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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

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

dark coffee in small cup with saucer decorated with flowers on a wooden table top, looking from the top

A Young Christian Woman and a Young Muslim Woman Walk into a Cafe

dark coffee in small cup with saucer decorated with flowers on a wooden table top, looking from the topA young Christian woman and a young Muslim woman walk into a cafe…no, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. Interfaith jokes rarely include women – in fact even more serious images of interfaith relationships depict male priests, rabbis, imams, or monks gathering for a meal, a drink, or a football game. These images are often quite moving, serving as powerful reminders that God is at work through many religions and giving us glimpses of hope that we can get along. But such images are also not as accessible to me as a young clergywoman nor, I suspect, for the many people who see them as feel-good niceties that don’t have any real influence on how we understand God. I want to offer a new image for interfaith relationships from my own life, one anchored in the messiness of life and friendship and featuring young women:

It was one or two in the morning, so we were not in a cafe, but we’d had so much Bosnian coffee that day that we still couldn’t shut our eyes. We hadn’t seen each other in person for a few years so we had plenty to talk about: married life, new jobs, what it is like to be young women leaders in our communities. But, of course, we instead were talking about which Turkish soap opera actors are the cutest; at least, until Đana’s voice became serious: “Can I ask you something?” “Of course,” I responded, but I was still scrolling through overly dramatic stills of scenes from the soap operas we had been talking about. She asked, “What is this Trinity? God is one. How can God also be Jesus, a human?”

This was not the question I was expecting. As often as we spoke of God throughout the years of our friendship, I was wary of talking about theology and doctrine or even Jesus because I didn’t want to seem pushy, offend her, or hurt her. Đana is a Muslim who was targeted for genocide when she was a child by people claiming to share my faith in Christ. But now Đana was asking me (at a ridiculous time of day and while I was looking at pictures of Murat Yıldırım) to talk about my Christian faith. Her question challenged me to identify the difference such stories and doctrines made in my life, and why they matter. Read more