In the Public Square

Last Sunday I was ordained.  It was a beautiful service with everything one would expect, including cherished hymns, a charge to the candidate and congregation, the presence of a beloved tapestry of people I am blessed to call my community, and, of course, the laying on of hands.  Then there were the elements of my ordination that were a bit out of the ordinary, such as the outing with my mom, sister, and friend in which we all got tattoos.  The inspiration for the tattoos we each got, at least for my mother, sister and I, was a Scripture verse that my ordained Baptist mother would say as a blessing to her daughters every morning as we grew up:  “You are God’s beloved daughter, in whom She is well pleased.”  There was also the Beer and Hymns party, which is quickly becoming a favorite way for my church to celebrate ordinations.  But the element that made my ordination stand out the most is the fact that I was not being ordained for work in the parish, pastorate, or some other form of “traditional” ministry.

My calling is to the public square and to the prophetic role of the Church.  The fire in my bones is the intersection of faith and politics.  I work in political consulting and do faith and values outreach and messaging.  Needless to say, having a job centering on the two things you are not supposed to talk about in polite company certainly doesn’t make me popular at parties.

I was initially called to this work because I had become convinced that the current state of religion and politics in the country is damaging our political discourse and harming the Christian witness.  I was also inspired by the impact I believe the Church can have in the world.  I believe that faith is bigger than the Religious Right and the Church has an important calling to speak a word of truth and hope to the nations.  That is the conviction that took me to Divinity School.  It’s the conviction that sustains my current career in political consulting and non-profit issue advocacy.  And it is what eventually led me to ordained ministry.

My story is not unique.  I’ve heard it again and again from the lips of so many that I know it resonates with a number of people, but I also know that it is one that is discomforting.  As a Baptist, the theological imperative of church-state separation is ingrained into the very fiber of my being.  Along with everyone else, I’ve seen how much damage can be done when religion and politics are combined.  But I’ve seen the other side as well.

Most of the great movements and institutions in our country were started in the pews, from Abolition to women’s suffrage, from workers’ rights and child labor laws to Civil Rights.  Our impact is felt outside the history books as well.  In recent years I have seen firsthand how the public witness of religious leaders has bent the long arc of the universe just a little more towards justice.  Due in no small part to the prophetic witness of the Church, the Senate ratified the New START treaty which marks the greatest reduction in global nuclear arsenals in a decade; Congress passed the RESTORE Act, which is helping countless families on the Gulf recover from the devastating BP oil spill; and even though it is still embroiled in controversy, because of tenacious nuns fighting for healthcare, millions of Americans now have access to life saving medical treatment.  Our country is better when our religious communities participate in finding solutions to our challenges.

Even those who agree with this narrative may still question whether ordination is appropriate for people who engage in this type of public witness; it’s a question I wrestled with for quite some time.  There are number of reasons I ultimately believe a call to the prophetic role of the church is ordained work.  For starters, there is the public and personal accountability it puts on those of us called to this work.  Most importantly, however, I think it has an important impact on how people view the work of the Church.  When properly viewed, the Church is not a physical location or activity on Sunday morning; it is a manner of living and a way of inhabiting the world.  There is a lot of cynicism around politics.  But if we believe what our faith teaches, that following Christ really can transform our lives and our world, then we need to carry that belief into every aspect of our lives, including the public sphere.

When we ordain those called to ministry outside the parish walls we embolden people to imagine how the redemptive work of God can be done in every corner of our hurting world.  And in a world that is desperate for healing, hope and reconciliation, that imaginative capacity can be truly miraculous.  The Church has a story to tell, a story that shatters the sword and drives out fear, a story that can change our world and even our politics.  May we be bold enough to tell it.

Rachel Johnson is an Associate with the Eleison Group, a consulting firm that specializes in faith-based outreach for Democrats and progressives. She also serves as Programs Director for the American Values Network, a non-profit advocacy group that works with religious communities. Prior to Eleison, Rachel worked as Mississippi field director for Common Good Strategies doing faith outreach for Democratic candidates. She is also Managing Editor of the blog FaithfulDemocrats.com.  Rachel holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a MAR in Theology from Yale Divinity School. She was ordained in October 2012 at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC where she is an active member and deacon.

Editor’s Note: Leading up to the election, Fidelia’s Sisters will publish articles written with a political flair. We will consider what it means to be political, to be clergy and to be young women.

Photo credit: feeb via photopin cc

One Year To the Day

Photo Credit to Catherine Roy

The gray walls whisper goodbye to me as I walk through them for a last time, making my way down the long hallways to surgery. Or perhaps I am the one extending silent goodbyes to this space as I wrap up my final day of Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital on Chicago’s south side. A final visit: I sanitize my hands before entering the patient waiting area for the surgical unit. I have never actually been back behind these glass doors; my work is done with patients still awake, conscious, afraid of what will happen behind those doors, putting their faith in God and in doctors that all will be well.

Ms. King lies on a stretcher, her gown low on her shoulders. “Ms. King,” I say softly, sidling up to her. “It’s good to see you.  I stopped by your room and was told that you were up here for a procedure.” Ms. King meets my eyes and a smile plays at her lips.  This is my third visit to Ms. King. The other two times, we have spoken little – I have sat with her, read to her from my Bible and a copy of this month’s Daily Bread, prayed with her. On my first visit, I tried to make conversation but had great difficulty understanding her responses. Feeling us both grow frustrated with my inability to understand, we’ve kept my visits simple ever since.

“I’d like to read to you again today, would that be alright?” Ms. King nods and mouths what might be a yes. I take her hand, clenched in a fist as it was the first time I visited with her, and hold it. I read the scripture, and when I finish, I simply stand quietly beside Ms. King, my hand around hers. “May I pray with you?”

“Yes. Please.”

A nurse approaches us ready to take Ms. King’s blood pressure. “Will you give us a moment?” I ask him. “I’d like to pray with Ms. King.”

“Oh, sure.”  He steps away, allowing us some semblance of privacy in this wide-open waiting area. And so I pray with Ms. King, giving thanks for the time we’ve shared together, giving thanks for God’s presence with us, praying that the procedure she is about to undergo is smooth and without complication. I close with the Lord’s Prayer and Ms. King echoes my amen. Opening my eyes, I meet her gaze, and I smile.  “God bless you, Ms. King. It has been such a gift to spend time with you.”

“Yes,” she nods.  “God bless you.”  Three simple words, and yet so clear in intention.  “God bless you.”

Today, this last day at the hospital, marks exactly one full year of ministry blessings; it was this day last year that I began serving as a full-time ministry intern at a local church in North Carolina. This year, nine months as a congregational pastor and three months as a hospital chaplain, has reminded me of how profoundly blessing the work of ministry is.  Sure, it is part of my role to be a conduit of God’s love and grace, peace and comfort, and as I am learning, also of God’s prophetic word.  Part of this job, though, has been opening myself to receive the love, grace, peace, comfort, and challenge that others offer.  Even as I bless Ms. King, so does she bless me. Of course, I cannot do this work in order to receive such blessing: sometimes it comes, sometimes it does not, but so often God’s gifting goes in multiple directions.

This was true for me in the nine months I spent in a local church as well.  While I brought my enthusiasm, curiosity, love of liturgy and genuine care for the well-being of God’s people and world, the congregation welcomed me with space in which to explore who I am as a pastor, to explore my gifts and passions, to make mistakes, to live into what it means to be a part of God’s beloved community.  And no, it was not a perfect church: it has its fair share of anxiety around change, its fair share of messy history, its fair share of growing pains.  Yet its ministry to me was its openness not only to what it might give me but to what I might give it, this two-way movement of God’s blessing.  During my time there, I preached regularly, led worship and presided over communion, presided at a funeral, planned and organized an ecumenical Longest Night Service, taught Sunday School, led a Lenten Series on spirituality, provided pastoral care to congregants.  Sometimes I made mistakes, but this congregation embraced me in my humanity and invited forth my gifts.

God works in mysterious ways, blessing us as we bless others, teaching us as we open ourselves to learning, guiding us as we strive to discern God’s call.  I have long looked forward to hospital chaplaincy, thinking that it would be a good vocational fit for me: someone who has at times expressed some ambivalence toward the Christian story and tradition, someone who values plurality in tradition and belief. But God works in mysterious ways.  While I loved my work in the hospital, while CPE taught me a great deal about myself and who I am as a pastoral care-giver, I find that my passions and gifts come out most fully in the context of a local congregation. I am eager to do more Clinical Pastoral Education, but I will do so knowing that everything I learn and do in this program will better prepare me for my work as a congregational minister.  I am coming to love the church, to be passionate about the ways in which church can live into our vision of the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the ways in which church can be a mediator in the multi-directional blessing of the Divine One who binds us all together.

Thandiwe Gobledale is entering the final year of her Masters of Divinity Program at the University of Chicago.  She enjoys travel and worship and looks forward to being a part of the Disciples Divinity House community after being away in North Carolina last year.  She hopes to graduate and pursue a CPE residency for a year before entering congregational ministry.

photo credit: Catherine Roy zaziepoo via photopin cc

Playing Dress Up

There I stood, looking at myself in the mirror.  I had done this many times before.  As a little girl playing dress up, I recall stuffing tissues into the backs of my mom’s heels and proudly stomping around the house.  I recall putting on deep red lipstick, borrowed from my five-year-old best friend, a precious ruby red form of what I thought to be womanhood.  And I recall filling the tops of my dresses with two pairs of socks and staring admirably at the woman I had yet to grow into.

Yet this time was different.  It was November 2011, over Thanksgiving weekend.  My husband and I had volunteered to help my mom clear out my dad’s office at the church he served as head pastor for 23 years.  My dad had just died of cancer and there hadn’t been time to clean out his office.  We sorted through accordions of files, all dedicated to the ministry.  On the files we saw titles like “Session,” “Capital Campaign,” “Christmas Eve Services,” “Vision Planning.”  We sorted books on the church, on trips to the Holy Land, on different Bible translations.  While my husband and mom began toting the trash into the bin outside, I decided to conquer the task of cleaning out my dad’s bathroom.

I found them in the closet: my dad’s stoles, thick rainbows of fabric hanging on each shoulder of hangers, each strand of cloth representing a strand of ministry my dad performed—a stole for baptisms, a stole for Communion, a stole from mission trips, a stole for Advent.  I was lost in the memories, in the meaning of these stoles until my mom interrupted me.  “Sweetie, you can take any of those you want.  Dad would have loved nothing more than for you to have those.”

She went back to sorting files and I eagerly assumed my dress up role.  I placed one stole on my shoulders after another, carefully arranging each one to lay flat over my chest, meticulously pulling my hair out from the collar each time, and there I stood, looking at myself in the mirror. How many times had my dad straightened the collar of his stole here?  How many times had my dad arranged his microphone here?  How many times did my dad go over the order of service here with this stole on?  How many people did my dad hug after he preached in these stoles?  How many people did he baptize and call children of God in this one?  How many people all over the world would recognize my dad as the pastor on the mission field in this one?  How many times did my dad say “On the night he was betrayed” in this one?    How many times did my dad light the Advent candle and preach of Jesus’ birth in this one?  I suddenly felt the weight of the fabric and the heat accumulating on my shoulders as I looked at myself.

Near the end of Exodus, God commands Moses to set up a tent of meeting. The passage is full of detailed descriptions of elements in the tabernacle: an altar for incense, a basin for washing, a lamp stand. And there are priestly garments for Aaron.  In Exodus 28:2-3, God commands Moses, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor. Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest.”  So Aaron serves as priest throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  And near the end of Numbers, God says to Moses:  “’Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.’ Moses did as the LORD commanded: They went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain” (Numbers 20:25-28).

There wasn’t time for my dad to remove his stoles and place them on me before he died. But in that moment, as I looked at myself in the mirror in my dad’s office, I was not a little girl playing dress up.  I was a woman called by God and encouraged and inspired by my dad to continue ministry.  Just as my dad exclaimed in delight “This one’s mine!” on the day of my birth because I was the first child with his dimples, so God delights in my calling to ministry, so God delights in watching me play dress up in the stoles I can’t wait to wear, so God exclaims “This one’s mine!”

The stoles still hang as thick rainbows of fabric, although now they hang as strands of ministry in my closet, strands of ministry to which I am called and to which I will be ordained soon enough.  And although now I do have the adult feet to fit into heels, the option of wearing lipstick, and a chest that doesn’t need socks to fill it out, I now have the most excitement about getting to wear my dad’s stoles and turning dress up into a real life calling.

Mary Beth McSwain is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School (M. Div., 2010).  She recently moved to Tucson, Arizona from Spokane, Washington and is currently acquainting herself with ministerial life in the Southwest.  She hopes to find a place to serve in ministry soon.

photo credit: pathlost via photo pin cc

Death and New Life

On February 26, 2010, my brother Cameron died of an overdose of heroin.

I was in the middle of my first year of graduate studies for my Master of Divinity degree. I was 27 years old, and after a few years of post-college floundering, I’d “discerned my call,” as we clergy-types say, and began the process of becoming a candidate for ordination. Up until this point, my life had been relatively smooth. I’d followed the traditional route of high school to college, graduated with honors, and married my college boyfriend. We had been married for two and a half years and had just purchased our first home. My husband had a great job in software development, which allowed me to pursue my theological studies full-time. I breezed through admittance interviews and candidacy entrance procedures, and was encouraged by church leadership to pursue ordained ministry. I felt blessed and led by God, in whom I’d always believed without question. Wherever I looked, doors opened and opportunities arose. The ease with which this all happened unconsciously confirmed to me that God loved me and was taking care of me.

Then my world turned upside-down. Cameron was four years younger than me. He’d been abusing alcohol and drugs since his teens. He was constantly in trouble with my parents and the police, and spent quite a bit of time in jail. It was difficult and frustrating to watch his life unfold in this way, and my family made every effort to help him without enabling him. We all thought he would grow out of it someday and figure out how to “be normal” and get a grip on life.

Instead, he died. At 23 years old, my baby brother was gone, ripped from our lives in a horrible and tragic way.

His death was life-altering and faith-shattering for me. For the first year and a half, I went about life in a state of shock and numbness. Deep in grief, I somehow still managed to get to classes and write good papers. My classmates and school administrators helped by allowing me to be myself and say whatever I needed to say during this time. School became my safe place, where I could bring all my grief and sadness, and find constant love and support.

But as the numbness began to wear off, new questions and thoughts began to appear. For the first time, I wondered if God was real. I’d always taken God for granted, happy with my image of a grandfatherly monarch, all-powerful but gracious and loving. This God had watched over me, helped me along the way, and blessed me. And in return, I’d decided to give my life to serving this God and working to build up His church and people. Now I felt betrayed and abandoned. I could no longer accept the idea that God has plans for us, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope,” as Jeremiah 29:11 promises. If this was God’s plan for my brother, I concluded, than it was a horrible plan. My Sunday school God-image, which had helped to define my worldview so well in the past, was broken past the point of no return. I could no longer believe in this God.

In the fall of 2011, I began an internship as a hospital chaplain, which included a practicum class. On the second day of class, I said it out loud for the first time: “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.” As soon as I said it, I burst into tears. I was terrified at my confession. What did this mean? Should I quit seminary and find a nice normal job? Could I say these things and still be a Christian? Could I still be a candidate for ministry?

With the encouragement of my classmates and our professor, as well as the guidance of a talented spiritual director, I faced these feelings head on. I plummeted to dark and terrifying places on this spiritual journey, wondering with Nietzsche if God really was dead. At the same time, in the hospital, I ministered to people of all faiths, beliefs, and cultures. At first I felt like a chaplain imposter. I was supposed to be the steady one, easing the fears of hospital patients with my example of faith and peacefulness. But my thoughts were completely opposite of that. How could I pray with someone in this state? What did I have to offer in this time of lostness?

But slowly, I came to understand that I could be full of doubt and anger and still minister to people. I began to realize that ministry is not about me and my issues. My role as a chaplain was to figure out what gave others strength and hope, and to facilitate an experience of that with them. I learned that it is possible to do this without having all of my own theological kinks ironed out.

I began to see a new image of God emerge from my conversations and prayers with people. I experienced a beautiful moment of prayer with a Jewish Wicca woman and her wife, using their language of “Spirit” and “Fire” and “Power” to describe the movements of the Divine in their lives. I added these words to my own spiritual repertoire. I prayed with a Pentecostal woman, echoing her familiar phrases of “Lord Jesus” and “Almighty God.” Though these words can be difficult for me to use in my own spiritual life, loaded as they are with the image of the God who failed me, I could see that they were important and meaningful to her. I made genuine connections with Protestants and Catholics, Buddhists and Jews, Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists and the non-religious. I began to see a new kind of God, a God who is intimately present in the world and in the lives of everyone. I felt this God, this Source of All, working beyond religious, denominational, and creedal lines.

I believe that this is an understanding that is deeply embedded in Christian tradition and beliefs, and in the accounts we have of the life of Jesus. For me, one of the most important lessons from the story of Jesus is that God is fully present in Humanity. If this is true, then we are all truly Children of God. And this is not a God who is distant and controlling, but is more like that extra crackle of energy that is present in each person and in every particle of matter in the universe. It is in our relationships and interactions, in the dirt and the trees and the sun and the sky, in death and in life.

Experiencing the death of my brother was, and still is, extremely painful. But through it, I have learned to see God in everyone. And I now see the message of Easter in a very personal way: Impossibly, death is followed by new life. My brother’s death gifted me with a broader, more inclusive understanding of God. Cameron’s death pointed me to new life. Though I would give up this lesson in a heartbeat to have my brother back, I am eternally thankful to him for showing me who Jesus is, and for showing me a new way to believe.

Chelsea Globe is twenty-nine years old and has completed three years in the Master’s of Divinity program at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry (STM). She is a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Next year, she will be studying at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA, then returning to Seattle to complete her internship and M.Div. degree, and graduate in 2014. She lives in Seattle, WA, with her husband Bill Kallio, Gunnar the dog, and Sadie the cat.

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photo credit: Landahlauts via photo pin cc Used by Creative Commons License.

Nudges of the Spirit

I struggle deeply in those in-between times of the year, the Lenten fasting, the Advent waiting. The call nags and pokes me, but most church seasons I can stay so busy with ministry ‘stuff’ that I can push it to the back of my mind. Christmas? Easter? No problem, I can get wrapped up in children’s programs, youth service projects and family obligations. I’m busy, I’m clearly needed, I’m where I’m needed to be, just wait. But these time of year, the between times, I’m talking, leading, teaching awareness, taking time to be attentive to God’s presence. Why can’t I practice it myself?

Because I’m afraid, afraid that the nagging, poking, whisper of God’s call will get violent. The Holy Spirit isn’t always known for her subtlety. What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of the reality of God’s call in my life. I talk a good talk, but can I walk the walk?

Am I ready for God’s calling to be a solo pastor? I didn’t want that vocation when I entered seminary 5 years ago. Heck, I didn’t even want it when I graduated.

The back story is this: the big dream five years ago as I sought a seminary after college was Masters of Divinity and Law degrees. I would change the world. I had the support of two loving parents. I had a home to always go home to and their constant support. But seminary is way more than most bargain for; for some it’s the classes, for others it’s the emotional vulnerability, and others it’s the pure loneliness of facing it all alone. I was in the last camp and the individual in me did not know how to handle it. I went home as often as I could. The dreams clarified, the law degree could wait.

Then everything changed. My parents moved forward with their divorce and my stability went into a tailspin, I entered my second year attempting to stand on my own. And I did; the next two years, I found my voice, my circle of support, and I reset my relationship with my parents. Becoming an ordained minster didn’t seem so far fetched. The Holy Spirit was steering me in a new direction. I could do it but as an Associate, there would be others to share the load.

Then I entered the search process, and for any Presbyterians going through the process recently, you know it’s rough. It’s feast or famine. Churches get excited about the initial contact but then they don’t call, they don’t write. So I widened what I could be doing ministry in and what ministry meant; ordination could wait.

A good fit came, I saw myself being part of the ministry of a wonderful church.  The beneficial sharing of gifts and growth in Christ truly flourished as I worked as a Director of Christian Education. Staying busy was key, and as I stated earlier, it could all be pushed to the back of my mind.

But the Holy Spirit wasn’t done with me, and the nudges came at inconvenient times. Youth gathered at Montreat, and I felt like the sermons were directed right at me! The opportunities to preach left me aching for more. Then a new interim minister walked in and figuratively grabbed me by the shoulders, shaking me, saying, “You are ready, what are you afraid of?”

It took those between times to truly recognize the gift of new beginning, I’m ready  to give up that fear. The fear I’m not equipped to be a pastor, especially a solo pastor.  I am standing up to the fear of failure. The fear I will never have a home again. I am capable of all that God has called me to do and what I have is enough. I am never alone.

Editor’s Note: Are you a young woman discerning a call to ministry? Tell us your story: email alongtheway(dot)ycw(at)gmail(dot)com for submission guidelines.

The author, who has withheld her name to protect the confidentiality of the search process, is working internally with the call to ordination in a call not ordained at this time. Outside her head, she is happily engaging children, youth and families as a Director of Christian Education in a Presbyterian Church of the Midwest. And beyond all that, she enjoys walking her prancing toy poodle and every episode of Once Upon a Time the day after. Living without cable is more freeing than the commercials let on.

Photo credit: Walt Stoneburner via photo pin cc Used by Creative Common License.

A Blue Paper Crane

I was sitting alone in the darkness of my seminary dorm room.  There was an exceptionally sad song playing on my iPod.   The tears were pouring down my face.   As I pulled another tissue from the box, I said out loud:  “I am not equipped to do this.  I don’t have what it takes to be worthy of this call that you placed on my life. I can’t do it, God.  I can’t.”

I was one week into my very first “real, grown-up ministry job”—otherwise known as my field education placement.  I was working in a beautiful, diverse, spiritually-inclusive faith community bursting with children, and vibrant growth.  The pastor there was everything I hoped for in an internship supervisor.  Warm, brilliant, thoughtful, challenging in all of the “right ways,” and the congregation LOVED her.  She had earned their trust ten fold.

This sounds amazing, doesn’t it?   Like I should have been jumping for joy.  Thanking my lucky stars that I had found such a wonderful placement.

Not so much.  Instead?  Instead, I was terrified.

I had spent the last two years building roots and pursuing my call to ministry in a church that is a national UCC center for excellence.  My ministry mentors?  People literally came from all over to hear them preach.  And when my seminary classmates heard that I was in-care for ordination at THAT church, they looked at me as if I had special super powers.  Oh yes, and of course we were a teaching church.

Our interns?  They were like Midas (you know, from the Greek legends, lest it be confused with that tire place with the cheesy commercials).  Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold.   I was awed, humbled, and totally freaked out by them.  There was no way I was ever going to be THAT good.   I mean, hello y’all, let’s get real.  Oh yes, and my partner?  My partner is amazing, quickly becoming a beloved clergy person in her own right.  Now, at my field placement church, here I was, studying at the feet of another beloved pastor with an outstanding reputation.  It was just all too much to live up to.

And so, I lamented.  Like the Psalmists, like Jeremiah, I cried out to God that I wasn’t worthy.  That She must simply mean someone else.  I was never going to be like any of THOSE people.  What on earth was I doing in seminary?

I opened my Bible to read some of my old, favorite verses for comfort.   And onto my lap fell a beautiful, blue paper crane.  Taped to the side of the paper crane was a post-it note that read:  “You are worthy of this call.”  The tears stopped as my breath caught in my throat.  I had entirely forgotten I had it.  A gift from mysterious seminary angels, paper cranes bearing inspirational sayings of all kinds had been left on our desks for the last day of classes in the spring semester of my first year. I remember being completely dumbfounded, and moved to tears when I got it.  And here it was again at a moment that I needed it most.

I gently unfolded the little paper crane.  I set him gently on top of my Bible next to a photo of my partner and me.  This was going to become my inspiration corner.  I grabbed a piece of paper and without really thinking began to write.   I just wrote the sentences as they came to my mind and one by one taped them up on the wall.  I am whole.  I am loved beyond measure.  I am affirmed just as I am.   It was then that I realized I was writing a prayer.  It was a prayer for myself, a prayer for every young, aspiring clergywoman who had ever felt this way.

And it was in that moment that it really sunk in. I don’t have to be my internship supervisor, or my ministry mentor, or one of those interns at my home church whom I idolized so much.  I just have to be me.  A line from an old sermon rang in my ears.  God doesn’t call the equipped.   God equips the called.   Say that with me again, sisters:  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.

Doubt is holy.  It is part of the process.  But God didn’t call some super polished version of me that I might be one day.  God calls us just as we are.  We are worthy of every moment of this journey, and this call.  Lucky for us, the Resurrection teaches us that doubt and fear will not have the last word.  They are not the end. The end of this story? About 2 hours later I lit a candle into the darkness and whispered, “I think I can.  I know I can.  I can.”

Heidi Ward is a second year MDiv student at Andover Newton Theological School in greater Boston. She is preparing for a call to parish ministry in the United Church of Christ. She currently serves as the Student Pastor of the Union Church in Waban. She is preparing to serve as a hospital chaplaincy intern at Brigham and Women’s hospital this summer. When not hitting the books, or practicing the joys of ministry, Heidi can be found in the mountains of Southern Vermont cooking, reading, volunteering on a political or social justice campaign, or spending time with family. Heidi shares her life with her fiancée Emily and their cat Daisy.

Along the Way is a column written by women discerning a call to ministry. Submissions are welcome and should be sent to alongtheway(dot)ycw(at)gmail.com.

Photo by Lori Hutchinson, http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorihutchinson/3405472576/, April 1, 2009. Used by Creative Common License.

Searching for a Mentor

When I started this journey, I thought all pastors would behave alike. There would be room for variation, of course – some would be slightly more introverted (me), for example – but there would be certain overall trends. In the same way that the accountant ought to be meticulous and the politician articulate, so too must the pastor be some optimal blend of compassionate, spiritual, and ordered.

At the seminary I attend, the majority of my classmates have the same Myers-Briggs personality type that I do: INFJ. Although we come from all different parts of the country, and from a variety of traditions, we communicate well enough with one another that I feel better understood here than I do anywhere else. I trust my classmates to “read between the lines” of what I am able to articulate – and most of the time, it appears to work. I say “pastoral” and they hear “compassionate, empathetic, and Christ-centered.” I say “I’m having a tough time at my internship” and they don’t hear “I haven’t converted enough souls to meet my monthly quota.” Over the past eighteen months, this has all served as low-grade affirmation that I’m on the right path. How poorly suited for ministry can I be if all the other up-and-comers are like-minded?

Of course, not everyone is like me – not here at my school, not in ministry. For proof of this, I need to look no further than my mentors. Each and every one of them, bless their souls, is totally, overwhelmingly unlike me.

Every industry touts the value of mentorship. My brief stint in defense consulting after college was a year-long lesson in the value of seasoned advice. You don’t know what it’s like to work for Project Manager X? Ask your mentor! Even better – make it a lunch date! I never found a mentor in consulting who acted and thought just like I did, either – but I never expected to fit in. I never referred to consulting as “my calling.” I considered it a victory when an encounter with my mentor (who outranked me by three tiers) didn’t activate every sweat gland in my body. As I transitioned to seminary – on the trail of what I do consider my calling – I expected that things would get easier. In particular, I expected the process of locating and utilizing a mentor would feel much more intuitive.

The trouble is that this process feels even less black-and-white in ministry than it did in consulting. In responding to a parishioner’s concern or crisis, there’s no real guidance beyond the pastoral and the practical. I’ve watched many a mentor handle many a crisis, but none of them has ever done something exactly the way I would have done it. Part of this, for now, is my inexperience: I don’t always know how to do things pastorally and practically. This does not, however, account for all of the discrepancies. Some behaviors are just more “Therin” than others. Gender ties into this – as does language. As a young adult female, there are modes of expression natural and available to me that might not be to others. For instance, I rarely try to “fix” others’ problems as soon as they are shared with me. Barring a church policy to the contrary, I often comfort with light touch. The emotional landscape has become familiar terrain; I bring to bear my own hand-drawn map. As a Tennessean, further, I have in my repertoire a host of Southern colloquialisms that I’ll share with both belle and yankee. It’s not a tough row to hoe, y’all; I’ve been at “being Therin” for a long time. So, I’ve wondered, where are the other Therins, the ones with successful ministries under their belts?

In seeking a mentor, I am not looking for someone exactly like me so that I can prepare for every conceivable situation simply through her (or his) experience.  Mostly, I want a mentor like me to know the unknowable: whether my ministry will reach people. I want to confirm that I, with my proverbial mixed bag of character traits, can truly build up the body of Christ. In this sense, my mentor’s success would be a fairly good indicator of my own. When I began this call process, over two years ago, I was told that I would bring particular gifts to ordered ministry. No one told me whether I would bring the right gifts – or even simply adequate ones. Certainly, I’ve had some indicators (more from those outside the church than those within it) that I might not be “dispositionally equipped” for ministry at all. Those who, against my vehement urging, imagined me as a career defense consultant had trouble envisioning me as a pastor even long after I had made the decision to move to Princeton and attend seminary. No one concretely tells you what makes a “good pastor,” I reckon, because there’s no single way to be a good pastor.

Perhaps I feel so similar to my classmates here at seminary because most ministers, at their foundation, do share a great deal. We’re all Christian, for starters. That’s not a personality trait so much as an orientation, but it’s nonetheless a tremendous and separating distinction.  We’re also generally thoughtful, steadfast, and compassionate. The desire to be pastoral, even apart from naturally being pastoral, comes from somewhere. It means something.

Once, Condaleeza Rice said that if she had waited for a black female Soviet specialist to mentor her, she would have waited a long time. Her point: you can’t wait for mentors exactly like you. You have to take – and value – the mentors you get. So, perhaps I’ll stop the search for a mentor who talks and acts like I do. After all, none of us is quite like Jesus – and that hasn’t stopped us from devoting our lives to seeking him.

Mary Catherine (“Therin”) Jones is a second-year student in the M.Div. program at Princeton Theological Seminary and a youth ministry intern at Nassau Presbyterian Church. She is also the editor of PTS’ literary and visual arts journal, Testament.

Mini Sabbath

Twenty-Five Minutes

Mini SabbathAs a graduate student, I find myself with very few days where I experience sabbath. When it comes to having assignments or reading to be done, those win out over having a day of rest. At the beginning of this semester I was continually taunted by assignments, work, continuing with the ordination process, and looking for work for when I finish school in May. I found myself being consumed by tasks, stress, and perpetual movement. Knowing I was in need of some form of respite I began to look for ways to slow down during the day and regain perspective.

This need for restoring self and perspective was most evident one Tuesday. In the spring semester this year Tuesdays are the days when I have meetings and work from 8:30 am – 9:00 pm and then I need to find time to read and compose papers for class. There is no question that when it comes to Tuesdays I am driven by my calendar with very little, if any, regard for taking time to slow down. On this particular Tuesday I was asked in my first two meetings if I would stay in Waco and continue the volunteer work I had been working on after I graduate. This was also the day I had a Capstone paper on my Christology due. This day also included me applying for jobs for post-graduation, and none of them were in Waco. On this day, emotions, stress, effort, and energy were tapped out.

Since I had already looked into various ways to have mini sabbaths throughout the week and had remembered the practice of centering prayer, I knew the Wednesday following this chaos-filled day would include a short time of centering prayers. As I went through my usual routine that Wednesday I found myself aching for the time I would be doing centering prayer. Even though I had assignments and tasks for work that needed to be completed, the mental and physical exhaustion won out and for 25 minutes I began to practice centering prayer. I settled in the hammock in the house, lit a candle, had Yo-Yo Ma playing, and I began to repeat my centering phrase: Be still.

I would love to say that it was instantaneously centering. I’d love to say it was 25 minutes of pure stillness with no distractions, but that is not the case. I used most of those 25 minutes repeating my phrase and bringing my mind back from the day’s work or what tomorrow would hold. By the time the 25 minutes were up, I was already critiquing how often I had to use my centering phrase and how I probably did it all wrong. Then I recalled that you are not supposed to judge your centering time but acknowledge the thoughts which come and continue to practice. The oddity of it all though, was even though I was critiquing my experience with this type of prayer I found my body had actually released some of the tension I had stored from the semester thus far. My emotions were leveled out and so was the stress level. So when the next day came, I found my body desiring that stillness and my mind eager to be given the chance to be centered, even if it was interrupted with thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow.

So even though those 25 minutes were not a continual experience of being released from the day and enveloped in prayer, it was an overall experience which offered me a mini sabbath during the day. In some fashion this type of prayer lessened the chaos of meetings, school work, writing an ordination paper, being asked to stay in Waco with no promise of paid work, looking for a church position after May. Those 25 minutes became the time where I was able to breathe a bit easier. It allowed me to step away from the incessant thoughts—”What to do next?”… “You need to get an A”…”Are you going to find a job?”—and gave me space to see the rhythm of life I am in a bit more clearly. Plus, my shoulders were looser than they had been in months.

As this practice of centering prayer continued I criticized myself about how often I would need to say my centering phrase, or if I missed a day, or when I would fall asleep during those 25 minutes. The achiever inside of me wants to be able to say I have this centering prayer thing down and am fabulous at it, but I can’t. What I can say though is this is the first time in a really long time that I have found space to be still and offer a quieted being and silent self to God. I rarely remember to take moments for sabbath, let alone a full day, to restore myself and present myself to God in that way. I seem to find the assignments, to-do lists at work, being at church seminars or worship, or preparing for what’s next to be more important things I can offer God. These are things I can offer God but I need to also remember that offering God silence is just as important, and at time it can be more vital.

Practicing sabbath is just that, a continual effort to practice. I prefer to move quickly in life and find understanding in life when I have life scheduled out day by day, hour by hour. To take those 25 minutes of sabbath means I am not reading for class, meeting the tasks which result in a paycheck, or moving the process along for what comes next in my life. Centering prayer requires me to stop, be patient with myself, breathe and offer that time of silence and breathing as a gift to God, and to myself. It is within those 25 minutes when I remember why I am going to school, working where I am, and preparing for future church work.

Finding those 25 minutes is not easy, but it does come to mind every day and I work to protect those 25 minutes from being replaced with the tasks of life. If I am ever to have a day of Sabbath I will need to find ways to protect that day from meetings, work, assignments, and preparing for the next day, just as I work to protect those few minutes of centering prayer. Through it all I’ve learned I need to be patient with myself and give the opportunity for restoration to happen, however sabbath manifests itself in my life.

Hindsight

Lens of Faith

Editor’s Note: Submissions are welcomed and should be sent to alongtheway(dot)ycw(at)gmail(dot)com.

HindsightAs the tears rolled down my face, Abby whispered, “The last piece, dear Katelyn, is learning to love yourself as God loves you.” My tears were a mix of relief, thanks and fear at saying “yes” to my first ministerial position. The tears came easily as I sat in the office, meeting with Abby and Doug, my home church pastors, to review my ministry contract for my new position.

For the past year I’ve been immersed in the Search and Call process, seeking a call to be an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I’ve heard the process compared to dating, or a roller coaster ride. In my experience the dating analogy is more accurate. A roller coaster ride, while full of ups and downs, is usually over in two minutes. In contrast, the Search Process typically takes between twelve and eighteen months. I remember hearing this in UCC Polity class. But hearing it is different than experiencing it. Read more

Momma’s Not Always Right

Editor’s Note: This is the debut article of a new column that will highlight the stories of young women on their way toward ordination. Submissions are welcomed and should be sent to alongtheway(dot)ycw(at)gmail(dot)com.

There must be a pact that everyone signs upon graduating from seminary.  It must say something like, “I promise to never let the secrets of these past three years (or so) become public knowledge.”  Something like this pact must exist because I just finished my first semester in seminary, and no one really alerted me to the challenge of what lay ahead.  My mom has her M. Div. and spent 20 years in vocational ministry, and the things she did while she was in seminary astound me.  For one, she was married.  How in the world do you do this job and keep the relationship of a marriage healthy?  I have just this year really learned about all the things she juggled while in seminary, probably because it is just now that I am curious.

After only four months at McAfee School of Theology, though, what I have experienced in school is all I can talk about these days.  Everything about seminary amazes me, so how can you not talk about it constantly?  Maybe it is the very first day of Old Testament class when you learn that there are actually two creation accounts at the beginning of Genesis.  Or maybe it is learning that the title “Christian” used to also mean martyrdom and you realize that the faith you hold has not ever really demanded deep-down devotion.  Or maybe it is the fourth week into class, right when Hebrew gets complicated – maybe that’s what shuts everyone up.

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