dark coffee in small cup with saucer decorated with flowers on a wooden table top, looking from the top

A Young Christian Woman and a Young Muslim Woman Walk into a Cafe

dark coffee in small cup with saucer decorated with flowers on a wooden table top, looking from the topA young Christian woman and a young Muslim woman walk into a cafe…no, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. Interfaith jokes rarely include women – in fact even more serious images of interfaith relationships depict male priests, rabbis, imams, or monks gathering for a meal, a drink, or a football game. These images are often quite moving, serving as powerful reminders that God is at work through many religions and giving us glimpses of hope that we can get along. But such images are also not as accessible to me as a young clergywoman nor, I suspect, for the many people who see them as feel-good niceties that don’t have any real influence on how we understand God. I want to offer a new image for interfaith relationships from my own life, one anchored in the messiness of life and friendship and featuring young women:

It was one or two in the morning, so we were not in a cafe, but we’d had so much Bosnian coffee that day that we still couldn’t shut our eyes. We hadn’t seen each other in person for a few years so we had plenty to talk about: married life, new jobs, what it is like to be young women leaders in our communities. But, of course, we instead were talking about which Turkish soap opera actors are the cutest; at least, until Đana’s voice became serious: “Can I ask you something?” “Of course,” I responded, but I was still scrolling through overly dramatic stills of scenes from the soap operas we had been talking about. She asked, “What is this Trinity? God is one. How can God also be Jesus, a human?”

This was not the question I was expecting. As often as we spoke of God throughout the years of our friendship, I was wary of talking about theology and doctrine or even Jesus because I didn’t want to seem pushy, offend her, or hurt her. Đana is a Muslim who was targeted for genocide when she was a child by people claiming to share my faith in Christ. But now Đana was asking me (at a ridiculous time of day and while I was looking at pictures of Murat Yıldırım) to talk about my Christian faith. Her question challenged me to identify the difference such stories and doctrines made in my life, and why they matter. Read more

a shorter woman with glasses, smiling, standing in a circle with several male colleagues, all dressed in various church vestments

Tainted Love

a shorter woman with glasses, smiling, standing in a circle with several male colleagues, all dressed in various church vestments

Jenn at work

I was already a little anxious before the service began. I was the only female priest in a sea of men and a few were audibly unhappy that I was in the sacristy. We were gathered for the institution and installation of a new priest in the parish and, as chaplain of the college which was this parish’s patron, it was my role to present the new priest to the bishop. This was a parish that had passed what in the Church of England are called “resolutions” concerning the ministry of female priests, and this parish had passed all of them.

I had spent time in a number of “resolution parishes” before this service. The College where I served had deep roots in the Oxford Movement and thus, of the almost 70 parishes of which it was patron, more than half were opposed to the ordination of women (note that essentially every parish has a patron whose main role these days is to assist with the appointment of a new priest). During my time as Chaplain, I represented the College at the appointment and installation of clergy in 33 different parishes. It was a wonderful though hidden part of the job since most of it took place outside the College.

Until this particular service of installation, I had never felt unwelcome in a parish with resolutions. My encounters time and again as patron’s representative and even preacher, had been filled with graciousness and collegiality. But this time felt different. And it was. As I processed into the church next to the new priest called to serve in that place, something hit my shoulder. Instinctively I knew what it was without looking. I knew I had just been spat upon by someone in the church.

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tree roots of a large tree, with moss growing on them

The Language of Trees

tree roots of a large tree, with moss growing on them

I learned a few weeks ago that trees talk to one another. They develop this network—nutrients sent and received in an underground web. When a tree is dying, it starts to send its signals out to the rest so that they both know what danger is lurking near – and so that they have the extra fortification to fight it off.

Watch and listen, the poet[1] says- your ancestors are behind you – You are the result of the love of thousands.

Am I the result of nutrients sent – an underground rush of fortification, sent by the sisterhood of those who came before?

Did those nutrients, that came through the words and embraces and knowing glances of sister-trees—did those nutrients try to warn me about the brotherhood of mediocrity that is male privilege? Did those vitamins in the roots try to infuse me with a deep and abiding sense that my instincts are something I can’t afford to neglect? Because that’s what it feels like… the wisdom I get through the sister-roots is not wisdom that comes from a lot of triumphs—but rather wisdom that comes from a lot of savvy maneuvering, a lifetime of learning how to say no while in high heels and a full face of makeup. A lifetime of learning how to nurture the inner voice and then present it in such a way so that everyone can receive it.

Is that what it means to be the result of the love of thousands… or is that what it means to be the result of feminism amidst patriarchy?

But even as that bitter seed takes its place, the sister-roots are sending their signals again. Sister, they say, the love of thousands are the root signs that told you that the construct was wrong and that your heart was right. The love of thousands are the root signs that whispered to you under the moss that you are worthy and enough. You come from the roots, Sister, you come from the deep, you come from the wet earth that is soaked with our insight, that is bound up with our braids. Don’t you see, sister, they say, you are the tree? Don’t you see, sister, that the root signals have thrust you up, pushed you from this earth, prodded you up so that you are reaching, reaching, reaching- stretching towards this inevitable peak where your branch arms reach out and touch the heavens so that there too, you can be reminded, youare worthy and youare enough. You are the tree, sister. You are the result.

Do not worry that your roots aren’t strong enough, or that your trunk is not sturdy, or that your branches can’t sustain the wind. Your sister roots will remind you, your sister roots will send you the signal. And as you stand there, proud and worthy, swaying in your strength—look around—you’re in the forest- with the other sister-trees. They too the result of the love of thousands.

Remember to send your signal, sisters. There are thousands more to come.

[1]Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/23701

Finding Our Compasses

“I thought you were going to, like, be someone in the Church.”
–One of My Bishops

My ten years of priesthood have been spent more outside the Church than within it. As an ACPE Certified Educator (formerly known as CPE Supervisor) I’ve spent my time and energy embedded in institutions disconnected from my denomination. Since leaving the hospital setting and starting up a new CPE Center in a seminary, I’ve spent some of every day pondering what it means to move back into the belly of the beast.

I almost never attended clergy conferences or diocesan conventions and councils, or other training held on weekdays more convenient to parish clergy, because I was working in hospitals that saw those commitments as paid-time-off decisions. When I began my new position last year, I started by attending every single denominational event I could find, in order to promote my work with the seminary.

To really hit home that I’d made this major transition, a few months after starting my new position, I added an additional quarter-time position in my home congregation when they went from three clergy to one. Full-time seminary, quarter-time parish, and all my additional responsibilities with ACPE national, which continue to grow.

I felt like I was starting over in so many ways. Many of us who have been ordained for ten years are leading our own congregations, or trying. I’m over here trying to remember how to train acolytes and figure out how to attend a faculty meeting. I invited a friend to come to town and do liturgical boot camp with me. I called a seminary colleague for some mentoring on navigating this kind of institution.

I felt some identity whiplash. I felt like a fraud. Or a newly ordained person who Rip-Van-Winkled the last ten years away.

In contrast to the hospital slowly grinding me down, my new work is truly life-giving (and other new-age-sounding things). I get to bring CPE to places and people where it was formerly impossible, and offer this powerful educational format with technology and pedagogy that make it more viable to the world as we know it now. I got through the first round of the accreditation process very quickly, was able to start several pastoral care courses for locally-trained clergy and lay persons around the country. I even got to kick off initiatives I’ve never been able to try before – like a spiritual care course for youth ministers and Christian educators, who are often doing pastoral care with children and families with very little training, and an airport chaplaincy training program, and so many others. In my years with hospitals, building on-call schedules, revising curriculum slowly and dreaming of so many other things we could be doing, I’ve been empowered to make those day-dreams realities. So far, things are really working.

So, what’s with the inadequacy? Read more

Here I Sit

I have spent my final year on the Board editing the column, “Here I Stand.” It has been a joy and a privilege to share the stories of my sister clergy women, their convictions and the remarkable experiences of their particular and diverse contexts. As I come to the end of my time as a part of the leadership of this amazing organization, I find myself finding some new inspiration from our puppy.

In January we brought home a new black lab puppy. His name is Espen (a combination of the Norwegian names for God and bear). Just like our last black lab, he is already teaching me profound lessons about who God is and who I am called to be. Our next door neighbors have a dog too. It is the highlight of Espen’s day to be able to play with Benny. If we let him, Espen would spend the entire day just as he is pictured above. Sitting at our back door patiently waiting, ever hopeful that Benny will come out the door to play.

I have been struck by his patience and his ability to incarnate hope. It does not matter what time of day it is or how long it has been since Benny has come out. Espen lives out a conviction that new possibilities can happen at anytime. Past experience does not always have to be an indicator of the future. New realities are possible. To borrow from CS Lewis, at anytime, we can be “surprised by joy.”

Patience is a virtue on which I am perennially working. I often feel in a hurry. Read more

Do & Don’t: An Open Letter to Older Male Senior Pastors Regarding Your Working Relationships with Younger Women/Femme/Non-Binary* Associate Colleagues

The author officiating at a baptism in partnership with her
colleague, Pastor John Matthews, at Grace Lutheran Church in
Apple Valley, Minnesota.

Several months ago I received a phone call inviting me to speak on a panel to a cohort of women clergy who met monthly. Several of them were associate pastors, struggling mightily with how to claim any authority at all in their respective ministry settings.

The facilitators were inviting me, they said, because I was an “outlier” in my own call; the relationship between my older male colleague and I was understood to be an anomaly because we functioned as partners more than anything. They knew that we shared a genuine, mutual respect and that we actually enjoyed our working relationship. They knew that I exercised considerable agency and authority in my role, and that my colleague supported me in that, rather than being threatened by it. They knew that we pushed each other to be better, more authentic, and more courageous in our pastoral identities, and that both our congregation and the wider community were benefitting as a result.

Let that sink in for a minute – my pastoral colleague and I have a functional working relationship built on mutual respect, and we enjoy each other’s company. That makes us outliers.

This is a problem.

It’s a problem for the church in general, but it’s especially problematic for the thousands of younger women, femme, and non-binary associate pastors in this country and around the world who are routinely treated by their older, male senior colleagues as if they have none of their own God-given gifts for ministry, even in ministry settings and denominations that claim to believe otherwise.

Another member of the panel that morning was a younger male associate pastor. At one point in the conversation he was beside himself with grief at what he was hearing from the women in the room, and he wondered aloud about how he could be sure he didn’t become the very problem they were naming so clearly. Not wanting to assume that we in the room had all the answers ourselves, I posed his question to several online clergy groups, garnering responses from hundreds of women, femme, and non-binary associate pastors in a wide array of Christian denominations.

As you can imagine, their responses ranged from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. They offered examples that were uplifting, heartbreaking, and everything in between. As best I can summarize, their responses to the question “What do you want older male clergy to know about how best to function with their younger women/femme/non-binary associate colleagues?” are as follows:


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An Open Letter to the “Minister” in my Facebook Feed

Dear Facebook acquaintance,

Since we haven’t actually talked or seen each other since middle school, let me just start by saying I’m aware that you’re hearing from me out of the blue. We connected several years ago through the magic of Facebook, where I learned that you’ve become a lawyer, enjoy the party scene, are friends with lots of beautiful women, and have some pretty strong political opinions. Looks like you’re enjoying life and succeeding well at it.

Speaking of Facebook, you shared a picture recently that we need to talk about. It was a picture of you officiating a wedding on a beach somewhere. It looked lovely – beautiful setting, beautiful couple, all that. But I was shocked to see you wearing a clerical collar, that little white square of plastic at the base of your neck contrasted against a black shirt, that unmistakable uniform of the clergy – one I wear every day. I didn’t know you had become a priest! How cool! However, a little bit of internet sleuthing revealed that you got ordained online, and wore the uniform to be funny (and that you were never going to let your devout Catholic mother see that picture. I think that’s wise, because I remember her, and she’d kill you if she saw it.).

In case you haven’t taken the time to scroll through my Facebook page, you should know that I actually am a priest. After leaving my first career as a teacher, I went to seminary (a three-year, full-time graduate program), got my Masters in Divinity, did several internships in churches and hospitals, went through years of meetings with committees and governing boards, medical and psychiatric evaluations, and was finally ordained in a very beautiful and moving ceremony. I have been working as a full-time pastor for the last six years.

I’m surprised by how many people have asked why I went through this long and crazy process when I could have just gotten ordained online. That question has never been anything less than a stab in the heart: it tells me that people have no idea what clergy actually do. Being ordained isn’t about getting a piece of paper certifying my credentials. It’s about a calling by God, a life commitment, and work that is more difficult and holy than you could ever imagine. Read more

Making a Life from a Living in a Rural Church

Parsonage flowers in May of 2017 next to Port Royal Baptist Church

They will invite you to

live with them, really

live with them. Do, if you can.

You will learn, in time,

a spirituality

with a little give to it.

How else can the people live

between variable sky

and forgiving earth,

and belong to both,

and to one another?

 

Your salary, which will be

considerably smaller

Than some of your urban

or suburban counterparts,

but measurably larger

than some who pay it,

must go to good.  It should

stay, as much as possible

in the community where you work,

Local doctors, local food

from farmers you love,

or will grow to love

as you learn from them

how to taste and see

that the Lord is good,

the place is good, the

hands reaching out to

you are good, and

they mean you well.

 

Your work, which will not be more,

if you are well-loved,

than what they ask of themselves,

will be seasonal.

And you must learn to trust

the gifts of each season,

and plan for spring, as

your people do. And trust, foremost,

that seasons do and must pass,

that weathering them will

strengthen all the best

in you.

 

Despair might set in if you let it.

Do not let it.

Determine in your own mind

to go out and find the good

in your people, in your place,

and in your life together.

Trust that it will be together

that you will see the Lord.

 

Your call, and your fellow workers, and

the culture around you will shock you.

Let it. And yet,

explore each inner scandal in

your heart with love.

Make no quick decisions.

Bless people as they come

and if they should go.

Those who return

and those who fall away

will surprise you.

 

It will take years, but not

as many as you suppose

before you can be the prophet

dancing, as you must,

along and across and back past

the line that marks outsider

from insider. [Stay years.]

And if you stay, you

will learn to speak the

dialect, and yet

you must introduce

new words, but,

with a little wisdom,

the right ones. Read more

Exceptional

“Oh, but you’re one of the good ones.”  

I heard this from adults for most of high school. Usually pronounced with bittersweet bewilderment, it would be followed by a conversation about the surprise at my presence. As a teenager I was highly involved in the Church. (My call and ordination maybe shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me.) Church was both refuge and fun for me. As a young overachiever who was a bookworm and enjoyed learning, I first heard these words with hope. I wasn’t, as I sometimes feared, unpopular because I was unlikeable. If I was exceptional, perhaps I was misunderstood—and what teen doesn’t like the idea of being misunderstood.

Too quickly I realized that exceptionalism did not make me less lonely. Whether it was for not being popular or not being ordinary, I was still isolated.  

As my peers and I began to mature, and I found more friends my own age, I gained new appreciation for the slight that had been offered to my equally accomplished and committed peers. It was, I increasingly discovered, easy to surround myself with peers who share my values if not my faith. My knowledge of which did not stop the comments. I kept hearing about my “exceptionalism” for the decade I spent being the youngest. The youngest person at a meeting, the youngest priest in the room and the diocese.

I am no longer the youngest priest in the diocese—though I’m often still the youngest person in the room. But I still hear how “exceptional” I am. Now that it is not rooted in my age, it catches me off guard more often. It sneaks up in conversations as they turn to refugees and immigration. It doesn’t start with the bewildered sadness in these conversations. Far more often its confused anger. “Those people” who come here and are a drain on our system, by stealing jobs or tying up resources. I am an immigrant. Read more

A Love Letter to My Swamp Monsters

When you are ordained, you agree to love your congregation in the name of Jesus Christ. When you like them and when you don’t, you love them because, well, that’s just the deal you’ve made with God. In seminary they told us this would be both infuriating and holy work. What I didn’t learn in the classroom was that, as a pastor, you are given a front row seat to the stories of diverse, fascinating people of Christian conviction. To be a pastor is, in the best case, an opportunity to praise God for the work of the people of God.  To give thanks while observing the intellect and compassion of God’s people as they pursue vocation as a primary, 40 hour-a-week vehicle of Christian discipleship.

I pastor a church of about 100 in Washington, DC. Our church is part of a small denomination in the lineage of Dutch theologian, journalist and statesman Abraham Kuyper who wrote, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus does not cry out, ‘This is mine!’” So, from earliest days, our church members were told, in church and Christian schools, that every subject they could ever study is part of knowing and thereby coming to love God’s broken and beautiful world. Almost any vocation can be, if you know where to look, a part of Christ’s Kingdom being redeemed.

Many of our church members attended denomination-affiliated colleges and universities that taught them to pursue of all kinds of work – philosophical, scientific, political, legal – as a means to benefit the common good. After graduation, these intrepid disciples of Jesus Christ went to graduate schools, pursued careers and moved to DC – not in opposition to their Christian faith, not even as a neutral parallel track to the journey of Christian faith, but precisely because of their sense of uniquely Christian calling.

Nearly a third of our congregation works for the government in a spectacular array of acronyms: DOD, DOJ, DOS, DOT, EPA, FDA, USDA, USAID, NASA, and a handful even work on Capitol Hill. Even folks who don’t work in government directly – educators, journalists, NGOs and non-profits – are inescapably connected to government fluctuation, personnel, and finance here in Washington, DC. It’s an honor to stand in the pulpit every Sunday to remind all of us that we matter to God and that our work matters to God. To celebrate the thoughtful folks attempting what their childhood churches, their Christian schools and Reformed universities told them was good, meaningful and even holy work. Read more