small girl covering her eyes

Coming out of the Clergy Closet

small girl covering her eyes

Hiding in plain sight

Last year our oldest child started at a new child development center. Unlike the commercial daycare setting we’d ended up at during the first year of our new call, the school is small and intimate, priding itself on a very deep sense of community. It’s the kind of preschool where we receive regular invitations from teachers to be involved in the life of the classroom and regular invitations from fellow parents to birthday parties galore.

Like most young clergy couples entering a new church, town, and phase of life, I was hungry for relationships outside of our congregation and thrilled with the prospect of meeting other parents. There is a known camaraderie among parents of similarly aged children, right? Knowing that nearly all the attendees of our preschool hold a connection to the large university that is the foundation of our lovely little college town, surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find some common ground?

But there it was. The question we clergy find ourselves staring in the face as we try to go about our daily lives. The question that traps us when we are young and single and are set up on a first date. The question we find ways to dodge when it comes from the person sitting next to us on the three-hour flight to a church conference. The question that confronts my husband and I when we are approached by a stranger at a cocktail party:

“What do you do?”

I hadn’t cringed at that question in awhile, but at our first preschool social (a dinosaur-themed birthday party) when it inevitably came up it was like I was twenty-two and out at a bar in Midtown Atlanta all over again, quickly muttering “I’m a pastor at the Presbyterian church” and moving the conversation right along. Driving home that day I engaged in a little self-confrontation…

“What was that all about?” I asked myself. It’s not as though I’m a seminarian or even a newly ordained minister. I’ve been at this awhile now and am comfortable in my pastoral identity. Call me to an emergency at the hospital? I’m there. Calm, cool, collected. Need to preach a sermon following a tragic event in the world? By the grace of God, I will. Yet for some reason this prayerfully forged identity becomes something I want to hide when I’m standing on the sidelines of the soccer field or the waiting room of the dance studio.

Eventually, I was able to identify at least a few reasons for this inclination to minimize my professional identity in social settings. The first is that there are very few places in my life where “pastor” is not my primary role. In the life of my own congregation the lines are beautifully blurred. The church I co-pastor with my husband has embraced our dual identities as pastors and parents as well as any clergy couple could ever hope or imagine. They understand when we have to reschedule meetings due to ear infections or trips to the pumpkin patch. They graciously smile when our children throw tantrums and green beans during the midweek fellowship supper. Yet our primary identity within our congregation is and will always be pastor, just as it should be. I love being their pastor, and simultaneously I long for a few small protected places in my life where I don’t have to be consciously in that role as I go about my business.

The second is that I don’t want “pastors’ kids”(PKS) to be my children’s primary identity. Or secondary. Or even tertiary (Yes, I had to look that up.). I often think our three little ones must be the most fortunate pastors’ kids in the world. My husband and I have now served two churches that take delight in them almost as much as we do. Yet, just like my own personal struggle, they are and always will be “the pastors’ kids”. Though they are blissfully unaware of this unique role at this point in their lives, I know the day is coming when they will put two-and-two together and realize that no one else’s parents are standing in the pulpit delivering the sermon each Sunday.

And so I want preschool, and later school, to be a place where they are just like every other kid. Where adults don’t feel the need to speak or act differently around them and where they aren’t expected to have an above-average knowledge of the Bible or be held to a higher standard of behavior. Perhaps these worries are all the result of my overly analytical imagination. However, generations of PKs who have gone before them might argue otherwise.

But back to preschool. I finally realized that, given that we live in as small of a town as we do, there is no escaping the reality of my identity. Wherever I am and wherever I go, I will always be both mom and pastor. So it was time to embrace this dual identity and stop glossing over it in conversation. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I came to this realization, something both wonderful and humbling happened.

Whether it was the princess-fashion-show-themed birthday party, the Thanksgiving feast, or simply walking through the school to figure out whether the class was on the playground or in the activities building, I can’t remember. But once again the question came up: “What do you do?” This time, it was from a mom I knew to be a professor at the university.

“My husband and I are the pastors at the Presbyterian church.” I said, this time without hesitation.

“We know lots of people in your church!” she said. “We go to the Episcopal church. Our priest is awesome. He came to our tailgate last week.

And just like that, it was over. No awkward silence. No “I didn’t-know-ministers-could-get-married.” or “Here are some reasons why my family hasn’t attended church in awhile.”

I’ve come out of the clergy-closet since then. In our preschool community it’s known that our kids have two preachers for parents. And guess what? I’m not sure anyone really cares. Teachers tell us when it hasn’t been a great day for the two year old. Or when we forgot to sign in the baby. Or when the four year old and her “best friend” had a dramatic falling out on the playground. Just like us, other parents understand that when we cross the threshold of the Child Development Center we all need a chance to shed our professional identities for a moment and tend to the little lives we, with the help of our extended childcare and extended families (including church families) are doing our best to nurture and grow.

God’s Grace and My Father’s Love

Sometimes the hands of God are right in front of us

My father was a force of nature. He was a big man, both physically and in spirit, and had the kind of laugh that had a way of booming itself across a room, hovering for a while before dissipating. As a little girl I was fascinated by his size, putting my hand up against his and watching in awe as his fingers closed around mine, hiding them away completely. There was such safety in seeing my smallness tucked up and protected in the hugeness of his hands.

Still, he looked impossibly small when I walked into his ICU room many years later, where he lay stricken by a sudden infection that would take his life. He was a big man made tiny and still beneath a nest of tubes, his face obscured by the ventilator that kept his chest rising and falling with mechanic precision. The years between being an awe-struck young girl and a fully grown, ordained woman had not been kind to us, and I found myself standing next to a man that I loved with the whole of my heart, but who felt so very much like a distant stranger, a person to be wary of.

My father was a man who walked between worlds of light and dark. In the light stood his faith, his joy, his playfulness bordering on prankster, his sweeping generosity. Our church loved him deeply and it was a love that was richly returned. Everyone drew close to his light, which seemed to radiate warmth. There was a sense about him that no matter what might go wrong, he would set it right, and over the course of his years in our church leadership he did so again and again. But he was a man in whom shadows made their home as well. His joyful side would fade and he’d quickly become withdrawn and disengaged, choosing to be alone in his office or his bedroom instead of spending time with his family. He was quick to temper and could be casually and laughingly cruel – though usually only to his family and closest of friends. We loved him because we could not possibly do otherwise, but each of us carried with us the wounds of that love.

My father’s illness lasted a month to the day, and he was conscious, even talkative, for most of it. The days mostly blur together, but I remember my anger with clarity. I was absolutely furious, pacing trenches in the halls of the hospital. I railed against God, a madwoman in her clerical collar, shouting at heaven from the parking lot. My Presbyterian theology taught me to expect my prayers to change me, not to change God’s mind, but I had no patience for that. I had no patience for God’s plans, and cared not at all what was going on in God’s mind. Read more

The author and her neighbor, Penny

Spiritual Friendship

The author and her neighbor, Penny

The author and her neighbor, Penny

Tucked among the many things my seminary education neglected to mention was the truth that ministry is, more often than not, a ministry of presence in a particular place. When we are called to serve a congregation, more often than not, we must choose to leave behind a community and a neighborhood in order to make a home in a new place. This mobile lifestyle poses a quandary: when all of our neighbors are church members (or potential members), how do we develop authentic friendships? How do young clergy women make the distinction between who is a friend and who isn’t? Does that distinction matter?

In the small church ministry to which I have been called, this question is alive and real. I serve a small church in the middle of a quaint borough in the heart of a once-rural county oozing with character and history. There are only a thousand people who live here with me, and because we are the only church in our borough, there are many folks who see my role as the de-facto pastor of everyone, not just the folks who warm the pews. Because of this expectation, when people I barely know see me on the street, they call me pastor, vicar, or chaplain.  What they don’t call me is neighbor.

When everyone is my parishioner, and nobody is simply my neighbor, ministry can get lonely. I begin to feel that the ministry of presence in a particular place is a vocation to live a guarded life, one marked by sidelong glances–and checked, rechecked, and hedged conversation–because who know who might be listening?

Because of the complicated nature of this role as pastor of the borough, that I thank God daily for my neighbor Penny. Read more

Being That Relative

lift your hearts nov 2016We all have That Relative. You know, the one who makes us cringe every time they open their mouth. There’s Granny, who makes racist comments as easily as breathing; Uncle, who can sexualize any discussion; Cousin Norbert, who takes any and every opportunity to talk about 15th century construction methods in Andorra.

We all have That Relative. At least, I did… until That Relative became me.

Now, I’m not the one to bore the table with inane knowledge, although I HAVE been known to make eyes glaze over. And I am not the one who spouts casual racism or sexism.

I’m the one who calls it out.

Read more

Small Town Listening


Antony Gormley’s statue “Untitled [Listening]”, Maygrove Peace Park, Great Britain

Mun oz?
Moon yo SSSS

Moon, like moon in the sky. Yo, like “hey man.”  Ssss like snake.

People often assume that I met my husband on a mission trip. I imagine that their version goes something like:

Young female pastor meets attractive and impoverished but dashing young man in a third world country and rescues him to be her beloved husband and they live happily ever after.

It makes me chuckle on the days it doesn’t drive me crazy. I met my husband at a bar while shooting pool. I’m a decent player. He’s better.

Pastoring is a strange thing. One of the paradoxes of ministry is that being a pastor is both a vocation and a lifestyle choice. I think I always knew that, but it isn’t so obvious as you are journeying through seminary living in an anonymous atmosphere. It doesn’t sink in until you’ve taken a call, accepted a position, and discovered that your life is fair game for gossip in small town ministry. At that point it becomes crystal clear that pastors are fair game. Read more