baby asleep being held by adult

Real Family Values

baby asleep being held by adultI am sitting in my office at the Seminary where I teach on the second day of a new semester. Last year at this time, I was home on maternity leave, finishing out the summer with my three kids, including my two-month-old infant. One year later, I’m better able to process the importance of the maternity leave I received from my then-new employer.

I remember my mother, who is a pediatrician, telling me how she took as little maternity leave as possible. When she started having babies she was a resident, and would have to make up any hours she missed at the hospital, adding them to an already grueling and sleep-deprived schedule. I was shocked by this, until I faced the same reality thirty years later in a Christian organization.

When I was pregnant with my last baby, I found out that if I missed teaching courses, I’d have to make those hours up in subsequent terms. This would have meant teaching an overloaded schedule for two terms while pumping every three hours, not sleeping well, and adjusting to life with a new baby. I would have done it, because it was my job and my vocation. I would have done it because I have a partner at home who could help and because we had childcare for which we would have to pay. I would have done it. It would have been awful. I would have suffered. My children and husband would have suffered.

This was not the reason I left that institution, yet I am so very grateful that my current institution did not ask me to make up those hours I missed while I was getting to know my new baby, nursing round the clock, and trying to figure out how our family of five was going to function in a new location with both parents starting new jobs. I was able to take my maternity leave and come back to work ready to teach. I jumped into a team-taught class mid-semester and taught a regular load the following semester. No, my baby was not yet sleeping through the night, but I was able to think and function fully in my job. My body had healed. And I knew I had the support of my institution in my calling not just as a professor, but as a mother.

I know that in the United States, I am in a small minority of women who have had such a good experience with maternity leave. According to Pew Research, the United States trails the world in paid parental leave even though we have increasingly more two-working-parent households, and many where the mother is sole or primary breadwinner.[1]

For comparison, my brother lives in Norway. Here’s the parental leave policy there: “After every birth, the parents[2] both benefit from a two-week leave and then divide up the 46-week parental leave paid at 100%, or alternatively, 56 weeks paid at 80%. In this way, Norwegian babies spend their first year with both their parents. To encourage men to take care of their children, a special 10-week quota is reserved for them. If they are reluctant to take pappapermisjon [paternity leave], they lose the 10 weeks, since the time can’t be transferred to the mother and the whole family loses out. The results have been spectacular. In Norway, 90% of fathers take at least 12 weeks’ paternity leave.”[3] Read more

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

10 Things I Wish All Clergy Understood About Pregnancy Loss

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

Doctors estimate that one in four of all pregnancies ends in miscarriage.

In the years since my own experience of pregnancy loss, something amazing has happened. An entire world has opened up to me—a world filled with women and men and families who have gone through similar experiences. I’ve heard stories from strangers, friends, even family members.

And because I am a woman who has gone through this experience as well as a priest, I hear a lot from people about the ways the church has handled their loss. I have, of course, heard stories of (and been a part of) faith communities who have lovingly cared for families in their time of loss. And these are beautiful stories of compassion in times of sorrow.

Unfortunately, I have also heard heart-wrenching stories of ways the church has made this impossible experience even more painful.

Clergy have an important role in this because they will learn about the loss of pregnancies that no one else even knew existed. Clergy also have privileged positions in pulpits and behind microphones that can be used to form communities with greater compassion for the women and families suffering in their midst, often in silence.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. And so this month, even more than usual, these are the things I wish all clergy understood:

Not all pregnancy losses are alike.

My loss was very early. It was an entirely different experience from someone who loses a pregnancy several months in, and yet it came with its own challenges and confusion that were unique to my circumstances. It’s important to let the person tell you what happened and what that meant to them. So few people want to hear all the details, but as clergy you can create space for those going through loss to tell the whole story and what it was like for them to experience it.

This may not be a one-time event.

Families struggling with infertility may experience recurrent losses as they try to conceive. This requires enormous physical, emotional, and spiritual strength. Be willing to support them for the long haul.

Don’t assume you know how they are feeling.

There’s a wide range of emotions that can be stirred by the loss of a pregnancy, and can vary depending on the feelings about the pregnancy itself. Grief over the loss. Relief over the loss of an unwanted pregnancy. Guilt about feeling relieved. Feelings of guilt for having caused it somehow. Fear that this means it will never be possible to have a baby. Despair. Ask open questions. Be ready for anything. Read more

two young girls sitting in car seats in the back seat of a car, smiling and watching a program on a screen mounted on the back of the front seats

All I Really Need to Know About Ministry I Learned from Daniel Tiger

two young girls sitting in car seats in the back seat of a car, smiling and watching a program on a screen mounted on the back of the front seats

Sofia and Nadia, daughters of the Rev. Angela Flanagan, enjoy educational programming on a long car ride.

One day in the preschool carpool, the kids asked to listen to Daniel Tiger. I found myself listening to the familiar tunes with new ears. I thought of the classic book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and wondered if perhaps we could say something like this for ministry. Perhaps those songs could apply to ministry and life in the Church too? So, dear fellow Christians, particularly those in positions of Church leadership, I invite you to consider some lessons from Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger to enrich our life together:

What Do You Do with the Mad that you Feel?

Feelings. They come. Sometimes in the Church we try to deny that they are there, but then those big feelings rear their heads in ugly ways. When that happens, we have a tendency in Church to think that we just have to tolerate it, even when big feelings are expressed in inappropriate, hurtful, and harmful ways. Being Church does not mean we have to tolerate unjust or inappropriate behavior. It means that we speak truth in love and call each other to be our best selves. We need to learn how to recognize our feelings and then express them appropriately. This is where Daniel Tiger can help. When we’re facing challenging conversations or situations – when we feel like we’re about to roar – wouldn’t it help to take a deep breath and count to four?

Friends Help Each Other

No matter our age, our ordination status, or our place in the hierarchy, we are all in this together. We all want to have happy lives. We want to thrive. We want our children’s future to be better. How do we live this out? We realize that we are all in this together. Working together in Church isn’t always easy. When conflicts arise, do we assume the best of each other? How can we be even more generous, and build each other up, rather than fighting over resources, or affirmation? As the body of Christ, we have to recognize our reliance on each member, and Daniel reminds us that friends help each other.

Look a Little Closer . . .

It is a widely held principle among Sociologists and Psychologists that the way to undo stereotypes is to get to know someone in that group. When we are afraid, it is so tempting to back away and distance ourselves. What if instead we followed Daniel’s advice and engaged? What if we looked a little closer? Just like turning the light on to discover that the “monster” under the bed is just a stuffed animal, we can learn more about those things that initially make us fearful. What if we did this as a Church? Read more

Not Just the Future but the Present

people sitting on benches on a hill facing away from camera and toward three wooden crosses with another wooden cross and flowers in the foreground

Morning devotions at Henderson Settlement

An eleven-year-old stood behind a rough wooden podium on the side of a mountain at Henderson Settlement, a United Methodist mission site in Kentucky. Her back was straight, her face calm and fierce, and she called us to our morning devotion first with a song. She looked to an adult who was with her to help lead the songs, but she did not invite him to stand with her. She didn’t need him to: she filled the space with a powerful presence all alone. After singing, she opened her Bible and began to read from the sixth chapter of Isaiah.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”

She opened her journal, set it on top of the open Bible, and looked at us before beginning to preach. Because that’s what it was: preaching. She challenged us with the Good News, reminding us why we were there on a mission trip and pointing not to our service, but to God. Her reading was not particularly new, but it was her confidence, her assurance that struck us and inspired us. “Here I am; send me!” she read, closing her devotion by repeating the scripture. Then she closed her journal and looked at us. “Here we are; send us,” she said in benediction.

This summer, there has been an article floating around young clergywomen circles detailing how important it is for young girls to see women in leadership in churches. The article is based on a book by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin called She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America.[1] They argue that seeing women in leadership in churches has a positive impact on girls and young women in those churches later in life. I wondered who the role models were for the eleven-year-old who led us in our devotion. But I also began to wonder – why don’t I have more eleven-year-olds as my own role models?

I spent most of the summer doing mission work and working with children and youth, and over and over again I would watch adults volunteer to pray, instead of waiting for young people to volunteer. I would watch adults ignore or question youth leaders. These older adults did not deny leadership to young people maliciously, but they seemed to be so keen on modeling discipleship that they forgot that they have much to learn about discipleship themselves. I have spent so much energy in my own ministry proving that I, as a young clergy woman, actually can lead, saying, “Here I am!” I realized that I still need to make a more conscious effort to allow myself to be led by young people, to make space for those eleven-year-old preachers and teachers in my life.

I realized this need to make space post-March for Our Lives, the powerful visual reminder of all the work young people are doing in the wake of incredible violence in our schools. I had cheered Emma Gonzálezshared Naomi Wadler’s words on social media, and yet still I was surprised, sitting on the side of the mountain that day, at the way this girl was filled with the Holy Spirit. And so I knew, I had some work to do. And I suspect you do as well. Read more

A Sister Is A Sister

headshot of India Reaves

The author

November 9, 2005, is a day I will never forget! It was the day that I became a member of my illustrious sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. It was a day that I’d dreamed about for years and it was finally here! I was so excited that I was finally a part of this sisterhood. During the time leading up to becoming a sister of Zeta Phi Beta, I learned a sorority poem entitled, “A Sister Is A Sister.” Here I am almost thirteen years later, and that poem still means just as much to me now, if not more than it did in the fall of 2005.

The poem was very simple. It begins:

A sister is a sister
A sister loves a sister
A sister takes care of a sister

The final line of the poem is held in confidence by members of the sorority.

While I learned the poem in the context of a sorority, it speaks not only of my relationships with my sisters of Zeta, but of each one of my friendships that are much more like sisterhoods. Growing up as an only child, my friends have always played a crucial role in my life. At an early age, my mother taught me about choosing my friends wisely. We talked about what it meant to be loyal, trustworthy, honest, and what it really meant to have someone’s back. She told me to always be the friend that I wanted and needed and the universe would repay me…she was right!

Our society has such a focus on independence; many people feel as though they can do this thing called life by themselves. We often hear people use phrases such as, “I don’t need anybody else,” or “All I need is me.” That is a lie from the pit of Hell! We all need somebody. Life is much sweeter when you have people (especially sisters) that will help you navigate through the trying terrains of life.

Sisters are there to pick you up when you fall. They celebrate you when you succeed. They check you when you’re out of line. And, for me, they hold me accountable to my purpose and to my destiny. Sisterhood is by no means a walk in the park. Just like any other relationship, sisterhood has its challenges. From disagreements to fall-outs, to getting things back in order, sisterhood has it all. This is why it is imperative to make sure that we tend to and maintain these relationships.

The fact of the matter is that each one of my (your) sisters has their own life. We all are going through something, dealing with something, or just trying to figure out something in our own lives. And to be completely honest, those moments often take a toll on us, to the point where we forget to tend to our sisters, and that’s normal. However, at some point be sure to check on your sis. It’s usually these moments when my sisters and I need each other the most.

Whether we realize it or not, as sisters we can become mentors to one another. When we are intrigued by each other and have a desire to learn from each other, that’s the beginning of mentorship. The thing we must understand about mentorship is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be in it for the long haul. Mentoring is not an easy feat and isn’t something that should ever be taken lightly.

As someone who has and still is a mentor and a mentee, these are some of my most trying relationships on both sides of the spectrum. As a mentor it’s not always easy to chastise or correct someone you love. However, I think that it is the love that we have for mentees that causes us to say or do those things that are uncomfortable but are necessary. I’ve also been on the receiving end of this exact same scenario. It’s not always easy to take correction. The mentor and mentee both must be committed to the process of mentorship.

When the Bible speaks of “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs 27:17), I think of both sisterhood and mentorship. When you need to sharpen a knife you grab another knife to sharpen it. As you sharpen the knives, the sound is excruciating, it looks painful and it seems like it would be uncomfortable, but in the end the knives are able to do their best work and can be utilized to their full potential. Sisters and mentors do the same thing. We sharpen one another. Even though it may be painful and uncomfortable sometimes, the quality of our lives are better because of the presence and position in each other’s lives.

woman with head in hands

WTF, God? A Prayer after Pregnancy Loss

woman with head in hands

I was in a church meeting when I found out I was having a miscarriage. I had stepped out of the conference room at our diocesan offices when my phone rang, assuming it was the fertility clinic calling to give instructions for starting the next round of medications. We had been told that the last round had failed, and we were hoping to try again as soon as possible.

I went into a small meeting room for some privacy while I spoke with the nurse and, as she began to talk, her words made no sense. She didn’t give instructions for when to start the medication or the the dosage I should take. She explained that the blood work I’d had that morning showed I was pregnant. Or I had been pregnant. Well, I was technically still pregnant. But I wouldn’t be for much longer. I needed to return for more blood work to be sure.

So I got more blood work. The results were unclear. It might not be a miscarriage.

Maybe an ectopic pregnancy. I had to come back again immediately. My life and future childbearing at risk.

“Well we don’t see anything. So it’s not ectopic. Guess it’s ‘just,’ a miscarriage after all.”

I hadn’t even known I was pregnant.

I bled for eight weeks.

When the initial shock started to lift, and I gradually felt able to tell people what had happened, I was amazed by the stories that flooded out of others, of their own experiences of losing loved ones they’d never known. Several people spoke about their difficulty setting foot in church after this kind of loss. Certainly not at Christmas when church is all about expecting a baby, but other times too. It’s so easy to talk about God when pregnancy is going well. “What a blessing!” “A gift from God!” But when that gift, that blessing, is gone before it’s even visible to the people in the pews, the silence is staggering.

I felt this same silence. From the people who had no idea what I was losing as I led them in worship each of those long weeks. Week after week, I consecrated the body and blood of Christ, and I bled. Read more

We Really, Really Love You

The author, surrounded by love at her Valentine’s Day Installation service, 2016.

After what might have been my fifth phone call of the morning, the dichotomy hit me again: I was delivering very sad and difficult news about the death of a beloved church member, then quickly asking for logistical help. It had been less than a month since a shocking, terminal diagnosis, but for that month, I had been sitting with the grief, knowing that this was coming. We knew that the end was imminent, and the night before, I had the great gift of being present at the bedside, singing, praying, and anointing with oil.

The family wanted to hold the service soon, but I also knew that on a holiday weekend, with a number of our regular volunteers out of commission for one reason or another, it would be a bit more of a stretch to cover everything. Not impossible, but a stretch. So when I got the official word, and confirmation of the service time, I set to work making phone calls.

Actually, I started to do that. I was about to tell the secretary that the member had passed, and the funeral would be in a few days, but my throat closed up, and the tears returned. I had shed many tears in the past month, and would continue to shed many more. Grief is like that. It sideswipes you with no prior warning. It opens up like a flash summer downpour on what had been a brilliantly sunny day.

In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of our ordination vows is to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” When I was ordained, my pastor father gave the charge to me, which boiled down to this: love the people you serve. Seven years later, I was installed into my current call, very appropriately on Valentine’s Day.

I deeply love the people I have been called to serve. When they rejoice, I rejoice with them. When they weep, my heart weeps with them. That’s part of being one body of Christ. But being a pastor to that body also means that when they are weeping, I am also providing pastoral support, comfort, and care. They are not called to comfort me in my grief, even though I am grieving, too. That’s just the way this calling works. Read more

prayers written in a spiral on paper

Until You Know That I Know-And You Are Okay with That: Pastoral Confidence-Keeping

prayers written in a spiral on paper

All the confidences we keep, written with walnut ink.

Clergy do not all live by the same ethical standards—or even embrace them—but here is one we all aspire to keep, with some variance: unless I know that you know that I know that thing about you, and you’re okay with my knowing, I do not know it. I’m not going to bring it up with you. You do not have to talk about it with me, but you can if you want to.

Or, if I know something that few people know, you’re not going to hear about it from me.

And (this is the other side of the coin): at any given time, I might know more than you think I know.

I can offer an example, one of many curated from a group of clergy friends so as not to come from my context:

While serving lunch at the church’s soup-kitchen ministry, a congregant mentions to me that his great-niece, who is also a member of the community, has been diagnosed with endometriosis, or diabetes, or skin cancer. He indicates that this is not public knowledge (or he doesn’t—the next steps of the minister are really the same either way).

Now, I know something. I have been entrusted with a confidence of two different kinds. For one, the congregant has shared something that is important to him. The act of sharing with another person, particularly a pastor, offers that person a safe place to talk about it and a way to sort through something that indirectly affects him. The act of telling someone what you know is cathartic.

The second and most important layer of confidence, or confiding, is that I know something about the great-niece that she did not tell me herself, something very personal with long-term effects and possible heart-aches, that she may at some time want to sort through or may want to forever keep private. Now, when I offer a pastoral or priestly presence to that great-niece, I can be sensitive, but it is absolutely not cool for me to bring it up or let on that I know about her struggle with diabetes or skin cancer or endometriosis. I know more than I will or can let on.

This keeping of confidence is both a high-stakes issue for some congregants and a highly difficult task for the pastor. It is high-stakes because breaking either of those confidences can be tantamount to betrayal of trust by a minister, and by proxy, the church. Or they could not care at all. And one can seldom predict the difference with confidence. This is especially true in situations where reproductive issues, gender, or sexuality issues come into play. Mark my words, if the confidence has to do with the reproductive system, it is a high-stakes issue, a sacred confidence to keep, and not my story to tell. There is a high level of difficulty in this kind of pastoral confidence-keeping because often the information comes to me in a laundry basket of other information: “Sarah is out of the hospital, Josi is starting kindergarten in the fall, and my great-niece has endometriosis.”  Read more

Wedding Season

The author’s wedding cake, 2008

It’s that time of year once again: Wedding Season! Young clergy women are here to offer some helpful advice and words of wisdom to the happy couples and their family and friends. Let the wedding bells ring!

Planning:

  • If you want to get married in a church and/or by a clergy person, contact the church and clergy person before finalizing the date! Make sure you have read and agree to comply with any policies of the church and the officiant. Make sure your vendors (photographer/videographer, wedding coordinators, etc.) have also read and agree to comply with the church and officiant policies.
  • Do not assume that you can simply rent a church and bring in your own officiant. Most churches have policies about this. If it isn’t clear in the wedding policies, ask.
  • Know that most clergy require some kind of premarital sessions with the couple, so plan accordingly.
  • Research local and state laws regarding wedding licenses. It is the COUPLE’S responsibility to secure the wedding license, and you will need to do this within a certain time period before the wedding. Don’t come to the wedding rehearsal without it! Make a clear plan for how the license will be filed. Will you or a family member be mailing it? The clergy person?
  • It’s a big day, but it’s not the only day. Be mindful of your budget. Starting off a marriage with a huge debt for wedding festivities is not advised! Also remember that just as your photographer, cake baker, and musicians are professionals paid for services they provide, so is the clergy person. For many weddings, clergy will put in 10-20 hours of additional work, often on days and at times where they would otherwise be off. If the clergy person is required to travel, all expenses should be paid, including a hotel room if overnight accommodations are needed. Clergy might have set fees, which will be communicated clearly, or they might have sliding scales or leave it to the discretion of the couple. Remember that the clergy person has at least one advanced professional degree, and is putting significant time and energy into your big day, and compensate accordingly.
  • We know, we know – online ordination is a thing, and your best friend, your cousin’s uncle, or any Joe Schmo off the street can become credentialed to officiate. That’s not really equivalent to having an ordained, trained, and experienced clergy person as an officiant. If you do choose to go that route, please don’t ask a clergy person to lend expertise.

That “religious” thing:

Read more

the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her daughter’s birth

Mary, Full of Grace

“And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
~ Luke 2:19

the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her  daughter’s birth

Mama’s Hope: the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her
daughter’s birth

From the age of three I knew that I wanted to be a mother when I grew up. I would play house with my sister and my friends for hours upon hours, gently cradling baby dolls in my arms, singing sweet lullabies to them as I pulled out my briefcase, planner, and cellphone and pretended to be a successful business woman like Melanie Griffith in the film Working Girl. In my world, women grew up to be everything and anything they wanted to be – mother, wife, business woman, president, and captain of the soccer team.

So when I “grew up” and became an adult, I was certain that I could and would fulfill all of those vocational calls God had imprinted upon my heart at a young age, especially those calls I felt most strongly: to be a wife, mother, and pastor.

With determination, risk, luck, and grace I entered seminary and fell in love with a man who was perfect for me. Together we decided to wait to have children until I was ordained and employed in a congregational call. After a whirlwind trip to Europe for our delayed honeymoon, we excitedly took the big leap of tossing out my birth control pills and opening ourselves to the anticipation of pregnancy and the birth of a child.

As months went by and my periods came like clockwork, we kept reminding ourselves of the statistic that seems so hopeful and promising: over 80% of couples conceive within a year. Probability was on our side. And then a year went by, and then a year and a half.

I had been pregnant once before and had a miscarriage, during my congregational internship, when I was on birth control. So why was it so hard to get pregnant now?

We saw a fertility specialist. We went through myriad tests. Just as we were set to begin fertility treatments, I discovered I was pregnant. It was such joyful news! We were ecstatic and began to dream of our child. Several weeks later, I laid in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to remove the ectopic pregnancy that had caused my body to go into shock. I was in deep grief at this loss and in a haze at the thought that my life had been in severe jeopardy from what was supposed to be the most joyous of news. The hospital chaplain visited and tried to console me, but instead triggered my anger as she declared that my baby was in heaven with God. I told her to go hell, and that I wanted my baby with me.

Life went on as I recovered. My husband and I committed to trying again on our own since I had conceived without any assistance. Another year went by. It seemed like everyone had a baby. I grew bitter, desperate, and I missed the joyfulness which had been a natural spring dwelling within me. Who was I to be if I couldn’t be a mother? Read more