To continue on with our series “Wisdom for the Journey” – we interviewed Carol Howard Merritt. Merritt is a well-respected pastor from within the PC(USA) who has continued to guide us in the ways of 21st century ministry. Her writing, speaking, and teaching have been invaluable to us and we were honored for her to spend some time with us answering our questions.
- What was a memorable moment in your first year of ministry?
There were so many moments. I moved to the swamps of Louisiana, and I had all KINDS of culture shock. I loved learning about Mardi Gras, and it was a wonderful experience to watch the entire culture live into the liturgical calendar. Then the scariest moment came on Easter Sunday morning. I hadn’t finished my sermon. I had thought about it, studied, and worried about it so much that I didn’t actually complete it.
Let me be clear. We were talking about 30 people, even on Easter. But I felt like the worst pastor in the world. Of course, I had it planned out, so the impromptu ending was fine. It might have even been better because I was making eye contact and not reading a manuscript. But I seriously thought I was going to crap in front of every one on Easter.
- What was some helpful advice you were once given?
I met with these wonderful, seasoned African-American pastors for a lectionary study group. Christmas was coming up and I wanted to know how to make the sermon exciting and different.
The pastors laughed and said, “Different? Why would you want to do something different? People come on that day to hear the story. For some people, it’s the only day they show up all year. And why are they there? To hear the story. Give them THE STORY.”
It was a great lesson on stories, in general. It made me relax into our great history and tradition. And it took away a lot of the pressure and stress of Christmas and Easter.
- How did you (or didn’t you) feel seminary prepared you for ministry?
I loved seminary. It was really, really good for me. I was coming from a fundamentalist Bible school, so I needed to deconstruct everything. I went to Austin Seminary, which was a loving community and the perfect space for the hard work I had to do.
That said, it seemed odd that we learned few practical skills. How to read a spreadsheet, ask for money, write a stewardship letter, get/read demographic reports, understand generational differences, build a website, do basic branding/marketing, write a press release, negotiate terms of call—the list goes on and on. Even though our denominations had been decreasing for decades, we were still being taught that if we opened the doors, people would flood in.
- When was the first time you questioned going into the ministry?
A report on women in ministry came out. It said (basically) that women and men start in the same place in terms of money and position. After ten years, though, men earned much more and stepped up in positions. I promised myself that if I were in an entry-level position, making the minimum salary after being in the pastorate for ten years, I would do something else. After ten years, I was in an entry-level position, making the minimum salary. It made me pause. I felt trapped in a really sexist, unjust occupation.
Before then, I always thought that when people left the ministry, it was the person’s problem (they weren’t committed, they weren’t tough, they couldn’t handle it). After that, I realized that maybe leaving the ministry was a healthy thing.
(So, if I was too convincing there, go read Eugene Peterson. Under the Unpredictable Plant. He makes a great case for faithful, long-term ministry.)
- What would you recommend for the continuing education of young pastors?
Of course, I’d recommend UNCO (our site is being updated, but it’s at unco.us). It’s an open-space conference I helped to start, and now it’s in its 5th year. We meet at Stony Point and SFTS. It’s not really a networking space, although we have had a ton of new churches, books and projects come out of it. It’s kind of an incubator.
It’s also an honest space. We have sessions on stuff we don’t get in regular conferences, like mental illness (our own), how to close a church, how to raise money, how to be bivocational, and how to fail. It’s a lot younger than most PC(USA) conferences. Not all the sessions are like that, of course. Overall, it’s become an open community, full of people who love and support one another. I don’t mean to sound immodest… but there’s nothing like it, really.
- What books are you currently reading?
I’m reading Yes, Please by the fabulous Amy Poehler. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which is utterly stunning. And Traction, by Gabriel Weinstein, which is a necessary evil for marketing writing stuff.
- What would you like to say to your 30-year-old self?
When I was 30, I had my daughter and was moving into a terrible call. Within months, they made it clear that they were not pleased with me. They constantly criticized me and gave me awful personnel reviews. It was nothing constructive, nothing that I could change. It was just nasty stuff about my personality. Then, my husband couldn’t find a church, so the financial situation was really difficult. I was serving in a beautiful place (geographically), but it was a disaster for us in so many other ways. I was starting to develop health issues with all the stress.
I felt super guilty about looking for another position. I felt like they had spent a bunch of money moving me there and I needed to make it work. But when I moved on, they got another pastor who is doing well. He’s been there for about ten years now. I went to a church that I adored.
So, I would tell myself that it’s okay to let go. Just because the call isn’t a good fit, doesn’t mean that I’m a bad pastor. It just means that they might need someone else.
- Any advice for pastors feeling depleted?
I don’t know. I always got this weird advice about “self care,” like get a pedicure. I know that works for people, and if it works for you, that’s great! It just seemed like a twenty-minute fix for a twenty-four hour problem.
I would say do The Artist’s Way. At first, it might feel like a ton of work and you already have too much work. But being a pastor can be an intense, creative job. But we’re not encouraged in our creativity. We’re encouraged to maintain the building, visit this person, and attend that meeting.
Working through the Artist’s Way saved me and opened up my writing discipline. It forced me to restructure my time with morning pages and artist’s dates. It made me realize how important it is for me to walk. It awakened me to my gut, soul-connection to the earth. Suddenly, I had a well of creative resources from which I could draw. And, if you’re really into pedicures, you can do them during your artist’s date.
It all sounds really cheesy when you read it, but I cannot tell you how many creative, healthy people have gone through it.
- What do you love about the church?
You know, I haven’t had the guts to write publicly about this, because it’s not very Reformed… but I like what church does to people.
We’re taught that God is central and worshiping God is the most important thing. And we’re only supposed to help people because it gives glory to God. As if loving people wasn’t a good thing in and of itself.
Don’t get me wrong. I love God. Love Jesus. But I’m really starting to believe people when they tell me that they sense God at the (fill in the blank… beach, hiking trail, protest, golf course…). People find God all over the place, and I think that’s a good thing. It goes against Barth and everything we learned about special revelation, but so be it.
I love that when we do church, we come together to become better humans. I love how we try to live into the world “as it ought to be.” I love that we try to imagine a world where the poor will be lifted up and the hungry will be filled. I love that Christians start homeless shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, and schools.
When I was in DC, I was talking to an atheist who was complaining about all the terrible things that Christianity had done. So I tried to imagine what would happen to the city if all the agencies and institutions that were started by faithful people closed down. It would be terrible. Utter chaos. Literally thousands of people would go hungry. They wouldn’t have a place to shower or relieve themselves. AA groups would close down. Abused women would be trapped. Universities and hospitals would close.
I know the church isn’t perfect, by any means. But I love that it has also been a massive force for good.
- What trends are you watching in the church?
I write a column in the Christian Century on church trends, so my ears are perked up all the time to different stuff. It’s an extraordinary time. We are closing 9 churches a day, across all denominations. In the PC(USA), we close about 9 every month. Presbyteries are beginning to pile up some massive resources. Our Presbytery has about 2 million. It’s pretty common for me to talk to Execs who tell me about their Presbyteries banking a million dollars and they’re not sure what to do with it.
New churches are more diverse and younger. They have people who aren’t in our established churches. So a lot of things are changing pretty rapidly.
In response, we’re going to need to
- change our seminary training to focus on planting new congregations,
- change our pay structure, so new church development pastors (and probably all pastors) are paid a steady, decent, equitable salary by the Presbytery,
- become a lot more diverse and aware of our systemic racism.
I think I answered the wrong question… you didn’t ask what we needed to do, but there you go!
- What question are we forgetting to ask you? And what’s your answer to it?
I’ve gone on long enough… peace and love to you all… Carol