How can professional Christians be their authentic selves when in the spotlight of public ministry? We speak with church musician and author Sarah Bereza about the challenges of being authentic, knowing how much to share, and how to avoid oversharing when in a public ministry role.
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How can professional Christians be their authentic selves when in the spotlight of public ministry? In this episode we speak with church musician and author Sarah Bereza about the challenges of being authentic, knowing how much to share, and how to avoid oversharing when in a public ministry role.
Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Jessica Anschutz, your host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks, and I serve as the assistant director of the Lewis Center for Church leadership. Joining me is Sarah Bereza, a musician with over 20 years of ministry experience, who currently serves as Director of Music at Grace United Methodist Church in St. Louis. She is the author of Professional Christian: Being Fully Yourself in the Spotlight of Public Ministry.
Thank you, Sarah, for taking time to speak with me today. As we kick off our conversation, Sarah, I know you’ll have a lot to share with us. What does it mean for church leaders to be fully themselves in the spotlight of public ministry?
Sarah Bereza: Of course there’s the book length answer, the essay answer, but the three sentence answer is: really thinking about personal values, thinking about personality and personal strengths and weaknesses, and taking those things about our individual selves and being in a professional setting where we can be the best version of ourselves, the most spiritually in-depth and energized person that we can be — and conversely not being in a place that makes us be smaller, not being in too stiff clothes in a place 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: Hmm! That is such a big question, and something that I think really depends on where we are in our ages and stages. When I was conceiving this book, I was thinking especially about people who are early on in ministry, people who are in seminary, people in their first call, and (for me on the music side of things) people who went to college to be classical musicians. They were like, “Oh. Well, I love Jesus. I can work in the church.” They had no idea what church ministry really, really entails.
If you are just starting out, you might not be able to figure out where you, yourself, with your values, with your strengths, with your weaknesses, where you should really be. 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, because you can be so caught up just in the busyness of life and the hecticness of life, doing our things, and then realizing, “Wait. I’m doing all this stuff that I’m not particularly good at. I’m doing these things that aren’t ….” or “Wait! I have to shut down those certain sides of my values because, you know, those are not welcome here. This certain part of my identity is just not allowed to be here.” That might not be apparent on Day 1 if you’re not thinking about it in the job interview process and as you’re deciding whether to take a particular position.
Jessica Anschutz: What are some things that folks should keep in mind when they are thinking about taking those positions? Are there even questions that folks should ask through the interview process so that they can begin this discernment?
Sarah Bereza: I think some of this, like if I’m thinking around values and identity as opposed to like, well, I’m particularly good at public speaking. But if we’re thinking particularly about our values, I think that especially for people who haven’t gone through seminary and are clearly aligned with a particular denomination that you have all that training that is really preparing me to work in a specific kind of place. But for many, many people working in professional religious settings, working in nonprofits, working as youth leaders and church musicians and office administrators in churches, all of those types of places where you are in a religious environment and hired to fit in that particular religious space, you aren’t necessarily trained to think about that side of your profession. You didn’t have all those conversations in seminary.
Jessica Anschutz: Right.
Sarah Bereza: I think, in terms of your values and in terms of your personality and those types of things, you really need to sit down and get out something like — what’s that classic book? — What Color is Your Parachute? Really think about, like, what are your values here? 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? Is it important for you whatever those things are because, if you’re not thinking about it, you could very easily get into a place just 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 totally fine for them because that isn’t important for them. I am not judging them. That is their choice. For many people, that would just be a terrible, terrible thing for them to work in.
Of course, it’s very different in a clergy-type setting. Someone has gone to seminary and is clergy. Because you are aligning yourself already with a denomination, in some settings you are placing yourself under the authority of a bishop who is going to tell you where to go, who is going to say, like, “Well, you are the solo pastor at this church where you can do all these things that aren’t in your skill set, but you get to do it because you’re the solo pastor. You’re the one who’s doing it. Have fun!” In those kinds of settings, we want to lean into our strengths. We want to lean into our values. But we also have to acknowledge that we didn’t have the say in everything and trust that God is leading us through the authority of the religious leader who is putting us in that workplace.
Jessica Anschutz: So, 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: I really think about the importance of our colleagues and our close friends and how extraordinarily important those close relationships are and those safe spaces are to talk through the difficult things that we’re going through, to get validation that what we’re experiencing is real and not just a feeling or personality or that we’re just not being gracious enough or Christian enough or whatever it is but to realize that there are, I would say, structural things happening where we are at odds with the setting that we are currently called to be in.
Alongside of that, I think that we can also ask for grace from the people around us. Oftentimes, not always, but oftentimes there is more room for us to be fully ourselves than we necessarily think because people can be really big. People can be really gracious and curious. Not always. I mean we were working at churches for a long time. People are often not gracious and sometimes, when we give them the opportunity, they can rise to that challenge. They can begin to understand that, oh, there are different ways to see a question.
I’m thinking of Leah Schade’s book Preaching in the Purple Zone, which is about how a pastor preaches in a congregation that is different politically from them. This is off the top of my head but case example around gun control or environmental activism: how do you preach in that kind of setting? One thing that she suggests as 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 are allowed to talk about this. 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 up to a bigger understanding of the people around us, to more of a way for them to understand who we are as people, to a better way for us to live into our calling, into our values.
Jessica Anschutz: I think that’s a really 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. I think that’s really helpful, especially 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: For me, a professional Christian is someone who is employed specifically as a Christian person and, in America, someone who is employed in a place where they can be hired and fired based on religious belief and moral action.
In not just churches but in religious nonprofits, there is a lot of space for these religious settings to hire someone [and ask]: What do you exactly believe about the Trinity? What do you exactly believe about XYZ specifically religious thing? Or what color is your skin? What’s your sexual orientation? All those things that in other settings would be illegal to ask about, they can ask you in an interview process. [Something] can 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 America. There’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 plenty of churches who are 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 that is certainly not going to appreciate it if they start posting things on Facebook that go against the values of a church, even if they don’t care if that person is a Christian.
But there’s also an aspect to this, I think, for those of us who are Christians working in the suburbs, which is most professional Christians, where our beliefs are causing us to be in this place. Our own faith leads us to this place of employment, which is very tricky because we all go through seasons of doubt. We all go through periods, you know, the dark nights of the soul, where we are not just overflowing with some sort of happy kind of faith or this very publicly effusive kind of faith and when 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?
But if we’re in a place that wants us to be this and we would like to be that too but we’re not, for me there’s a lot of ethical issues there. There are some moral issues there, and there are issues around personal authenticity. How do you get up and preach every Sunday when you’re the professional Christian who’s supposed to have some answers but, actually, you’re going through a hard time, and you can’t necessarily even share that with your congregation? That can be very morally complicated for professional Christians.
Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely. 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, across all these different demographic and socioeconomic criteria, to get a wider range of input than just me, myself, and I and my experiences working in evangelical and mainline churches. How do we have integrity when we can’t share immediately because it’s just not responsible or appropriate or fair to our families or fair to ourselves to talk about things? Sometimes ever or sometimes, you know, 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 these different leaders because of the conversations that we had around our motivations. Just because you’re not talking about something doesn’t mean you’re faking. It doesn’t mean you are pretending. Sometimes intentions can go badly, but 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 just not talk about what’s going on, or you can just say, “Oh, there are some family things going on.” Period. And, you know, 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.
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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 sort of 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, our close relationships. This came up so many times in the interviews that I did. I can’t even tell you how many people pointed out Jesus and his disciples, about Jesus going away with his disciples and having those safer places of conversation and mutual support. And this doesn’t mean necessarily getting together and just complaining about everything, although sometimes we just need to complain and need to be in a place where people can listen to that and then help us move forward after we’ve gotten that off of our hearts.
But that particular part of ministry can be really obvious. Oh, of course, we should talk with our colleagues. Of course, we should have regular times of community with people who are in similar places of us, I think that often, in the busyness of life with so many things going on, it can be really easy to ignore those [times]because that is not on our evaluating list. This isn’t like the check, check, check for our jobs. Did you have your hour phone call with so-and-so who’s not in this organization, who’s just your buddy? “Did you have lunch with a friend this week?” is not on our job’s professional list necessarily. And it can be easy, especially if you’re in a busy season, to just let it fall off your priorities, even though I think that it is way high in 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 it.
Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely. The benefit that simply taking your break to have a cup of coffee with a friend can give to us not just in that moment but in the long term …
Sarah Bereza: Oh, yeah.
Jessica Anschutz: … 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 relationship or even 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 yesterday. Yeah, I know. It’s a random Sunday in April. Go, you guys. It’s fantastic.
Jessica Anschutz: That’s awesome.
Sarah Bereza: 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 maybe explaining what’s going on in the ministry side of things, 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 to be there. But, oh, my goodness, do they put in the hours! Right? And I think many of those folks also, even though their finances are not part of the equation, they are in many ways functioning as a professional Christian because of the leadership role that they have. Those types of 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.
I think we all know this if we’ve been in churches for a while. But sometimes folks who just 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 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. Actually, they can happen just when they’re working with people.
Sarah Bereza: Oh, yeah, people in general.
Jessica Anschutz: But the reality of criticism and not meeting people’s expectations or their ideals or even their perceived ideals. How can we, as professional Christians, sort of better respond to that criticism or the failure of expectations?
Sarah Bereza: Oh, yeah. So much about that is understanding that it is about that person and not about you. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect, we never make a mistake, and we 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. And you can listen to it, and you can take it to heart and all that kind of stuff. But ultimately you have to understand what that type of criticism is about or just those types of comments. Sometimes it’s like, oh, they love it, too. I’m glad they love it. Again, that’s about them, you know, that’s their own preference.
I mean 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 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 just like it,” which is great. I’m glad they like it. And, you know, that’s one particular 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 different aspects that we can look at.
As we move toward the finish line for today, in Professional Christian you lift up three different 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: Hmm! 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 folks who … I’m thinking about one person who was a UCC pastor. She’s part of the congregation where she is, 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 very difficult thing happening as it was happening in the real time of her ministry. And what she said to me (and I’m paraphrasing this) was about how much — this was Reverend Jacqueline Lewis, Reverend Doctor Jacqueline Lewis — and she talked to me about how good this was for ministry. Not good that her mother is dying in this sad way but good in the sense that people realize 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 again and again. It’s not that the people I was talking with, the professional Christians I was talking about this with, it’s not that they were saying that, oh, well, we should just overshare and just talk off the cuff about things. But so many of them were very 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 in the midst of all these difficult things, in the midst of the trials. With everything that 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, yes, yes. So much good can come from that.
Jessica Anschutz: As we wrap up our time today, Sarah, I want to invite you just to reflect on this: What do 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.
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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.
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