Swimming into the Deep End

Parenting, Pastoring, and Common Discernment

As I write, I am just returning to pastoral ministry after parental leave. As I bonded with my newborn daughter—my second child—I spent time reflecting on how my vocation as a parent is reshaping my ideals and practices for ministry.

Since I was ordained in my late 20s and didn’t become a parent until almost 40, I spent the first 15 years of seminary and ministry without children of my own. All those years, I longed to have the sense of authority in myself, and in my ministry, that I witnessed (or at least imagined) in so many pastors who were parents. Even in the Lutheran church, where the pastor is not called “Father” or “Mother” as in some traditions, it seemed that pastoring was a lot like parenting, in that both vocations involve guiding, reassuring, teaching, encouraging, setting boundaries, and soothing hurts. However, being younger than most congregation members and not having experienced parenthood myself, I just couldn’t pull off the parental model I had cobbled together from my chosen examples. (Looking back, I realize how I had internalized the way non-parental metaphors and models for ministry are often marginalized in our communities.)

Then, several years ago, I merged the vocations of pastor and parent, with all the logistical hurdles and familial joys common to that blend. As so often happens, the reality is quite different than I had imagined. Parenting emphases and challenges have changed from one generation to another, and so has church. Besides that, my years of ministry before parenthood have shaped the way I parent, and in turn, the early years of parenthood are re-forming me for pastoral ministry.

My years of ministry before parenthood have shaped the way I parent, and in turn, the early years of parenthood are re-forming me for pastoral ministry.

In ministry, I learned to be a “co-discerner” with a community of faith, and “co-discerner” has become a core ideal of parenting now, too. In my first post for Bearings, I wrote about the connection between practicing discernment in the church and watching my young son grow. Discernment involves listening for what is most true, authentic, and important for a person or community, prayerfully attending to the directions in which God seems to be calling them, and supporting the choices suggested by that listening and attention.

During that discernment, it’s helpful to keep in mind where and how something begins. So when my daughter’s birth was full of surprises, it inspired me to write down the details to share with her later. “Giving” birth to her meant more than the physical moment; it meant giving to her over time the story of how she came to be in this world. While I could only tell the story from my perspective, it’s of course not fundamentally my story. This had become clear to me as we awaited her arrival. My doctor had asked me about the kind of “birth experience” I wanted to have. That question seemed somehow incomplete. I wanted us to ask, “What kind of birth does my daughter need? How does she want to make her way into the world?”

My role in my daughter’s discernment now involves holding and telling not only the story of how she began, but also the myriad stories of becoming, choosing, and growing that follow. I would not be so attuned to this role of co-discernment without the church, which has helped me realize that my ministry in a community isn’t primarily “mine” either. Ultimately, the ministries and identities taking shape in the church have their own stories, which ideally are not limited by the imaginations of the people through whom they were born.

20160422_little_engine_that_couldFor both my children, I envision their baby books telling the story of their beginnings, their family, their homes, their friends, and their favorite things to do, have, eat, see, and hear. All the people and places to which they have belonged, and all of the things to which they have given the most attention, hopefully will be chronicled. While the books certainly will depict where and how my children’s stories first began to unfold, the stories themselves—the stories of the people my son and daughter might become, the callings they might have, and the choices they might make—will unfurl over a lifetime of pages.

In the last few years, I have experienced parenting as a process of shared discernment that has helped shape my ideas about ministry. Parenting has clarified my pastoral role. I now see myself as one (not the only one, but a significant one) who tends and tells the stories of the community: the history, tradition, and communal experiences to which we belong, and the things to which the community has given the most attention.

Parents and pastors hold and tell these stories for the sake of ongoing discernment of their children’s or communities’ callings in the world, rather than for the sake of enshrining a particular reality as The Way It Is and Shall Be. Paradoxically, even as we hold the stories of beginning and belonging close to our hearts, our role is to help our children and communities move confidently and faithfully into the future—even and especially when it makes us anxious.

A recent parenting experience provides an intriguing image for that role of “non-anxious presence,” a term many clergy will remember from seminary. Being on leave meant I was available to observe my toddler’s swim class and witness his progress for the first time in months. I sat on the bench at the end of the regulation-size pool, near the gutter where he and his classmates sat with their floating devices around their waists and their legs dangling in the water. At the teacher’s call, they hopped into the pool and began swimming toward the other end of the pool, into deeper and deeper water. My son was having a great time paddling, but he fell further and further behind his classmates as he kept turning around to make sure I was still watching. Finally it dawned on me that I needed to stand at the other end of the pool, so that he could see me and stay connected as he swam. There, I wouldn’t be holding him back but could draw him forward.

Just as his arms and legs were churning, there was plenty churning in me as well: pride at his courage and strength (Such a little guy, but look at him go!) and anxiety about him being on his own (Yikes, he’s way out there in the deep end!). And then there was the dawning realization that I was holding him back from where I stood, and that I could be far more helpful by standing in the place toward which he was heading.

Paradoxically, even as we hold the stories of beginning and belonging close to our hearts, our role is to help our children and communities move confidently and faithfully into the future—even and especially when it makes us anxious.

As a pastor, I’m well aware my congregation, like many congregations these days, is in the “deep end” of uncertainty as the church faces changing contexts and works on embracing new generations. The swim class experience makes me wonder how (or where) I can most effectively cheer congregants on, buoy their confidence, and encourage them to keep moving forward—all while coping with my own anxiety about the deep end.

When I first heard the term “non-anxious presence,” I was learning about the ways in which congregations are similar to family systems, and I was becoming more aware of my own tendencies in such systems. My pastoral care class focused upon the care of individuals, which made sense to me at the time, given my image of congregations as groups of individuals. But today, I no longer see congregations primarily as potential sons and daughters with a pastor as their reassuring, encouraging, soothing, guiding parent.

Instead, I now view each congregation as a single “body” with a life of its own, a history, and a future. And that body is continually growing and changing. It has many varied parts, of course—individual members who still appreciate care, guidance, and encouragement. But to be a helpful co-discerner of who a congregation is and what it can become, a pastor needs to keep the body’s wholeness in mind, too.

Just as individuals grow and change their whole lives long, congregations too have vocations to discern, surprising stories of beginnings and belonging, and a communal future to live into. Parenting isn’t the only metaphor that allows us to better understand how congregations’ communal stories and choices unfold. But in my own life story, being and becoming a parent has revealed much about how to discern vocation collaboratively and relationally. It makes me wonder what other metaphors and models for discernment we could discover in our communities, in others’ life stories.

Rebecca Schlatter Liberty

Rebecca Schlatter Liberty has served as lead pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Bangor, Maine, since early 2014. Previously she served Lutheran congregations in Hong Kong, northern California, and Nevada. Following her experience as Campus Minister of Vocation Discernment at Santa Clara University, she published a book on discerning vocation with young adults, The Treasure Hunt of Your Life: Seeking Your Calling, Encountering God, Finding Yourself (Redwood Visions Press, 2009). Her own treasure hunt has brought her to Maine, where she lives with her husband, son, and daughter. Connect with Rebecca on Facebook.

Image credits:

Cover: Tiffany, “Water Babies,” July 12, 2008. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Desaturated.

Inside: thebittenword.com, “The Little Engine That Could,” December 24, 2007. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0