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The Stained Glass Cliff

Like many of my fellow clergy women, I was shocked when the news broke last week that the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler was leaving her pulpit at the storied Riverside Church in New York City after only five years. This is a short tenure in the life of such a famed institution, and the announcement of her departure comes on the heels of her serving as one of the featured preachers at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod only a week prior. Riverside has long had a complex and turmoil-laden history, but I joined many who were hopeful things were turning around under Amy’s leadership. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

It was clear to many of us that there were myriad untold stories to her departure, and what we have learned includes only some of the layers of one of those stories. Although stories will continue to emerge, and some may never be told, we can conclude that Pastor Amy was, at least in part, pushed off the Stained Glass Cliff.

The research on this is very clear: women are more likely to rise to positions of leadership and authority in times of crisis or conflict. It’s seen as a “nothing to lose” phenomenon. “We have nothing to lose, so might as well hire a woman.” We often follow charismatic or well-liked men who were behaving egregiously badly, and we often don’t have clarity on how deeply broken the system really is until we’ve already said yes.

Women are held to a different standard (especially when we are the first). We have broken the stained glass ceiling, so we are expected to be exceptional, extraordinary even. We are expected to resolve conflicts, and clean up messes we did not make in half the time it took the men who preceded us to make them. We are expected to effortlessly juggle leadership (but not too much), nurturing (but not be too soft), and family (but without asking for too much time) without complaint.

As soon as we enact too much change, push to make the system healthier, preach a sermon seen as “too political,” or don’t clean up the mess quickly enough, we are pushed right off the cliff. If we dare, as Pastor Amy did, to name patterns of sexual harassment and ask for accountability, we are often painted as the problem and sent on our way. A narrative is then written about how it “wasn’t a good fit” or “she just couldn’t hack it.” Read more

Altars and Altered: Looking Toward YCWI Conference

I love Atlanta and I love my YCWI friends, but the top reason I am excited for the 2019 Young Clergy Women International Conference is because I will be able to listen to and sit at the feet of Rev. Dr. Neichelle Guidry and Rev. Dr. Liz Mosbo VerHage. These two speakers bring a huge range of talent and prophetic witness that I think will help me better answer my call to share good news in difficult times.

Rev. Dr. Guidry has been one of my heroes since I heard about the WISDOM (Women in Spiritual Discernment of Ministry) Center at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. As Director of the WISDOM Center, Rev. Dr. Guidry invites, encourages, and challenges her female students to discern possible vocations in faith and social justice fields. I want to learn from her how to empower the women of color in my “congregation” (a small, private, liberal arts college) to explore their faith and purpose in the world, too. Rev. Dr. Guidry is also an inspiring preacher who I am confident will not only refresh my call but also rejuvenate my commitment to my own vocation.

Rev. Dr. Liz Mosbo VerHage energizes me as I seek to be a strong white ally for people of color. When invited to speak at the YCWI conference, her response included an offer to supply the names of women of color to invite instead of her. Her call is to racial reconciliation ministry, faith-based advocacy, empowering female faith leaders, and embodying the multicultural church. More importantly for the conference, her call is to help other women step into their prophetic journey in these fields.

I live in Memphis, Tennessee, a city that transformed the nation in the realms of of civil rights and music, and is on the front line of innovative ministry models. I really do believe that transformation is possible on a personal level, a regional level, a national level, and an international level. And I hope to God that reformation and transformation is possible on the church level. The Holy Spirit is going to do amazing transformative work through the workshops, embodied learning opportunities, fellowship, speakers, and keynote addresses at the 2019 YCWI Summer Conference, and I look forward to being transformed.

I believe God will use the incredible talent of Rev. Dr. Guidry and Rev. Dr. Mosbo VerHage this summer to show how worship transforms us to be agents of transformation in the world. At altars (and by altars, I mean the places we meet God: altars, tables, coffee shops, kneelers, hiking trails, workshops, hospitals, and maybe even the YCWI Summer Conference) we are altered. As I find my own prophetic voice and begin to stand up and call out for justice, I know that I need to sit at the feet of and listen to the modern day prophets in our midst. I’m looking forward to doing just that at the 2019 Young Clergy Women International Summer Conference. I hope to see you there! For more information and to register, visit our conference page.

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

a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Holy Hearing & Holy Forgetting

a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Lenten confession

When it comes to confession, Anglicans have historically leaned hard on the “none must” part of the traditional phrase, “all may, some should, none must.” Confession is a scary thing to contemplate. It’s too Catholic. It’s too old fashioned. It’s too …. vulnerable. Many Episcopalians and Anglicans I’ve met aren’t even aware that private confession is available to them. It’s a rare thing to see drop-in times listed on the sign outside an Episcopal church, the way there often are on Catholic ones.

While it’s true that we don’t believe sacramental, private confession is a requirement for every Christian, over my years as a priest, there has scarcely been a greater privilege than to hear the confessions of penitent sinners, and proclaim to them that their sins are forgiven. The first parish I served was pretty high up the candle, so I had heard ten confessions before I did my first baptism. Some people made appointments to come and see me before a big gnarly medical procedure that frightened them. Other people came during drop-in times, because it was routine for them. A habit. Whatever their reason, they all left with their shoulders a little lighter for the sharing of something that had burdened them.

As a semi-regular penitent myself, I’ve felt the lightening of the load that comes from receiving the good news that my sins are forgiven. No matter what I’ve done, no matter how big a mistake I’ve made, God forgives me. No matter how mad someone else might be at me, no matter how much I still might need to make amends to them, God forgives me. I’ve recently gotten into the mindfulness trend of building stillness into my day, and sitting quietly with a meditation app when I get stressed, but there is no app like hearing another human being who has heard the very worst things I have ever done respond by telling me God still loves me.

No matter your denomination, no matter your relationship with the tradition of private, sacramental confession, there is value to the ritual of making regular, intentional confession. While it’s something you could begin to practice on your own – lighting a candle, perhaps, and kneeling in the privacy of your own room – I strongly believe that having a human listener is what makes private confession so powerful. For many people, one of the benefits of therapy is being able to tell another person your worst thoughts, the worst things that ever happened to you, and to have that person tell you that so many others have experienced that same feeling. That you’re “normal.” We so often feel very alone, and it’s comforting to hear that other people are in the same boat.

So if you can, find a confessor. Some evangelical traditions have relationships called “accountability partners.” What if you found someone, not to judge you and keep you to account, but to tell you, regularly tell you, how much God loves you in the face of the worst things you’ve ever done? Someone you could trust to keep that secret? While Anglican sacramental theology would encourage that to be an ordained person, entrusted with the authority to administer God’s sacraments, there’s no reason that for Christians with different theological views it couldn’t be a trusted friend of any order of ministry. Read more

The Cost of Inclusion

The doors may be open, but is that really enough?

There is a hymn that is often sung in churches entitled “All Are Welcome,” and in the fourth verse there is a line that goes:

Here the outcast and the stranger

bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger.

All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.[1]

I have heard this song at reconciliation workshops, Sunday worship, ordinations, and baptisms. Although it may not be the origin of the phrase, “all are welcome,” it certainly has been married to the movement of inclusion. This is especially true in a post-segregation society in which we claim to live and worship.

And why not? “All are welcome,” and its sister phrase, “all means all,” seem to cross the boundaries that society had set so firmly into place. But when we bring everyone into the space without the work of deconstruction to systems of oppression, we are asking the “least of these” in God’s creation to pay the price of their dignity and pain. Are all really welcome in a space that asks the oppressed to offer their hand to their oppressor?

This song gives us the space to explore what we are asking people to do when we say, “all are welcome.” The phrase, “Let us bring an end to fear and danger,” does not ask us to stop making others fearful, it asks the fearful to stop being afraid. Fear is the natural and appropriate response by the oppressed to the dangerous acts of oppressors. It is conjured into being by those who anticipate danger. Now, I understand that the song is talking more broadly about the human condition. We all experience fear at some point in our lives. We have all experienced loss, want, and the need to belong. But when we lack nuance in our work of reconciliation and inclusion, we privilege the oppressor and ask those who have been hurt to pay the price of our welcome.

So, the big question is…should all be welcome? Read more

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the background

Fear Not: A Letter to a Young Clergy Woman

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the backgroundDear Friend,

I was recently thinking back to my third date with Daniel. He reached across the table for my hand and asked, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” The question caught me off guard, so I paused before sharing a wild and intimate dream, feeling half embarrassed and half thrilled by voicing this fervent hope.

I’m not as exciting a date, but I’d like to pose a similar question: what would your church be doing if you knew you could not fail? I know you’re plagued with fear about how the church is going to pledge the budget. I know the ceiling in the back of the sanctuary is still leaking when it rains. I know that there continue to be arguments in your congregation about whether or not the church can be open and affirming to LGBTQ+ folks. I know that your church bully came to the office this week. And I know that you are exhausted with what the poet John Blase refers to as “the sheer unimaginativity of what passes for wrestling with angels or walking on water.”[1] I know because I feel the exact same way.

My friend, I think you need reminding that the Church cannot fail. This beautiful, bedraggled Bride has a future more glorious than we could ever figure out in a planning retreat with our Elders. I think you have temporarily forgotten that all will be well.

I was talking with Zada recently. (Can you believe I have a ten year old now?)

“People are getting impatient,” she explained, in response to my question about why she thinks people don’t engage in churches in the same way they may have in the past.

“How so?”

“Well, if churches aren’t treating all people with kindness and respect, other people aren’t going to put up with it anymore, so they stop believing in God or at least stop going to that church.”

We are up against a truth that a ten-year-old can plainly see. Our churches have become apathetic and lethargic. I’m not sure that the scholars talking about the decline of church as we have known it use the word “impatient,” but it actually feels really accurate. Our congregations are impatient with a world that has left them behind. The world is impatient with a church that seems increasingly irrelevant and wrongheaded. The impatience is frustrating, hard, and sad, but it is not insurmountable. Read more

tree roots of a large tree, with moss growing on them

The Language of Trees

tree roots of a large tree, with moss growing on them

I learned a few weeks ago that trees talk to one another. They develop this network—nutrients sent and received in an underground web. When a tree is dying, it starts to send its signals out to the rest so that they both know what danger is lurking near – and so that they have the extra fortification to fight it off.

Watch and listen, the poet[1] says- your ancestors are behind you – You are the result of the love of thousands.

Am I the result of nutrients sent – an underground rush of fortification, sent by the sisterhood of those who came before?

Did those nutrients, that came through the words and embraces and knowing glances of sister-trees—did those nutrients try to warn me about the brotherhood of mediocrity that is male privilege? Did those vitamins in the roots try to infuse me with a deep and abiding sense that my instincts are something I can’t afford to neglect? Because that’s what it feels like… the wisdom I get through the sister-roots is not wisdom that comes from a lot of triumphs—but rather wisdom that comes from a lot of savvy maneuvering, a lifetime of learning how to say no while in high heels and a full face of makeup. A lifetime of learning how to nurture the inner voice and then present it in such a way so that everyone can receive it.

Is that what it means to be the result of the love of thousands… or is that what it means to be the result of feminism amidst patriarchy?

But even as that bitter seed takes its place, the sister-roots are sending their signals again. Sister, they say, the love of thousands are the root signs that told you that the construct was wrong and that your heart was right. The love of thousands are the root signs that whispered to you under the moss that you are worthy and enough. You come from the roots, Sister, you come from the deep, you come from the wet earth that is soaked with our insight, that is bound up with our braids. Don’t you see, sister, they say, you are the tree? Don’t you see, sister, that the root signals have thrust you up, pushed you from this earth, prodded you up so that you are reaching, reaching, reaching- stretching towards this inevitable peak where your branch arms reach out and touch the heavens so that there too, you can be reminded, youare worthy and youare enough. You are the tree, sister. You are the result.

Do not worry that your roots aren’t strong enough, or that your trunk is not sturdy, or that your branches can’t sustain the wind. Your sister roots will remind you, your sister roots will send you the signal. And as you stand there, proud and worthy, swaying in your strength—look around—you’re in the forest- with the other sister-trees. They too the result of the love of thousands.

Remember to send your signal, sisters. There are thousands more to come.

[1]Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/23701

twilight with two hands holding lit sparklers

In Praise of the Ambush Wedding

twilight with two hands holding lit sparklersIn my experience, one ambush wedding begets another, as well it should. Once engaged couples see evidence of a “third way,” between eloping and a full-blown wedding and reception, the appeal is contagious!

What is an ambush wedding, exactly? First, the two people getting married must both be in on the surprise. I do not condone ambushing any member of the wedding party! But everyone else, including parents of the happy couple, are fair game for an ambush or surprise wedding.  Read more

We Really, Really Love You

The author, surrounded by love at her Valentine’s Day Installation service, 2016.

After what might have been my fifth phone call of the morning, the dichotomy hit me again: I was delivering very sad and difficult news about the death of a beloved church member, then quickly asking for logistical help. It had been less than a month since a shocking, terminal diagnosis, but for that month, I had been sitting with the grief, knowing that this was coming. We knew that the end was imminent, and the night before, I had the great gift of being present at the bedside, singing, praying, and anointing with oil.

The family wanted to hold the service soon, but I also knew that on a holiday weekend, with a number of our regular volunteers out of commission for one reason or another, it would be a bit more of a stretch to cover everything. Not impossible, but a stretch. So when I got the official word, and confirmation of the service time, I set to work making phone calls.

Actually, I started to do that. I was about to tell the secretary that the member had passed, and the funeral would be in a few days, but my throat closed up, and the tears returned. I had shed many tears in the past month, and would continue to shed many more. Grief is like that. It sideswipes you with no prior warning. It opens up like a flash summer downpour on what had been a brilliantly sunny day.

In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of our ordination vows is to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” When I was ordained, my pastor father gave the charge to me, which boiled down to this: love the people you serve. Seven years later, I was installed into my current call, very appropriately on Valentine’s Day.

I deeply love the people I have been called to serve. When they rejoice, I rejoice with them. When they weep, my heart weeps with them. That’s part of being one body of Christ. But being a pastor to that body also means that when they are weeping, I am also providing pastoral support, comfort, and care. They are not called to comfort me in my grief, even though I am grieving, too. That’s just the way this calling works. Read more

Learning to say “Yes, And…”: A review of God, Improv, and the Art of Living

I still remember that gathering in a hotel meeting room in Kansas City. The NEXTChuch conference had just ended, and a group of pastors gathered to learn about Improv and how it could impact our ministries. Our speaker was snowed into her hometown, and the leaders began to change their plan. Yes, we were going to improvise a 24-hour workshop on improvisation. Throughout our sessions, as we played and then debriefed, I kept asking for the rulebook, the place where I could read about what we were doing to understand it better. MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of those facilitators, and she very patiently kept reminding me that she was in the process of writing the book for which I hungered.

When I finished reading the book, it took all I had not to race to the internet and preorder copies for all of my clergy colleagues and church leaders. It was this paragraph that held the book together for me and helped me pivot from “principles of improv” to “heres what it means”:

“The truth is, were not in control of our lives, and the unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is to use our resources to put together a life in the wake of these things – maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whats on hand.” (p. 119)

How much of ministry, how much of life really, is using our resources to fashion meaning out of what may appear to be chaos? The book is filled with examples of how this happens in workshops, on stage, and in the church. The way this works for those who look at life through an improv lens is saying “yes, and…” This is the key theme in McKibben Danas book. When we say “yes,” we accept the reality of what has been given to us. Be it the character to include in a skit, the terminal diagnosis, the relocation for a job, the burnt breakfast or any other number of circumstances we cannot change, the basics of improv include saying “yes” to the reality in front of us. Read more