Sarah Swandell currently serves as Associate Pastor at Pinehurst UMC, the church she represents as a Leadership Fellow with her lay partner, Kathryn Wells. Her humor, honesty, and wisdom shine through in her responses to these interview questions. Sarah is definitely a writer, so instead of writing about her, we thought it most fitting for Sarah to “speak” in her own words…
1. Tell me a bit about yourself and your background in the UMC.
When you grow up with not one, but two parents who are UM pastors, you’re bound to be a little crazy. I told myself I would never follow in their footsteps – I would carve out a niche for myself. Of course, God always has other plans.
I love preaching Good News and looking into the eyes of people who are thirsty for the Word. I love that those same people let me be by their hospital bed when they have tubes in their nose and they’re hugging a heart-shaped pillow.
My job means I get to have lunch with a friend, and while we eat our Caesar salad and soup, we talk together the ultimate questions: Where is God when I’m suffering?
Where is God when we decide to move Mom to the hospice house?
I can’t think of any job I’d rather have.
2. I know you have some interests and talents outside of your strict pastor role as well (creative writing, acting). Tell me about how some of those developed. Do you find that they complement your role as pastor, or are they more of an escape / hobby for relaxing when “off the clock”?
I never thought I’d be dancing on stage in fishnet stockings and a fringed miniskirt – nor that my congregation would come watch. This spring I performed in our community musical Chicago. I was floored by how many members of my church came to the Saturday night performance, then beamed about it in the handshake line the next morning.
They get it: We were created to be creators. We were created in the image of a Creator God, and we get to honor our God through painting, writing, cooking, dancing, growing flowers, playing piano…. The arts are where we touch the Artist who molded us from clay. What is it that makes you feel alive, and adds art to the world? Do that.
My senior pastor asked, “Do you think you’ll ever write full-time?” Part of me longs to say yes, but the other part knows that it’s my pastoral life that fuels my writing. Brushing up against people in all their quirky and beautiful ways…being beside people in their birth and marriage and death…listening to the dozens of dialects present in any gathered body…. All these gifts fuel my writing. All my working hours feed into my creative hours, back and forth and back again.
3. What is the community like that surrounds your church? How would you describe your church’s strengths and weaknesses in meeting the needs of the surrounding community?
I’d never seen so many American flags until I moved to Pinehurst – on military holidays, they line our main streets and flood the traffic circle. We’re so close to Fort Bragg, we often hear the thunder of artillery as troops practice and drill on base. Active Special Forces soldiers sit in our pews; retired generals and CIA agents make this their home.
I love that PUMC is uniquely poised to meet on-the-go military families (and their broods of kids) and become their anchor. Our moms’ Bible study supports women whose husbands are deployed for nine months here, 13 months there. Our mission groups give retired officers a way to keep serving long after their official orders are done. Even our kids color pictures and write cards to send to our church members overseas.
What I value so much about this place is that the newsworthy buzzwords – military, veterans, troops, war – are given real faces, real hearts. This church has taught me that no group of people can be judged outright. Whatever stereotypes and generalizations I might have had about the military got shattered when I came to serve here. And, once I got here…I met and married a combat veteran. Who knew!
4. During Fellows thus far, what unanticipated discoveries have you made about yourself, your congregation, and/or your community?
Well, when they had us take the Emotional Intelligence assessment, I learned I score low on the Optimism scale, which – fittingly – really bums me out.
The gift of the Fellows program is that it opens your eyes to all the things you currently overlook – about yourself, about how to lead a team, about relational dynamics…. Your new awareness gives you a new groundedness: you can lead more effectively because you know yourself more fully.
Now I have all these new tools to use in my congregation, in staff meetings, or even with my family! Tools like the Drama Triangle, the A-E method, emotional bids, the forming/storming/norming/performing stages of a team, the S.T.A.R. feedback model, the four horsemen of a relationship apocalypse…. Do these terms sound foreign to you? I guess you’ll have to sign up for the program to find out more!
5. What has been the most rewarding part of being in the Fellows program? The most challenging?
Once, during a breakout session, we got to lift up whatever situation was weighing us down, and get the group’s advice on what to do next. I brought up a thorny situation involving boundaries. Not only did the group give me solid advice, but just knowing they were praying for me through it helped me initiate the tough conversation I knew I needed to have. It was awesome to come back to the Fellows gathering the next month and report on how the conversation went. These colleagues not only gave me tools and the right wording…they gave me courage. That has been the most rewarding part of being in the Fellows program.
The most challenging part of the program is when we get excited by whatever new self-discovery we’ve made – our learning style, our personality type, our work method, etc. – and then start to see everything through that lens. It’s helpful, of course, but the danger comes when we start pigeon-holing ourselves or our colleagues. I enjoy the challenge of continuing to see nuance in the midst of newfound clarity. It’s a balancing act we’ll need for the rest of our lives!
6. Has your church undertaken any initiatives as a result of your work in the Fellows program? Or are there things you are working toward undertaking?
In one session, we entered a room, where hundreds of cards were spread on tabletops. The cards had all different images: a spiderweb dripping with dew, a metal gear turning, a surfer on the curl of a wave, the red tile of roofs in a clustered neighborhood…. Our task was to select two images: one to represent the leader we think we are today, and one of the leader we want to become.
In the silence of the room, we gathered around the tables and studied each image. There was no rushing and no proving. We simply listened, to ourselves, and to the quiet nudge from the Spirit of God.
For the leader I want to become, I chose this image: a pair of hands, held together, the fingers bent and colored with age. I want to become like the hospice chaplain who gently holds the hand of someone who’s drifting away. I want to be quiet and steady.
This sacred image would never have come to me without the guidance of the Fellows program. When, in our day-to-day, do we stop to ponder these big life questions? When do we slow down enough to consider who we are and who we will be? I hope to use this tool in all our church’s committees and teams, to invite the whole community to think through the leader they are today, and who they want to become.
7. How would you describe the Fellows program to someone from another church as a way of helping them to discern whether the program would be a good fit for them?
If you want to be complacent, this program isn’t for you. If you want to keep doing “business as usual,” this program isn’t for you. If your ideal definition of the Body of Christ is you, your dog, and your armchair, then have fun with that.
But if you believe God could take your church to new heights and open up a vibrant, colorful new future for your community, then this is your program. If you want to stretch yourself, know yourself, and grow yourself, then go ahead and sign up.
If you are interested in learning more about the Leadership Fellows program, check out our webpage or reach out to us directly (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’d be happy to answer any questions or put you in touch with one of our many fabulous Fellows or Fellow alums.