Dear Clergy: A Letter for November

My dear, weary, fierce colleagues in ministry,

It’s been a year, hasn’t it? None of us knew going in to 2020 what would come; none of us expected to spend the majority of the year figuring out how to minister to and with people we couldn’t be within an arm’s reach of. And yet, here we are.

photo taken by the author at a clergy retreat in 2019

Let’s recap, shall we? We ended Lent during stay-at-home orders and celebrated Easter in parking lots and dining room tables. We canceled VBS, camps, and mission trips. We figured out cameras and live streaming and answered questions we never even knew we needed to ask. We learned Zoom and taught it to our congregations. Then taught it again. Then trouble-shot it. We switched platforms, software, hardware, and techniques, using skills that we never learned in seminary. We planned sermon series to speak to our trauma and danger; we found new ways to distribute food and serve our communities. We have planned and started over and planned some more; we have figured out how to administer communion in ways that are theologically and physically sound; we have presided over weddings and funerals over cameras and screens. We have held relationships together that are strained because of a contentious election; we have risked and weighed when, how, and how much to speak prophetically. We provided care over phone calls and texts instead of hospital beds and coffee tables. We have cried and prayed, wondered and doubted… all while trying to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our congregations healthy.

Whew. That list isn’t even exhaustive.

And yet. AND YET. Every step of the way, pastors made it happen. Surrounded and upheld by the Spirit, we served God’s beloved. You served God’s beloved.

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Update to YCWI Membership Policy

Young Clergy Women International has been, since its beginning in 2007, an organization for the professional development and care for the youngest of clergy women. Eleven years later, our commitment to the community of women under the age of forty who serve as clergy continues.

YCWI exists to equip young women with spiritual and practical tools for ministry, to collaborate with one another both online and in person, and to transform young clergy women so that our ministry can transform the Church and the world.

The Board of YCWI has made it a top priority for this organization to be a place where clergy women of increasing diversity can find a supportive professional community. We have recognized that our qualifications for membership around the definition of “clergy” were framed from a predominantly American, protestant, mainline, white context. While this particular definition of clergy served us well in the past, it has become a hindrance to the ever increasing demographic of women around the world who serve as clergy, particularly to our colleagues of color and those from contexts outside of North America.

Therefore, as of September 1, 2018, YCWI’s new membership policy is as follows:

Membership in Young Clergy Women International is open to those who meet the following requirements:

  • Young
    • Our membership is open only to those who have not reached their 40th birthday.
  • Clergy
    • Christian clergy are individuals whose self-identified gifts for ministry have been affirmed, supported, and lifted up by a community of faith, such that the term “clergy” is a meaningful and appropriate term for their role in their particular tradition, and who can provide documentation/endorsement of such support.
    • Women who are not accountable to a faith community, an institution, or a higher governing body (such as a denomination), are not eligible for membership.
    • Women who are serving as lay pastors, temporary ministers, student ministers, or interns are not eligible for membership, unless they fall under the exception categories.
    • Advanced theological education or training is typical, but not required.
    • Exceptional Membership may be applied for by those who are serving within a denomination where they may not seek authorization or affirmation of their call to ministry in a clerical capacity. Exceptional memberships are considered on a case-by-case basis.
  • Women
    • We use an inclusive definition of “women” and “female.” All who identify and minister as women are eligible for membership, including trans women and cis women. No prospective member will be required to provide medical or legal documentation of her gender identity. Genderqueer and non-binary people who feel that their membership in a women’s organization is appropriate are also eligible.

Women wishing to affiliate with the organization must complete the online application form, clearly identifying their ministry location, denomination (if applicable), date of birth, date of start of affirmed service (e.g. ordination, consecration), and any relevant theological degrees, training, certificates, or credentials. The Registrar shall verify information through whatever means are available.


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

female silhouette with water and a horizon in the silhouette

Embracing Fluidity

female silhouette with water and a horizon in the silhouetteTwo months ago I ended my position at a parish where I served for six years as the associate rector. Leaving was the best option for my family, my health, and my desire to pursue another kind of ministry. It was time for something new. I initially thought I would stay until I had my second baby and then would make a graceful exit; however, this never happened, which led to making some tough decisions.

We wrestled with how we could afford to live on (basically) one income. I have always carried our health insurance, which meant we would likely either need my spouse to find new employment or we would purchase our health insurance. Both my husband and I were unwilling to relocate for our jobs. Having family in the same city was our priority. Having these parameters was, at times, terribly difficult. In the end, my husband and I decided to embrace change rather than run from it. I believe it forced us both to embrace creativity and risk. I’m much better at the first than the second. In one month’s time my husband ended a job, we moved, he started a new job, and I became unemployed. I still cringe when I write the word unemployed. 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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The Power of Plastic


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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What’s News? Young Clergy Women Share Their News Sources

Coffee and the News

Coffee and the News

A favorite line of shop talk among preachers is that we must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. (This quote is frequently attributed to 20th-century theologian Karl Barth, although trustworthy sources, like Princeton Seminary’s Barth Center, say there’s no proof of this exact quote, just similar statements by Barth.) TYCWP asked young clergy women what sources they use for news.

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Turbulent Waters: Discovering Church


Sis on Rocks

Sleepily nursing my eight-day-old daughter after sending my one- and three- year olds off to school, I considered that it was Wednesday. Not just any Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday. I felt something stir deep within my exhausted, still healing body: “I want to go to church today.” Not to preside, but to be present at the beginning of the spiritual and temporal accounting that is Lent. Only the day before, my pediatrician had specifically forbidden me to take my baby to church and risk exposing her to others’ infections. Dare I disregard her advice? Choosing the safer route, I reached out to my fellow young clergy women, seeking sermons they would be preaching that day. I read each sermon aloud to my daughter, each one eloquent and challenging in its own way. But with each sermon that I read, my soul yearned more deeply for church.

I didn’t long to be in my church. I didn’t need to say anything or to know anyone. I imagined sliding into a back pew in a church full of strangers. I imagined joining a long line of worshippers receiving the imposition of ashes. I imagined the ashy sign of the cross on my as-yet unbaptized daughter. Body and soul, I longed for this experience.

It dawned on me that I needed to mark the Lenten journey somehow. Exhausted, on maternity leave from my congregation, I wondered what I might do to stay connected in the rhythm of the church year. I settled on simplicity as my Lenten practice. I resolved to clear out and clean my house during the six weeks before Easter. Each morning I would set my intention to allow the external cleaning process to clear away my internal barriers to God. And each day after only a few minutes I found myself on the phone – my mother, my sister, my best friend, anyone who had time to talk – because again, I longed for community. I wanted to be with someone in the ritual.

Only three weeks later, my infant daughter was hospitalized with RSV and my resolve toward simplicity became a large-as-life reality. I ate. I slept. My husband and I traded child care for our older children and vigil for the baby. And I prayed. On the second night that my daughter was in the hospital, I realized again that I needed church. I reached out to a member of my congregation who has the gift of healing. I needed connection. I needed someone else’s strength, someone else’s prayers. My soul yearned for church.

The next week my daughter came home, and the unrelenting pace of life with young children caught up with me. My husband and I were more exhausted than ever, and now everything needed to be done – dishes, laundry, play time with the children, grocery shopping, hair cuts, school pictures, etc. My life felt out of control, chaotic. I couldn’t find energy to pray or space to sit in God’s presence. I wanted someplace that I could find solitude and solace. I longed for a break from the chaos of our lives. Again, I yearned for church.

The longer I was away from church, the more spiritually unmoored I felt. I became a raft floating on turbulent waters. At the beginning, it seemed I could almost touch the shore from my little raft. But in a few short weeks, I was so far out to sea that I couldn’t even see which direction to point myself. I still longed for something beyond what my family, friends, therapist, or I could provide. I just didn’t know which way to set out in search of what might reconnect me.

And then, my daughter was old enough to venture into the world. We attended church as a family to celebrate Easter. I was exhausted, and I moved through the ritual almost mindlessly. But when I came home, I found I was reconnected, grounded. My soul felt peace. We had experienced church.

Certainly, you find church in the rituals of worship, and indeed in gathering for worship at all. However, church is so much more than worship. It includes my singular experience of God paired with others’ experiences of God, somehow coming together in a communal experience of God. Church is the place where body meets body and soul meets soul. It is the place of absolute safety and security, where we each are defined by God’s love of us — and where we together come to completion in that love. Without all of these elements, church never becomes church. Perhaps this was Paul’s intention when he spoke of the community as the Body of Christ. This community, this church, brings us connection, grace, strength, healing, peace.

Easter Sunday night was a tough one. I was up with the baby more often than I was asleep. Yet somehow, even in this sleeplessness, I found a rest I had not felt in a long time. I still had a long way to go on my journey back to wholeness, but I no longer felt completely unmoored. The waters felt calmer; I knew which way to head. I felt direction, connection, peace.

I can meet God on a beautiful lakefront. I can meet God in personal Bible study and prayer. But I can’t meet you there. I now understand how it is significant that we do church together. Participating in ritual alongside other people connects us with God in an important and unique way. Whether it’s trudging the road to the cross during Lent, or celebrating the risen Christ in the Eucharist, or living our day-to-day chaotic lives, church invites us to do it in community. Others’ simple presence tells us we’re not alone; we’re not the only ones. And that makes all the difference.



My Alligator and Me: A Love Story, of Sorts

Florida Alligator in Canal from Shark Valley Everglades Wetlands

Florida Alligator in Canal from Shark Valley Everglades Wetlands

I’ve understood the concept for years, but I never knew why they were called alligators. I never bothered to ask, either, until I finally had one of my own. Ancient symbolism for alligators follows that they have big mouths, but do their best to remain hidden. In modern church contexts, this term is used for someone who employs gossip, lies, and slander because of a personal vendetta they have, directed toward a particular leader, often a clergyperson.

This is a love story about my alligator and me.

She took me by surprise, to be honest. I’ve heard stories about clergy and their alligators, about clergy being driven out of a church, or out of the ministry altogether, because of the harm their alligators have caused. And while I certainly assumed it would come to pass at some point in my ministry career, I foolishly felt that serving a relatively healthy congregation, being relatively self-differentiated, and having both decent boundaries and a solid support system would somehow grant me immunity.

You know, as if none of those things were true of all those other pastors.

My alligator took me by surprise in the depth of emotion she was able to raise in me. They teach us in chaplaincy that the results of stress can manifest in the physical body, and they’re not wrong. I was surprised by the size of the pit in my stomach, surprised by the weight of the veil that shrouded everything – even the stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with her, or with the church.

Let me be abundantly clear:  She is rude, and verbally and emotionally abusive. She will not listen to reason. She is not very self-differentiated and she has terrible boundaries.

And yet, it’s not all bad.

I’ve noticed that on the days when I’m doing my part really well – when I’m able to hold good, firm boundaries, when I’m able to be particularly self-differentiated, when I’m able to say (and actually believe) that this is about her, and not about me – on those days, she actually helps me to be a better pastor, a better wife and mother, and even, perhaps, a better human being.

Just before I realized that she was even an alligator at all, much less mine in particular, I had been struggling mightily to stay on top of my to-do lists. It felt like I was the Associate Pastor of Triage, with no room to dream big about where God might be trying to lead this church. I was tired and stressed out. I was only half-present in meetings, half-present with my family, half-present in preaching and leading worship. It was the middle of Lent, which I should know by now is when everything falls apart.

Then my alligator snapped, and everything changed.

It changed for the worst, to begin with. Her constant presence behind-the-scenes meant that even the victories of ministry felt subdued. Her biggest snap followed my proudest moment; my most significant contribution to the programming of this congregation since my arrival. Her snap cut short my celebration. While the other confirmation kids and their parents expressed deep gratitude for the workshop I had put together on human sexuality, she used false accusations and below-the-belt hits to disguise her opposition to the topic as opposition to my ministry in general.

A few days later, I offered her an olive branch between services. I was preaching a difficult sermon that day. Several people commented positively about it, and I was feeling buoyed and brave and big enough to reach out. She tore that proverbial olive branch to shreds, in a loud voice in front of several parishioners, two minutes before I walked into worship to preach that sermon again.

And it wasn’t only at church that I could hear her voice in my head. It was at home, too. It was out in the world. I bought groceries wondering if the other shoppers could tell that I wasn’t as confident in my professional abilities in that moment as I had been the day before. I colored pictures with my daughter wondering if she would still pretend that she was “going to work now, to preach,” if she knew how I really felt inside. I made dinner knowing that my husband knew the whole story, but wondering if he could tell how much I was letting her get to me. I felt small and vulnerable, like walking the middle school hallways the day I got my period for the first time – I was sure the people around me could tell that something had changed, and I was sure that I didn’t want them to know.

I am not a patient person. My threshold for irresponsible communication and emotional abuse is very low. It didn’t take long before I had simply had enough. And then, somehow, everything changed again, but this time for the better.

Now, it’s enough for me to simply know that my alligator remains, lurking and scheming in the shadows. Her presence there keeps me on my toes. Her focus on irrelevant and inaccurate details and her drive to shift my attention away from what I believe God is calling me to do has lit a veritable fire under my butt. My boundaries are tighter than ever, and I’m a better pastor for it. I pay more attention to the integrity of my ministry, because I know she’s watching. The next time she questions my professional and pastoral abilities, I want to be able to stand firm in the knowledge that she doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I’m focusing more on the big picture, because getting overwhelmed by the endless minutiae of ministry leaves me stressed and vulnerable, and I’m convinced she can smell it, the way dogs can smell fear.

At home, I’m more present with my family. I have a better understanding of the dangers of putting all my happiness eggs into the church basket. I never realized how many I was keeping there until my alligator stomped all over them. I’m sure, now, to leave her fewer to work with.

My alligator has also made me more aware of how tempting it can be to toe the line of self-righteousness. She reminds me how easy it is to offend someone like her, and how difficult it is to regain that trust once it’s lost. She reminds me to err on the side of being pastoral rather than the side of being right. It’s one thing to call an alligator an alligator, but even the alligators need to feel like someone is in their corner.

The days when my alligator makes me a better pastor, wife, mother, and general human being happen frequently, sometimes, and other times they feel brutally few and far-between. And while I consider this to be a love story (of sorts) for now, I don’t mean to romanticize the damage that such people do to their clergy and their congregations. It may be that, at some point, the days when she helps me in these ways are simply gone. There may come a day when the only love I can muster up for her is in recognition that she, too, is a child of God.

In the meantime, however, I will do my best to hold fast to what is good, and to not repay her evil for evil. For now, she is my alligator, and I will do my best to love her for it.

Advent, 2014


You might be a preacher if …
the refrains in your head
after the non-indictment of Michael Brown’s killer in Ferguson, MO
“your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground”
“Rachel is weeping for her children.
She refuses to be consoled,
because they are no more.”

You might hear those refrains
intertwined with Ella’s Song
by Sweet Honey in the Rock.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
Until the killing of black men,
black mother’s sons
is as important as the killing of white men,
white mother’s sons.

O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
was easy to cry out in the first week of Advent.
“Come, Lord Jesus!” is the refrain of the Advent season.
That longing for a world that is not yet here.
A world for which we must keep awake!  Keep alert!

Many of us have been asleep, unaware
of the depth of injustice and systemic racism in our nation.
Others are all too aware –
going to sleep has never been an option.
And still others have no trouble hitting the snooze button
and going back to sleep, time after time after time.

Black lives matter.  We long for a world that is not yet here.
Nine days later, Eric Garner’s killer, in Staten Island, NJ
was not indicted.

It’s Peace Sunday, but all I can think of is
they have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace’
when there is no peace.
People don’t seem to be too clear on what peace means.
Not breaking windows?
“True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force-
tension, confusion or war;
it is the presence of some positive force-
justice, good will and brotherhood.”

Reading the lectionary texts for Advent 3,
I couldn’t help but notice Isaiah’s words,
the same ones Jesus claimed
for his mission statement in the gospel of Luke

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

And the Magnificat! It’s time for action, these texts seem to say.
Yes, we know, the distance between our world and God’s justice is great.
But you knew that. Get to work!
You have a mission.
My feet have been itching to hit the streets, to plant myself,
to take a stand.  But classes and children have intervened.

And then on my very last day of class, the one I didn’t want to go to,
the bespectacled professor says, as we finish our semester on Luke-Acts:
“Luke clearly shows us a two-tiered justice system.
Look at how Paul is treated as a Roman citizen
compared to Jesus, a Galilean peasant.”

The next day found me marching in downtown Oakland, chanting,
“the whole damn system is guilty, guilty!”
We brought the kids.

(Then I had to explain race and racism to my second-grader.
We just moved back to the United States
after almost four years living in Nicaragua.
Yet another cultural difference.
She’s working hard to figure out what skin color and ancestry
have to do with running,
and isn’t clear on which of her classmates are “black.”
“That court was so rude!” she said.
Also, “Wait, Mike Brown wasn’t from a long time ago?”)

But I came back to these texts
after reading a powerful piece
asking White preachers to be aware of their privilege.
And after reading articles and hearing stories about White activists
behaving inappropriately, claiming to speak for black people
or changing “Black Lives Matter” to “All Lives Matter.

 And I heard a different message.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

John the Baptist lays it out: “I am not the Messiah

Yes, we White preachers should use our voices
to speak truth about racism even when it’s

But that doesn’t make us the ones anointed for such a time as this.
I am not the Messiah.
The leaders of this movement are young and Black.

As a White person,
I benefit from a system that kills Black men, boys, women, and children
as a matter of course.
The whole system is guilty.
And I am a part of that system.
Not the lowly part, or the poor part.
Confronting my own privilege
is harder than turning out for a march.

Two recent police killings of Black men
have brought this refrain to the lips of many:
Black Lives Matter.
Many things about police departments need to change.
But we who have any degree of power,
and receive any measure of security,
are complicit in this system.

Police officers are the foot-soldiers, on the frontlines
of the criminal judicial and penal system.
They did not declare the war.
To the extent they act out of prejudice and fear,
it is because they have been formed by the same racist culture
in which all the rest of us were born.
That prejudice is widely shared.

All of the institutions in our society
still need to learn the lesson:
Black Lives Matter. 

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Photo from here.