Saturday, October 26, 2013

Open Secrets (Book Review)

For the last several months, the practice of rural church ministry has been an increasingly problematic challenge for me. So many dimensions to my difficulties:
The hour and one-half commute, meaning that I stay overnight in Small Church Town two-to-four nights a week.  I have noticed, as time has progressed, that I am making an effort to limit those overnights to as few as possible.
The task of making friends.  In my two years there, I have found one potential good friend among the clergy, a Methodist pastor who left after one year.  Others are cordial, and we often work well together ~ but we are not connected in that ineffable way that makes for deep friendship.
Country life.  I expected to enjoy it, but by the time one of my older members told me, only some months into my pastorate, that she and her husband were in the process of a move out from their very small community "because I'm really a country girl at heart," I had realized the opposite about myself.  I was, honestly, surprised; I grew up in a similar locale and my father, at 81, still lives down the road and across the creek from the house in which I grew up.  But the truth is that I went off to boarding school at age 12 and that, even though for many years I studied at institutions located in rural areas, the schools themselves were bustling and diverse communities.  Yes, even my Catholic boarding school, out in the middle of Ohio cornfields: South American and African girls, Baptist and Methodist and agnostic girls, and nuns with advanced degrees, hearts for the poor, and minds for social justice, opening their arms to the changes wrought by Vatican II.  And I have lived in cities ever since I arrived in Providence forty years ago.  I love backcountry hiking and canoeing, but I want to live in the city.  I really, really, really want to live in the city!
The ever-widening gap between my own willingness to consider just about anything and everything as possibility, and the inherent conservatism of central Ohio rural life: political, social, economic, and theological.  I could write a book, but someone else has taken care of that:
As I have struggled to make sense of life and ministry over the past several months, Seminary Professor Who Preached at My Ordination suggested that I read Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery by Richard Lischer.  And so I put down Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pastrix, which might have spoken  to a reality I'd prefer, but not to the one I've been living, and devoured Open Secrets in less than a day.
Every line spoke my reality.  Richard Lischer is a Lutheran pastor, now a professor at Duke Divinity School,  who arrived at his first church filled with the enthusiasm of a newly-minted Ph.D. and discovered that he had been assigned to a small, rural congregation in the Midwest.  His portraits of the geography of the town, his rendition of his conversations with his congregants, his attempts to dispense with certain traditions and his reluctant accommodation to others, his family's efforts to become part of the life of the church, and his discovery of the narrative underlying each interaction ~ every word rings with the clarity of truth lived.
The conversation "in which the pastor seeks to remove the flag from the sanctuary" and comes to grasp that the flag is not about misplaced worship, but is about the story of beloved community, is completely, if not exactly, the story of my experiences with Veterans' Day and the men for whom the memory of comrades lost constitutes the proclamation of the good news.
The recounting of the story "in which the pastor's wife hires a babysitter so that she can sit out back in a lawn chair and read and work on her dissertation" and the manner in which the church comes to accept her behavior is a very funny rendition of how pastor and congregation circle warily around one another  and finally meet in a place approximating the middle.
How much of myself I see in this book!  Insight, denseness, hopefulness, love, arrogance, determination, relinquishment, compassion, frustration, and a simultaneous sense of being in exactly the right place and completely the wrong place.  And perhaps most of all: coming to the realization, as Richard Lischer did, that I have missed a great deal, despite trying so hard to be present and appreciative.
I'm getting ready to move to a congregation in the city, or at least in an inner-ring suburb, but I am going to treasure this book as a reminder to be attentive and appreciative to what lies right before me.
(P.S. Amazon is selling the book under two slightly different titles; hence, the picture above, which differs from my Kindle version.)


  1. Beautiful review, Robin. I'm always moved by stories in which people come to realize their blind spots.

  2. Beautiful. And so honest. Robin, you are a beacon of light in the Christian community that is our country, and our gender and our world. One of the many bright, clear and authentic voices that value doubt, encourage exploration and embrace the diversity of our oneness. I just love you.

  3. I"m so thankful that you were pointed to this book by a trusted friend. When someone tells a story which resonates so deeply, the sense of being "not alone" - being understood - is a relief, isn't it? It reminds me that it is important that we write our own truth, for we never know who it may bless.

  4. I'm another "Methodist pastor who left after one year" when I was appointed to a rural church. I'm a city girl and, now retired, won't ever again try to live in the country. The people of my rural church told the district superintendent they wanted a pastor "just like Bonnie, but a man." Said it in my presence, at a meeting. What a back-handed compliment! When you mentioned this book earlier, I got it from my library (it's the one with the sub-title you show here, Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church). I've read only 51 pages, and he has now been installed as pastor of that first church.

    1. I went through several months of feeling really guilty -- what was wrong with me, that I couldn't continue to revel in the place to which God had called me? -- and then I considered the Methodist pastor down the road who does a terrific job and is by all accounts happy and productive, and realized that she would be a fish out of water in another kind of church, and no one would be saying, "Why can't she just get with the program?" So why was I berating myself for being who I am?