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silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

She Is Someone

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

“How’s your hubby?”

“Where is your husband?”

“What’s your fella up to?”

“You should have brought your husband today!”

I am new clergy, recently graduated from seminary, and four months into my first call as an associate pastor. The questions above are what I am asked every single Sunday and frequently when I encounter congregants through the week. Often, they ask this question without even saying hello to me first or asking how I am doing. In fact, one Sunday I had a woman physically grab my arm as I was walking by in the fellowship hall to stop me and ask, “Where is your husband?” I pointed to him at the food table where he was filling a plate. “Oh! I didn’t see him!” she replied and then walked away from me without another word. She didn’t even approach him to say hello. Why was it so important that she knew where he was, where she could physically lay eyes on him? He doesn’t come every Sunday, and he doesn’t have to. He has his own business to tend to on Sunday mornings.

As independent people, he and I have separate plans. I tried to gently explain this in our monthly newsletter saying, “My husband and I are pretty independent people, so don’t be worried or surprised if you don’t see him in worship all the time!” (With an exclamation mark added so that it didn’t come off as threatening.)  But I am not sure the message has gotten across.

I know that what I do as a pastor is appreciated. There have been encouragement and compliments about my sermons, my teaching in Sunday school, and the prayers I write for the liturgy. I just know that with a compliment comes the questions about my husband. While I know these questions are well-meaning, as this church is trying to get to know me and be invested in my life, it can be hurtful and frustrating. Why is my husband’s well-being of more concern to some people than my own? My husband has been and continues to be an incredible support to me, but we aren’t a package deal. We’re not a two-for-one special. Why am I not enough? Read more

Spring Pruning: A Sermon on John 15:1-8

pruning shears

I got pruned the other day. There were some dead, unfruitful, suffocating branches that had grown up out of me, making me ugly and overgrown. And God came over to me with some big sharp clippers and pruned those dead branches right off and threw those useless pieces into the fire and burned them to ashes.

My pruning happened on a retreat I went to a few weeks ago, led by a woman named Tilda Norberg. At one point, Tilda asked us to do something called “Speaking Truth to Lies.” And she asked us to write down two or three lies about ourselves that we needed to get rid of. Not ridiculous lies like: “My hair is blonde” or “I’m a professional body builder.”

But the kind of lies we tell ourselves—lies that we know in our head are not true, but that our hearts hang onto.

If I give you some examples, I think you’ll recall some of these kinds of lies knocking around in your heart at some point.

“If I weigh more than 120 lbs, no one will find me attractive.”

Or this one: “Because I have cancer or because I can no longer move the way I used to, I will never be whole or well again.”

Or this: “I don’t have a problem with drugs or alcohol.”

Or this: “If I weren’t so needy or noisy or nosy, the abuse would stop.”

Lies that we live our lives by. Lies that we die little deaths by. These are the kinds of lies Tilda asked us to write down. Read more

The Crown and the Collar

The Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom

The Imperial State Crown

“Elizabeth Mountbatten has been replaced by Elizabeth Regina, and the two Elizabeths will often be in conflict,” Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) tells the new sovereign in a remarkably un-comforting letter of condolence, “But the fact is, the Crown must win. The Crown must always win.”

“The Crown,” Netflix’ big-budget series examining the life and reign of Elizabeth the Second (Claire Foy), is a lavish production. The choice of title is significant: it’s a work about Elizabeth as she grows into – or kicks against – the weight of “the Crown.” For me, the series comes most alive in the moments where Elizabeth is struggling to work out how to be herself, and what that self is becoming, under the influence of her new role. There’s a striking moment in episode five, as Elizabeth prepares for her delayed coronation, where she tries the crown on for the first time, and looks at herself in the mirror. Foy’s expression reminded me strongly of my own, the first time I tried a clerical collar on. The director’s shot choices keep us conscious of the fact that Elizabeth is a slight young woman – wearing the crown, keeping the orb and sceptre steady during her coronation, is a physical effort for her, and that too may resonate for clergywomen serving churches with a tradition of vesting. At least Elizabeth doesn’t have to contend with a chasuble that’s long enough to trip her!

The central conflict, between one’s integrity as an individual, and the demands of the role one is placed in, is relevant to all of us in ministry. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Respect My Authority Edition

6623349239_1137ff3ec7_zDear Askie,

When I was ordained and installed as Associate Pastor of a wonderful UCC congregation, I thought I had arrived – that I had finally become a “real” pastor. But months later, I still find myself trying to get people to accept my role. I had expected that this would be a challenge with cold callers, visitors, vendors, community contacts, and so on… but I hadn’t expected it from my own congregants! I think part of the problem is that I did an internship here when I was in seminary, so they first knew me as a student. But I’ve been here for a year now, and I still get all kinds of comments like “So, do you want to be a pastor someday?” or “This is so-and-so, she’s kind of like a pastor here.” Apparently even the other staff members don’t get it. One staff member actually corrected someone who referred to me as a pastor, saying “Oh, she’s working on it, but she’s definitely not a pastor. Maybe someday, though!” This is extra-frustrating, since he was at my ordination ceremony, so he really ought to realize I’m a pastor now! Askie, I don’t want to be full of myself, but I worked hard for this title and I’m tired of people thinking I’m still a student or intern. How can I get them to understand that I’m an ordained minister now? Or should I just stop worrying about it?

Frustratedly yours,
Rev. Already

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Still the Single Rev

5935864125_f8ae383332_bI was 25 when I graduated from seminary and was ordained. My first position was as a chaplain at a small college, where I was routinely mistaken for a student. To me, the four years between my own undergraduate studies and my chaplaincy work represented an enormous gap in both age and experience. But to the students, staff, and faculty around me, the difference was invisible. It rankled when students hit on me, and even more when faculty dismissed me. Realistically, I realize now, the age difference between the students and me was practically non-existent; one of the students in the introductory theology course I taught was older than I was.

During the first several years of my full-time ministry, it seemed like someone was always telling me I was young. Read more

The Power of Plastic

OnesWeLoveImageAugust

That Little Piece of Plastic

I remember the moment vividly. I sat across from my Koine Greek professor, the woman with wild red hair and a penchant for saying, “Okie dokie, Smokie!” Her dark-rimmed glasses slipped down on her nose as she leaned in toward me. “You’re a petite, young-looking woman. How will you claim pastoral authority?”

Now, perhaps I should be clear that this question didn’t come to me in the midst of parsing participles. I was halfway through my seminary education, going through what my seminary termed a “Midterm Assessment,” geared at seeing whether we pastors-to-be were on the right track in our spiritual and academic formation for that role. I don’t know if other seminaries do this, but for me, it felt a bit like going before a theological firing squad of beloved, but intimidating as hell, professors. In the face of that bespectacled, steely gaze and blunt question, I responded as best I could.

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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Solo-to-Senior Edition

Dear Askie,
Help! After serving for years as a solo pastor, I’ve been called to a senior pastorate, at a church with an associate pastor (she is, as it happens, a somewhat-younger-than-me clergy woman). Yay! I’m excited about the possibilities this new call holds, but a bit concerned about working with an associate pastor for the first time. I’ve supervised staff in my previous churches, but never had a colleague in pastoral ministry. And I’ve heard so many stories about terrible senior pastors who make the associate pastor’s life miserable, I don’t want to mess this up! What do I do?
Apprehensively,
Rookie HOS

medium_6726325417Dear Rookie,
Simply asking this question is a great first step! I’d be willing to bet that the terrible heads of staff you’ve heard stories about approach their supervisory roles with much less circumspection.
Have you worked with any heads of staff you held in high esteem? Maybe you had a wonderful supervisor in a seminary internship? Or was there a wise senior pastor colleague in a local ministerial association at a previous position? Askie can offer some general rules and guidelines, but the senior-associate relationship is very much a matter of individual personalities and styles, so do try to have some conversations with trusted advisors who know you and your leadership style as you continue to step into this new role.
Also, have you had much of a chance to get to know the associate pastor yet? I hope that your new congregation made sure that the two of you spent time with each other during the interview process (lay leaders, take note). If not, you’ve got a phone call to make! As the two of you get to know each other, make sure to have some conversations about your respective personalities, gifts, growing edges, work habits, and conflict styles. If she’s been there much longer than you, she has key information about your new congregation and its culture, so use her as a resource.
A lot of specifics depend on your respective roles, and on your congregation and its polity – is the associate pastor a generalist, or does she specialize in certain areas? Are you supposed to be her supervisor, or do you both report to a personnel committee or judicatory body? Regardless, here are a few guidelines that hold true in a wide variety of settings:
Treat her as a pastor and a colleague, and make sure your congregation sees her that way too! Great senior pastors empower their associate pastors to do ministry. Make sure that she is seen presiding at the communion table and the baptismal font, at weddings and at funerals. Give her opportunities to preach, and not just on Labor Day and “low Sunday,” when the church is empty anyway. Leave her truly in charge on your vacation and your day off. Speak affirmingly of her ministry, and refer to her as “one of the pastors,” not as “my associate” or (heaven forfend) “my assistant.”
Give credit where credit is due. As the senior pastor, you have the challenge and blessing of crafting a vision for your congregation. When things go poorly, you will be blamed; when they go well, you will hopefully be lauded. When something goes well that was actually the associate pastor’s doing, remember to give her credit! (Extra bonus HOS points if, when she messes up, you can help her to save face.)
Don’t micromanage, but do stay connected. Give her space to take ownership of her areas of ministry, but don’t let the fear of micromanaging keep you from checking in and asking questions. Each of your ministries will be stronger if you’re in regular communication. Ideally, you’ll be able to build a mutually supportive, collaborative relationship, but regardless, you each need to have a general sense of what the other one is up to. Set up a standing weekly meeting, if possible, or drop by her office on a regular basis (but don’t expect her to be at your beck and call).
We’ve all heard horror stories of overbearing, authoritative, patronizing heads of staff, and none of us wants to repeat their mistakes. Remember, though, that we young clergy women tend to be more likely to err on the side of being too easy-going, too non-confrontational, too meek. You’ve been called to lead, sister, so don’t be afraid to claim your authority when necessary – to graciously and compassionately hold people accountable, offer vision and direction, and give feedback, in your relationship with the associate pastor and elsewhere. It’s your role, your job, and your calling, so claim it with humility, but without apology.
Blessings to you, your new congregation, and the associate pastor as you begin your ministry together!
Askie