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woman sitting alone in coffee shop

Narrative Envy

woman sitting alone in coffee shopNot long ago, I was making small talk with a new acquaintance before a board meeting began, and we were sharing about our recent respective vacations. I said, “I went to Chicago with my parents, and we had a lot of fun exploring the many museums, restaurants, and Frank Lloyd Wright houses.” She made some affirming listening noises, but then she paused. “So …you don’t have a family?”

I felt trapped by the limitations of her question. I had said that I had been traveling with my parents, but obviously they didn’t constitute a family in this woman’s mind. I could say that I’m a thoroughly invested aunt to my sister’s children, but that seemed to circumvent the intent of her question. So, resignedly, I gave her the answer she sought, “No, I do not have children; I’m not married.”

This happens to me more often than I’d like in my Midwestern context. I’ll meet a new female acquaintance and one of the first questions she’ll ask is, “Do you have children?” When I reply in the negative, I sense that she pulls back emotionally. Since we don’t have that common point of connection, I assume, she decides I am not someone with whom she can relate. One woman persevered and questioned, “Do you have a dog?” I do not. I am not a dog person. At that point, she gave up. I felt deemed to have a boring and pitiable existence.

It is difficult for me because this place of greatest scrutiny is also the place of my current greatest pain. I would love to be married and to have children. But that has not been my narrative up to this point.

The tenth commandment is, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” More often than not, I do not covet my neighbor’s house but rather my neighbor’s narrative. I covet the common narrative of adulthood, which is that you grow up, get married, and have kids. Read more

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?” Read more

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

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.

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My Grandpa, Our Advocate

The Author’s Grandfather

The Author’s Grandfather

I don’t belong to the same faith tradition as my grandfather did. Our denominations are cousins (mine the liberal cousin) that emerged out of the Stone Campbell movement of the Second Great Awakening. His tradition was non-instrumental, led by non-ordained clergy, absolute in its congregational polity, and literalist in its interpretation of much of Scripture. Grandpa’s tradition didn’t allow women to read Scripture, pray in worship, or teach boys over the age of 12, let alone serve as pastors of congregations.

When I was in the second grade, my parents moved us out of my Grandfather’s tradition and into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), mostly because of the institutional treatment of women. Raising two daughters made my parents keenly sensitive to the unjustness of their childhood church’s position. I, however, grew up blithely unaware of the sexism I’d been fortunate to avoid; I was unequivocally supported by my immediate family once I discerned a call to ministry (at the tender age of 14). But once I realized the difference between the tradition of my extended family and the tradition of my immediate family, I started to worry: would Grandpa approve? Grandpa had served as a pastor for many years, taught at a local seminary, had two PhD’s; his disapproval would be hard to combat. I should have remembered, though, that my Grandpa was a gentle, loving, intelligent, and kind man. I should have known my fears of rejection would be unfounded. He and my Grandmother participated in my ordination, and they never hesitated to support my ministry.

Grandpa may be in my Cloud of Witnesses, but I am convinced he stands also in the Cloud of Witnesses of countless women in the Church of Christ. You see, Grandpa taught his church that women could be deacons; he never failed to praise my preaching to every Sunday school he had, subversively asserting the validity of women’s proclamation of the gospel. In and out of the pulpit, throughout his career, Grandpa was always working to normalize the ministry of women in his own context. In his retirement, he continued this support, personally encouraging and championing women who pursued ministry within his tradition. After his funeral, which was held on Holy Saturday, an older woman took me aside to tell me the story of how Grandpa always asked after her daughter who was serving as a minister. Grandpa not only continued to encourage her daughter, but also encouraged this woman whenever she was asked to read scripture or lead prayers.

Women I will never meet know they are supported in their calls because my Grandfather dared to speak up for them. People who would never have challenged the status quo of their tradition were presented with solid interpretive possibilities because my Grandfather wasn’t afraid to teach them. And I? The story of his call and faithful submission to God is a bright beacon that keeps me strong as I follow my calling. His gracious love, steadfast commitment to teaching, and joyful celebration of my ministry in a context that was occasionally hostile to female ministers reminds me that I, too can have an incredible impact on the churches and members that I serve. I can be brave, like he was; I can push the church, like he did; but I can only do those things if I am committed to deeply loving my flock, just as he did.

I know there are many men like my Grandpa, who stay within their traditions and remain steadfastly committed to the inclusion of women in ministry. Praise God! But today, I’m thankful just for him. Whenever I affirm the call of another woman, I like to think I’m carrying on his legacy.

The author's family

It Mattered: A Lesson in Gender and Ministry

The author's family

The author’s “trinity” of support

Most of 2009 is an ugly blur to me, but one weekend in October stands out in my memory. My mother, godmother, and aunt drove up from North Carolina to Kentucky, where I had recently moved, to help me. My husband and I had moved in January for his new position as a seminary professor. I had become a mother, a resident of Kentucky, a seminary graduate, and a stay-at-home mom all in the month of January 2009. As my son turned 9 months old, I had been invited to preach for the first time since arriving in Kentucky on the same weekend my husband would be out of town. I do not feel as though I made the transition from seminary student and hospice chaplain to stay-at-home mom very gracefully. I had all kinds of needs, some of which I didn’t even know. It was obvious to my mother and her two besties that with my husband out of town, someone needed to care for my son while I wrote and delivered my sermon.

They made a road trip of it, and on a Thursday night in October 2009, these three women who were so important to me and to one another arrived at my house: Marjorie (my mom), Nancy (my godmother and the wife of my childhood youth minister), and Cheryl (my aunt and childhood music minister). A trinity of love and spiritual nurture from the days before I was an ordained minister. Read more

female silhouette with water and a horizon in the silhouette

Embracing Fluidity

female silhouette with water and a horizon in the silhouetteTwo months ago I ended my position at a parish where I served for six years as the associate rector. Leaving was the best option for my family, my health, and my desire to pursue another kind of ministry. It was time for something new. I initially thought I would stay until I had my second baby and then would make a graceful exit; however, this never happened, which led to making some tough decisions.

We wrestled with how we could afford to live on (basically) one income. I have always carried our health insurance, which meant we would likely either need my spouse to find new employment or we would purchase our health insurance. Both my husband and I were unwilling to relocate for our jobs. Having family in the same city was our priority. Having these parameters was, at times, terribly difficult. In the end, my husband and I decided to embrace change rather than run from it. I believe it forced us both to embrace creativity and risk. I’m much better at the first than the second. In one month’s time my husband ended a job, we moved, he started a new job, and I became unemployed. I still cringe when I write the word unemployed. Read more

ladder on the side of a building, into the sky

The Old, Old Story for a New, New Step-Mom

ladder on the side of a building, into the sky

Jacob’s ladder for the modern step-family

I am a pastor and the daughter of a pastor. I attended Sunday school, worship, and Bible studies for all of my growing-up years. I majored in Religion in college, and I have a Master of Divinity. I have taught and preached Bible stories to thousands of people across multiple congregations. But one night, as I sat on the couch listening to my husband, Lee, read a children’s Bible—Desmond Tutu’s Children of God: Storybook Bible—to our boys, the Bible surprised me in a way I had not expected.

If someone were to peek into our windows and watch us as we sit on that couch reading Bible stories together, we would look like an ideal American family, a picture of peace and virtue. But we are not most people’s version of an “ideal” family, and we are not always at peace—at least not right now. Our Bible time is a rare sanctuary in what often feels like a new and unstable world.

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Becoming a Grandparent

2 Timothy 1:5  I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

About a month ago, this amazing thing happened: I became a grandmother. In and of itself, that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; after all, people become grandparents every day. But these two facts make it amazing:

  • I only became a mother 4 years ago.
  • I am only 33.

Our family is a bit unconventional, in the loveliest way.  Read more

Erica Schemper and her father, Lugene Schemper, at Christmas Day Vespers in 2005.

‘Tis the Season to be in the Family Business

Erica Schemper and her father, Lugene Schemper, at Christmas Day Vespers in 2005.

Erica Schemper and her father, Lugene Schemper, at Christmas Day Vespers in 2005.

This is my idealized childhood Christmas memory. It’s about 9:00pm, and our church’s Christmas Eve service is over. Everyone has finally left the building, except for my family. We are always the last to leave: we’re the pastor’s family. But tonight, instead of loading up the car and heading home, we go into the church bathroom where all four kids change into warm pajamas, then load into the station wagon, and off we go, beginning the 14-hour drive from upstate New York to my grandparents’ house in suburban Chicago. We’ll be there in time for Christmas dinner, and presents.

I’m a multigenerational pastor’s kid (often referred to as “PKs” in pastoral families). My dad is a pastor. My maternal grandfather is a pastor and a former missionary. And while growing up in a clergy family means you are often more religiously observant than the average Christmas and Easter family, it usually also means that your family’s traditions around the holidays are somewhat malleable. We were all so busy around Christmas, travel had to be arranged around the Christmas worship schedules; and, for the sake of sanity, my parents had to let go of some things that other families might think of as non-negotiable traditions (I was shocked to learn that some families have a huge dinner on Christmas Eve. Who’s got the time to roast a goose when you’ve got to stick 400 candles into their little paper wax-catchers?).

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