White Girl Watching Lemonade

Diana Carroll

The author

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade from start to finish.

I was aware of the album when it first came out last year. I remember seeing the video for the song “Formation” and reading an article or two about the controversy that it sparked. I even watched the Saturday Night Live parody about white people freaking out at discovering that “Beyoncé is black!” But I don’t really follow pop artists, or celebrities in general, and I’ve never been into music videos, so Lemonade quickly faded into the background as other stories took its place. Except this one image that stayed in my head: Beyoncé dressed as a southern belle with both middle fingers up at the camera. That was pretty hard to forget.

Early one Sunday morning in January, while lying in bed trying to convince myself to get up, I found myself listening to a piece on NPR about the spirituality of Lemonade. That got my attention. The speaker was Dr. Yolanda Pierce, a Professor of African-American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. She was describing the significance of Lemonade as an expression of the spiritual lives of black women, who do not always find themselves reflected in their own religious traditions. I was intrigued by her statement that listening to, and especially watching, a popular R&B album had been a religious experience for her: “I walked away from this album with the profound sense that I’d been to church.”

Then the Grammys happened, and one of Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement photos appeared in my local newspaper, and I decided it was high time for me to watch Lemonade for myself and find out what all the fuss was about. Read more

Our Bodies, Our Selves: Women’s Bodies in the Pulpit

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

I was just one year past the anniversary of my ordination and ten weeks pregnant with my first child when my partner and I sent out the invitations to the annual Holiday Party at the Manse. We were waiting until after Christmas to tell the church about my pregnancy, so we hadn’t told a soul. But that didn’t stop Melvin. We were standing in the dining room when Melvin sidled right up to my husband and me with a drink in his hand and, in the casual manner of many an octogenarian, commented, “Pastor, I can’t imagine why, but it seems like your husband keeps getting thinner and thinner, and you just keep getting bigger and bigger!”

What does one say in a moment like this? I cannot remember what I did, but I suspect I laughed it off. On the other hand, I am still telling that story today. My family laughs about it now—about how Melvin’s adult grandson collapsed in laughter behind me in the aftermath, and about how Melvin showed up to church the next Sunday and sheepishly asked my husband if he needed to find a new place to worship—but as I reflect on my ministry, on the ways in which it has been changed by the growth of my family and the confidence that comes from experience, I am reminded that, as a woman who is a pastor, my body presents a particular challenge to those with whom I serve.

I am not alone. We all have stories (or maybe the better term is battle scars) that reveal the ways in which the people with whom we minister have invaded our personal space, have invited themselves into personal decisions about what is appropriate for us and what is not, or have defined the terms for us of what it means to be a minister in a woman’s body. We know what it is like to be told, like one minister, that our clothes are too revealing, without any context or explanation about what “revealing” means. Or to find ourselves on the receiving end of comments and judgments that evaluate our weight, our relationships, even our hairstyles with the same level of concern as the content of our preaching and teaching.

And then there is parenthood. As women who minister, it is inevitable that our personal choices around childbearing will, at some point, become a point of public discussion in the churches where we serve. And because the church as an institution tends to glorify traditional, heteronormative definitions of what it means to parent successfully, our very real lives as women can become a battleground over cultural ideals of parenting, motherhood, childbearing, and the work-family balance.

Amanda was already married and a new mother when she was ordained as a UCC minister. She entered ministry with a strong and healthy sense of identity as a parent, a minister, and a queer woman. But she quickly discovered that even in her progressive UCC congregation, assumptions around her body and parenting were inevitable. And because she is a parent, “there was a level of assumption that I have given birth. And no matter what, the fact that I had children meant that I must be sexually active. People went there. I didn’t expect that.”

For Amanda, being a parent thrust into the public sphere all kinds of assumptions about her health, her marriage, and her body. And, as a queer mother, she found herself working against her congregation’s attempts to “typecast” her. “Because I had a wife, I was put into this sort of ‘dad’ role, so guys around me treated me as one of the guys.” She shared that it caused her to start consciously dressing in a more feminine way at work while also pushing back against the sexualization of her body in the church.

For other young clergywomen, becoming a parent can threaten one’s job security. Bethany shared that, when she found out she was pregnant in her first call, she was immediately informed that it would cost her. “I was told not to expect an allowance for anything. I was to be a mom separately.” Implicit was the assumption that she needed to make a choice—she could either be a good parent, or a good pastor, but she could not be both, at least not at church. “They wanted kids,” she shared, “just not mine. They wanted him, but not with me.”

If there is a common theme in the experience of clergywomen who parent, it seems to be that their identity as a parent becomes a crucial part of how they evaluate the terms of their ministry. For Bethany, her congregation’s negative attitudes towards her identity as a mother ultimately led her to seek out a more supportive pastoral environment.

And she is not alone. When Cordelia became a single parent through adoption, it revealed real prejudices about parenting in her upper-middle class ministry setting. She found that leaders within her church seemed to resent her child. “I was told she was not welcome in worship (even with someone else holding her) or at any event or group where I was working. I was told by one parent that they were paying me to watch their kids, not my own.” In that environment, her identity as a single parent was treated as a problem that she had to solve on her own. At one point, the experience let her to seriously questioning her call to ministry.

Ultimately, Cordelia left her call and chose to focus on her child, who was “the most important thing to me.” That decision—to honor her identity as a parent over a ministry context that viewed parenting as a liability—ultimately gave her the time and space to seek out opportunities for ministry that would honor both identities. Today, she happily serves a small church in a small town, where her child is embraced and her ministry is valued.

The truth is that church folk have a tendency to forget that we are not their family. We are not their children, or their grandchildren either. But the intimacy that is inevitable in ministry tends to blur the lines between what is acceptable and what is not. In unhealthy churches, that boundary-crossing can feel intrusive and toxic to our identity as pastors and as parents. It can lead us to feel that our children are not welcome, that the fullness of who we are is not welcome. In these cases, perhaps the only answer is to walk away.

But in a healthy church setting, one that affirms the ministry of clergywomen in all of its uniqueness and its fullness, this same intimacy can become the life-force that sustains good ministry. In Kathleen’s case, the experience of becoming a mother was incredibly positive. She credited this to the fact that her church had eight members in the congregation who were also pregnant at the same time. For her, becoming a parent while also pastoring her church deepened her sense of intimacy with those around her. She found herself empowered to explore these connections more fully in liturgy, exploring the physically evocative language of Incarnation and the gritty realities of embodiment more explicitly in worship.

Amanda was surprised to discover that when members of her congregation learned that she had not physically birthed her children, some of them treated her as though this meant that she could not understand the female experience of giving birth. But her experiences of parenting without giving birth have enabled her to identify with and minister to women in the queer and trans community who wanted to parent, but weren’t able, or chose not to be pregnant.

At the end of the day, so much of our calling is wrapped up in our experience in the world.  And many of the experiences that are so often marginalized and silenced in an institutional environment are precisely the things that have the potential to make us better pastors. Our experiences have the potential to help us to find common ground with our neighbors in the pews and on the streets who experience oppression, victimization, silencing and policing from the dominant culture that is more interested in silencing opposition than in creating life. We have a unique opportunity as clergywomen to model another way, to break down the barriers that constrain those around us. To use our privilege in the pulpit to advocate for and stand alongside those whose voices are not heard.

Why? Because we know what is at stake. For we have been in the trenches. We bear the physical and spiritual scars on our person. We know how despairing it can feel to be limited, and how freeing it feels to find ourselves fully embraced. When we embrace the fullness of who we are, and enable others to do the same, the church is a stronger, healthier, more welcoming and faithful place.

Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Praying with Our Farmers

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Like many good ministry ideas, this one came about by accident.

I interned at two small, rural churches during my second year in seminary. At one of the churches – on my first Sunday there – the pastor invited me to the front of the sanctuary to introduce myself. He asked me to share two fun or interesting facts about myself. When put on the spot like this, I always seem to draw a blank and end up saying something weird. This time, I shared the fact that that when I was a kid my favorite toys were tractor figurines. What I said was absolutely true, but it probably would not have been all that interesting to the vast majority of people.

Only, I wasn’t talking to the majority of people: I was talking to farmers. It was probably the best thing I could have said to ingratiate myself with the people of this church. I was a local girl from another rural county about a half-hour away. I loved tractors, and I happened to be dating a dairy farmer (who is now my husband). They loved me. My internship went well, and I didn’t think about my embarrassing introduction again until about a year later.

Someone from that church called me up and asked if I’d be willing to lead worship early on a Sunday morning at an antique tractor show they were organizing, since they knew I really loved tractors. I immediately jumped at the opportunity because it seemed so unique. It wasn’t until I started planning that I realized I had potentially bitten off more than I could chew. What would the setting be like? How long should this service be? Would there be a microphone? What should I do about music? What exactly does one preach about at a tractor show? This final question was what I spent the most time worrying about. I wanted to say something relevant, but I was afraid that if I went with a Scripture passage with too much agricultural imagery I would either look like I was trying too hard, or I would show how much I don’t understand about agriculture when I tried to preach on it. Read more

women protesting

Young Clergy Women, on Strike or Not

women protesting

Women Protesting

On March 8, 2017, in observance of International Women’s Day, activists called for American woman to strike from paid and unpaid labor, or to participate by joining a protest rally, not shopping or supporting women owned businesses, or simply wearing red to show support for women.

Clergy women made many different decisions about how to observe the day. The question for many came down to the nature of their work, family life, and questions about what the strike might accomplish. Fidelia’s asked them about their decisions. Read more

The author

My Not-So-Dirty Secret

The author

The author

I first began writing romance novels when my twins were five months old; I was hooked up to the good old Medela breast pump and hunched over the laptop. I’d recently fallen back in love with reading the genre, with its unabashed celebration of female sexuality and romantic love. I was adjusting to my new, stretched-out, machine-milked mom body and what it was like to have two new humans and their dirty diapers in the middle of my marriage. Romance novels helped me hold on to my sense of self, my sexual desire, and to remember my husband was my real-life romance hero even when we were sleep-deprived, cranky, automatons.

At the exact moment when I had the least margin to begin a creative enterprise, I decided to try writing a novel. It wasn’t a Christian, inspirational romance, nor was it ‘sensual’ and full of euphemisms. It was explicit, because I found it liberating to write about people having awkward and imperfect, yet glorious and redemptive sex.

Initially, my books were a dirty secret. I’m the chaplain at an Episcopal day school, after all. The last thing in the world I needed was the thirteen-year-olds I teach reading one of my ‘climactic’ scenes. As I built an online author presence, I dangled my priest-who-writes-romance identity as a titillating hook, but I remained sheepish with colleagues and secretive about my day job when I mingled with writers.

Still, slowly, I began to think of myself as a real writer. I talked with friends about my dual vocations and wrote a lot about the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. I dreamed up my tagline, “Desire is Divine,” and signed my first publishing contract. Read more

Candles lit for Advent

Lighting the Candles without Fitting the Mold

Candles lit for Advent

Candles lit for Advent

A few years ago, I inherited the task of assigning Advent candle lighters for our church. For as long as anyone could remember, nuclear family units had been assigned each week’s readings and scriptures. Parents would help children to light the matches and teenagers would read the apocalyptic texts with gusto.

But there had been a pastoral transition, and the Advent wreath liturgy suddenly fell to me. I remembered my own small hurt the year before when I realized with a certain start that I, a single woman in my thirties, wouldn’t qualify for this particular liturgical responsibility in our community. Then I started thinking about all the other people in our congregation who might be feeling that particular sting of being left out.

I thought about the handful of elderly widowers, so desperate for human touch that they doled out bone-crushing hugs to anyone who’d let them. I thought about the divorced man with partial custody of his young son, a schedule that made committing to anything at church together nearly impossible. I thought of the recently retired school teacher, never married, and the ways her depths of wit and wisdom filled a dozen important roles and relationships but who was never asked to light a candle in anticipation of Christ’s coming.

And then, after I thought about these particular people who might be sharing the twinges of alienation like I was, I started thinking about all the people in scripture that we’d be leaving out of our Advent liturgy if they happened to show up here in church some twenty-first-century Sunday morning.

The list of single people who get enlisted for world-shaking roles in scripture is long and fascinating: Read more

Palm ashes burnt in bowl with dried palm frond cross on top

A Poem on the Eve of Lent

Palm ashes burnt in bowl with dried palm frond cross on top

Palm ashes for God’s beloved dust

God’s beloved dust,
fabric of the universe—
of planets newly discovered
and ruins ancient, broken
and us.

God’s beloved dust,
we’ll walk into wilderness
on a Wednesday—
a wilderness of words
and want
and wonder,
a wilderness for the wise
and the weary.

God’s beloved dust,
ushered from pew to pastor,
they will pause.
Eyes averted
or closed
or resolute in meeting mine,
an awkward encounter
breaking the boundary of space—
to touch another’s face
and to mark it
mortal.

God’s beloved dust,
thumb to forehead,
brokenhearted,
breaking with tradition,
I will say

to God’s beloved dust—
to the squirming infant
barely a month from the womb,
to the mother, headscarfed,
halfway through chemotherapy,
to the wrinkled widow
well acquainted with ashes:

Remember you are God’s beloved dust
and to God’s beloved dust you shall return.

And we will watch and wait
to witness
what God can do
with God’s beloved dust.

Healing and Hope: Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Unlike Carol Howard Merritt, I grew up in a small, progressive American Baptist congregation. In my church life, I grew up in a place that invited questions, encouraged me to pursue deeper meaning, and embraced me wholly as I was created.

However, I also attended church camp. I loved camp, and it helped shape my faith and taught me about relationship with Jesus Christ. But the church camp I attended was staffed by Christian counselors who came from more fundamentalist congregations. They came from belief systems that upheld patriarchal roles and were concerned with saving souls before camp ended on Saturday morning, and the best way to do that was to make us feel that we needed to be saved before we returned home. The jagged knife of Scripture was used to create wounds that declared that I was a sinner, in a way that made it seem very shameful, that I had done something purposefully bad to separate myself from God; that because my hormones were going wild as a teenager, I had fallen short of God’s perfection. I wasn’t good enough. I had to be saved by Friday night or I might not go to heaven.

I was healed through good preaching, fellowship, and friends in college. I experienced further healing in seminary as I began to learn about the historical and cultural context of those scriptures, the same verses my camp counselors had used but hadn’t understood themselves.

Healing Spiritual Wounds is a book for all Christians (not only those who have come out of a fundamentalist background) because all of us have been harmed at one time or another by churches or church institutions that failed us. Read more

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Communion in the City

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Sign in a New York deli

There’s a story, a myth perhaps, about a congregation that stopped all activities during Lent. That season they gathered for Sunday worship, and then the pastor and elders visited the homes of everyone in the congregation to serve communion. They held no meetings and no rehearsals – only worship on Sundays and in homes.

Anytime I complained to a former colleague about how busy my church was she would tell me this story. The idea is wonderful, but one that would take tremendous planning and congregational buy-in. Neither I nor the congregation I now serve was ready for this kind of endeavor, but the story got me thinking about communion and Lent in new ways.

During Lent in 2014, I invited the congregation I serve to join me for “Communion in the City.” Each Wednesday evening we gathered in a public space for fellowship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. During the five weeks that we met, we broke bread at two different Panera Bread restaurants, the mall food court, a McDonald’s, and a downtown outdoor space. Read more