The Stained Glass Cliff

Like many of my fellow clergy women, I was shocked when the news broke last week that the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler was leaving her pulpit at the storied Riverside Church in New York City after only five years. This is a short tenure in the life of such a famed institution, and the announcement of her departure comes on the heels of her serving as one of the featured preachers at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod only a week prior. Riverside has long had a complex and turmoil-laden history, but I joined many who were hopeful things were turning around under Amy’s leadership. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

It was clear to many of us that there were myriad untold stories to her departure, and what we have learned includes only some of the layers of one of those stories. Although stories will continue to emerge, and some may never be told, we can conclude that Pastor Amy was, at least in part, pushed off the Stained Glass Cliff.

The research on this is very clear: women are more likely to rise to positions of leadership and authority in times of crisis or conflict. It’s seen as a “nothing to lose” phenomenon. “We have nothing to lose, so might as well hire a woman.” We often follow charismatic or well-liked men who were behaving egregiously badly, and we often don’t have clarity on how deeply broken the system really is until we’ve already said yes.

Women are held to a different standard (especially when we are the first). We have broken the stained glass ceiling, so we are expected to be exceptional, extraordinary even. We are expected to resolve conflicts, and clean up messes we did not make in half the time it took the men who preceded us to make them. We are expected to effortlessly juggle leadership (but not too much), nurturing (but not be too soft), and family (but without asking for too much time) without complaint.

As soon as we enact too much change, push to make the system healthier, preach a sermon seen as “too political,” or don’t clean up the mess quickly enough, we are pushed right off the cliff. If we dare, as Pastor Amy did, to name patterns of sexual harassment and ask for accountability, we are often painted as the problem and sent on our way. A narrative is then written about how it “wasn’t a good fit” or “she just couldn’t hack it.” Read more

Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship

My boys love going to church. On Sunday mornings, as I’m rushing to get out the door, they are moving quickly right with me, excited to get there. It is amazing and gratifying and humbling to witness, and I do not expect it to last forever. I will cherish it while it does. 

The truth is that Sundays in many homes where people are trying to get out the door to church are not always peaceful and pleasant. But often, as soon as they enter the doors, there is a transformation. Arguments pause, smiles return, and all is well once again. Through unspoken agreement, we participate together in the rhythms and rituals of worship. It’s holy space, but susceptible to the overcrowding of the mundane or the lull of familiar patterns.

Inspired by some musings shared by members of Young Clergy Women International, I present to you “Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship.”1

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This Pastor Loves You

Some of our young clergywomen in their Pride shirts.

Young Clergywomen International created t-shirts for Pride month to reclaim a message of radical love. Board co-chair Sarah Hooker had no idea what kind of response YCWI would receive. She said, “The fact that we’ve sold around 850 versions of the shirt and continue to sell them, and are getting requests constantly for different word choices to print up next year, speaks so much for the need of the Christian community to have clothing that expresses a loving and inclusive message to the LGBTQIA+ community, but also for our clergy siblings who identify within that community to easily express their existence and calling to religious work.” The simple message of clergy loving all people has had a big impact among clergy and at Pride events this month.

I wore mine at my community’s Pride Festival in Frederick, Maryland. An interfaith pride worship service was held before the festival started, and I found myself rushing down the still-quiet street to get there in time. A car slowed down at a light as I crossed the street. I cringed, waiting for a catcall because of my feminine gender performance or vitriol in reference to the rainbow words on my shirt. Instead, someone called, “Thank you! We love your shirt!” After the service when I was walking with some of the youth from my church down to the festival, people stopped and took pictures with me. A clergyperson who shows up in love and affirmation is still too much of a novelty. Later at the festival, I sat at the table for the local United Methodist Reconciling Community and listened to story after story of experiences of discrimination in church and hopes for the future. They thanked us for being there, for disrupting the narrative of hate that has co-opted the church and showing “a more excellent way.”

Mine is not the only story. My social media newsfeeds are filled with clergy colleagues of all ages and gender expressions wearing shirts from YCWI’s Pride Collection. Here are a few of stories from other young clergywomen when they wore their shirts: Read more

Midrash on the Beach

One of the things I love most about preaching is the opportunity to imagine between the lines of a story. I can’t resist a chance to illuminate the scene and characters from my own imagination. The Bible is often sparse in its literary detail, to put it lightly – I mean, come on, parchment is expensive! We can’t be wasting space with frivolous details, like the names of women and whatnot! But more often than not, my own imagination falls far short of the real beauty and complexity of the lives that must have been lived between the lines of those ancient pages.

That’s where a good book, movie, podcast, painting, or other creative effort comes to the rescue. 

As you head out into your summer, why not bring along a great book or download a new show to help expand your preaching imagination? Here are are few Biblical-story-retold favorites from some of our members and friends:

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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

Putting Politics Back in the Pulpit: Growing a Politically Active Congregation

The first ballot I ever cast was in kindergarten for the 1988 election. I specifically voted for Dan Quayle because he was like our state bird. I remember people talking about who and why they voted for their candidate, citing religious views, personal needs, social values, and party affiliations. Me, on the other hand? I voted for the man I thought might also be a bird. I voted for Bush/Quayle because I related to Mr. Quayle the most. I knew quails were important to California and so, he must be as well. No one was talking to me about policy or vision; no one explained that who we vote for reflects our understandings of a just society. I was five, so why would they?

But all these years later, I still remember what people were saying around me — instead of talking with me — and why I chose the person I voted for.

As Jesus reminds us, ‘“there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.’” (Mark 4:22-24, NRSV). Our children are listening, just like I was. In fact, everyone with “ears to hear” is listening. But what are we telling them?

Now, as a 35-year-old woman, I am a proud registered voter. I am strong in my opinions and fierce in my support for my candidates. I am a woman and so my body is a tool in political dialogue. I am also a pastor, and whether we name it or not, being religious is political. Thus, I cannot divorce myself from the political acts of our governing systems.

But it gets more complicated: It is also illegal and unethical for me to use my vocation to encourage support for a specific candidate; I believe in freedom and democracy, so I wouldn’t dare to even think of it. But what I can do, and what I must do, is preach and teach the stories of God and God’s people as shared in our scriptures. And one of the acts of the apostles that we rarely mention is voting.

…And I cast my vote… (Acts 26:10, NRSV)

Voting matters just as much now as it did back then. Paul was talking about voting against Jesus and his followers because he thought he had the sole and dominant understanding of God’s truth. Then through life experiences, he changes his mind and his heart about Jesus. And I find it hard to believe that he stopped voting after that, in light of the other votes in scripture, such as the one between saving Barabbas and Jesus.

Scripture tells us that voting matters. Read more

Pastoral Care

Trinity member Lauren Strawderman held 5 week old Micah while the author unpacked boxes. Lauren continues to be Micah’s second mom at church.

“Does the Pastoral Care team care for the Pastor or for other people?” It was a fair question from one of the new Elders at his first meeting, a day-long visioning and planning retreat for the Session, the church council elected by the congregation. I responded, “Sometimes both, but most of the time it’s coordinating care for church members and friends.”

As I responded in the present, my mind traveled through the past. That January meeting marked 3 years since the moving truck arrived in Harrisonburg with all of our family’s belongings – almost to the day. I had a 2 1/2 year old and a 5 week old with me, and arrived first at my new church, where the many boxes of books would be unloaded. Mary Lou, the chair of the search committee that called me, was there to present me with my key to the kingdom, and after boxes were unloaded, she followed us over to the townhouse to help on that end.

She wasn’t alone. Over the course of the day and in days following, a number of folks came through to offer their help. They unpacked boxes. They broke them down and took them away. They put dishes in the cupboards and they held the baby so I could get a few things done (clearly the most coveted job). Food arrived. Diapers. As I assessed some new needs – toy and book storage – Larry and Donna went shopping. I was five weeks postpartum and needed to take it easier than I would have preferred. But they took care of me.

On my first Sunday in the pulpit, I was busy trying to get everything together and Lauren, another member of the search committee, came in to take the baby off of my hands. From that week on, Lauren was Micah’s church buddy. It was Lauren who was first able to get Micah to take a bottle. To this day, Lauren sits right behind me, usually with Micah in her lap, wanting to read books, and he recently referred to her as “the one he loves so much.” Lauren and Mike, Bryce and Chris, Dawn, Susie, Abby, and Anne are just a few who have had turns babysitting, taking the boys to the children’s museum, their favorite playground, horseback riding, or on some other fun adventures. They take care of us. Read more

The Gifts of Waiting

When I can help it, I do things early.

I learned to ride a bike at five, moved away from home at sixteen, and graduated college after three brisk years. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry.

And yet, I couldn’t hurry a call.

I tried. Believe me, I tried. I’ll spare you the gory details—but, suffice it to say, I spent a year unemployed and several more years broadening my understanding of ministry. I worked for a Catholic nonprofit and then Renewal Ministries Northwest, a dynamic prayer ministry in the Seattle area. In 2016, I was ordained to an unconventional, part-time ministry shepherding the remnant of a congregation that had departed the Presbyterian Church (USA) for A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). In late 2018, I wrote and published a devotional for teen girls (Simple Truths). I felt like I was making lemonade, growing gills. I could feel the Spirit pushing me toward surrendering my idol of ordained ministry.

And then, abruptly, She called me back to it.

I received the call itself through a series of unexpected events. I had finally found a rhythm with my work at Renewal Ministries, and Simple Truths had just been published. Then, the phone rang. On the other end: someone from the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) from my hometown back in Tennessee, wondering if I’d throw my hat in the ring. They weren’t even offering me a position, just a chance at one—and it unraveled my world. I spent a week in tormented talks with my husband. Could we move? Did I really want this (anymore)? Is this what a call feels like? Read more

In the words of Beyoncé

My 2019 Easter Outfit

In 2001 I was in a car accident that briefly landed me in a wheelchair. That event physically changed my body forever. Rolling myself around but also being relatively immobile, I noticed my upper arms got larger and stronger. For lots of different socially imbedded reasons, I did not like this new look in my arms. Over the next 18 years, my body lost and gained weight in different ways – I even grew an inch taller in my 30’s – but for whatever reason, my arms have always stayed about the same size. They are what have been called by trainers, boyfriends, and myself alike a “problem area.”

Then, a couple years ago, I found something that was both freeing, covering, and good for work; a cape. My cape made me feel strong and feminine. I wore it the first time I preached to help me get over my stage fright. It became known as my “preaching cape.” I have always liked fashion, and I have also always shopped for a good deal, this cape fit the bill for both.

As I do every year, this year I spent weeks pulling together my Easter outfit. I was so excited I even found a new cape in white-perfect for Easter Sunday. So, when I got dressed for our Easter worship service this year, I looked in the mirror and, in the words of Beyoncé, I was “feeling myself.”

I took a picture outside of church and after a wonderful worship service, I posted it to one of my social media pages. I live in New York and my family lives in California, so I wanted to share my Easter outfit with them. I was proud of the way I looked because unlike Beyoncé I did not “wake up like this.” I also saw a post on the Young Clergy Women International Facebook page asking for pics of the amazing preachers in the group and their Easter outfits.

Everyone looked amazing and the group was incredibly supportive and affirming of each other’s outfits. This unfortunately gave me false hope, and I shared the picture on my wider media networks which were less supportive. Which reminded me of a very important fact; God called me to this work: a woman who loves fashion, a good bargain, and using the two to share the good news of Christ Jesus.

In the wider network I was met with the view that my outfit was an exploitation of riches from an elite New Yorker. Little did they know my bag, glasses, and shoes are from TJ-Maxx and Who What Wear made my cape and jumper. That’s right, my elite New York look was from Target. And they were on sale! However, the highest price I paid that day was that of my confidence. The same thing that helped me bring the word of the risen Christ to a church full of joyful Easter congregants, ended up being the price as well. Once the criticism snuck into my head, I had a hard time not believing it myself. Read more

Seeing God in Sequins, Eyeshadow, and Ice Cream

Mama and Daughter enjoying dinner, dancing, and ice cream

Being a minister in a small town is complicated. Being the local tattooed, lesbian, single mama pastor – one whom you might see out in a low-cut leopard print dress, and from whom you might hear a few curse words now and then – in a small town is . . . complicated. I’m a mama, a public figure, and a person who loves time with friends. I’m known.

My congregation is an important part of the community, and when I was called here, it was a clear expectation that I become involved in this community. I’m on the library board. Everybody at the cafe knows my name. Options for friends are more limited, but that has also been a blessing for me. I make connections that I might not necessarily seek out. Take, for example, my friend Jason.

Jason is the dad of one of my daughter’s former preschool friends. He owns a property management company, and does everything from snow plowing to landscaping to building incredible gardens. He’s a pillar of our community, and he’s also a kind and thoughtful man. He once seriously considered seminary, and we often talk theology (though I’ve yet to convince him to come to church). I might not have been surprised to receive a call from Jason, but his invitation was definitely unexpected.

Jason called to invite me to attend the Daddy/Daughter Dance at the school, and to join in a larger group of dads and daughters for a fancy dinner before the dance. Honestly, I’ve got major issues with the whole concept for many reasons—many kids don’t have a daddy, many kids live with grandparents or foster parents, and, frankly, the whole heteronormative daddy dating daughter thing seems a bit sketchy. But, with many other places where I push the envelope, this hasn’t been a hill on which I’m ready to die, so I had resigned myself to ignoring the event for the next few years.

Jason’s invitation was sincere and warm. He and his daughter, now 11, had cherished this tradition since she was my daughter’s age. My daughter was near me while we were talking on the phone, and she asked me what it was about. I told her there was going to be a daddy daughter dance. Her face fell. She said, “I don’t have a daddy.” (That’s the first time she’s ever expressed distress about this fact.) I said, “No, but you do have a Mama, and I will take you to the dance.” She responded with joy. I knew we needed to go. Read more