Extrovert Seeks World

Part of becoming a minister is participating in a multi-day psychological evaluation.  You talk about your hopes, your dreams, your childhood, your interests  . . . and you take a battery of tests. 

Truly, you take a huge number of tests, generally beforehand, some proctored.  And one of those is the MMPI, which you then discuss with a licensed psychologist, generally the person who has interpreted your scores. 

Taking that test is itself an interesting experience- it has an incredible number of questions, all forced choice, asking you to respond to statements like “I like to start fires” (no) “Door hinges fascinate me” (what ?) and “I sometimes imagine punching people in the face” (let’s be honest, yes . . . that said, have never actually done so). 

My results were pretty unremarkable; clinically speaking, I am just not that interesting.  Some suspicion of vested authority typical of Unitarian Universalist applicants; a bit of “maybe you’re TRYING to look good” typical of the helping professions. 

“Really nothing to see here,” observed the psychologist.  “Any questions?” 

Yes, actually, I did have one:  What is this elevation under “mania?”  What does that even mean?

“Ah,” said the psychologist, in a manner very much befitting a psychologist. 

“That is one piece we look at to assess whether someone might exhibit the kind of cycling we refer to as bipolar disorder.  As you can see, you do not have a corresponding elevation in the depression area.”

O . . .k?

“So, when we see this, and it doesn’t look like a tendency toward bipolar, the next thing that we look at is your personality profile: where is this person on the extroversion scale? 

You test as a pretty strong extrovert, and it sounds like that fits with your own understanding?”


“Well, we tend to talk about extroversion as if it is primarily about orientation toward other people, but it might be more helpful to think of it as an orientation to the world.  Extroversion is a sensory-seeking orientation.  It’s the way your brain responds to stimulus, and how it tends to seek it.  Extroverts seek stimulation externally, and that can show up on some tests as manic behavior.  That’s why we compare.” 

Huh.  So, then, what’s ‘manic behavior?

“Probably the things you think of as the spice of life.  Do you get involved in lots of activities, or just a few?  Does your calendar always have blank space in it, or do you tend to keep yourself busy?  Do you concentrate your conversations in one or a few partners, or mainly inside your own head, or are you in constant dialogue with numerous people and on a variety of topics?”


“Right.  All of that is sensory-seeking behavior.  It’s your way of experiencing the world.  And when it’s not a clinical indicator that something is amiss, it seems to correspond with where people fall on the extroversion scale.” 

This was fascinating, but I didn’t give much further thought to it, either then or in the years since.  I haven’t had a reason to.  I was busy, you know, with the aforementioned variety of activities, multitude of conversation partners, travel to all manner of different places—a veritable banquet of busyness, by which I mean outside stimulation.

Until . . . now. 

Lody Nijo, at https://www.boredpanda.com/comics-funny-introverts-corona-lody-njio/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

And it’s been frustrating not only to be cut off from those pieces of life that feed me and that FEEL me—the pieces that give me access to the somatic data that keep me in touch with my own feelings, often not at first but refracted and returned to me through the experience of passing through the world first, like satellite signals—but to live amid so little understanding of how connected this is with my sense of what it is to LIVE. 

I feel for extroverts right now, not just because this experience itself has been difficult, but because people around us do NOT understand that it’s not just being in the company of people that we miss.  It’s being part of the hum and bustle of the larger world. 

It’s novelty and new horizons and new inputs of ideas, thoughts that we synthesize in our own minds after experiencing pieces of them outside of ourselves. 

And speaking of synthesis, it’s not that we’re never quiet.  In what I have come to think of as “regular life”—B.C.V.—on my best days, I spent literally hours by myself, alone with my thoughts and my writing, processing ideas and reflections.  It’s not all input.  It’s just that for extrovert creatives, external input is a key piece of the loop that looks like input—synthesis—output. 

Don’t get me wrong; I not only care deeply for introverts (I am married to an introvert, at least one of my two children is a strong introvert, and my mother, my only sibling, all but one of my mentors in ministry and most of my cadre of close friends land on the introvert side of the scale as well), but I may just understand more deeply how much the B.C.V. modern world was not set up to accommodate them. 

In short, introverts, I heard you before.  And I get it more now, and I am hopeful that this experience can help us all to find more flexibility in leaning toward what feeds us. 

And.  We are not back to that world yet, are contemplating, in fact, the possibility of another year of this in one form or another. 

And some of your friends, some of your kids, some of the people you love do not have coronavirus and nevertheless feel like it’s somewhat hard to breathe in the small spaces that our lives have been reduced to. 

I want you to have some empathy for that.  And if these are people who are, say, too young to be able to define most pieces of their lives or even to fully articulate what they need to feel alive in the world, I want you to help them in the best ways that you can.  Though they may be driving your quiet self nuts (and the truth is, getting real about what’s happening for them just might help).  

I don’t have any magic solutions, at least not yet.  But simply attending more to the yearnings of my body and spirit, and to the orientation of my personality, has been helpful.  And so have a couple of small strategies, which I offer, and look forward to receiving yours in return. 

First, I am leaning into depth connection in my relationships.  I think we assume that this is the exclusive domain of introverts, but it isn’t—I have the same deep conversations you do, just probably with a few more people.  There are some pieces that can help with this, one of which I have shared before and which is just about building sustaining friendships in general (basically, be reasonably reliable, show up as your real self, be willing to risk some vulnerability, and don’t assume that for a friendship to be real, it has to hold all of you, nor that any one relationship is ever going to meet all of your needs).  This helps because input is input–it doesn’t have to come from everywhere, as long as it’s meaningfully coming from somewhere. My friendships, and all that they bring with them, they help me to survive and to thrive, even now.

And second, I am being intentional about expanding my turf.  I try to see something new with my eyes every single day.  Sometimes this literally means a different horizon—I have been taking some very, very long walks (spouse: where are we going NOW?  Can we go home?)—and other times it means, as trite as it sounds, committing to more deeply see the spaces closer to home.  And sometimes, fellow externally-oriented sensors, it might mean getting in your damn car and actually driving somewhere. 

This was news to me, a suggestion from a fellow extrovert as I lifted up some of the above and bemoaned the suffocation overlaid atop what for us has mostly been a remarkable domestic tranquility.  “Drive somewhere,” she said.  “Where!?!” I responded incredulously.  “We can’t GO anywhere.”  And then my friend, who lives on the outskirts of Boston, explained that she had gotten in her car, rolled down the windows, turned up the radio, and let the wind blow through her hair as she drove into the city, and around it, and then back home again. 

“And you didn’t stop?,” I asked, still mystified. What, after all, was the point then?  “No, and I honestly didn’t need to.  It was enough, somehow, just to see things I hadn’t seen, and to look at people who don’t live in my house, and to feel alive in different space.” 

This still seemed wack, but lacking a better suggestion, I tried it, and guess what? She’s right. 

So, I drove.  I drove to a trailhead; once I ran, and once I just admired the sunset and then turned myself lazily back toward home.  I drove to a neighboring county and picked up the seedlings a colleague left for me on her porch.  I drove to the Rhode Island state line and back, and I would have kept right on driving had I not feared arrest (Gov. Raimondo, you are a zealous woman). 

I drove, and I saw, and I remembered what it’s like to feel more fully alive.  I remembered that I am a person of the open road.  I remembered that for me exhilaration feels a lot like hope. 

And all of this is informing our family choices right now.  I am high risk, and we are taking this situation very seriously.  But I also believe in quality of life, and I weigh it heavily.  Perhaps we will find creative and community building ways to respond if we can acknowledge that being safe is not the only thing that people live for.

After three months in seclusion, we are spending a week in Vermont soon, and hearing this, a friend asked me what I thought it would be like, and what I was looking forward to.

I thought for a moment.  And I realized that the truth is that I have no idea what it will be like.  I don’t know what to expect.  That part feels like a blank, and maybe we’ll end up back at home after only a day or two; that definitely seems possible.

But I do know what I am looking forward to; it’s a thing I can feel, a prickle of excitement, a resonance that runs head to toe.

I am looking forward to taking the onramp that leads to the highway, wheels on pavement, familiarity behind me, the future, unknown, opening as a landscape before me.   

I might get on the highway a few times in a row just to feel it.


A container for grace: reflections on white people, privilege, and pitchforks

Woman hand pointing down

These past couple of months, I have been dealing with the fallout from a mistake I made in trying to talk meaningfully about my own white privilege. I shared a facebook post from a seminarian of color, and in doing so, took out a lighthearted hashtag in a deadly-serious paragraph, which I feared my own readers would interpret as a permission not to take my colleague’s words with the reflectivity that they otherwise might. I then wrote to this seminarian to explain what I’d done and ask if it was ok.

It was, to put it mildly, not ok.  Values at issue here included my space-taking and assumptive behavior as a white woman, and a larger obligation to think, and then to think harder, before acting. And there is also, probably, the obnoxiousness of the post I wrote in the first place. No one has said so, but the meditation I wrote to introduce my colleague’s post to my circle of friends feels to me to have touched the white privilege discussion only insofar as naming it and concluding that, “basically, I don’t have to give a shit.”

No, I didn’t precisely say that. And I didn’t mean that, either. Except that I actually sort of did, and having since sat through two excruciating white-folks-talk-about-race panel discussions, I am beginning to think that we white people actually do this a lot as a starting point. (“I have privilege! You probably don’t! Here’s what privilege looks like! WOW, my life is easier!”) It can sound a lot like Criming While White, but for mommy bloggers, and I’m wrestling with whether this piece of our work is even something that’s helpful to do publicly.

At any rate, that happened, and what I came to understand in the ensuing back and forth with this seminarian, my mentors, and my fellow colleagues in formation is that there are many different values around sharing posts, editing words, and claiming space.

And also, I came to understand something else.

Which is that we as Unitarian Universalists have no framework for dealing with true transgression among us—and lacking such a container, find ourselves equally unable to offer grace.

My mistake, from the very beginning, was dealt with extremely publicly, and the responses from my white colleagues fell into two binary buckets (with a third, HUGE space we’ll call “utter silence”).

Two plastic buckets, one full, one empty

That first bucket was “Say it ain’t so!” I’ve held a couple of visible leadership positions in the seminarian community, and my making this kind of mistake was apparently rather stunning for some. I received message after message indicating, “I KNOW this isn’t right—you didn’t do this.”

Oh, friends. Oh, but I did.

Publically, this side of the discourse looked like, “Don’t talk about Jordinn like that!,” and subsequent attempts to shut down discussion of transgression, and of racism in our seminarian community, because this particular incident and its framing felt unfair.

The other bucket, meanwhile, was, “Shame on you!” A seminarian from another school went so far as to say, “When I think that someone among us, someone preparing for ministry, would do SOMETHING LIKE THIS . . . ” Another invited me to reconsider my call. At my own seminary, several of my classmates declined to stand next to me at our weekly vespers service, and one went so far as to refuse to look me in the eye.

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In short, this situation was keen to enforce its own script, and the roles were limited to two dimensions. One was called “Victim.” One was called “Perpetrator.”

That’s the same script on two different sides– and it tries to restrict access to people as complex individuals, constantly in the midst of learning, with behaviors and understandings that sometimes are on mark, and other times miss it and require correction. This script was tempting in a time of great anxiety, however, and I watched even people I knew consider it. And I get it. It’s critically important that I in no way be representative of the larger seminarian community if I’m going to mess up around race—because that would mean that we all have work to do. Or, scarier still, it could mean that we are not going to be able to do all of the work that we need to before the moments when we are called to speak about race.

It could in fact mean that we are going, inevitably, to fall short sometimes. To find ourselves, each of us, on the lesser side of our hopes, or called to see the shortcomings underneath our intentions.

It is perhaps interesting that during this same period, I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply, preaching a sermon about sin. It’s Lent, and it’s a good sermon: funny, poignant—and provocative.

It provokes because I am taking pains to explain to Unitarian Universalists—to my people, many of whom have never voluntarily observed Lent and for whom “repent” is maybe an actual cuss word—that our screw ups are indeed inevitable. And that when we accept this reality, it frees us—we become prophets able to live our faith with both integrity and gentleness. We walk with humility, take responsibility in our errors, and extend the hand of healing without encumbering our love with the concern that the person we’re reaching out to may not “deserve” it.

I preach this sermon wholeheartedly, but if I could hold my breath while doing that, I would. Because pushback around anything that suggests a mere whiff of guilt is inevitable in this current moment in our tradition.

And so I was not surprised a few weeks ago in Topeka when a man came up to me and said, I have a gripe with your sermon.

I was surprised, however, about what he suggested I add to my theology: the idea that “sin” should mean only that we have set the bar too high. And that when we understand that, then our screw ups really aren’t screw ups at all.

Stand back, y’all.


There is indeed a bar here, and perhaps we should take a moment to look at it, and to consider our commitments as people of transformative faith.

I self-importantly edited someone else’s words, acting in my own arrogance. More recently, I yelled at my older son in my own impatience, and just this morning spoke unkindly to a friend out of my own sadness. I have definitely, in this past week, failed to act where I knew better and drawn uncharitable conclusions where I know nothing and also coveted things not my own. I have broken promises, some quite willfully, and while I don’t have Rob Eller-Isaacs’ litany of atonement memorized, but I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything in it to which we might ritually confess. Probably twice.

Also, just last week, seven people were apparently shot by one person in Florida, word comes from Germany that a man chose to deliberately kill 150 people by crashing a plane into a mountain, and the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law allowing optional discrimination against those who identify as GLBT.

But not to worry. We have all just set that damned bar too far beyond our reach.

Denial. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And oddly, I think it’s precisely this inclination toward denial that spawns both the frenzied grabbing of pitchforks that we UUs sometimes do, and the post-pitchfork mystification about what we might then do next. We screw up when we could do better. We screw up when we don’t know how to do better. We screw up when we don’t want to be bothered with doing better.

And in each of those moments, that bar is exactly where it needs to be. It’s not there to shame us. It’s there to set the mark that calls us forward.

And my people, we are that bar. We, so often, are all we have to call each other forward.

So we’d better learn to do it in a way that saves. What we need, y’all, is grace. The kind that finds us where we are. Here. Now. As we stand, leaping for that bar, and missing.


The trouble is that waiting to offer grace until we think that the other person deserves it is in fact the farthest thing from grace. It’s instead a quid pro quo ritual of the oldest sort, one performed at the edge of an abyss.   Someone needs to pay, and if we can simply figure out whom to push from the cliff, we can feel reassured that our spaces are once again transgression-free. And if in the ensuing conflict-free silence, we detect a whiff of terror . . .   well, at least it keeps our discussions simple and manageable. Who will take the risk to act otherwise?

Friends, our shame around whiteness and our horror at its costs are things we must begin to hold, to process, and to grieve. Even as we learn.

This particular error was a small one in the larger landscape of my own racism. And the truth is, pointing this out does nothing to lessen my involvement in enacting privilege—I’ve certainly done worse, and more cluelessly, and you probably have, too. And in those moments, we may in fact have had our actions not called out but condoned. This system does that.

But without a space able to hold the complexity in each of us—to hold us, sinners all—it becomes critically important that any error that taps into communal shame be an affront so egregious that it’s sure to be a one-off. Not the entitled rudeness that’s common as mud. Not the kind of mistake, in short, that you might make. Tomorrow. Or even sooner.

I heard it asserted, and repeatedly, that I “plagiarized something or other,” or “attacked a seminarian of color.” Consider what it means if we can’t find a space to sit with what actually happened, to ask curious questions about it, to attempt to understand how an inquiry about a hashtag could come to this.

Because it could. It did. And no additional elements are needed for that to be true— so what might happen if we claim some space, in love, to look at the ways in which we humans can hurt one another?

Without this space, what we have is silence, binaries . . . and a very tall cliff.


Also, statements like the one from the seminarian who suggested that the responsible thing to have done would be to have known better than to screw up in the first place.

When 10 of my colleagues “liked” that comment, I knew we were in trouble . . . and friends, we are. Individually, collectively, in this space and in many others. In places where there is no identified space. On Facebook, and off of it.

Our shared dialogue is imperiled, and this conversation isn’t why—it’s simply symptomatic.

Without the courage to try, the humility to own failure, and the grace to stand up, extend a palm, and start again, there is no way for us to walk forward together.

We have to have conversations we’ve never attempted before. We have to learn to walk with people we’ve never loved before. We have to flex leadership muscles we haven’t used before.

And right now, we are failing to try. That third, silent bucket—the opt out between the two poles—it’s looking pretty good right now. It’s risk-free not to speak up.

Because the responsible thing is not to make the mistake in the first place. We are responsible people when we know better than to make mistakes.  

Truth: this stance is not responsible. It is not helpful. It is not honest. And yet, the bar is still there. And it’s not too high if we are to be people of transformative faith. Though it is quite true that our efforts will often fall short.

That’s a complex space in which to live, but it is our space. And calling ourselves humanists while denying that a lived truth of humanity is that we screw things up, all the time, makes us complicit in the same mental gymnastics and wishful thinking that our theology was designed to eschew.

No acceptance of transgression; no offering of grace.

And that means “cliff,” every time.

How excellent, then, that there are other choices. And how salvific that we have some spaces in which we might attempt them.

One framework might look like this:

For a given situation, let us do some discernment around what is and isn’t our business. Let us find inside of ourselves the muscle we might call our “holy courage.” Let us power it with love. And let us then learn to ask good questions from a place of curiosity.

We can use tools like this to help.

And let us, finally, get a handle on failure and the feelings that come with it.

What does disappointment mean to me? Can I handle it in others? Can I tolerate it in myself?

Do I feel like failure deserves to be met with shame? Where does that come from? Is it serving me—and more importantly, is it serving the larger We?

We must dare to envision something more. A place big enough to hold us all, and which isn’t content merely to hold us—challenge yourself to envision the place which dares to call us all into our next selves.

Let us dare to imagine more beauty. Let us dare to act with more courage, which so very often means with more love.

This sounds like a vision of perfection . . . I submit that it’s more likely the result of dealing truthfully with our shortcomings. They don’t have to scare us to teach us . . . and those who shame us cannot lead us.

In faith, my people.


Goofus and Gallant: interview how-tos for seminarians

Dear Readers: Raising Faith is delighted to bring you guest posts from ministers–those who have walked in your shoes, and those who, like the Rev. Meg Riley, just might ask you to come walk awhile alongside them in an internship . . . if you play your cards right this interview season.  Read on, and then get that resume ready.  


Student at Laptop

It’s interview season for ministerial fellows at the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which makes me remember the great and not-so-great interviews of years gone by. There’s something I’ve wanted to say to seminarians for a while but haven’t had a good platform, so I was happy when Jordinn told me she often opens up her space to guest-bloggers for just such occasions! So here goes:

When I was a kid, there was a magazine called “Highlights” that I only ever saw in the dentist’s or doctor’s office. My favorite piece was called “Goofus and Gallant” and it featured black and white drawings of two boys–one did everything just right and the other was totally rude. I, of course, loved Goofus, and loved to read about his exploits, and thought Gallant was a total bore and suck-up. But now, as an interviewer and supervisor, I’ll pick Gallant every time.

So here, without drawings, is my depiction of how Goofus and Gallant answer interview questions at the CLF. And, though I’ve changed specifics, I swear to you that I have heard variations on Goofus’ answers and seen Goofus’ behaviors too many times to count by now.

Question: Why do you want to work with the Church of the Larger Fellowship?

Goofus: I’m planning to live on a Greek island for a while, and this is the only internship I can have while I do that. So it’s really important that I get it—in fact I need it! It will work perfectly for me!

Gallant: The Church of the Larger Fellowship does compelling and important work, and I want to be part of the team that’s doing it!

(Hint: It’s not about you. This is a fluff question. If you don’t really think the CLF does compelling work, and it’s truly your only option for an internship, then lie and tell us what we do is fascinating. Or better yet, wait for the opportunity to apply someplace you find more exciting. Your ministry will benefit from your discernment . . . and so will ours.)

Question: What is it about our work that you find compelling?

Goofus: To tell you the truth, I haven’t followed it that closely. I just haven’t had time. I’m really busy. I know you have a … website?

Gallant: I have looked at your websites, visited your online worship, followed you on facebook, and read your daily meditation. I think what is most compelling to me is that you are creating a real, vibrant, online community and I am really curious about how you do that.

(Hint: If you didn’t take time to research us, we wonder why you’re comfortable taking our time now to interview you. We’re online, for God’s sake.  In five minutes you could have learned enough to bluff your way through this interview–though if you really want to impress us, you’ll go deeper in your detective work.)

Question: What are your growing edges in ministry?

Goofus: Self-care. I really need to take better care of myself. I’ll be looking to add yoga to my acupuncture, meditation, sea-shanty chorus, and long-distance roller skating schedule.

Gallant: I am excited to see how my skills from a bricks and mortar church will translate to an online ministry. I think I’ll be growing in every direction as I do this new thing!

(Hint: Later, if you do end up working with us and it seems like self-care is an issue, we’ll be really interested to help you with that. But right now, as you come in the door, we want to know that you are motivated to learn what we want to teach!)

Interviewer: That’s all the questions we have. Do you have questions for us?

Goofus: Yes. I have a lot of them. Will you pay my way to GA? Will you buy me a new computer, because mine is old? Will you give me six weeks off in the winter to attend intensive classes? Will you pay my way to training for video classes?

Gallant: Yes. I have a lot of questions, of many different kinds. Has anyone ever said they were suicidal on Facebook, and what did you do? I’ve noticed that sometimes the sharing in worship gets really intense about difficult life circumstances. Do you follow up with the people who share in any way? I’m also wondering what supervision looks like, and how I will interact with all of the other fellows at the CLF. Oh, and I also have some questions about equipment and time for seminary classes that I’d like to ask you at some point.

Hint: If the only questions you have are about your needs, we wonder when and if you are going to start thinking about the actual ministry that this position involves. For now, you are trying to win us over. These are very good questions to ask if offered the position, as you consider whether to accept it. Because after we’ve thought through all of the people we interviewed, gotten most excited about you, and selected you, then meeting your needs for time and equipment and support will be important to us—at that point we’ll think we can’t live without you! But before we have decided we want you to work with us, you are basically giving us a list of obstacles– and those are reasons to choose someone else.

Additional dos and don’ts :

  • Goofus shows up disheveled, in pajamas, in a dark room with bad wifi.

Gallant checks out wifi capability in advance, practices with a friend, creates a nice visual space and puts on actual professional style clothes.

  • Goofus eats breakfast during the interview and answers texts on a smartphone. (“Sorry. It was a friend about dinner tonight and I had to take it.”)

Gallant looks alert and gives the interview full attention.

In a nutshell: Do your homework. Look (better yet: BE!) hungry for real learning. Give the interview your full attention. And above all: show us what this organization stands to gain if we bring you on board.

Remember that the CLF mission –like the mission of every other teaching congregation–is not to minister to seminarians but to engage seminarians in ministering to the world.

Good luck! Now show us what you’ve got. Rev. Meg Riley


Rev. Meg Riley is Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a UU congregation without walls. She has, by now, interviewed dozens of people to work with her on various projects, and has a pretty good knack for knowing who will work. Riley loves nothing in life more than a strong team, but by now she has decided she’d prefer to go it alone than try to wangle a Goofus into a Gallant.

here is what will happen ( involving a man, a motorcycle, and a bridge over the Missouri river)


There will be a motorcyclist.

Passing you on the I-70 bridge, headed downhill over the Missouri river, he will gun his engine.

You will approve of the helmet on his head.

You will appreciate the distinctive, wide blue of his ride.

And as he disappears (from view, or just from your awareness?) you will return to Important Thoughts.

It’s good that I found the on-ramp.

I’m not sure I like the church I just visited.

I’m glad I’m meeting my family for dinner.

I have a headache.

You won’t remember coming around the corner.

You won’t understand that the mannequin-the man-whyishebleeding–is the same person you just saw.

Your mind will refuse to process, consciously, that this is a person at all, even as you act, without understanding, not to hit him to stop to get out to go to him, OhmyGod.

You will not understand, then, or later, or probably ever, how the motorcycle came to rest, alone, a quarter mile down the highway. You will be astonished, eventually, that you have left your own car running.

And now, at this moment, amid blood and broken pieces and things out of place, you will struggle to understand anything at all.

It will be surprisingly quiet.

There will not be a sign that flashes THIS IS WHAT AN EMERGENCY LOOKS LIKE. There will not be background music from ER or Law & Order. There will not be someone to give you instructions.

And so, you will wing it.

You will make an unlikely partner of the man, and he is a man, not a mannequin, not a body, as he follows you with his eyes, saying nothing. You will think, later, of a trout gasping on a riverbank.

This riverbank is made of concrete and set 60 feet in the air, strewn with debris, and no shoulder (no shoulder!?), no buffer–just two lanes and a white line and a wall.

And you. The trout’s cheerleader.

You will ask how he’s doing. You will ask if he can move. And when it’s clear to both of you that he can’t, you will still think that you are a team, you and him.

Your job in this team is to stand in front, to wave frantically as traffic comes around the corner, to jump up and down, and to yell at the 911 people who must determine, before helping you, if your square of the bridge is in Kansas or Missouri.

Your job is to plan quickly. Your job is to pray.

The man’s job is not to die.

You will say inane things like “stay with me” and “you’re gonna make it” and you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok.” You will know while you’re saying them that it’s not enough. Then you will say them again, jumping up and down and waving your arms for emphasis, furious with the cars, the drivers, the bridge, the minutes.

Shall I tell you that the center I reached in a state sounding a bit like “misery” first shared, via recording, that they were “too busy” to take my call?
Yes, I think I shall tell you.


The first responders, the real ones, the ones not standing outside of their bodies and waiting for a script and hoping not to die, those people will take forever to reach you.

Truly, it will seem like it. Three forevers.

One of sheer disoriented panic.

Two in which you try, both of you, to survive, and you wonder, as if about someone else, what the woman on the bridge is going to do about the first driver to come around the curve who is not paying enough attention to see.

And three in which you no longer have to go it alone. Three is the best. You still might all die, but now there is someone else to yell at the dispatchers, to wave to the fire trucks circling below (on the BRIDGE, my people, the bridge), and to enact, from farther back, vigilante traffic control.

DO NOT STOP THERE, you will roar at the man whose car is causing traffic to come around the corner even more ferociously than before.


So you will trust him. And he does.

Three forevers, as best you can tell from your phone, its outgoing call log now a record of this improbable evening, takes exactly eleven minutes.

And then they come: ambulance, fire truck, police cars, SUV. They will do their actual work, and because you did not hit the man or his motorcycle, yours is done.

Cheerleading is neither recordable nor reportable.

And so, you will shake your head, say a prayer for this man, and stand to leave.

You will wonder, later, how there came to be blood on both sides of both arms, none of it your own. You will marvel, in contrast, at the cleanness of your clothing. The relative order of your hair.

But first, you will hug two strangers and high-five a third. It will feel like not-enough, not for this team, but you look into each other’s eyes, and you know. You offer each other blessings. You’ll walk away, back to your still-on, highly air-conditioned car.

And there, in flashing lights and a slump of relief, you will notice that your hands are shaking, and you will call who you call in situations like these.

You’ll pick someone good.

And she will answer. She will help.

And then, you will drive away down the ghostly highway before it reopens, before the ambulance is ready to go, before it takes the man somewhere else. Later, you will realize that you know his name, his wife’s name, his boots, his t-shirt, his blood, but you will not know what happens to him.

It will be many hours later when, at home and in the arms of the safest person you know, you can cry.

But you will. And this will help, too.

And the next day you will find, again, the shirt that you got for your older son. The one you initially thought better of—words on shirts have to be good, and these are also neon yellow. But it was two dollars, and has long sleeves, and is the right size to grow into.

Your husband keeps hanging it in your closet. You keep taking it back out and reminding him to put it with the size-up clothes.

But today you will think maybe it’s yours. Or that, for one evening on a bridge in a borderland that no one quite wants to lay claim to, it could have been.



And, amid the everything-else that you are still trying to sort out, you will feel proud.


leading failure (a tutorial)

Imagine . . . You’re heading up a team or task force, and one of your members keeps dropping the ball.

She just doesn’t get it. She shows up late. She’s unprepared. Or maybe she volunteers to do things but never completes them.

Or, you’re a paid part of an organization, and you hire someone to do a job that seems like a great fit. He’s excited. You’re excited. And yet, he spins his wheels at first, and then, month after month, performs below the curve. He’s not delivering results, and that seems unlikely to change.

In either case, you shake your head as you wonder why the people who at first seemed so promising, in other contexts, are not able to perform as expected. Something must be wrong with the selection process. Or the applicant pool. Or with today’s volunteers or church members or college graduates.

Sound frustrating? Sound . . . familiar?


Whether as lay leaders, as ministers, or in our lives beyond the church walls, effective leadership is a critical skill for those who aim to truly transform lives. And like it or not, leadership means providing critical feedback in a way that fosters learning and change.

Scary? It is.

And the options we’re most familiar with—ignore the person, “fire” them, suggest politely that this might not be a great fit, express frustration to uninvolved third parties, or cross our fingers and hope—no, pray—that next time we are able to select a better team—those don’t seem to be working well.

And so, I’m suggesting an alternative, one that keeps the locus of control on ourselves:

WE as leaders must become experts at “caring confrontation.”

Red pawn figure against united yellow, isolation, confrontation,

This, in short, is our own courageous willingness to call each other, and ourselves, out when we miss the bar. Caring confrontation requires an eye on long-term results and an understanding that failure is a necessary (but intermediate) part of the learning process. Most of all, it requires us to think like educators.

In designing learning experiences, setting goals, and providing feedback, we become teachers—and we gain the opportunity to celebrate successes broader and deeper than we previously imagined.

If this sounds utopian, it may be because the more common approach—the one we perhaps learned by watching our own supervisors—is to avoid confrontation of any sort, all the while noting failures and storing up frustrations.

When we don’t know how to speak directly and honestly with one another about failure, we wait, instead, for a sanctioned opportunity: our chance to really lay it on the line. That chance is often an annual review or a final evaluation—and there, finally, we feel entitled to point out failure, and we do it by laying out our case. See here. And here. And here. You failed. I’ve been waiting to tell you, and I hoped that in the interim, you’d get it together. But you didn’t. How unfortunate.

Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (the One-Minute Managers) call this the “Gotcha Approach.” Everything rides on one meeting or summative document, and one never knows what it will say, as if the elements of fear and surprise are somehow integral to the learning process. Pro tip: they are not.

Ideally, those we supervise should be able to self-report, from moment to moment, their strengths and weaknesses. They know what the goal is, are personally invested in meeting it, and have the necessary tools to gauge their own performance.

This awareness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however—effective feedback lies at the very heart of the caring confrontation model. It’s just that feedback should not be delivered annually and in a summative way, unless it literally is a summary of what both parties already know. (You’ll know if this is the case because the summative document will feel boring to both of you.)

True feedback is ongoing and support-focused.

That feedback works as follows: first, we openly acknowledge failure when and where we find it. This is brief, private, and non-punitive. Then we point, again, to the bar that the learner is expected to clear, and we strategize together about the steps needed to clear it.

True feedback engages the learner—she’s making predictions, taking action, observing what happens, and then, with support, pausing to reflect. Then the cycle begins again. Think, here, of the teaching strategy of scaffolding—what the learner already knows provides the supportive framework, and we are encouraging her, always, to reach up in planning her next action.

With feedback, the learner can also make mid-course corrections—in fact, she’s expected to. And the organization, while spending more time in the training and supervision process, is also more likely to benefit from that investment because job satisfaction is higher and frustration and hopelessness are lower.

So what does caring confrontation require? It asks, in short, that we each become teachers.


Before you argue that you didn’t become a teacher for a reason, consider what you stand to gain by adding “educator” to your supervisor persona.

Leading like a teacher provides tools to break the gridlock and frustration of supervisees who “just don’t get it”—and it also provides organizational motivation to do things differently. As any good educator will tell you, the failure to learn lies first with the teacher.

This may initially sound unpalatable, but in responsibility lies freedom: because we have the power to change ourselves!

How does this work, in the caring confrontation model?

1. Teacher-leaders must approach any task—the “bar” that the learner must clear—as a set of key skills, in sequence. Have you visited a preschool or kindergarten classroom lately? Did you stop to wash your hands? If so, you may have seen a diagram like this.

task analysis, handwashing. Created with Boardmaker.

This is obviously very simple, but there was a time when it applied to you, too. You had to learn, part by part, what to do to clean your hands, and in which order—and to make it easier to learn, someone broke the task down for you.

In teaching, we are always asking, “What’s the next step?” Competence is the goal, but to get there, we must outline the path.

What is Rosie trying to accomplish? Think of the end goal as the top of a mountain, and imagine a long, winding trail leading up to the summit. Along the way are a series of huts—places to rest and take stock. The first step on Rosie’s path will be close to where she is now. The second will move the bar just a bit closer to the goal.   (Is this disappointingly un-magical? The path to results often is.)

This gets tricky when we are teaching someone a skill that feels like second nature to us. Perhaps it came so easily that even the steps to learning were masked—we mastered them internally. Unfortunately, it is in these areas—where we have no memory of struggling to learn—that we may instead struggle to teach. Fortunately, step 2 can help.

2. Teacher-leaders must know the learner’s skills and weaknesses, and meet her where she is.

Each step on the path needs to be achievable with the tools available, plus effort. Imagine that what you’re actually teaching is tightrope walking: falls are ok; injuries are not.

This analogy might seem overly dramatic, but keep in mind that the learner who fears doing actual damage to herself or others will spend energy on worry and hypervigilance, be less willing to take needed risks, and will struggle in a feedback process that feels fraught rather than encouraging and curious. It is therefore critical to be sure that skills are firmly in place before the stakes are high.

Let's try it once without the parachute

Suicide prevention counselors practice their skills in dozens of hours of roleplays before they ever touch an actual crisis call. Medical students practice on cadavers for a reason. Danger and praxis coexist effectively only under extremely close supervision, and with a very carefully vetted admissions process. Actual danger is not often the case in congregational life—but tell that to the person ascending the pulpit for the very first time, comforting the newly bereaved, or chairing a contentious meeting, but who doesn’t feel prepared for the task.

To assess what kind of net your learner needs, you’ll have to evaluate where they are.  This is where that step-by-step task breakdown is helpful: when you put those steps into a document and assign a number to each one, you’ve created a rubric.  You and the learner can now work together to determine current skill levels–and make a plan to reach up.

woman's hand climbing ladder drawn on green board

3. Teacher-leaders know that their primary contribution to the learning process is their time.

Skill development takes time. Supervision and feedback also take time. This investment is key—and unfortunately, it’s often given short shrift in busy schedules. We want to see results, and we want those we supervise to deliver them. That’s a reasonable expectation . . . the part we hate to hear about is the hefty amount of work required up front.

No one needs a micromanager, but inattention has its limits as a growth strategy. If you need team members to go farther and do more, prepare to evaluate, strategize . . .and teach. From the point of view of your schedule, that means some planning and research time up front while you figure out how to break the task into manageable learning segments and what skills need to be isolated (Public speaking? Database management? Tools for leading meetings?) It means being available to have a conversation early on if things aren’t on the right track.  Finally, it means time for shared planning around goals.

These tasks are more or less time-consuming depending on the nature of the work and your supervisory relationship—but the time required will never be “zero.” The learning process is collaborative, not independently-managing.

Teacher and students in computer class

And finally: 4. Teacher-leaders view learning roles as flexible and fluid

The best teachers know what it’s like to be in a learner’s shoes because they engage in continuous learning themselves. The openness and humility needed to keep our “learner” hats on even as we supervise others encourages further growth in us, in our students, and in our movement. Better still, this outlook reflects reality—we are all learning, all the time, regardless of our titles and assigned roles.

Ideally, even our supervisory relationships model “power with” rather than “power over”—a profoundly countercultural message that is right in line with our Unitarian Universalist theology of worth, dignity, and deep interconnectedness.  Some are mentors; some are supervisors–but we are learners, together.

We can embrace failure as an intermediate outcome . . . and then, acting as educators, we can use it as a growth tool.

Really excellent mentors, bosses, and leaders: They are, above all, those who can teach.


on failure to fly in four-year-olds

I don’t yet know how we remember days like this in the long run.

This is A Day When Silas Did Not Die.  As, so far, they all have been . . . so how do you mark the moments where your day, and your life, nearly became something else?

Our younger son is four now.  Milestones of the age include: (marginally) prefers building cities to destroying them.  Discriminates between food and non-food items.  Understands, and wields, words upon words upon words.  And, cause for true celebration for those of us who have experienced early childhood without it: Si now demonstrates a sense of fear.

If those milestones mattered today, it was only in their false sense of reassurance.

How do you assign meaning when the narrative arc of action and inaction, redemption and irremediable loss, runs so tightly that it takes your breath away as you consider it?  What can we learn from being brought up short by what nearly was, laying out each “but for” as though it were a thing with teeth, a shade poised to lay claim to the breath of a now-sleeping child?

I don’t exactly know what to think, but I can tell you what I feel: sheer, incredulous relief.  This day, the sheer boredom and minutiae of it, has been delivered back to me as I blink, confused, stumbling again into the too-bright daylight after escaping the brief horrorshow behind me.

As Silas explains the noteworthy event of the afternoon: “I wanted to jump, but without hitting the ground.”  (Don’t we all want that, friends?  Isn’t jumping-without-hitting-the-ground the simplest conception of flying?)  Si’s jumping place of choice: his small dresser.  The alternative to hitting the ground: it had something to do with the long, trailing cord of the wooden blinds that hang in Si’s window.

Ah, the blind cords.  Craig and I have tied those strings in knots and stuffed them in specially-ordered “cord-keepers.”  We have taken the blinds down and put them back up again.  We have had more conversations than I can count about how the blinds aren’t for touching, ever ever ever . . . and now, in what feels like the “after” of the “intensive physical challenge” piece of our parenting life . . . we have largely forgotten about them.

I remember now, in a more zealous phase of parenting, sending an article about blind cord safety to all of our family’s grandparents.  I did a bit of research, back then, finding common sense advice inspired by a number of tragic stories—but there is one detail I read that lurked, ever after, at the back of my mind.  “The average age of children killed in blind cord accidents was four.”  That always seemed weird to me.  Why four?

I think, as the battle-hardened, gray-hair-sporting parents of seven and four year old boys, my husband and I feel, on a level both philosophical and cellular, that we have earned some peace.  Or perhaps it’s simply that if they haven’t died by now, then surely, surely with additional common sense and an increasing apprehension of danger, we’re in the clear.  At least with these things.

And also, there is this: at Si’s request, we hung curtains in his room about a year ago.  Those curtains, a smooth celadon he chose himself because it matched his idea of his big brother’s favorite color, are the show piece.  The blinds behind them hang, forgotten, squinched up to the top of the window frame since we can’t remember when.  Out of sight, out of mind is a saying for a reason

And so, who knows where the cord keeper went?

Who knows when the pull became unknotted?

Who knew that that long beige cord would speak to Silas like the serpent in the garden, assuring him that he’d never have to worry about hitting the ground if he’d only twine that string around his chest and neck, like so . . .

I can tell you now that what separates the mundane ordinariness of a Thursday afternoon from the sickening terror of too-late is, at most, a few minutes.  It’s enough air in the lungs, and enough space in a constricted airway, to scream.  It’s a parental pit stop in a misbehaving older brother’s room, leaving only one underinsulated wall between me and my baby bird, rather than a separate story and a lack of consciousness—I am home sick today and so dearly wanted to spend afternoon rest time actually resting.

I would have paid good money, up front, for the promise of sleep at 2:00 in the afternoon.  I might have traded my soul for quiet.

As it stands, there will be no nap today for anyone except Si.  I wanted sleep; instead, I have breath, hot against my hand on his pillow.  I hoped for peace, and instead I have the fury of a four-year-old who thinks band-aids are the answer for anything that hurts.  And we have, for now, the angry red reminder of a livid mark across a baby sealskin neck, barely a line in back but bright and deep in front, the place where those thin cords chafed, rubbed, and then began to strangle my would-be flyer.

I don’t know what to do with any of this, not really.  I still believe that tragic accidents happen. That not everything can be prevented, and that in that mistaken belief, we place ourselves on the opposite side of those who experience their turn with misfortune before our own, and that also, we forget to live.

And yet, there is another truth: that sometimes accidents don’t happen.  And that other times, they do—the worst thing, it happens—and yet the pieces of your life are handed back to you whole, anyway.  Sometimes we just get damned lucky, my friends.

I’m giving thanks for that, this afternoon.  For all that I had, which sometimes continues for another day to be all that I have.

But there is indeed something to be said for prevention, not as the sole objective of our lives, but as a way not to miss larger moments for smaller oversights.  And so I’m taking this opportunity to suggest, from our family to yours, that you take a moment to check those blind cords.

There is perhaps a story here about why it’s the four year olds who die.  And I wonder how many of them are youngest children of parents who assumed they were done with this safetyproofing stuff.

And so, though I know you did it last week, last month, last . . . when was it? . . . check them again.  I know you told the grandparents, the babysitter, your older son . . . tell them again.

We got lucky, so lucky, but Si is going to have the shape of that cord on the underside of his chin for a long, long while as a reminder of what we forgot.  May the only reminder that your family gets be these words.

Blessings, my friends.



self-care for extroverts, and introverts, and anyone else who wants to heal the world

Last week was full of voices, and I happily went out to meet them.  I listened.  I brought more than enough of my own voice in response.  And then, each evening, I came home, wrapped myself in a brief but blessed silence . . . and got up the next day to do the same thing  with new people.

That’s a piece about talking; there’s also something about writing, or at least about writing in my world, in this: I walk around with the words long before I ever put them to paper.  The phrases parade through my head, ring in my ears, arrange and rearrange themselves on the tip of my tongue.

And something else: it has to be quiet.  It has to feel spacious.  I have to be alone, at least in my head if not in my embodied reality.

And friends, in these moments, I prefer to be alone, actually.

I wrote nothing last week.  It’s not that I tried and failed; I didn’t get that far.  It’s that I could no longer conceive of writing.  I could not imagine a space in which to try.  I felt like I had ceded every inch of myself to the roar outside, and returned home with an echo of it answering from within.  I addressed these concerns to a fellow writer and seminarian; she responded, I know–I get home and ask myself what I want to say and hear birds chirping.

By the end of last week, I was spent,  just in time for a weekend stacked with more of the same.  House meeting to listen to personal stewardship stories on Saturday (it was lovely!).  Preaching to an unfamiliar congregation on Sunday (beautiful, and so very welcoming!)

I get a lot of my energy externally, so this abundance of beauty and energy outside should beget beauty and energy inside, right?  That’s how I figured it, anyway, stacking meetings on appointments on phone calls–this is a weird way to set up a week, but all of of this stuff is happening at the same time, and hey, it’ll be fun!

It surprised me, then, that on this Monday morning –a Monday after the fourth of five consecutive weeks of preaching (all but one) or speaking (the spare) at Sunday services, I was feeling quite ragged . . . and well on my way toward wretched.  I pushed through the day anyway–fake it till you make it is a great energy secret, right?— my mind already on Monday evening.  And Tuesday . . . the towering gauntlet of Tuesday.  No time to stop, batter up!  I was thus both confounded and utterly bemused when, at 4:30, three meetings into a four-meeting day, I suddenly lost part of my vision.

It was as if perforations had appeared in the lenses of my eyes—I could see well enough to walk around, but things appeared oddly shimmery.  I couldn’t create the contiguous picture necessary to read text or type.  It’s embarrassing to say, but I spent 30 disbelieving (and fruitless) minutes trying to find a way to restructure the rest of my day before making the journey home.  By the time I arrived there, I felt truly incoherent.  I invested a ridiculous amount of time in attempting to write a check to the babysitter, made an urgent call to my husband, and promptly passed out, entering the maddening liminal space in which you think you’re doing x and saying y, but are actually doing nothing.  Besides scaring people.  Ordinarily, I’d have been scaring myself, too; as it was, I was too out of it to feel properly frightened, or to feel anything, really, but spent.

Two hours later, I awoke suddenly.  Things were back to normal, but for a headache; Dr. Facebook (thank you, colleagues near and far) assured me that I had experienced an ocular migraine.  And that I should rest, and avoid sex (really; someone told me this), and get it checked out should another one occur.

That all sounds like wise advice, and I plan to take it.  I am also taking this opportunity, however, to offer myself some non-medical advice.  It’s a little something about boundaries, firmish limits which go far beyond what I had initially thought was necessary.

You see, as a lifelong extrovert, I count on interactions with people I love to feed my energy stores.  And it’s true, those conversations do feed me: until the point where they don’t.

I don’t think I had occasion to know this limit, exactly.  At the very least, it was always masked as other things.  I am tired after dealing with a roomful of rowdy preschoolers because tiredness under these circumstances is simply a Law of Nature.  And I am tired after a week involving a revolving door of meetings-lunches-coffee dates-appointments because . . . it turns out I actually do not have the stamina for ministry?

I do, from time to time, draw bizarre satisfaction from making precisely those sorts of sweeping generalizations, but it hasn’t escaped my attention that they tend to be wrong.  And in this case, “I can’t hack it in ministry if I can’t grit it out through a week like this” is incorrect because the difficulty I’m experiencing is not about grit.  It’s about balance, and the energy that we invest or withdraw with each interaction.

There is, for me, a tipping point at which the relational interactions both cease to feed my energy and begin to rob my soul.  And I suspect that it’s not just me.  How many of us question how to get the balance right in this highly draining, highly demanding, highly relational field?

Just a few days ago, a mentor in ministry spoke of her sense of sadness and overwhelm at trying to balance her emotional wish for connection with her physical need for some down time.  She attributed the inner tug-of-war to her introversion, but I suspect that we are all playing the same game at different times each week.

This is why there must be a sabbath—and for those of us in the Sabbath business, that sure isn’t going to be Sunday.  This is why there are office hours.  This is why there are boundaries.

I sort of assumed that these lines were drawn so that others knew how to stay in the minister’s good graces.  I imagine that respecting them does help with congregant-minister relations, but seeing, now, from the other side, I also understand that those limits exist as an act of profound self-care.  They represent, for ministers, stewardship of our time and talent in the same way that we carefully place our treasure.

Speaking to the difficult decisions inherent in creating safeguards around our time, and our hearts, and our energies, one minister argued last fall that what makes sense from a planning perspective is not time management, but energy management.  Some interactions drain.  Some feed.  This must be taken into account in planning for the kind of lives we lead.  Personally, I am persuaded that this focus on managing time to maintain energy is gospel truth, and I am grateful for this opportunity to learn it early.

Including yesterday.  Temporary blindness is one of the less subtle wake up calls I’ve experienced, but today I felt I could see, and in more ways than one: there are many ways to burn the candle at both ends, and they all, ultimately, are unsustainable.  In this vein, I have been thinking lots this afternoon about a quote from Rabbi Moses Sofer: No woman is required to build the world by destroying herself.

I suspect that for the highly relational among us, living on the side of sustainability means special attention to the place where we start to build the village by cutting off pieces of ourselves.  Further, it requires that we then stop ourselves, not at that self-destructive place, but at a much earlier spot on the upside of the hill.  It is difficult to ask ourselves to stop there.  It is a struggle of will to yield in a place of unfinished business when we ourselves have yet more to give.  Yet there is deep wisdom in the timing of the pause, and it comes not just from theologians, but from teachers.

I have spent the main part of my adult life working in and around early childhood programs, and I once attended a wonderful workshop with children’s singer and songwriter Jackie Silberg.  Aside from the very catchy All the Fish Are Swimmin’ in the Water, what I still remember, years later, from that weekend is this wisdom: Never, never, never wait until the highest point of the energy to end an activity: you leave everyone nowhere to go but down, and that is where the problems happen.

Jackie was talking about the tightrope act that is singing and dancing with exuberant youngsters in confined spaces, but it’s true in life, too.  It’s true right here.  We are passionate, loving, committed people, and we are taking on the fight and the blessing of our lives every single day.  Why would we not leave it all out there?

Why would we stop before we drop?

Because, my friends: we are a people who believe in tomorrow. 

This, above all things, is our gift of faith to the world.  And living it begins right here with each of us.

So understand, please, that I will take your call in a crisis.  If you are crying, I will hold your hand or simply sit with you for all the time that it takes.  I will be at the hospital, I will bless your baby, I will be the person, and fit the role, that you need me to.

And understand also that later, in the small moments, in the full holiness of a sabbath that may to any other ear be called Tuesday, I will return to my words.  I will return to myself.  You will hear about the committee meeting not this minute or even today, but next week.  We will talk and laugh together soon, and we’ll schedule it, because you are important and we are important, and also, so am I.

I love God, and the world, so much that I will not destroy myself to build it. 


helpful hints for awesome applications (or why NO ONE should have to read the essay I just wrote)


Friends, I have been editing what is, hands down, the worst essay I’ve ever written.

In fact, I am writing this now because I needed space to make a decision.  There comes a time when you must grit your teeth and keep slogging through, take a deep breath and start over entirely . . . or shove the pages off the table, grab a cup of tea, and start a blog post about the writing process.

This is, on one level, a cautionary tale: bad writing is what happens when you try to salvage content from the form you filled out that one time.

It turns out, my people, that cobbling together responses from questions you didn’t care about answering in the first place will not lead to a compelling narrative about your life for a reason.  And, though you are hopefully writing your own essays using a process that doesn’t involve recycling old forms, the take-home message here might still be helpful.

The unifying thread of an effective personal essay isn’t simply a coherent path from point A to point B.

Rather, a good story requires a heart, a soul, and a vision.

I find that there is a particular clarity of focus that comes from knowing why I am telling a story.

Ideally, that knowledge is present from the moment I start writing, and that awareness becomes purpose: it guides me as I choose how I will hold each piece, where I will shine a light, how I will catch your attention.

Reflecting on this has helped me to articulate some guidelines, which I shall now pass along to you (as, I’ll be honest, a tool to delay a return to editing the atrocity-in-Garamond that awaits me).

There are three things to include when talking about your life as an applicant-for-something-you-really-want: a compelling introduction (of yourself, by yourself), the answers to the questions being asked . . . and a great story.

I know, I know.  They only told you about the second part.  Here’s the thing, though: that second goal is the substance of your application, but it alone doesn’t get you there.  In fact, substance alone is painful to read.  (And did I mention boring?  BORING.  Repeat after me: Do not bore your admissions committee.  Also do not annoy them–that’s fatal–but I’m pretty sure scholarship dollars have yet, in the history of this world, to be awarded to those who cure insomnia with the click of the keyboard.)

Thus, let’s back up, because the meat of the text isn’t where we need to start.

The first and most important task of an admissions essay:

1. Introduce yourself.  Winningly.  You must be, on paper, someone you’d truly like to know.

This is your chance to let whoever is reading “meet” you.

Depending on the structure of the application, there may be a clear space for this introduction (“Tell us about yourself,”) or you may have to frame it yourself.  In the composition commonly labeled “personal essay” and lacking further instructions, the reality is somewhere in the middle–you have to work within the space you have, but there is a lot of freedom in what and how you will do it.  The thing to remember is that what you say here and in your supporting documents (resume, cover letter, references) is the only thing your reviewer knows about you.  You are a blank slate, and what you need to become, in that reader’s eyes, is a person–and a likeable, compelling one at that.

Introduce yourself well on paper, and you will likely have a second opportunity in person. Otherwise, this is it. Either way, the stakes are high, so let your “self” shine through (think of Katniss Everdeen doing a full spin for the television audience. You are showing a stylized version of yourself, to be sure, but show it in a way that feels three-dimensional.)

As you read through your essay, ask yourself: if these words are all someone has to go on, will my reader feel that she knows me, personally?

She should.

2. Deliver the goods

This has two parts. First, make sure you give the reader whatever they have explicitly asked for. (This may seem obvious.  I can tell you, however, as someone who used to review scholarship applications for an undergraduate leadership program, and who has since sat on 2 hiring committees, that an astonishing number of applicants submit things that don’t address, or don’t clearly address, the question being asked.  This is a particular danger where you’re repurposing an essay or response you already wrote for something else, so use caution.)

Second, do it clearly and neatly. Whether anyone mentions it to you or not, your writing: grammar, mechanics, punctuation, style and flow–is being evaluated from the moment a person’s eye lands on the first page of your application.

Without this form-and-content piece, you miss the boat entirely, and your application ends up in the circular file and not in the short stack. We all know this, but the magic doesn’t happen here. For that, you need to also hit goal three . . .

3. Tell them a story.

We all want to be entertained. Style alone will not earn you what you seek (reread step 2), but the truth is, it is damned important.

Reading a bunch of anything in succession is mind-numbing. Make reading YOUR essays easy on your reviewers by drawing them in. In an application process, you will achieve this by taking the hands of your readers to bring them along on your personal journey. (Can I tell you that “The Story of My Life” has been playing loudly in my mind as I type this?)

If you want that person to feel excited about taking that trip with you, you need to feel excited, too–so if you don’t, consider it an invitation to sit back, close your eyes, and think more. Walk, in your head, the road that you have traveled. What makes you smile? What makes you cringe? What makes your heart race? What themes do you see emerging at this point in your path?

Use those themes to guide your narrative, and tell the story in your head until you’re ready to tell it on paper. Find the power and passion behind your story, and use that to propel your writing–when you’re in *that* space, it’s easier.

Writing that can move others must start with the stirring of your own soul. For myself, it’s finding that place and staying within it that’s the tricky  part–after that, the words simply come. So invest the time, and ask yourself: what story am I telling here, and what makes it powerful?

.  .  .

Helpful? I hope so . . . tis the season, after all. (And seminary applicants, be warned: you may find, upon receiving your acceptance letters, that it is The Season all year long. Happy writing.)

And now, off to put a certain essay out of its misery.

j– moonlighting as your friendly Grammar Witch

ps: If it is indeed seminary that you seek, you might also check in here (we’re just kidding.  truly.  mostly.) and here (we’re serious. actually.  completely.)

let sleeping dragons lie



“You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help.”

One of my seminary classmates posted this Calvin & Hobbes quote yesterday morning.  And it’s true– sometimes even our most faithfully held talismans fail us.  Our magic pebbles lose their magic.  We are left, staring down our fears, armed with nothing more than what is within us.

Frankly, some days it doesn’t feel like that could possibly be enough.  It’s been dark, and cold, and there is much that feels undone and overwhelming.  Whatever I consider, from my growing list of uncompleted tasks (a side effect of Refusing To Do It All, it must be noted, is that some things don’t get done) to the tangled knots inside my head and heart–my body registers an anxious warning: Danger.  Here Be Dragons.  And sometimes, friends, I just don’t have the tools or the energy to take on one more scaly beast.

This is hard.  The work is hard.  The ongoing time crunch is hard.  The change and the losses it brings are hard.  And in the midst of these hard things, life keeps happening.  Which means, in some of our families, that death is what’s happening.  Or illness.  Marital difficulties.  Financial troubles.  The list goes on.

And thinking about this larger process, the truth is that even the supportive parts are challenging.  Almost everyone I know is working with a therapist, a spiritual director, or both—and seriously, put the emphasis on “working.”  For myself, I’ve stopped wearing makeup on spiritual direction days.  That may seem like some sort of deep personal metaphor; it’s actually because from a practical standpoint it’s just pointless–why spend valuable time applying something you’ll be mopping off your face an hour later?

In short, with one semester almost in the bag, our first year class is showing decided signs of wear.  We are growing, but it costs.  We are excited, but we feel grief.  We are strong, but know fear.  And we’re tired.

I’m tired.  This is true physically, but even moreso psychologically and emotionally.  It’s the relentless schedule, in part, but it’s also that there’s a “front” involved in doing this work, and in preparing for it.   This means “make some mistakes, but be very selective when you show your struggles.”  (Or, alternately, “Show them to everyone, via your blog.”  I’ll let you know how that works out.)  In “public,” which is virtually everywhere, remember that your presence–the calm kind–is what counts.  These are critical lessons for the leadership of our movement, but cultivating them isn’t free–we pay in time, in energy, and, if we’re not careful, in personal integrity as well.

And of course there are other, procedural costs: already, we are preparing to leave our home congregations.  In my case, that’s a very formal process; for some others it’s simply an awareness of transition in the coming months.  I think most of my classmates, weary as we are right now, feel excited about this.  For my own reluctant-to-adjust self, the knowledge of looming change feels like the slow drip of water torture.

Realistically, I imagine I’ll be prepared for the move to my intern congregation right around the time that I’m scheduled to leave that community.  For now, I literally want to dig a hole underneath my current church building, curl up inside it and stay there for a very long time.  People could come visit–bringing snacks would be good—and I’d come out for worship.  (In fact, there used to be a joke among my friends in lay leadership that we needed to have cots in the sanctuary in light of the amount of time, day and night, we spent at church.  I wonder if on some level I thought that’s what seminary would mean—I could just live at church!  I’m starting to see how without clear boundaries and constant attention to work-life balance, that could someday be horrifyingly true, but not here.  Never here.)

Instead, inevitably, I put one foot in front of the other and take one more step.  We all do, leaning on one another, following those who’ve gone before . . . and wishing, lately, for a place to rest.

And I realize that I have been waiting for someone to say it’s time to wait without planning, time to reflect without acting, time to stop, survey the landscape, and take a breath.

But no one does.  Not to me.  At least, not out loud.

Meanwhile, this happened at church—the same church where I’d like to live in the wall or the floor, but apparently can’t be bothered to engage with what’s going on during the service.  (This is not our choir, but you get the idea.)

I remember that it was pretty, but I was distracted (what’s coming next?  And what’s coming after that?), so I didn’t really listen.  Frankly, I’m not sure I would have thought about this song again, EVER, had someone not mentioned the next day how the performance touched them—the sound, the words, the spirit.

So I looked it up.  I played the song.  And hearing it, I remembered the moment I heard it in our sanctuary—but this time, I truly listened.

When the song ended, I played it again.  And I’ve been playing it since, because it speaks truth to me now.

That same service included a meditation on the importance of quiet in this season, culminating in Richard Gilbert’s observation that

“In the darkness we rest our bodies and our souls;
We escape that which distracts and confuses.
We come face to face with ourselves.
We come into the deep places of our being.”


And so, I now wonder, what more official invitation to rest is needed than this interlude of darkness and quiet?  The growing season will come soon enough.

What I need now is some space in which I might simply be.

For a brief time, I will rest my mind and my feet.  For this quiet interval, I will leave those sleeping dragons where they lie.

For a short season, let me be still.



Fear and Loathing In These Pages

Sometimes I have so much to say that the limiting factors are time and typing speed.  Sometimes I am so deeply challenged by everything that’s going on that all I could write would be a list of questions.  And then, fortunately not so often, there are times like now.  Blinking cursor times. Image

Times when I avoid even sitting down to write because it’s scary to think of what will happen.

I used to be a spelling bee geek; I’d walk around with a single word in my head for simple love of the sound.  Absinthe. EnnuiMacadam.

I’ve learned words this year, too: eschatology, theodicy, cisgendered–but the word on repeat is much less interesting.  Short, sharp, and familiar–and very, very unwelcome. It’s Can’t.

A big mouth in a small body, Can’t never works alone.  It inevitably brings its best friends, Fear and Doubt.  It’s hard to tell for sure, because I’ve been too scared to take a close look—but at a glance, F & D seem huge.   Gigantic, even.  They are definitely the muscle of the operation.  And I know their game—they don’t just intimidate; they grab and hold tenaciously.  So when they appear, I run and hide.   I even avoid the places they like to hang out.  Blank pages, for example–fear and doubt love white space.

But tonight, I’m writing.

Make no mistake; it’s not because I’m brave.  I’d grant fear & doubt adverse possession of this page in a heartbeat if they’d just leave me alone.  It doesn’t work like that, though.  They are expansionists at heart.  Their version of manifest destiny would leave my life looking something like this:


So, what does a writer do when fear and doubt threaten to take her down for the count?

Well, if you’re me, first you avoid thinking about it.

50 Facebook quips will fill a single-spaced page. 

Failing that, you simply wait for it to pass.

20 days?  30?  Pay for each with small shards of your soul.

And then you start to wonder if you could simply think of that well-worn “lean in” admonishment, sitting with the butterflies and breathing through the dizziness to Just Do It?

Sure, but buckle up: the worst part comes next.  Fear is prickly and Doubt packs a sucker-punch, but certainty sits, hollow yet heavy, right in the middle of your stomach. 

And then you know: You will never be able to do this.  What were you thinking?  You?

And it’s not just about writing anymore.

It’s about everything—dreaming. Trying. Risking.  This certainty says “Don’t. You. Dare.”

If any of this sounds familiar . . . well, first of all, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry you’re struggling.  And I’m sorry that I don’t have an answer, not for either of us.  The thing I can say—that refrain of liberal religion, perhaps the most saving and relevant and real message any of us has to offer—is this: you are not alone.

It is that message, and a friend brave enough to share it, that helped me; it even came with a lovely cartoon.

And today, that was enough.

And so today, I am taking my words back.

And may tomorrow be a day when neither of us loses them.