Together we flourish

Posted Jun 05, 2014 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Barbara Lemmel


Barb Lemmel“Tell me more about Great Aunt Katy,” I said. I knew Katy had been a pediatric nurse in Nebraska in the 1940s and that she’d left her china and silver to my father, her great-nephew, before her death. What had she been like?

Dad smiled, remembering. “Katy lived well. She never married, and she had her own house, her own car, nice things. She’d come pick me up when I was little and take me to town for a day of adventure. She was the primary nurse for a city pediatrician.” Dad hesitated. “It was her job to re-break bones that had mended wrong, when kids came in from the country. She re-broke them so they could heal right.” We both winced. “When I think of her going home alone after that,” Dad mused, “no wonder she made sure she had nice things.”

I was putting together my genogram, a family tree that illustrates the relationship patterns and stories that flow through the generations. I’d recently been pondering how these old family patterns affected my ministry. Why could I manage some difficult church situations with courage and conviction, when others left me trembling and unsure? In particular, why did the treasurer of the church I was serving make my blood pressure rise, just by walking into the room? I wanted to know the deeper stories of my family.

One of the glories of pastoral ministry is that we work with people. We become deeply connected to their lives and faith journeys, sharing and working and eating and praying and growing together. And one of the prime frustrations of pastoral ministry is that we work with people. We become deeply aware of the frustrations, the fears, the resistance to change, the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. We each contribute our own gifts and obstacles, our own worry and wonder to the stew of church life. When it all flows well, it’s glorious. When it gets stuck or destructive, it can be agonizing. How can we flourish in the ups and downs of ministry?

It helps to know ourselves deeply, to discover and value the family histories that shape us. Parts of that history will be painful; hard stories of loss and rejection echo through my family’s generations. There will also be stories of uncommon grace, of trials faced with courage and creativity. These stories combine to give us a unique set of beliefs and norms, learned long ago through the generations, that shape what we bring to ministry, and how.

As we learn about what has shaped us, receiving both the gifts and the challenges with grace, we can manage ourselves more calmly and clearly. We recognize what is triggered in us by a difficult personality, and we don’t take it as personally. Most important, we can choose how to respond: rather than automatically resisting or avoiding, we can offer generosity and courage and persistence. We can be the leaders God has called us to be.

Not long after that conversation about Katy, I led a church restructuring process.  Like all structural changes, it was fraught with resistance and anger from some of those involved. It wasn’t easy. But when I’d take a deep breath and remember Katy, who broke bones that needed mending yet stayed true to the best in herself, I drew on the strength of my family legacy. I’d regain my clarity of purpose, my commitment to graceful courage, and my sense of humor. I could offer my best and draw out the best in those around me. Together, we flourished.

Barbara Lemmel is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and director of Tending the Fire, a leadership process that gives clergy the skills to skillfully and faithfully negotiate the complex human dynamics of their congregations.  She has pastored churches and served in judicatories in New England and New York.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Lynn Acquafondata 17 Jun
    This gives a vivid picture of how family systems work can be strength based and empowering. It is not just about facing and combatting the painful patterns we continue, but also about how we can draw on the strengths of our family history and live out the gifts of our family legacy. I love how you learned to become more centered in the face of church tensions after learning about your great aunt. I wonder what family treasures I have yet to uncover and incorporate into my life. 

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