Bromleigh McCleneghan and Katherine Willis Pershey have a lot in common. They are both associate pastors serving United Church of Christ congregations in the suburban Chicago area. They first met at the Collegeville Institute in 2009, when they both participated in the Writing and the Pastoral Life workshop with Eugene Peterson. At that point, they were beginning to write their first books, Pershey’s Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family and McCleneghan’s Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People, co-authored with Lee Hull Moses (another Collegeville alum), which were both published in 2012.
Just as their first books explored similar territory, their new books tackle complementary topics. Pershey’s Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity (which releases tomorrow) opens the book on all things marital, and McCleneghan’s Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t The Only Option and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex, published in July, lifts the veil of shame that covers sexual relations for many religious people. Their affinities haven’t generated rivalry, but rather a lively and rich friendship – even though they don’t see eye-to-eye about everything. They agreed to share a conversation about their forthcoming books.
MCCLENEGHAN: Katherine, it’s been a crazy couple of months for us. We started our friendship in the midst of quiet and gracious hospitality at Collegeville; by chance, in August, we each had pieces in “secular” outlets — you in The Chicago Tribune, me in The Washington Post, and the response has been the opposite of quiet and hospitable. And yet it feels important to write what we are writing. In the past, we were both primarily writing for the church. When we were in Minnesota, we heard about ecclesial literature, and that’s important for us. But now with these new books, we’re trying to speak to broader audiences. Does that change your writing process at all? The questions you ask?
PERSHEY: Ecclesial literature has been such a helpful concept to me. In my first years as a minister and writer, I felt fairly confined to writing about the lectionary texts to the people in the pews. If I ventured beyond that, I was likely to limit myself to matters of ministry, writing for other clergy folks. But ecclesial literature expanded my understanding of audience and authority, by giving me “permission” to address significant issues in the public sphere. Just because we have the authority to write about issues like marriage and sex doesn’t mean it isn’t tricky, even risky. The assumptions and commitments we hold dear may well be irrelevant to many general readers, and the controversial nature of these topics means we’re likely to be subjected to vitriol and disdain (I refer, of course, to the delightful realm of internet comment sections). Overall, though, writing for a broader audience has been a wonderful project, challenging me to write with clarity, conviction, and grace. How has this played out for you?
MCCLENEGHAN: I was such an evangelist for “ecclesial literature” when I got home from that first week at Collegeville. Like you, in the church, I felt I could only write about “ministry” or for sermons, but I didn’t really want to reflect on ministry itself all the time. Writing for the church, broadly construed, was far more interesting, and that act has also helped me name the frustrations I had with academic theology, which seemed to be asking critical, life-giving questions, but in fiercely inaccessible ways. I wanted to write smart, faithful things for lay Christians: ecclesial literature.
We both serve as pastors in churches. One of the biggest shifts for me in writing for broader, not-necessarily Christian audiences has been the absolute prohibition on church-y jargon. Ultimately, though, that is a real gift for my congregational ministry as well. I’m a more vivid writer when I am pushed away from my natural reliance on our congregational vernacular.
But writing while pastoring, no matter who you’re writing for, can be tricky. With these new books, both of us have invited our parishioners into our marriages and bedrooms, or, at least, our faitfully rendered stories of them. Memoir writers and readers may appreciate that difference, but sometimes it can be tricky to be the pastor, and at the same time be both vulnerable and transparent. What strategies have you used or boundaries have you set in your writing that have proved helpful and holy?
PERSHEY: You mean other than hide out in my office with the door shut and the blinds closed? Just kidding (mostly). Vulnerability is tricky indeed – I think it was Brene Brown who coined the term “vulnerability hangover,” and I’ve had my fair share of these. What mitigates the terror of transparency for me is this: I trust that my writing serves a purpose. For instance, last year, in an essay published by the Christian Century, I wrote about being tempted to stray from my marital covenant and reflected on how my faith helped me keep my grasp on my fidelity. I immediately started receiving notes from readers thanking me for helping them make sense of their own relationships. To think that my story of fidelity might help others flee from infidelity is deeply humbling. But it makes sense to me. Of course we need the commandment not to commit adultery – but we also need the narrative, especially when our culture is inundated with stories of torrid affairs.
My other strategy, with my church members, is to “lead with my joy.” I have great anxiety about Very Married, because it feels so vulnerable. But I also have great joy. And choosing to share that joy with my congregation and invite them to celebrate with me – it’s an unparalleled protective armor. Right after my book comes out we’re having a big party in our fellowship hall, with live music and wedding cake. It communicates that I’m proud of my book, and though I may feel vulnerable, I am not ashamed.
Vulnerability is complicated when the issues at hand are also controversial. My book is a bit controversial, but yours? Well. Last I checked your reviews on Amazon were pretty evenly divided between five star and one star ratings – a sure sign that a book has ruffled feathers. It is abundantly clear that the people who gave it one star hadn’t actually read it. How do you maintain an even keel when you’re in the midst of that particular storm?
MCCLENEGHAN: I think the negative reviews are winning at the moment! I am trying to laugh about the criticism when I can, and think of all the noise within the context of the ongoing policing of women’s religious leadership and sexuality and authority… it is all very much not about me, and very little to do with the actual content of the book. Still, several strangers read an excerpt of my book and telephoned the church to admonish me, to exhort me to read the Bible, or to demand my dismissal. That felt different, unnerving. I told my beloved husband, who has been encouraging me to take all this in stride, that the phone calls felt particularly creepy. And he said, “That’s because it is creepy.” His affirmation of my experience was really helpful and important to me.
Like you, though, it’s enormously helpful to think — very specifically — about why I’m writing or sharing something. Does this story witness to the Good News I’ve experienced? Will this story, or the way I’m telling it, offer affirmation and grace to the reader, while speaking to the complexity of life? I’ve gotten numerous notes from readers who have felt ministered to by my writing, and that knowledge — that I’ve been a comfort or faithful challenge — means the world to me. We’ve both also been blessed by supportive colleagues and spouses, which I think shores up that “armor.”
This is the second book for each of us, and though the content in each is in some ways more controversial, I also feel less anxious about mine. I feel like this was the book I needed to write, the book I felt the conversation — within the church and beyond it — was missing. I trust there’s an audience, and I trust that true stories have the power to do good in the world.
Does that resonate with your experience?