassment is getting worse. You’ve only been at that congregation for a short time: more than 6 months, but less than 2 years. You have a spouse who has just found work in the same town and loves it. Your children have become acclimated to their new schools and are making friends. You’ve finally unpacked all the boxes. Now ask yourself, “why don’t I just leave?”

Despite the fact that Pastor W didn’t have another call to go to, she had made a choice to leave the congregation she had been serving for over 10 years. The congregation offered her a generous severance package equalling one week’s pay for each year she had served them. She spent her last days as their pastor attending her synod’s annual assembly, where pastors and representatives from each congregation gather to do church business.

One day away from her last official day of work, she found herself in a conversation with the man who had been her bishop (let’s call him Bishop A). Another bishop (Bishop B) had just been elected and Bishop A was about to retire. Their conversation had turned to the generous severance package her congregation had agreed to give her. Her excitement quickly turned to shock as Bishop A explained that he already knew their plans and had instructed them to take a “love” offering for her instead. He then added, “and W, you and your red hair have always made me hot.”

Pastor W had no choice but to accept the new severance package which only equaled a third of what she had been expecting. She kept quiet about what Bishop A had said and done with the exception of some family, a few close friends, and her new bishop. Time passed while she waited for word from Bishop B’s office of a potential new call. Instead, she heard through the grapevine, that as many as 6 different congregations had requested her by name, but were never given her paperwork. Needing an income, she eventually contracted work as a pastor of a church in another denomination.

It was during this time when she was contacted about joining in a lawsuit against Bishop A who had done the same things to associate pastors he had worked with prior to being elected bishop. Not being a litigious person, Pastor W didn’t want to add her name to the suit, but was subpoenaed and testified as a witness against the Bishop A. The plaintiffs won the court case against him, but 2 days later he was given a new commission by his national church. In other words, as Pastor W put it, “he can say that you’re hot, screw you out of money, and he still wins.”

Pastor W left her denomination and now serves as the senior pastor of a church where she is the first female pastor they have ever had. She’s had to develop techniques for dealing with the sexism she’s faced, ranging from subtle to overt, ever since. Coming to the realization that she’s not going to solve the misogyny problems of the congregation has given her a better sense of control. It’s also left her asking what she’s teaching her 15 year old daughter who has told her, “There are so many men that give you ‘manswers’ and so many men that allow it; I know it would be easier for you if you were a man.”

Some women choose to leave ministry altogether, but making that choice is not an easy one.

The question of the message we send our daughters factors into Pastor A’s story as well. An ordained Presbyterian minister, she has served congregations in 2 other denominations, worked as a hospital chaplain, and has experienced some form of misogyny in every setting. Currently struggling with deciding if she will remain in ministry she wonders what her choice will say to her 14 and 18 year old daughters. But, it’s not just the impact on her daughters she worries about. “What do I owe to other clergy women coming up behind me?” is just another of the many questions women in ministry wrestle with – especially when they have experienced sexual harassment by men in the church.

When clergywomen have to constantly focus on protecting themselves from sexual harassment and abuse it doesn’t just impact them; it affects their families, their congregations, and the overall public view of christianity. Thankfully, faith in God is not the same as trust in the church. “There are ordination vows Presbyterians take and one of them is submitting myself to the discipline of the church” Pastor A explains. “I am unwilling to do this because I no longer trust the Church as an institution.  It feels like if I act as a pastor, by my clothing and title I’m communicating that the church is trustworthy.”

Leaving isn’t impossible, but the notion of allowing an abuser to stay should be inconceivable. Leaving isn’t impossible, but it should never be the only option left available to a victim. Leaving isn’t impossible, but when a victim chooses to leave it shouldn’t eradicate all the potential possibilities and opportunities she could have.

“Why don’t you just leave?” is the wrong question to be asking. Instead, the question should be, what is the church willing to do to regain the trust of women like Beth, Pastor W, Pastor A, myself, and other clergywomen who have been victims of clergy misconduct.

Part 1 A Sign of Opposition and a Sword
Part 2 The Church's Casting Couch

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


This is Part 2 in a series of articles about Sexual Harassment and the Church. To view other articles in this series, please click on the links at the bottom of the page.
As women in professions ranging from everything from government, to entertainment, to tech industries to blue collar workers come forward with serious claims of terrible behavior by men in power, one field where women are still silent about their abuse is the church.
The stories of women being harassed and forced into unwanted sexual encounters in order to “make it” in Hollywood shouldn’t surprise us. We even have a term for it: the “casting couch”. We shouldn’t be surprised by all the allegations currently being made about those in the entertainment industry – even the most talented ones, or about politicians – even the politicians we voted for and support. The same should go for clergy. None of this should surprise us, but it should horrify us.
All of the women I spoke with wanted me to share their stories, but most asked that I not give their names or any identifying details of what had happened to them. These women have spent time on the church’s version of the “casting couch.” They are women who have served the church as paid and unpaid laity, seminarian students and ordained clergy and all of them have experienced some form of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and abuse by clergy and church leadership.
Their fears of being outed are legitimate and aren’t any different from those in other professions, white or blue collar.

In New York Time’s article, We Asked Women in Blue-Collar Workplaces About Harassment. Here Are Their Stories, it is the fear of not being able to work that keeps women from reporting harassment. “‘Regardless of who you work for, you will run into the same people over and over again who will not want to work with you just because you reported harassment,’ Concetta Defa, a construction worker in Utah, wrote. ‘In most cases women become unemployable because of it.’ That fear is one reason many experts in the field believe that sexual harassment is underreported — and remains rampant — in blue-collar workplaces.”

Pastor G found out too late that the senior pastor she was going to be working with had been investigated for sexual misconduct with another female pastor. While the story of what happened sounds a lot like sexual coercion and assault on his part, he wasn’t even sanctioned for committing adultery though he was married. 
Despite the fact that church officials had neglected to share this pertinent information with her before she accepted her call, members of the congregation were not so silent once she began working there. The lewd public displays of sexual behavior were well known in the community as other people in the area informed her they had left the church because “of all the sex stuff.”
Pastor G willingly admits that the gossip she heard was hear-say. While her own encounters with the senior pastor involved inappropriate sexual statements and bullying tactics, she did not see the blatantly lewd behavior first-hand. What she was told about the sexual misconduct case and his wild behavior came from third parties, but perhaps that’s part of the problem. When a pastor is accused of sexual misconduct and the allegations are substantial enough to warrant an investigation just how far should secrecy go and who is this confidentiality really meant to protect?
In the case of Pastor G and her congregation, disclosure that their senior pastor had been/was being investigated for sexual misconduct might have meant that allegations by other victims could have been investigated and a clearer, more complete picture of a predator could have been seen. 
When she reported her own experiences along with another witness, she was warned that she was not to discuss any of it with anybody and that they would never be able to place her in another call if she ever talked about it. She was told, just to keep your head down and keep quiet.
The phrase: “You’ll never work in Hollywood again” has serious meaning to all women. It doesn’t have to be spoken out loud to be said. It doesn’t matter that spokespeople for individuals, different organizations, and institutions deny sexual harassment or make claims to the contrary. Sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in the workplace are deeply ingrained in our patriarchal culture. 
Women who get harassed at work – regardless of the field – have lived with some form or another of imposed silence because they have had to in order to work and to survive. As one pastor told me, “Yeah. I've got friends with worse stories than mine but they're interviewing for jobs so [they’re] not able to share either. The veil of silence the church imposes is real. You cry foul, you’re labeled a troublemaker.”
Why have women stayed quiet? HR departments, unions, bishop’s offices, etc. might claim that they are there to support individuals within an organization, but ultimately the onus is on them to protect the organization. Yes, there are many examples, especially within the church, of confronting the issue and caring for victims (stayed tuned for that article), but there are still too many that don’t.
“Yeah” says “L” The silencing is so hurtful.” L and I have been corresponding for almost a year now. Since I’ve known her, she has fearfully struggled with going public about any of her story. When I messaged her the link to Part One of these articles she responded: “Christine, thanks for the article.  I just sent you an email.  A friend of mine tried to reach out to Bishop Eaton (the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA) about my situation.  I sent you her request and the formal reply. I am sure that she doesn’t want her name attached to this.  Of course, none of us do.  If you tell my story, you can say that an intern was fired and publicly blamed after being molested by her supervising pastor.  A pastor who had been accused of sexual harassment by his previous intern.”
In the emails L references, her friend reached out to the ELCA because she saw a situation of sexual misconduct being handled inappropriately by a synodical bishop. In that initial contact, the fact that L was still being victimized was made clear: “As a life-long Lutheran I am in a spiritual crisis watching our Church allow one man (Synod Bishop) to have all this power over a tragic situation. Watching the victim continue to be re-victimized by the Bishop and others is heartbreaking & extremely upsetting.”
Herfriend was contacted by the Assistant to the Presiding Bishop for Governance who stated that, “The ELCA's governing documents do not give the presiding bishop any authority to intervene. Bishop Eaton also does not supervise synod bishops.” The bishop’s assistant offered the name of the person in the ELCA  to whom reports of sexual misconduct could be made (who was already aware of the situation), then added that a copy of their correspondence had been sent to L’s bishop.
Perhaps the reason why L and I bonded was the hope we had both shared that eventually someone from within our denomination’s hierarchical structure would stand up for us. Perhaps we bonded because it often felt intentional when our hope was shattered.
Why would someone on the staff of the presiding bishop copy that email to the person who was being accused of victimizing L? Why wouldn’t that person have investigated further before responding the way she did? Couldn’t she have spoken to the ELCA contact on misconduct about the situation herself? Why is there no recourse for a person who has experienced wrongdoing by their bishop?
L learned about the church’s casting couch the hard way. Her internship ended prematurely when her supervisor-pastor forced her onto his couch then blamed her for his misconduct. He lost his position, but so did she. Unable to finish internship she’s also been unable to finish the process needed to be ordained.
We women chose to go into the field of ordained ministry in order to, as the hymn goes, tell the story of Jesus and his love. Sexual harassment, abuse, assault and the responses of those in positions of power to victims should not be an impediment to telling that story.
Yeah, the silencing is indeed hurtful.

A Sign of Opposition and a Sword

This is Part 1 of a series on Sexual Harassment and the Church.

I’ve always known that pastors could be misogynists and predators. I am a daughter of a former bishop of the ELCA and a former church office manager. The latter, my mother, finally left her position at the congregation where my family were members, when she could no longer take the sexist comments and commands of our pastor (racism played a huge part in her decision as well.) This happened in the late 80’s. I was in high school and painfully aware of what my mother was experiencing. We then joined another church where the senior pastor was a woman.

My dad, already serving on synod staff became bishop in 1990. It was during that time that the ELCA was creating policy in regards to clergy sexual misconduct, specifically, but not exclusively, on what to do when a pastor was accused of sexually abusing a child. To put the timeline of events into perspective, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight division broke the story on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priests who had sexually abused young boys on January 6, 2002. I remember overhearing stories of my dad having to confront pastors who had done seriously inappropriate things to females ranging in age from child to adult. I believe that some of those pastors had been classmates of his; some of them might have even been friends. My dad’s response -in each case- was to treat accusations of misconduct as credible, confront the accused, remove those found guilty from their pastoral office, and care for congregations involved openly and honestly.

Being their daughter gave me an insider’s perspective on the realities of how clergy (specifically male clergy) could abuse their power for personal sexual gain. My parents modeled a belief that sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault was something the church didn’t tolerate and that God opposed, but I still knew then and I still know now that clergy can be misogynists and predators.

While the dam has burst on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace spilling forth the waters of accusations from a wide range of professional women, one industry in particular, religion, seems to remain unscathed and largely unmentioned. Strangely, it’s an industry with a high profile past of sexual misconduct and cover-ups in the workplace. When the Boston Globe ran their article attention was given to the horrific way that the Catholic Church was purposefully covering up abuse and therefore allowing it to continue.

Altar boys being molested by priests who were simply moved to new parishes to molest new altar boys was turned into a skewed belief, by some, that these priests were gay, but my knowledge of clergy sexual misconduct gave me the ammunition I needed to argue back. Pedophilia, hebephilia, and ephebophilia have nothing to do with sexuality – it’s about power. After all, Protestant pastors weren’t abusing girls in their congregations because they were heterosexual. But the Globe, in outing the misconduct and cover-up, focused on stories of men who had been sexually abused when they were boys. Scandals involving clergy who have committed sexual misconduct towards girls and women have yet to be seen as equally newsworthy.

My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), passed a resolution on making the church a safe place, free from sexual abuse and harassment at its churchwide assembly in 1989. The “Assembly called upon each synod to create policies and procedures to empower victims to report incidents of sexual abuse, provide healing for victims, and safeguard the rights of those accused.” In 1992, the ELCA’s Church Council took actions “To affirm the proposed four-year implementation of an ELCA strategy for responding to sexual abuse in this church (as contained in the document, ‘An ELCA Strategy for Responding to Sexual Abuse in the Church’)

Most church denominations have policies and procedures on clergy misconduct, and while many of those who have the authority to implement them do so well and to the best of their ability, stories of abuse, harassment, silencing, and cover-ups still happen. I was ordained in 2001 and have my own personal story of being the victim of clergy misconduct. My ex husband and I met and were married during seminary; the marriage ended 16 years later when he was arrested and sent me to the hospital. When he was welcomed back to his congregation, months before our bishop took the time to meet with me face to face, I remember telling my therapist, “No, I’m not at all surprised; I’m disappointed.” My only recourse in dealing with the way I was treated by leadership in the congregation and the Bishop’s Office came by telling my story publicly, but doing so came at a price. I was re-victimized, threatened, ostracized, blacklisted, and lied to by the very people I had believed would – as Christians – offer me the support I deserved as a victim.

If I couldn’t get the justice I wanted I became determined to expose the injustice I had suffered. A vast majority of hearers validated my outrage, offered me prayers, and expressed their sorrow at how I was treated. Harvey Weinstein was still a powerful man in Hollywood and few people were familiar with the “MeToo” hashtag at that point, but the more I shared my story the more others reached out to me to share their own stories of abuse and the hurtful ways they had been treated by church authorities in the ELCA and other denominations.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’” Luke 2:34-35 

Simeon’s words to Mary seem apropos to me, especially now, as sexual harassment continues to grab headlines. Each time I hear a story of another man’s fall from the public’s grace I feel deep stabs of pain for the women who have suffered. I’ve listened for the church – any church or denomination -  to make some kind of public statement decrying the sexism and misogyny that has allowed such abuse, but those I have heard are not much more than a whisper. The loudest “Christian” voices on the subject sound the least like Jesus and as much as I want to blame conservative evangelicals for being the only ones who are trying to rationalize excuses for men who do these things, I can’t. I have heard too much evidence to the contrary and I know, for a fact, that my own personal experience of abuse, forced silence, victim-blaming, non-accountability, and retaliation is still the norm in both the secular world and in the religious world.

It’s almost Christmas as I write this; people all over the world are rushing around trying to prepare for this holiday commemorating the birth of a baby who, as Simeon put it, is meant “to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” As a woman who still believes in Jesus, I want to reclaim the Sign that generations of men have tried to tell us reads that God intended women to be objects for their use and pleasure, because that’s simply not what the Sign says. To paraphrase the words of the Sign’s own mother, “with one swoop of an arm, God scatters those that believe they are too important to have to play by the rules. God grabs seats of authority out from under the powerful and dumps them on their butts; God takes those, who have been used and tossed in the dirt, by their hand, helps them to stand upright, gives them justice, and restores their dignity. (Luke 1:51-52).

I want to reclaim that Jesus; the one who the system has forced us to oppose – the one who proclaimed clearly, in all caps, with bold font, and in larger than life print, that God places great and equal value on each of us regardless of class, color, nationality, sexuality, or gender. In the posts that follow this, I will be sharing stories of clergywomen who have shared their stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault with me. What their stories reveal is just how far religious authorities/institutions have come when they encounter clergy misogynists/predators and how very far behind the church still is in responding to and caring for female victims.

This story can also be found on Medium.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"holy" crap

i decided to check my email this morning before getting ready for church. i needed time to sit and drink my coffee and have a simple and easy task i could perform while my daily caffeine kicked in.

this is the first email i clicked on:

I just saw your church listed as a GAY friendly church on

To accept sexual deviancy as normal is a sin.
You put your soul in danger of eternal damnation for welcoming unrepentant homosexuals into God’s house. You blaspheme the Name of God.
Homosexuality should be criminalized. Homosexuals commit crimes against God, against nature, against the Holy Bible and against the human race.
Because of your church, I now know why God wrote:
Leviticus 20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
Romans 1:24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:
:26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
:27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

SAY THIS PRAYER: Dear Jesus, I am a sinner and am headed to eternal hell
because of my sins. I believe you died on the cross to take away my sins
and to take me to heaven. Jesus, I ask you now to come into my heart and
take away my sins and give me eternal life.

Rev Donald Spitz

i chose not to add it to my spam folder until i had a chance to add it here. now let me warn you that if you click on the link to army of god you will be taken to a home page with horrific pictures of dead babies and a "lovely" little rant as to why the murder of abortionist george tiller was justified. honestly, it is not worth looking at; just trust me and don't go there.

now what's funny about this email is that it was even sent to me in the first place. honestly, did they really believe that sending it would make me change my mind about homosexuality? did they really think that i would read this and suddenly "repent?"

it's also somewhat funny/disturbing that they found my email address at i couldn't find any church i served or belonged to on the list (although i'm pretty sure that at least one church i served was on the list at one point in time.)

what's not funny about this (and oh, there are SO many un-funny things about this organization) is the time and energy that was wasted in just sending out this email; time and energy that could have been spent legitimately helping someone. if nothing else it could have been time spent telling someone that God loved them ~ because that's what being a christian is actually supposed to be about.

luckily, lrns, my awesome brother had also sent me pictures of my nephew being ridiculously cute and adorable to temper my temper about the email from the "reverend" spitz. then i went to church where Jesus' love wasn't just talked about but also enacted by the people there. and yes, we have a gay couple at church and what's amazing is how much of a non-issue it is to everyone. the fact they they are gay just doesn't seem to matter at all - to any of them.

i thought about replying to spitz's email, but that would be a really dumb so instead i'm going to respond to it by continuing to live a life of acceptance and love of my neighbor - as best as i can - and encourage you all to do the same.

God's peace y'all

Sunday, November 06, 2011

displaced, but not without a home

Last Saturday as I was valiantly attempting to finish a wedding/costume dress for my Meggles’ Halloween wedding a nor easter decided to reign terror down upon Connecticut.  Since I had spent more hours fighting with my sewing machine than actually sewing up to that point imagine my frustration when the power went out and I was unable to even hand stitch anything. This is what I get for volunteering myself for so much, but Meggles’ is my long lost prodigal sister and she and the short man started dating when she lived with us over 8 years ago in New Jersey. I was there standing with her in my bathroom when she read the positive pregnancy test that heralded the coming of the purple pixie. Being back in one another’s lives is a really joyful gift and while I admittedly went overboard, I was not under any duress when I jumped.

I only discovered that they wanted to get married on Halloween about a month ago which was about the time that they decided to finally do it. Eight years and 2 more kids later they finally agreed that it was about time. I wrote the ceremony, made the headpieces, boutonnieres, corsages, wedding favors, and cannibalized my wedding dress to make a black and blue renaissance themed dress. When I say that I was sewing up to the last second, well that’s not entirely true… actually I was doing her hair up until the last second.
It was amazing and totally worth it despite all the stress and they insisted that we stay with them until our power came back on at home. Living with 2 extra adults and 3 more kids under the age of 8 has been an experience. Usually I wouldn’t volunteer to put myself in any kind of position like this because I would never put anyone else in the position to volunteer themselves to have us unless they were biologically obligated. The Silent Prince is able to destroy any home within seconds. The short man walked into the bedroom we’ve been staying in  a few hours ago, took one look at the wreckage and declared, “I love it!” Let me be clear that when I say wreckage I am not even coming close to accurately describing the state of the bear cubs’ room. And the Prince has discovered how to climb up into the top bunk.

It really sucks not being able to be in my own home, surrounded by all the things that make me comfortable and allow me to do what I need to do, but this has been truly wonderful. I’ve had a boost of energy that I don’t typically have – I’ve even helped with dinner 2 nights in a row – even after a full day of stuff! It’s not exactly been a vacation, but it’s not easy to describe it in human terms any other way. I’ve been displaced before; I’ve been unable to go home for all sorts of reasons in the past. It’s rare that I’ve been in this kind of position and still felt “at home”, but that’s what it’s been.

And the best part is feeling like it’s also been true for the people whose home it actually is. Hubby went home for the night so that he could get to work tomorrow. A neighbor texted me to tell me that they were headed home because the power was restored about the same time hubby got a call from another neighbor that all our lights were on. When I shared the news with meggles and the short man there was a combined reaction of that’s awesome and but we don’t want you to leave. Hubby will return tomorrow and we’ll stay one more night then head home sometime on Friday. It’s a relief that we can return to our sense of normal and that we will be doing so with minimal stress because we’ve been here.

I’ve never believed that God causes tragedy in anyone’s life to “teach them a lesson”, but I do believe that God takes the tragedy in life and repaints the picture for us if we are willing to wait for the brush strokes. My new picture has been of a second home coming out of a nor’easter.

God's peace y'all

Saturday, September 24, 2011


well, this is embarrassing. i accidentally published my draft then was certain that i had gotten it to revert back from a published post to a draft. i then promptly forgot about it because i expected that i would get back to writing the draft - no worries.

except that my draft didn't go back to being a draft; it stayed a post without me knowing.

so if you read the post on autism and faith please forget it - that way it will be new the next time you read it.

God's peace y'all

Monday, September 12, 2011

autism and faith

Editor's note: without realizing it i accidentally posted my draft so it's quite possible that some of what you are about to read you've read before. however, it was a draft and has been edited ~ so it is different ~ i promise! thanks.

after my last few posts, a seminary buddy sent me a message through facebook asking me about leading worship when there were children with autism in the congregation. i told her i would give it some thought and maybe blog about it then share it with her. chances are this is going to be an on-going kind of blogable topic and here's why: i believe that worship is a public event. it's something we do in a community outside of our private spaces; taking a child with autism into any public space in order to participate in a public event is incredibly difficult. the number of issues that you can encounter and risks that you face in performing such an activity are exponential.

if you are a parent remember what it was like to take an infant or toddler out into public. now triple all the preparations you made, add all the extras you would take along (diaper bag, snacks, bottles/sippy cups, extra clothes, toys, etc), then change the weight of your child to aproximately 60-70 pounds, make your child mobile, fast, 50 times stronger, and completely unpredictable. oh, and don't forget to factor in at least an hours worth of time for any unforseen melt-down, potty accident, just played-in-the-dirt-in-my-easter-sunday-best-now-i-need-new-clothes-on possiblity and that's what it's like to take my child out for a dinner at mcdonalds or to church on a sunday morning.

the question my friend asked about making worship more welcoming to children and their families is really a question that can be asked of any organization or business where public events take place. as the autism spectrum rate continues to grow i encounter more and more people working in service-type-jobs who get it. i'm always relieved when our waiter or waitress let's us know that s/he is closely connected to a child with autism when taking our drink orders. it means that they know we are going to need extra napkins and hot plates of food to be put on the table quickly and out of the prince's reach. and as a side note, we are almost always prepared to tip well because we know that we are going to need extra attention and that we will be leaving a mess when we are done our meal.

i know many parents who struggle with taking their typical child/ren to church and perhaps it's the same for parents in other religions. i get that it's not easy and there are many congregations out there that claim that they welcome children into worship, but really don't have any clue how to actually do that or worse they say that they welcome children but actually do the exact opposite of welcoming in the way that they treat children and their care-givers. i get that for many families sunday is the only day left in the week to sleep in (personally i see that as a cop-out, but that's just me.) i also know that i'm really blessed by being a part of a congregation that does welcome children and loves my kids. i know this by the way they interact with both the prince and the princess.

it's that interaction that makes the difference. so what is it that they do and what can other congregations do in order to welcome autistic children and their families?

let me start by giving you some background.

first off, worship stuff is one of my (trying to say this without sounding cocky) gifts. i've written worship materials that have been used in lutheran congregations all over north america and most recently wrote materials for (the organization begun by bono of U2 to end poverty). i'm not necessarily a big-shot or a household name in the liturgical field, but i do believe i can claim some expertize in the area. worship is a big deal to me and i could write volumes on my philosophies on how it should be done. to be a bit more brief, i believe worship is primarily something we do for God, but to make it autentic and real it should also be done in the voice of the people doing it.

sometimes we need to be taken outside of our comfort-zones, especially in our faith lives, but having an identity and knowing who and what we are needs to inform us when it comes to gathering as a community and acting out our purpose. if our purpose is worship then to make it autentic we need to be who and what we are when doing it. for example; a primarily spanish-speaking congregation is going to have difficulty if their worship rite is in german even if that is the tradition of the denomination. to be authentic they're going to sing spanish hymns and incorporate spanish traditions.

one of my pet peeves (and something i've certainly been guilty of) is when congregations try to be something that they are not ~what i have been guilty of in the past has been trying to make congregations be something that they are not. i'd like to think that maybe i've learned to first try and figure out who the congregation is then help them be that... but i digress.

the congregation that hubby is a pastor of has a lot of gifts; they have also had experience dealing with kids with autism before.

when i was still working as a pastor in a church i discovered that it was necessary to hire a sitter to bring the silent prince to church and sit with him on sunday mornings. my amazing church secretary had a daughter who was at the exact right age to babysit and she soon became our go-to sitter. the parsonage (the church-owned home that we lived in) was right next door to the church i served and she would meet us at church before worship and take care of the prince at church or at the house until hubby or i got home. it was a great arrangement and while taking care of my kids she decided that what she really wanted to do with her life was to work in the early childhood development field.

when i went on disability and began worshipping with the hubby's congregation i found myself frustrated by the fact that worship was still a great deal of work. i would look around at other parents in the congregation as they held their kids or handed them some cherrieos as they quietly colored in the children's bulletin and then jump out of my seat to chase the prince down the center aisle as he flung his arms around and made loud happy sounds during the sermon or the prayers.

sunday mornings were not meditative or rejuvinating and no matter what my therapist said it wasn't enough that i had brought him to church to expose him to the people and the people to him.

now lots of christians will say that sunday is their sabbath. i don't tend to agree. the sabbath takes place between friday at sundown to saturday at sundown. sunday is resurrection day and a completely different concept from the sabbath day. sundays are supposed to be a day when we act out what the resurrection means for the world. it is a day of labor - good labor where we act out our faith because we have been promised resurrection and new life.

some people in the congregation noticed that having the prince in church was not an easy task and they began to ask questions. those questions led a group of people to take care of the prince when i was supplying in different congregations. it was a wonderful set-up and took some of the stress off of hubby when i wasn't there. however, i still felt overwhelmed and frustrated on those days when i was his primary care-giver during the service.

parents of children with autism can have a hard time asking for help. maybe it's because we know that the kind of help we need can be burdensome. when we go to a family event it's hard to enjoy being with others because we need watch the prince and asking uncles, aunts, or cousins to watch him for a bit seems unfair; they are there to have fun too and watching the prince is incredibly hard work. the same is true when going to church. i know that the people there want to be active participants in worship. they want to sing the hymns and listen to the sermon. they want to be filled and fed with all the good things that worship can give us so that they can go out into the world and do those things that christ has called them to do.

it was one thing to ask volunteers to help with the prince when i wasn' there; it was another to ask volunteers to take him when i was there. - at least, that's how i felt -

finally i made the decision to ask our sitter if she would work for us on sunday mornings again. it made all the difference when i knew that someone else was there to be responsible for him so that i could listen to the sermon and participate in worship the way others did. and after worship i actually got to have coffee during coffee hour and have conversations with people. autism can keep family members from times of fellowship, something that i believe is part of worship. "go in peace, serve the lord." isn't a conclusion to worship, but a piece of it. fellowship- spending time with members of our church families is still a piece of how we worship God.

when our sitter made the move to another state we searched for another sitter who has been with us for several months now. she's been a blessing, but last week she informed me that she would have to give up babysitting for us at the end of the year so she could have more time to focus on school. figuring out what to do next is scary and frustrating. it will take months to find someone else and the process is more about luck than anything else. i've started praying; the first step in a process like this.

so now the question again: how can congregations be welcoming to families with autism?

more to come...

God's peace y'all,

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

amusement, orange wristbands, and generosity

for her last birthday the princess kitty asked her fantastic uncle (because calling him her "great-uncle" makes him sound old) for tickets to lake compounce. we went last year when someone else had given us tickets as a gift. we had such a wonderful time and the best part was how much fun the silent prince had while we were there. the princess kitty, always thinking of her younger brother, wanted a gift that she could share with him so last saturday we put on our bathing suits, packed some bags, and made our way to the water/amusement park.

it started off great. the silent prince and his big sister had a blast in the water park. hubby and i were having a great time too despite the fact that the water was freezing. the princess kitty and i decided that we should take her brother up one of the water slides specifically for little kids. she and i both agreed that she should go down the slide with him, but when we finally made it to the top of the slide the attendant told us that only one child could go at a time (and i was too tall to ride) and that a lifeguard would be at the bottom of the slide.

the princess kitty went first and i put the silent prince into position. he's gone down slides before and he had just been on some of the other water slides. water gushes out of the top of the slide to help propel bodies down the slide. i gave the prince a "ready, set, go" and then a little push. he started off in the gush of water, went about 7 or 8 feet past the gush to the point right before the first real drop on the slide and stopped then stood up.

i yelled to him. i called his name. i ordered him to SIT DOWN. he just stood there enjoying the view.

if my first mistake was taking him up the slide in the fist place then my second mistake was not just going out onto the slide to get him instead of asking the attendant if i could just go get him.

i don't know how long he stood there as i kept insisting that i would go get him. at the bottom of the slide hubby was trying to convince the attendant at the bottom to let him into the kiddie-only pool at the bottom of the slides. the princess kitty, already upset that the attendant wouldn't let her ride the slide down with her brother, started to panic.

the attendant told me a lifeguard was coming to get him. i told her once again that i thought i should just go out and get him. i was at the point of saying "to hell with you, i'm going" when the lifeguard finally made his way up the slide and walked the prince back up the slide to me.

at the bottom of the slide i comforted the princess kitty who was now in tears and hubby and i agreed that it would have saved all of us a great deal of grief if i had just gone out and gotten him.

since it was still the beginning of our visit a quick recovery was needed. hubby took the prince for a walk and i took the princess for a raft ride that ended in an awesome waster slide. it made all the difference for the both of us.

no, that isn't us going down the slide

after a late - and very expensive lunch - we headed towards the amusement park rides. last year the prince loved one particular ride - the rainbow rider- so we made that our first destination. when we had been on the ride before i was able to get one of the best pictures ever of the two kids.

because it was labor day weekend and a saturday there were lines for every ride, including the rainbow rider. i held our spot while hubby walked the prince around. when we got to the front of the line there was one "teacup" left for the ride, but the attendant closed the gate before we could get through. she explained that she had to let two other girls jump ahead of us because they had a special wrist band.

as the two sisters walked past us i immediately knew that the younger girl was autistic.

hubby continued walking the prince and the mom, attendant and i quickly struck up a conversation about the bright orange wristband. the the younger daughter was indeed autistic and had difficulty waiting in lines. if i went to guest relations they would give the silent prince one too which would allow us to go to the front of every line and ride the same ride twice in a row if we wanted. i then told her about how he had stood up in the middle of the water slide.

"that was your son? you know, when i saw him i said to my daughter, 'i bet he's autistic.'"

at guest relations the dad in line in front of us struck up a conversation with us about getting the wristbands. apparently the park trains their staff on interacting with families of children with autism. we had a nice chat and both our sons said hello to each other. when it was his turn to go to the window he let us skip ahead of him, i think it was probably obvious to him that the prince was completely done with waiting.

i now know that lake compounce partners with autism speaks every year and even has an autism awareness day each year. this is something i'm going to remember for next june.

the wristband made all the difference. honestly, i felt like a vip being able to go to the front of every line. of course the silent prince only tolerated the wristband for about 5 minutes before insisting on getting it off of his wrist at which point i simply tied it onto a hair-tie that i wore around my wrist.

it was such a great day that we stayed until the park closed, something hubby and i had been adamant about not doing.

the princess kitty saved the summer for me- for all of us. back in may, when she pondered what she would ask for from her fantastic uncle she wanted something that we could use as a whole family. talk about perspective! (see my previous post) being able to include her brother in things we do makes her happy. finding a place where we can actually do that is a challenge. but all of us left the park that day feeling positive, happy, and content.

i had expected and prepared for a high-stress day. i expected that i would be a miserable mess on the ride home. i was certain that i would go to bed that night bemoaning the fact that family outings are near impossible for our household. instead my whole perspective on the summer was set right again.

it is all thanks to the generosity of my daughter and her fantastic uncle.

peace y'all

"and vivian followed."

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