Have you ever looked out your car window at a passing bridge, one of those old, rickety metal bridges that seem to expand endlessly into the distance? No longer in use, the framework stands in a misty haze above a water passageway, suggesting a once celebrated connection between one place to another, but now merely standing vacant, dormant.
Are there places in your life that reflect the forgotten life of such a bridge? Those connections between people and places that were once alive and meaningful, but today waver on non-existence or avoidance? Are there chapters of your life that you attempt to annex to a distanct place, never to reach again, because of the feelings of anger or resentment that they bring up? Are there relationships in your life where unresolved conflict prevents you from engaging in a life-giving way?
Our lives are full of dead bridges, those parts of our life that we attempt to restrict or sever, to claim as “un-navigable” and “closed due to construction.” However, those dead bridges don’t merely disappear - they continue to exist as a heavy and often morose reminder of something lost. Moreover, those dead brides that go along unattended become rusty and damaged, by wind and ice, the metal creaking and withering. These once powerful, though imperfect, expressions of human connection and potential become a structural hazard.
By recognizing the areas and relationships in our life that are inconsistent with our values and ethic of living, we are able to find more stable ground as we become increasingly conscious and self-aware. It is at this point that we can ask ourselves which bridges have the capacity for mending while at the same time addressing the root of their decay.
But how does one navigate this precarious space between cautious engagement and fervent non-engagement ?
My spiritual director has consistently reminded me that self-differentiation does not necessarily mean separation. Although, in some cases, that is the safest and most responsible choice. But in other cases, creating space between self and others can be done in a way that maintains our autonomy, our "bottom line" for meaningful and healthy relationship, while still opening ourselves up to functional interaction. Some call it boundaries, I've landed on "lived distance," and within that liminal space is the possibility, though at times faint, of genuine relationship.
But, as women, it is important to remember that we are often expected to relinquish our boundaries for the benefit of others and detriment to ourselves. Social conditioning of the people-pleasing, self-sacrificial female runs deep, even within progressive family systems and societal structures. As we assess our own boundaries and capacity for relationship with others, it's important that we also remain vigilant of the narratives we've absorbed throughout our life as it relates to setting and maintaining our own protective hedging.
Whatever dead bridges remain in your life, they can often be a looming and debilitating presence. And while some need to be acknowledged for the wreckage they are and discarded in order to keep you safe, others call out to us reminding us of the many facets of our lives together. It is these bridges, those with the potential for renovation, that are sacred and deserving of our attention.
Might these bridges be carefully assessed for elements of structural integrity. And if you consider them strong enough, resilient enough to bear the weight of our humanity, might they be gradually reclaimed, not in the same form or for the same purpose, but re-purposed like an industrial bridge meant for speeding trains turned into a slow-paced walking bridge, overlooking a river that is always flowing, always changing.
I grew up studying ballet in an old abandoned barn on the grounds of the former Mill Hill Brothers’ monastery in upstate New York. The barn was nestled against a mass of ancient pine trees, which kept the studio in a perpetual state of Christmas.
My favorite time to enter the dance studio was Saturday morning in mid-winter. My body would be swaddled within layers of fresh cotton tights and tattered knit leggings. The floor board heaters slowly cranked back to life with a metallic gust of hot air as other dancers arrived to de-thaw. We’d stretch our bodies out along the smooth marley floor, flaring our limbs like the tendrils of some aquatic creature, while others remained cocooned in a sleepy fog. The fumes of lemon-scented floor cleaner hovered around us, gently mixing with the cool earthy air of our beloved barn turned ballet studio.
On the opposite end of the year, when the heat of the afternoon made the sweaty leather soles of our dance shoes stick to the marley, my mind would drift as I tracked the ladybugs clustered in the window sills, counting down the minutes until our tired bodies could escape behind the barn to pick wild raspberries on our lunch break.
There was something magical about that rustic space with its scent of damp oak and knotty wood ceiling beams hovering overhead. What was once a storehouse for bales of hay and resting workhorses had become home to another kind of physical labor. The warn leather reigns and horseshoes were now replaced with satin ribbons and pink canvas slippers. Small framed pictures of Russian ballet dancers hung unevenly wherever an old nail was found. I imagined heavy saddle bags draped over the metal hooks where a double ballet barre was now securely bolted at elbow height. Two rows of wooden dowels spread across the walls of the studio, beckoning our slumped bodies off the icy floor and into first position - hips open and toes pointed out, like racehorses primed at the gate.
A few oddly placed pews could be found around the studio and dressing room, having been salvaged from the adjacent chapel, once a small house of prayer for the faithful farmers who worked and lived on the land. The chapel itself would later become a second ballet studio, raised up on cinder-block stilts yet still maintaining its pitched roof and arched windows.
Not unlike a church pew, the barre contains you, molds you, and restricts you - nailed to the wall, always waiting for you to return after you’ve lost your balance. As each ballet class began, I would find myself grasping the smooth wooden surface, knuckles turned white as my palms absorbed hints of varnish. As my shoulders reached alignment over my torso and pelvis, my body locating its inner compass, I slowly released my greasy palms from their stubborn grip. Aware that I would soon return to a state of utter dependence, I reveled in those early moments of freedom, my neck lengthening as my arms prepared for our first por de bras. As I inhaled deeply from the base of my stomach, my nostrils soaked up the chilled morning air, cherishing that glorious moment between stillness and movement, form and freedom.
At the end of each dance class there is a time of closure called révérence or reverence, in which the dancers offer several simple movements in unison: a bow of the shoulders and torso, an open arm, a lift and nod of the head, a unified gesture of gratitude. It is an opportunity to re-calibrate our breathing and return our bodies to a calm resting state, following the intense physical exertion of the class. It is a process of integrating what our bodies have undergone and allowing the work to seep deeply into our core. It is also a profoundly spiritual moment, an act of reverence toward the gift of movement, the gift of expression, the gift of community.
Derived from the Latin revereri and its root ver, to see or take notice, reverence means to stand in awe and consider with great intention or devotion. It is this quality of reverence that has continually drawn me to the practice of ritual. From the comfort of the repetitive movements of my childhood dance education to the mystery of lighting beeswax candlesticks along the wintry streets of Romania, ritual has become a life-long practice not just for me personally but a central part of my work with others.
Perhaps my early career aspirations of becoming an obstetrician or an architect were glimpses of the kind of bridge-building work that has defined my life for the past two decades - a kind of spiritual midwifery that involves journeying with others through important life experiences, both in grief and celebration. I’ve done this work in a variety of spaces, offering restorative dance therapy for survivors of sexual abuse in central Peru, counseling homeless women as they reclaim their voice and agency, and serving as an ordained Protestant clergy for ten years, where I developed meaningful ritual practices for all walks of life, both religious and non-religious.
I’m not surprised that I became a Presbyterian minister, even if I have now outgrown its organizational and theological structures. It's unapologetic intellectualism and progressive social activism convinced me that it was more than just my grandmother’s church. My grandmother’s non-practicing German Lutheran mother and Irish Catholic father divvied up their children’s religious upbringing, with my grandmother and her sisters going to the local Presbyterian church with a neighbor and their brother adopting their father’s Catholic faith. This haphazard religious lineage is a reminder that our spiritual paths are just as much influenced by our familial and socio-cultural surroundings as they are by our own existential questions and curiosities.
My religious path was never one of piety and doctrine, but an ongoing attraction to communal ritual, contemplative spirituality, relational practice, and transcendent living in a busy and complex world. When I entered the ministry, it wasn’t for the pastoral role, the robe or even strong religious leanings. Instead, I saw it as a possible if not well-structured path that would help me foster a deeper path of reverence, a more defined container for my own sense of awe, rooted in those childhood experiences of creative movement and awareness of the holy.
When I was in my mid-20’s I decided it was time to come to terms with my discomfort with the word "religion," feeling perhaps that my own spiritual path would at some point overlap with my loosely-Presbyterian upbringing. I was in the midst of a soul quest that involved several solo wanderings around the hidden corners of Europe, thanks to a steady paycheck as a policy analyst with the New York State Senate. In between policy briefings and late-night budget negotiations, I would creep away to the legislative library or light a candle in the darkened cloisters of a nearby old Episcopal church, collecting meaningful moments like wildflowers in an unattended field.
During this time, I sat down with the pastor of my home church who demystified the word religion by stating it simply means “to bind back.” The words continued to roll around in my head as I read tattered books on Thomas Merton and the desert mystics from his theological library, and fifty-cent hardcover books on Jungian psychological from the dusty shelves of my favorite used book store. This period of exploration eventually led to a year of volunteer work in Peru, journeying with survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence, followed by similar work at women’s homeless shelter in my hometown of Schenectady, NY, and later to Louisville Seminary where I continued to explore the expansiveness of reverence amid the confines of religion.
I don’t regret being a pastor. This vocation offered me some of the most breathtakingly beautiful moments of connection with others and our common pursuit of wholeness and holiness. In fact, it is my love and gratitude toward the work itself that made it so heartbreaking when I decided it was time to leave. But in reflecting upon my ten years in pastoral leadership, the work was never my entirety. I never looked to the church or my role as a pastor to validate my own identity or sense of purpose. There has always been a deeper sense of knowing.
While my own journey beyond the Christian religion and the confines of Protestant church culture has indeed involved moments of tearful grief and disappointment, I always knew that the notion of “church” did not define my own deeply-felt spirituality. Thankfully, this conscious desire to dissociate my spiritual identity from the religious institution has enabled my departure to feel more edifying, as I gaze upon this period as a chapter along a continually evolving landscape.
I am exceedingly grateful for the new path that has emerged and the travelers upon it, as I return to the roots of reverence, a path grounded in embodied spirituality and meaningful living.
If you'd like to join me on a similar path of depth and discovery, click below for more details on my coaching practice and pathways for ritual.
I went to a therapist for the first time when I was twenty-four, in a concerted effort to re-orient myself after ending my first significant relationship. Of course, this surface topic was the tip of the iceberg, covering other family-of-origin issues, uncertainties about life purpose as I began my early career in politics, assessing new and old friendships, and the complex identity formation of young adulthood. Greg was a good first therapist. But he was definitely not my last.
Deep self-reflection wasn’t something that was encouraged in my upbringing. There was both chronic suppression of emotions as well as ever-present conflict, which created a constant feeling of anxiety as I became more observant of the constellation of relationships around me. So, without really knowing its therapeutic purpose, I became a voracious journaler at age five. A heavy plastic crate contains it all, roughly one journal per year, making it the heaviest box in my basement storage. I rarely revisit old journals, but I know they will serve a purpose someday, if only as a healthy reference point when my daughters become teenagers or when my memory begins to fade in old age.
So when I sat in Greg’s office for that first therapy visit, it didn’t seem strange or uncomfortable to externally process my emotions, since I’d been writing them down for nearly two decades. What was awkward, though, was the feeling that he somehow had all the answers, with his framed credentials on the wall, and the set of hand-held water games in the window sill, as if mindlessly pressing the buttons would draw neat and tidy solutions to the surface.
This kind of western, male-centered psycho-analysis was not my cup-of tea, because even in my early twenties, I knew that there was a deeper wisdom, both within myself and part of a larger spiritual dimension, that I longed to connect to. Not some condescending presence, who arrogantly kicked up his legs on top of his desk during my last visit, as we discussed brands of hiking boots as I prepared to leave for a year in Peru, as if to say, "Yep, we're done here."
My next form of one-on-one therapy came a few years later in the form of spiritual direction. I didn’t understand what it meant, other than it wasn’t covered by health insurance. My pastor at the time recommended her to me as he himself had begun seeing a spiritual director, a common practice within Catholicism but only just emerging within the highly cognitive “thinking” tradition of Presbyterianism, which had become my default religion.
I’m not in the practice of defending Catholicism with its endless abuses, but spiritual direction seemed intriguing. Not to be confused with the elusive and often harmful confessional booth, spiritual direction is an informal conversation that removes the power from the practitioner and places it in an in-between space, a third chair.
I began meeting with a friendly middle-aged woman in the comfort of her living room, paying in the form of apple and pumpkin pies as we entered autumn. We didn’t talk about Jesus, because my spirituality has never been about Jesus - maybe that’s why it’s been so easy to walk away from ordained ministry. Instead, Sandra introduced me to family systems theory and the idea of the third chair, both of which have unequivocally strengthened my ability to navigate life.
So, the third chair. For some people it’s God, for others, a higher consciousness - which are basically the same thing in my book. What I like about the third chair is it takes the emphasis away from the omniscient therapist and breaks down much of the power differentials evident in traditional western therapy. The invisible chair, however, is not indicative of anything pretend. It’s not some imaginary friend. A Christian perspective might call it the “inner Christ,” but I, myself, am no longer interested in claiming that voice as anything other than our own still voice of embodied knowing.
I think it’s especially important for women to claim that voice as ours. It’s not some external deity placing sacred wisdom within us, to make our emotional realities more manageable, more rational, more male. The embodied nature of the divine, within us, is a distinctly female perspective of spirituality, which has been snuffed out by the disembodied agenda of male-centered western religion. Therefore, in my understanding of the third chair of spiritual direction, it is your own voice, released from ingrained messages of imposed person-hood parsed out through history, family and society. It is our true, authentic, self-as-whole, voice.
I’ve had five different spiritual directors, each meeting me within a distinct chapter in my life - one before seminary, one during, two during my first solo pastorate, and my current spiritual advisor who I've been journeying with for six years. All women. All roughly my mother’s age, which has been helpful at times, and at other times, not. In each case, though, I felt somewhat restrained. Perhaps it was my own perceptions of the spiritual direction experience as needing to be, well, spiritual, thereby compelling me to speak in hushed tones, and rather apologetically, now that I really think about it.
Did I feel the need to imbue the meetings with more prayerfulness, thinking that would somehow make my concerns more holy? Would I be more able to weather every-day human stressors and deeper questions of purpose by simply taking long, controlled, audible breaths? That’s not why I sought out spiritual direction, but I somehow adopted these practices of restricting my own voice when it was that very voice I was seeking to find.
One of my spiritual directors based her work in Jungian psychology, which sold me in an instant. We met for a year during my first pastorate, and I can’t remember anything of substance from our conversations, except a feeling. The feeling that that third chair was finally starting to get to speak. She didn’t force awkward stretches of long silence, as I had previously sat through with my eyes twitching open and counting backwards as if I was getting blood drawn. She also didn’t talk in a hushed voice herself, which was liberating, as I was quite literally done with whispering.
I’ve now seen the same therapist/spiritual director for six years, although I’ve known her for almost twice as long. Carol supervised my psychological evaluation in preparation for seminary, because unlike parishioners, pastors need to undergo intense screening to make sure they aren’t damaging to themselves or others by going into the ministry. My second pastorate was within driving distance from her new counseling practice and I immediately set up a reunion, knowing she had done her doctoral work in clergy burnout, something I was very mindful of in my own pastoral leadership.
Carol vacillates between the third chair philosophy of spiritual direction and the action-based approach of traditional western therapy. She also brings an deeply embodied element, drawn from her mother’s Native American heritage, as well as a healthy dose of religious skepticism after being a clergy spouse. I don’t have to whisper. We don’t give up precious time to forced silence (although silence is embraced when it happens naturally). I don’t attempt to sit still, prayerfully with my hands folded on my lap. In fact, I tend to fidget around on the couch, rearranging pillows, regularly shifting my position, and moving my arms around like some choreographed dance. I’ve learned to no longer resist it. Something clearly needs to get out of me, and it’s not always words, but movement.
My own approach to women’s leadership and life development is based on what I’ve liked and disliked about psycho-therapy and spiritual direction over the past two decades. At its roots, my approach is the third chair. I do not have the answers. You do. I don’t know your life experience. You do. I don't have a secret tool set with which to equip you as you undergo the transitions that will take you through the next threshold of your life. You do.
I’m not interested in presenting a pathology or set diagnosis of what you’re going through. Instead I am here empower you to critically examine the many layers of your life, as you begin to lay out a mental map of your own unique narrative. I am here more as a guide, to enable you to access the inner truth of your own life story, recover your higher calling and purpose, and listen to your deepest authentic self.
My approach to leadership and life coaching is unapologetically women-centered. I like men. And most feminists do because we agree that gender expectations are harmful for everyone. But my work is with and for women. From a very early age, I felt a deep desire to develop loving and loyal relationships with women, which I know is based on my very close relationship with my mother during the formative years of my life. My life-long friendships are a testament to that women’s-centered approach to life. (You know who you are!)
And it has always been women that I have advocated for, from my early years of reproductive rights activism (which is needed now more than ever), to studying with female curanderas in southern Mexico, offering dance therapy with survivors of sexual abuse in Peru, singing together with my guitar in various apartment rooms at the women’s homeless shelter where I worked before seminary. And as a pastor, cherishing each and every post-sermon tearful hug from women who said “you were speaking directly to my heart." Every cup of tea on the village green or kitchen table, Every hospital bed anointing as I caught a glimpse of an old framed picture from an elderly woman's youth. Both beautiful. Both completely and entirely her.
Women’s lives are complicated, they’ve always been. The roles we play, both those we embrace and those we’re expected to fill yet boldly re-define. The challenges we face, as we seek to balance career goals, the desire to be present in others’ lives, especially our children if we’ve chosen motherhood, and the boundaries we maintain in order to keep important people close and others at bay. We are stretched and when we seek to protect ourselves within these competing demands, we are often vilified, resented or rejected. I've experienced it. It hurts. But we cope.
And that’s where my work comes in. When we find ourselves merely coping. Overriding. Minimizing. Silencing. It is at this point that it’s time to open the escape hatch and find our voice again. Whether it is in our personal relationships, our professional spaces, our extended family or our chosen family, we are longing to reclaim who we are. And she is waiting, right there, sitting in that third chair.
Let’s go find her. Let’s ask her what she needs. And let’s listen. Really listen to her. Because she knows, she’s always known. And it’s finally time to trust her.
On February 2nd, 2023 an online petition created through change.org was authored and circulated on Facebook by a seminary friend of mine. The petition heading read, “The committee responsible for choosing scripture passages for the ordination exams to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) chose a passage that features intense sexual violence and intimate partner violence (Judges 19). Sign this petition if you agree that stories such as these should not be chosen for high stress, high stakes exams.” I immediately signed the petition and waited with bated breath to see what kind of traction the petition would get within the denomination that I had recently left.
The previous year I resigned from my last call as the solo pastor of a rural congregational in upstate New York. I left as quickly and quietly as possible, as a small group of congregants coalesced to drive me out of a church that was otherwise grateful and supportive of my ministry. The term "clergy killing" exists within church circles, a phenomenon that is embarrassingly common, yet systemically silenced within church governance structures. However, what I realized following my own clerical death, was the highly gendered nature of clergy scapegoating and the ingrained gender bias within predominantly baby boomer congregations that make boundary-conscious Generation X and Millennial female clergy particularly vulnerable to attack.
Within hours, my friend’s petition exploded through mainline Protestant social media channels, followed by an underwhelming initial statement from the PC(USA)’s Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, defending its position and delegitimizing the use of social media to bring about change. Large faith-based publications also took notice, with a litany of articles covering what became the most rapidly-mobilized grassroots protest movement within the PC(USA) to date.
Amid the storm of attention around the Judges 19 decision, I quickly saw the connection to my own research on female clergy boundaries and psychological safety and offered my own brief social media response:
The failure of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to acknowledge the humanity and psychological safety of its female clergy is yet again highlighted by the use of Judges 19 for the recent ordination exam for new clergy. The national exam committee's dismissive response to a widely circulated petition reinforces my relief in no longer working for this denomination and raises my deep concern for the safety and well-being of its current female seminarians and active clergy.
The ultimate outcome of the movement against the use of Judges 19 is still to be seen, with some satisfied by the denomination’s technical apology and others feeling it was a rehearsed example of detached polity that fails to address actual human harm. What I observed throughout the process are the same deep-rooted inter-generational and gender-based conflicts that take place behind the wreath-laden doors of local churches, during late night basement meetings of church committees and amidst the insidious chatter around female clergy bodies, identities and leadership.
Throughout the Judges 19 ordeal, I observed the larger social system dynamics at play, not only in decisions regarding ordination exams, but the systemic dehumanizing beliefs and behaviors that resist female professional and leadership boundaries.
Below is my (exactly two-minute) video testimony shared before the PC(USA) Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, which point to these larger issues:
I’m Rev. Lynn Horan, ordained PC(USA) clergy and doctoral researcher in gender and leadership at Antioch University. I’ll be speaking in opposition to the proposal for the following reasons:
Overwhelming results of this study reflect an unsustainable expectation of female self-sacrifice in the role of pastor, which is not equally shared by male clergy. There is a striking phenomenon of systemic scapegoating of female pastors, in which both male and female congregants attack a female clergy’s identity and way of being as the reason for congregational conflict.
Further pastoral trauma is experienced through public shaming and silencing by Presbytery Committee’s on Ministry, in which voluntary resignation and non-disclosure agreements prevent female clergy from seeking financial or legal recourse, which they would be otherwise due in secular professional sectors.
I share these significant research findings because it is clear that the use of the Judges 19 passage in the resent exegesis exam reflects an overarching expectation of female self-sacrifice and pastoral trauma that is far beyond the call to servant leadership within ordained ministry.