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Young Clergy Women on Marching

On Saturday, January 21, young clergy women participated in the Women’s March on Washington, DC, and in sister marches all over the world. We’ve gathered some of their reflections on these events.

On the visibility of being clergy

  • I intentionally wore my collar to serve as a public witness as a faith leader: I had a conversation with a woman my age who has an advanced degree in Hebrew literature and Scripture, but did not go on to be a rabbi because she didn’t have female role models. She expressed gratitude that I was showing young women today that they, too, may be called to lead faith communities.
  • A reporter interviewed me and another clergywoman, and was surprised to hear that we were pastors. “Wait, you’re Christian, but you’re at this march?” I explained that I was marching because of my faith, not in spite of it: part of my baptismal call is to follow the example of Jesus, serve others, and strive for justice and peace for all.
  • I wore a collar to show that young women clergy exist, and that Christians stand for love and justice. My husband observed that when photographers saw a young woman in a collar, they ran over to snap a picture. It was interesting to notice how young women clergy were “desirable optics” for a reporter’s narrative. I’m still trying to sort out how I feel about that.
  • I had planned to wear my collar, but I start a new job next week at a non-profit that is primarily donor funded, and is supported broadly by churches and synagogues across theological and political spectrums. While I wanted deeply to participate, I also didn’t want my collar to get me on the front page of something and alienate church folks in a new city before I get to know them.
  • I marched beside my mother, also a clergy woman. I wore my collar because the reason why I march is my faith and my role as a faith leader: I was marching for congregation members who are queer and don’t feel comfortable being out at church; for undocumented parishioners who have sought help but come up against roadblocks; for the woman who had an abortion when she learned her much-wanted baby would not live and was in pain.
  • I marched with a group of fellow clergy women wearing matching jackets that said “Nasty Clergy Women.” The comments ranged from “Pray for me sisters!” to “I’m not religious, but that I could get on board with!”

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The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

Loving The Young Clergy Women Project

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

A few weeks ago, my family and I made our way down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in search of a room in Boston University’s School of Theology where I would share the next three days with a hundred clergy women from many denominations. I was, uncharacteristically, a little nervous. What if I didn’t know anyone? What if no one cared that I was there? What if they were annoyed that I was there, since technically I had already graduated from The Young Clergy Women Project eight days earlier?

As soon as I entered the room where we were gathering, my fears melted away. I spotted a couple of familiar faces from Facebook, then a few more, and then I ran into one of my favorite UCC colleagues and her face reminded me why I’d come to The Project in the first place. I came for the friendships and for the professional bonds that connect us as women in ministry in a world that both relies on women for emotional and household labor AND undervalues the worth of our work at home and in the workplace. I came for the fierceness, the laughter, and the tears. I came for the culture where finding excellent child care is a normal part of conference planning, and where mamas hand off their babies to any willing set of hands. I came for the worship and the workshops, for the time spent lingering over meals and the time spent laughing over drinks. (I came also, it must be fairly said, for the swag.)

I did not expect how much this group would mean to me. Read more

My Last Conference

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Is it possible to have too much swag?  More than half of my travel coffee mugs (and two out of my three plastic tumblers) have The Young Clergy Women Project logo on them.  I have a little stash of boutique lip balms from Nashville, Minnesota, and Austin, all patiently waiting for me to finish using up my Chapstick (once watermelon-flavored) labeled “Sabbath in the City: Chicago 2012, The Young Clergy Women Project.”  Just today I tossed a change of clothes and my funeral shoes into a large canvas tote bag with “The Young Clergy Women Project, funded by the Louisville Institute & powered by faith, verve, chocolate, and really great shoes” superimposed over a spiral on the front.

Is it possible to have been to too many TYCWP conferences?  When I think back on the conferences and board meetings I have attended, I realize I’ve probably visited more seminaries, theology schools, and divinity schools in more states than the vast majority of my other local colleagues.  And very few of those colleagues can claim to be part of an intentional community that stretches around the world and across denominations.

Normally I would say: “It’s impossible to have too much swag, and impossible to have attended too many conferences.”  I rely on both the swag and the community to help me get things done in ministry with the least amount of damage to myself.  But perhaps it is possible to have too much, because each year’s worth of swag and each year’s conference reminds me I am one year closer to aging out of the project next spring.

Just as the community of TYCWP helped me figure out what it meant to be a young clergy woman, it is now helping me make sense of what it means to be a slightly older clergy woman.  My days of being carded at the liquor store are over.  My bodily aches and pains are increasing.  I still get inappropriate comments—but people have finally stopped calling me “kiddo.”

And yet I am so, so far from having everything figured out.  My authority, my identity, and my self-awareness are still developing.  I still routinely lean on the project to remind myself that I’m not the only one.  And seeing in person, at the conferences, what the project has become in the last eight years is truly a miraculous thing; I am moved to tears seeing the support and the community that we dreamed about so long ago come into being.

I’ve attended every TYCWP conference since 2010 after missing the first two conferences in 2007 and 2008 (but attending the board meetings in 2008 and 2009).  And every year I go into it putting pressure on myself, thinking “This is such a rare opportunity to see all of these YCWs in person, so I need to make the most of it.”  And I come out realizing how foolish it was to try and force this to be a mountaintop experience.  It’s going to be one, no matter what I do.

This year was no different.  I went into the conference thinking, “This my last chance to make these connections in person…I need to go all out, I need to be more outgoing, I need to meet and talk with as many people there as possible.”  Have my years in the project taught me nothing?  Have I not learned to respect my own body’s needs and my own emotional needs as an introvert?  Apparently not.

But you all reminded me that the best encounters of the conference are the ones you didn’t plan for, the ones you don’t engineer.  Sure, I haven’t taken a dance class in twenty years, but I’ll go to a Ballet Austin drop-in class with you and risk total humiliation just so I can remember the days when my body actually obeyed my mind’s direction.  Sure, the movie is sold out, so let’s find the best Tex-Mex around and perhaps enjoy a margarita instead. Conferences are places where you can be spontaneous and impulsive without worrying about what the church matriarch is going to think–or worse, say to others down the grapevine.  They are also places where nobody will ridicule you for choosing to spend a quiet night at the hotel and going to bed at a reasonable hour.

Conferences of TYCWP are places where I can be most authentically myself.  This happens only very rarely in other parts of my life.  If I feel like a party girl, I can be one for one night.  If I feel like giving my body the gift of sleep, I can do that too.  I can remember what it was like to make choices just for me, without thinking about a thousand other people and a thousand consequences.

Maybe that’s why no matter who I meet or who I connect with at a conference, I find myself in a different space when I return.  Because I’ve remembered who I am.  And I’ve shared in a community that embraces me as I am, without a thick layer of expectations.

Thank you, each and every member of the project I’ve met in person over the years.  You have been salt and light to me, and I treasure each one of you for helping me taste life again, and see myself more clearly.

2015 YCW Summer Conference

Congress StreetThis Summer, the YCW are GTT[1]

I look forward to the Young Clergywomen Conference every summer. For me, it’s a no-miss July ritual, right up there with hotdogs and fireworks. The Young Clergywomen Conference re-charges mind, body, and soul, comfortably navigating the line between solemnity and frivolity. Where else can you break from evening prayer and adjourn for beers at a local pub? The YCW conference, that’s where.

This year, YCW Conference will kick up its boot heels in Austin, Texas–that weird keeping, laid-back, music-loving capital of Texas. The dates are July 6-9, 2015 and  Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary will be our gracious host. Located just across the street from the University of Texas, and blocks away from downtown Austin, APTS is nestled between restaurants, pubs, and the ubiquitous Texas treat — breakfast tacos. Fellowship with old and new friends is a cornerstone of all YCW conferences, and Austin will provide the perfect context to feed your soul and stomach with the food of friendship.

As it turns out, this conference is all about context — from its location at Austin Seminary, to its keynote speaker, Dr. Margaret Aymer, professor of New Testament at Interdenominational Theological Center (Atlanta).  She’s going to be working with us on Contextual Bible Study, a tool that arose out of the church’s response to Apartheid in South Africa.  You can find her over at Twitter, where she is very active under the handle @mayog.

In addition to workshops, the conference will also offer:

  • Self-Care Opportunities (such as the very popular mani/pedis)
  • Field Trips for Spouses/Partners/Traveling Companions
  • Childcare will be available!
  • Cost: Early Registration fee for 2015 is $160. Childcare, meals for traveling companions (non-conference attending adults), and t-shirts are extra.  You may pre-register here.
  • Hotel: We have a group rate set up at the Holiday Inn-Midtown, Austin. The cost is $99/night.  We may have more housing options available in the coming months.  If you would like to reserve a room at the Holiday Inn-Midtown, please go to this link.  You are responsible for arranging your own housing for the conference.

See y’all in Texas!

[1] gone to Texas

People meeting up

Sometimes You Just Need to See the Love

People meeting upMany of our members have excitedly jumped on board for our very first Meet-Up Week, scheduled for February 16-21, 2014.  (If you’re still looking for one to attend, the link to the map is here.)

But maybe you’re hanging back, waiting to see how it goes first before jumping in.  Or maybe you’re thinking “I am way too busy to add anything else to my schedule,” or “there is nobody anywhere close to me.”  Maybe gathering with other clergy women of any age is considered suspect, or at least odd, in your denomination.  If you’re not currently a member of the project but fit within our audience, maybe you’re still testing the waters of The Young Clergy Women Project.

Meet-Up Week is a way to dip your toes in before deciding whether to take the plunge and get involved in the Project.  But more importantly, it’s a way to carry out the Project’s mission: to remind young clergy women everywhere that they are not the only ones.  What better way to do that than by actually gathering together in person?

Several metropolitan areas have standing YCW gatherings that meet on a regular basis.  They are already reaping the benefits of gathering in person.  And not all of them are in large cities, as you might assume.  (Portland, Oregon?  Oklahoma City?  Albany, New York?  All have their own regularly meeting young clergy women group.)

What happens at these gatherings?  Here’s a sampling:

  • Close friendships, beyond mere acquaintance
  • Colleague relationships that are actually supportive
  • Accountability—but also a safe place to vent and brainstorm how to deal with tough situations
  • Resource and idea sharing (Can you all help me with our wedding policy and fees?  What commentary/curriculum did you use again?  What did you say when you negotiated your maternity leave?  How am I supposed to deal with my senior pastor/council president/deacon/elder/clerk of session/trustees/rector/secretary?  You get the idea.)
  • People who just “get it”–no explanation required
  • Common ground that transcends denominations
  • Shopping buddies for buying clericals and vestments
  • A safe place to discern and ponder transitions and moves (many groups are ecumenical…so don’t worry, these women aren’t from your presbytery/conference/synod/classis/cluster/etc.)
  • Connections made for the sake of young clergy women everywhere, not to mention future young clergy women

Chalk it up to the Incarnation—technology is great, but there’s just nothing like being together in the same room.  As one YCW put it, “Sometimes you just need to see the love and support you have.  Gathering once or twice a month is a life-giving thing for me.  We’ve been meeting for 1.5 years now and I eagerly look forward to it each and every month.”  Another YCW in the same group shared, “It [this group] is one of the few places I can be wholly me—clergy, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend.  These women know all about my life, all the parts, and we support one another fully.”

Our annual Young Clergy Women conferences are another place to find this support, but even if everyone had access to the time, money, and childcare needed to attend, let’s get real: the conference only happens once a year!  It takes time to develop the trust and safety necessary.  Meet-ups have the ability to provide the deeper support we need, when we need it, where we need it.

So if you’ve been on the side of the pool, wondering if this is the party for you, kick off your flip-flops and dip your toes in.  You never know, you might just find the very thing that will keep you afloat for years to come.

What Are You Doing In The New Year…?

In 1947, Frank Loesser penned a song that has been performed by numerous recording artists and heard by millions: “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”.  To paraphrase those famous lyrics:

Maybe it’s much too early in the game; 
Ah, but I thought I’d ask you just the same: 
What are you doing next summer 
July 7-10, 2014?

July CalendarOk. I admit that I won’t be winning any awards for lyric-writing genius anytime soon. But, the question remains: Where are you going to be July 7-10, 2014?  Hopefully, the answer to this quandary is “Minneapolis, Minnesota”, because we want to see you attending next summer’s TYCWP Conference: Out of the Deep: Pastoring in Creative Space!

As religious leaders, it can sometimes feel as though we are wading in the waters of chaos when it comes to trying to discover God’s call and God’s will for us – as well as for the communities we serve. What is God calling us to do? Where is God leading our faith communities? How can we recognize God’s hopes and dreams for us? Drawing on her passion and experience, Ruth Harvey will be our guide as we explore the practice of discernment in a variety of spiritual traditions.

Originally from Scotland, our conference speaker, Ruth Harvey, now lives in Cumbria, NW England with her family. She belongs to three different traditions, serving as a member of the Iona Community, an Elder in her local Quaker Meeting, and as a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister. Ruth works for Place for Hope, an agency of the churches in Scotland developing skills for conflict transformation in church and community. She also works for Churches Together in Cumbria, developing ecumenical relations across the nine member churches in that part of England. A gifted writer and editor, Ruth has had prayers and poems published in Wild Goose Publications. The three books she has edited have explored themes of spirituality, prayer, and the wisdom of children.

Collective discernment models, community conversations about tough issues, and conflict transformation tools can be utilized in every ministry context, helping us to be better equipped to pastor in the creative spaces God calls us to serve. With Ruth’s help, we will consider (and, perhaps, experience) “waiting on God” as it is experienced in a Quaker Meeting for Worship. We may also look at the contrast between “membership” and “discipleship”, discovering how these two concepts can draw us closer together as the true Body of Christ. Together, we will discover creative resources to support and encourage us as we seek to live out our ministries.

The 2014 Young Clergy Women Project Conference will be held at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota from Monday, July 7 to Thursday, July 10. Housing is available with special conference rates at the nearby Millennium Hotel. Registration for the Conference opens on January 15, 2014. And it pays to register early – the fee is $140 for the first 40 registrants and $160 after the first 40 registrants.

What are you doing July 7-10, 2014? We hope that your answer involves your attending the 2014 TYCWP Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota: Out of the Deep: Pastoring in Creative Space!

To Be Separate or Not: That Is the Question

NailpolishGod and the world.  Sometimes, I think we think of them as two different things.  Sometimes we can think of faith, and the presence of God, as something that happens inside a brick building for an hour (or maybe two) on a Sunday morning.  I know this because even people who long for God in their lives but don’t know how to find Her often say to me, “Say hi to God for me.”  Even people who are lifelong members of church will sometimes say this to me if they have to miss a service.

But God is not separate from the world.  While holy and sacred time is important, the sacred is not reserved for inside a church building.  I long for a church that integrates faith with all of my life – in the ways that I think and behave and talk.  I long for a community that empowers me not to spend more time inside a church building, but to seek and know the real presence of the living God everywhere.

Recently, at the Young Clergy Women’s Conference, I had a powerful experience of the sacred.  I knew and experienced Holy Time.  I was overwhelmed.  I cried and felt goosebumps.  I stilled and was able to experience what Celtic spirituality calls a “thin place.” A place and time where God and world are not as separate as we think they are at other times.

Where was this, you might be wondering?  It was in a nail salon.  I know, I was surprised, too.  It happened quite by accident.  The conference organizers, in an attempt to save printing costs, had e-mailed the bulletins for the worship services.  So, when about twenty-two of us got stuck during soul-tending time at the nail salon, we worshipped at the same time as the YCWs who were able to meet in the chapel.  Most of us had our smart phones and tablets and were able to easily access the bulletins and read the full liturgy for the service.

We worshipped while getting manicures and pedicures.  We sang our Taizé songs, and we prayed our prayers.  And I wept for knowing in a new and powerful way that God and the world are not separate.  God moments – holy moments – can happen at any time and in any place: by accident, by a decision to save money, and by feeling that our bodies and souls and community are all connected during this sacred time and place.

I can’t speak to the experience of the other women who were there.  I can only speak to the thin place I found.  I found a place where community cared for one another.  I found a place where I could worship God while someone else was caring for my body.  I found a place where everything felt totally integrated for our worship service.

As with many holy moments, I did not know until later why this event had impacted me the way that it did.  I had finally found a place where God and the world were not separate, and care for my body was not separate from care for my soul.  God created me a whole-being; during that blissful worship service, I knew that was true.

In relating this story later to my Mom, she replied, “That’s the kind of church I need.”  My sister replied the same way.  I don’t think that we want people to have to pay for manicures and pedicures to come to worship, and I don’t think we want to commercialize and materialize worship that way on a regular basis.  I do think that there is a deep need in our world for our experience of God to be outside the walls of the church building and to take seriously our creation as whole-beings.  God and the world are, after all, not separate.  That is the answer to the question.  So I am left wondering: how do we, as Christians, help the world know that answer?  I came to know it in a very powerful way in a specific situation that happened by the grace of the Spirit, and would love to share that with others.

Job Hunting for the Two Career Couple: When the Right Call Is Not the Church

fargoneI sat on the bed, listening to the shower. At my feet there was a massive pile of laundry, mostly my husband’s clothes. He was packing a large suitcase and moving to the East coast for a job. For the second time in 12 months, we were going to be separated.

When we first met, we were graduate students. In our blind optimism, we assumed that we would work hard, get good grades, and find work anywhere. We had no idea that the Great Recession was months away from crashing down upon us, and we had no inkling that a prestigious, demanding school which is well-recognized in the East would carry zero weight in the West. He graduated with distinction in Connecticut. Two years later, his job hunt has been fruitless in Oregon. In desperation, he accepted a position in Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, and we separated for the first time a little over a year ago.

A two career couple has been a very difficult thing in ministry. I find it has been a constant dance of discernment, opportunity, and choice. On one hand, I love that he has different, non-church work. He keeps me real. Sometimes I wish that he was a nurse or a dentist or some other highly transportable profession, but the reality is that he is gifted with artifacts. But one of us (me) believes that God is in charge of my career path. And it was dawning on me that Oregon, the beautiful breezy place where I thought we had found our dream, left him with a choice between living  here and taking a job cleaning out dog kennels, or living apart and having a professional job. I couldn’t ask my spouse to make that sacrifice. But I also couldn’t believe that God would bring two people together, only to split them up. How could God ask that, even of a priest?

There have been ways to cope. We prioritized face-to-face communication. We Skype every night and have “happy hour dates”. (We each make a drink and call each other.) We text constantly – his early morning messages arrive while I sleep.  But we spent Thanksgiving apart, he eating oysters with his brother in Maryland, me sharing stuffing with a coworker in Eugene. Every night, we sleep alone. I snuggle his pillow and negotiate space with his cats, who spent last week sulking in his closet, buried under the clothes he left behind. We used an app called Couple to share secrets.

Unbidden, negative emotions have roiled. I became jealous that he could spend Sundays watching football on his best friend’s couch, knowing I would come home to a dirty cat box and a cold kitchen after a grueling day. I panicked when I couldn’t reach him, so we decided to install “Find My Friends” app which we call “iPhone Stalker” so we can tell if the non-answering person is on the road. He gets frustrated when I email a dozen articles overnight during my frequent insomnia bouts. Trash talking via text message leads to fast misunderstandings when he threatens to pick up Tom Brady as his fantasy quarterback against my strident objections. Sometimes, it feels like we spend most of our time apologizing to each other.

Good friends saved my bacon. Time after time, friends talked me off my ledge when I had convinced myself it was the end.  They shared so many stories of breakups, separations, reconciliations. They told me of the bruises in their own loves, and reminded me to see the best in my spouse. Friends convinced me to see a counselor at my lowest point.

Deciding whether love or career won out was agony. As a priest, my life is so public. Parishioners worried, knowing he was gone. Why had such a happy couple split up? One person suggested that, since we had no children, a divorce would be easy. What kind of couple would choose to live apart? I can point to Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband Mark Kelly, or to military couples, but the reality is that those couples have resources and innate support systems than I did.  We honestly questioned: was this really the end? Did God call me here to show me that my calling as a priest was more important than any relationship out there – spouse, family, friends? For one horrible week, we talked about divorce.

I loved my job, my people, my town. I thought this was my dream. Yet the dream hadn’t accounted for distance from family and friends. I missed major East Coast milestones. My dream was killing my spouse’s spirit. I couldn’t bear to disappoint or hurt anyone – I imagined waves of anger and disappointment flooding towards me no matter what.

The reality is that church work is tight. The reality is that it’s difficult for women. Changing jobs can be a political dance. Was it the right time to leave? Would it be a bad career move?  Would a future church look down on my moving? Could I take the time to seek a job I truly felt called to, or should I just choose the first option that would bring me back? Logically, I knew we weren’t alone. During this year, at least five other couples in my circle of friends moved away from our small town. Who was being the selfish one in our little twosome – him for taking fellowship offers, or me for sitting on our deck looking out over the rolling hills and not wanting to move? Was I just paralyzed by fear of disappointing people?

Finally, the financial stress was unbelievable. We have always been a fairly frugal couple. But after years of grad school, then a major car repair, then a year of unemployment, followed by another car crisis, my once-healthy emergency fund was screaming for relief. We needed more money, money that wasn’t going to be found in my paralysis.

Making the choice to leave the parish has been the hardest one I have ever made. How could I get so involved in people’s lives, only to leave when my own got tough? People were in love; I wanted to watch them get married. People were pregnant with babies or waiting for adoption matches; I wanted to be there when the babies were baptized. We were getting ready to remodel our kitchen and parish hall; I wanted to walk the new labyrinth and sit in the center.

At the end of the day, I hadn’t actually taken vows to the parish, yet I was treating it as though it had more claim on my love and care than the actual husband. We had always said that the place that was right for one of us was the place that was right for both of us. My heart broke as I finally admitted my parish wasn’t it.

After I dropped him off at the airport and returned home, I opened up the Transition Ministry Newsletters and began emailing my information to open churches. For the sake of love, it was time to leave.

Difference: Stone Walls or Open Doors?

Follow the LightWhen my partner Steve and I met, we learned quickly that our family cultures would collide. I was studying in seminary; he studied science in college and worked in sales.  I spoke the spooky Minnesota “oh’s”; he spoke a southern drawl.  I devoted my life to the church; he was not a churchgoer and frankly didn’t care to be a churchgoer.  We often found ourselves caught in the middle of his family’s Southern gentility and my family’s Northern brusqueness.

Two months after we started dating, we went out for dinner. He drove me home and left. In my solitude, I launched my computer to start a search on WebMD. I had felt pain behind my knee for about four weeks, and I started thinking that it wasn’t merely a strained muscle. I called my doctor and was advised to go to the emergency room.  ASAP.  Sure enough, it was a blood clot.  It was urgent.  I didn’t leave the hospital that night.  I also didn’t call Steve.  He had led me to believe that he had one of the most important meetings of the year that next morning.  It was midnight – too late to call anybody.  I didn’t call my family.  They lived eight hours away from me, and I didn’t want them to wake and drive in the middle of the night. I was safe, I wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t want to risk their safety.  I called them early the next morning.  I called Steve during his lunch hour, after his important meeting.

Steve was outraged that I didn’t call him. Certainly a blood clot trumped a business meeting! He burned to question me upon entering the hospital room, but my parents were already there. Yes – my future husband and my parents met over my hospital bed! It was awkward, and the culture clash made it more so. Our relationship was new and we were still adapting to that while simultaneously my parents were forced to deal with my illness and this stranger in their midst. Soon the conversation fell silent between the four of us. I was in and out of queasiness from the pain meds.  We were fishing for things to do. My parents and I tried to show Steve the card game euchre. We failed miserably. Not because Steve didn’t show any interest or want to learn, but because we were too good at playing cards and too bad at teaching. Then I puked.

I spent five nights in the hospital.  Two days later, it was Christmas.  Our Christmas was a mish-mashed mess of mixed family traditions. It was filled with uncomfortable introductions and last-minute gift purchasing.  There were many quiet moments because I needed to rest while everyone else hung out, almost twiddling their thumbs at one another.

These days were exasperating.  New people and situations, uncertainties, insecurities, and misunderstandings seemed to be a whirlwind that lasted two weeks.  When everyone went home, I finally had the chance to process the craziness that had transpired.  I realized the differences that I found so challenging in Steve and his family were exactly the reasons that I knew I would be with him forever.

We’ve made many interesting memories since that hospital Advent in our relationship.  Our Southern family is astounded at the ambiguous gender roles we exhibit.  Our Northern family sometimes shrugs their shoulders.  Some people see our relationship as challenge.  We see it as opportunity.

What would our world be like if we saw differences as opportunity?  Jesus loved Samaritans; Paul welcomed Gentiles.  Could the church be so bold?  We build stone walls between one another in so many ways.  These walls often birth the ugliest parts of humanity: sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, etc.  I easily see my family differences as opportunity; it’s harder to see when looking at my congregation, my community, or at the larger context of today’s world.

I try – sometimes well, most times wretchedly – to express difference as opportunity.  I often feel as though I am the one behind a stone wall, desperately trying to find a door to open. It took me nine years to get through a four-year process for ministry candidacy and ordination.  I am one of the youngest adult members in my congregation and my rural community. God has called me to be the first female (sometimes pregnant) pastor of my congregation.

I bring an unusual liveliness to ministerial meetings simply because of who I am. For example, when a conservative pastor shares a generalizing opinion about Christianity or what “we” believe, I tactfully remind him that there are Christian people outside of his ideology.  That’s not generally popular.  Some believe this may give people more fervor to say that women shouldn’t be pastors.  Many pastors loathe participating in this kind of conversation. I feel strongly that we need to plant conversational seeds that ask, “Who is this Jesus that we follow?  How do we faithfully follow together? How do we stop building stone walls? In our differences, how is God opening doors for new life?”

Eight years into our marriage, Steve still does not define himself as a churchgoer. He comes to church because it’s important for me and our family. He made the promise at our children’s baptisms that he would.  It’s not easy to be a single parent in the pews.  He supports me wholeheartedly; and when not wrestling with a toddler, he can listen to my sermons.  Steve gives excellent feedback.  He’ll say, “This didn’t make any sense; too much jargon.  Real people sit in the pews, not theologians. Talk to us in real language.”  Every once and awhile, we dig deeper in conversation.  He asks me why I believe the “silly myth” that I believe.  I challenge him to think anew about life lived in Christian community. We have conversation that helps us understand one another and our differences and binds us together as we discover new similarities.  People struggle opening themselves to those who are different.  I struggle with it too.  But living with someone who is so different from me opens all kinds of doors for us to learn more about ourselves and one another.

Steve and I have learned together that we can build doors into those walls our society puts between us.  This helps make our relationship authentic.

We keep hearing from the blogosphere that people in the postmodern, post-Christendom church want a reformed, authentic church. We lose authenticity when we ignore the truth that everyone is fundamentally the same. Differences can overwhelm the similarities; they keep us from seeing that we have the same basic goals: love, security, dignity, legacy, wholeness. When you tear down those fractious walls, our diversity becomes beautiful and we can actualize our common humanity.

I crave that people in our church dig deep into uncharted horizons where we love, honor, and invite different people to join our table. I want to see conversation that is tender yet challenging and visionary.  I hope to find doors built into our defensive walls so that “different” is no longer taboo heresy.  I long for the day when, rather than blaming someone for being offensively different, we embrace one another for our common humanity.  I yearn that one Christian learn from another’s human experience as if it was her own.  I pray to God with Jesus, “that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11b, NIV)  My dream for Christ’s church is that it’s an open door, as bright as a skylight in the dark, thick walls, connecting two divided sides.  It’s an illuminating place where all God’s saints can peaceably abide together.

Rev. Brenda Lovick is the pastor at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in the rural village of Manlius in northern Illinois.  She graduated from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary with an MDiv and an MAMFT in 2006 and completed coursework at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 2009.  She leads a hobby-less life as she loves church people by day and chases small children by night.

Photo by Victor Bayon, http://www.flickr.com/photos/formalfallacy/2367382622/, August 13, 2013.  Used by Creative Commons License.

Stepping Out

like buttonI came out recently on facebook.  Not as gay.  That would have been no big deal to the vast majority of my friends.  I came out as a religious Christian.

I didn’t really mean to come out.  I just got the email saying I was invited to the candidacy site of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church.  I’d been waiting for that email for months.  I’d considered asking for it for years.  At long last the slow cogs of my heart and church beauracracy clicked into place, and I was so excited I just wanted to celebrate.

“I’m officially a candidate!” I posted.

“For?” was the first response.  Then silence.

I decided I had to answer.  I thought about how much I wanted to say.  I have lots of friends who are spiritual but not religious.  I have some friends who have been hurt by the church.  I have a few friends who are downright hostile towards what they consider to be the idiocy of organized religion.  A herd of fears thundered by, and my excitement fled into the nearest bushes to hide.

“Ministry in the United Methodist Church,” I typed with trepidation.  The words looked clear and confident on the screen.  Post.

I should explain.  As the click echoed off into the void of cyberland, I felt possessed with the need to explain.  I should explain that I might become a pastor, but I still believe in science.  And a woman’s right to choose.  And the full equality of marriage.  I should explain that God calls me, but I haven’t started hearing voices at night.  I’m not going to start asking people if they’re saved.  I haven’t forgotten my screw-ups.  I don’t think I’m better than you.

I should explain that I’m still me.

I decided not to.  I decided my friends, the good ones anyway – the ones who have seen me morph from starry-eyed teenager, to nerdy college girl, to idealistic-to-cynical-then-back-again Peace Corps volunteer, to working actresss, to English teacher – could probably figure that out.

I came back to the computer at the end of the day and was humbled by all the “Congratulations!” and “I’m so excited for you!”  My fears, in their thunderous roar, had underestimated my friends.  Many in my circle have their well-earned doubts about what the church can offer.  But they could tell I was happy, and so they were happy for me.

So I’m out.  Sort of.  I still wrestle, really wrestle, daily, with this new identity I’m trying on for size.  (Do I say I’m working on applications for “grad school” or for “seminary”? Do I say I’m planning on “studying to become a pastor” or “studying theology”?)  Often I wait and see, hedge my bets, depending on who I’m talking to, and go vague rather than face the explanation urges.

It’s getting easier, though.  I don’t see candidacy for ministry as a radical departure from who I’ve always been, but a thrilling synthesis of everything that has always been at the heart of who I am.  The less I explain, the more I come out, the easier I think it will be for my friends to see that too.

photo credit: iluvcocacola via photopin cc