Women were not ordained in the church I grew up in until the year I graduated from high school. I knew, thanks to my parents, that it was wrong not to ordain women. And I realize now that they went out of their way to expose my siblings and me to women pastors in other churches. But still, I didn’t have many role models for women leading worship.
It turns out this is true of many young women pastors, even those who were raised in church settings where women were ordained. There just weren’t as many female as male role models. And so, for many of us, one of the early struggles in finding out footing in ministry is carving out our pastoral identity as worship leaders. Young men have the same issue, too, but they have inevitably heard a few more voices in their own register. But the range is more limited for women. Do we imitate the one or two or three women we’ve seen leading worship? What if that doesn’t feel authentic because it just isn’t really who we are? Can we use our own voices, our own experience, our own age and generation, as a valid version of the woman-worship leader?
One of the gifts the Young Clergy Women Project has given me is a whole chorus of voices, young and female, like me and not like me, different accents, different theologies, different approaches, but the soprano and alto section of the clergy choir, sounding full-voiced and clear and harmonious when it all blends together. It has been easier to find my voice among these women, and then to bring my voice home to the congregation I serve.
At our conference in July, worship was the most vivid illustration of this chorus. Six of us led worship, each taking our own direction with the morning or evening prayers we were assigned. There were some great moments of liturgical give and take. Maria accommodated our lack of ability with Swedish and used the English language ELCA vespers service. High church and beautiful. Suzanne creatively planned, and then integrated the misfortune into the meaning when a vase for a creative project broke. Simple, calm, and artsy to the core. I was humored by the group when I insisted that my Calvinist sensibilities were not going to allow me to officiate over the Lord’s Supper if the table was set up against the back wall like a (gasp) altar! (Thanks again to Sarah for tolerating that moment of liturgical discomfort!) Suzy transformed a lecture hall into a veritable pilgrimage site, filled with prayer stations, seeing the potential for the space that few of us could have expected.
We marveled all week at how different every time of worship was. The voices, the planning, the actions, the singing. The preaching, from woman to woman, was everything from carefully polished to off the cuff to completely focused on the congregation’s response. And it was all beautiful.
There is not one voice for women pastors. There are many. I remember a seminary professor telling us that each one of us would have, essentially, one sermon, one corner of the gospel, that our preaching would circle back to over and over. “But that’s OK,” he said, “because each of us will hold up a corner of a the whole sheet and together we’ll keep the whole thing going.”
I am more than honored to hold a corner with these women. And more than blessed by the ways their voices mix and meld and bless me over and over and over again.