female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outside

That Awkward Moment: Making Small Talk as a YCW

female and male people sitting in wooden chairs with high bars and lower tables, a high ceiling with vintage lights hanging down and a large window with many panes in the background and buildings and greenery outsideWe don’t know each other well, but we’ve been chatting for awhile, maybe at a party, or at a playdate for our kids.

The subject of what we do for a living hasn’t come up yet, and we’re talking easily about other things. But then the time comes when we would normally talk about what we do for work and I don’t bring it up. You might wonder if it’s because I don’t work, whether I’m a stay at home mom or unemployed, so you think maybe you shouldn’t bring it up. But I can tell you want to tell me what you do for work and so I ask.

My hesitation is not because I don’t want to know what you do for work—I really do—but because I don’t want to answer it back. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by what I do for a living—quite the opposite, in fact—it’s just that once I tell you that I’m a priest, everything about our conversation is going to change.

The first thing you’ll do is apologize for swearing.
(It’s ok! I have actually heard those words before. In fact, I’ve even said them!)

You start scanning my face to see whether I’m judging everything you do.
(I’m not.)

Then you worry you’re offending me with things you say.
(You’re not.)

You start to wonder if you can ask me all the questions you suddenly have. And sometimes you ask. And I try to answer them honestly, usually refraining from the snarky ways I’d actually like to answer:

Do women priests even exist?
(Would you believe me if I told you I’m actually a hologram?)

Are you allowed to have sex?
(No. My three children sprung from my head like the children of Zeus!)

You might feel awkward talking about what I do for living at all and so you ask quickly what my husband does for a living. You learn he’s a teacher, and suddenly we have lots of things to talk about. Everyone likes talking about teachers. The conversation flows on from there.

But then, sometimes….

You ask me about God.  Read more

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The Freedom To Dance & Worship

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The author

I feel it. Slowly at first. Suddenly, my spirit bursts and I must stand. Within seconds, I am on my feet. I’m swaying, one arm on my heart and the other raised in the air, palms open. Something in me notices that I am the only one standing while I am in church.

“Am I supposed to stand? Is it against some rule that I should not?” I begin to think to myself. I’m not sure who is looking at me, if anyone, and I try to concentrate on what drew me to stand, which is the Great Spirit. God beckons all of me–not just my presence, my voice, my ears, my eyes, or my attention, but my body. God wants all of me to worship. When there are any scrutiny or judgments I feel, I remind myself of examples of dancers in the Bible.

David danced.

Miriam danced.

Sigh. The service is over. A few individuals come up to me and comment on how nice it was to see someone standing during worship. I have received comments, “Wow, you really know how to worship.” It makes me wonder what about the experience of others makes such a distinction between what they see of me, and what they feel inside. Why are the experiences described differently if they too are worshiping? Did they want to stand? If they did not stand what stopped them?

We are used to singing in church. We are used to using our voice to speak in church. We are used to sensing the “spirit” in our spiritual spaces, but, rarely, are we used to seeing our bodies as a necessary, and integral part of worship. Why?

We use our bodies to enter a worship space, but we tend to disconnect the body once inside, and only focus on the spirit. We go into a mode of sensing, feeling, and concentrating on all things internal. Focusing on all things internal is a good thing. Churches and other worship spaces are one of the only designated places that our social sphere focuses on the spirit, where the spirit can have a voice, have a body, have a presence and be intentionally tended to.

However, sometimes we focus so much on the spirit that we disregard the temple in which that spirit lives, the body. We may kneel, we may clasp our hands together in a prayer pose, we may stand to take of sacred elements, or we may raise our hand. All of these embodied practices are indications of what is happening on the inside.

We move our bodies because we have to fulfill a goal of the spirit, and we can only fulfill that goal if we move our bodies. For example, if I am sitting in the pew and the offering plate is at the front, I have to move my body or get someone to move theirs for my spirit to offer finances to the offering plate. Likewise, when I take of the sacred communion or Eucharist, I move my hand, my mouth, and any other body part to fulfill the goal of the spirit to remember the Last Supper that Christ instructed us to follow. Read more

one hand being held between a pair of other hands

Reclaiming #BLESSED

one hand being held between a pair of other hands

#BLESSED

My thumbs move swiftly across my phone screen. One quick search on Instagram for #BLESSED shows over 100 million tags. As I scroll, I see pictures of sculpted bodies, expensive cars, tropical destinations, healthy babies, and shiny accessories. A few posts stand out as having some kind of spiritual message or focus on gratitude. Yet, I feel unsatisfied and uninspired. I’m longing for something grittier, more hopeful, and with more substance from a spiritual word like “blessed.” My role as solo pastor of a small congregation often requires me to wear a lot of hats in ministry as I go from the board meeting to the ICU to the pulpit, and so much more. Not only do I need language that is robust enough to carry through all these spaces, but I also need it to nourish me when I’m able to shift the focus to my own spiritual life.

Jonathan Merritt recently called “blessed” one of the sacred words that needs reclaiming since it has come to be trite, braggy, and materialistic.[1] In a video to promote his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing–and How We Can Revive Them, Merritt takes to the streets of New York City to interview people about the meaning of #BLESSED. As you might expect from its use on social media, most people either struggled to think of what it could mean or had a vague definition connected to gratitude and having good/nice things in life.

To be fair, the word “bless” is kind of a complicated word. It can be a verb that shows divine or human favor, care, endearment, veneration, holiness, permission, or gratitude. It can be a noun and an adjective. We use it to talk about everything from “having my parents’ blessing” to things that are a “blessing in disguise.” For so long, I didn’t realize what I was missing by not reclaiming this word in my life and ministry. As Merritt points out, when we lose spiritual language, we lose both the ability to engage one another in conversation about our spiritual lives and the ability to prevent the language from being co-opted and distorted by politicians, televangelists, advertisers, etc.[2]

Now, of course, I could have told you that “blessed” was not as superficial as pretty pictures, but I had never paid particular attention to the word. If there was a suggestion for a blessing in the liturgy at the end of a service, I conveniently collapsed it into the benediction. I would stretch out my hands, facing the congregation, and would send them out with a charge. I was happy to talk more about grace and gratitude since “blessed” seemed like the domain of the “name it and claim it” preachers or the grocery store checker who always handed me my receipt and told me to “have a blessed day.”

Then one day I went to visit Marlene, a member of my congregation, after a nasty fall that left her with seven broken ribs and the need to enter a living situation that provided more care. As I drove through lonely back roads to get to the hospital, I listened to the audio version of Kate Bowler’s memoir Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. In the book Bowler recounts the personal journey of going from researching and writing about the prosperity gospel tradition in America to being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Read more

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

The Myths and Mystery of Fertility

“So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”– Genesis 1:27-28

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

Both myth-debunking research and deep spiritual truths from powerful authors created space for the author’s journey; and shared space in her basement meditation corner.

From the very first time the concept of sex entered my understanding, I was made to believe that having sex = getting pregnant. I couldn’t tell you exactly where that myth came from. Maybe it was my own culturally-informed reading of the Genesis passage (Sex was for procreation and maybe for pleasure if I was married), but don’t think I’m alone in having held this myth close to my heart for so long.

Even as I became an adult, went to seminary, and reconciled my understanding and respect for good science with my deeply held beliefs and faith-life: this poorly researched and inadequately thought-through myth persisted. When my husband and I met, and were planning our wedding, I was incredibly concerned with accidental pregnancy; I thought missing a single birth control pill was going to lead to pregnancy and I was going to screw up my whole candidacy and potential ordination process.

Given the enormity of this myth built up in my insides, I was understandably surprised when I went off birth control on purpose during our second year of marriage and… nothing happened. Then, something happened, but it wasn’t what my fertility-myth-laden heart expected. Just before my first early-OB appointment the first time I finally got pregnant, I miscarried. I felt totally alone, like something was wrong with me, as though somehow my body wasn’t doing its God-given job. This potential reality pissed off my little perfectionist over-achiever brain, and made me feel totally ashamed that something in me was broken and not normal.

That’s when my OB/GYN recommended a healthy dose of Brené Brown (seriously, my OB is that awesome) and pointed me toward the book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, for some good, contextually-researched science on my situation. I was 32 years old. I had considered myself a feminist for much of my young adult life. And yet this was the first time in my life that I was reading information about the science of my biology that matched the lived patterns of my flesh and bones. It turns out, my 26-30-day fluctuating cycle with an overly heavy 7-day period was not something “wrong” with me at all.

“The belief that cycles are 28 days and ovulation occurs on Day 14 is so entrenched in the medical profession that when a woman’s cycles vary from that standard, the variation is often presumed to be a potential concern. “Irregular” cycles are seen as problematic….”  – from Taking Charge of your Fertility

These words felt like Gospel to me. After all, when have I EVER believed that God created with normativity as the goal? As I let these words that felt like God’s YES sink into my bones, my broken heart began to heal around trusting what I already knew to be true but was now unexpectedly embodying in my fertility journey: that God is a God of mystery, a God of change, and a God of detail beyond my human understanding. Read more

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.

Read more

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:


Read more