Post Author: Amber Inscore Essick
Most of 2009 is an ugly blur to me, but one weekend in October stands out in my memory. My mother, godmother, and aunt drove up from North Carolina to Kentucky, where I had recently moved, to help me. My husband and I had moved in January for his new position as a seminary professor. I had become a mother, a resident of Kentucky, a seminary graduate, and a stay-at-home mom all in the month of January 2009. As my son turned 9 months old, I had been invited to preach for the first time since arriving in Kentucky on the same weekend my husband would be out of town. I do not feel as though I made the transition from seminary student and hospice chaplain to stay-at-home mom very gracefully. I had all kinds of needs, some of which I didn’t even know. It was obvious to my mother and her two besties that with my husband out of town, someone needed to care for my son while I wrote and delivered my sermon.
They made a road trip of it, and on a Thursday night in October 2009, these three women who were so important to me and to one another arrived at my house: Marjorie (my mom), Nancy (my godmother and the wife of my childhood youth minister), and Cheryl (my aunt and childhood music minister). A trinity of love and spiritual nurture from the days before I was an ordained minister.
It was a wonderful gathering, and I enjoyed their presence in my home, but I had to go out and write. So the three watched my son for several hours while I went to a bakery and typed a sermon on Job. I returned to joyful stories of his activity during my absence and not a hint of guilt over leaving.
The conversation soon turned, and they asked me what I was going to wear on Sunday, which, for a woman who has recently given birth and stays at home during the week, is a loaded question. Not much I had worn before pregnancy was going to fit anytime soon (and, let’s be honest, ever again!). I owned a few articles of clothing that fit, but nothing for the occasion. So, at their suggestion, we planned a Saturday trip to Macy’s.
They took me shopping, they held and entertained the baby, they brought me clothes from all over the store to try on. They helped me. They advised me. They dressed me. There are only a few times in a woman’s life when multiple women are oriented toward her needs, her activity, her work. In my life, the day I chose my wedding dress, my wedding day, and the three days I delivered my three children stand out with this shopping trip as the only days when it took several women working together to consider, advise, and work towards getting something done in my life. Towards birthing something in me.
That evening we assembled an outfit from all our purchases, and then they asked me about jewelry, considering what would show up well from the pulpit, what would look professional, what was my style. All this female talk surrounding a preaching event felt foreign, bordering on inappropriate, to me. In seminary, I was welcomed as an equal in class, in discussion, in work. My gender wasn’t an issue. The line was, “we train all students, male and female, to answer the call of God on their lives.” My seminary education gifted me with a sense of equality, an understanding that I was welcome at the table. And it was great. I found such acceptance at seminary that I truly felt that my gender didn’t matter.
But, as I would discover over the course of the next several years, and as this trio was here to teach me, my gender did and does matter. My gender is a great gift that I bring to the table. A gift that I had yet to explore even as I had completed seminary 8 months pregnant, my gender awkwardly on display in the classroom (and anywhere else I went). I was perfectly comfortable as one of two women in a class of twenty, always regarded with respect, and it was because my gender didn’t matter to them.
It had been comical as pregnancy had worn on, that I would find reasons for the whole class to leave so we could “all” enjoy milkshakes (you know, the pregnant lady wanted milkshakes), or that after sitting on the floor for group work in a class with stadium seating, I would need help back up, since my petite frame was carrying a watermelon. My pregnancy was funny to us all, but pregnancy wasn’t explored as a gift for ministry, an image for the life of a minister, a metaphor for the gestation and birthing of sermons. We weren’t there yet as a group of students. We were yet unable to comprehend how my gender mattered deeply to the life of the church.
That weekend, in my living room, my godmother, Nancy, persisted in helping me choose jewelry, and her persistence worked on me in mysterious ways. Despite my discomfort with her emphasis on my femininity as a natural part of the preaching event, she and the others were helping me to give birth to something. They were my midwives, maybe not to that particular sermon that Sunday, but to my ministry as a woman.
They were there to show me how it mattered that I was a woman. My aunt Cheryl had been my music minister for as long as I can remember. She had been through pregnancy as a minister, pregnancy loss, breast cancer, and various other issues faced by women. Had I understood in the days we spent together that weekend all the ways in which gender mattered to ministry, the ways it gifts the church and world and illustrates all kinds of divine mysteries, I would have sat at the feet of these three women to learn more in that moment. But that weekend, we were all focused on this preaching event. I was focused on a sermon on Job. The trinity focused on my child, my appearance, and my other needs. I delivered the sermon, they supported me, and even more importantly, they cared for and loved my son for the three days of their visit. They helped me because it was a given to my mom and her friends that a woman needs support in this way in order to get something done.
In ways that I’m still working through, my gender matters in ministry. The experiences inherent to women matter as they speak to what it means to be human. My attending to gender is a gift I give to the church that I pastor, a gift I give to the greater church and the world. This trinity of women, during their visit, planted some understanding of this alongside my call to pastoral ministry. Thanks to them, I continue to discover and live out of the ways in which being a woman and a minister matter.
Amber Inscore Essick and her husband John co-pastor Port Royal Baptist Church, a rural congregation along the Kentucky River. Her three children, Olin, Leif, and Wren, ensure that there is no shortage of questions, laughter, singing, or shenanigans in and around the church.
Image by: Amber Inscore Essick
Used with permission