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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship and Director of Ministrieslab providing tools and resources to churches, clergy, and lay people to meet need. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book to read.

On Being Ordained for Five Years

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my ordination, a mile marker I remember every year as there are so many women who have sought and fought for ordination for themselves and for generations of young baptist women that would follow them. Even more, I think it’s important to remember the women who are in traditions, even baptists traditions, where ordination is STILL not a possibility and who cannot in their context live into their calls.

As I reflect on the past five years, I am in awe that there are now three congregations who have called me as their pastor. Three congregations who have recognized the call I felt so strongly in a closet in Greenville, SC eight years ago. A call I was so scared and terrified to express because I knew once the words left my lips, there would be no turning back. A call that was an invitation to participate in God’s work here on earth through preaching and teaching and developing partnerships and singing in a homeless shelter in Columbia, SC and making crafts in summer enrichment programs and soliciting national companies to donate food to those who are food insecure and tiling floors and developing curriculum and remembering and reflecting and loving and praying and hoping and so much more.

Five years ago, there is no way I could understand what this journey would entail. I couldn’t understand what it would mean to walk beside God’s people bearing their joys and their griefs; their hopes and their dreams. I couldn’t understand the immense privilege of being invited to the sacred spaces of people’s families and stories. I couldn’t understand the bittersweet feeling of being called to another congregation when you have walked so closely with people for years.

There’s so much I couldn’t understand, but what I did understand in that small room on highway 378 when I sat with my ordination council was that most pastors, especially female pastors, don’t make it to the five-year anniversary of ministry. In fact, Fuller Theological Seminary estimates the attrition rate of ministers to be between 30-40% five years after being ordained. Although these numbers vary from denomination to denomination and depend on whether the minister holds the senior pastor position or an associate minister position, we know the rates of clergy burnout across the board are climbing.  The duties and responsibilities of clergy continue to increase as budgets continue to dwindle and criticism permeates through the pews. Clergy, even young clergy, suffer at higher and higher rates from obesity, hypertension, and depression. Research continues to reveal the nature of pastoral work creates an island of isolation. Pastors are constantly confided in but don’t often have an outlet to process the weight and burden of what they bear on behalf of their congregants. This creates a dangerous environment leading to burnout, depression, and even at times suicide at higher rates than other professions. The struggle against burnout, depression, and suicidal thoughts is even more difficult as preachers are upheld as lighthouses or hope; people who aren’t supposed to struggle with these things.

Even knowing all this about the current climate for pastors, I sat in that room looking at the people gathered for my ordination council and answered the question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” by saying, “In parish ministry.”

I knew my call was to journey with God’s people. I knew my call was to preach in hope that people’s eyes would be opened to the Divine fingerprints that reveal God is with us, inviting to witness the mysterious transformations that surround us if we will but open our eyes.

My partner, Sam, delivered my ordination address five years ago and he said, “I told you not to do this” and we all laughed, but he was right. There is nothing about being called that has been easy. God has constantly asked me to step into the unknown, to challenge my own notions of the Divine, to introduce new possibilities to congregations and to follow after that still, small voice. Thanks be to God for the support and encouragement of a partner and a family who is with me every step of this crazy, called life.

I won’t pretend to know what the next five years hold, but I pray that I will have the strength and courage to continue to live a called life. A life that doesn’t always make sense, but always holds revelations of the Divine at work among us.

Divine Weavings

I am notoriously bad at putting lights on the Christmas tree. The first couple of years I put the lights on the tree, it looked like the tree had a been wrapped in a single line of lights. It was nice and orderly, but not aesthetically all that pleasing. Now, my approach is a bit more haphazard. I like to weave the strands of light up and down and around trying to make it look like the little bulbs of lights are appearing from out of the branches in a magical kind display. I take time to stuff the green strands as far back towards the trunk of the tree as possible so that at least upon first glance, you can’t see the way all the lights are connected.

There’s something about the tiny burst of light and the hidden strand that connects them that is mystical. And as I get up in the cold, dark morning and make my way over to the tree to turn on the lights, I am reminded of the Advent season. In this season, we try to trace the light of the world as it gets closer and closer to earth. We travel the journey of hope, love, joy, and peace getting closer and closer each week.

It’s a magical, mystical season in the church calendar. A season that asks us not to look at the single lights, but the divine weavings, the strand that holds all the lights together. Even in the midst of the influx of news about children being separated from their parents, children not receiving health coverage, and tear gas being thrown at children, I have seen little lights shining. But I’ve lost track of the divine weavings. I haven’t been able to find as clearly the strand of divine and holy work tucked away, invisible to the naked eye.

As Advent season draws near, there is a whisper calling in the darkness, “Search for the light.” And as my ears and heart open to that invitation, slowly a strand begins to appear. Emanuel, God with Us, here on earth working and weaving; Light to light; hope to love to joy to peace.

A Season of Hope

As Advent quickly approaches, I am excited to share that on January 2, 2019, I will officially begin as the Pastor of Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia. We are excited about this new adventure that God is calling our family to embark upon. We are incredibly grateful for the journey we have shared with New Hope Christian Fellowship over the last two and half years and anticipate with great hope walking this season of Advent with them as they dream about what’s next.

I have learned in my five years of ministry that there is no way to predict or anticipate what’s ahead when you live a called life. For me, a former teacher, who prided herself on the detailed account of short and long-range planning this is one of the most difficult aspects of being called. And yet, again and again, I am overwhelmed that God has called me to this wondrous and mysterious work called pastoring.  Having being raised Southern Baptist, being a pastor was never a possibility or a consideration. It just wasn’t something women did. And yet, again and again, God calls me to lead and guide God’s people.

As Advent quickly approaches, perhaps the Divine is asking us to stop planning and predicting what will happen and instead stand in awe and wonder of the Divine in human form.

Time for Rest

It’s taken me three months to schedule a haircut and it’s not because Ulta is so booked that I couldn’t get an appointment. It’s because I am so booked that I have scheduled and canceled at least three appointments. “This is just a busy season,” I tell myself looking ahead and trying to find a day off, a day of rest, knowing that I would be lucky to squeeze in a half-day of sabbath.

This is a busy season of life with young kids as a young professional, but am I really so busy that I can’t take an hour to get my hair cut? No, I’m not. When I truly reflect on the last three months of scheduling and canceling a haircut I realize that I, like so many, fall prey to the cultural expectations to go, go, go from one thing to another. I need to be needed. Moving from work to carpool to errands to home without really being in any of those places because my mind is constantly asking, “What’s next?”

And I feel guilty taking time to do simple things like get a haircut. Habits and patterns form more quickly than we care to admit. When we constantly go from one thing to another, we leave out rest. There’s no time to recover because there is no time in between exercises. We schedule our days, our weeks, and our months so full that we aren’t able to even remember what we even did last weekend. And when we live this way, we teach our children the same thing. We teach our children that in order to be successful and productive you have to be exhausted, tired, and most importantly busy.

In a recent study, it was reported that more than half of Americans don’t use their vacation days, which adds up to 658 million days of unused vacation, the highest ever reported. We are fighting against a cultural expectation when we take time to rest and time to reflect. We are fighting against false ideas of productivity and what it means to be successful when we stop and are present in the moment. We are fighting to teach our children and ourselves that being on busy and on the go isn’t the ultimate goal.

But we can’t teach that until we ourselves not only understand it but put it into practice.

Being a Woman in Southern Culture

In the wake of the Dr. Christine Ford’s testimony revealing allegations of attempted rape by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, there has been much discussion about whether victims of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse have space and a voice to share their experiences. Many have argued that the social climate and context in the 80s perceived attempted rape by a known person as somehow different than by a stranger in a dark alley indicated in movies like Sixteen Candles.

I would argue, too, that the geographic culture of the South and the Bible Belt have also made it difficult for victims to report and to share their experiences. This has a lot to do with the stereotypical picture of a Southern Woman. Growing up as a woman in the south in the Bible Belt, I heard again and again that the greatest aspiration for a woman was to be a mom. As a mother of three and one on the way, I agree to this sentiment, but not to the stereotypes and unrealistic expectations that are in the subtext of that statement. There’s a false and dangerous assumption here that a southern woman should be completely fulfilled when she becomes a mom. There is so much damage in this cultural expectation for women who don’t want to have children, women who need or want to work after they have children, and for stay-at-home moms who want time away from their kids. The expectation that underlies this idea is that a southern woman who is a mom should have endless and boundless amounts of energy to devote to her children, which creates dangerous patterns of ignoring self-care, signs of fatigue and exhaustion that lead to ongoing health problems, and never, ever asking for help because this is what southern women are supposed to do. It’s the idea that somehow as a southern woman who constantly self-sacrifices in the forms of hospitality and serving because that is we are wired and created to do. Not only is this an unrealistic and untenable expectation, it is a gross overgeneralization of gender roles.

I personally didn’t realize how much this was ingrained into as a girl who grew up in the Bible Belt, southern culture until I had children of my own. The pressing thoughts in my head about providing them meals and clean clothes and guidance would drive me to the point of frenzied anxiety. This anxiety permeated our home and our family for no good reason except this internal “this is what I am supposed to do.” Until I took the time to analyze and wonder where these ideas were coming from, I drove myself and my family to the point of exhaustion and fatigue. Perhaps it was also a need to be needed that drove these thoughts and ideas, but no matter the motivator, it was unhealthy and unbalanced.

It is never, ever easy to ask for help, but there is so much more joy and love and just plain fun when we work to create intentional space to grow and learn together. To be certain, I still fall into these learned behavior patterns and those expectations and societal expectations I learned long ago still creep in, but the more time I take to ask myself, “What do I want my children to remember about growing up?” the more time I find for dance parties, fort building and serving our community together.

Halfway There, Living on a Prayer

Yesterday, we hit the 20-week mark on this journey to welcoming a new little one into the Harrelson Pack. It took me by surprise to think that we were already halfway there to meeting this little one. This little one that we just found out is a GIRL!

In the midst of the excitement, I was inundated with the news of the accusations of rape against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaughn and conversations surrounding this news. To read that Republicans claim this wasn’t a big deal and then to read religious leaders claim it’s not a big deal heaping spiritual abuse onto Dr. Ford have left me speechless. To think that these leaders who are trying to push through a Supreme Court nominee who wasn’t accountable to the law is baffling to me. How can we expect that he will not use the law to get away with other forms of abuse once his power increases if he is confirmed?

But even more than these details about the overall health and integrity of the most powerful governing body in our country, my mind keeps returning to our baby girl. How are we supposed to raise a girl to become a strong, confident woman in the midst of this climate and context where women aren’t believed? How are we supposed to keep her safe and strong and brave? How when there are so examples of political abuse and spiritual abuse protecting men who break the law? How when we have a president who has multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment and jokes about women’s bodies?

And I think 20 more weeks isn’t enough to create everything I want to create for this little girl and for our 10-year-old and 8-year-old girls. It’s not enough time. There aren’t enough people working to overcome these powerful, powerful forces that have protected crime against women again and again. There’s not enough money to hire the best lawyers to fight NDAs and settlements and discrimination that sets the foundation for this type of oppression to take place. There’s not…enough.

Even as the tears fall in my laments, there are rays of hope. Women supporting Dr. Ford and her courage and bravery from her high school. Women and men coming together to rally again, understanding that the #metoo is not over and there’s still so much work to be done.

Here we are halfway there, living on a prayer and a hope that we will come together and we will create a better place for girls and women.

Spiritual Abuse and Natural Disasters

With Florence about to make landfall in South Carolina, people have been preparing for power outages and damages. In the midst of all of us trying to anticipate the uncertain, bad theology has come to the surface. This theology invites judgment about who deserves God’s protection and who doesn’t deserve God’s protection. This week Pat Robertson called on God and his people to pray a “hedge of protection” around their church and their properties. This is spiritual abuse.

Fundamentalism can’t thrive in uncertainties and so leaders of fundamentalism have to depend on predicting the unpredictable and trying to bring order out of the chaos that occurs during a natural disaster. These theological claims distract us from confronting the stark realities that natural disasters reveal. Over the course of the last week, I’ve heard many people asking condescendingly why people aren’t evacuating during the mandatory evacuations issued by the Governor in South Carolina. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to conclude that those not evacuating are people who are stubborn or who think the storm won’t be as bad as predicted. This conclusion allows us to turn a blind eye to the socioeconomic divisions that continue to segregate our state.

In reality, many can’t evacuate because they don’t have the resources to evacuate. Many can’t evacuate because of disability, economic restrictions, and responsibility to care for family members who are physically unable to travel. None of these reasons talks about the cost of evacuation: supplies, gas, hotels. For people who were born and raised in the community, evacuation is leaving their whole network. These are people who depend on every shift of work to make ends meet and having their jobs closed means they won’t be able to buy what they need. Evacuation is a privilege.

If there’s still a doubt as to whether evacuation reveals the divisions among citizens, recent reports reveal that the Governor of South Carolina did not make plans to evacuate the prisoners in the mandatory evacuate zones. When asked about those who couldn’t afford to evacuate, the FEMA Coordinator explained that FEMA doesn’t pay for evacuation expenses.

Our eyes are opened as we prepare for a natural disaster to the realities that separate us economically, racially, and socially. The question is will we see these uncomfortable realities or hide behind a hedge of protection laced with spiritual abuse?

Spiritual Abuse: Actions Speak Louder than Words

I’ve been pondering the discussions about Pastor Charles H Ellis and Ariana Grande for over a week. There was so much about this interaction that reminded me of similar situations I have been in as a woman and as a woman who attends religious services regularly. There is no doubt in my mind that Ariana felt uncomfortable in the interaction. I also recognize the exhaustion and pressure Pastor Ellis must have felt as he performed such a monumental and lengthy funeral as a member of the clergy.

But perhaps it is his fatigue that indicates where the problem lies. Perhaps it is when we are tired and when we are under pressure that we revert to our natural instincts and reactions. As a society, our natural instincts or our normal mode of operation is one that includes harassment, sexism, and spiritual abuse. Even with the revelation so the #metoo movement, we all witnessed before millions the way power and position are used to control women. In Ariana’s case, she was stuck in an extended embrace. Many women can tell similar stories of being stuck in too long or awkward or unwanted hugs. We recognize the look on her face and she realizes he’s not letting go. We feel her powerlessness as the “I’m stuck” realization washes over her face.

It’s hard to watch. It’s uncomfortable to watch.

Just as it is hard to hear of yet another victim coming forward in the Willow Creek’s former pastor Bill Hybels’ sexual misconduct case come forward. Not another one, we hope. Because another one would indicate that there were even more people who were silenced and told not to share their stories. Willow Creek’s response has been to concentrate on communication, but some are arguing that communication, or words, are not enough. Action is needed.

But we must open our eyes and see that things have not changed since the #metoo movement. We have heard the stories, but those stories, those conversations haven’t changed our mode of operation or what we do when we are exhausted and tired. If we really want to change these things, we must examine not only our words and language but our actions too.

Actions speak louder than words.

‘member that, Mommy?

As our son nears three, he is beginning to understand the passing of time. Terms like tomorrow and yesterday are starting to enter his vocabulary. Tomorrow usually pops up as the time when he doesn’t want to do something like clip his fingernails or go to the doctor. Yesterday usually appears when he is certain there is something we are about to do that we have already done like go to the store or going to school.

With these terms comes the question, “‘member that, Mommy?” especially when there was a particularly fun adventure like going to a baseball game. And every time I hear the question, I can’t help but smile and answer, “I do buddy, that was really fun, wasn’t it?” We are entering the stage where his memories are beginning to make lasting impressions. He understands what it means to be scared and he remembers when he found that spider on the ground. He understands what it means to hurt and he remembers when he got that splinter in his toe. He understands what it means to be happy and he remembers that time we all piled into the daddy’s truck and drove to the beach. He understands what it means to be loved and he remembers the times we turn the music up and dance around the living room.

As I watch this all unfold within him, I wonder if we remember. Do we remember what it feels like to be scared, to hurt, to be happy, to be loved? The words I overhear and the words I read are so often filled with emptiness, filling space with nothingness at best and hurt and pain at worst. Because we don’t want to remember.

We don’t want to remember the times we were scared and so we inflict fear on other people. We don’t want to remember that times we were in pain and so we inflict hurt on other people. We don’t want to remember the times we were happy because what if something happens and that disappears. We don’t want to remember the times we were truly and completely loved because that would ask us to truly and deeply love other people.

Remembering causes us to reflection, compassion, and empathy. Remembering asks us to recognize within us what is within all humans: fear, hurt, loneliness, joy, and love. Remembering asks us to recall the story of God who sent God’s only son to the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. Remembering is a radical spiritual discipline that recalls that we are ash and to ash we shall return. Remembering is a revolutionary call to honor the Divine breath that dwells in each and every human being.

Do this in remembrance of me.

Spiritual Abuse and The Process of Untraining

I found myself in an uncomfortable situation this week that reminded me of my conservative, evangelical upbringing. The semon was similar. The tone was similar. The lack of space for questions or discussion was similar. I found myself shifting in my seat trying to comprehend how I had ended up in a situation that reminded me so much of my past.

If you have childhood trauma of any sort, then you, too, know that these triggering events can creep up on you. Sometimes you can anticipate and predict what is going to take you down into the spiral of where you have been. The doubts. The questions. The emotions. And sometimes these triggers surprise you and threaten to drag you under the wave of remembering when you haven’t had time to take a good, deep breath.

Your mind begins the process of wondering, “How did this happen? How am I here again?” When this happens it would be easy to be hard on yourself telling yourself you haven’t made any progress because here you are again in the whirlwind of self-doubt and uncertainty. It’s easy in these moments to beat yourself up because you put yourself in a triggering situation.

But if you look hard enough in these moments, you can see and recognize little moments of light. If you offer yourself grace and space, then you will see that you behaved differently than you have before. You reached out for support or your center remained steady even in the midst of the situation or you were able to talk about the event in safe community.

Your eyes are opened and you can see that slowly, but surely you’re untraining yourself. Maybe you will never get rid of your past, but you this time you were able to not let the past take over. You were able to bring yourself back to the present. Back to your home.