Pastors have broad job descriptions. They are preachers, teachers, counselors, administrators, organizers and more. Many church members rarely interact with their pastors outside of Sunday morning worship, making it difficult to understand the dynamics of this role. “Behind the Chair” is a regular article meant to draw the curtain on the minister’s life and introduce our readers to how a diverse set of leaders go about grazing their herds.
This article features an email interview with Vicki Flippin, pastor of First and Sommerfield United Methodist Church in New Haven, Connecticut. His answers have been edited slightly for clarity.
What did you not learn in seminary that you needed to know to lead the church?
Of course, this year I think about how I didn’t learn in seminary to lead a church during a pandemic! When I graduated from seminary in 2008, no class taught us how to do funerals on Zoom. I have not returned any documents on how to care for yourself, your family, and your church for over a year of fear, anxiety, isolation, and political upheaval. We had no ethical case studies of how to balance ever-changing public health information (and all the misinformation) with incredibly varied risk tolerance among individuals. It was a wild experience.
But perhaps the larger lesson not taught in seminary is that church leaders, more than ever, need to learn adaptive leadership and flexibility. While each year is not as volatile as this one, our world and our communities are constantly changing. Technology and worldviews are on the move. The role of the Church in society is changing. And crises of many varieties arise from time to time in every community. Even without a global pandemic, we still need to find and ground ourselves in the heart of the gospel and let go of traditions and cultural baggage that are not serving that heart at this time.
How has your personal understanding of God changed as you serve the local church?
I have come to know, much more deeply, the grace of God by serving in professional ministry. For better or for worse, pastors are symbols of the faith. When we wear our necklaces or stand in front of a pulpit, when we show up in people’s homes and even post on social media, people connect us with God. It’s a lot of pressure, because we are just ordinary people! I can name so many lay people who are much holier than I am. But, because I am so closely associated with the church, when I am wrong or fall short of my understanding of holiness, I can enter into a powerful and mighty spiral of shame.
I used to serve a church that invited people to the altar for prayer during the postlude. I was always the first to kneel down. In those moments after leading the service, I let Sunday afternoon thoughts come up, “Why did I say that? Was this person hurt by my words? Why haven’t I recognized these things? I should have spent more time preparing. I’m not good at it. And, kneeling in front of the altar, I felt the grace of God viscerally rain down on me, as if to say: “Even if you are the worst (which you are not), you are worthy of love and of love. joy. And this job is not yours. It’s mine. I’ll fill in the cracks.
How have your personal religious / devotional practices been shaped and changed by being the shepherd of a flock?
I love the devotional life of the preacher. I know professional ministry is not a lasting spiritual practice (hope to retire someday!), But it’s great to be held accountable each week for saying something consistent about how the scriptures , the world, the life of my parishioners and the Spirit are all in interaction.
Each week I pick a Bible text from the Revised Common Lectionary or Narrative Lectionary, read it carefully, listen to podcasts, sing songs, and write poetry about it while I prepare our newsletter. worship, then I engage in Bible studies about it first with our church members, then with four local friends / clergy. So I pray and pray and pray and write and write and write. Usually what comes out is a sermon that I needed to hear but also hope to bless someone else. It is a privilege to be able to call this work!
What does justice look like in your local context? And love? How do you get people to both?
In recent years, the main centers of justice in our church have been immigration and LGBTQIA justice. We are a sanctuary church and have physically accommodated three undocumented neighbors threatened with eviction. We have also been part of our denomination’s movement for LGBTQIA affirmation since the 1990s. Although we are clearly a “progressive” leaning church, our justice work is not simply a buffer on party leanings. particular policy. It comes from our church’s love for people. Decades ago, our community had several young student leaders who came out as gay to members of the congregation. These leaders were beloved. Their courage prompted church members and leaders to explore issues of sexuality and Christianity. The church’s deep love for these young people has led this church to join a movement that for decades has fought for the full inclusion and affirmation of our LGBTQIA members. We stand up for the people we love.
Likewise, several years ago, local immigration advocates in our community called on congregations to offer their spaces as sanctuaries for undocumented neighbors, as immigration and customs officials have a policy of do not enter places of worship to detain people. In its history, this church has had many immigrant pastors, including myself. This church immediately said “yes” to this request. Since then, we have known and loved several families through the crisis of threats of deportation. They are parents of children who are American citizens, who have lived, worked and paid taxes in our communities for many years. Our children played with their children. We prayed with them and cried with them. We felt their fear and witnessed their harassment by government entities. Our hearts have been broken. Again, we stand up for the people we love.
My experiences in this church gave shape to the famous quote from Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public. “
What is the funniest or weirdest thing that has ever happened to you in ministry (that you can share without breaking confidentiality)?
What comes to mind is the chaotic day when, as a new working mom, I struggled to get to church with my family. In our rush, our baby ended up coming out without shoes. It was good because we didn’t expect a baby to have to walk anywhere. The senior pastor was away, so I managed the worship on my own, as well as leading pre and post-service events. This meant that I didn’t have a chance to breastfeed until a break in the middle of the shift. But this break was short-lived, so I ended up breastfeeding with my baby’s bare feet sticking out from under the nursing blanket as I stood up and said the words of assurance (forgiveness and thanks) afterward. the prayer of confession!
I was incredibly embarrassed. Subsequently, women in the congregation told me that experience affirmed them! I guess it was a picture of the love and grace of God that the breastless clergy couldn’t pull off!
We are emerging from a pandemic, how has it been for you and your church?
Each of us has stories of how particularly stressful this pandemic has been. I am part of the sandwich generation and started the pandemic as a parent of a kindergarten child doing an online school and as a child of a completely isolated parent in a nursing home, while working to create a whole new way of being in church with my parishioners. All that to say is much better now.
I must mention that one of the blessings for our church has been the way our young adults have come into leadership. With our community moving online, these members – who were much more tech-savvy than our former leaders – guided us, trained us, saved Christmas with a Zoom Christmas Show, and generally found a way for the church to thrive in this science fiction future. we live !