Submit? I’d Rather Not

When my husband made the decision to become partner at the ranch, a part of me felt betrayed.

As a pastor who leads day in and day out, I feel comfortable when I am the primary authority, giving vision and guidance to others on how things need to be done. But as a woman in an egalitarian relationship with a man, I feel less comfortable—all right, I admit it: I feel very angry—when I hear the word “submit.” The very word makes me feel gross. Gross, for the million ways abuse has transpired under the guise of religious teaching. Gross, for the countless opportunities this word has allowed self-avowed Christian men to ridicule, demean, and belittle the women in their lives. Gross, for all the reasons submission seems like such a backward notion after you have experienced the freedom of life in Christ.

Nevertheless, I have learned that I need to reclaim the essential idea of submission, using language appropriate for a 21st century covenantal relationship, for the sake of a healthier and more life-giving relationship with my spouse. My husband and I struggled for several years early in our marriage. One of the biggest tension points is how we made decisions. I’m stubborn, and my husband arguably moreso.

A few years into our marriage, our therapist gave us tools to discern that we both have ENFP personality profiles, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Knowing one’s personality type alone can’t determine a relationship’s health, but we did learn plenty about how we make choices together. When we’re on the same page, life is grand. And when we disagree, well…heaven and hell can’t sway either one of us. Being willing to submit is not a strength we possess.

I know, I know. I used the seemingly forbidden word: submit. It still rubs me the wrong way when I hear it, but in my quest to strengthen my own marriage (and, providentially, as part of the required reading for my graduate school courses), I happened upon the work of John Gottman. Ever heard of him? He’s not Jesus, and his narrative is hetero-normative, but he does offer some pretty excellent insights in his book called The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.

The first time I read this book, I began to see patterns of conflict within my own relationship more clearly. Specifically, I saw the ways I resisted my husband’s influence in my life (a no-no, according to principle #4). Yes, I loved him. Of course, I wanted to support him. But let him influence the way I make decisions? Now that’s a bit too far! It sounds an awful lot like submission. My response to John Gottman was the same as to the Apostle Paul: “Submit? I’d rather not; thanks anyway!”

At that point I had been married for three years. This week my husband and I celebrate nine years of hard-earned marriage. One thing I’ve gradually come to terms with, thanks to John Gottman and Jesus the Christ, is the need to let my husband influence me. I still don’t easily do this. It’s a discipline I cultivate day after day, and only because I’ve seen the real value it offers my marriage. It’s also something I expect of my spouse, because this principle only works when it’s given and received. Oh, but what a gift it can be! Read more

Book cover for Very Married

Very Married

Book cover for Very MarriedThe other day I had a mortifying experience at the local breakfast cafe. A friend and I had met to go over plans for the party she’s planning to celebrate the release of my forthcoming book, Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. On our way out, we passed a table of teachers from the elementary school. As we chatted, the purpose of our lunch date came up. Of course one of the women asked about my book. I froze and frantically glanced at my friend for help, but she’s on board to help with party favors, not elevator speeches. She laughed, nervously, “We’re still working on that.”

When I’m not paralyzed by fleeting waves of social anxiety, I could tell you that Very Married is an apologia for marriage, one that is candid about the agony, ecstasy, and tedium of wedlock. I could tell you that it’s a blend of cultural commentary, theological reflection, and personal narrative. I could even mention that I received the invitation to write the book after I wrote an article for the Christian Century that became the magazine’s most-read article online in 2015.

But that confident description of the book is laced with subtext – subtext which is largely responsible for my persistent unease. That tidy phrase, “personal narrative?” It means what you think it means: my book about marriage is largely rooted in stories about my marriage. It’s not quite a memoir, but it is decidedly memoir-ish. I experienced searing vulnerability when I published my first memoir-ish book a few years ago. That one was mostly about motherhood, but it was my few forays into the territory of our marriage that made me feel truly exposed. Read more

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

Loving The Young Clergy Women Project

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

A few weeks ago, my family and I made our way down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in search of a room in Boston University’s School of Theology where I would share the next three days with a hundred clergy women from many denominations. I was, uncharacteristically, a little nervous. What if I didn’t know anyone? What if no one cared that I was there? What if they were annoyed that I was there, since technically I had already graduated from The Young Clergy Women Project eight days earlier?

As soon as I entered the room where we were gathering, my fears melted away. I spotted a couple of familiar faces from Facebook, then a few more, and then I ran into one of my favorite UCC colleagues and her face reminded me why I’d come to The Project in the first place. I came for the friendships and for the professional bonds that connect us as women in ministry in a world that both relies on women for emotional and household labor AND undervalues the worth of our work at home and in the workplace. I came for the fierceness, the laughter, and the tears. I came for the culture where finding excellent child care is a normal part of conference planning, and where mamas hand off their babies to any willing set of hands. I came for the worship and the workshops, for the time spent lingering over meals and the time spent laughing over drinks. (I came also, it must be fairly said, for the swag.)

I did not expect how much this group would mean to me. Read more

Magnolias and Roses and Roots

OnesWeLoveImageThe Magnolia sapling sat in its small black nursery container on our back porch. Day after day, my husband and I passed by the window or stepped outside and commented on how beautifully the leaves were coming in, or remarked on the single white flower that appeared on our baby tree. The Magnolia was my gift to my husband on our first wedding anniversary, a tree we intended to watch grow up, together, as our marriage and our family matured. But now, a month later, the sapling was outgrowing its plastic container. We needed to make a decision about where to plant it.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be such a difficult choice. We might choose whatever location in our yard best suited the tree’s needs for sunlight, space, and drainage. But we live in a parsonage, a house owned by the church I serve, and I am an itinerant United Methodist pastor. This means that every year, our family is potentially subject to a move, a new church in a new town. Somehow it had escaped me, when I picked out the gift and imagined my husband and me watching it grow through the years, that a tree must be rooted in one place, whereas our family is required to move, and move, and move.

We put off planting the tree for an irresponsibly long time. Every time we thought about planting, we remembered that our stay here is temporary, and we were sad to think of leaving the little tree behind. We even considered planting it in successively larger pots so that it might—just possibly—still be mobile by the next time the bishop moved us, and then perhaps we could take it with us. But then we’d only be transferring the problem to a new location, a new parsonage, a new yard that would be ours only temporarily.

Most likely, our family won’t have roots in any one place. This reality is most poignant in our living space. Should we mark the boys’ heights on the door frame, when we know we will only get to do so a few times before the next move? Should we accept that heirloom furniture, knowing it will likely not fit into every parsonage? Should we plant the anniversary tree in the yard, where we will have to leave it behind before it reaches maturity? At the heart, all of these are questions about how much of ourselves we will invest in this space, how much of ourselves we will let grow attached. How much of ourselves we can stand to leave behind here, one day.

And if we are honest, we have these questions not only about our living space, but also about our neighborhood, our community, and yes, our church. I love our congregation. But there is a defensive part of me that pulls away from them even as I try to grow closer to them; while I work to show them my heart, my mind knows that I will one day have to say goodbye, and experience has taught me that this is so painful. To live and work in a community while you know that you cannot stay forever is to invest in a future that isn’t yours. And, I know, I am asking my spouse and my children to make that same, potentially painful investment as they make friends and build social and spiritual lives with people we will have to leave behind.

In my own growing up years, my family stayed in one home. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in, and I attended college just 20 minutes from our neighborhood. The first time I moved away from home was to a neighboring state for seminary. I remember my dad giving me advice when I moved into that Georgia apartment: “Grow roots here,” he said. “Even if it’s just for three years, it’s better that way.” At the time, I bucked against his advice. I missed my home, and this wasn’t it. I felt lost and disoriented, but learning the roads and investing in the community seemed like a waste of time and energy and heart when I knew I would be leaving soon.

One day I read Jeremiah 29 for a class assignment. The Lord God spoke to the Israelites, who were at that time exiled in Babylon, saying, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters… Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Maybe my dad was right. Maybe there was some holy reason to make a home, to build relationships, even temporarily.

However, I don’t think I truly committed to that idea until three moves and three churches later, when that blessed Magnolia began to wilt on our porch. Without enough soil, contained in a to-go bucket, the leaves began to grow limp and yellow. My husband and I knew it was time to make a decision about where to plant, and so he dug a hole in the grass and buried the roots in the red Alabama dirt. There, in the front yard of the Birmingham parsonage, it would grow and thrive, with or without us. And there, no matter where God or the bishop might send us, we could potentially drive by some day far in the future, see the tree, and remember all we had planted: not just the tree, but also our first years of marriage, our kids’ early friendships, the years of life in community with this caring congregation.

Not long ago I was walking in the yard when I found a tiny rosebush. It had two beautiful blooms and looked to have sprung from old growth. I was delighted by the roses, and went on Facebook to see if I could find out which previous pastor’s family had planted the rose. After some discussion among parishioners, former pastors, and their families, we concluded that the roses came from the founding pastor’s grandfather, who often brought by plants for the parsonage. His name was Happy, which I think is a fitting detail. I feel most happy when I sit on the parsonage’s front steps, watch the boys play in the yard as neighbors pass on their evening walks, and smell the lovely fragrance of Happy’s roses, planted decades ago.

All that we enjoy here — in this parsonage, in our neighborhood, in our congregation — was given to us by the love and effort and investment of pastors and their families, of parishioners and leaders, who came before us. All of them knew that their time together would be brief, but all of them chose to plant, to root, to make a home, and to build relationships, anyway.

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God is making it grow,” Paul wrote to his former parishioners. This is the tradition we live in as well: planting for a future that will not belong to us, watering what we did not plant, and in all of it trusting God.

You Are My Beloved

OnesWeLoveJuneImage“My beloved speaks and says to me: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

I’ve been involved in planning quite a few weddings over the years, including my own, and I can tell you that one of the trickiest parts is choosing music. I’m a big fan of our Episcopal hymnal, but it really falls short when it comes to wedding hymns. There are precisely four hymns in the section titled “Marriage.” They are numbers 350 to 353, and I can pretty much guarantee that even if you are Episcopalian, you’ve never heard of any of them, because they’re never used. There are plenty of other fabulous hymns that people use at weddings, and of course, there are many songs for choirs or soloists. But there are hardly any actual wedding hymns.

So a few years ago, when my wife and I agreed to make each other Christmas presents instead of buying things, I decided to write her a wedding hymn. I drew on the image of the beloved in Song of Songs, which is often read at weddings, and I set it to the tune of her favorite Christmas carol: “In The Bleak Midwinter.” Read more

friendship bracelets

Who I Am With Them

friendship braceletsI have been best friends with the same four women for over 20 years. It’s only now that we’re in our 30’s that we’ve realized how fortunate we are to have sustained our friendship for so long. What a gift it is to have friends who have known me as a little girl, a young woman, and into middle age, who have witnessed the successes and failures of every stage of life, and who have loved me through them all. However, this intimate knowledge of my life is not all that my friends offer me. It has taken me some time to recognize and make peace with this, but part of the gift of their friendship is that my friends do not respect or even acknowledge my calling as a minister.

Initially, we five were drawn together because we lived in the same neighborhoods and were in the same classes at school. We “played well together” at an age when that was the most important part of friendship. As the years went on we experienced our share of falling-outs and at times (as all friends do) hurt each other deeply. But we stayed together, and what had once been playground compatibility slowly and mysteriously transformed into a mature love.

Always, this love was enriched by our mutual love of God. As children, our religion was simple: we all went to different churches in our Bible Belt community, but the bottom line was that we believed that Jesus had saved us. My friends were Church of Christ, Southern Baptist and Presbyterian Church (PCA). I was United Methodist. When we were small, we thought ourselves quite a charmingly diverse little club of Christians. But as we grew older and learned more about the differences in our theologies and how these played out practically in our lives, the religious tensions grew. By the time we were teenagers, I was feeling the heart-slap of these tensions. One Sunday, one of my friends told me she wasn’t allowed to step foot in my church because my church was “liberal.” The most obvious difference between our churches was that my denomination ordained women, while theirs had explicitly condemned women pastors. Read more

Walter’s Cigarettes

When I was a teenager, I promised myself that I would never buy cigarettes. A few of my friends smoked, and occasionally someone would offer me a cigarette and I would accept. Fearful of addiction, I came up with what I thought was a fool-proof strategy: if I never bought cigarettes, I could only ever smoke when I was bumming cigarettes, and since I couldn’t return the favor, politeness would prevent me from smoking too often. Ten years later, I walked into a corner store sporting a clerical collar and a small baby bump and, for the very first time, bought a pack of Newports.

My beloved congregant Walter was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. An African-American man who worked as a diversity trainer (among other things), he connected easily with people from all kinds of backgrounds, and constantly, lovingly encouraged the congregation to be a model of a community overcoming racism, classism, ageism, and more. He laughed and cried unreservedly. He spoke at length about “Ubuntu” theology, the African theology that emphasizes interconnectedness. As the president of our church’s board, he led the committee that interviewed me and called me as the associate pastor; when I told him with some trepidation, only a few months later, that I was expecting a baby and would need to take maternity leave, he rejoiced. Shortly after my baby Abel was born, we got word that what Walter had thought was a dental issue was in fact a bone tumor forming in his jaw. His diagnosis took us all by surprise – a vibrant man in his early 60s whose father still lived independently, we had all assumed we would have him with us for decades to come, even if we did nag him to quit smoking. They gave him six months to live.

Months passed, and Walter responded positively to treatment, but the doctors were clear that there was no cure for this kind of cancer, only temporary reprieve. When we baptized Abel, I asked Walter to be his godfather, knowing that Abel would probably never remember Walter. Read more

female silhouette with water and a horizon in the silhouette

Embracing Fluidity

female silhouette with water and a horizon in the silhouetteTwo months ago I ended my position at a parish where I served for six years as the associate rector. Leaving was the best option for my family, my health, and my desire to pursue another kind of ministry. It was time for something new. I initially thought I would stay until I had my second baby and then would make a graceful exit; however, this never happened, which led to making some tough decisions.

We wrestled with how we could afford to live on (basically) one income. I have always carried our health insurance, which meant we would likely either need my spouse to find new employment or we would purchase our health insurance. Both my husband and I were unwilling to relocate for our jobs. Having family in the same city was our priority. Having these parameters was, at times, terribly difficult. In the end, my husband and I decided to embrace change rather than run from it. I believe it forced us both to embrace creativity and risk. I’m much better at the first than the second. In one month’s time my husband ended a job, we moved, he started a new job, and I became unemployed. I still cringe when I write the word unemployed. Read more

The author and her son before his first day of day care.

The Women Who Make it Possible

The author and her son before his first day of day care.

The author and her son before his first day of day care.

I love being a parent.

I love working full time.

I love not having to worry about whether I am going over my half-time or three-quarter time limit. I love getting to throw myself wholeheartedly into my church. Frankly, I love getting to use the restroom by myself.

For my family, both parents working in churches full time is what has felt right to us. Both my husband and I had working mothers and neither of us felt called to be at home. We are keenly aware though, that this choice was only a viable choice to us because we have lived in two places where excellent day care centers were available for our son.

I am weirdly passionate about day care centers. Read more

The author and her husband

Spiritual Safety

The author and her husband

The author and her husband

Wardrobe choices. That’s what my husband and I were fighting about that evening. It was like an episode of “What Not To Wear” was playing in front of our closet.

Read more