green tennis ball bouncing off of a red clay court with the shadow of the net across the court

The Need for Spiritual Agility

green tennis ball bouncing off of a red clay court with the shadow of the net across the court

Spiritual agility is a cluster of grit, emotional intelligence, and practice that allows us to respond to our changing realities with strength, speed, and stability.

My middle school tennis coach used to arrange the balls in a small pile at the center of each half-court on occasion. As soon as we approached the courts, we knew the occasion was agility drill day.

As fast as possible, our little, awkward, middle-school legs would go from corner to center, grab a ball, turn quickly, and place the ball in the corner from whence we came. We tripped a few times, as clumsy middle schoolers are sometimes known for doing, but we concentrated on developing our agility: moving with strength, speed, and stability.

My tennis-playing days are pretty much over, but I pastor a church in the 21st century. Last week I was invited by a Bible Study in my congregation to discuss what it is like to be a woman in ordained ministry. They were concluding a study on Romans and startled to discover that, of the 25 saints Paul calls by name in his most famous epistle, ten were women.

“So, what is it like?” the study leader asked.

Well, here we go. I talked about the “stained glass ceiling” and the “glass cliff.” I referenced studies that about the female clergy pay gap and how women make up more than half of all MDiv graduates yet repeatedly serve in positions in which we piece together part-time work, parenting, domestic responsibilities, and/or are relegated to subordinate roles because the church is used to seeing a young, white man when they picture a minister.

AND… when you see us scramble from zumba class to bible study to committee meeting, and when we scrape a sermon together in the gaps before our kids’ parent-teacher conference and a pastoral care visit, you are seeing a miracle at lightning speed. In the 21st century, it’s not realistic for followers of Jesus to simply walk one way down a winding shepherd’s path. Although we may feel clumsy at times, we are participants in the miracle of true 21st century discipleship, traversing a path that is challenging and rarely predictable. We embody the ability to adjust to changing realities and demands with speed, stability, and strength.

As I blurted out all these thoughts and statistics and stared at this group of disciples around the table, I realized the gift of what it means to be a woman in ministry today. I am glad that the church is entrusting the church to young women again. And I am glad that we sisters in Young Clergy Women International and beyond are giving the church, and the world, the gift of spiritual agility. Read more

I Cannot Do This Alone

The doctor pushed the curtain aside and left to document the conversation in the file, leaving Shon and I to absorb the jagged pill he had just forced us to swallow. “There’s something on the left side of your brain.” How were we supposed to respond to that? No questions came to mind. There were no particular concerns I could voice. I really did not even have any feelings at all, save utter shock. In that moment of revelation I could only stare at my husband and try to imagine the big dark mass lurking underneath his
thick brown hair and perfectly smooth scalp. It had to be a joke.

As I gradually regained my senses, all I could think of was the Epiphany service I was supposed to be leading in a couple of hours. Not long before it had seemed vitally important for me to be there early to set up. Now my mind was trying to figure out how to cancel the whole thing. I picked up the emergency room wall phone and shared the devastating news with Shon’s parents and then mine. One more time, I picked up the phone and called our volunteer choir director, Mickie, and told her the news. Mickie’s response was to walk straight over to the ER—she lives across the street from the hospital—and give us both hugs and assurances. She asked where my notes for the Epiphany service were. I told her. “Don’t worry about a thing, we’ll be fine.” And they were fine, the service went on, not as planned, but as needed, with lots of prayer.

Early on I learned that in order for me to keep my sanity, my job, and my family I had to communicate constantly with all parties. This was before we had a cell phone, so my fingers quickly callused from dialing the ga-zillion numbers required to make a call with a calling card through the hospital network. I kept our Clerk of Session and the Worship Committee Chair up-to-date, and notified the Executive Presbyter. They lined up pulpit supply for the two Sundays following Shon’s surgery.

During the first two years after Shon’s diagnosis, there were relatively few interruptions to my work schedule. He had no follow-up treatments, only MRIs every few months. The biggest lifestyle change involved the seizures. Shon was having about 16 seizures a month that affected every muscle on the right side of his body.

It took us a year and two doctors to finally reduce the severity and the number to around 3 per month. The seizures wore him out and often made him fall. They also made it impossible for him to drive. The Session and congregation allowed me to be flexible with my office schedule so I could take him to appointments, do much of my work from home and be with him on the days when he was especially weak.

The Session supported and encouraged my weekly meetings with a local Clergy Support Group as part of my Continuing Education allowance. All of the other pastors in this small group had several more years of ministry experience than I. I found it immensely helpful not only to vent frustrations and sorrows in their empathizing presence, but also to try out ideas and seek the advice of their collective wisdom. At this same time, I began seeing a counselor who helped and still helps me explore the deeper psychological and spiritual consequences of my experiences.

I look back on this time before the recurrence and think how easy things were then. Certainly they were not easy. But everything is relative; when the tumor came back in 2005, it was bigger, more aggressive, and we had a toddler. Life got exponentially more complicated! Read more