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What I Learned in My First Year in Ministry

Standing in my living room surrounded by church members, I put my hand on a small group leader’s shoulder and anointed her with oil. I watched as tears welled up in her eyes. It was a moment I’ve thought about as I’ve reflected on my first year of ministry, one of the many meaningful experiences I’ve had. I am glad I have memories like these to think back on. Ministry is not easy. I have found ministry to be a mixed bag of frustration punctuated by moments of grace and growth. As I look back on the first year, I’ve learned many lessons, some easier than others. Below you’ll find six of the most important.

Sexism in the church is real. Practice creative problem solving.
There have been several times during my short time in ministry where I have come into contact with subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexism. People have a tendency to comment on my weight, my hair, my clothes, and my way of doing things consistently. People treat me differently than they treat my husband, who is also a pastor. There are fewer women in the denominational structure who share my gender and invest in me. While this is frustrating, I realized that there are female leaders who have learned to navigate the system well. These women have turned their frustration into creative problem solving and the best ones have done it with a sense of humor. In my own way, I am learning how to recognize injustice and use my resources to circumvent roadblocks that keep me from being an effective minister. Some of the best leaders I know have developed much of their leadership arsenal while navigating spaces of great adversity.  Knowing this has helped me to cultivate gratitude in the midst of frustration.

Instead of trying to be successful, get to know the people.
I spent the first few months of my ministry trying to figure out what the “rules” of ministry were because I wanted to be a successful pastor. As a former high school teacher, I knew there had to be rules somewhere! What I found in the church instead of rules were complicated networks of people. It took some time for me to feel out the culture of my church, the people I’d be working with, and the neighborhood. In the process, I learned that ministry is more relational than rule-oriented. Once I learned this, the image I had of a successful pastor got a little bigger and there was more space for me to bring my whole self to the job. I also felt freer to be creative and use my skills to reach goals in my own way.

Lead out of who you are.
I have learned that I can only lead out of who I am. I have a gender, an age, a racial identity. All of these things have shaped my life experiences and made me into the person that I am. In my first year of ministry, it has been important to share who I am without trying to copy another person’s leadership style, even the women leaders I look up to. I have used my own story in sermons and small groups. For example, this year I shared a story about becoming aware of my own racism because it was an important part of my Christian walk. This led to a spirited discussion of race and its importance in our lives at a women’s retreat as other people uncovered their own hidden biases. Movement through my own codependency has led me to recognize and deal with the codependency in my congregants and has helped to improve the health of our church programs. In many ways my wounds are gifts to those around me. Sharing my experiences has created a space for people to share about their lives and struggles. I think this has been one of the most valuable aspects of my first year of ministry.

It’s important to be theologically aligned with your co-workers.
No one is going to agree with you 100%. People have not been formed by the same relationships, bible studies, and seminary that has formed me. My own Christian walk is unique. Through our hermeneutic and life experiences, each of us live out our faith differently. And while it is good and healthy to expect theological differences among co-workers, it is equally important to share an understanding of the work of Jesus and the church in the world with your co-workers, especially if you will be working under another pastor’s vision. For example, if you feel that your faith compels you to social action, and the people you work with or your congregation don’t see the value in your approach, it is a recipe for frustration. Get to know the church you would like to work for and the people you would like to work with and make sure that it is a mutual fit so that your ministry is life-giving to both you and your congregation.

Cultivating a non-anxious presence comes through processing your own anxieties.
As pastors, we are called to be with people in the sacred moments of their lives; in birth, sickness, change, and death. It is immensely helpful to be a non-anxious presence in the stressful moments of other’s lives. I have learned that I can only do this by processing my own anxiety. This year, I had a chance to do this as I sat across from two congregants to discuss changing a long-running church program. I could feel my desire to please them bubbling up inside me. This was at odds with my desire to bring attention to the parts of the program I felt were unhealthy. It was an uncomfortable place to be, but by allowing space for my feelings, I had the chance to see what happened when I listened to my anxiety rather than reacted to it. I learned that it’s okay to be in tight spots, and that sometimes being in them allows me to deal with my own unresolved issues. This in turn helps me to be more present to the people in front of me.

Be patient.
In my first year in ministry I have learned nothing more thoroughly than this lesson. Recently I memorized the Message version of 2 Corinthians 5:8, “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.” In ministry, many days go by where it seems nothing is happening, no one is changing or growing, least of all myself. But through patience, I began to recognize the small changes in myself and others: the ways pastors extended trust to me or how a congregant was willing to share a story with me about the loss of their child. Change is slow in coming, and ministry is hard work, but God’s grace is ever unfolding and not a day goes by without it.

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

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

She Is Someone

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

“How’s your hubby?”

“Where is your husband?”

“What’s your fella up to?”

“You should have brought your husband today!”

I am new clergy, recently graduated from seminary, and four months into my first call as an associate pastor. The questions above are what I am asked every single Sunday and frequently when I encounter congregants through the week. Often, they ask this question without even saying hello to me first or asking how I am doing. In fact, one Sunday I had a woman physically grab my arm as I was walking by in the fellowship hall to stop me and ask, “Where is your husband?” I pointed to him at the food table where he was filling a plate. “Oh! I didn’t see him!” she replied and then walked away from me without another word. She didn’t even approach him to say hello. Why was it so important that she knew where he was, where she could physically lay eyes on him? He doesn’t come every Sunday, and he doesn’t have to. He has his own business to tend to on Sunday mornings.

As independent people, he and I have separate plans. I tried to gently explain this in our monthly newsletter saying, “My husband and I are pretty independent people, so don’t be worried or surprised if you don’t see him in worship all the time!” (With an exclamation mark added so that it didn’t come off as threatening.)  But I am not sure the message has gotten across.

I know that what I do as a pastor is appreciated. There have been encouragement and compliments about my sermons, my teaching in Sunday school, and the prayers I write for the liturgy. I just know that with a compliment comes the questions about my husband. While I know these questions are well-meaning, as this church is trying to get to know me and be invested in my life, it can be hurtful and frustrating. Why is my husband’s well-being of more concern to some people than my own? My husband has been and continues to be an incredible support to me, but we aren’t a package deal. We’re not a two-for-one special. Why am I not enough? Read more

An Open Letter to the “Minister” in my Facebook Feed

Dear Facebook acquaintance,

Since we haven’t actually talked or seen each other since middle school, let me just start by saying I’m aware that you’re hearing from me out of the blue. We connected several years ago through the magic of Facebook, where I learned that you’ve become a lawyer, enjoy the party scene, are friends with lots of beautiful women, and have some pretty strong political opinions. Looks like you’re enjoying life and succeeding well at it.

Speaking of Facebook, you shared a picture recently that we need to talk about. It was a picture of you officiating a wedding on a beach somewhere. It looked lovely – beautiful setting, beautiful couple, all that. But I was shocked to see you wearing a clerical collar, that little white square of plastic at the base of your neck contrasted against a black shirt, that unmistakable uniform of the clergy – one I wear every day. I didn’t know you had become a priest! How cool! However, a little bit of internet sleuthing revealed that you got ordained online, and wore the uniform to be funny (and that you were never going to let your devout Catholic mother see that picture. I think that’s wise, because I remember her, and she’d kill you if she saw it.).

In case you haven’t taken the time to scroll through my Facebook page, you should know that I actually am a priest. After leaving my first career as a teacher, I went to seminary (a three-year, full-time graduate program), got my Masters in Divinity, did several internships in churches and hospitals, went through years of meetings with committees and governing boards, medical and psychiatric evaluations, and was finally ordained in a very beautiful and moving ceremony. I have been working as a full-time pastor for the last six years.

I’m surprised by how many people have asked why I went through this long and crazy process when I could have just gotten ordained online. That question has never been anything less than a stab in the heart: it tells me that people have no idea what clergy actually do. Being ordained isn’t about getting a piece of paper certifying my credentials. It’s about a calling by God, a life commitment, and work that is more difficult and holy than you could ever imagine. Read more