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?


A future Young Clergy Woman?

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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?


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,

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

Spring Comes

seedlingHas anyone else noticed that the liturgical calendar and the academic calendar seem to sync up from time to time? Think about Advent… The eager awaiting spirit we hold as we celebrate the birth of Jesus lines up with the anticipation of surviving fall exam week and beginning Winter Break. As a last semester divinity student, Lent’s unique spirit of endurance, intentional discipline, and dim-yet-present hope echo within my soul (and on my calendar) as graduation approaches.

This final year of Divinity School has been the most challenging of the three for me. I battle daily with self-doubt, fear, and answerless questions. Beyond the countless theological questions, I cannot run from the unanswered questions within my own self that ceaselessly bombard me as I traverse these last few months. Am I really cut out for ministry? Was what I interpreted to be a call really a call? Is ordination on the horizon in the coming years? What is this ever-elusive thing I keep hearing about called self-care? What can ministry look like in non-congregational settings? Am I going to find a position in a nonprofit or organization that gives me life? Has this all been worth it? Am I any more spiritual or knowledgeable than when I started classes two and a half years ago?

As I’m thrown into a place of reflection nearing graduation (as if the entirety of divinity school wasn’t reflective enough…), I think of the richness in images found in nature, particularly gardening. I’m planning spring/summer garden for this year and have been amazed over and over at the mystery of the growth process. Like planting and working a garden, my divinity school career has met its fair share of messiness, inconvenience, and failure. Plans were subverted, unexpected barriers sprung up, and chaos seemed to rule. Yet, I cannot deny that I have caught a glimpse of the breathtaking potential of beauty out of chaos, and growth out of the dirt. I may be overstating the divinity school experience, but as I think of the journey I’ve made throughout the years, I think of myself as a seed being gently placed into the earth. Watching the growth of a plant from its beginning as a seed to its fullness as a productive plant is undeniably an incredible experience. I feel like a rooted yet fragile sprout, not yet blooming; I have weathered an undoubtedly treacherous part of the journey with much nurture and maintenance, but I have much growth ahead of me.

Though the slow, steady walk toward my diploma this semester is nothing really like the slow, steady walk of Jesus to the cross (and resurrection), I see some parallels. The human Jesus must have had questions, doubts, and fears, wondering if his life and journey were worth it. Yet, there he was, in a particular place and time, for distinct, yet seemingly invisible purposes. This Lenten season, I await the beauty and renewal of Easter. I find myself here during Lent, in my final semester, actively waiting for the renewal of the earth in spring, the celebration of God’s living presence in Easter, and a completed chapter of my life in graduation. I traverse this academic season with a similar spirit as I do the liturgical season of Lent; I walk the divinity school halls daily with the hope of endurance, strained discipline, and a dim-yet-present hope that this bud will bloom, that graduation (and the set of adventures thereafter) is coming.

Baylee Smith will be graduating with her Master of Divinity degree from Wake Forest University School of Divinity in May. She graduated from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Ancient Greek in 2010. Baylee served as a Pastoral Intern at Salem Presbyterian Church and as a Garden Ministry Intern at First Christian Church in Greensboro. She serves on the Board of Directors at The Shalom Project, a nonprofit that seeks to meet the needs of members of the greater West Salem neighborhood in Winston-Salem. She serves on student government at the School of Divinity and sits on the Hunger Advisory Board at WFU. At Forsyth Futures, Baylee is working as Lead Researcher and intern on the Faith-Based Community Organization Community Engagement Initiative linking Forsyth County congregations to one another and gathering data regarding outreach initiatives.

photo credit: dixieroadrash via photopin cc

wall clock - black and white


wall clock - black and whiteMay 17 – Almost exactly five years after my husband proposed to me, we flipped over a pregnancy test to see a small plus sign.  In that moment our life changed.  We had taken one huge step toward being parents.  I found myself between simply being an adult who could focus almost completely on my wants and needs, on my plans, and being a mother who must consider the wants and needs of this unknown child.

May 20 – I graduated from seminary with my M.Div.  After attending my husband’s graduation from pharmacy school the year before and seeing how that day marked the achievement of all that he had worked for – his Pharm.D. – I was ready for my special day.  I was ready to receive my own velvety hood.  I was ready to hold my over-sized and embellished diploma and place it in the specially bought frame.  I was ready to no longer be Mrs. Young but the Rev. Young.  I was ready to hear the resounding trumpets sound to tell the world what I had done, what I had become, but they never sounded.  Though I felt like the sky should turn gold to tell all the world all the papers I had written, all the hoops I had jumped through, graduation was a little underwhelming.  The hoods were narrower and less lustrous than I had expected.  The diploma was smaller and plainer than I had imagined.  The lack of superfluous language and no mention of my emphasis left me deflated.  The bookstore didn’t even sell diploma frames.  My title wouldn’t change until after I was called to a specific church and ordained.  I just wanted something to cling to that told the world that I was different.  I had changed.

In reality, graduation catapulted me between.  Now I existed in some space between being a pastor and being a parishioner.  I had my M.Div., but wasn’t ordained.  I still lived on seminary campus.  I still had the same student worker job.  I was still just waiting for a bishop or church call committee member to call me and say, “We might have something here.”  Until that moment, I waited to complete my metamorphosis into the Rev. Young.

June 23 – My husband and I moved from our home on seminary campus sandwiched between Minneapolis and St. Paul to an apartment in a small town where my husband has his job.  We moved with no intention of being there long since I had not been cleared to accept a call in the area.  We moved so that we could continue to wait for our new church home to appear.  We moved to a place between our two homes – our home at seminary and our new home by our church.  Now I am trying to do more than just exist in this town and enjoy my time while knowing that this is temporary.

In the course of one whirlwind month, I have found myself between so many aspects of life.  I am almost a mother, almost a pastor, and almost home.  But not yet.  And, as seminary has trained me to always ask, where is God in all of this?

All I can say as the seasons change and I am still waiting for a call, is that I have no idea.  And that is okay.  Seminary also trained me not to pretend like I have all the answers.

During my between time, I have been reading a few more of Anne McCaffrey’s dragonrider stories set in the world of Pern.  In these stories, the dragons have the ability to teleport, but it is not instantaneous. After the dragon and their rider blink away from their departure point, but before arriving at their destination, they enter a place called betweenBetween is frigid and lightless, with no air to breathe.

I feel like one of those dragonriders carried between, holding my breath until I come out the other side where I am a confident and loving mother and a capable and encouraging pastor, where I am home.  And hopefully God will make some modicum of sense again.

Until then, I’m counting the seconds to see just how far God is taking me – one…two…three…

Courtney Young is a first-call candidate in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) and a graduate of Luther Seminary (M. Div., 2012).  She recently moved to Winsted, MN with her husband, and they are attending Bethel Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie.  She hopes to be called to a church soon.  They are also expecting a baby in January 2013.

photo credit: Nina Matthews Photography via photopin cc

Playing Dress Up

There I stood, looking at myself in the mirror.  I had done this many times before.  As a little girl playing dress up, I recall stuffing tissues into the backs of my mom’s heels and proudly stomping around the house.  I recall putting on deep red lipstick, borrowed from my five-year-old best friend, a precious ruby red form of what I thought to be womanhood.  And I recall filling the tops of my dresses with two pairs of socks and staring admirably at the woman I had yet to grow into.

Yet this time was different.  It was November 2011, over Thanksgiving weekend.  My husband and I had volunteered to help my mom clear out my dad’s office at the church he served as head pastor for 23 years.  My dad had just died of cancer and there hadn’t been time to clean out his office.  We sorted through accordions of files, all dedicated to the ministry.  On the files we saw titles like “Session,” “Capital Campaign,” “Christmas Eve Services,” “Vision Planning.”  We sorted books on the church, on trips to the Holy Land, on different Bible translations.  While my husband and mom began toting the trash into the bin outside, I decided to conquer the task of cleaning out my dad’s bathroom.

I found them in the closet: my dad’s stoles, thick rainbows of fabric hanging on each shoulder of hangers, each strand of cloth representing a strand of ministry my dad performed—a stole for baptisms, a stole for Communion, a stole from mission trips, a stole for Advent.  I was lost in the memories, in the meaning of these stoles until my mom interrupted me.  “Sweetie, you can take any of those you want.  Dad would have loved nothing more than for you to have those.”

She went back to sorting files and I eagerly assumed my dress up role.  I placed one stole on my shoulders after another, carefully arranging each one to lay flat over my chest, meticulously pulling my hair out from the collar each time, and there I stood, looking at myself in the mirror. How many times had my dad straightened the collar of his stole here?  How many times had my dad arranged his microphone here?  How many times did my dad go over the order of service here with this stole on?  How many people did my dad hug after he preached in these stoles?  How many people did he baptize and call children of God in this one?  How many people all over the world would recognize my dad as the pastor on the mission field in this one?  How many times did my dad say “On the night he was betrayed” in this one?    How many times did my dad light the Advent candle and preach of Jesus’ birth in this one?  I suddenly felt the weight of the fabric and the heat accumulating on my shoulders as I looked at myself.

Near the end of Exodus, God commands Moses to set up a tent of meeting. The passage is full of detailed descriptions of elements in the tabernacle: an altar for incense, a basin for washing, a lamp stand. And there are priestly garments for Aaron.  In Exodus 28:2-3, God commands Moses, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor. Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest.”  So Aaron serves as priest throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  And near the end of Numbers, God says to Moses:  “’Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.’ Moses did as the LORD commanded: They went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain” (Numbers 20:25-28).

There wasn’t time for my dad to remove his stoles and place them on me before he died. But in that moment, as I looked at myself in the mirror in my dad’s office, I was not a little girl playing dress up.  I was a woman called by God and encouraged and inspired by my dad to continue ministry.  Just as my dad exclaimed in delight “This one’s mine!” on the day of my birth because I was the first child with his dimples, so God delights in my calling to ministry, so God delights in watching me play dress up in the stoles I can’t wait to wear, so God exclaims “This one’s mine!”

The stoles still hang as thick rainbows of fabric, although now they hang as strands of ministry in my closet, strands of ministry to which I am called and to which I will be ordained soon enough.  And although now I do have the adult feet to fit into heels, the option of wearing lipstick, and a chest that doesn’t need socks to fill it out, I now have the most excitement about getting to wear my dad’s stoles and turning dress up into a real life calling.

Mary Beth McSwain is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School (M. Div., 2010).  She recently moved to Tucson, Arizona from Spokane, Washington and is currently acquainting herself with ministerial life in the Southwest.  She hopes to find a place to serve in ministry soon.

photo credit: pathlost via photo pin cc