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Putting Politics Back in the Pulpit: Growing a Politically Active Congregation

The first ballot I ever cast was in kindergarten for the 1988 election. I specifically voted for Dan Quayle because he was like our state bird. I remember people talking about who and why they voted for their candidate, citing religious views, personal needs, social values, and party affiliations. Me, on the other hand? I voted for the man I thought might also be a bird. I voted for Bush/Quayle because I related to Mr. Quayle the most. I knew quails were important to California and so, he must be as well. No one was talking to me about policy or vision; no one explained that who we vote for reflects our understandings of a just society. I was five, so why would they?

But all these years later, I still remember what people were saying around me — instead of talking with me — and why I chose the person I voted for.

As Jesus reminds us, ‘“there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.’” (Mark 4:22-24, NRSV). Our children are listening, just like I was. In fact, everyone with “ears to hear” is listening. But what are we telling them?

Now, as a 35-year-old woman, I am a proud registered voter. I am strong in my opinions and fierce in my support for my candidates. I am a woman and so my body is a tool in political dialogue. I am also a pastor, and whether we name it or not, being religious is political. Thus, I cannot divorce myself from the political acts of our governing systems.

But it gets more complicated: It is also illegal and unethical for me to use my vocation to encourage support for a specific candidate; I believe in freedom and democracy, so I wouldn’t dare to even think of it. But what I can do, and what I must do, is preach and teach the stories of God and God’s people as shared in our scriptures. And one of the acts of the apostles that we rarely mention is voting.

…And I cast my vote… (Acts 26:10, NRSV)

Voting matters just as much now as it did back then. Paul was talking about voting against Jesus and his followers because he thought he had the sole and dominant understanding of God’s truth. Then through life experiences, he changes his mind and his heart about Jesus. And I find it hard to believe that he stopped voting after that, in light of the other votes in scripture, such as the one between saving Barabbas and Jesus.

Scripture tells us that voting matters. Read more

The Gifts of Waiting

When I can help it, I do things early.

I learned to ride a bike at five, moved away from home at sixteen, and graduated college after three brisk years. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry.

And yet, I couldn’t hurry a call.

I tried. Believe me, I tried. I’ll spare you the gory details—but, suffice it to say, I spent a year unemployed and several more years broadening my understanding of ministry. I worked for a Catholic nonprofit and then Renewal Ministries Northwest, a dynamic prayer ministry in the Seattle area. In 2016, I was ordained to an unconventional, part-time ministry shepherding the remnant of a congregation that had departed the Presbyterian Church (USA) for A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). In late 2018, I wrote and published a devotional for teen girls (Simple Truths). I felt like I was making lemonade, growing gills. I could feel the Spirit pushing me toward surrendering my idol of ordained ministry.

And then, abruptly, She called me back to it.

I received the call itself through a series of unexpected events. I had finally found a rhythm with my work at Renewal Ministries, and Simple Truths had just been published. Then, the phone rang. On the other end: someone from the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) from my hometown back in Tennessee, wondering if I’d throw my hat in the ring. They weren’t even offering me a position, just a chance at one—and it unraveled my world. I spent a week in tormented talks with my husband. Could we move? Did I really want this (anymore)? Is this what a call feels like? Read more

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attached

Untethered but Anchored

a bunch of inflated yellow balloons with strings attachedA year and a half ago, I left my full-time congregational ministry setting to take an intentional year off from full-time congregational ministry. I had been ordained a decade, serving congregations for a decade and a half, all of it as a program pastor in multi-staff churches. The congregation and I were no longer a fit and I felt something nagging at me.

The nagging had grown so loud and so restless that it eventually overshadowed my fears, which I lovingly named “the great untethering.” I was fearful if I untethered myself from full time congregational ministry, even for a short, determined, amount of time, that I would somehow untether myself from other things. I would lose my grounding, or my sense of self, or my understanding of what had brought me into this beautiful life of serving God in community through Jesus to begin with. I was afraid that like the little old man in the children’s movie Up, once I started to cut the strings to the things that had carried me thus far, it would all come crashing down.

I love to work, I love what God does in community. I love the messy dance of structure and unpredictability that gives movement to days and weeks and seasons of ministry. I didn’t want to lose those things. But I was also chafing in my current ministry setting–like an old, shrunken, itchy sweater, there were some things I knew could not be stretched back into place. I couldn’t tell if it was my setting or me but my suspicion was that it had become a combination of both.

Several months after my departure I was sitting at a judicatory gathering when the facilitator of our training said, “we’re going to go around the room and I’d like you to share your name and where you serve.” I didn’t have an answer, or at least not one that fit into the normal parameters of such gatherings. I quickly leaned over to the other three young clergy women at my table and whispered, half panicked and half joking, “what do I say? Freelance minister?!” “Hell yeah,” whispered back one of my fellow clergy women, “you should say you are a ‘ministerial entrepreneur.’”

Seeing the flicker of hesitation she added, “you know none of our male colleagues would hesitate to be so bold about their broad work,” with a knowing glance. Being forced for the first time in months to explain my ministry, my colleague’s encouragement cracked open something inside me. It wasn’t that I didn’t do ministry… My ministry was just far more expansive and harder to explain than it had been a few months ago. Read more

Ask a YCW: Discerning a Call Edition

Dear Askie,

I think God is calling me to ministry! I never realized what a long and involved process it’s going to be to become a pastor. And did you know that even with a seminary degree, ordination isn’t guaranteed??? I was shocked to find out there are so many things I have to do! And so many people I have to impress and convince that they should ordain me! Do you have any advice for me?

Thanks,
Ordination Discerner

 

Dear Discerner,

Congratulations! Discernment is a wonderful thing. Everyone, everywhere should do it more often. Indeed the world would be a better place if we all endeavored to more fully align our will with God’s Dream for our lives on a regular basis. Blessings to you as you seek to explore God’s call to ordained ministry in your denomination. I hope this journey will be enriching and lead to a place of joy and fulfillment, whether that is serving God and the Church through ordination or as a baptized Christian. I have a number of years of experience working with people in ordination process (+ the additional years of my own process). Out of those experiences, I would like to offer some practical advice. I have noticed that sometimes people make missteps in the process, and I would like to assume that is most often due to a lack of education about process and expectations. Therefore, here is some friendly advice, with the caveat that this is just one person’s perspective and is neither an exhaustive list, nor one that will work or apply in all contexts and situations. Nonetheless, hopefully it will be helpful. Read more

dark storm clouds at night over a paved road without any structures or trees around

The Twilight of Easter

One of the most complicated aspects of losing Lily has been proclaiming Good News in the midst of resounding darkness. In my anxiety over preaching on Easter, a Young Clergy Woman International colleague reached out and shared a sermon she had written in a dark time in her life. I leaned heavily on her words in finding my way to the truth of Easter. Thank you, Rev. Elizabeth Grasham, for your kindness and witness to the love of Jesus. Below, you’ll find the words I preached on Easter Sunday this year.

Mark 16:1-8

Will you pray with me?

Lord, we gather in this church to hear the Good News of your resurrection, that death has been swallowed up by your victory. Help our eyes adjust to the light of new life as we sit in this twilight. Give us courage to mirror your own vulnerability as we seek resurrection in our own lives. Amen.

dark storm clouds at night over a paved road without any structures or trees around

Twilight

I’ve lived in a twilight world for just over two months now.

Since Lily’s birth and death, I have existed somewhere between sleep and awake. As the tulips and daffodils push up through mounds of mulch and my crocuses bloom with abandon, I am just barely beginning to pull out of the haze and into the warmth of spring. Finally, splashes of color are returning to the world of gray tones in which I have dwelled now for nine weeks.

The future that I’ve imagined, the reality I awaited is now gone. At first, days and nights flittered by. I remembered to eat because food showed up. I slept because the exhaustion of grief landed heavily on my eyelids. These days, I’m functioning much better, but one thing that hasn’t yet changed is my awareness of twilight. I am awake earlier these days, sitting in the not-yet morning light, surrounded by a blanket of hazy darkness.

This twilight is precisely where we meet Mary Magdalene. It was early on the first day of the week, scripture tells us it was still dark. Jesus’ death still hung heavily in the air; the trauma still so fresh it replayed itself any time she closed her eyes. She longed to be near him, her beloved teacher, to see once more that it wasn’t a bad dream, but that Jesus was, indeed, dead.

So she found herself on the path to his tomb in the twilight of that morning.

Because sometimes, new life doesn’t wait for the dawn.

Because sometimes, God acts powerfully in the darkness of our lives.

So often, we associate the Easter story with morning sun and cheer, with lilies and tulips, but when we take a closer look at John’s account of the resurrection story, we find that Easter— Easter begins in the dark of night. Read more

Lawful and Beneficial: An Exploration of Faith and Academic Freedom

As we begin a new semester, and a new school year, after the summer we have had as a country, I am thinking about academic freedom. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes twice that “all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial” (6:12 and 10:23). Paul was likely responding to a saying in the community at Corinth with the “all things are lawful” part.

There are, as with many Greek words, different ways to translate the second half: is he saying that not all things are edifying? profitable? expedient? helpful? I choose to translate it “beneficial” because I think that covers pretty much all those other options. All things are allowable, but not all things are beneficial. As a seminary professor and Christian, I think of this as a good way to consider the topic of academic freedom.

The academy (including Christian college, seminary, or secular state institutions), is a place where ideas should flow freely. Mistakes should be made, and even encouraged, so that everyone in the community (professors and students alike) can learn and grow. I often assign readings that I agree with wholeheartedly — readings that have challenged my thinking and broadened my perspective. I also assign readings that I don’t agree with, because they are important to have as part of the conversation in the class.

My students can expect to be challenged in their thinking in my courses. Read more

Ask a YCW: Discernment Edition

Dear Askie,

I’m currently a senior in college, trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. I think I might be called into ministry, but I’m not really sure. How do I know if God is really calling me or not? If I am called, what are the steps I need to take? What advice do you have for me?

Sincerely,

A future Young Clergy Woman?

Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Toxic Church Edition

Dear Askie,

I am currently serving in a church that is best described as toxic. The staff is dysfunctional, the personnel committee seems to be disinterested in creating a work environment that is nurturing, anytime I bring up any concern I’m automatically shut down, and I am fed up. I have been searching for jobs for many months now but am having a difficult time. I am starting to realize I may be stuck here for a while. What can I do in the meantime to survive my toxic work environment? Or should I just run for the hills?

Sincerely,

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

toxicYou are not the only one. Unfortunately, all too many young clergy women are trying to serve Christ and his church in the midst of dysfunctional work environments. While we shouldn’t regard such situations as normal or acceptable, Askie fears that toxic congregations will probably be part of the lives of some pastors until kingdom come.

You’re wise to search for a new call, and Askie urges any YCW in a toxic setting to keep an updated resumé, Ministerial Profile, PIF, or whatever your denominational equivalent might be. Even if you feel called to stick it out (or are compelled to do so by your familial or financial circumstances), toxic churches have been known to turn unexpectedly on their pastors. So even if you’re not ready to pack your bags just yet, be prepared.
All that said, here are a few strategies for surviving until you’re able to move on:

  • Build (and use) a strong support network: This is important for all of us, but especially so in an environment like yours, where you can’t expect support from colleagues and lay leadership. You may want to work with a spiritual director, a therapist, a life coach, a mentor, or all of the above! Be intentional about nurturing friendships both with clergy colleagues in other settings and with non-clergy friends. Online community (like the TYCWP Facebook group) can be a great source of support as well, although it shouldn’t replace the personal, incarnational support we all need.
  • Be attentive to your spiritual life: When God is your job and your job is awful, your spiritual life sometimes takes a hit. Don’t let them do that to you, sister. Make sure to intentionally care for your soul in this season of your ministry. Could you find an evening or weekday worship service that you can attend from time to time? Carve out more time for prayer? Read books that nourish your soul?
  • Do your homework: If you haven’t studied family systems theory, now would be the time to start! Understanding how systems work can help you figure out how to survive in yours. You might gain some insight about how the system is working, a strategy about how to change the system and your role in it (hint: probably non-anxious presence), or a reminder that interactions that feel very hurtful often have little or nothing to do with you personally. Friedman’s Generation to Generation is a classic starting point, but there are plenty of great resources out there. You may want to look for a course or conference to help you dig deeper, as well.
  • Feed the function: Thankfully, even the most dysfunctional church usually has a few bright spots. See if you can identify the parts of your church that are healthy and put lots of your energy there. Affirming and supporting the healthiest areas of your church’s life helps them to grow… and not only is it good ministry, it’s also life-giving for you!
  • Put on your own oxygen mask first: There are people whom you will never be able to make happy, even if you work twenty-four hours a day and cater to their every whim. So do what it takes to keep yourself healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Get outdoors, take a yoga class, enjoy good chocolate or coffee or wine. Binge-watch some fluffy television from time to time. Spend time with family or friends. Take all of your vacation, and your days off. Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion, so don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it!
  • Find some distance: When Askie is at the absolute end of her rope with some bit of petty church drama, she imagines what a great chapter it will make in her memoir someday. That’s my trick, but you’re welcome to use it, or find one that works for you… something that helps you to step back, to disengage emotionally a bit, and to remember that in a few months or years, this will all be over. When it is, I hope you will find yourself with some hard-won new skills, some outrageous stories, and your integrity. Keep the faith, sister.

Wishing you deep peace and a speedy exit,
Askie

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!

Stepping Out

like buttonI came out recently on facebook.  Not as gay.  That would have been no big deal to the vast majority of my friends.  I came out as a religious Christian.

I didn’t really mean to come out.  I just got the email saying I was invited to the candidacy site of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church.  I’d been waiting for that email for months.  I’d considered asking for it for years.  At long last the slow cogs of my heart and church beauracracy clicked into place, and I was so excited I just wanted to celebrate.

“I’m officially a candidate!” I posted.

“For?” was the first response.  Then silence.

I decided I had to answer.  I thought about how much I wanted to say.  I have lots of friends who are spiritual but not religious.  I have some friends who have been hurt by the church.  I have a few friends who are downright hostile towards what they consider to be the idiocy of organized religion.  A herd of fears thundered by, and my excitement fled into the nearest bushes to hide.

“Ministry in the United Methodist Church,” I typed with trepidation.  The words looked clear and confident on the screen.  Post.

I should explain.  As the click echoed off into the void of cyberland, I felt possessed with the need to explain.  I should explain that I might become a pastor, but I still believe in science.  And a woman’s right to choose.  And the full equality of marriage.  I should explain that God calls me, but I haven’t started hearing voices at night.  I’m not going to start asking people if they’re saved.  I haven’t forgotten my screw-ups.  I don’t think I’m better than you.

I should explain that I’m still me.

I decided not to.  I decided my friends, the good ones anyway – the ones who have seen me morph from starry-eyed teenager, to nerdy college girl, to idealistic-to-cynical-then-back-again Peace Corps volunteer, to working actresss, to English teacher – could probably figure that out.

I came back to the computer at the end of the day and was humbled by all the “Congratulations!” and “I’m so excited for you!”  My fears, in their thunderous roar, had underestimated my friends.  Many in my circle have their well-earned doubts about what the church can offer.  But they could tell I was happy, and so they were happy for me.

So I’m out.  Sort of.  I still wrestle, really wrestle, daily, with this new identity I’m trying on for size.  (Do I say I’m working on applications for “grad school” or for “seminary”? Do I say I’m planning on “studying to become a pastor” or “studying theology”?)  Often I wait and see, hedge my bets, depending on who I’m talking to, and go vague rather than face the explanation urges.

It’s getting easier, though.  I don’t see candidacy for ministry as a radical departure from who I’ve always been, but a thrilling synthesis of everything that has always been at the heart of who I am.  The less I explain, the more I come out, the easier I think it will be for my friends to see that too.

photo credit: iluvcocacola via photopin cc