Looking Over My Shoulder


When I was in seminary, and ordination loomed ahead, we, the young soon-to-be-clergy women, often discussed what to wear underneath our cassocks. I guess we were scared. I guess we saw our whole future ahead of us as very respectable members of society, and we were panicking. In any case, we discussed underwear. Black lace? Our even more daring, something red? After all, ordination to the priesthood has a lot to do with the Spirit…

The day came. I can’t remember what I wore underneath all that black. Probably something comfortable. Somehow it didn’t matter once I
was there. That day was full of grace, full of friendship and joy.

The questions came afterward. Or rather, my need to be young, my need to be me came afterward. Read more

Always an Associate?

colleaguesA little over a year ago, my husband graduated from seminary and we began looking for two clergy jobs.  Our search took us to the heart of Texas and to the suburbs of Detroit.  We daydreamed about Idaho, California and Maryland.  I dreamed, too.  I thought, finally, after two long stints as an associate rector (second-in-command pastor for those of you who don’t speak Episcopalese) I would finally seek a call as a rector.  Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was floating around the atmosphere and I was ready to take on a new mantle.

Except that I didn’t.  Finding a rector job and a solo pastor job (My husband is Presbyterian.) concurrently is pretty challenging.  In one search, when it came down to the wire, I pulled my name.  I loved that congregation.  They were right up my alley; I felt great chemistry.  But there was no imminent job for my husband nearby, and I just wasn’t sure I was ready to take on the extra responsibilities that rectors have.

My husband ended up taking on a solo pastor gig and I am working as an associate at a mid-sized church back in Virginia, just seven miles away from the church where I began my ordained ministry.

I’m pretty confident I won’t be an associate rector the rest of my life, but all in all, I really like the quality of my life as an associate.  Keep in mind, I have had pretty great bosses, who have given me great freedom and who have earned my respect.  That is not the case for every associate.  Here are the things I love about being an associate:

1. Work/Life Balance

As an associate, most days I am able to walk out the door at 4:00 PM to pick up my son from day care.  I commute 40 miles, so all of this takes about an hour.  As a solo pastor of a small church, my husband is able to be home by 5:00 PM most nights and cook us dinner.  Both of us, most of the time, are able to keep faithful to our days off.  There are always exceptions—the occasional funeral or youth group trip, but, in general, we have a quiet life with a lot of time to be together.  We try to schedule night meetings on different evenings, and we have a great babysitter on speed dial for when we cannot.

2. Focus on my Passions

For the first seven years of my ministry, I was able to focus on children’s ministry and newcomer integration, two areas of ministry I find to be really exciting and fun.  I wasn’t wrestling with budgets and angry parishioners and trying to solve staffing issues.  I was singing endless renditions of “This Little Light of Mine” and finding a home for people in the Episcopal Church.  In my new call, I get to stretch a little and do some more committee work, lead a women’s bible study, and coordinate our pastoral care systems.  I get to concentrate on very specific areas and go deep with people.

3. Playing the Fool

This is one of my favorite parts of being an associate.  As the associate I can ask questions a rector cannot.  I can play dumb at a vestry meeting and ask a loaded question about some sensitive part of the church’s history.  I can crack a joke later in the same meeting to lighten the mood.  I can name dynamics of staff relationships in a way that is not as threatening as if a rector did it.  I am fascinated by the way systems play out in groups and I get to really explore, and hopefully help, staffs and vestries work together well.

4. Playing on a Team

I love working with others.  I work best when I can bounce my ideas off other people.  During my time at Trinity Church in Princeton, the rector and curate were incredibly creative people.  Many ideas I brought to a meeting got tossed around and turned into something ten times better than I had planned originally.  Those meetings often devolved into absolutely hilarious repartee that gave me energy for the rest of the day.  I also like being an encouraging presence to a rector, helping the rector problem solve and brainstorm.  The “chief of staff” role feels comfortable to me.

There are tensions, of course, my ego being first and foremost.  A part of me hates that men with whom I went to seminary are now established rectors well on their way to “big steeple” churches.  I see so many of my women friends dropping to part time, or dropping out altogether, and I worry that somehow we are missing our turn on an ecclesiastical conveyor belt that won’t wait for us.  Even the most powerful, dynamic women rectors in my Diocese tend to be rectors of small parishes.  I haven’t been trained to be a rector of a small parish.  All my expertise is geared towards how large, multi-staff parishes function.  Will anyone hire me as a rector if I have a dozen years as an associate under my belt, but not one as a rector?

Secondly, during my national job search, I was disheartened to find that as an associate I made much more than many small churches were offering.  I had to lower my asking salary by a third just to be considered for these positions.  I had listed my diocesan minimum on my application, and it was sobering to realize how many churches struggle to pay their rectors.  Larger churches can often pay even an associate well.  Am I willing to sacrifice income in order to be a rector?

All of this ignores the more spiritual questions of call, of course.  I feel very much at home in my current congregation and absolutely believe God meant me to be here.  I trust that God will continue to lead my discernment, but an uneasiness remains.

How about you?  Are you an associate?  What are your joys and struggles?


The Rev. Sarah Kinney Gaventa enjoys her “balanced” life serving at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ivy, VA. She is the wife of Matthew and mother of Charlie. She is grateful to NPR and WNRN for making her commute bearable, and to the wonderful teachers at her child’s day care who enable both her and her husband’s ministry.

Photo courtesy of the author.  Pictured, left to right, Sarah Kinney Gaventa with colleagues Paul Jeanes and Jenny Replogle at Trinity Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ.

At Home in the Neighborhood

TambourinesMy neighbor, Ali, sent me a text to see if I wanted to hang out on Sunday morning.  She was flying solo with her two kids for a stretch of time, and I had invited her to come over at some point during the week so that our two year olds could play together and entertain themselves long enough for Ali and me to drink a glass of wine while juggling our babies, not that I condone juggling babies while drinking.

I sent her a text back, “I think I’m going to go to church on Sunday, would the afternoon work for you?”  I was a bit surprised by my response.  I had hit week ten of my maternity leave, and I had yet to darken the door of a church.   Why start now?

I took my text to Ali as a firm commitment, and a few days later, I was on my way to church for the first time in a good long while.  It wasn’t the church where I serve as a priest, it wasn’t the church where my husband serves as a priest, and it wasn’t even another Episcopal Church.  I decided to go to the ELCA Lutheran church in my neighborhood.  I didn’t want to run into colleagues or people with whom I serve on diocesan committees.  I just wanted to be with my kid, close to home, and to have the chance to worship.

Getting out the door proved to be something of a challenge.  I was all dressed, teeth brushed, baby changed, shoes on, baby carrier tied around my body so that I could just slip the baby into it when we got out of the car.  I was all ready to go, but then I couldn’t find my keys.   They were not buried under a pile of papers on the kitchen island as they usually are.   They were not among the abyss of mom stuff in my purse.   I finally found them in the playroom.  I’d like to blame the two-year-old, but I’m afraid I’m the one who put them there.  We were going to be late for church.  Ten minutes late.  Nearly every Sunday for the last nine years, being late for church hasn’t been an option, so these ten minutes seemed like a big deal.

On the way to church, I hit every possible red light between my house and my destination.  I also encountered a fire truck, an ambulance, and a very drunk person crossing the street at a snail’s pace.  Fortunately, I found a parking spot on the street just across from the main entrance to the church.  I slipped into the space.  I heard music spilling out of the church doors, and my whole body relaxed.  It was the early service, so I wasn’t sure that there would be music, and I was glad to hear it.  I skipped up the steps, the baby in tow.

I forgot to grab an order of service, and there wasn’t anyone standing by the door when I arrived to remind me to take one, most likely because I was ten minutes late and there were only about ten people in church, so the ushers had already taken their seats.  I slid into a pew, holding my sweet, new child, and I was caught off guard when tears started streaming down my face.  I must have looked a like wreck, and with only a few people in church, I couldn’t really hide.  I wasn’t sad, just grateful for the sense of peace that I had in being there.  The tears kept coming, and I dabbed my face with a burp cloth.

Within the next ten minutes, the size of the congregation tripled.  I wasn’t the only one running late.  A couple of kids handed out tambourines to nearly every family or individual who entered.  They skipped me, and I assumed it was because I had a sleeping baby in my arms.  I laughed.  Tambourines—this was a new thing for me in church.  My two-year-old loves tambourines, but at least fifteen times in the past week, I had to tell him not to shake his tambourine too close to the baby’s ears.  These kids understood that tambourines and sleeping babies are a bad combination, and I appreciated their thoughtfulness.

We sang songs, many of which were unfamiliar to me.  The praise band was good—piano, drums, bass, and a song leader.  Children and adults shook tambourines and shakers.  People raised their hands in praise. Episcopalians aren’t really known for hand raising, but then again, neither are Lutherans in the Midwest.

Though they are separated by just a couple of miles, this community was very different from the mostly white, relatively affluent parish that I serve. During the congregational prayer time toward the beginning of the service, the pastor walked around the worship space and invited people to share requests.  People freely shared the difficulties they were living through, asking for God’s help.   Their prayers reflected the injustices in our society.  One woman prayed for an end to violence in our city and neighborhood, which has seen a lot of crime, including shootings, lately.  Another person prayed for a family in the church who was awaiting a verdict in the trial for their son’s murder.  My heart broke for the burdens that my neighbors carry every day.  My heart broke for this little corner of the city that I love so much, this place where I make my home.  I thought about adding a request of my own, but I found that I, a person who makes my vocation praying with other people, was at a loss for how to put into words what I wanted to lift up to God.   I sat, listening to the prayers of others, and joining my heart to theirs.

An adolescent boy read the reading from Revelation 21 from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message. “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes.”  My heart broke open yet again, as I heard the promises of scripture, the promise that God has made a home among us.  I heard these promises from the mouth of a teenager who could have been anywhere that Sunday morning, but chose to be in this church.

I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the sermon, mostly because in my frenzy to get out the door I had left my morning cup of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter, untouched, and because the baby was hungry and there wasn’t any tambourine jangling to cover up his fussing during sermon time.  I do remember the children’s sermon, where the pastor had the kids stand shoulder to shoulder, and then asked one of the children to try to run through the line, which he easily did.  Then, the pastor asked the kids in the line to link arms, and had the same kid try to run through that line, which was much harder.  He talked about the community of the church, and how being together in Christ makes us stronger.  I thought about how grateful I was to link myself to these people on this morning, how it didn’t matter that I was a total stranger, because we could sing and pray and listen and be together in God’s household, and it didn’t matter in this moment whether I was a priest or a frazzled mom who hadn’t had her coffee yet.

I spend a lot of my time as a professional minister planning out details for services—choosing hymns, writing prayers, crafting sermons, and sifting through announcements.  Last Sunday, I was reminded that these are not the only things that matter in church. I was simply grateful to be in a space with people who welcomed me.  It was enough to sit and to sway and to sing and to pray, even though I didn’t know all of the words. It was enough to stretch out my hands to take a piece of bread.  It was a good and joyful thing to join with others in worship, though they were strangers to me.  I felt at home in a place I’d never been before, and I glimpsed God at work in a corner of my neighborhood.

I have one Sunday left before I return to preaching and presiding.  I think I might take my two-year-old to shake some tambourines this week.


April Berends lives in Milwaukee, where she raises children and vegetables, and tends the vibrant flock of people who gather at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Photo by rosefirerising, http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/394855131/, July 11, 2013, used under Creative Commons license.


Fountain of youthWhen I was interviewing for Field Ed placements in seminary, I spoke with a female pastor who left me with this reflection on her ministry: “I have blessed every gray hair on my head, because it has meant one less battle I’ve had to fight.”

Although I believe this pastor was speaking from the best of her experience, her words horrified me. As a young, aspiring pastor, I was rather attached to my current hair color, thank you very much. Her comment supported my greatest fears of ministry, that the only way to pastoral authority was to wait it out until I lost one of The Young Clergy Women’s identifiers: young.

The truth is that of the three, “young” is the descriptor I have struggled with the most in my first years of ministry. I felt a call to ministry early, and I followed it early, which meant going straight from college to seminary to my first church call made me about as “young” of a minister as I could be. Parsing out the question “Are you sure you’re old enough to be a minister?” has lead me to a lot of thinking about youth and how it relates to authority.

In our culture, there are two distinct and contradictory ways of looking at youth. First there is the picture on a magazine cover, the plucky movie hero with new ideas, and the twenty-something idea maker. Youth is something to be prized, craved, and sought after. This perception of youth is part of why dismissive comments about youth can be seen as a compliment, because youth is always assumed to be a good thing. Youth is seen as an asset for women, and more than that, a source of jealousy.  As our congregations age, if there is one thing the church dreams of, it is youth. This can also mean that any young person accidentally becomes a potential savior and bringer-of-young-people. As the bright and shiny youth, it is hoped we can use technology and savvy to lure other youth back through the church doors.

The other perception of youth is that of the inexperienced no-nothing. I remember a clip from the film “Gran Torino” where Clint Eastwood scoffs at ever talking to a member of the clergy straight out of seminary.  In committee meetings, this often plays out in the assumption that the older people are leading. Wisdom and maturity are ascribed to a young person, only if followed by the phrase “beyond her years.” And in churches, where many of the people with whom we work actually have children older than we are, we deal in part with parental and grandparental expectations.

I have struggled with both of these visions of youth, and have seen them both affecting my ministry.  At times I’m tempted to think it is true that I am the savior of the church, and if only someone would listen to my brilliant media-savvy self, then the Millennials would come running in droves. At times I am tempted to think that I am young and know nothing, that I shouldn’t step forward, that I should be silent while others lead the meeting, that I need more years of experience before God can call me to speak and lead. At times, I am even tempted to believe the speech of the mentor long ago, and wish the years away until I too have the gray hair that stops many fights.

But here’s the thing; I believe that God has called me to ministry. It is actually a completely audacious statement, that God-of-all-the-universe knows me, loves me, and needs me to serve.  My youth is neither essentially a help nor a hindrance, but a fact–part of who God called, along with all the rest of me. I believe that if I am faithful to my call, there are ways that God can use all of me for the good. I believe God called me in high school when I had my first inklings of service, at 21 when I felt a call to the church, at 25 when I began church work and now at 30 and beyond.  At each part of my life I had something to give, both essential to who I am, and some of which was unique for where I was in that stage of life, as my passions, my time, my perspective, and my loves changed.

So long as I wear the title “young” (and in the church one can wear it for quite a while), I hope to wear it with pride. And when it is time to put it aside, I hope that I can do so without relief or despair, but with the faith that I have carried it for the glory of God—to pass it on to some kick-ass clergy.

Lisa Horst Clark is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and currently serves as Pastor for Spiritual Formation at Bellevue First Congregational Church in Bellevue, WA. In her free time, she reads a lot of young adult fiction and is finding her way around the Pacific Northwest with her husband and puppy.

Photo by John Stavely, http://www.flickr.com/photos/fountainofyouthflorida/3794549145/, June 12, 2013.  Used under Creative Commons License.

First Responders

First UCC, West, TXThe small but friendly community of First United Church of Christ occupies one of the oldest buildings in West, Texas. Young Clergy Woman Kyndall Renfro served as interim pastor there, but now the church relies on supply preachers from nearby seminaries including Truett, Brite, and Southwestern. I preached there on Easter Sunday of this year.

Sitting in my living room on April 17, two weeks after Easter, I received news of the explosion in West by way of a text message from a friend. I turned on the local news and could not believe my eyes. What began as a large fire devastated this small town when the fertilizer plant exploded, destroying dozens of houses and buildings nearby, including the junior high school and West Rest Haven nursing home. First responders hurried to the scene, from communities near and far. Medical personnel rushed to West, and triage was set up at the high school football stadium. Fearing a second explosion, volunteers frantically transported as many as possible across town to the community center, and ambulances transported the critically injured to area hospitals. I was able to reach a member of First UCC who let me know that everyone in the congregation was all right.

More responders came to West than could be utilized the night of the explosion. The next day, blood centers across the greater Waco area had lines wrapped all the way around their buildings.  Food donations poured in.  Businesses all over Waco collected clothing and monetary donations. Billboards popped up across town with messages of prayer and support. Area denominational offices distributed updates from West’s pastors about the condition of the community’s churches. Several church buildings were damaged, but the Church – the community of God – was strong.

My contact from First UCC West called me late in the week about coming that Sunday to help with a breakfast. Since West’s Brethren church had been severely damaged, First UCC invited the Brethren congregation to worship with them.  To better accommodate the blended congregation, they chose to host a breakfast at 9am and push worship back to 10:15. Several others from Truett who had supplied at the church, as well as members of a large Baptist church in Waco, contributed toward the breakfast, as well. We also prepared a children’s Sunday school lesson and craft focused on God’s faithfulness and how to turn grief into prayer.

As the Church gathered that Sunday morning, two congregations in one room, I was stilled by overwhelming love. A UCC church welcomed the Brethren church into its service time, and invited the Brethren church’s pianist to play in worship. The Brethren pastor gave a short lesson with everyone gathered and then asked one man in particular for an update. From the way he spoke, this man must have been part of city leadership because he was extremely knowledgeable about the barricade. He explained that the barricade had three tiers, ranking from the least damaged (one) to the most damaged (three). Those with homes in tier one could access their homes between 7am and 7pm, but utilities such as water and electricity were not reliable. Those with homes in tier two were likely to have access to their homes within the next week. Those in tier three would be displaced for some time. The Brethren church building was in tier two. A Brethren member shared that he had snuck into the barrier to see the church and after a run-in with a police officer who was not thrilled to find him inside the barricade, he was given thirty seconds to take photographs and leave the area. The man shared news of the damage he could see from the outside, but it was clear that the church was eager to know the status of its building. Can you imagine a natural disaster where you can’t even see your home or church to know whether it is okay or not? I could see on several faces the difficulty of not knowing.

The Brethren pastor opened the floor for testimonies. Stories of kindness and gratitude poured forth. One shared that once she was able to get back to her house, she found her answering machine filled with messages from friends checking on her. Another shared that she had planned to drop off something at the church that night but didn’t because her instinct told her she could run the errand tomorrow; she realized that if she had gone to the church, she would have been there at the time of the explosion. A choir member praised God that the church had cancelled choir practice that Wednesday night, because otherwise, many of the elderly ladies would have been in the building. Another was grateful that she caught a green light which allowed her time to be inside the rest home rather than in her car, which was destroyed by the explosion.

People named friends and relatives who were injured or who had lost their homes. Parents of teenagers shared the devastation of children who had lost their school. Others gave updates of those in the nursing homes and where they had been relocated. One man told us about his aunt who kept saying, “I want to go home,” and how heartbroken he was when he told her that both her former house and her room at the nursing home were no more. The Brethren pastor had spent the latter part of the week finding the nursing home shut-in members of his congregation, all of whom had been relocated to other nursing homes within a 100 mile radius of West.

The theme of hope emerged time and again in the testimonies of those gathered, hope from knowing that people were praying for West, the comfort of feeling God’s hand on them and the support of people of faith around the world. People named specific churches from out of town that had expressed prayer support. Others read encouragements from the newspaper. The sign language interpreter from the Brethren church broke into tears as she read a statement of support for West from someone in Boston, where an explosion had injured many earlier that week. Even as Boston was recovering from tragedy, people there were also praying for West.

You may have heard some of these stories on television. The media is surprisingly open to talking about prayer when tragedy strikes, but there are other stories that you will probably not hear. When you heard that on the night of the explosion, nursing home workers pushed patients in wheelchairs to the football field for triage, you may not have heard that the football stadium is more than two miles from the nursing home, and they weren’t walking, they were running. Reporters did not cover the story of the ER nurse who, as soon as she heard the explosion, ran from her house to the community center to help, or how the hundreds of volunteer firefighters who live in communities near West dropped what they were doing to help, no questions asked.  A group of Mary Kay consultants quietly donated makeup so that those returning to work could feel a sense of personal dignity and comfort.  Community members plastered photos all over Facebook to help families find their lost pets. When it was announced that West’s 7th-12th graders would resume school in the old building of a nearby school district, students from two of West’s biggest football rivals painted the interior of the building red and black, West’s school colors, and personalized the lockers with the names of West’s students. Substitute teachers from nearby districts volunteered their services to West ISD so that West teachers could attend the weekday funerals of victims. The staff of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston ordered pizza for Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco. These are the stories of saints among us.

I witnessed that morning two small country churches, leaning on one another with grace and understanding. They seemed to grasp that the Church is bigger than any single congregation, and that the most important thing any follower of Christ can do is love others. As we gathered for our joint worship service – United Church of Christ, Brethren, and a Baptist preacher – an energy filled the room, assuring us that no matter what had happened or will happen, God is always faithful.

During the children’s sermon, I noticed a little girl kept looking around. The door opened, and a man walked in who had obviously been working as a first responder at the blast zone. The little girl ran to him, and with a voice cracked from emotion, shouted “Daddy!” As if one voice, the room let out a sigh of relief and joy. This man, a member of the Brethren church, had been working on site basically non-stop since the blast, but had promised his daughter he would come see her during church. As she ran to him, he scooped her up in his strong arms. Time froze as this father’s fulfilled promise reminded us of God’s fulfilled promises. He carried her back down to where the other children were gathered, and she listened to the rest of the children’s sermon from her daddy’s lap.

The church invited me back to lead children’s Sunday School the next Sunday. Listening to the adults talking over breakfast, I realized that one of the most difficult aspects of the explosion is that West is an incredibly giving, loving, interconnected community. Multiple generations of families live in West, and everybody knows everybody. Many have been reluctant to accept the help that has been offered in the wake of the explosion because they want to be the ones helping others, not receiving help themselves. A man told me that as they stood in the line to receive donated clothing, they struggled deeply with accepting donations. He realized that his family needed clean clothes for work and school, so he accepted them, but with the resolution that as soon as they were back on their feet, they would give generously to pay it forward. And even those families whose homes are within the barrier have been arriving early each morning to make coffee for uniformed personnel working at the blast site.

When President Barak Obama spoke at the Firefighters’ Memorial Service held Thursday, April 25 at Baylor University, he said that he wished every town in America was like West, because of its citizens’ commitment to helping others and coming together as a community. As the families of each of the twelve firefighters who died offered their words in memory of their loved ones, I heard the voice of that community spirit. Family member after family member spoke of their fallen hero as the kind of person who helped anyone who needed anything, who didn’t think twice about danger if someone needed help.

A laywoman offering a meditation during communion at Lakewood Christian Church in Waco compared Christians to first responders. Like the first responders bravely entered danger to save people, so Christians should reach out with saving love. Like the first responders risked their lives for the sake of others, so we are called to lay down our lives for others, as Jesus did. May we be first responders to the needs around us, bringing grace, love, joy, peace, hope, and light to the darkness. May we be known for our open arms and warm embrace. May we, like the community of West, learn that it is just as important to let others minister to us when we are in need as it is to minister to others in their need. May we, like the community of West, band together in spite of our denominational, racial, generational, gender, and socio-economic differences, for the sake of the task at hand, which is proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, which is big and deep and wide enough for everyone, and which no fire can destroy.

Courtney Lyons is a PhD Candidate and Teaching Fellow at Baylor University, Department of Religion. She researches race and gender in American religious history and has published a number of articles on those topics. She is ordained by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Photo courtesy of First United Church of Christ, West, TX, http://www.uccwebsites.net/firstunitedwesttx.html/.


Gazing into the Tomb

desert bloomI stood on the side of the interstate, blowing into a Breathalyzer, hoping that whatever number popped up was below the legal limit. The thought raced through my head, “If I get arrested, who will I call to bail me out?”

I should have been worried about what would happen when the congregation I pastored found out. I should have been worried about what would happen if a DUI were revealed in the background check that was part of my desperate search for a new job. Instead, the question kept coming, “Who will I call to bail me out?”

I still thank God I never had to answer that question.

That was one of the lowest moments in the two years I spent at my first full time pastoral call. Well, maybe. The truth is, most of the time I spent in that call was bad.

If I started a list of all the ways the call was bad, I don’t know how long I would keep writing. Most everything came down to the fact that the congregation wanted to fire their pastor of nearly 20 years. Instead, they hired me to correct his ministry while working as part of a pastoral “team.” Dysfunctional systems plagued the church; the community substituted nostalgia for what had been for the hope of what could be.

Their brokenness seeped into me, finding its way into my body and my soul.  Soon, I was sleeping at least ten hours a night, often more.  A ten-pound weight gain turned into twenty, then forty, then fifty.  Calorie counting and exercise didn’t make a difference, so why bother? Two margaritas after every church meeting turned into three or four. They dulled my senses and suppressed the aches that never left my body.

The few folks hoping for something better at the church withdrew; most left within the first year of my coming, as they realized the long-term pastor would not participate in any of the changes the congregation had recommended.

To add to a difficult job, I found myself in the lonely position of being the only ordained woman in a small town that is a bedroom community to a larger metro area. In two years, none of the other pastors in the town bothered to learn my name, even though we ate together nearly every month at the local Ministerial Alliance meeting. The town where my congregation was and the larger city nearby were both inhospitable to any newcomers. I had never known such isolation.

The friends I did find were liberal, gay or atheist. None of those things bothered me; all of those things meant that my friends couldn’t be part of the life I shared with my congregation.

Doctors offered anti-depressants, therapy and sleep studies. The most common advice: “Find a new job.” That advice was also the only help offered by the judicatory body.

The goodness of God’s beautiful, miraculous, unbelievable call to ministry seemed a distant memory. Assurance of that call never faded, but if this was what following that call meant, I was prepared to withdraw my answer, “Here I am. Send me.”

Now, like Mary looking into an empty tomb, I live in amazement. Like Mary, looking into an empty tomb, I wonder if I can trust my senses.

Can this be true? I serve a congregation whose main question to me during interviews was, “Do you support LGBTQ rights?” I serve a congregation whose first answer is yes:  yes to the stranger, yes to putting in a community garden, yes to new orders of worship, yes to figuring out relationships with people radically different from us, including the Hispanic congregation with whom we share space. Yes. Their first answer is always yes. Yes, let’s change. Yes, let’s run headlong into this place where God is calling us to be.

Can this be true? One day soon, will I say the wrong thing and all of it disappear? Will I wake up from this beautiful dream and find I am still living in the nightmare? Can this really, honestly be true?

As I live wondering whether this community that God has called into being is really, really true, I feel Something outside me take hold. That Something must be God, too, for that Something is at work, taking over all that brokenness that had seeped into me. Heal is the wrong word, for the scars are still there. Reverse is the wrong word, for that assumes a return to the person I was before.

And, like Mary looking into the empty tomb, I start to wonder, “Is this resurrection?”

I now live my life in the deserts of Arizona, with both skyscrapers and mountains in the distance. The sky is bluer than I ever imagined possible; the sweet smells of a desert spring fill the air. I never knew that deserts bloom, too.

Here in this place, my body and soul have come alive. My clothes became loose within a week of my arrival. The mountains call, so I hike. Pools glisten, so I swim. I wake, on my own, to the doves’ call in the early morning light. Everyone around me has moved here from somewhere else, so conversation is easy to come by.

I wonder, now, how long Mary gazed into that empty tomb. I wonder how long she waited, thinking her eyes deceived her. I wonder how long it took her, after she had seen the risen Lord, to decide to shout the news to anyone who would listen. I wonder how long it was before the Spirit prodded her conclusion, “This is real.”

I wonder, because I’m still not sure this is real.

I think, though, that maybe, just maybe, this is resurrection. If this were not resurrection, the wounds from those two years would still be raw and oozing. If this were not resurrection, I would still taste bitterness and anger. If this were not resurrection, it would not feel so otherworldly.

This must be resurrection because the death of those two years seems more dream than memory. This must be resurrection because that death has lost its sting. This must be resurrection because that death has no power over me any more.

And the strangest thing of all? This confession: there had to be death for resurrection to come.  This resurrection would not be so sweet if death had not been so brutal. This resurrection would not be so unexpected if hope had not disappeared. Without death, life could not have taken over.

Now, the taunt of Easter comes easily from my mouth, for the first time a natural response rather than a forced claim, “O death, where is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

For Christ is risen, and I am risen, indeed.

Photo Credit:  Photo by author, name withheld


A Prayer for Justice

jailI came home around lunchtime.  I drove myself home, opened the fridge and wondered what I would gather for a meal.  I sat down and turned on my computer, put some music on, and looked out the window at the crisp, dreary January day.

I don’t normally take such time to reflect on what a simple, meaningful thing it is to make the decision about what to eat.  I don’t normally look outside and give thanks for being able to breathe fresh air and see glimpses of sunlight.  I don’t normally reflect on how many choices I get to make in a given day.

Today, however, is different.  For today, for just a moment, I received a glimpse into a world where choices are not taken for granted, a world where sunlight doesn’t reach your face, a world where doors shut behind you, a world where you are known not by the content of your heart but by offenses and actions.

In a word – jail.

This morning, the church I serve partnered with a few Methodist churches to provide a hot meal for the inmates at the Pettis County Jail.  Because of budget cuts, hot meals are few and far between in any given week.  Super Bowl weekend seemed as good a time as any to cook chili and assemble pimento cheese sandwiches.  We collected the ingredients from the various churches, and several folks baked cakes and provided fresh fruit.

Trying to be mindful of the task at hand, I prayed.

I prayed for those who are prisoners to not only the justice system but to cycles of violence and drugs.

I prayed for those who are separated from loved ones.

I prayed for those who work extra shifts to pay for court fees.

I prayed for those who don’t get to see their children grow up.

I prayed for those who never knew the love of family.

I prayed to God for compassion.

I prayed to God for understanding.

I prayed to God for mercy.

After all this prayer, I needed to get moving.  After all, we had a meal to deliver.

We could only drop off the food in the back by the kitchen.  The meal would be served on Super Bowl Sunday – a hot meal cooked and prayed over, a meal of love.  A meal for God’s children.

The final part of our day consisted of a tour of the jail.  I’ve never been to a jail, and I didn’t know what to expect.

Once inside we found ourselves surrounded by darkness, dreariness, and the lack of light and hope.  Every door that shut behind us produced a sound that could not be ignored. Every move was watched, every corner covered, every window provided only one way of viewing.  It was stifling.

Perhaps what was most distressing from the tour was my total inability to do anything at all.  I just watched, observed, asked a few questions.  We couldn’t interact with anyone other than our group and the guard.  We were only spectators.

When I returned home, I sat. I wondered.

I know some people who have a loved one in jail or who has served time in the recent past.  I ask them questions.  I listen.  I pray for them and their loved one.  I wonder what more I can do.

The question still remains about how to connect and follow the gospel mandate to proclaim release to the captives, to visit the prisoner in jail and to know that when we do so, we do it to Christ.

I have no answers; yet, I hope to have further conversation with those in my community about seeing those who are imprisoned as brothers and sisters in Christ.  I pray that they will know and see themselves as children of God.

Perhaps in my questions I will ponder truthfully the reality about who is really trapped.  I wonder if we have a connection in our society to prisoners because our lives are behind not physical bars but bars of fear, ignorance, racism and addiction. Are we prisoners to following the status quo?  Are we prisoners to self-doubt and insecurity?  Are we prisoners to a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross?

I invite you to join me in the questions and to join me in praying with Jesus:

”The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

When Your Voice is Not Your Own

6310272280_67e9d3972b_oSometimes your voice is not your own. I remember a trip to a fine cathedral in England where the woman presiding spoke in a baritone- the sonorous tones of the quintessential Anglican clergyman. It was rather surprising to hear the voice of a Nigel or a John from the mouth of a petite woman, but her speaking voice was even more surprising as she greeted those exiting the service. As she welcomed parishioners in the church’s narthex, her voice was the slightly breathy alto of a woman whose voice was lower, surely, but hardly a low tenor, much less a baritone. She was a gifted cantor, and, it seems, an excellent mimic. Here was a woman who gave the people what they wanted–and what they wanted was the classic churchman.

When you’re preparing for ordination- the interminable tests, interviews, classes, the endless waiting and worrying- no one tells you that sometimes the voice you use will not be your own.  There are a thousand subtle ways we women are encouraged to lower and deepen our voices. Be careful not to over-emote when you are preaching. Wear unobtrusive jewelry when you celebrate the Eucharist. Avoid colors like pink. Take care with your hairstyle; you want to appear professional, not girlish. No one says, “Lower your pitch,” but you get the feeling that this might be next on the list.

I live in a church world that embraces and treasures tradition. It is one of the things I love about being an Episcopalian. But sometimes tradition is a guise for attributing importance to other things: ideas whose time has passed, ideas about what a priest looks like, acts like, and sounds like. Thanks to two millennia of male clergy, expectations for what a priest sounds like favor basses over sopranos.

When I stand up to give a sermon, I am aware that I am doing something that is beyond me, and that is not about me. Yet, it is my voice that delivers the message; my throat carries the words to the congregation. To utter anything in the name of the Triune God demands a leap of faith. We have to believe that God will use our prayers, our life, our study, our words to encourage, instruct, and inspire Christ’s body. We have to believe God will use our voices to share a Good Word with the Church.

Sometimes I feel like the clergywoman at the cathedral. I am self-conscious about things that will emphasize my woman-ness. “Is this lipstick too noticeable?” “Is that sermon illustration too ‘emotional’?”  So I change my lipstick or remove the anecdote.  I am careful with my words. I rarely raise my voice. I never “upspeak.” Perhaps it’s because that’s the sort of preacher I am. Perhaps, though, it’s because deep down I know a voice like mine isn’t the one the people are hoping for.

I remember visiting patients during CPE and having several people ask when the “real chaplain” (the male CPE student) was going to visit. I think of the fuss people make over young clergymen and the promise they hold for the church. So often, after they finish praising that wonderful young man, they begin a litany of great wistfulness for the days gone by. It doesn’t matter that they may not have even been alive then; they can still recite the blessings of the Midcentury Mainline: full Sunday Schools, packed pews, growth every year…and the priests were men. After the recitation, the person is often quiet. In that silence I hear them make the connection, ”Maybe if the priests were men…”

So I walk on eggshells. My preaching is more analytical and less anecdotal.  I strive to be more head than heart in my preaching, lest someone doubt my intellectual ability.  I use manuscripts because the text insures I won’t get “too excited” or “ramble” or “sound young” (which I suspect might be code for “sound like a woman”). When I need an example I often refer to classics in Western Literature and the latest stories in the right periodicals.  “See, I am well read”, my choices say.

Sometimes I catch myself dropping my voice half an octave. At times like those, I am thankful for the women who went before me. I am thankful for the women who stand with me (thanks TYCWP!). I am thankful for the friends and colleagues, both women and men, who challenge and encourage me. I am thankful that I can do the same for them.

In the eyes of the church, I might be a second-class clergy person, not because of what I do but because of who I am (not).  In the eyes of God, though, there is no such thing as second-class, and God’s are the only eyes that really matter. So I pray, I preach, I listen, and I love. I know the God who called me has always been in the business of doing a new, wonderful, and unexpected thing. It’s too bad the church is almost always the last to figure it out. The days I remember this, my voice is my own. I thank God for that.


Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6310272280/”>GregPC</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

Downsizing Myself?

5453233997_b5ea22b1e5I have spent the last three years serving the same congregation (my first since graduating from seminary), and it has been a wonderful place, among wonderful people, to grow into my pastoral authority and role as clergy. When I started my ministry in this congregation, I was hired as a full-time vicar. Everything I did and learned in those first three year of ministry, I learned and did as a full-time priest. The projects I worked on, the aspects of ministry that I enjoyed doing and the things I found challenging—to say nothing of the amount of time and energy I spent doing these things—I learned and did within the context of a 40-hour work week. But two months ago, I went from full-time parish ministry to part-time ministry.

The reasons for the change in my position are purely financial—the congregation was running out of resources with which to pay me at my full-time salary. The congregation is growing, but not fast enough to realistically afford a full-time clergyperson, even one fresh out of seminary.  Many other factors also affected the church’s financial stability: the economic downturn and a 10% unemployment rate among church members, a crippling mortgage, and changes in the wider community, to name only a few. I am grateful that my congregation and I were able to have the difficult conversation about our financial reality in an open and affirming way, without anyone assigning blame or guilt. But as the clergyperson, I found myself in the interesting position of needing to be the financial realist, pastoral caregiver, and inspiration to my struggling and anxious congregation while simultaneously downsizing myself. In no other job I can think of, would such a thing be possible.

I know that I am very lucky, relative to others in my position, that being able to continuing serving my current congregation part-time is even possible for me. For many clergy, a reduction in their position means needing to look for another place to serve. But I admit that it was a personal and professional struggle to make the change. Privately, I vacillated between resentment and shame. Was this somehow my fault? Had I failed the congregation, to say nothing of having failed myself? What about my expensive seminary education? Was I throwing all that away and making poor use of my skills by only working part-time? And yes, I did wonder if, because I was a woman, it was somehow easier for my congregation to accept having me work part-time. Is sacrificing one’s position for the sake of the congregation something that congregations are more likely to ask female clergy, rather than male clergy, to do? And what if, by doing such a thing, I was not only selling myself short as a clergyperson, but also as a professional woman? These thoughts all ran through my mind as I walked this journey from full-time to part-time with my congregation.

What I have discovered in four-months as a part-time clergyperson is that a lot of my energy is spent keeping strong boundaries in place. It is a lot of work, for both me and the congregation. I was accustomed to having forty-hours a week in which to do my job. Now, I have to strictly prioritize my time, balancing what needs to be done with what I enjoy doing. I’ve had to learn to say no. I’ve had to learn to let some things go, and to delegate. To be honest, sometimes delegating means flat out saying to people: “I do not have time to do that this week. Could you please take care of it, or find someone else to do this?” As someone who values my efficiency and responsibility as a professional, this has been challenging to do. I just need to keep reminding myself that it is now part of my efficiency and responsibility as a part-time clergy person to delegate and to say no to things that I do not have time for. My congregation has had to get used to fewer office hours, and the fact that I will not be able to attend every meeting or church function.

The most difficult thing for me has been learning to let go of some aspects of my ministry. I really enjoy the company of my church members—they are great people with wonderful ideas and committed and active faith. I still walk with them on their faith journey, but my level of involvement in that journey has changed. It’s as though I’ve moved to sometimes observing and offering coaching from the sidelines, rather than always being on the field itself. I’d love to be able to be there to help brainstorm ideas for the craft fair, but now, given my time, all I can do is show up and lend my support on the day of the craft fair itself. I’m available to help and advise people as needed, and I will be there to see the culmination of their work and talent, but I am not as directly involved during the process of getting there. It is a different way to walk alongside people on their faith journey.

In many respects, this change has been good for me and good for the congregation, even as it is challenging for all of us. I can say with confidence that the decision for me to move from full-time to part-time was a good one for the congregation at this time. My salary was the single biggest expense in the church’s budget and the congregation was literally on the path to bankrupting themselves trying to keep it up. As a congregation, people were so worried about money, scrimping and saving, that their anxiety had begun to have a choking, stifling effect on ministry.  Since making this change, we now have a nearly balanced budget for the coming year, and as a congregation we are freed from anxiety about money and can use our resources in such a way as to create and build ministry.

As a leader, I am able to lead a congregation through the realities of the present, with all the challenges and opportunities that brings, rather than to continue to hold forth an essentially unsustainable vision. As a result of needing to take more responsibility and leadership within the congregation, church leaders are slowly but surely becoming more empowered. We are beginning to model, in many ways, the ministry of all the baptized. The congregation has also begun to create wider community partnerships in ways that church leaders were not always willing to do before. We are exploring more ministry and worship opportunities with our ecumenical and denominational neighbors. At a recent church-sponsored meal, we had 16 volunteers from 6 different churches take part. That would not have been possible even two years ago, when the congregation was still clinging to the idea of being completely independent in ministry and resources.

At a time when many congregations are struggling financially and numerically, and part-time clergy positions are becoming more and more common, perhaps we need to begin to look at the current reality of our churches and our ministry as an opportunity, rather than as a failure. I am only a few months into this, but I have already begun to see challenges that can be overcome and opportunities that can lead to new and different kinds of ministry. Please keep me and my congregation in your prayers as we continue to walk this journey together.

The Rev. Anna Doherty is the Vicar of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Hartford, Wisconsin. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School.

Photo by JLM Photography,  http://www.flickr.com/photos/spookman01/5453233997/in/photostream/, January 8, 2013.  Used under Creative Commons License.

Advent 1

Table Grace

Advent 1In the parish hall, a table lay spread with a white cloth, fragrant evergreens and twinkling lights.  Sounds of peeling, chopping and the banter of cooks spilled out of the kitchen.  A few people bustled around, arranging chairs, setting out napkins, and filling pitchers of water.

At my parish, in the dark days of December, we’re trying to birth a new thing.  We’re starting a service called Table Grace, a weekly meal accompanied by communal prayer, song and conversation about scripture.

Since I arrived at St. Mark’s nearly four and a half years ago, we’ve had a single Sunday morning service, down from three Sunday services in years past.   When I was interviewing for my position, I mentioned to the search committee that for a single priest, the three service schedule was a clergy killer.  One of them said, “It’s a congregation killer, too.”  For a long time, St. Mark’s had held two services on Sunday morning.  They added a service in between with the intent of attracting young families.  From what I can gather, it worked for a while, but mainly drew from parishioners already engaged with the church.

A few families regretted the change to a single service, either because the new arrangement didn’t quite fit into their schedules, or because they were particularly fond of the language and structure of the service to which they had grown accustomed.  Many in the congregation, though, appreciated what they described as “being all together.”   The Sunday School program flourished under the new schedule.  We saw better attendance at a single service than we likely would have seen at three, or even two, separate services.  It is tough to find worship energizing when the church is only one fourth full, or for newcomers to feel comfortable in such a sparsely populated setting.

I give my congregation a lot of credit.  They have demonstrated remarkable flexibility and hospitality when it comes to our worship life.   I would even call them brave.   When I arrived here, I sensed some hurt about the fact that the last time they tried to introduce a new worship experience, it didn’t lead to the growth that they had anticipated.   That experience, however, has helped to cultivate a healthy understanding around the fact that there’s no magic bullet that will make us grow exponentially or that will save our community from decline.

From the beginning of my time in this parish, I’ve been clear about my intent to start another kind of worship service; that was part of the initial rationale behind holding one service on Sunday mornings.    It took a while to figure out what shape that new offering should take, but over the past six months or so, volunteers began coming forward and ideas started bubbling up.  It seemed that the time was right to make a new beginning at St. Mark’s.

We took stock of our gifts.  We have a lot of good cooks in our community.  We have found that the kind of conversations that unfold during meals tend to be of a different quality than when people are standing around coffee hour chatting. Our members seem more comfortable inviting their friends to share a meal at church rather than a straight-up worship service. There’s an introverted quality to many of our members, they tend to be more comfortable sharing table fellowship than they are working a room.  They love to engage in thoughtful conversation.  They relish the chance to get to know someone more deeply.

We looked at our location.  We are a half a mile from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and we also draw a fair number of students from Marquette University, a few miles away.  Our neighborhood is home to many students and young professionals.  By and large, people in these demographics are not naturally inclined to show up for church at 9:30 on Sunday mornings.  We also have a number of retirement communities in our area, as well as several people in our parish who are older and eat many of their meals alone.

A planning team has been meeting for the last several months to figure out the shape of our new service.  This group includes longtime members, as well as newer members, older members and younger members, including a college student whose baptism we celebrated on All Saints’ Day.    They bring various gifts to the table—the insights that come with being new to church, the insights that come with being very familiar with a church community, organization, skills in the kitchen, an eye for what makes a beautiful and welcoming table, musical talent, thoughtfulness, good humor and wisdom.

This group has committed themselves to thinking through the holy details of a new service.  We have tried out different musical styles; we’ve discussed the best ways to pray around a table, and how to encourage participation without forcing anyone to go out on a limb that does not seem secure. We’ve talked about what kind of food we will offer. We’ve considered how to involve others in the making of the meal, the setting of the table, and the welcoming of guests.  We’ve talked about how to invite others to join us.   We’ve even talked about how the Packers football schedule might affect turnout.  We contacted St. Lydia’s, a Dinner Church in Brooklyn, and they were very generous in sharing what they’ve learned over the last few years of gathering a church around a table.

On Sunday, December 2nd, the First Sunday of Advent, we tried out Table Grace for the first time. We said evening prayers together, lit candles and sang songs.  We blessed the food and sat down to eat.  We shared fellowship and then engaged in conversation about the scriptures for the day.  The table was full.  The room was warm. The conversation flowed.  The food was good, and there was plenty to eat, even though we had to keep adding chairs to the table. The Spirit of God moved among us.

The Advent offering of Table Grace was a pilot test for the weekly meals that will begin in Epiphany season.  The goal was to introduce the new format to people who were already involved in our community, so that they could offer their feedback and invite others to join us.  Part of the impetus behind hosting a soft launch for the service was to relieve anxiety within the congregation about what this new thing might look like.  It will be a while before we’ll know if this new effort is bearing fruit.  Change can be difficult even in communities that sense a real call to do things in different ways, especially if they have tried new things in the past and been discouraged.  I wanted the folks of St. Mark’s to get a taste of what these meals might become before we started inviting guests from the wider community.

In a way, what we were doing that Sunday night in the first week of Advent was helping to prepare the way for something new.  We offered prayers that God might begin a new thing in us.

As we cleaned up after the meal, washing dishes, shaking out table linens and putting away chairs, participants exchanged cheerful and hopeful words.  Since that night, several who were in attendance have offered helpful suggestions about how we might improve upon the experience.

My congregation understands that no one thing that we might try is going to save us.  It’s God who saves us.  They have, however, ventured into the vulnerable position of allowing themselves to be vessels of God’s salvation by inviting strangers to share the friendship of the table that God spreads for all of us.  In the darkness of winter, we see the beginnings of blossoms swelling on our branches.

April Berends is an Episcopal priest and the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.   She is grateful that the rhythm of the church year provides glimmers of hope and reasons to celebrate during dark winter days.

 Photo by Per Ola Wiberg, http://www.flickr.com/photos/powi/2081228827/in/photostream/, December 12, 2012. Used under Creative Common License.