one set of silverware on a tablecloth

Come to the Table

one set of silverware on a tablecloth

Join the feast!

Many years ago, my friend had a young daughter with serious medical issues who had to be hospitalized for several weeks. Understandably, my friend was under enormous stress and she did not have the time, energy, or desire to cook. Her priority was being with her daughter in the hospital. So, for these weeks, she subsisted on rice cakes (this being the early 1990’s, rice cakes were ubiquitous in the low-fat, high carbohydrate craze). It was a quick way to eat, and it felt the appropriate food considering her circumstances. She was sad and fearful, and food had no taste: might as well eat something that tastes as wretched as she feels. It wasn’t just that the rice cakes were dry and flat; her spirit was dry and flat.

Thanks to God’s mercy, the daughter recovered and was released from the children’s hospital. But my friend continued to eat race cakes. Though her child was now well, she had developed a habit of eating them, and a habit is hard to break.

A couple of years passed, and the season of Lent was coming up, a season in which traditionally people give up something of value to them. My friend was surprised when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit nudged her with an invitation: “maybe you should give up rice cakes for Lent.” When my friend told family members, they teased her. After all, people normally fast from something desirable, like chocolate or coffee. Who gives up rice cakes for Lent? But my friend did, and, within days of giving it up, she lost her craving for them. At the conclusion of Lent, she didn’t resume her rice cake eating ways. It was God’s way of signaling to her that her previously dry and flat season was over.

I resonate with my friend’s experience. Too easily I have slipped into the habitual thought. “This is my lot in life: I just have to make do with eating crumbs and feeling crummy.” When I look around at the state of the world and the state of this county, I grow discouraged and overwhelmed: how long will the wicked prosper? In the face of these challenges, I need to be paying attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Seasons change, and there will come a time when this painful season is over. Sometimes I act as if subsisting on rice cakes is the only way forward. But as Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season…a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” There is a season for fasting, and there is a season for feasting. There is a time for us to give up something of value, and there is a time for us to reexamine what has become too valuable to us and why. There is a time to eat rice crackers beside a hospital bed, but there is also a time to come to the Lord’s banqueting table, and experience afresh the banner of love unfurled over our heads.

My hope is that we pay attention and heed God’s gracious invitations to us. When appropriate, God will invite us to mourn and to wear sackcloth, and, also God will eventually invite us to cast off those sackcloth and grave clothes that cling to us long after a season has ended. When the Lord nudges us, let us trade the dry and the tasteless for God’s extravagant banquet.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Ripples of Love

Sometimes our ministry drives us to create that which we most need to hear for ourselves.

Sitting at my studio table, I am renewed. As the light dapples through the open windows, I am surrounded by art and story. While I appear in solitude, I am never alone. The voices of those in my tribe echo, energy resides, the Spirit moves, and I am home. My heart is full.

I’ve been an ordained minister for 11 years. It began when I started volunteering and teaching classes in church as a teenager, and soon after I began working in the church. That was nearly 20 years ago. There’s no gauge. It’s a breath. It’s a heartbeat. Well, okay, maybe a few.

Even so, I find it hard to talk about how I interact with my art-as-ministry and ministry-as-art. I breathe who I am, aiming to show up and share myself with the world. Unlike many traditional vocations, artistic projects can take years to develop. Others are birthed quickly. On a few I have missed the mark and must to re-do the work. All of that is part of the process.

But I know this:
I am not perfect.
I am perceived as more confident than I often am.
I strive to be near-perfect, to be confident and to get it right the first time. 

But perfect is next to impossible. For most of last year, my life was marked by chronic illness, anxiety, and depression. I was so deep in it that I couldn’t see what was what. I had been sick for months and was grieving a friend’s death. I felt as though I was drowning. It wasn’t until I found myself on the other side of an anxious call to a beloved client that I hung up the call and made an appointment with a therapist to find care for myself. I share this because not everything is as we’d hope; sometimes it’s just what it is.

My art is a reflection of the care I place on myself and the care I put into things. If I haven’t rested well, my hands hurt and it’s hard to hold the paintbrush for long. In the same way, when I don’t practice yoga regularly, my body aches. It sounds simple because it is – you have to care for yourself. In my experience, it takes persistence and practice to develop a regular practice of self-care and soul-care.

But it is worth it, because you know what they say, right? Self-care is sexy! My loved ones notice how different I am when I’m caring for myself; it shows when I name what I need or take the long bike ride. I feel good, and that impacts everyone around me. It is a reminder to me that we know what we need and how to have what we need. We just need to be willing to ask.

I also know this:
I love myself as I am.

I hear so many stories when I show up with my art. I notice how folks interact and respond to my art as if we’re sharing space in the same room. The Spirit carries the intention of hope, healing, and delight into the world. It’s as though art becomes my church, where I find myself softened and strengthened hearing the stories of others as they interact with my creations. Over time, I’ve realized we are in that same congregation. We’re a wider community that builds upon spirituality, connection, service, and practice. We gather, share, create, and serve one another and alongside one another.

Over time, I have discerned that my call is to gather folks round the table. I feel called to minister especially to clergywomen, those who are grieving, and those who want to explore spirituality and soul care. In this work, I am also ministering to myself. And, thankfully, because I am not alone, that ministry expands to the world around me. Because I am showing up and sharing what I do as I minister to myself, I end up reaching the most people without even intending to.

Nicki Peasley interviewed me recently and spoke of my artwork and studio retreats in an article:

For Suzanne, gathering people around the table is art in its truest form, a creative banquet and dynamic process of exploring, healing, and appreciating–together. Suzanne holds a welcoming, sacred space for gatherers to lay down their burdens and fears and begin to engage in authentic self care. A sensitive and gracious facilitator, Suzanne utilizes guided meditation, visualization, mindful creative practice, poetry, body movement, and storytelling as primary tools to engage both the intellect and the human spirit.Suzanne helps to gently open the heart to empower, encourage, and feed the individual and collective soul.

“When we gather at the table, it’s a safe space with a focus on the state of our hearts, bodies, minds,” Suzanne says, “As witnesses to each other, we name what needs to be named, release what needs to be released, and we encounter new life and the possibilities within.”

“My desire is to spread love, hope, courage, and delight in small, generous artful acts, moments, and services. I am showing up with hands ready to move, an open heart, and trust that this whole enterprise makes ripples in this wide world.”

Nicki reminds me of the ripples that are unseen yet felt. So much of my ministry resides in the space of mystery. What I do is through contemplation and creation. Just as I write and create art, I hold space for those with whom I minister in my daily living.

While I miss ministering in a single church from time-to-time, art-as-ministry and ministry-as-art fills my cup. I know that I’m equally called to motherhood and to making good food for our family table. I also know my art reaches many more than I have the time or energy to meet and greet. I welcome those interactions and generous meetings. I welcome the partnership each time I am commissioned to create something, or each time someone shares my art with another. These are seeds of loving kindness and care. Some folks don’t know what to say or do in difficult moments, and, yet, they find a way through the art: a card attached to a jar of soup, art for the family displaced by a fire, words of wisdom before cancer treatments, art for the physicians who have journeyed alongside a patient.

I know this:
As Chaplain of the Arts, I am healed as I heal.

view of sheet music and choir

How Can I Keep From Singing?

view of sheet music and choir

Singing in choir

When I was growing up, my parents thought it was so important that their children learn to sing in a choir that we went to two churches. My Dad pastored a small congregation with decent music, but limited choral opportunities for children. And so, one or two weeks a month, we’d go to the 8:00 am service at our own church, and then scramble out to the car with my Mom, and hurry to the “big city” ten miles away to sing in the Treble choir at an Episcopal Church.

I was hooked. I do not sing solos: it’s singing as a group that thrills me. I went on to sing in an excellent high school choir, and then chose a college that just happened to have one of the best choral programs in the country. Even though I was never in any way a candidate for the premiere choir at that institution, I sang all four years of college, and continued to sing in my seminary choir. But, when I became a pastor, I figured that was likely the end of my choral singing. Aside from the occasional pinch-hit, I knew that very few pastors have time to join the church choir.

Then a few years ago, I followed my husband’s job across the country, and found myself in a new city with no church job. A few months after the move, I met up with a college friend who was living in the same city. He had recently founded a choir, devoted to singing a broad range of musical genres, from various traditions and cultures. It was, he said, the nicest group of people he’d ever sung with, and unusually diverse for a choral group. “You should sing with us,” he said. Read more

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

Campfire Church

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

S’mores

Q: What do you do when life gives you lemons?
A: You make s’mores.

For about a month, we smelled natural gas outside the sanctuary doors. But as it often happens with a group, everyone thought someone else would call. I finally took it upon myself to call Atlanta Gas one Thursday morning. Atlanta Gas responded within 30 minutes and determined that we had a significant leak in one of our pipes buried under ground. To be safe, they shut off our gas.

This was the beginning of February. Our new property chair immediately called the necessary repair companies. By Friday morning, he had discovered:

  1. There was a hole the size of a silver dollar in our pipe. We were blessed to be there.
  2. The leak was buried too deep for most companies to fix.
  3. The only company willing to do the repairs couldn’t get to it until after the weekend.

I got the phone call at 11:00 a.m. on Friday morning that we would not have heat in the church for worship. Temperatures were expected to be near freezing all weekend, so the property chair suggested we cancel worship.

“Give me an hour. I think we can have fun with this,” I told him. I had no idea what I was going to do; but as soon as I hung up the phone, I began to brainstorm. One hour later, I came up with a plan that I loved. Read more

Ask a YCW: Dating While Ordained Edition

Dear Askie,

I’m a young clergy woman, starting out in my first call. I’m single, and thinking about jumping back into the dating world now that I’m settled in my new location. I’m worried, though, that it might be a bit weird dating now that I’m a pastor. How will potential dates react when they find out? Should I say I’m a pastor in an online dating profile, or wait to tell people once we’ve actually met? Am I overthinking this?

Signed,
Solo Pastor Seeking to be Less Solo

Read more

Betrayal in Holy Week

In the Netherlands, the plant Judaspenning (coins of Judas) is so named as an allusion to the story of Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver he was paid to betray Jesus.

Spy Wednesday

This is “Spy Wednesday,” the day Judas betrayed Jesus. Orthodox Christians reserve Holy Wednesday for anointing and healing. I reserve it as a day for clergy self-care. What better way to anticipate bodily resurrection than with a Holy Week massage?

Today’s anointing, however, is actually a betrayal. The masseuse touches me inappropriately. As his hands move down my body, I freeze. Shouldn’t he know the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch?”

I struggle to say, “That’s too close for comfort.” Later, I berate myself for not being more forceful. But I’m in shock, with thirty years of “niceness” socialized into me.

He moves his hands. As soon as he leaves, my phone verifies that his actions are indeed illegal.

I feel more confident with clothes on, so before I leave I tell him that he crossed a line.

I’m not angry yet. I’m confused. I call my husband and best friend. I leave a message for the state board of investigations. I post in The Young Clergy Women Project facebook group: “…I feel an obligation to report, but I can’t help but feel awful about it. I worry that I’m going to cause this person to lose his livelihood.”

The clergywomen express their sorrow, their prayers, their anger, and their solidarity. They absolve me of guilt at reporting:

“It needs to be reported… A person who touches people in an illegal way should not be making his living as a massage therapist.”
“This is patriarchy and rape culture. He crossed the line.”
“He is the one who made this choice, he is the one doing the violating (not you in reporting it)…. I’m willing to guess you aren’t the first/last, as this could easily escalate. I hope you can let go of any guilt in reporting it. Prayers for you in this horrible, violating situation.”

Although I could have said these things to another woman, I can’t say them to myself. I need to hear them from my colleagues. Their clear articulation of appropriate boundaries helps me to sort through my own feelings. I am stunned at how my “niceness” translates into feeling sorry for the masseuse prior to being able to be truly angry with him. I imagine how awful it must be for folks who don’t have supportive communities with extensive sexual ethics and boundary trainings.

Maundy Thursday

I wake up early and can’t get back to sleep. “Stay with me. Pray with me,” Jesus says to the sleeping disciples. I suspect the perpetrator thought I was asleep when he touched me. But even assuming that he thought I was asleep, why would he do such a thing? I begin to find my anger. Read more

All of the Fun, None of the Work?

“All of the fun, none of the work.”

It’s the phrase I frequently hear from clergy when I tell them that I’m an Associate Rector. It’s the “truth-in-jest” description of associate clergy. You don’t have the highest level of responsibility and the buck doesn’t stop with you, so you don’t have to deal with the majority of the “work” or “business” of the church: personnel, conflict, roof repairs, fund raising, etc. I used to make this joke myself and laugh along with it, as if to say, “I know how good I have it – my job is the easy one!” I played along with the jab that being an associate pastor is like riding a bike with training wheels, a learning position where one prepares oneself to be able to handle the real responsibility of the “grown-up world” of ministry.

But you know what? This joke represents a highly problematic and diseased vision of church leadership, and I both resent and reject it. The claim that being an associate is “all of the fun, none of the work,” implies that a senior clergyperson does all of the work (and, perhaps, has none of the fun). It is “work” that one is supposed to aspire to do as one grows into positions of greater responsibility and scope  – and this “work” is generally non-pastoral. That is to say, it has little to do with the spiritual formation, nurture, and empowerment of the flock of Christians in one’s care. It’s all the stuff you “didn’t learn in seminary”- hiring and firing personnel, budgetary decisions, fund raising, reviewing proposals for roof repairs, approving the layout of the annual giving brochure. In contrast, associate clergy tend to have responsibilities that lean toward pastoral care, worship, outreach, advocacy, and Christian education – in other words, areas clergy are trained for in seminary. The unfortunate and unspoken belief this reveals begs a disturbing question: Does that mean that, deep down, churches (and the clergy who lead them) don’t view pastoral work as real work?

Many would immediately argue that “all of the fun, none of the work” simply means that associate clergy don’t bear the burden of the responsibility that falls on senior clergy, and this is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the senior/associate clergy relationship. Indeed, many associate clergy would report that the majority of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and preaching falls on the senior clergy. Yet most associate clergy would probably also report being responsible for many areas that senior clergy don’t touch at all: youth ministry, Christian education, family ministry, outreach and advocacy.

This brings to light two major problems:

1)  Education, youth, advocacy, outreach, and pastoral care are often treated as too unimportant for the senior clergyperson to handle. Whenever “all of the fun, none of the work” means ministry to youth, families, the sick and homebound, the bereft, and those on the margins, it speaks volumes about how little the church values those people.

2) It falsely links specific skill sets with levels of importance in church leadership and administration. Overseeing Sunday School and Christian Education? The associate clergy, or a layperson with some sort of seminary or religious training, can do that. Clerical matters, like sacramental and pastoral ministry (weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits, etc.)? Associates can do some of that. But when it comes to the real heavy lifting? Balancing budgets, hiring personnel, and running the business – well, that’s for the grown-ups. That’s for the senior clergy. Read more

White Girl Watching Lemonade

Diana Carroll

The author

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade from start to finish.

I was aware of the album when it first came out last year. I remember seeing the video for the song “Formation” and reading an article or two about the controversy that it sparked. I even watched the Saturday Night Live parody about white people freaking out at discovering that “Beyoncé is black!” But I don’t really follow pop artists, or celebrities in general, and I’ve never been into music videos, so Lemonade quickly faded into the background as other stories took its place. Except this one image that stayed in my head: Beyoncé dressed as a southern belle with both middle fingers up at the camera. That was pretty hard to forget.

Early one Sunday morning in January, while lying in bed trying to convince myself to get up, I found myself listening to a piece on NPR about the spirituality of Lemonade. That got my attention. The speaker was Dr. Yolanda Pierce, a Professor of African-American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. She was describing the significance of Lemonade as an expression of the spiritual lives of black women, who do not always find themselves reflected in their own religious traditions. I was intrigued by her statement that listening to, and especially watching, a popular R&B album had been a religious experience for her: “I walked away from this album with the profound sense that I’d been to church.”

Then the Grammys happened, and one of Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement photos appeared in my local newspaper, and I decided it was high time for me to watch Lemonade for myself and find out what all the fuss was about. Read more

Our Bodies, Our Selves: Women’s Bodies in the Pulpit

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

I was just one year past the anniversary of my ordination and ten weeks pregnant with my first child when my partner and I sent out the invitations to the annual Holiday Party at the Manse. We were waiting until after Christmas to tell the church about my pregnancy, so we hadn’t told a soul. But that didn’t stop Melvin. We were standing in the dining room when Melvin sidled right up to my husband and me with a drink in his hand and, in the casual manner of many an octogenarian, commented, “Pastor, I can’t imagine why, but it seems like your husband keeps getting thinner and thinner, and you just keep getting bigger and bigger!”

What does one say in a moment like this? I cannot remember what I did, but I suspect I laughed it off. On the other hand, I am still telling that story today. My family laughs about it now—about how Melvin’s adult grandson collapsed in laughter behind me in the aftermath, and about how Melvin showed up to church the next Sunday and sheepishly asked my husband if he needed to find a new place to worship—but as I reflect on my ministry, on the ways in which it has been changed by the growth of my family and the confidence that comes from experience, I am reminded that, as a woman who is a pastor, my body presents a particular challenge to those with whom I serve.

I am not alone. We all have stories (or maybe the better term is battle scars) that reveal the ways in which the people with whom we minister have invaded our personal space, have invited themselves into personal decisions about what is appropriate for us and what is not, or have defined the terms for us of what it means to be a minister in a woman’s body. We know what it is like to be told, like one minister, that our clothes are too revealing, without any context or explanation about what “revealing” means. Or to find ourselves on the receiving end of comments and judgments that evaluate our weight, our relationships, even our hairstyles with the same level of concern as the content of our preaching and teaching.

And then there is parenthood. As women who minister, it is inevitable that our personal choices around childbearing will, at some point, become a point of public discussion in the churches where we serve. And because the church as an institution tends to glorify traditional, heteronormative definitions of what it means to parent successfully, our very real lives as women can become a battleground over cultural ideals of parenting, motherhood, childbearing, and the work-family balance.

Amanda was already married and a new mother when she was ordained as a UCC minister. She entered ministry with a strong and healthy sense of identity as a parent, a minister, and a queer woman. But she quickly discovered that even in her progressive UCC congregation, assumptions around her body and parenting were inevitable. And because she is a parent, “there was a level of assumption that I have given birth. And no matter what, the fact that I had children meant that I must be sexually active. People went there. I didn’t expect that.”

For Amanda, being a parent thrust into the public sphere all kinds of assumptions about her health, her marriage, and her body. And, as a queer mother, she found herself working against her congregation’s attempts to “typecast” her. “Because I had a wife, I was put into this sort of ‘dad’ role, so guys around me treated me as one of the guys.” She shared that it caused her to start consciously dressing in a more feminine way at work while also pushing back against the sexualization of her body in the church.

For other young clergywomen, becoming a parent can threaten one’s job security. Bethany shared that, when she found out she was pregnant in her first call, she was immediately informed that it would cost her. “I was told not to expect an allowance for anything. I was to be a mom separately.” Implicit was the assumption that she needed to make a choice—she could either be a good parent, or a good pastor, but she could not be both, at least not at church. “They wanted kids,” she shared, “just not mine. They wanted him, but not with me.”

If there is a common theme in the experience of clergywomen who parent, it seems to be that their identity as a parent becomes a crucial part of how they evaluate the terms of their ministry. For Bethany, her congregation’s negative attitudes towards her identity as a mother ultimately led her to seek out a more supportive pastoral environment.

And she is not alone. When Cordelia became a single parent through adoption, it revealed real prejudices about parenting in her upper-middle class ministry setting. She found that leaders within her church seemed to resent her child. “I was told she was not welcome in worship (even with someone else holding her) or at any event or group where I was working. I was told by one parent that they were paying me to watch their kids, not my own.” In that environment, her identity as a single parent was treated as a problem that she had to solve on her own. At one point, the experience let her to seriously questioning her call to ministry.

Ultimately, Cordelia left her call and chose to focus on her child, who was “the most important thing to me.” That decision—to honor her identity as a parent over a ministry context that viewed parenting as a liability—ultimately gave her the time and space to seek out opportunities for ministry that would honor both identities. Today, she happily serves a small church in a small town, where her child is embraced and her ministry is valued.

The truth is that church folk have a tendency to forget that we are not their family. We are not their children, or their grandchildren either. But the intimacy that is inevitable in ministry tends to blur the lines between what is acceptable and what is not. In unhealthy churches, that boundary-crossing can feel intrusive and toxic to our identity as pastors and as parents. It can lead us to feel that our children are not welcome, that the fullness of who we are is not welcome. In these cases, perhaps the only answer is to walk away.

But in a healthy church setting, one that affirms the ministry of clergywomen in all of its uniqueness and its fullness, this same intimacy can become the life-force that sustains good ministry. In Kathleen’s case, the experience of becoming a mother was incredibly positive. She credited this to the fact that her church had eight members in the congregation who were also pregnant at the same time. For her, becoming a parent while also pastoring her church deepened her sense of intimacy with those around her. She found herself empowered to explore these connections more fully in liturgy, exploring the physically evocative language of Incarnation and the gritty realities of embodiment more explicitly in worship.

Amanda was surprised to discover that when members of her congregation learned that she had not physically birthed her children, some of them treated her as though this meant that she could not understand the female experience of giving birth. But her experiences of parenting without giving birth have enabled her to identify with and minister to women in the queer and trans community who wanted to parent, but weren’t able, or chose not to be pregnant.

At the end of the day, so much of our calling is wrapped up in our experience in the world.  And many of the experiences that are so often marginalized and silenced in an institutional environment are precisely the things that have the potential to make us better pastors. Our experiences have the potential to help us to find common ground with our neighbors in the pews and on the streets who experience oppression, victimization, silencing and policing from the dominant culture that is more interested in silencing opposition than in creating life. We have a unique opportunity as clergywomen to model another way, to break down the barriers that constrain those around us. To use our privilege in the pulpit to advocate for and stand alongside those whose voices are not heard.

Why? Because we know what is at stake. For we have been in the trenches. We bear the physical and spiritual scars on our person. We know how despairing it can feel to be limited, and how freeing it feels to find ourselves fully embraced. When we embrace the fullness of who we are, and enable others to do the same, the church is a stronger, healthier, more welcoming and faithful place.

Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more