I am the baby of my family. My sister was sixteen years old when I was born. We never attended the same schools or shared the clothes in our closets. In fact, most of my memories of my sister growing up are around holidays, when she was home from college. As I grew older we were close, but the age difference meant it was a different relationship than my friends had with sisters closer in age. I went away to college and she had a baby. We talked on the phone, sent cards and saw each other at family events, but our busy lives sent us off on our own journeys.
I graduated from college, unsure of where God was calling me. My journey led me to serve two years as a missionary for the United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. I then returned to California, to work in the non-profit world, I thought. Meanwhile my sister was a mother, a teacher, a wife and also seeking what was next in her life. The answer came as a call to ministry, beginning seminary part time. I journeyed on as a youth director, an active layperson and an executive assistant in the private sector. I too was seeking, and finally answered my call to ministry. I began seminary in the fall of 2002, five years after my sister did, at the same seminary as a full-time student. My sister was still in seminary, taking the long route, one or two classes a semester.
It is here that our story as sisters in ministry together begins.
I took the more traditional route in seminary. I moved into student housing, took a full load of classes and joined in campus activities. I spent time in the library, the dining hall and socializing with my neighbors. It was a typical experience, except that my sister arrived once a week to sleep on my couch and attend her classes.
There are advantages to attending seminary with your sister. Among them: the savings in textbooks. I rarely had to buy a textbook for general classes, my sister already owned them and was willing to share. She also knew the teachers. She could tell me who to avoid and whose class I didn’t want to miss. She also knew that scrod night in the dining hall was to be avoided, and that a done paper is a good paper.
Between classes and studying, our relationship changed. We got what so rarely happens, it seems, in familial relationships: the opportunity to recreate our relationship and become friends, instead of just sisters. There were late night conversations. Dinners out when the dining hall could not be stood any longer (when the menu says “scrod” it’s time for sushi!). Reading each other’s papers and impromptu parties with the neighbors.
There were many times when we realized that we were still sisters. In my second year and my sister’s final semester, we took the same preaching class. I walked into class one day and discovered my sister wearing my sweater, something that had never happened before. Finally I could yell at her for getting into my closet – not that I did! There were also times that we were able to see the imprint of our parents in each other. It became a game to point out to each other that we were acting like our mom or dad.
My sister’s graduation ended our weekly slumber parties, but the relationship that was built in those years has been a gift as we have entered full-time ministry. Each of us has faced the ups and downs of ministry, with the added support of a sister who understands and might just have a suggestion that will help.
Most recently, when the pressures of the institutional church have felt too heavy to bear, I have a sister who understands me and what I am experiencing. When my recent interview with our Board of Ordained Ministry did not go as expected, I knew that my sister would understand. Still holding back tears, walking toward the parking lot, it was my sister I called first. It was my sister who talked me though the initial tears in that church parking lot. Without having to explain the whole ordination process, she knew what the interview meant. The disappointment, anger, and hurt that I was feeling was met with genuine care and sympathy. She also didn’t question the call she had as a sister to be physically present with me, driving two hours to be with me that night, and she continues to call to check in.
Having a sister also serving in a local church means that when a parishioner dumps on me, my sister knows what it feels like. When ministry comes together and the gospel comes alive in the lives of those we serve, my sister knows the high. I can check with my sister when I’m stuck on a sermon and she understands the pain of writing the monthly newsletter article. She can also tell me if a worship idea might work or if it is time to go back to the drawing board. My sister understands why Sunday afternoons are nap time and completely gets why I can’t be at her house for Christmas Eve. Often the phone conversations slip from church to family and back to church again with little interruption, there is no need to explain.