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Pastoral Care

Trinity member Lauren Strawderman held 5 week old Micah while the author unpacked boxes. Lauren continues to be Micah’s second mom at church.

“Does the Pastoral Care team care for the Pastor or for other people?” It was a fair question from one of the new Elders at his first meeting, a day-long visioning and planning retreat for the Session, the church council elected by the congregation. I responded, “Sometimes both, but most of the time it’s coordinating care for church members and friends.”

As I responded in the present, my mind traveled through the past. That January meeting marked 3 years since the moving truck arrived in Harrisonburg with all of our family’s belongings – almost to the day. I had a 2 1/2 year old and a 5 week old with me, and arrived first at my new church, where the many boxes of books would be unloaded. Mary Lou, the chair of the search committee that called me, was there to present me with my key to the kingdom, and after boxes were unloaded, she followed us over to the townhouse to help on that end.

She wasn’t alone. Over the course of the day and in days following, a number of folks came through to offer their help. They unpacked boxes. They broke them down and took them away. They put dishes in the cupboards and they held the baby so I could get a few things done (clearly the most coveted job). Food arrived. Diapers. As I assessed some new needs – toy and book storage – Larry and Donna went shopping. I was five weeks postpartum and needed to take it easier than I would have preferred. But they took care of me.

On my first Sunday in the pulpit, I was busy trying to get everything together and Lauren, another member of the search committee, came in to take the baby off of my hands. From that week on, Lauren was Micah’s church buddy. It was Lauren who was first able to get Micah to take a bottle. To this day, Lauren sits right behind me, usually with Micah in her lap, wanting to read books, and he recently referred to her as “the one he loves so much.” Lauren and Mike, Bryce and Chris, Dawn, Susie, Abby, and Anne are just a few who have had turns babysitting, taking the boys to the children’s museum, their favorite playground, horseback riding, or on some other fun adventures. They take care of us. Read more

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

Letting the Church Be the Church for their Pastor

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

From when the author and her congregation remembered their baptisms and belovedness.

One of my favorite images of a pastor is that of shepherd. As a shepherd, I take care of my flock, making sure they are fed in belly and spirit, trying to keep them on the path, and jumping in to offer care and support when they are sick or hurting. When they are facing a health crisis I often remind them that they are not alone: God is with them, yes, but so are the other members of our flock. Letting the church be the church can be difficult when you’re on the receiving end of the help and support, but caring for one another is one of the ways we live out our faith and discipleship. Sometimes it’s not a church member who needs the church the most – sometimes it’s the shepherd that needs the flock.

On Epiphany Sunday, my husband began to complain of back pain. We both chalked the back pain up to restless nights spent tossing and turning and coughing after he picked up a bug of some sort visiting family at Christmas. By Tuesday, he could barely walk, and on Wednesday he finally went to Urgent Care, where they guessed that he had a pinched nerve. The next morning he woke up with the left side of his face looking like he had a stroke. When he drank his coffee, it spilled back out. When he tried to stand, his knees buckled and he fell. This was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

After his mother arrived to watch our four-and-a-half-year-old twin girls, we went to the Emergency Room. Waiting in the hallway on a gurney for hours as they ran different tests, his legs became weaker to the point that he could no longer walk. The nurse practitioner kept a close eye on us, his eyes betraying his concern as test after test came back normal. As evening drew closer with still no answers, he called a neurologist who within minutes gave a diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).

GBS is a rare autoimmune disorder triggered by a virus in which the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking the myelin sheath of one’s peripheral nerves. It can progress incredibly quickly, and for some it’s a matter of hours before they are paralyzed and on a ventilator. My husband’s had progressed very slowly and they began treatment immediately. Once he was in a room I went into crisis mode: I messaged our family members to tell them what we knew; I asked one of my sisters to come up from Maryland to help watch our daughters while I was at the hospital; I called our District Superintendent; I alerted my Staff-Parish Relations chairs; I tried to explain to our daughters what was happening, kissed them goodnight, and went back to the hospital.

Everyone was quick to respond with offers of help. “Anything you need,” they said, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I needed. Read more

silhouette image of a woman on a horse reading a book - the logo for UMC clergywomen

Fewer Gender Binaries, More Expansive Leadership

silhouette image of a woman on a horse reading a book - the logo for UMC clergywomen

Another kind of circuit rider

We are saddened and frustrated whenever male colleagues in ministry seem to be suffering amnesia about the power of women’s leadership in shaping the church. Recently, a United Methodist clergyman penned a commentary for a forum run by the United Methodist news service on the role of women and men in the church. In it, he claimed that the church requires gendered forms of leadership, a Marian form following the example of prophet and God-bearer Mary of Nazareth and a Petrine form following the example of disciple Simon Peter.

The Marian form is–you guessed it–nurturing, whereas the Petrine church is about discipline and maintaining order. He presents these two forms of leadership as both being necessary and so concludes the piece without recognizing the problem. This leaves us, as women and gender-nonconforming folks often have to do, to educate our dear colleague once again: we cannot continue to rely on the sinful “complementarian” structure that is the very same used to reject the ordination of women.

When it comes to leadership in the church, we do not have to match our roles to the assumed genitalia of disciples in the Bible. Mary of Nazareth is not the role model for all women who want to participate in the life of the church, nor is Simon Peter the role model for all men. Mary and Peter offer differences in their relationship to Christ and their ministries, as do all other disciples and apostles. Our roles are not defined by or limited to our gender performance.

Separating out leadership roles by gender limits all of us. To make our Theotokos, a Greek title for Mary that means God-bearer, a model only for women is to discount a powerful example of discipleship for all who follow Christ. Mary is a model of courageous, outspoken, inclusive leadership. She is an example not just for women’s roles in the life of the church, but for ALL who seek to be disciples and leaders in the church. She answered God’s call, proclaimed God’s justice, shared Christ with the world, and welcomed everyone, from the shepherds to the magi, to be part of the movement. She is the model of leadership that the whole church needs not just mothers or women to emulate but all people, regardless of gender.

The apostle Paul offers us wonderful image of his leadership that does not conform to gendered expectations when he writes that he is like a nursing mother (for example 1 Thessalonians 2:7). Paul is clearly a “discipler” by vocation and action, something the author of that article claims is Marian by Scriptural witness. A closer look at Scripture reveals more than what the author of that article sees. Read more

Not Just the Future but the Present

people sitting on benches on a hill facing away from camera and toward three wooden crosses with another wooden cross and flowers in the foreground

Morning devotions at Henderson Settlement

An eleven-year-old stood behind a rough wooden podium on the side of a mountain at Henderson Settlement, a United Methodist mission site in Kentucky. Her back was straight, her face calm and fierce, and she called us to our morning devotion first with a song. She looked to an adult who was with her to help lead the songs, but she did not invite him to stand with her. She didn’t need him to: she filled the space with a powerful presence all alone. After singing, she opened her Bible and began to read from the sixth chapter of Isaiah.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”

She opened her journal, set it on top of the open Bible, and looked at us before beginning to preach. Because that’s what it was: preaching. She challenged us with the Good News, reminding us why we were there on a mission trip and pointing not to our service, but to God. Her reading was not particularly new, but it was her confidence, her assurance that struck us and inspired us. “Here I am; send me!” she read, closing her devotion by repeating the scripture. Then she closed her journal and looked at us. “Here we are; send us,” she said in benediction.

This summer, there has been an article floating around young clergywomen circles detailing how important it is for young girls to see women in leadership in churches. The article is based on a book by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin called She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America.[1] They argue that seeing women in leadership in churches has a positive impact on girls and young women in those churches later in life. I wondered who the role models were for the eleven-year-old who led us in our devotion. But I also began to wonder – why don’t I have more eleven-year-olds as my own role models?

I spent most of the summer doing mission work and working with children and youth, and over and over again I would watch adults volunteer to pray, instead of waiting for young people to volunteer. I would watch adults ignore or question youth leaders. These older adults did not deny leadership to young people maliciously, but they seemed to be so keen on modeling discipleship that they forgot that they have much to learn about discipleship themselves. I have spent so much energy in my own ministry proving that I, as a young clergy woman, actually can lead, saying, “Here I am!” I realized that I still need to make a more conscious effort to allow myself to be led by young people, to make space for those eleven-year-old preachers and teachers in my life.

I realized this need to make space post-March for Our Lives, the powerful visual reminder of all the work young people are doing in the wake of incredible violence in our schools. I had cheered Emma Gonzálezshared Naomi Wadler’s words on social media, and yet still I was surprised, sitting on the side of the mountain that day, at the way this girl was filled with the Holy Spirit. And so I knew, I had some work to do. And I suspect you do as well. 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

“Out of the Bathroom, Into the World”

The author (bottom left) and her youngest daughter (top right) pose with Board Members of Young Clergy Women International, 2017.

“You need to develop a pastoral identity. It comes with time. Don’t worry, it will come.”

One of my dearest seminary professors told us this over and over, and I believed him. It would come: I would be able to see myself as a pastor, the more time I spent learning, watching other pastors, performing pastoral tasks myself.

The problem was this: there were precious few pastors who looked like me. I went to the seminary of a denomination that was early in its process (lo, these many years ago, way back in 1999) of ordaining women to ecclesiastical office, a denomination that had resolved its differences for the time by allowing a provisional, regionally based version of women’s ordination. There were 55 students in my MDiv class. Only 5 were women. There was one woman on the faculty of my seminary, and she wasn’t ordained herself. By the time I finished seminary and was ordained, there were fewer than two dozen ordained women in my denomination, and precious few who had, like me, gone straight through college and seminary into ministry as their first career.

During those four years of seminary, the safest place to think about myself as a pastor was the women’s bathroom. The seminary building, designed mid-twentieth century with exclusively male seminarians in mind, had no women’s bathrooms in the area where the classrooms were located. But over by the administrative offices, there was a large women’s restroom with an attached women’s lounge, a holdover from a time when the only women in the building were secretaries. That was the safe place for the handful of us women who were students. I laughed and cried and hoped and dreamed with my classmates in that space. We were honest there, most honestly ourselves, but we had to put up a facade when we left the bathroom lounge.

And so the bathroom was really the only place at my seminary where I could work on my pastoral identity as a female.

I learned to be a woman pastor in that bathroom. But I still had a murky picture of my own identity, because I had precious few places to look for examples. Read more

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

“Find Yourself a Group of Friends…”

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

Find yourself a group of friends…

 

…who will remind you to take care of yourself.

Just last night I went to set my home alarm before going to bed, like I always do. It was late, and the alarm wouldn’t set. It kept notifying me that the basement exterior door was open. There was no reason why the basement door should be open, so that freaked me out. I went out into my backyard, mace in one hand, phone in the other, two dogs by my side, and peered over the fence at my basement door. It looked closed to me. So I started thinking about calling the non-emergency police number to have someone come out and help me check my basement, since I live alone and basements are scary and it was late at night. Immediately, I wanted to know what my friends would do. Then I thought, “You know what they would say! They’d tell you to ask for the help you need!” So I called the non-emergency number and two deputies came out and checked on everything for me, and then I was able to sleep soundly.

I knew that’s the advice they’d give because it’s the advice they give me all the time. They remind me to eat and to sleep when I’m cranky. They remind me it’s ok to eat reheated Panera soup when I’m sick and just need something easy. They don’t flat out tell me to go to therapy, but when I say I think I probably need to, they encourage and support me in that. Over and over and over again these women have helped me remember to take care of myself, and that is a gift at midnight on Sunday when the alarm won’t turn on because the basement exterior door is open when it shouldn’t be and you don’t want to ask for help.

…who will sacrifice for/with you.

October is friendcation month for me. Each year two of my dear friends and I set aside a week in early October to be together. Sometimes we pick a destination and rent a house there. Other times we go to someone’s home—usually when that friend has recently moved—and spend a week seeing their town. This week almost always involves more compromise than any other area of my life. I’m single and childless, so, ordinarily, my time is my time, my money is my money, and my space is my space. My friends are also single and childless, so it’s possible that they, too, compromise more on friendcation week than at other times.

This year during friendcation I found myself thinking a lot about this. Single, childless people often get the message that we can never understand what it is to be partnered or to be a parent until you’ve lived it. Frequently, that message comes with the implication that somehow a person’s capacities for love and self-sacrifice are stunted due to their lack of partner or children. I acknowledge that it is hard to relate to others’ lives until we’ve experienced something similar ourselves, but I know about love and sacrifice. Read more

A Conference Story

As young clergy women gathered in Vancouver, Canada, for YCWI’s tenth anniversary conference earlier this July, the scenery was gorgeous and the weather was spectacular. The conference was uplifting, invigorating, challenging, and exciting. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Casey Fitzgerald, inspired us with her biblical storytelling and challenged us to consider where our stories intersect with God’s stories.

One of the things I love about YCWI is that my colleagues already know so much of my story. Indeed, they know much of it without me even having to say a word, because it is our shared story. It is the story of being a young woman ordained to ministry, and all the joys and struggles that go with that – the frustrations of receiving more comments on your hair or shoes than your sermon; the anger of coming up against the stained glass ceiling; the challenges of balancing dating and ministry, or motherhood and ministry. All of that, is held in the knowledge that we are called and gifted by God to serve the church in all that we embody as young women.

These are my people, my village, my church. And they are part of my story. Read more

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

Loving The Young Clergy Women Project

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

A few weeks ago, my family and I made our way down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in search of a room in Boston University’s School of Theology where I would share the next three days with a hundred clergy women from many denominations. I was, uncharacteristically, a little nervous. What if I didn’t know anyone? What if no one cared that I was there? What if they were annoyed that I was there, since technically I had already graduated from The Young Clergy Women Project eight days earlier?

As soon as I entered the room where we were gathering, my fears melted away. I spotted a couple of familiar faces from Facebook, then a few more, and then I ran into one of my favorite UCC colleagues and her face reminded me why I’d come to The Project in the first place. I came for the friendships and for the professional bonds that connect us as women in ministry in a world that both relies on women for emotional and household labor AND undervalues the worth of our work at home and in the workplace. I came for the fierceness, the laughter, and the tears. I came for the culture where finding excellent child care is a normal part of conference planning, and where mamas hand off their babies to any willing set of hands. I came for the worship and the workshops, for the time spent lingering over meals and the time spent laughing over drinks. (I came also, it must be fairly said, for the swag.)

I did not expect how much this group would mean to me. Read more

My Grandpa, Our Advocate

The Author’s Grandfather

The Author’s Grandfather

I don’t belong to the same faith tradition as my grandfather did. Our denominations are cousins (mine the liberal cousin) that emerged out of the Stone Campbell movement of the Second Great Awakening. His tradition was non-instrumental, led by non-ordained clergy, absolute in its congregational polity, and literalist in its interpretation of much of Scripture. Grandpa’s tradition didn’t allow women to read Scripture, pray in worship, or teach boys over the age of 12, let alone serve as pastors of congregations.

When I was in the second grade, my parents moved us out of my Grandfather’s tradition and into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), mostly because of the institutional treatment of women. Raising two daughters made my parents keenly sensitive to the unjustness of their childhood church’s position. I, however, grew up blithely unaware of the sexism I’d been fortunate to avoid; I was unequivocally supported by my immediate family once I discerned a call to ministry (at the tender age of 14). But once I realized the difference between the tradition of my extended family and the tradition of my immediate family, I started to worry: would Grandpa approve? Grandpa had served as a pastor for many years, taught at a local seminary, had two PhD’s; his disapproval would be hard to combat. I should have remembered, though, that my Grandpa was a gentle, loving, intelligent, and kind man. I should have known my fears of rejection would be unfounded. He and my Grandmother participated in my ordination, and they never hesitated to support my ministry.

Grandpa may be in my Cloud of Witnesses, but I am convinced he stands also in the Cloud of Witnesses of countless women in the Church of Christ. You see, Grandpa taught his church that women could be deacons; he never failed to praise my preaching to every Sunday school he had, subversively asserting the validity of women’s proclamation of the gospel. In and out of the pulpit, throughout his career, Grandpa was always working to normalize the ministry of women in his own context. In his retirement, he continued this support, personally encouraging and championing women who pursued ministry within his tradition. After his funeral, which was held on Holy Saturday, an older woman took me aside to tell me the story of how Grandpa always asked after her daughter who was serving as a minister. Grandpa not only continued to encourage her daughter, but also encouraged this woman whenever she was asked to read scripture or lead prayers.

Women I will never meet know they are supported in their calls because my Grandfather dared to speak up for them. People who would never have challenged the status quo of their tradition were presented with solid interpretive possibilities because my Grandfather wasn’t afraid to teach them. And I? The story of his call and faithful submission to God is a bright beacon that keeps me strong as I follow my calling. His gracious love, steadfast commitment to teaching, and joyful celebration of my ministry in a context that was occasionally hostile to female ministers reminds me that I, too can have an incredible impact on the churches and members that I serve. I can be brave, like he was; I can push the church, like he did; but I can only do those things if I am committed to deeply loving my flock, just as he did.

I know there are many men like my Grandpa, who stay within their traditions and remain steadfastly committed to the inclusion of women in ministry. Praise God! But today, I’m thankful just for him. Whenever I affirm the call of another woman, I like to think I’m carrying on his legacy.