Loving The Young Clergy Women Project

Post Author: Elizabeth Dilley

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. After all, I am fond of reminding folk that I grew up in the liberal wing of the United Church of Christ and have always known clergy women: an interim minister at my home church when I was very young, several chaplains at church camp throughout the summers of my childhood and adolescence, the pastor of the church I found after college, and the senior pastor of the church I joined when during seminary. Even when our family took a brief detour to the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in my childhood, I took the fact of the minister’s maleness as a particular data point, not as a prescriptive norm. (In fact, I first felt stirrings toward ministry in that congregation, and I only banished them because I thought myself such a bad singer that I couldn’t bear to imagine singing the Eucharistic liturgy every week in front of a congregation!)

My first call was to a small, progressive congregation in one of the most conservative parts of Iowa. I loved the people, and I loved the community. But as much as small-town Iowa felt like home, it was different. People made veiled comments about my being such a strong woman, as if that were a bad thing. Some clergy refused to participate in the county ministerial association because there were women involved. Some wouldn’t participate because I and my church were involved; we were shunned not only because we had a female minister, but also because we are an Open and Affirming congregation of the UCC. When I mentioned at a clergy gathering that my long-time Baptist boyfriend was moving to Iowa in preparation for our engagement and marriage, one of my colleagues urged me to send him to the Baptist church down the street because it was led by such a faithful man. The only other two women in ministry in the community were considerably more conservative than I am, and one was so paralyzed by fear of losing her job that she could imagine no way to enact a hopeful vision for community ministry beyond what we had always done. And then there was my colleague who repeatedly made sexually inappropriate “jokes” to us.

It was disheartening. Naturally, I knew the struggles of my clergy mentors, and I knew that there was still work to be done. I also knew that some women in Protestant traditions that do not affirm women in ministry are fighting the battles that my faith-mothers fought a generation or more ago. But I didn’t really know. I didn’t know that the microaggressions I faced in ministry were not mine alone, or that I didn’t need to bear them by myself. I didn’t know that this kind of stuff happened not because I was a theologically progressive UCC minister, but because I was a woman in ministry.

That’s why, as much as my denominational group for young clergy was a lifeline for me, I yearned for something else. The Young Clergy Women Project is that something else. The Project has created a space of ecumenical connection, a community of professional colleagues who understand what it means to be a young woman in ministry, and a group of cherished friends. It is a place where we speak our truths, and hear the truth spoken to us, even when it’s hard. It is a place where we learn the words to say to dismissive colleagues and strategies to work either with or around them. Whenever I have had a question or a frustration, colleagues in The Young Clergy Women Project have been right on time with salient advice, encouragement, and prayers.

In that conference room a few weeks ago, I experienced the sense of awe and wonder at how brilliant my peers across the Christian experience are, and I received affirmation of my own gifts for ministry. I got to see how, when girls run the world, we rock! This fierce sisterhood has been such a gift to me.

This summer’s conference was my last opportunity to be among my young clergy women peers. I moved to the alumnae group at the end of July, but my love and support for TYCWP doesn’t end. I’ve made a commitment to be a sustaining member of The Project so that more clergy women can come to future conferences. If you’re reading this and you know a young woman in ministry – or if you want to support young women in ministry – join me and support the work of The Young Clergy Women Project!

These dear sisters in ministry are the ones I love. Thanks be to God for each of them, and for this Project.

Elizabeth Dilley serves as Minister to Ministers in Local Churches in the national setting of the United Church of Christ, where she facilitates relational investments among conferences and associations for the purpose of long-term clergy wellness.

Image by: Sarah Hooker
Used with permission
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