How can professional Christians be their authentic selves when in the spotlight of public ministry? Jessica Anschutz speaks with Sarah Bereza, church musician and author, about the challenges of being authentic, knowing how much to share, and how to avoid oversharing when in a public ministry role.
Jessica Anschutz: Sarah, what does it mean for church leaders to be fully themselves in the spotlight of public ministry?
Sarah Bereza: The short answer is: Taking into consideration our personal values, personality, personal strengths and weaknesses, and being in a professional setting where we can be the most spiritually in-depth and energized person that we can be. Conversely this means not being in a place that makes us feel smaller or that makes us less vibrant than we could be otherwise.
Jessica Anschutz: In thinking about those things that can make us less vibrant, what are some of the obstacles or challenges that professional Christians face? And how can we overcome them?
Sarah Bereza: That is a big question, and it really depends on where we are in our ages and stages of life. When I was conceiving this book, I was mindful of people who are early in ministry: seminarians, people in their first call, and college educated classical musicians — people who think “Well, I love Jesus. I can work in the church,” but have no idea what church ministry really entails.
If you are just starting out, you might not be able to figure out what places of employment are a good fit with your values, strengths, and weaknesses. If you end up in a place where you are not able to be yourself, it can sometimes take a while to become apparent. Depending on your personality, you can get caught up in the busyness and the hecticness of life before you realize, “Wait. I’m not particularly good at all the stuff I’m doing. Oh. Wait! I must shut down aspects of my values because they are not welcome here. Or this certain part of my identity is not accepted here.” That might not be apparent on Day 1 if you’re not thinking about during the job interview process or as you’re deciding whether to take a particular position.
Jessica Anschutz: What should folks keep in mind when they are thinking about taking those positions? Are there questions that folks should ask through the interview process so that they can begin this discernment?
Sarah Bereza: Seminary prepares people to work in a specific kind of place and many seminary graduates are committed to denominations. But people working in professional religious settings, nonprofits, and those serving in churches as youth leaders, church musicians, and office administrators are not trained to think about how their values align with those of a particular religious space, tradition, or denomination.
In terms of your values, your personality, and those types of things, you really need to sit down and read something like the classic book What Color is Your Parachute? Then consider: What are your values? Is it important for you to work in a place with XYZ progressive values? Is it important for you to work in a place that affirms the Nicene Creed? If you’re not thinking about how your values align, you could very easily get into a place that is not a good fit for you because you never even thought to ask. I know plenty of people whose personal identities don’t align with the churches where they work, and it is fine for them because that isn’t important to them. I am not judging them. That is their choice. For many people, that would be a terrible environment for them to work in.
It’s different for clergy who have graduated from seminary and are ordained in a particular denomination. In some settings clergy are under the authority of a bishop who tells them where to go, who say things like, “Well, you are the solo pastor at this church where you can do all these things that aren’t in your skill set. Because you’re the solo pastor, you’re the one who’s doing it. Have fun!” In those settings, we want to lean into our strengths and values. We should acknowledge that we didn’t have a say in everything and trust that God is leading us through the authority of the religious leader who puts us in that workplace.
Jessica Anschutz: Keeping that in mind that sometimes we end up in situations or positions that are on some level beyond our control and sometimes we’re surprised when we come into situations, what should church leaders keep in mind as they strive to be themselves? What factors are important? How should they begin to discern how much of themselves to share or not share in a particular setting?
Sarah Bereza: Our colleagues, our close friends, and our close relationships are extraordinarily important as they provide safe spaces to talk through the difficult things that we’re going through, to get validation that what we’re experiencing is real and not only a feeling or personality or that we’re not being gracious enough or Christian enough or whatever it is. Such conversations can help us realize that there are structural things happening where we are at odds with the ministry setting. We can also ask for grace from the people around us. Oftentimes there is more room for us to be fully ourselves than we necessarily think because people can be gracious and curious. People are not always gracious but sometimes, if we give them the opportunity, they can rise to that challenge. They can begin to understand that there are diverse ways to see things.
Leah Schade’s book Preaching in the Purple Zone is about how pastors preach in a congregation that is different politically from them. Consider an example about gun control or environmental activism: how do you preach in that kind of setting? Schade suggests that a starting place is to say we’re allowed to have this conversation. If we’re going to talk about climate change, we’re going to start by talking about how God created the world. We’re allowed to talk about this respectfully, with care for each other, without a moral judgment or starting out with a moral judgment. (“What! You don’t agree with me? You’re a bad person.”) When we start in that kind of place, we cannot always but often open to a bigger understanding of the people around us, to a way for them to understand who we are as people, to a better way for us to live into our calling and our values.
Jessica Anschutz: That’s a great point: to think about how these challenging conversations or challenging topics may be related to who we are and who God is calling us to be, to root those conversations in scripture and the tradition of the Church as a starting place. That’s helpful when reflecting on difficult topics.
Your book is Professional Christian: Being Fully Yourself in the Spotlight of Public Ministry. If folks haven’t read it, I certainly encourage them to do so. What does it mean for you to think of yourself as a professional Christian?
Sarah Bereza: A professional Christian is someone employed specifically as a Christian person and, in the United States, someone who is employed in a place where they can be hired and fired based on religious belief and moral action. This includes churches and religious nonprofits. Religious organizations when hiring can ask: What do you believe about the Trinity? What do you believe about XYZ specifically religious thing? Or what color is your skin? What’s your sexual orientation? All those things are illegal to ask about in other settings but are permissible in an interview process in a religious organization. This may not come up in the interview process, but it could come up three years later. You could get a new priest at the parish who doesn’t like you and be fired tomorrow, and that is totally 100 percent legal in the United States. It’s that kind of legal employment where your finances are tied to your faith or at least how your church or your organization understands your faith.
There are churches willing to hire a musician or an office administrator who’s not themselves religious. I’m not criticizing that, but that person is still under a certain type of organizational structure that is not going to like it if they have an affair or if they start posting things on Facebook that contradict the values of a church, even if they don’t care if that person is a Christian.
For those of us who are Christians working in the suburbs, which is most professional Christians, our beliefs led us to work in a particular context. Our faith leads us to this place of employment, which is very tricky because we all go through seasons of doubt. We all go through the dark nights of the soul when we are not overflowing with some sort of happy kind of faith or a publicly effusive kind of faith where we’re in a setting that calls us to perform our faith, that wants us to be a role model, that wants us to be all these things we would love for all Christians to be all the time. (This is me being slightly sarcastic.) Of course, we are not like this all the time. Right?
If we’re in a place that wants us to be this and we would like to be but we’re not, then there are a lot of ethical issues. There are some moral issues and issues around personal authenticity. How do you get up and preach every Sunday when you’re the professional Christian who’s supposed to have answers but you’re going through a hard time that you can’t share that with your congregation? That can be very morally complicated for professional Christians.
Jessica Anschutz: Trying to discern how to share, what to share, when to share is absolutely a challenge when you find yourself in the spotlight of public ministry. What words of wisdom do you have for church leaders to make those decisions about what to share publicly and what to keep private?
Sarah Bereza: When I was working on this book, I interviewed 50 different church leaders across denominations and across different demographic and socioeconomic criteria to get a wider range of input than my experiences working in evangelical and mainline churches. How do we have integrity when we can’t share immediately because it’s not responsible or appropriate or fair to our families or fair to ourselves to talk about things? Sometimes we can’t talk about something for the next six months and then we can start talking about it.
I found a lot of solace in conversation with different leaders because of the conversations we had around our motivations. Just because you’re not talking about something doesn’t mean you’re faking or pretending. Sometimes intentions can go badly. So much of this is around motivation: what are you trying to do? If you’re trying to respect your family’s privacy, you don’t have to lie about what’s going on. You don’t have to make up stories. But you can also not talk about what’s going on or you can say, “Oh, there are some family things going on.” Period. Even if people don’t respect that, you could still have that firm boundary, whether or not people like that boundary. You can make that boundary for yourself. That is an ethical, moral, good thing to do. It’s not putting on a fake plastic smile and pretending things are okay, but it’s also not letting people into business that isn’t necessarily for public sharing.
Jessica Anschutz: In the book, when you’re talking about striving to be authentic, you talk about two pitfalls, the pitfalls of oversharing and isolation, which are on two extremes. How can church leaders avoid these pitfalls and seek balance?
Sarah Bereza: That goes back to our colleagues and to our close friends and relationships. I can’t even tell you how many people pointed out Jesus and his disciples in the interviews that I did. They talked about Jesus going away with his disciples and having safe places of conversation and mutual support. This doesn’t mean getting together and complaining about everything, although sometimes we need to complain when people can listen and then help us move forward after we’ve shared what is on our hearts.
This aspect of ministry can be obvious. Of course, we should talk with our colleagues. Of course, we should have regular times of community with people who are in places similar to us. In the busyness of life with many things going on, it can be easy to ignore opportunities to talk with our colleagues because it is not on our checklist. Did you have your hour phone call with so-and-so who’s not in this organization and who’s your buddy or did you have lunch with a friend this week is not on our job’s professional list necessarily. If you’re in a busy season, it can be easy to let it fall off your priorities, even though I think it should be a high priority, way more than email. We need to invest in those relationships, even when we’re busy, even when we think we don’t have the time for them.
Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely. The benefit that simply taking your break to have a cup of coffee with a friend can give to us, not only in that moment but in the long term, is huge. I want to shift a little bit. We’ve been talking about the folks who are in those professional Christian positions — paid positions, staff positions — and I want to look a little bit at the folks that we’re serving and their reactions to us and they’re reception of us. For those who are in positions to hire professional Christians, what can they do to look at their environments to make sure they’re providing a nurturing and supportive and positive relationships and environment for the folks that they are hiring?
Sarah Bereza: I’m on the more traditional side of things. I love the choir. We had 27 people at choir on a random Sunday in April. It’s fantastic. It sounded great, and those are people who did not necessarily understand what it means to be a professional Christian. Why would they? They’re not thinking about this, so in terms of hiring and thinking about how those types of folks can make for a nurturing environment, teaching is maybe too strong of word but explaining what’s going on in the ministry leader side of things and sometimes making a comparison to lay leaders who are not paid in their roles because in many churches a huge amount of the work happens because of lay leaders who are not paid. But, oh, my goodness, do they put in the hours! Right? And I think many of those folks, even though their finances are not part of the equation, are also in many ways functioning as a professional Christian because of the leadership role they have. Those folks will often understand what’s happening, like the structure of what’s going on for a professional Christian, because they have enough experience with working with volunteers to realize how tricky some things can be.
Sometimes folks who volunteer a little have no idea what it’s like to work with volunteers for 20 hours a week, 30 hours a week. And I say this was with so much love. I love working with volunteers. And, oh, it can be so tricky to work with all the personalities and all the preferences. Everybody wants something that’s slightly different, and of course you could not please them all.
Jessica Anschutz: You alluded to some of the challenges that folks face in working with volunteers. Those can happen when they’re working with people.
Sarah Bereza: Yes, people in general.
Jessica Anschutz: But the reality of criticism and not meeting people’s expectations or ideals or even their perceived ideals — how can we as professional Christians better respond to that criticism or the failure of expectations?
Sarah Bereza: So much about it is understanding that it is about that person and not about you. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect, never make a mistake, and never need input to make something better. Obviously, we’re people, too. We make mistakes, too. We are fallible, and the types of commentary that we sometimes get from volunteers can be 100 percent not helpful. It’s not constructive criticism, and it’s coming from their own brokenness, from their own preferences, their own lack of understanding about what’s going on. And that is about them. To me, that is by far the most important thing to understand: it’s about them and it’s not about you. You can listen to it and take it to heart and all that kind of stuff. You must understand that type of criticism and those types of comments are about them.
Sometimes they love something, too, and I’m glad they love it. Again, that’s about them and that’s their own preference. I deal with this all the time in the music world because, for 99 percent of people commenting on something, it is a hundred percent about their preference. They’re not thinking about the whole structure of your worship service, which is what I’m thinking about. I’m not thinking, “Is this my favorite song?” But for so many of the folks, it’s “I like it,” which is great. I’m glad they like it. And that’s one type of criteria.
Jessica Anschutz: Right, and perhaps why do you like it? Or how does it speak to you? Or how does it push you to grow in your faith? There are so many that we can look at.
In Professional Christian you name three distinct kinds of valleys: difficult circumstances, our imperfect selves, and seasons of transitions. And you highlight that it might be important for church leaders to be more transparent about those valleys. Why is that the case? And how might we do that?
Sarah Bereza: That is such a good question. When I was interviewing folks, I learned so much from folks who are at a different stage of life than I am, particularly from people who are significantly older than I am. I’m in my mid-to-late 30s. And I talked to a UCC pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lewis, and she told me about how she walked through the illness of her mother and then eventually the death of her mother alongside of her congregation and how her congregation was aware of this exceedingly difficult thing as it was happening in the real time of her ministry. She talked to me about how good this was for ministry — not good that her mother was dying in this sad way but good in the sense that people realized that: Oh, well, you’re like me. You also are walking through the Lonesome Valley. You are also going through something difficult.
This came up repeatedly. It’s not that the professional Christians I was talking with were saying that we should overshare and talk off the cuff about things. But so many of them were extremely comfortable talking about difficult things, especially after the fact, when things were a little bit less raw.
That’s a wonderful thing: for people to be able to see our humanity and to see that we are following God amid all these difficult things, during the trials. With everything bad that’s happened to us in the past, we’re following God. We want people to see this, and we can share those kinds of difficult things in ways that are appropriate, that are respectful to our families and our family’s privacy, to our own privacy. We can find ways to share the difficult things.
Jessica Anschutz: And a lot of fruit can be born through the sharing of those difficult things.
Sarah Bereza: Yes, so much good can come from that.
Jessica Anschutz: As we wrap up our time today, Sarah, I want to invite you to reflect on this: what you want professional Christians to hear from you as they continue in their ministries in the spotlight of public ministry.
Sarah Bereza: Oh, the biggest thing: Wow! You are amazing. Whoever you are, God made you so big! God made you bigger than you can imagine, so many wonderful things that you haven’t even discovered yet because you’re going to grow and grow as a person. Who you are in 10 years will be even more than you are now, will be different from who you are now. When you are in a professional place where you can live into that growth, where you can live into that possibility of who God made you to be along with everyone else, wow! It is an amazing thing. It is a wonderful thing to be able to follow God in that bigness and in that growth.
Jessica Anschutz: I love it. Thank you so much, Sarah.
Sarah Bereza: Thank you, Jessica. It’s been so good to be here.
Professional Christian: Being Fully Yourself in the Spotlight of Public Ministry (Westminster John Knox Press, 2022) by Sarah Bereza. This book is available at Westminster John Knox Press, Cokesbury, and Amazon.