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When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. 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

The Bricks and Mortar of Family

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA) in Oconomowoc, WI

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA), Oconomowoc, WI

I have seen various versions of this meme going around Facebook, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, I generally just glanced past the posts without much thought. That is, until a friend posted this one. This one hit me differently.

When I look at this image, I am instantly transported into that building. Many of my earliest memories are of that place – hearing the story of how I took my first steps in that kitchen with its yellow flecked linoleum floor and countertops, anxiously awaiting the Sunday School year when I would finally be in the coveted room that had the huge rainbow mural on one wall, crawling around on the shuffleboard-covered floor to pick up the yarn scraps left by the quilting ladies, sitting four pews from the front on the pulpit side and looking at the sky blue dome behind the altar, practicing the phone number (which I knew before my home phone number) for the rare times I was home alone so that I had a way to contact my mom–a key volunteer before she became a staff member. This building was just as much my home as the house I lived in. Read more

cross in front of a sunburst

Enough.

As U.S. Navy Chaplains, we have the privilege of serving Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsman, and their families in every clime, place, and context. It is a humbling honor to stand with and for those who defend the Constitution of the United States. Our “ministry of presence” occurs aboard ships, cutters, and submarines; with expeditionary, construction, and amphibious battalions; ranging over air, sea, and shore commands worldwide. We live among our people, we deploy with them, and we preach and pray in some of the most interesting of circumstances.

cross in front of a sunburst

In the Shadow of the Cross

This chaplaincy is unique in the uniforms we wear and the places we go; however, there are a myriad of similarities with any parish or institutional ministry. We provide rituals and rites of our faith group according to our denominational guidelines, we counsel and facilitate religious practice for every service and family member of all faiths, we advise the chain of command, and we are subject matter experts on human care. The following reflection is based on an amalgamation of days and circumstances and reflects a typical spiritual and emotional experience for me as I continue to discover that My Job is really not at all about me. Read more

The author and her husband

Spiritual Safety

The author and her husband

The author and her husband

Wardrobe choices. That’s what my husband and I were fighting about that evening. It was like an episode of “What Not To Wear” was playing in front of our closet.

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Permission to Hear the Call

7986847327_c4d79a6ec5_kWhen I was applying to Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the questions on the application asked the name of the church that was supporting me. I remember writing down the name of my Roman Catholic Church and adding, in small letters, “This is the church where I attend. They do not support me for ordination.” I was applying to Princeton because that was where my favorite college professor attended. He was the person who kindled my passion for Biblical studies. I decided that if this school would produce someone like him, it must be a pretty good place. He wrote me a recommendation, as did another college religion professor, my political science advisor, and the Lutheran campus minister. They were all men, and all but one of them were pastors. I had never known a female pastor and would not get to know one until my first year at seminary.

All of these male pastors, two of whom were my professors, were inspirations to me. I was mesmerized by their intelligence and moved by their compassion. They carefully encouraged me without ever recommending that I leave the Roman Catholic Church. I do not recall them ever mentioning seminary to me, and if they had, I certainly would not have taken them seriously. I was Roman Catholic. Not only that, I was a proud Roman Catholic. This is not to say that I approved of all the things that the Roman Catholic Church stood for, but I still believed that was where I belonged.

Read more

The Jesus Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Young Clergy Woman

Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer. –Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Opening Credits

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

At first glance, the life of a the Slayer is pretty different from the life of a young clergy woman. The Slayer is in high school, for one thing, while we have graduate degrees. She fights vampires and demons, we lead Bible studies, write sermons, visit shut-ins and attend committee meetings. And while the cross is central to Buffy’s life and to ours, the cross she wears on a silver chain around her neck serves purely as a talisman; it has nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with its function as a weapon against vampires and their ilk.

There’s something about Buffy and her –verse, though, that rings true to this calling as a young clergy woman. There’s some reason (beyond simple escapism) that I keep coming back to this story and these characters. When I feel helpless and ineffectual, overwhelmed and heartbroken by the needs I can’t meet and the problems I can’t solve, I find strength and comfort in Buffy. When I am frustrated and enervated by lengthy meetings that have accomplished nothing in particular, when I am filled with despair that the institution through which I intend to serve God is becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch, I find inspiration in Buffy. When I feel the loneliness of holding in confidence the heavy burdens others have shared with me, when I can speak to no one of the holy moments that have left me teary and trembling, I find companionship in Buffy.

Buffy taught me about what it means to have a calling. In the opening episodes of the series, we see Buffy resisting her call. The television series begins with Buffy relocating to a new town and starting a new school, hoping to turn over a new leaf and escape the supernatural happenings that plagued her previous life. As soon as she enters the school library, she is greeted with a dusty volume of demon lore and a new Watcher (mentor) eager to hone her evil-fighting skills. Like the reluctant prophet Jonah, Buffy longs to escape an inescapable call. Her Slayer identity can’t be escaped; she cannot remove it, flee from it, or ignore it. Like many young clergy women, she wishes she could choose an easier and more normal life. Like many of us, she finds that her calling has chosen her, but that she can choose how best to live into that calling.

As Buffy embraces her identity as the Slayer, we see that a calling by itself is powerful, but not always sufficient. As the Slayer, Buffy has natural gifts and abilities, but she becomes more capable as she hones her skills through study, training, practice, and mentorship. So it is with a calling to ministry: we hear the call, we find in ourselves the natural gifts that will help us to serve the church, but that isn’t the end. We have to steward those gifts carefully, building them up through ongoing education and collegial relationships, nurturing them through prayer and self-reflection.

As Buffy grows into her calling, it changes her in ways we young clergy women might recognize. We see how saving the world every week builds her confidence. We see how constantly confronting evil, death, and pain burdens her with more than her share of sorrow. We see her growing hubris as she discovers the power and the responsibility of her calling as “one girl in all the world” who can do what she can do.

But she can’t do it alone, despite what she might sometimes think. For all its rhetoric about “only one Slayer,” it is telling that Buffy is an ensemble show. Buffy’s calling is unique, certainly, but she needs all kinds of support in her work as the Slayer. She turns to her friends and mentors for research and logistical support, for encouragement and advice, for comfort and for laughter, and to check her ego. Her calling is unique, but that doesn’t mean she’s called to be a “lone wolf.” She—like of all of us—needs a community in order to do her work well and faithfully.

I first encountered Buffy as I was discerning my call to ministry and preparing to apply to seminary. I count it as God’s grace that this story found me at that moment, offering images of another young woman finding her way on an unusual path. As Buffy resisted and accepted her call, grew into her role, learned to be both Slayer and daughter, sister, friend, she modeled for me how I might start to live into the call I felt in my own life. She, too, walked a path that the world thought was not appropriate for a young woman, and she walked it for some of the reasons that I did, and with some of the same wonder and trepidation. We have our differences, of course: Buffy’s job is to save the world; I believe that the world has been saved, and not by me. But ever since those early days of discernment, Buffy has been one of my companions on this sometimes-lonely road. This story has continued to nourish me, to teach me about vocation, about sin and evil, about repentance and reconciliation, about grief, and so much more.

The first time I watched the series ending, I was less than impressed. [SPOILER-ISH WARNING] In that final episode, Buffy finds a way to share her power, to stop being “one girl in all the world,” and to instead become one Slayer among a great multitude of Slayers. I was initially disappointed at Buffy’s loss of uniqueness. Her calling seemed somehow diminished because it was no longer hers alone. But as I’ve grown into my vocation, refining my own understanding of what it means to be an ordained minister, my perspective has shifted. Now, when I watch that last episode, I see echoes of the verse that has become my own mission statement as a pastor:

“Equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” -Ephesians 4:12-13

Telling the Old, Old Story

“Preparations were carefully made. All the people who expected to participate were very sure that their feet were already clean and had nice new hose.  White sheets were hung up separating the men from the women. A pan of water was provided for each group and two long towels.  Then one after another looped the towel about his waist, washed another’s feet and dried them with the towel until all had been washed.  It was a very solemn occasion, one felt very humble and I have seen the tears streaming down their faces as their feet were being washed.  They were thinking of the time the Savior washed his disciples’ feet. “~ From Big Sunday at Friendship Baptist Church, Ola Shields Deckard

 I have a binder; an old black one I pack away carefully in a crate filled with my journals as well as folders of papers I read only when I need a shot of self-confidence.  Every so often I pull the black binder out and leaf through it carefully as though turning pages might cause the papers to crumble.  The pages, type-written years ago on a word processor before computers were prevalent or affordable and rough with perforations from the dot matrix printer, carry the memories in story and poems of my maternal great-grandmother, Ola Shields Deckard.  A school teacher and farmer’s wife, Ola raised 6 children, the second-youngest of which was my grandmother.

She passed before I was born of course, but the binder is filled with her recollections of childhood, of raising her family, of travel and of church.  I’m not sure how old I was when I first read these pages, but I have carried them through four states and six different residences and they never fail to make me a bit teary.  They communicate not merely a sense of family history, but also a sense of scripture, as though somehow infused with holiness and speaking revelation.  The stories aren’t great masterpieces but they are vivid nonetheless, relating image and smell and texture and feeling in ways that ring true and broaden understanding.  Ola’s writings invite me into her world and, in turn, to see mine with her eyes.

At extended family gatherings, one only has to bring up her name to spend the next few hours listening to her grand and great-grand children share their own memories and contest each others’ versions of events or portrayals of her character.  For many she was harsh and intimidating, living in the second half of the 20th century but adhering to traditions and attitudes of the first.  My aunt, everyone agrees, was the favorite, somehow turning the strict schoolmarm into an indulgent granny.

 

It is here, in the midst of these stories that I learned to see the world in story form.

 

For better or worse I’m a story-teller, interpreting the world around me with a very particular type of structure, looking always for the narrator’s biases, for how the tale builds and falls. From sitting quietly listening to family stories, I understood before I could really articulate it that no one narrative is ever complete, that each narrator has a perspective and a purpose.  Ola writes about her father attending church regularly but deciding year after year to resist affirming his faith.  Eventually, he admits that while “the church can get along without me, I can’t do without the church any longer” and Ola believes that “no doubt there was rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one sinner coming home.”

It makes me wonder how the story would change if told by her father. Is it stage fright that keeps him from publicly declaring his faith that way? Did he simply believe that his faith did not need testimonial, that his life spoke his commitment? Or did he harbor questions and doubts that made him feel somehow unfit to call himself a Christian?  I read Ola’s description of a creek-side baptism service and wonder what it looks like through the eyes of the newly baptized or those waiting on the shore to go next.  How does the preacher feel, out there in the center with his arm around the man’s back, his hands clasped to his chest, guiding him below the waters and raising him to new life?

Through this I know the questions and fears many people harbor, the uncertainty and suspicion with which the church can be viewed.  I know that all of those things lie within me as well.  And because I know that my grandmother began attending First Christian Church because she wanted to be married in the biggest (and most beautiful, she thought) church in town, I know that it is not only community and security that motivates people to join churches, but also sometimes a self-serving agenda.

In the end, Ola’s stories strike me as scriptural because they reflect and bear witness to the true nature of the Biblical text as well.  The scope of scripture reveals the myriad narratives of humanity’s relationship to the Divine, to that which feels bigger than ourselves and manifests differently in different times and to different people.  This is how, and why, I fell in love with God’s grand story and why I keep trying to tell it again and again with a multitude of voices — one of which I know is Ola’s.

“Make up a story…
For our sake and yours forget your name in the street;
tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.
Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear.
Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
– Toni Morrison

What Are You Doing In The New Year…?

In 1947, Frank Loesser penned a song that has been performed by numerous recording artists and heard by millions: “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”.  To paraphrase those famous lyrics:

Maybe it’s much too early in the game; 
Ah, but I thought I’d ask you just the same: 
What are you doing next summer 
July 7-10, 2014?

July CalendarOk. I admit that I won’t be winning any awards for lyric-writing genius anytime soon. But, the question remains: Where are you going to be July 7-10, 2014?  Hopefully, the answer to this quandary is “Minneapolis, Minnesota”, because we want to see you attending next summer’s TYCWP Conference: Out of the Deep: Pastoring in Creative Space!

As religious leaders, it can sometimes feel as though we are wading in the waters of chaos when it comes to trying to discover God’s call and God’s will for us – as well as for the communities we serve. What is God calling us to do? Where is God leading our faith communities? How can we recognize God’s hopes and dreams for us? Drawing on her passion and experience, Ruth Harvey will be our guide as we explore the practice of discernment in a variety of spiritual traditions.

Originally from Scotland, our conference speaker, Ruth Harvey, now lives in Cumbria, NW England with her family. She belongs to three different traditions, serving as a member of the Iona Community, an Elder in her local Quaker Meeting, and as a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister. Ruth works for Place for Hope, an agency of the churches in Scotland developing skills for conflict transformation in church and community. She also works for Churches Together in Cumbria, developing ecumenical relations across the nine member churches in that part of England. A gifted writer and editor, Ruth has had prayers and poems published in Wild Goose Publications. The three books she has edited have explored themes of spirituality, prayer, and the wisdom of children.

Collective discernment models, community conversations about tough issues, and conflict transformation tools can be utilized in every ministry context, helping us to be better equipped to pastor in the creative spaces God calls us to serve. With Ruth’s help, we will consider (and, perhaps, experience) “waiting on God” as it is experienced in a Quaker Meeting for Worship. We may also look at the contrast between “membership” and “discipleship”, discovering how these two concepts can draw us closer together as the true Body of Christ. Together, we will discover creative resources to support and encourage us as we seek to live out our ministries.

The 2014 Young Clergy Women Project Conference will be held at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota from Monday, July 7 to Thursday, July 10. Housing is available with special conference rates at the nearby Millennium Hotel. Registration for the Conference opens on January 15, 2014. And it pays to register early – the fee is $140 for the first 40 registrants and $160 after the first 40 registrants.

What are you doing July 7-10, 2014? We hope that your answer involves your attending the 2014 TYCWP Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota: Out of the Deep: Pastoring in Creative Space!

Job Hunting for the Two Career Couple: When the Right Call Is Not the Church

fargoneI sat on the bed, listening to the shower. At my feet there was a massive pile of laundry, mostly my husband’s clothes. He was packing a large suitcase and moving to the East coast for a job. For the second time in 12 months, we were going to be separated.

When we first met, we were graduate students. In our blind optimism, we assumed that we would work hard, get good grades, and find work anywhere. We had no idea that the Great Recession was months away from crashing down upon us, and we had no inkling that a prestigious, demanding school which is well-recognized in the East would carry zero weight in the West. He graduated with distinction in Connecticut. Two years later, his job hunt has been fruitless in Oregon. In desperation, he accepted a position in Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, and we separated for the first time a little over a year ago.

A two career couple has been a very difficult thing in ministry. I find it has been a constant dance of discernment, opportunity, and choice. On one hand, I love that he has different, non-church work. He keeps me real. Sometimes I wish that he was a nurse or a dentist or some other highly transportable profession, but the reality is that he is gifted with artifacts. But one of us (me) believes that God is in charge of my career path. And it was dawning on me that Oregon, the beautiful breezy place where I thought we had found our dream, left him with a choice between living  here and taking a job cleaning out dog kennels, or living apart and having a professional job. I couldn’t ask my spouse to make that sacrifice. But I also couldn’t believe that God would bring two people together, only to split them up. How could God ask that, even of a priest?

There have been ways to cope. We prioritized face-to-face communication. We Skype every night and have “happy hour dates”. (We each make a drink and call each other.) We text constantly – his early morning messages arrive while I sleep.  But we spent Thanksgiving apart, he eating oysters with his brother in Maryland, me sharing stuffing with a coworker in Eugene. Every night, we sleep alone. I snuggle his pillow and negotiate space with his cats, who spent last week sulking in his closet, buried under the clothes he left behind. We used an app called Couple to share secrets.

Unbidden, negative emotions have roiled. I became jealous that he could spend Sundays watching football on his best friend’s couch, knowing I would come home to a dirty cat box and a cold kitchen after a grueling day. I panicked when I couldn’t reach him, so we decided to install “Find My Friends” app which we call “iPhone Stalker” so we can tell if the non-answering person is on the road. He gets frustrated when I email a dozen articles overnight during my frequent insomnia bouts. Trash talking via text message leads to fast misunderstandings when he threatens to pick up Tom Brady as his fantasy quarterback against my strident objections. Sometimes, it feels like we spend most of our time apologizing to each other.

Good friends saved my bacon. Time after time, friends talked me off my ledge when I had convinced myself it was the end.  They shared so many stories of breakups, separations, reconciliations. They told me of the bruises in their own loves, and reminded me to see the best in my spouse. Friends convinced me to see a counselor at my lowest point.

Deciding whether love or career won out was agony. As a priest, my life is so public. Parishioners worried, knowing he was gone. Why had such a happy couple split up? One person suggested that, since we had no children, a divorce would be easy. What kind of couple would choose to live apart? I can point to Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband Mark Kelly, or to military couples, but the reality is that those couples have resources and innate support systems than I did.  We honestly questioned: was this really the end? Did God call me here to show me that my calling as a priest was more important than any relationship out there – spouse, family, friends? For one horrible week, we talked about divorce.

I loved my job, my people, my town. I thought this was my dream. Yet the dream hadn’t accounted for distance from family and friends. I missed major East Coast milestones. My dream was killing my spouse’s spirit. I couldn’t bear to disappoint or hurt anyone – I imagined waves of anger and disappointment flooding towards me no matter what.

The reality is that church work is tight. The reality is that it’s difficult for women. Changing jobs can be a political dance. Was it the right time to leave? Would it be a bad career move?  Would a future church look down on my moving? Could I take the time to seek a job I truly felt called to, or should I just choose the first option that would bring me back? Logically, I knew we weren’t alone. During this year, at least five other couples in my circle of friends moved away from our small town. Who was being the selfish one in our little twosome – him for taking fellowship offers, or me for sitting on our deck looking out over the rolling hills and not wanting to move? Was I just paralyzed by fear of disappointing people?

Finally, the financial stress was unbelievable. We have always been a fairly frugal couple. But after years of grad school, then a major car repair, then a year of unemployment, followed by another car crisis, my once-healthy emergency fund was screaming for relief. We needed more money, money that wasn’t going to be found in my paralysis.

Making the choice to leave the parish has been the hardest one I have ever made. How could I get so involved in people’s lives, only to leave when my own got tough? People were in love; I wanted to watch them get married. People were pregnant with babies or waiting for adoption matches; I wanted to be there when the babies were baptized. We were getting ready to remodel our kitchen and parish hall; I wanted to walk the new labyrinth and sit in the center.

At the end of the day, I hadn’t actually taken vows to the parish, yet I was treating it as though it had more claim on my love and care than the actual husband. We had always said that the place that was right for one of us was the place that was right for both of us. My heart broke as I finally admitted my parish wasn’t it.

After I dropped him off at the airport and returned home, I opened up the Transition Ministry Newsletters and began emailing my information to open churches. For the sake of love, it was time to leave.