The Holy No

For Christmas last year, my husband gave me a “NO” button. It’s big, it’s red, and when you push it, a loud voice says (in one of eight ways), “No!” It was a silly stocking stuffer, meant to make me laugh and roll my eyes. But even silly gifts can impart a deeper meaning. My husband knows that I have a hard time saying no, and he thought the reminder—sitting right there on my desk, staring up at me day after day—would be helpful. 

 

Saying no is hard for many of us, particularly for women. We don’t want to let people down. We want to show that we can handle it. We want to come across as accommodating. So we take on work that isn’t ours to do, we fill our schedules with commitments we don’t have time for, we let people treat us with less respect and kindness than we deserve, and we go underpaid for years, in part because saying no doesn’t come easily. 

 

And if we do manage to say no, we soften the blow. We make up fake excuses to get out of that meeting we don’t want to attend. We dole out less-than-authentic encouragement when we think someone’s brilliant idea isn’t, actually, brilliant. We shrug off an inappropriate comment or action, laughing awkwardly and walking away. We don’t want to say no bluntly and directly. It’s hard. It doesn’t feel kind, or good, or right. 

 

I wonder how our Christian narrative has played into the relationship many of us have with saying no–and how this narrative might offer another way. Our foundational story—Jesus coming back to life after death—communicates that there is always room for hope. There is always room for reconciliation. There is always room for improvement. There is always room for something new. It’s expansive, this narrative. It allows for endless opportunities and possibilities. 

 

This expansiveness is what I cherish most about the faith I live and teach and preach. I have the word “hope” tattooed on my wrist as a constant reminder that our God is always capable of doing a new thing. The end is never really the end. Even in death, life wins. Even in grief, love wins. No matter what, there is something more, something better, something new, waiting. This truth is beautiful and powerful and transformative. It is, perhaps, the most important gift we have to share with the world. 

 

But there is a shadow-side to this belief and the way we’ve interpreted it.

 

It has formed us to be a people who can’t say no. 

 

The stone, after all, has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. Possibility is endless. Who are we to roll the stone back and seal off the tomb with our “no”?  Who are we, in the words of the United Church of Christ, to “put a period where God has put a comma”?

 

But maybe we should. 

 

Maybe saying no is just as holy as saying yes.

 

God, after all, says no.

 

God says no to murder and deceit and adultery and the worship of other gods in the commandments given to God’s people as they enter into a new, freed reality. 

 

God says no to Moses, denying him entrance into the Promised Land after years of wandering the wilderness.

 

God says no to remembering our sin, telling us over and over that God will forget our iniquities the moment they leave our lips in confession. 

 

And Jesus says no. 

 

Jesus says no to Satan in the wilderness, not just once but three times. 

 

Jesus says no to the money-changers at the temple trying to extort those who are simply trying to offer a sacrifice to God.

 

Jesus says no to a group of people about to stone a woman, forcing them to examine their own sin before casting judgment on hers. 

 

But the biggest “no” of all comes as God says no to death. 

 

In that very story that we interpret as God’s forever and final “yes,” God actually says no. The stone has been rolled away, the tomb is empty, possibility is endless—all because of God’s “no.”

 

Sometimes saying no can be the healthiest thing we do. Sometimes saying no honors our boundaries, energy, emotional health, and discernment better than anything else. Sometimes saying no, bluntly and directly, can be the holiest thing we do, full stop. 

 

No begrudging agreement. No niceties. No commas. Just, no. Only, no. No, period.   

 

No to that idea. No to that program. No to that meeting. No to that behavior. No to that relationship. 

 

Because let’s face it, not every idea is good. Not every program supports the mission of the congregation. Not every meeting is productive, not every behavior is appropriate, and not every relationship is healthy. 

 

So, no. No. NO. 

 

What if we stopped viewing “no” as prohibitive and started seeing it as freeing? What if we stopped viewing “no” as rude and started seeing it as assertive? What if we stopped viewing “no” as closing a door and started seeing it as opening one?

 

We have a beautiful, powerful story to tell. It’s a story about the endless possibilities of new life made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s true. 

 

And it all started with “no.”

 

A Blessing for Those Who Say No

 

Blessed are you who say no.

Blessed are you who close the door,

who end the chapter,

who say there is not enough—

not enough time, not enough resources, not enough energy—

and who refuse to create more.

 

Blessed are you who call a thing what it is: 

A dead end.

An epic failure.

A terrible idea.

 

You have looked deep within and taken stock.

You have been honest with yourself and others.

You have not sugar-coated things or softened the blow or forced the idea.

You have examined the possibilities, counted the costs, and analyzed the benefits.

 

Be at peace with this tiny word that spells freedom.

Let the release it provides wash over you.

Be assured that it is a sacred thing you’ve done, saying no.

It is holy and brave,

and so are you.

 

Blessed are you who say no.

Lent is a Season To Tend Our Hollowness

2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

Lent is a tough season in the liturgical calendar. It is a time for preparation, which means that it is a time for spiritual discipline. Lenten discipline rests on three pillars: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which I have come to understand as all variations of fasting. Prayer is a fasting from the ego. Almsgiving is a fasting from holding on.

Lent arrives like salt in the wound during pandemic-time. Our collective series of lockdowns, quarantines, and isolations over the last two years have been an unavoidable and necessary time of fasting. We fasted from showing up, eating out, paid work, vacations, parties, hugs, and growing friendships or networks. We fasted from variety itself. We fasted from charting and anticipating the future. Whether or not we had gravitated toward this spiritual practice in the past, we were all shoved into the deep end. 

During my fasting, the image of the clay jar kept rising to the surface of my thoughts. I had spent time in the past considering the spiritual implications of the outside appearance of the jar – its brittleness and plainness – but I realized that the boundaries of the jar are only half of the story. The other half is its hollowness, its emptiness. A jar is only useful as a jar if it is hollow, no matter its outside appearance. I came to see that who we are as human beings is as much the emptiness that we bring to the world as it is the claiming of our borders. God has called each of us jars into which They place the treasures of Christ. But the world also endeavors to fill us up with its “treasure” so we need times of fasting to empty out our hollow places once more. We tend to our hollowness by being quiet and still; by sleeping; by holding our ambiguity; by forming no hasty opinion; by observing, confessing, repenting, and listening; even by dying. Lent is a season to tend our emptiness.

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A Blessing For When You Say Something Stupid

God

I have done it again

foot in mouth

paving that fiery road in so many good intentions

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Transgender at the World Council of Churches

“Cultivate your interconnectedness.” -GETI Small Group Leader

When someone says to you, “Hey, I think you should apply to go on this trip to Africa and, by the way, we’ll pay for it,” you just apply! It was a long time before I grasped what I had actually signed up for, never having heard of the World Council of Churches (WCC) or the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) before the invitation to apply. But in the unfolding, I found more life, hope, and joy in the global church than I ever knew I would see in my lifetime.

Joining 120 young people from around the world in Arusha, Tanzania, for the GETI program, I was blessed to participate in the WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism. The theme of the conference was “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship.” My participation in the conference was graciously covered by the PC(USA) Mission Agency as the office sent six delegates to participate in GETI. Being a part of the GETI program meant extra homework and (more exciting than the homework) the opportunity to learn alongside other young theologians in small groups and with various speakers who came to share with us.

Upon arrival at the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge, it became clear to me that the GETI students brought the youthful energy to the overall conference of about a thousand global Christians. It was about halfway through the week when the conference, I assume wanting to bring a little bit of that youthful vigor to the event, had the GETI participants lead a sokoni. “Sokoni” is a Kiswahili term that means “marketplace.” The idea behind having a marketplace at the conference was that it served as a place where conference-goers could gather to exchange ideas, stories and activities.[1] But I’m not sure the conference leaders realized exactly what they were unleashing when they asked a group of fiery, young, social justice-oriented participants to demonstrate how youth like to engage in mission.

7 people standing holding signs supporting protecting transgender youth, 1 person kneeling

“Protect Trans Youth” demonstration at World Council of Churches

Amidst the marketplace, a group of us offered up a version of a protest demonstration. Our marching and our signs were not directed towards anything at the conference but, instead, were intended to demonstrate the kinds of issues young people care about. Our signs read things like, “Water Is Life,” “Xenophobia Must Fall,” and “Black Lives Matter.” My sign read, “Protect Trans Youth.”

For much of the conference, I had felt invisible. Being gender non-binary at a global conference (particularly a global Christian conference) is not the easiest thing to do. A big part of this uneasiness came from the fact that in many languages there are just no words yet for gender identities outside of the gender binary (male or female). Some languages, like Spanish, are very binary driven and this translation barrier caused much confusion when I brought up my preferred pronouns: they/them/theirs.

But something changed for me as I was holding my sign during that sokoni. Read more

A Sacred Window

OnesWeLoveImageNothing can really prepare you for the death of a friend. It doesn’t matter how many pastoral care classes you took in seminary. It makes no difference how many funeral services you prepare and lead on a regular basis. The books on your shelves and the articles in your files do not mean a thing when it comes to losing someone you hold dear.

When I first met my friend (I’ll call her “D”), I was interviewing with the churches I now serve. D was serving as a Committee On Ministry liaison to the search committee. She was fun and feisty and full of energy. She was a strong woman with a clear, strong voice. She was, perhaps, one of the most dedicated Elders I had ever met. She spoke fluent sarcasm and had a wicked sense of humor that matched well with my own. We were fast friends and colleagues.

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Coattail Justice

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

My early morning running buddy and I, both of us committed Democrats, have an ongoing dialogue about Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate: she is adamant that Hillary is the best choice for the Democrats in 2016. I’ve always countered with, “I don’t know. There’s something dynastic about it: it feels un-American to me for a family to have two shots at the White House.” We’ve been able to get a good half-mile out of this conversation several times in the past couple of years.

So, when Hillary Clinton finally announced her candidacy in April, I was surprised by my reaction to the news: I really want Hillary to win this one. The fact that my daughters will grow up regularly seeing women (me and others as well) as religious leaders brings tears to my eyes. I’m ready to feel that way about a woman president, even if she may have gotten a boost from a small dynasty, because sometimes justice begins with factors that level the playing field.

I was among the first 25 women ordained to ministry in the small Reformed denomination I grew up in. I graduated from seminary with a class of 55 M.Div students, only five of whom were female. We were still healing from three decades of fighting over women’s ordination. Occasionally, we were still fighting. Most of my professors and classmates were supportive. But there were times when it was a very hard place to be a woman. And through the whole process of education and call and ordination, my female colleagues and I had to take our advantages where we could find them.

Many of us were given scholarships by a group that had been pushing for women’s ordination. We often came back from weekend preaching assignments to report to each other that we had been the first female to step into the pulpit in a particular congregation. And when we were ready to look for church calls, we had to read between the lines to figure out which few congregations were truly open to considering women.

A good number of us were pastor’s daughters. I kept my maiden name when I got married a few months before I started seminary for a number of reasons, one of them professional. If I kept my last name, I would be the third “Rev. Schemper” in the denomination. And while my father is among the more liberal ministers in his generation, my grandfather was widely respected in more conservative circles. I figured it couldn’t hurt, if I was ever in a sticky church-polity match up between liberals and conservatives, to have the name as a reminder that “Reverend Schemper” was my grandfather.

The church where I did my first internship received grant money on the condition that they accept a female intern. There were several of us who spent a summer pastoring this tiny church that could never have afforded an intern, but the fact that the church was granted money was kept quiet because it looked unseemly.

A few of my friends were able to ease into a first call because their also-clergy-husband took a co-pastoring position with them, and it was perhaps just a little easier for a church to call its first woman-pastor when they were also calling her husband.

Sometimes I wondered if it was unseemly to take these advantages. Shouldn’t I just be breaking ground on my own merits? But there were plenty of obstacles, and to be honest, I was perfectly willing to grasp onto a few coattails if it meant an easier ride into the call to ministry. However, if anyone had suggested to me that any of my female classmates were making it through the ordination process only by working these so-called advantages, I would absolutely bristle. They were strong preachers, had wonderful pastoral care skills, could mediate their way through difficult conversations, and were so certain of their sense of call (you wouldn’t put yourself through this if you weren’t). I couldn’t be prouder to be part of such an amazing cohort of strong women.

And this is what I’m coming to understand about HIllary Clinton. It would be dishonest to claim that she doesn’t gain advantages from having been first lady. But even with that boost, whether you agree with her politics or not, there’s no doubt that she has qualifications and accomplishments that are all her own.

Sometimes, as women who are breaking ground, we do ride a few coattails. But it shouldn’t diminish who we are and the validity of what we are called to do. I’ve extended that grace to myself when I think about my own path to ministry, and I’m ready to extend it to Hillary as well.

The Risky Thing About Risk

4373711411_ef063a334f_zI spent my first two years of ministry scared to death.

Now, preaching and teaching do contain some measure of risk, and running a committee meeting can be a risky endeavor. These things were part of what I knew I was signing up for when I was ordained. They were part of the job. Likewise, so were sitting with families while a loved one died, listening while a young student confessed his fear that God can’t love him, praying with people in hospital rooms, and moderating arguments between warring volunteer organizations. These were sacred moments, and I quickly learned it was part of my job to be present in them. However, fast on the heels of that revelation came my deep fear that I would handle a situation poorly and manage to break the church. Or at least greatly disappoint them.

Somehow in my preparation for ministry, I missed the enormously important part about how I would be changed as I began to live into my calling.  And even though I knew I was (and am) in desperate need of healing of my sinful self on a daily basis, I didn’t count my fear as part of what needed to be changed. Instead, through trying to control my fear, I developed an obnoxious and overbearing attitude that I was convinced made me seem to have it all together all the time. In reality it made me obnoxious, overbearing, and terrified that the church would find out how scared I really was.

When Jesus is healing someone in the gospels, the healing happens after the person in need moves toward Jesus. For each one, there had to have been some kind of recognition that things were not okay, and something had to give. They could not suffer the present reality much longer and now was the time to seize the day—or the hem of a traveling teacher’s garment. It was risky to reach out like that, but God was there on the other side. For a long time, I wasn’t ready for that.

Then, in my second year of ministry, my mother began dying from cancer and as what was normal turned from family dinners to hospice care, I took what felt like a huge risk. I let go of my attitude, filled the congregation in, and asked them to hold my family in prayer. And as my mother’s health failed, I gave up my fear of disappointing my church for the hard truth: I was not okay and I needed them to know.

Somehow I had been convinced I would be letting the church down if I asked for their help. That’s not what happened at all. Instead the church prayed, the choir figured out who would take care of my dog while I went home, and members even came to my mother’s funeral. In hindsight it seems obvious, but at the time I was not expecting grace to be present on the other side.

And then a few months later, in the way of my denomination, I was sent to a new church in a new city. The temptation to fall back on my abilities to act like I had things together to get me through the transition was strong, but this time I had learned something.

So I asked some people to hold me accountable. I was going to work on taking risks, I told them. I was sure I’d caught it in time, and would do better this time around. My new church wouldn’t have to suffer from an associate pastor consumed with fear that she wasn’t good enough to do the job. I was going to trust that there would be grace enough to get me through.

At first, I took small steps: asking my senior pastor for help prioritizing my workload because projects were falling through the cracks, agreeing to share personal testimony about grieving my mother during the sermon one Sunday, and seeking out the people who rubbed me the wrong way and working to get to know them better. Then I found myself visiting some small groups and preaching sermons while asking the church to heed God’s call to transformation.

It was a start. But as challenging and rewarding as those moves were, I knew I was still holding back. I was preaching a call to transformation, but I was not willing to seek it for myself. I might have given over my professional life, but it was becoming frighteningly apparent that I needed to put my emotions and feelings on the line. I couldn’t pray that God would open up my understanding if I was not willing to open myself up as well.

You see, I still had massive Do Not Enter signs up around my personal life. And it was remarkably hypocritical to walk alongside these new people in their vulnerable moments knowing that I was still holding on to my old protective shell of fear.

So, what changed? I met someone. And our relationship has helped me to change.

This is not a fairytale, where meeting the Right One means all fades to black with a shimmer of magical escapism. But it is true that in this instance in my life, this conviction to take risks and let go of some fears coincided with meeting someone I sincerely like (like, a lot).

And since then, I’ve been thanking God for this someone on a daily basis. Not just because he is fun to be around, lovely to behold, and interested in the particulars of what makes a life of faith a good life, but because—call it Providence or whatever you will—he came into my life and I knew if I wanted to build a relationship with him, I couldn’t stay the same. And thanks be to God that I haven’t.

The rest of the truth is this: I am writing from the midst of a struggle that is ongoing. I’ve already disappointed myself and deflected some questions and avoided some topics because I’m still scared. But this time I hope that being scared means I’m making progress. I am finally leaning out past my fear to catch a glimpse of what good things might be in store down the road. This person I’ve met is definitely willing to offer me grace. And I know that in order to get there, scared or not, I’ll need to keep taking risks.

Waiting for Cupid

2161693094_9bf2e3179c_z“Sign up for Match!” your friends said. “My friend Beth met someone on there and they’re getting married in June!” your friends said. So you did. You shelled out for the six month period, trusting you’d never need that free additional six months because you’d meet someone special right away.

When the six month subscription ran out, you were still optimistic. That’s why they give another six months free, right? A whole year on Match with hundreds, maybe even thousands of people to meet? Yes, you’d meet someone special for sure.

After the second six months is over, still with no one special, you find yourself on OkCupid. Your single-pastor’s budget doesn’t have room for another subscription service. Your friends have assured you the free one is just fine. “Sign up for OkCupid!” your friends say. “My friend Sarah met someone on there and they’re getting married in July!” your friends say.  So you copy and paste from your Match account into your OkCupid account and wait.

Surely the perfect person is out there, waiting for you. It’s just a matter of time until a message from The One is in your inbox. But what should you do while you wait?

1.  Play Candy Crush Saga. This is the solution during your optimistic stage. If you open one browser window to OKC and play Candy Crush for a bit in another browser window, someone will message you. Five lives. You have five wholes lives. If you take the level slowly, you might even have two messages when you click back over to OKC!

2.  Clean. The optimism is waning, but you’re still certain that if you keep the OKC website open on your computer, someone will message you. Open up OKC. Open up Pandora. Clean! Come back to your computer. Yes! Three messages!

“hey sexy”

“wanna hook up”

“what u up 2”

You’re going to have to wait a while longer.

3.  Be SuperPastor. You’ve been sucked deeper into the OKC vortex, but you’re still hopeful that a message is coming. A real message. A message with correct spelling and grammar. You’re not going to think about it. You’re going to be SuperPastor instead. You call the grouchy lady and pray with her; through the power of the Holy Spirit, she’s happy for a solid ten minutes. You wrangle the youth group. You write a sermon that will make them laugh, make them cry…really, it’s better than Cats. The church calendar for the next three years is all sketched out. Take that, OkCupid message silence! You cannot defeat SuperPastor!

4.  Start the Master Cleanse. You know you need to take better care of yourself. You’ve been saying that for a while. Instead of waiting for someone else to message you, you’re going to take charge so that when that person finally messages you, you will be a strong, independent woman in awesome shape. Google “master cleanse.” Realize this involves several days of drinking only water laced with maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice. Decide to take a trip to Whole Foods* instead. Crack almonds it is. And some other healthy stuff while you’re there.

*Realize you’re a pastor in a small, rural town, perhaps thousands of miles away from Whole Foods. Collapse in despair.

5.  Decide to take things into your own hands. You will ferret out and message The One all on your own. Put on Orange is the New Black in the background. Plug in your laptop. You’ve got this. Start scrolling through your matches. Cute. Cute. No way. Kids? Hmmm. Click. What does that even mean. Google it. Click on another profile as quickly as possible. See another single pastor, one you know in real life, in your matches. Internally freak out. Can you click on their profile? Of course you want to know what they wrote. But what if OkCupid sends them a “She’s an exceptionally good match” email? Or “She’s checking you out right now!” Ignore the urge to click. Consider signing up for A-list so you can browse anonymously. Curse your budget limitations. Keep clicking.

6.  Reconsider your expectations. How long ago did you sign up for OkCupid? Take a long walk while pondering your list of requirements. Is the correct use of you’re/your really that important? Is a college degree necessary? You could totally get involved with a Tea Partier since opposites attract, right? Is it really about the gender or just the person? That person in Mozambique actually seemed nice; long-distance isn’t that big a problem, is it?

7.  Find single girlfriends. Yes, all your BFFs are happily partnered, but that’s why Meetup exists. Single girlfriends mean alcohol and group bemoaning of singleness. Their OkCupid horror stories will surely soothe your pain. The internet is once again your friend as you use it to locate other single ladies.

8.  Ponder scripture. Paul wrote about the gift of celibacy for a reason, right? Did God give you that gift and you’ve just missed it until now? Surely there’s a reason Roman Catholic clergy are celibate… maybe a call to ministry and a call to celibacy go hand in hand. Tear up a little at that possibility.

9.  Give real life a shot. Hang out in coffee shops. Google singles bars then hastily click away in terror. Go the places you love because The One will surely be there, too. Every single romcom says that’s true. Go to Meetups. Go to professional networking events. Yes! Forget OkCupid. You will encounter the perfect partner by a pre-digital age method. Millennia of humanity can’t be wrong! Stay out late and see who you meet!

10.  Just live. The truth is, you have an awesome life. You are an intelligent, gifted, beautiful woman. God called you to ministry and gave you people with whom to live out that call. It’s amazing and wonderful and life-giving and a rollercoaster ride. Yes, you want a partner, but the truth is, you’re fabulous all by yourself. OKCupid’s message silence be damned.

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Youth Ministry Edition

Dear Askie,13937947100_3ba7d5dbcd_z

I’m a recent seminary graduate, and still looking for my first call. I know I want to serve as an assistant minster for a few years, but the reality of my denomination is that most churches that can afford to call an assistant are looking for a youth pastor. I think I’m the only young clergy woman who didn’t grow up actively participating in a youth group, or ever working as a camp counselor or youth minister before seminary. I’ve never worked with youth in this formal sense, but I am feeling God pulling me towards one of these positions, and want to be as prepared as possible. Any advice?

Accidental Energizer (and what’s an Energizer?)

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“Old Maid” Revisited

ccg116bI owe my changed perspective to Mabel, the woman who, during a shared car-ride on a Senior Adult outing, proudly proclaimed that she had been an old maid in her younger years. Even putting aside the incongruity of being an old maid in younger years, Mabel’s statement struck me as odd. I thought back to the illustrated card game my friends and I had played as children. I remembered the dour-faced, homely “old maid” playing card that no one had wanted. Why would anyone be proud to be an old maid?

Mabel explained:

“I’m married now, but I didn’t meet Bill until my late-thirties, and that was very old to be single back then. I was proud to be single though, and proud to be called an old maid. You have to realize, that was the 1950’s—women couldn’t get jobs the way men could. And even if you got a job, you made only half the wages men made for the same work. But I found a job, and took care of my money, and I was able to live all by myself with no one else’s help. What’s not to be proud of there? They could call me an old maid but what it meant to me was that I could succeed without the help of a husband. That’s an accomplishment.”

I had never thought about singlehood from the perspective that Mabel articulated. The sour, wrinkled woman on the playing cards had early on built up, in my mind, our culture’s view of old maids and singlehood. In that view, to be single in her thirties meant that a woman was probably broken, defective, or unwanted. Even at its very best, singlehood was understood as a life stage to be passed through as quickly as possible. As I grew older, the card game’s understanding of older single women had been deepened through the years as I watched single women around me. I saw that they were frequently quizzed about their personal lives. “Any prospects on the horizon?” an acquaintance would ask, clearly anxious. “I’m sure you’ll be snatched up before you know it,” they’d say, as if the single woman were a product—a lonely, leftover product—on a shelf.

Apart from the culture, I put my own negative spin on singlehood as well. Divorced and living on my own for the first time as an adult, I had a tendency to interpret my single status as a failure; I had failed to cultivate a successful relationship. With every passing year, I grew more critical of myself, blaming singlehood for so many things. The bills were difficult to pay on my minimal salary. My son spent more time in the care of other people because, as a single parent, I had no backup to watch him should work require my attention. I struggled to maintain emotional health as I grappled with the demands of ministry without a partner who could be a sounding board and to whom I could unburden myself after a long day. I blamed singlehood for the hardship of these challenges, and I blamed myself for failing to find and secure a partner.

But Mabel gave me the gift of a new perspective. In Mabel’s statement about the pride she felt to be able to do life on her own, I heard an alternative voice for myself. Yes, some things are more difficult because I am a single, female pastor. But those difficulties are not a sign of my failure; instead, they are a sign of my strength. Furthermore, I began to understand that I had taken for granted the blessing that is my ability to stay single. I am fortunate that I can live a comfortable life without the pressure of having to find a husband for financial reasons; I can make ends meet on my own and there is a great deal of freedom in that knowledge.

Today, I would still bristle if someone called me (or anyone else) an old maid. But Mabel helped me to understand that the status implied by that label is not a sad or regrettable status. Instead, living as a single woman is proof that I possess the maturity and confidence to support myself and run my own life. The additional challenges I face as a single woman may cause me some hardship, but I am a more resilient person because I have prevailed against them. “Old Maid” is not a term I prefer, but if it’s referring to my status as an autonomous woman and someone capable of meeting the challenges of singlehood with success, then I am indeed proud of what it signifies. I am proud to be one of a group of independent, intelligent clergy women who meet the demands of life and ministry solo and who continue to redefine singlehood and challenge cultural stereotypes every day.

I have long since lost or thrown away that set of “Old Maid” playing cards. But I suspect that if I still had them today, the old maid would look different to me now than she did back then. No longer would I see her as a tired, sour-faced woman. Now I think I would understand her to be a wise and determined sister. And I’d be proud of her, for standing firm against the cultural pressure to marry someone (anyone) and for showing the world the beauty of an independent spirit. Bless her, and bless all of you, my fellow single revs, for your remarkable lives and inspiring examples.