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

Please, Let it Be Just Me

Image text on dark background with mountains and clouds says: "How long, O Lord? How long? Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me." Allison Unroe

Image text says: “How long, O Lord? How long? Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me.” Allison Unroe

Years ago when I was in youth ministry I found myself deep in conversation with a group of freshman girls in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. It was dark and cold — winter in the Blue Ridge mountains — and I’d driven a 15 passenger van loaded with kids through the ice and snow that day. I wanted to be in bed, but I knew this was important.

It had started as a bit of a joke — a sort of, “I bet we can get Allison to say that there are circumstances in which someone deserves to be raped.” The hypothetical situations they threw out were outlandish at first, but quickly the giggles had subsided and the what-ifs got very real. “What if she’s wearing a tight top and short skirt?” Nope. “What if she’s sloppy drunk and making out with him before she changes her mind?” Nope, not then either. “What if she’s walking alone at night when she knows she should  have a friend with her?” Still no.

At around 3am the 14 year old leading the charge completely deflated. Her face fell. Her shoulders slumped. She gazed at the floor and mumbled, “I know you’re right. But you’d never convince my dad…”

I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, not math. I still don’t know my multiplication tables beyond the easy numbers – 1s, 2s, and 5s. But I also know my fours. I know my fours well because a man I knew and trusted raped me. Before I became a survivor, though, I was an advocate, so I knew the numbers. Back then the statistics said that one in four or five American women would be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And so I started counting.

In meetings at work and in worship at church and in workshops on retreats, at family gatherings and at dinner with my friends, I count. “One, two, three, four, five—I’m five,” I say in my head, “Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me. Let my suffering be sufficient for all of us.” Once the numbers tip past six women I start hedging my bets. “What are the chances there’s another survivor here?” I already know. They’re way too good. Read more

two young girls sitting in car seats in the back seat of a car, smiling and watching a program on a screen mounted on the back of the front seats

All I Really Need to Know About Ministry I Learned from Daniel Tiger

two young girls sitting in car seats in the back seat of a car, smiling and watching a program on a screen mounted on the back of the front seats

Sofia and Nadia, daughters of the Rev. Angela Flanagan, enjoy educational programming on a long car ride.

One day in the preschool carpool, the kids asked to listen to Daniel Tiger. I found myself listening to the familiar tunes with new ears. I thought of the classic book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and wondered if perhaps we could say something like this for ministry. Perhaps those songs could apply to ministry and life in the Church too? So, dear fellow Christians, particularly those in positions of Church leadership, I invite you to consider some lessons from Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger to enrich our life together:

What Do You Do with the Mad that you Feel?

Feelings. They come. Sometimes in the Church we try to deny that they are there, but then those big feelings rear their heads in ugly ways. When that happens, we have a tendency in Church to think that we just have to tolerate it, even when big feelings are expressed in inappropriate, hurtful, and harmful ways. Being Church does not mean we have to tolerate unjust or inappropriate behavior. It means that we speak truth in love and call each other to be our best selves. We need to learn how to recognize our feelings and then express them appropriately. This is where Daniel Tiger can help. When we’re facing challenging conversations or situations – when we feel like we’re about to roar – wouldn’t it help to take a deep breath and count to four?

Friends Help Each Other

No matter our age, our ordination status, or our place in the hierarchy, we are all in this together. We all want to have happy lives. We want to thrive. We want our children’s future to be better. How do we live this out? We realize that we are all in this together. Working together in Church isn’t always easy. When conflicts arise, do we assume the best of each other? How can we be even more generous, and build each other up, rather than fighting over resources, or affirmation? As the body of Christ, we have to recognize our reliance on each member, and Daniel reminds us that friends help each other.

Look a Little Closer . . .

It is a widely held principle among Sociologists and Psychologists that the way to undo stereotypes is to get to know someone in that group. When we are afraid, it is so tempting to back away and distance ourselves. What if instead we followed Daniel’s advice and engaged? What if we looked a little closer? Just like turning the light on to discover that the “monster” under the bed is just a stuffed animal, we can learn more about those things that initially make us fearful. What if we did this as a Church? Read more

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

The Myths and Mystery of Fertility

“So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”– Genesis 1:27-28

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

Both myth-debunking research and deep spiritual truths from powerful authors created space for the author’s journey; and shared space in her basement meditation corner.

From the very first time the concept of sex entered my understanding, I was made to believe that having sex = getting pregnant. I couldn’t tell you exactly where that myth came from. Maybe it was my own culturally-informed reading of the Genesis passage (Sex was for procreation and maybe for pleasure if I was married), but don’t think I’m alone in having held this myth close to my heart for so long.

Even as I became an adult, went to seminary, and reconciled my understanding and respect for good science with my deeply held beliefs and faith-life: this poorly researched and inadequately thought-through myth persisted. When my husband and I met, and were planning our wedding, I was incredibly concerned with accidental pregnancy; I thought missing a single birth control pill was going to lead to pregnancy and I was going to screw up my whole candidacy and potential ordination process.

Given the enormity of this myth built up in my insides, I was understandably surprised when I went off birth control on purpose during our second year of marriage and… nothing happened. Then, something happened, but it wasn’t what my fertility-myth-laden heart expected. Just before my first early-OB appointment the first time I finally got pregnant, I miscarried. I felt totally alone, like something was wrong with me, as though somehow my body wasn’t doing its God-given job. This potential reality pissed off my little perfectionist over-achiever brain, and made me feel totally ashamed that something in me was broken and not normal.

That’s when my OB/GYN recommended a healthy dose of Brené Brown (seriously, my OB is that awesome) and pointed me toward the book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, for some good, contextually-researched science on my situation. I was 32 years old. I had considered myself a feminist for much of my young adult life. And yet this was the first time in my life that I was reading information about the science of my biology that matched the lived patterns of my flesh and bones. It turns out, my 26-30-day fluctuating cycle with an overly heavy 7-day period was not something “wrong” with me at all.

“The belief that cycles are 28 days and ovulation occurs on Day 14 is so entrenched in the medical profession that when a woman’s cycles vary from that standard, the variation is often presumed to be a potential concern. “Irregular” cycles are seen as problematic….”  – from Taking Charge of your Fertility

These words felt like Gospel to me. After all, when have I EVER believed that God created with normativity as the goal? As I let these words that felt like God’s YES sink into my bones, my broken heart began to heal around trusting what I already knew to be true but was now unexpectedly embodying in my fertility journey: that God is a God of mystery, a God of change, and a God of detail beyond my human understanding. Read more

wooden stair with white painted banisters in front of water, pine trees and sky

The Importance of Mental Hygiene

wooden stair with white painted banisters in front of water, pine trees and skyMany years ago, one of my mentors moved from a large, prominent church to serving a mid-sized church. I suspect that she had brought with her some of the big-church cultural anxieties, with an emphasis on high performance and adopting best practices from the corporate world. She told me that a couple of months into working at the new church the senior pastor said to her, “God brought you to this church, and maybe God is not as interested in doing something through you here but more to do something in you here.”

She told me this anecdote with evident joy and appreciation. In the years since the senior pastor had made that insight, I could tell that she had given herself permission to relax and find greater freedom and grace in her ministry. I resonated with her story and filed it away in my memory as a good invitation of how to understand my own ministry.

Five months later, I ran a half-marathon. It was an okay experience, but during the race I started to realize just how negative my self-talk was. My thoughts included: “You’re so slow.” “You didn’t train hard enough.” “You don’t push yourself like you should.” I finished the race. I had wanted to complete it in under 2 hours, and I finished it in 2 hours and 20 seconds. I was disappointed with myself.

I went for a run less than a week after my half-marathon, and while I jogged that morning, I thought of how consistently some variation of the line “not good enough” played in my head as I ran. I sensed the Holy Spirit urging me to reframe running, just as that senior pastor had reframed ministry for my mentor. Maybe God gave me running not as something for God to achieve through me but God had given me running to change something in me.

Friends, I needed to be honest: I’m not going to be an elite runner, and I need to be okay with that. My shame and guilt around my slow pace was unhelpful. In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” the protagonist said that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure. But that hadn’t been my experience: I have been much more attuned to my displeasure than God’s pleasure. My displeasure was very much connected to my performance, which I judged to be mediocre. I realized that I placed too much of a value on output and being productive, but, if God is more interested in doing something in me, maybe the outcome of my running didn’t matter that much. Read more

Not Just the Future but the Present

people sitting on benches on a hill facing away from camera and toward three wooden crosses with another wooden cross and flowers in the foreground

Morning devotions at Henderson Settlement

An eleven-year-old stood behind a rough wooden podium on the side of a mountain at Henderson Settlement, a United Methodist mission site in Kentucky. Her back was straight, her face calm and fierce, and she called us to our morning devotion first with a song. She looked to an adult who was with her to help lead the songs, but she did not invite him to stand with her. She didn’t need him to: she filled the space with a powerful presence all alone. After singing, she opened her Bible and began to read from the sixth chapter of Isaiah.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”

She opened her journal, set it on top of the open Bible, and looked at us before beginning to preach. Because that’s what it was: preaching. She challenged us with the Good News, reminding us why we were there on a mission trip and pointing not to our service, but to God. Her reading was not particularly new, but it was her confidence, her assurance that struck us and inspired us. “Here I am; send me!” she read, closing her devotion by repeating the scripture. Then she closed her journal and looked at us. “Here we are; send us,” she said in benediction.

This summer, there has been an article floating around young clergywomen circles detailing how important it is for young girls to see women in leadership in churches. The article is based on a book by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin called She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America.[1] They argue that seeing women in leadership in churches has a positive impact on girls and young women in those churches later in life. I wondered who the role models were for the eleven-year-old who led us in our devotion. But I also began to wonder – why don’t I have more eleven-year-olds as my own role models?

I spent most of the summer doing mission work and working with children and youth, and over and over again I would watch adults volunteer to pray, instead of waiting for young people to volunteer. I would watch adults ignore or question youth leaders. These older adults did not deny leadership to young people maliciously, but they seemed to be so keen on modeling discipleship that they forgot that they have much to learn about discipleship themselves. I have spent so much energy in my own ministry proving that I, as a young clergy woman, actually can lead, saying, “Here I am!” I realized that I still need to make a more conscious effort to allow myself to be led by young people, to make space for those eleven-year-old preachers and teachers in my life.

I realized this need to make space post-March for Our Lives, the powerful visual reminder of all the work young people are doing in the wake of incredible violence in our schools. I had cheered Emma Gonzálezshared Naomi Wadler’s words on social media, and yet still I was surprised, sitting on the side of the mountain that day, at the way this girl was filled with the Holy Spirit. And so I knew, I had some work to do. And I suspect you do as well. Read more

droplet of water bouncing out of water with circular pattern resulting

The Stone Cast Upon the Water

droplet of water bouncing out of water with circular pattern resulting

Droplet

The August 15 edition of the “Christian Century” magazine highlighted research done by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin which shows that “girls who have had a direct example of clergy-women in childhood grow up with higher self-esteem, better employment records, and more education than girls who did not.” [1]

In a spectacularly coordinated move of the Holy Spirit, just three days later, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America celebrated the installation of the Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld to the office of synodical bishop. This past May, she and the Rev. Patricia A. Davenport became the first two African-American women elected to the office of bishop in the denomination’s history.

Davenport and Thomas-Breitfeld were two of six new women elected to the office of synodical bishop in the ELCA this year. If you’re keeping count, this brings the total number of women serving as synodical bishops in the denomination to sixteen. And then you can add to that the denomination’s Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, who has been serving in that role since 2013.

To help put all of this in perspective, here’s your quick ELCA primer:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States and is among the largest mainline denominations, with about 4 million members and nearly 10,000 congregations. The congregations of the ELCA are grouped into nine geographic regions. Each region is subdivided into synods, which contain anywhere from 30 to 300 congregations. There are 65 synods, and each synod is under the care and leadership of a synodical bishop. Meanwhile, the entire denominational organization is overseen by a bishop-in-chief, called the Presiding Bishop.

In 2015, the ELCA celebrated the 45th anniversary of the ordination of Lutheran women in the United States. As of that time, women made up thirty-five percent of all active ELCA clergy. Women made up nearly fifty percent of all people ordained in the ELCA between 2010 and 2015. Currently, women represent one-quarter of the total number of bishops serving the ELCA.

As a young clergywoman serving as an ordained minister of word and sacrament in this denomination, I feel both proud and hopeful looking at these numbers. I am pleased that the number of women serving and leading in this denomination continues to trend upward.

I am in a strange and beautiful context right now, where there exist thirteen ELCA congregations in and around my town. (As a point of reference, the population of our town is 8000 people!). Of these thirteen congregations, eight of them are served by women clergy. There are also a handful of women clergy serving in other denominations and in neighboring towns, which means that most of my colleague interactions are with other women – women for whom I am profoundly grateful, both for their gifts of ministry and for their friendship. I am grateful to be living in a place and time where women in ministry are the norm and not the exception. Read more

Update to YCWI Membership Policy

Young Clergy Women International has been, since its beginning in 2007, an organization for the professional development and care for the youngest of clergy women. Eleven years later, our commitment to the community of women under the age of forty who serve as clergy continues.

YCWI exists to equip young women with spiritual and practical tools for ministry, to collaborate with one another both online and in person, and to transform young clergy women so that our ministry can transform the Church and the world.

The Board of YCWI has made it a top priority for this organization to be a place where clergy women of increasing diversity can find a supportive professional community. We have recognized that our qualifications for membership around the definition of “clergy” were framed from a predominantly American, protestant, mainline, white context. While this particular definition of clergy served us well in the past, it has become a hindrance to the ever increasing demographic of women around the world who serve as clergy, particularly to our colleagues of color and those from contexts outside of North America.

Therefore, as of September 1, 2018, YCWI’s new membership policy is as follows:

Membership in Young Clergy Women International is open to those who meet the following requirements:

  • Young
    • Our membership is open only to those who have not reached their 40th birthday.
  • Clergy
    • Christian clergy are individuals whose self-identified gifts for ministry have been affirmed, supported, and lifted up by a community of faith, such that the term “clergy” is a meaningful and appropriate term for their role in their particular tradition, and who can provide documentation/endorsement of such support.
    • Women who are not accountable to a faith community, an institution, or a higher governing body (such as a denomination), are not eligible for membership.
    • Women who are serving as lay pastors, temporary ministers, student ministers, or interns are not eligible for membership, unless they fall under the exception categories.
    • Advanced theological education or training is typical, but not required.
    • Exceptional Membership may be applied for by those who are serving within a denomination where they may not seek authorization or affirmation of their call to ministry in a clerical capacity. Exceptional memberships are considered on a case-by-case basis.
  • Women
    • We use an inclusive definition of “women” and “female.” All who identify and minister as women are eligible for membership, including trans women and cis women. No prospective member will be required to provide medical or legal documentation of her gender identity. Genderqueer and non-binary people who feel that their membership in a women’s organization is appropriate are also eligible.

Women wishing to affiliate with the organization must complete the online application form, clearly identifying their ministry location, denomination (if applicable), date of birth, date of start of affirmed service (e.g. ordination, consecration), and any relevant theological degrees, training, certificates, or credentials. The Registrar shall verify information through whatever means are available.

 

people bending near the ground, working with soil and plants behind a fence on a clear day

Growing Good Soil in Ministry

Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”-Matthew 13:8 (NIV)

people bending near the ground, working with soil and plants behind a fence on a clear day

The “Farminary”at Princeton Theological Seminary

The farmers in front of me dreamed of having the richest soil in the entire state. Regrettably, history was working against them. They had acquired an old sod farm, and the poor practices of the previous generations had stripped away the nutrient-rich top soil. The soil had been full of life-giving organic matter and they sold it away year by year with each reaping. The farm thrived for a time. However, with the depletion of the soil, every year they worked harder and yielded fewer results. Finally, they were forced to close down the operation and pass the land to the next successors.

Slowly, these new farmers began to change the story with a more sustainable model. They brought in some new soil and enriched what remained with compost. They took in the discarded compost scraps and used that as the basis for what would surprisingly be the source of new life. There would be much good fruit that would be grown in abundance in this new soil.

I had heard this story of this particular farm before. However, when I heard it again during my search for my first ordained call, it stopped me in my tracks. Finally, I had a clear picture of the unsettling cloud that had seemed to hover over my search with a gloomy presence. I had encountered too many churches that seemed to want to continue in a metaphorical “soil-depleting mentality.”

If you’re in the white mainline American church tradition like me, you’re probably familiar with the longing for the church to return to its “golden-age” in the 1950s and 60s. My interviews involved questions about how I could start getting those higher yields back. There wasn’t much discussion of the state of the soil. I was saddened by the fact that churches couldn’t see past the old successes to imagine what new life could grow in their midst. I wondered at their ability to persist in working harder with fewer results rather than embrace a new vision. I longed for more imagination about the good fruit that could come of good soil and what a witness that could be for the good news of the gospel. Read more

The Cost of Inclusion

The doors may be open, but is that really enough?

There is a hymn that is often sung in churches entitled “All Are Welcome,” and in the fourth verse there is a line that goes:

Here the outcast and the stranger

bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger.

All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.[1]

I have heard this song at reconciliation workshops, Sunday worship, ordinations, and baptisms. Although it may not be the origin of the phrase, “all are welcome,” it certainly has been married to the movement of inclusion. This is especially true in a post-segregation society in which we claim to live and worship.

And why not? “All are welcome,” and its sister phrase, “all means all,” seem to cross the boundaries that society had set so firmly into place. But when we bring everyone into the space without the work of deconstruction to systems of oppression, we are asking the “least of these” in God’s creation to pay the price of their dignity and pain. Are all really welcome in a space that asks the oppressed to offer their hand to their oppressor?

This song gives us the space to explore what we are asking people to do when we say, “all are welcome.” The phrase, “Let us bring an end to fear and danger,” does not ask us to stop making others fearful, it asks the fearful to stop being afraid. Fear is the natural and appropriate response by the oppressed to the dangerous acts of oppressors. It is conjured into being by those who anticipate danger. Now, I understand that the song is talking more broadly about the human condition. We all experience fear at some point in our lives. We have all experienced loss, want, and the need to belong. But when we lack nuance in our work of reconciliation and inclusion, we privilege the oppressor and ask those who have been hurt to pay the price of our welcome.

So, the big question is…should all be welcome? Read more