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An adult hand handing a Nilla Wafer to a child's hand

Grace and Vanilla Wafers

An adult hand handing a Nilla Wafer to a child's hand

A view that became familiar over the course of the morning.

This morning my ravenous, growth-spurting twins decided that Mini ‘Nilla Wafers were the only acceptable food in our house. I doled out four—one for each hand for each twin, and they made their way back into the playroom to play and enjoy their snacks. Every few minutes they returned. And one at a time I placed the wafers into their tiny hands.

After a few rounds I realized that something about this felt awfully familiar. I felt like I was distributing vanilla wafer communion right there in my kitchen. No, I hadn’t blessed them, and I didn’t even necessarily glance up from my work every time the little feet thudded back for more.

But with one outstretched hand after another, I recognized in my children the same persistence with which the people of the church return each week, hands outstretched for a wafer at the communion rail.

And the simplicity of what the twins did taught me more about what happens in the Eucharist than any lecture on eucharistic theology ever has. Each time those babies came back to me, it was because they knew I loved them and would meet their needs. Again and again and again. They came back to me each time with a trust I could only hope to muster as I approach God each time I receive the Eucharist. When I stretch my hands out to God the way those little hands stretched out to me, do I truly believe God will meet my needs? Do I trust in God’s love for me?

There is only so far that this comparison goes, of course, because eventually I will stop giving them ‘Nilla Wafers. Unlike a mom concerned for her children’s sugar intake, though, God will never stop giving.

Each time we return to the communion rail, God meets us there. And while those papery communion wafers aren’t quite as delicious as vanilla wafers, they nonetheless remind us, again and again, that God’s love and provision for us will never cease. This is grace. And it is sweet indeed.

The Story Bible That Made Me Cry: A Review of Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible

Confession – I’m a pastor, but I’m not great about reading the Bible with my kids. Maybe it’s because it feels a little bit like work. Maybe it’s because I’m just too tired at the end of the day. Maybe it’s because my kids whine, “Ugh, it’s not even SUNDAY.” Maybe I just know too much about the Bible so when I read the stories I can’t just let them lie – I have to explain and give context. I want to emphasize certain plot points and draw out the untold stories of women and girls. I hope to ask good questions that help them hear the overarching story: God loves us. God loves all creation. God is faithful, even we are not.

I know too well that many of the classic children’s stories can be – or should be – quite disturbing. In “Noah’s Ark” everybody on earth dies in a flood. In the story of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery for being a brat. Even the central story of our faith – the cross and resurrection – can be traumatic for young ears and needs to be handled carefully.

As a church professional I own a LOT of story bibles. The Spark Story Bible is my favorite for reading in worship because it’s close to the text of the NRSV but tells stories in an engaging way and has (non-Eurocentric) illustrations which add feeling, meaning, and depth to the words. The Deep Blue Bible Storybook is my favorite bible for parents because it has great study notes that will help parents as they read to their kids. It’s kind of like a parent study bible. The Jesus Storybook Bible is lovely for weaving the scriptures into an overarching narrative which can be really powerful for adults and older children. While these are all excellent works that I highly recommend, they still leave me wanting – especially for a story bible for young children (their intended audience).

Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible is the Bible I want to read to my children because it feels like it’s written in my voice. The authors of these re-tellings are my colleagues, trusted pastors, chaplains, educators, and even a rabbi. These faithful practitioners of children’s ministry tell the story for kids, offering context and language that suits their understanding. Each story ends with questions and encouragement to Hear, See, and Act in a way that deepens understanding for childrenAnd, sure, adults can get a lot from reading this bible to their little ones, but it’s written perfectly for preschool and early elementary kids who think concretely and struggle to understand metaphor and symbolism.

In order to help parents choose a story that might be helpful or interesting for a particular child or situation, the editors chose to forgo the traditional order of the books of the Bible and group the texts thematically with headings like Beginnings, Prophets, and Listening for God. For example, the Rivalries section has the stories of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham as “A Family With a Big Disagreement” (Gen. 16:1-16) and “A Family Changes Its Shape” (Gen 21:8-21). While this may throw the biblically literate a bit off-kilter, it is still grouped into the two testaments and follows the basic flow (with a helpful scripture index in the back). The illustrations vary in style, but all are beautiful, and the majority are non-Eurocentric.

But what really makes this bible unique– what brought tears to my eyes– is how it lifts up the stories and points of view of female characters in a way that istrue to the text and to women’s lives. The first eighteen stories in the Strong Women and Men section have women as central characters. With titles like “God Made Sarah Laugh,” “Miriam Hides Moses,” “Queen Vashti Says ‘No!’” and “Nabal, Abigail, and David” the traditional stories gain a fresh and faithful perspective. Read more

The Divine Waggle

The author’s son having chosen a front row seat for the Lord’s Supper.

At 20 months and 2 days old, my son extended his hand towards his sister, and waggled his fingers back and forth. It was his first ever unprompted wave. As all three of us stood there in the haphazard transition between car and door of childcare, I whooped and clapped and started an awkward mom-version of the running man, complete with child in arms. My son was confused and my daughter even more so, at this unusual burst of awkward energy so early in the morning. But this was a touchdown for him, for me. It was a WAGGLE deserving of end zone celebration.

There is a mantra in the world of kids with Down syndrome that I have come to learn in the last two years: ‘Celebrate, Don’t Compare.’ Children with Down syndrome are late developers, hence the usage of the word ‘retarded.’ The milestone calendars so carefully laid out in baby books and emailed to your inbox are of no use to a family with a child with Trisomy 21. Those are more of a GPS—which will lay out when you will arrive at the place you desire to be. Families with Down syndrome are given only a wide open paper map. There are places to go, but arrival time is entirely independent of your carefully laid plans.

The crunchier among us might see this as a good thing—‘Hey, my kid will get there when he gets there,’ laissez-faire approach to parenting. I was similar with my daughter. But for a parent who is constantly asked how old her child is when they exhibit no signs of development appropriate to their age, a lack of a timeline is disheartening. Laissez-faire is a beautiful, intentional, approach. When involuntarily taken out of one’s hands, laissez-faire or no, the waiting, as Daniel Tiger might say, is hard.

Hence the mantra. It was gently given to us by the first of our neonatologists. It was quietly repeated by our four therapists. Seasoned parents of children with DS lived it out in front of us again and again. Celebrate, don’t compare. Have joy in what is happening, rather than lining the present up with your neighbor’s children or your own former expectations.

As a follower of Jesus, a priest and generally sunny kind of lady, I wanted to love the mantra. Read more

Where Jesus Would Put the Kids in Worship

Learning about worship in the pray ground

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are: Read more

Our Bodies, Our Selves: Women’s Bodies in the Pulpit

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

I was just one year past the anniversary of my ordination and ten weeks pregnant with my first child when my partner and I sent out the invitations to the annual Holiday Party at the Manse. We were waiting until after Christmas to tell the church about my pregnancy, so we hadn’t told a soul. But that didn’t stop Melvin. We were standing in the dining room when Melvin sidled right up to my husband and me with a drink in his hand and, in the casual manner of many an octogenarian, commented, “Pastor, I can’t imagine why, but it seems like your husband keeps getting thinner and thinner, and you just keep getting bigger and bigger!”

What does one say in a moment like this? I cannot remember what I did, but I suspect I laughed it off. On the other hand, I am still telling that story today. My family laughs about it now—about how Melvin’s adult grandson collapsed in laughter behind me in the aftermath, and about how Melvin showed up to church the next Sunday and sheepishly asked my husband if he needed to find a new place to worship—but as I reflect on my ministry, on the ways in which it has been changed by the growth of my family and the confidence that comes from experience, I am reminded that, as a woman who is a pastor, my body presents a particular challenge to those with whom I serve.

I am not alone. We all have stories (or maybe the better term is battle scars) that reveal the ways in which the people with whom we minister have invaded our personal space, have invited themselves into personal decisions about what is appropriate for us and what is not, or have defined the terms for us of what it means to be a minister in a woman’s body. We know what it is like to be told, like one minister, that our clothes are too revealing, without any context or explanation about what “revealing” means. Or to find ourselves on the receiving end of comments and judgments that evaluate our weight, our relationships, even our hairstyles with the same level of concern as the content of our preaching and teaching.

And then there is parenthood. As women who minister, it is inevitable that our personal choices around childbearing will, at some point, become a point of public discussion in the churches where we serve. And because the church as an institution tends to glorify traditional, heteronormative definitions of what it means to parent successfully, our very real lives as women can become a battleground over cultural ideals of parenting, motherhood, childbearing, and the work-family balance.

Amanda was already married and a new mother when she was ordained as a UCC minister. She entered ministry with a strong and healthy sense of identity as a parent, a minister, and a queer woman. But she quickly discovered that even in her progressive UCC congregation, assumptions around her body and parenting were inevitable. And because she is a parent, “there was a level of assumption that I have given birth. And no matter what, the fact that I had children meant that I must be sexually active. People went there. I didn’t expect that.”

For Amanda, being a parent thrust into the public sphere all kinds of assumptions about her health, her marriage, and her body. And, as a queer mother, she found herself working against her congregation’s attempts to “typecast” her. “Because I had a wife, I was put into this sort of ‘dad’ role, so guys around me treated me as one of the guys.” She shared that it caused her to start consciously dressing in a more feminine way at work while also pushing back against the sexualization of her body in the church.

For other young clergywomen, becoming a parent can threaten one’s job security. Bethany shared that, when she found out she was pregnant in her first call, she was immediately informed that it would cost her. “I was told not to expect an allowance for anything. I was to be a mom separately.” Implicit was the assumption that she needed to make a choice—she could either be a good parent, or a good pastor, but she could not be both, at least not at church. “They wanted kids,” she shared, “just not mine. They wanted him, but not with me.”

If there is a common theme in the experience of clergywomen who parent, it seems to be that their identity as a parent becomes a crucial part of how they evaluate the terms of their ministry. For Bethany, her congregation’s negative attitudes towards her identity as a mother ultimately led her to seek out a more supportive pastoral environment.

And she is not alone. When Cordelia became a single parent through adoption, it revealed real prejudices about parenting in her upper-middle class ministry setting. She found that leaders within her church seemed to resent her child. “I was told she was not welcome in worship (even with someone else holding her) or at any event or group where I was working. I was told by one parent that they were paying me to watch their kids, not my own.” In that environment, her identity as a single parent was treated as a problem that she had to solve on her own. At one point, the experience let her to seriously questioning her call to ministry.

Ultimately, Cordelia left her call and chose to focus on her child, who was “the most important thing to me.” That decision—to honor her identity as a parent over a ministry context that viewed parenting as a liability—ultimately gave her the time and space to seek out opportunities for ministry that would honor both identities. Today, she happily serves a small church in a small town, where her child is embraced and her ministry is valued.

The truth is that church folk have a tendency to forget that we are not their family. We are not their children, or their grandchildren either. But the intimacy that is inevitable in ministry tends to blur the lines between what is acceptable and what is not. In unhealthy churches, that boundary-crossing can feel intrusive and toxic to our identity as pastors and as parents. It can lead us to feel that our children are not welcome, that the fullness of who we are is not welcome. In these cases, perhaps the only answer is to walk away.

But in a healthy church setting, one that affirms the ministry of clergywomen in all of its uniqueness and its fullness, this same intimacy can become the life-force that sustains good ministry. In Kathleen’s case, the experience of becoming a mother was incredibly positive. She credited this to the fact that her church had eight members in the congregation who were also pregnant at the same time. For her, becoming a parent while also pastoring her church deepened her sense of intimacy with those around her. She found herself empowered to explore these connections more fully in liturgy, exploring the physically evocative language of Incarnation and the gritty realities of embodiment more explicitly in worship.

Amanda was surprised to discover that when members of her congregation learned that she had not physically birthed her children, some of them treated her as though this meant that she could not understand the female experience of giving birth. But her experiences of parenting without giving birth have enabled her to identify with and minister to women in the queer and trans community who wanted to parent, but weren’t able, or chose not to be pregnant.

At the end of the day, so much of our calling is wrapped up in our experience in the world.  And many of the experiences that are so often marginalized and silenced in an institutional environment are precisely the things that have the potential to make us better pastors. Our experiences have the potential to help us to find common ground with our neighbors in the pews and on the streets who experience oppression, victimization, silencing and policing from the dominant culture that is more interested in silencing opposition than in creating life. We have a unique opportunity as clergywomen to model another way, to break down the barriers that constrain those around us. To use our privilege in the pulpit to advocate for and stand alongside those whose voices are not heard.

Why? Because we know what is at stake. For we have been in the trenches. We bear the physical and spiritual scars on our person. We know how despairing it can feel to be limited, and how freeing it feels to find ourselves fully embraced. When we embrace the fullness of who we are, and enable others to do the same, the church is a stronger, healthier, more welcoming and faithful place.

feet of newborn - Caucasian

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Taking Your (Maternity) Leave Edition

feet of newborn - Caucasian

Newborn feet – fearfully and wonderfully made!

Dear Askie,

I’m preparing for the arrival of my first child (a girl!) in September. My congregation is very excited about my pregnancy, but I’m not sure they really “get it” about maternity leave. I have six weeks of paid maternity leave, and am extending that by using two weeks of vacation time. The problem is that I keep hearing people mention things that they assume I’ll still do while I’m on maternity leave. Congregants say things like “Oh, you’ll be on maternity leave then, so I’ll just email you,” or that I’m welcome to bring the baby along to the Fall Festival (three weeks after my due date, so I’ll definitely be out). I’ve also heard a lot of comments about how great it is that the church is being so generous to give me maternity leave, and it’s hard to know how to respond. At the same time, these folks are so sweet and so kind, and so excited to have a new baby at our church – they’re knitting blankets, making sure that the nursery meets my needs, and I think they’re even planning a surprise baby shower (someone let the secret slip). How do I navigate this new phase of life and ministry?

Expectant Pastor

Read more

The author and her son before his first day of day care.

The Women Who Make it Possible

The author and her son before his first day of day care.

The author and her son before his first day of day care.

I love being a parent.

I love working full time.

I love not having to worry about whether I am going over my half-time or three-quarter time limit. I love getting to throw myself wholeheartedly into my church. Frankly, I love getting to use the restroom by myself.

For my family, both parents working in churches full time is what has felt right to us. Both my husband and I had working mothers and neither of us felt called to be at home. We are keenly aware though, that this choice was only a viable choice to us because we have lived in two places where excellent day care centers were available for our son.

I am weirdly passionate about day care centers. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: PK’s in the Pews Edition

children in churchDear Askie,

My husband and I are both clergy, and parents of three kids, ages 3, 5, and 6. Although we’re a clergy couple, we never actually both had Sunday morning churches until recently. (I stayed home with the kids when the first two were babies, and then I pastored a church and he worked as a chaplain; now, we’re each pastoring a congregation.) When only one of us was working as a pastor, the other one would get the kids ready and bring them to church. Now that we’re both working Sunday mornings, we’re struggling. From deciding who gets them ready and which church they’re going to, to supervising them during the long stretch of pre- and post-worship activities not to mention dealing with congregants’ expectations that our children be perfect angels all the time, and handling actual misbehavior we are totally overwhelmed. We know that other clergy couples do this, though. How do they do it, Askie? How?

-Frazzled Pastor Mom

Read more

Imperfectly, but with Joy


“But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” -Matthew 5:48

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I am a recovering perfectionist.

I am also a terrible speller. I noticed after a first draft of this article that perfectionism was misspelled several times. Some might call this ironic; I call it growth.

Perfectionism has been a companion of mine for years. I find perfectionism is cunning, often masking itself as a good work ethic, or the ability to fit into most any social situation. In my experience, perfectionists are great leaders, team members, and organizers. With a perfectionist in the mix, things will get done! The downside is that perfectionism can be incredibly isolating, and beneath the surface there lies fear and shame. This leads me to wonder if perfectionism is one of the few publicly accepted addictions, both in our culture and in our churches.

Read more

Abundant Grace

In retrospect, I should have just skipped the meeting. Everyone would have understood, after all, we had just taken custody of our first foster child three days before. She was not doing well. But the stupid part of me, the part that wants to be mother and pastor simultaneously in all its glory with none of its brokenness, that part of me sent me to the meeting, nine month old foster daughter and two year old biological son in tow while my husband was out of town.

She shrieked for the first ten minutes of the meeting before we left, with all the moms in the group smiling comfortingly and knowingly, the teenage girls looking like they might have reconsidered premarital sex for a few more weeks.

It wasn’t really going how we thought it would.

Our firstborn child came hard. He was a great baby, but rounds of church conflict and a rough pregnancy landed me on bed rest for the last month of my pregnancy, and then recovering from a C-section. But after all that he was great. Easy baby, good eater, slept through the night before he was twenty-five. The church loved having a baby around, especially because it had been a while. They were forgiving of sermons that sometimes took detours before getting back to the point, patient with me nursing in my office while they stood outside waiting to speak with me, and charmed by his easy smiles and first steps.

We were not foolish enough to think that all babies were as easy as he was. But we were not really prepared for how challenging our girl would be.

My husband and I are both ministers, so we know what it means to be called. I was called while in college, and went straight to divinity school. Ben spent more time navigating the world before returning to school and being ordained. We had felt the same sort of call to serve as foster parents. My husband’s grandfather had been a foster child, cycling through several families until he finally ended up with the right one who saw him through high school and loved him until their deaths. His foster sister attended his wife’s funeral, sixty years later. We knew what a difference it could make.

And we felt like we could be useful. We had a spare bedroom, all the toys a child could need, extra time given my husband’s halftime work situation and my flexible schedule, and the desire to parent another child. We thought we could be useful.

We knew that there are too many families in the system. We knew that resources are tight in state budgets and children’s’ services are the easiest to chop, after cutting their mothers’ services, of course. We knew that whatever we do to the least of these we do unto our Lord.

When people ask me why we’re foster parents, if I feel like giving the short answer, I say “Somebody has to do it. And Jesus told us to.” That’s how we began. And we continue because of the children. They say that in child welfare there are two kinds of people: child savers and family preservers. Foster parents are asked to play both roles. It’s not easy. It’s not easy for us or for our congregation. Often I get to model forgiveness and grace and hope through the example I set in how I speak about our daughter’s other mother and father. It would be very easy to blame them, scapegoat them, and gossip about them (and it’s some GOOD gossip, let me tell you). But that’s not helpful to our girl, or to the faith lives of my parishioners. They need me to set a better example.

But what has been a blessing has been their example to me. They have been wonderful. We did lots of preparation, both for our family and for the church. After we were licensed, but before she came, I wrote a letter to the church telling them of our dreams and reasons for taking in a foster child and how wonderful they had been to our son. (True of most of the church). They were ecstatic and so excited to partner with us on this crazy journey. “Any news? When is the new child coming? Have you heard anything? What are you going to need from us?” were the questions on people’s lips as we waited.

And when she came, broken, tiny, with a shriek that sounded like a pterodactyl on steroids, they were still ecstatic for us. They caressed her tiny feet, laughed with us as she got bigger and sassier and stopped shrieking. They encouraged our son in his role as big brother, and gave me a lot of grace when I was frazzled or telling the fourth story in a row about how cute my kids were.

One member of the church, a gruff eighty-seven year old great-grandfather, carried her around from place to place as she directed him with points and laughs. Another member who is a lawyer in the local prosecutor’s office answered all my questions about the court process. Parents with adult children reassured me that the sibling rivalry would abate, probably.

And they only laughed a little when we provided respite (short-term) care for a pair of brothers in March for ten days. Their questions weren’t about how we would manage with four kids under the age of six in one house, and taking two cars to get everywhere. They asked when they could meet them, and how they could help. And one of Ben’s church members made us a huge lasagna and tray of brownies. Grace, grace, grace, abundant.

They give me a lot more grace than I would ever think to ask for. And it is so rewarding to have people who haven’t seen her in a while (cough- Christmas and Easter Christians – cough), see her with me and ask incredulously “Is that E?” “Yes”, I say proudly. “That’s our E.”  A tiny little spitfire of a girl who has taught all of us about grace, thriving, hope, and the value of pink shoes.

The Rev. Kerry Waller serves in the suburbs of Chicago as a Disciples of Christ Pastor. She is also a wife and mom of two (usually). She makes cards, cake pops, and coordinates children’s art projects as often as she can. She blogs, mostly about cards, at andthenthereweremore.blogspot.com.

Artwork by Lindsay Waller.