The Gift of Gentleness

My Christmas Eves are a little different these days. I generally spend the day in front of my computer, finishing the sermon I’ll preach for the biggest crowd of the year. No pressure, of course. As my family digs into dinner, I pass candles around a church 1,500 miles away. After leading the last worship service, I meander back to my dog and a darkened house – because I usually haven’t had time to hang up lights or other Christmas decorations during the rush of Advent; it’s a very good year if I manage a tree. I heat up some leftovers, pour a glass of wine, pop in a movie, and collapse on the couch. Then I wake up on Christmas Day and…go back to sleep as long as possible.

It’s not as pathetic as it sounds, I promise! By the time I’m done with the Christmas insanity, I am more than ready to just crash, and my dog is just about all the company I can handle. My Christmas Eve ritual has become a sort of Sabbath; I defend it even when I receive other invitations. This much-needed time of quiet rest has become one of my favorite things about being single and living alone. Read more

Verve, Faith, Chocolate, and Really Great Shoes

For a long time, in my mind, pointe shoes were the only shoes that mattered. In high school, I tried brand after brand, make after make, looking for something that would flatter my woefully flat arches. I
finally found Freeds of London. I religiously ordered shoes from a particular cobbler, whose mark was
stamped on the bottom of my sole. That brand and make of shoes accompanied me through hours of class, rehearsals, and performances. I spent a lot of time breaking them in and keeping them in good shape.

They transformed me into Sleeping Beauty; they turned me into the Dew Drop Fairy. They were my most important material possession. Oddly, my attitude towards all other shoes was as indifferent as my attitude towards pointe shoes was obsessive. In high school and college, I wore the same old school vans day in and day out (Hey, it was the 90s; don’t judge me). The object was comfort and little else.

And then I moved from the stage to the pulpit. As part of that transition, I went to divinity school at Yale in Connecticut; inclement weather and walking everywhere meant practicality won out. I wore unremarkable tennis shoes and cheap penny loafers. I bought a pair of bejeweled aqua peep toe heels on a whim my senior year. I got them with no intention of wearing them in the pulpit; however, sometimes, what I intend is not what I actually end up doing. I wore the peep toes one summer Sunday morning soon after I was ordained to the diaconate, just for fun. I didn’t do it to get a reaction, but, boy, did I ever. It seems as if every single person in that church had something to say about my shoes that day. I wore them again. And again.

It didn’t take long before I had more new shoes – pink patent mary janes with a 3″ heel, white ballet flats, green pumas. I don’t have that many pairs of shoes, but the ones I do have are… interesting. It got to the point where my picture in the church’s monthly newsletter was of my shoes.

For me, my shoes signal that I’m human, something that I found to be incredibly important in a profession where you are sometimes in a different category than everyone else, which I refuse to be. The fact is, people often think they know you when you’re clergy, particularly in the Bible Belt, where I grew up and now live and serve. People sometimes assume they know how you vote (Republican), what you do in your spare time (you have none because you’re always tending the flock), what you will find funny (jokes that involve religion – nothing remotely risqué), not to mention what about you think about issues such as the war, abortion, and homosexuality. My shoes tip people off that maybe there’s more than a clerical collar here; they’re my visual question mark to a world that desperately wants to pigeonhole. Read more

Silent and Still

The silence of my prayer was replaced with the noise of the narthex. The hymns were sung. The people were blessed. And now, it was time to share in the joy of being together as the congregation participates in the exodus from the sanctuary to the promise of the Parish Hall.

Babies wake up from the sermon, and the silence fades. The squeals of the children just released from Sunday School nearly drown out the mutterings of “good sermon” and “thank you for worship.” Familiar faces sojourn to coffee hour while insisting I must remember their names. My laughter mixes with the hesitant laughter of visitors. Hands are held. Hugs linger too long. Shoulders are touched. The silence disappears.

Only for a moment, the silence disappears. Only for a moment, there is a clamor of giggling children and a racket of slurping adults. The clatter continues until the Parish Hall empties and I am left to lock the doors.

And then it becomes silent and still once again. My distress grows worse, and my heart becomes hot with me as the silence returns. This silence is not like the stillness of prayer. Those are moments that I crave. I need that respite from the insistence of so many demands screaming incessantly. I need that sacred time to be still and know that God is in the silence. This is precious silence. It is not the same silence that greets me with the click of the lock in the church doors.

Read more

What Not to Wear

We never got so involved in the game that we developed costumes, but if we had, this women’s clergy blouse I once saw on the Wippell site would have served the purpose nicely.

 

While I still reflect on my childhood novels, I no longer aspire to embody them, so a professional blouse that would look at home on a pioneer in the 1870s is not quite “the look” I want to present as a young clergy woman.

Finding clerical shirts as a young woman priest can be tricky. We want to present ourselves as professional persons, but also spiritual persons. We also want to present ourselves as modern and relevant. Is all this possible?

At times the deck seems stacked against us.

When I asked The Rev. Dr. Robert Prichard, professor of History and Liturgy at Virginia Theological Seminary about the history of the clerical shirt, he wrote, “Detachable collars were popular for any well dressed male from the middle of the 19th century until the 1920s. At that point, the Arrow Shirt Company introduced the fixed collars that we know today. Clergy, always conservative in dress, retained the older detachable collar style at least for Sunday dress. The only real mystery is why the clergy turned their collars around backward from the way that others wore them.”

This tendency towards conservatism may explain why the design of women’s clergy blouses are so different from design of a modern woman’s professional blouse. Most modern clergy shirts made for women today lack breast darts or curved panels, making women with smaller chests look like young boys, and larger women look shapeless. They are also designed to be worn with pants that fit at the waist, which very few pants now do. Read more

TYCWP Imprint with Chalice Press

The Pastor’s Bookcase

TYCWP Imprint with Chalice PressWhen visiting a friend’s office, I enjoy snooping through perusing the shelves. Sometimes I find something that is exactly what I need for a particular situation. Sometimes I’m reminded of old favorites that I had nearly forgotten.

This week we asked several young clergy women serving ministries outside of the parish to recommend resources that have been useful to them in the last year or so. Go ahead, snoop around, you know you want to! (Feel free to add your own recommendations to the comments.)

  • Scar Tissue, a novel by Michael Ignatieff, is recommended by Erica Brown, Assistant Chaplain at Northwestern University. The Rev. Brown lends it to students whose parents/grandparents have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • Rob Bell’s Nooma Videos are recommended by two women ministering in higher education. Narcie Jeter, United Methodist campus minister at Winthrop University, notes that students love them (though they wish he used a tripod!) Jennifer Janney, Associate Minister to the University at Chowan University adds that they are “AMAZING for campus ministry.”
  • Narcie Jeter couldn’t stop at just one, and also gives shout outs to Jan Richardson’s In Wisdom’s Path and to  Alive Now for its poems, prayers and quotes. Finally, she points to Relevant Magazine’s weekly e-newsletter, confessing that she still hasn’t gotten around to reading the print ‘zine, but loves the e-letter.
  • Stacey Jutila works the night shift as chaplain to Children’s Memorial in Chicago. She recommends If I Get to Five, by Fred Epstein and Josh Horwitz. She notes, “This book is written by one of the first pediatric neuro-oncologists. He talks about the reality of brain tumors and
    their impact on children and families. He does a wonderful job of examining the social, medical, and spiritual aspects of pediatric cancer.” The Rev. Jutila also recommends Ode Magazine, which she says is “a wonderful international magazine that looks at issues of justice, peace, environment, spirituality and health.”
  • Former college chaplain Mary Allison Cates recommends Iona’s A Wee Worship Book. She notes that “the invitation to the table on page 84 is revolutionary and beautiful.”
  • Worship is also on the mind of  Callista Isabelle, Associate University Chaplain at Yale University. She lifts up Prayers & Litanies for the Christian Seasons by Sharlande Sledge. Chaplain Isabelle notes, “She uses imagery brilliantly, and I’ve used this book as inspiration for Sunday morning liturgies and evening services. The book is arranged both by liturgical season and thematically.”
    She also suggests Sustaining Simplicity by Anne Basye, “down-to-earth journal of one woman’s quest to live simply. Basye gives accessible examples and frames her struggle for simplicity theologically. There’s also an online guide for group conversations. My favorite part is the book is formatted as little scribbles and Post-It notes, so it looks just as scattered as my life but flows more
    smoothly!”
  • Kate Smanik-Moyes, the Helen Carnell Eden Chaplain at Wilson College, refers us to When Violence Is No Stranger by Kristen Leslie. She notes, “Working on the campus of a women’s college means I frequently work with students who have experienced acquaintance rape. I read this book almost every year just to remind myself of the theological and pastoral frameworks that can support my work with these students. In my humble opinion every pastor should read this
    book.”
  • Anne Turner is between jobs right now, having moved to a new region with her spouse. Her picks  during this liminal time are, “A tie between The Christian Century (because it makes me still feel like I can carry on an adult conversation,even if I do have to sing “I’ve been working on the railroad” to daughter Lucy between every page) and Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church (because I could compare her experience to mine and decide that, no, I’m not burned out like she was, despite my worst fears.)” Narcie Jeter also suggests Leaving Church.
  • Mira Hewlett’s work straddles two fields. She is part-time in religious life at Dickinson College and part time at a local parish. She recommends Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, and Leading From the Second Chair by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson. She writes, “Amazing insights on how to work in a parish under someone else where one must work to implement the vision of others. But the lessons translate so easily and profoundly to any other ministry that involves a boss that it makes it a must read for those who desire to have the most impact within their role.”
  • How To Be A Perfect Stranger gets a nod from Kelly Burk, a young clergy woman from the Church of the Brethren, currently serving as Interim Director for Campus Ministries at Earlham College. The Rev. Burk also suggests the previously mentioned Leaving Church, noting that the memoir “touched me profoundly and gave me encouragement to follow where God was calling even when it wasn’t where the institutional church wanted me.”
  • Suzanne Vinson is a chaplain for a skilled nursing facility. She recommends Gifts of Many Cultures  by Maren Tirabassi and Kathy Wonson Eddy. Chaplain Vinson notes, “Great compilation of liturgy, prayers, writings and art from the global community. LOVE the resource. Use it weekly in creating worship services, for personal reflection, AND in leading spirituality groups.”
  • In addition to the previously mentioned Nooma videos, Jennifer Janney also suggests the Bonhoeffer classic Life Together as having “been the best words on community for me in a rural ‘out in the middle of nowhere’ place in ministry!”

We also asked this same group of women for personal or “just for fun” resources. Some women’s personal resources were other women’s professional resources, so they were mentioned above. Other sources mentioned (space prohibits comments on these) were:

  • Eat, Pray, Love a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert (Mary Allison Cates and Suzanne Vinson)
  • Pride and Prejudice BBC miniseries on DVD (Kate Smanik Moyes, who comments that if you don’t like Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, she doesn’t want to hear about it)
  • Battlestar Galactica DVD (Anne Turner, who claims that she watches it for the religious themes)
  • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen  and David Oliver Relin (Mira Hewlett, who calls it a story of faith, cultures, education, and vision)
  • The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine (Suzanne Vinson, who likes it “so far”)
  • Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Erica Brown, who says there is “tons of good stuff” in this novel – about the plague!)

Becoming the Church Mom

You could see the furrowed brows on her puzzled face. It was an amusing moment for me and for the handful of congregants who noticed her dilemma. I believe that in our role as pastors sometimes, our humanness is overshadowed by the ministry we do, especially for those of us from liturgical traditions that wear robes. The next Mother’s Day, I was expecting our first child. The congregation had already thrown a baby shower for us and included all the children. My robes billowed out around my growing belly. Amazingly, that year, all the little ones knew with certainty that I was a woman and raced to be the
first to give me a flower.

I learned in those moments that being a mom, in the children’s eyes, defined me as much as being their pastor. These same children asked every week if I knew whether the baby was a boy or a girl, though we were never able to discover the baby’s gender. The children wanted to help with our baby during church services, even though she came to church with a very protective and capable young woman as her babysitter. Our baby was the church baby, and I became the church mom.

I noticed a change once we had our little one. To the toddlers, I became a lap on which to sit. Children I met only a few times as visitors or at Vacation Bible School came up and hugged me as we went for a walk as a family. To the teens, I became more of an advice giver. While I will always be the pastor, I am also now a mom, to far more children than my husband and I will ever have on our own. Our daughter has been graced with an extended family that calls me pastor, though to her I am her “Momma Bear.”

Visual Reflections on the Lectionary

Letting Go. 15th Sunday After Pentecost. Luke 14: 25-33.

The power and mercy of God’s hold gives us courage to let go of that which holds us captive.

Read more

Better Together

But as I moved through school and into my first call, and he settled in first one parish and then another,
we began to see how our gifts for ministry could work together – how we could complement each other instead of compete. Our own personal styles developed and emerged, and perhaps most importantly we began to add a new dimension to our relationship: we began to respect one another as a pastor.

We didn’t start out working together, and the situation that led to us doing so was not typical (if there
is such a thing in ministry). This congregation we serve is my first call. I’ve been here three years. He started this past January. I handle areas of finance and outreach; he oversees education and worship. We share the preaching schedule equitably but unpredictably. We still take vacations together. Sometimes we talk about a meeting or something that happened when we’re at home. Sometimes we talk about what we’ll have for dinner when we’re in the office. We’re co-pastors in title, call, salary and (hopefully) most people’s minds.

This collegial and cooperative ministry, in the ten or so months that we’ve been doing it, works well for us. I have come to value the way that we are able to develop ideas, naturally relying on one another’s gifts (not every day, of course). But it also has its drawbacks. We’ve always shared ideas and processed things with one another about our respective congregations – but now there’s just one congregation between us. Talking about an idea during a commercial break now feels much more like work. While I like being able to say to someone, “That’s not my area of responsibility,” it doesn’t take the stress or the responsibility out of the family. Read more

Miles to Go

Though it is in our lectionary, our Lamentations text – this prayer of pain and petition – is not something we hear every day. I doubt many of us could quote from Lamentations as easily as we could from Psalms, from Isaiah, or from any of the gospels or epistles. So when we do hear from this book, it may come as a shock to our system. When I’ve told people that one of the texts I would be preaching from this morning is Lamentations, I got very similar responses. There were a few “ohs” and “that’s interesting,” and even an occasional “oh my.” Not exactly the words of assurance a woman would want. But these words did not really surprise me for what we find in this book – undiluted expressions of despair – are rarely the passages we seek out for nice Bible studies or our bedtime readings.

We are fortunate, then, that though we may not seek certain passages out, they surely seek us out. The scriptures which testify to the Word made flesh are not just letters on a page. When engaged with the Spirit, they are a living witness. This living witness is a Word that does not sit quietly, waiting for us to stumble upon it. It relentlessly seeks us out, captures us in its warm grasp, will not let us go until we have thoroughly engaged it.

Though many of us may avoid a book which is consumed with such vulnerable grief, given the recent events in our country, in our world, perhaps it is not surprising that this particular Lamentations text is seeking us out. With its opening words “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people” the passage invokes disturbing images from our recent news reports: images of cities empty of people but full of water; images of homes, businesses, places of worship destroyed by rumbling ground; images of complete and total destruction; of ways of life and life itself lost.

These words recall such images because they were written in the midst of similar despair. Lamentations is a poetic response to perhaps the most traumatic series of events in Jewish history outside the Holocaust, the Babylonian exile. In 587 B.C.E. the people of Jerusalem were invaded by the Babylonian empire’s army. The siege lasted two years and saw the destruction of the city’s walls, buildings, and even the temple; saw a famine where men, women, children alike died from lack of nutrition; saw the deportation of Jerusalem’s king, the murder of the royal family, and the exile of many of its citizens. The lament we have before us, unlike the pain expressed in books like Ezekiel, does not come from those in exile. This lament is unique in the portrayals of the exile for it comes from those left behind. Those who look around and see the invaders in their homes, those who see their destroyed temple, those who see the mass graves. It is this people in this place who cry aloud as Daughter Zion: “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?”

Through Daughter Zion’s words, I can hear the voices of the victims of the unrelenting hurricanes, of the earthquake in Pakistan, of the places – too many places – where war is a way of life. In the face of pain and suffering in a multitude of places on such massive levels, Lamentations cries out to us. It cries out, speaking of loneliness, speaking of desolation. It cries out to God and it cries out to this body, the body of Christ, demanding to be heard. Read more

Being Single, Being Me

At the time, I was puzzled by – and occasionally scornful of – my classmates’ partnering inclinations. “Get Married” has never made it to my life to-do list. It still hasn’t. Although I’m sure I’d make it
work if it happened, I can’t imagine doing ministry as a married person. I can’t imagine living as a married person. Still, doing ministry and living as a single person has brought my classmates’ fears
into sharp and sometimes painful clarity.

Of course I had heard the stories about well-meaning congregational matchmakers and the joys of navigating dating relationships while living in a parsonage. I had wondered how a congregation would react to a single female pastor in particular. I had wondered about the willingness of potential partners to date a minister – because, really, what sane person wishes for that?

It wasn’t the rockiness of dating as a young clergy woman that caught me by surprise.  As an extrovert who has lived in many places and developed a wide social network, it never occurred to me that it would
be so hard to simply make friends as a pastor. No one warned me that, without the built-in connections of academia or work colleagues, I’d have to work so much harder just to meet people.  I never anticipated that once I met people, so many of them would instantly react to my vocation with either suspicion or neediness. Read more