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

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

twilight with two hands holding lit sparklers

In Praise of the Ambush Wedding

twilight with two hands holding lit sparklersIn my experience, one ambush wedding begets another, as well it should. Once engaged couples see evidence of a “third way,” between eloping and a full-blown wedding and reception, the appeal is contagious!

What is an ambush wedding, exactly? First, the two people getting married must both be in on the surprise. I do not condone ambushing any member of the wedding party! But everyone else, including parents of the happy couple, are fair game for an ambush or surprise wedding.  Read more

Blessing our Caregivers

Third Sundays in our congregation are healing Sundays. During communion, two healing ministers position themselves behind the altar rail, anointing oil in hand, to offer healing prayers and blessings to anyone who approaches them.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for themselves – prayers for upcoming surgeries and for broken relationships and for grieving spirits.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for loved ones – prayers for family members in medical crisis or friends in economic distress.

Some people come forward asking for nothing in particular. They just want to hear again the good news that God binds up the broken-hearted and promises healing for us and for all creation.

Healing ministers lay hands on their shoulders, pray, trace the sign of the cross in oil on their foreheads, and remind them, “You are a blessed and beloved child of God, and you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” There is nothing in death or in life that can separate these beloved children from the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.

It is a privilege to pray for healing. But as a church we recognize the great privilege it is for so many of our members to be called into the work of healing as their vocation, both inside the church and out in the community.

We have many caregivers in our congregation: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, hospice workers, guidance counselors, and the list goes on. At least once a year, we take the opportunity as a congregation to craft a Sunday morning worship service around themes of healing and caregiving, and to offer a special blessing for all the caregivers in our midst.

We believe that Jesus walks with all who are in need. We believe that Jesus carries us through our times of trouble. In the same way, Jesus empowers those who care for the needs of others and Jesus strengthens us to carry one another through times of trouble. Our experience of healing most often comes through the blessing of human hands and hearts that have been set apart for the work of tending to body and spirit. Caregivers of all kinds do this holy work. Their vocations take them to places of immense joy and profound grief. Their work is vital.

When we bless our caregivers in worship, we recognize and honor their gifts and their work. We involve the entire assembly into the blessing process, whether by using a spoken dialogue, inviting members to raise up a hand in blessing, or inviting the assembly to participate in a laying on of hands. We ask God to bless our caregivers and to give them strength and peace in their vocations. Should you want to include a blessing for caregivers as a part of your community’s worship life, here is a template to help you get started: Read more

Discipleship, Not Diet Culture

The table at the heart of our faith

“New year, new you!”

We’ve all heard it before. As the holidays wind down, and New Year’s Day approaches, the onslaught of diet culture begins. Countless ads, commercials, messages, and our friend’s Facebook pages promise us that we will love ourselves better and live more fulfilling lives if only we participate in their weight loss program. For the low, low price of $19.95, the life we’ve always wanted can be ours! Except the cost is really so much greater than that.

Church, it’s time to get honest. Diet culture is big business. My friend Courtney always says:  follow the money. She’s right. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry entirely predicated on shame and self-loathing (particularly for women). The idea that “if only I were a smaller body size, my life would be complete” is an ages old tale that stems from the patriarchy. It also stands in direct opposition to who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. We proclaim the bold truth that we are created in the image of the God who created heaven and earth, fully beloved and good. There’s no stipulation in there that the Holy One will love us better if we are thin. There’s no asterisk that says God will love us better if we follow a certain eating plan (which by the way is another word for diet), or refrain from certain foods. Yet, so often we subtly send these messages in our faith communities.

Weight loss, food shaming, fat shaming, and body talk have no place in the body of Christ. I know this may feel hard to hear, but it’s important. Do you run a weight loss program out of your church? Are you known to comment at the pot luck that you “shouldn’t have had that cookie?” Clergy, do you use your social media profile to proclaim the virtues of the latest food you’ve given up, or your latest diet craze? Intended or not, all of these things communicate (especially to a younger generation) that God loves some bodies more than others. Read more

Where Jesus Would Put the Kids in Worship

Learning about worship in the pray ground

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are: Read more