The Heroine’s Journey and A Life of Feminine Ministry Devotional

This spring will mark the ten year anniversary of my graduation from seminary. If I had had to guess what course my ministry life would have taken over these ten years, I would have been wrong. So wrong. As of the writing of this article, I have been considered by about two dozen ministries. From those, I have received one offer of call, which I accepted and from where I was ordained. I have the ignominious achievement of having been looking for a call longer than I’ve actually been in one. Heaven knows that I’ve introduced my own complexities to the situation. I own those. I just never imagined that they would be so nearly insurmountable. It has not escaped my notice that they are all rather feminine in nature – children bearing and caring and being the non-breadwinning spouse. Somedays, having persevered through so much rejection, it feels like a real miracle that I am still here, in faith.

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The Emergence of Fandom Church

Beginning in 2012 and through 2013, while waiting for my first call, I worked for the missional outreach face of my seminary’s website. I edited a collection of essays from a class on church revitalization and wrote a few original pieces reflecting on my experiences as a Millennial who was also a practicing Christian. In one of the posts I wrote, which I called “The Original Fandom,” I drew a line connecting the people who call themselves Potterheads, Trekkies, or Bronies/Pegasisters with the people who call themselves Christians. This article of mine was the very first place that I began to think that maybe fandom had something to teach those who follow Christ about what it means to be shaped by a story, or a Word, in the Internet Age. Though the article itself hasn’t survived my seminary’s transition to a new website or my transition to a new computer, the act of writing that article set me on a course where I would be continually fascinated by the activity, practices, and commentary of fan culture. This, in turn, has inspired me as I question and experiment in ministry.

The impact of story fandom (think books/movies/RPGs/TV shows) on larger culture has been maturing on a parallel path to my own growth and maturity. In some ways it feels as if story fandom has been growing up with me.  I was four when The Little Mermaid released, five when Beauty and the Beast hit theaters, and so on. The Disney Renaissance was my childhood. Toy Story came out when I was nine. The first Harry Potter book came out in 1998 when I was 12, and Harry, the eponymous main character, had just turned 11. I spent my teenage years soaking in massive movies about Jedi, hobbits and elves, and pirates. I was 22 when Iron Man was released. Maybe it was only a matter of time before I and the members of my generational cohort (with our neighboring cohorts!) began to approach fandom as something more than child’s play. Maybe it was only a matter of time before we began to examine the casual and lively networking of fan cultures that was blossoming alongside our churches, which were struggling to adapt to new rhythms and realities of a culture in flux.

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Non-Canonical Bible Studies: A Chance to Learn Together

 

It all started by questions provoked from the wisdom of Rachel Held Evans.  For our 2021 Lenten book study I chose “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again” by Rachel Held Evans (Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2018).  I had been noticing a burgeoning interest amongst several of the congregants for more intense study of scripture, and I was sure Held Evans’ intelligence, insight, and wit would only add to that interest.  

At some point in the study, we got sidetracked onto the topic of ancient theological writings that were not included in the final canon of the Bible.  Most were aware of the Old Testament Apocrypha, but several were unaware that there were gospels of Jesus that were rejected from the canon.  And this group of adult learners, appalled by the knowledge that there was material for study and conversation that they didn’t know about, suggested we add some of those books to our Bible study.

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“Targeting Gun Violence with Gun Buybacks”

I’m a bit of an outlier among my young female clergy colleagues. I’m a gun owner and a hunter— I use my guns exclusively for hunting wild game. As a kid, hunting with my dad was a way for me to get into nature. It allowed me to observe how I fit “into the family of things,” as Mary Oliver once wrote in her poem “Wild Geese.” To this day, hunting helps me unwind from the stressors of ministry. I can clear my thoughts and catch my perspective. It’s sometimes harder to pray in my church office than it is to pray in a deer stand— even if I’m waiting on an 8-point buck to cross my path. Owning guns helps me fit into my ministry context. I currently pastor two small churches nestled between timber woods and cow pastures in rural South Carolina. Most of my parishioners are farmers and they use guns for hunting and protecting livestock. I’ve really come to enjoy learning about the guns they shoot. Some parishioners even have legacy guns: priceless relics they’ve inherited from ancestors long dead. It is humbling to be trusted with these family histories. But while there are many proud gun-carrying members, there are also many for whom guns are a painful reminder of the epidemic of violence in our society.

Many churches in my area still feel unsafe in the wake of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting five years ago. But most of our gun violence in South Carolina does not come from domestic terrorism: it comes from suicide. Over 90% of suicides in my state involve a gun, and we are 50th in the nation when it comes to availability of mental health first aid. South Carolina is also the only state in the southeast of the U.S. with an increasing suicide rate. During my high school years, I experienced profound depression, brought on by a family crisis. At one point, during the height of my depression, I imagined a handgun to my head and felt a sense of relief rather than dread. This image propelled me to tell a friend, who encouraged me to see a counselor. Thankfully, my family had the financial resources to pay for a counselor. Therapy likely saved my life, but many people don’t have the financial resources for counseling services. These memories, statistics, and ministry experiences propelled me to start a new model for ministry in my community: a gun buyback program.

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Group of people holding hands around an A-frame wooden church sanctuary

Bind Us Together

Group of people holding hands around an A-frame wooden church sanctuary

Singing “Bind Us Together Lord” as the benediction

I’ve almost finished my first year as senior pastor at a church that is unlike any other I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. Our vision statement is “To be a house of prayer for all nations,” and while we may not have all nations yet, together we worship in Burmese, English, French, Spanish, and Swahili. It is beautiful and energizing. When I first arrived church members told me, “In heaven, people are going to be from all over the world and praising God in different languages. We might as well start practicing now.”

I don’t want to romanticize my church, of course: please remember that it is a church, which means it is made up of people, which means that life lived out together in faith can be messy. There are still disagreements and misunderstandings, and now we can have misunderstandings across languages and cultures as well. We are not a church of one single political or theological viewpoint.

We are made up of refugees and immigrants as well as people who’ve lived their whole lives in Kentucky. We live into the tension of having people hug and greet one another on Sunday and post articles about “building the wall” on Monday. And for those church members, they experience no contradiction in that. They see their political beliefs around immigration as separate from the love they show to the people right in front of them. Read more

ycwi conference planning team for the 2018 St. Louis conference

Go Team: Christ, Community, and Conference Planning

“What does it mean to embody ministry? To be the physical body of Christ in the world? How is it with your soul?” These are just a few of the question posed by keynote speaker, the Rev. Karoline Lewis, at the last Young Clergy Women International (YCWI) Conference WE: Embodied Ministry in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, in July of 2019.

ycwi conference planning team for the 2018 St. Louis conferenceI joined the YCWI Conference Team in 2014, during my second year as a YCWI board member. I had three goals coming onto Conference Team: 1) ensure incarnational connection for young clergy women (YCWs) spread across the USA, Canada, UK, Sweden, Israel, Australia, and other countries who are often isolated and yearn for deeper connections in ministry beyond their local communities and YCWI’s online community; 2) get YWCI to Texas, specifically onto the campus of my alma mater, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and 3) take our annual conference international to truly reflect who we are as an organization and as young women facing a similarly unique set of challenges in and beyond the church as we serve across a multiplicity of denominations.

The Conference Team achieved all three goals during my tenure, which concluded last summer. In 2015, we hosted Text in Context at Austin Seminary, in 2016 we saw a 57% increase in attendance in Boston, and in 2017 we marked YCWI’s 10th anniversary as an organization in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. If setting goals, achieving goals, and learning the logistical ins and outs of running (and for 3 years co-chairing) an international conference were enough, I would count my time on YCWI’s Conference Team a success and now move on to the next thing. But God is funny that way, so these experiences came with far more depth and purpose than merely offering professional development and checking off a to-do list.

We were a small team. For a few years, we were a tiny team learning and growing in more ways than organizational conference leadership. We were learning what it means to be Christ – to embody Christ – for each other and grow in our own faith. Those four and a half years were among the most joyous, exhausting, affirming, aggravating, educational, soul-refreshing, found-my-people-ing years of my ministry. Read more

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attached

Untethered but Anchored

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attachedA year and a half ago, I left my full-time congregational ministry setting to take an intentional year off from full-time congregational ministry. I had been ordained a decade, serving congregations for a decade and a half, all of it as a program pastor in multi-staff churches. The congregation and I were no longer a fit and I felt something nagging at me.

The nagging had grown so loud and so restless that it eventually overshadowed my fears, which I lovingly named “the great untethering.” I was fearful if I untethered myself from full time congregational ministry, even for a short, determined, amount of time, that I would somehow untether myself from other things. I would lose my grounding, or my sense of self, or my understanding of what had brought me into this beautiful life of serving God in community through Jesus to begin with. I was afraid that like the little old man in the children’s movie Up, once I started to cut the strings to the things that had carried me thus far, it would all come crashing down.

I love to work, I love what God does in community. I love the messy dance of structure and unpredictability that gives movement to days and weeks and seasons of ministry. I didn’t want to lose those things. But I was also chafing in my current ministry setting–like an old, shrunken, itchy sweater, there were some things I knew could not be stretched back into place. I couldn’t tell if it was my setting or me but my suspicion was that it had become a combination of both.

Several months after my departure I was sitting at a judicatory gathering when the facilitator of our training said, “we’re going to go around the room and I’d like you to share your name and where you serve.” I didn’t have an answer, or at least not one that fit into the normal parameters of such gatherings. I quickly leaned over to the other three young clergy women at my table and whispered, half panicked and half joking, “what do I say? Freelance minister?!” “Hell yeah,” whispered back one of my fellow clergy women, “you should say you are a ‘ministerial entrepreneur.’”

Seeing the flicker of hesitation she added, “you know none of our male colleagues would hesitate to be so bold about their broad work,” with a knowing glance. Being forced for the first time in months to explain my ministry, my colleague’s encouragement cracked open something inside me. It wasn’t that I didn’t do ministry… My ministry was just far more expansive and harder to explain than it had been a few months ago. Read more

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked cloth

A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked clothHere in rural Illinois where I live, the leaves on the trees are starting to change—red, orange, and yellow gracing our streets and college campus green spaces. Alongside the color, you’ll find bare expanses of dusty dirt fields, where thousands of farmers seem, en masse, to have harvested all of their corn and soybeans at once, leaving the majority of the state of Illinois brown and flat until cover crops come poking through to add a little color before snow comes.

I live in two worlds all year long, and one of those worlds points me always toward summer. I’m the Associate Chaplain at Monmouth College, but also the director of a grand experiment on our campus called the Lux Summer Theological Institute for Youth. The Lux Institute brings high school students to our campus for two weeks each summer to study a prominent global issue alongside theological reflection.

In Summer 2019, we’ll be focused on the theme “A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty” from June 16-30. I’m already busy searching for curious students to join us for this free program, and already thinking about the nuances of each class, activity, reading assignment, community building exercise, and meal. I’m adding “remember to pick up laundry quarters from the business office” to my growing list of summer responsibilities for the Institute (because even student laundry costs are covered!).

As those preparations continue, I’m turned back to focus on the intersections between my work with high school students from around the country and the college students here on campus. The Lux Institute was started two summers ago, and its first program theme focused on food security. In the academic year that followed, I discovered that many of my college students struggle with food security of their own. I had spent two weeks with high school students exploring the ways that hunger and food insecurity impacts their local communities around the country, and I was prompted to explore my own immediate context. Read more

people bending near the ground, working with soil and plants behind a fence on a clear day

Growing Good Soil in Ministry

Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”-Matthew 13:8 (NIV)

people bending near the ground, working with soil and plants behind a fence on a clear day

The “Farminary”at Princeton Theological Seminary

The farmers in front of me dreamed of having the richest soil in the entire state. Regrettably, history was working against them. They had acquired an old sod farm, and the poor practices of the previous generations had stripped away the nutrient-rich top soil. The soil had been full of life-giving organic matter and they sold it away year by year with each reaping. The farm thrived for a time. However, with the depletion of the soil, every year they worked harder and yielded fewer results. Finally, they were forced to close down the operation and pass the land to the next successors.

Slowly, these new farmers began to change the story with a more sustainable model. They brought in some new soil and enriched what remained with compost. They took in the discarded compost scraps and used that as the basis for what would surprisingly be the source of new life. There would be much good fruit that would be grown in abundance in this new soil.

I had heard this story of this particular farm before. However, when I heard it again during my search for my first ordained call, it stopped me in my tracks. Finally, I had a clear picture of the unsettling cloud that had seemed to hover over my search with a gloomy presence. I had encountered too many churches that seemed to want to continue in a metaphorical “soil-depleting mentality.”

If you’re in the white mainline American church tradition like me, you’re probably familiar with the longing for the church to return to its “golden-age” in the 1950s and 60s. My interviews involved questions about how I could start getting those higher yields back. There wasn’t much discussion of the state of the soil. I was saddened by the fact that churches couldn’t see past the old successes to imagine what new life could grow in their midst. I wondered at their ability to persist in working harder with fewer results rather than embrace a new vision. I longed for more imagination about the good fruit that could come of good soil and what a witness that could be for the good news of the gospel. Read more

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the background

Fear Not: A Letter to a Young Clergy Woman

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the backgroundDear Friend,

I was recently thinking back to my third date with Daniel. He reached across the table for my hand and asked, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” The question caught me off guard, so I paused before sharing a wild and intimate dream, feeling half embarrassed and half thrilled by voicing this fervent hope.

I’m not as exciting a date, but I’d like to pose a similar question: what would your church be doing if you knew you could not fail? I know you’re plagued with fear about how the church is going to pledge the budget. I know the ceiling in the back of the sanctuary is still leaking when it rains. I know that there continue to be arguments in your congregation about whether or not the church can be open and affirming to LGBTQ+ folks. I know that your church bully came to the office this week. And I know that you are exhausted with what the poet John Blase refers to as “the sheer unimaginativity of what passes for wrestling with angels or walking on water.”[1] I know because I feel the exact same way.

My friend, I think you need reminding that the Church cannot fail. This beautiful, bedraggled Bride has a future more glorious than we could ever figure out in a planning retreat with our Elders. I think you have temporarily forgotten that all will be well.

I was talking with Zada recently. (Can you believe I have a ten year old now?)

“People are getting impatient,” she explained, in response to my question about why she thinks people don’t engage in churches in the same way they may have in the past.

“How so?”

“Well, if churches aren’t treating all people with kindness and respect, other people aren’t going to put up with it anymore, so they stop believing in God or at least stop going to that church.”

We are up against a truth that a ten-year-old can plainly see. Our churches have become apathetic and lethargic. I’m not sure that the scholars talking about the decline of church as we have known it use the word “impatient,” but it actually feels really accurate. Our congregations are impatient with a world that has left them behind. The world is impatient with a church that seems increasingly irrelevant and wrongheaded. The impatience is frustrating, hard, and sad, but it is not insurmountable. Read more