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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Interim 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.

The Importance of Where You’ve Been

More often than I’d like to admit, I wish there was something different about my story. I wish I was involved early on in communities of faith who welcomed and affirmed women in ministry. I wish I could have started in ministry sooner. This doubt and uncertainty leads me to wonder about the investment of both time and money in my educational career.

I worked for five years in a classroom of some sort and yesterday I found myself back in the classroom in on the second floor of a church working with students from high poverty and supporting an incredible ministry called Koinonia. As I drove to the church, there was certainly a bit of anxiety fluttering in my stomach as I wondered whether my teaching muscles were too stiff and out of practice to work, but as soon as the students walked in, I knew that teaching would always be a part of my story.

My experience teaching students in high poverty settings has led me to develop and lead a VBS for kids in government-subsidized apartment to teach ESOL and welcome strangers into the United States. Yesterday  that experience led me to model and team teach with an elementary education major who is about to head into student teaching. Now, I am sure that there are some who would look at this and say that God’s plan for me was to have me to teach and have these experiences and then to move into ministry.

Maybe.

But maybe there is a reality in which I could have lived my calling to ministry in a classroom setting and done good important work.

Maybe the journey of our lives isn’t so much about a particular setting, but about the realization and understanding we have as we are where we are. Maybe the experience of being a disciple of Christ isn’t about particular actions, but about a particular mindset of serving and loving others. Maybe God is in classrooms and churches and coffee shops and grocery stores whispering to us to see the divine interrupting our lives, changing our paths, looping our paths, inviting us to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Maybe God is asking us to stop worry about where we are called and instead worry about who we are called to be.

“Where does your husband pastor?”

Today as I was dropping off our son at his half-day school, I was introduced to a woman who was visiting. The woman who introduced me said, “And this is one of our moms who is also an excellent baptist minister.”

I smiled, keeping an eye out for Ben as he explored the lobby.

The woman who introduced me to the visitor went on her way leaving the two of us to continue the conversation.

“Where does your husband pastor?” the visitor asked me.

“I’m the pastor, actually,” I responded with a smile.

“Oh, wow….that’s great,” she responded, obviously taken aback by my clarification.

It was interesting to me that even though the woman who introduced us was clear that I was both mom and pastor, for this visitor, those two things didn’t go together or fit into her schema. I didn’t take offense because I know she was taking a lot in as she was looking around, but also because, to be honest, meeting a female baptist minister still isn’t that common, especially in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Maybe, as she continues on her way, she’ll pass along the word that she met a female baptist pastor. Maybe the next female baptist minister she meets won’t get the question, “Where does your husband pastor?” Maybe when her daughter or granddaughter or one of their friends explains to her that they are called to ministry, she won’t be shocked or surprised because she’s met a female baptist minister before.

And maybe the next time I see her and we’re able to have a longer conversation, I’ll share that my husband is an ordained baptist minister as well, just to keep her on her toes!

On Finding New Hope

A year ago, I was in the throws of the pastor search process with two churches, both full-time, benefitted positions; both a part of what I thought was the next step in my ministry. As I waited between the first and second interviews, I began packing boxes in our house convinced that we were moving to a new phase and a new place. By the end of June, one church  went completely silent. There was no communication after months of scheduling interviews, emails back and forth, and meeting people in the church. Then, nothing. Not even a response to emails. Just silence. The second church called to let me know that they were calling another candidate, a great choice for them,  someone I knew and respected.

I was left dumbfounded and shocked. I had been so certain that I was being called to full-time ministry and a different place. It was so strange to be in the midst of dreaming and visioning what was next in exciting, new ways and then to find out so close together that neither of those were a possibility. No one told me about the hurt and disappointment that the pastor search process brings.

While I was in the search process, waiting to hear from churches, I started doing pulpit supply at a CBF church start in town called New Hope, a great community of people. I kept telling them that I could do another couple of weeks as I waited and they kept asking me to come back. In the midst of my shock and disbelief that what I thought was next was not in fact next, I kept coming to a community founded on hope, new hope.

Their story was one that was filled with their own stories of pain and disappointment as they moved from different communities of faith to form something different. They had been hurt by the church and yet they still believed that the gospel could change and transform lives. They clung to hope even in the midst of their pain and suffering. In fact, the verse they decided was the foundation of what they were creating was 1 Peter 1:3:

By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…

And I just happened to be doing pulpit supply for this community of faith as I encountered the uncertainty and chaos of transition in ministry.

The image of the wilderness is not one that we can ignore as ministers. God called God’s people out of slavery into the uncertain future of the wilderness. Abraham was called away from his home to the wilderness. Jesus before he began his ministry was tested in the wilderness, but it’s not something we often talk about as communities of faith.

The wilderness teaches us that there really is no way for us to plan our future if we are following God. God is always calling God’s people to new journeys, new names, new identities, and new life just when we feel we have our feet on solid ground. But in communities of faith, there is a theology of comfort and security running wild, rather than the people of God running in the wilderness.

For me, the journey in the wilderness lead me to new hope in the form of a community passionately clinging to hope as their foundation rather than comfort and security. I’m not sure I could have found this new hope had I not first experienced the disappointment as I wandered in the wilderness of the unknown.

Thanks be to God, for continuing to upset and disrupt this minister’s life in truly miraculous ways.

Let the Sun Shine In

After four days of thunderstorms, the sun is out this morning. The storms brought a breeze I thought wouldn’t return to Columbia again until September after last week’s 90 + days. Last week was so hot even the grand magnolia trees were looking withered as they tried to pull up water from their deep roots.

As I looked at those magnolia trees towering above me last week, I thought of people who are trying desperately to hang on in the midst of the blazing sun of the wilderness; uncertainty surrounding them in the form of sickness, the unexpected loss of loved ones, and unsure job prospects. Like these magnolias, the wilderness sun was asking them to pull up every last ounce of hope from their deep roots of faith.

And then the rain came. The clouds opened up delivering hope in the form of water. The reminder of our baptism. A vase of flowers. A text message. An unexpected dinner that didn’t have to be cooked, planned, or prepared.

These unexpected thunderstorms providing rain at just the right moment is how the magnolia will survive through this hot Columbia summer. These moments where we realize someone has been thinking about us as we are traversing the blistering sun of the wilderness is how we will survive as people of God. These small acts showering us with the hope as they sustain and restore our souls.

 

Reversing Your Running Path

This morning, I knew it was time, but I didn’t want to.

I didn’t want to run the 3.5 mile course I run on Fridays in reverse. I didn’t want to because I knew it would disrupt and disorient me. Yes, I know all of the reasons as a runner why you should reverse your familiar paths. I know that if you don’t then your shoes wear down in very specific unhealthy ways. I know if you have a nagging recurring injury that reversing your running path can reverse the negative impact on that injury and reorient any compensating behaviors you’ve accidentally taken on. I know this, but I just didn’t want to.

I knew it would mean not seeing my familiar markers, knowing exactly how much further I had to go. I knew I’d encounter the shortcut option 2/3 into my run instead of 1/3 into my run. I knew that I wouldn’t know the exact number of blocks I had to run before the next turn because I wasn’t as familiar with the path from another angle. More than anything I knew that it would mean encountering a hill that rose incrementally and steadily rather than a steep short hill where I could clearly see the end in sight.

But I knew this was good for me and so I did it reluctantly.

As I ran from the safety of the sidewalk, I realized I couldn’t see clearly what was coming towards me, but rather that I heard what was coming first. As I ran I depended on my ears rather than my sight. I could feel my nagging right hamstring relax with relief as my left hamstring took on more. And I began to realize that reversing my running path was very similar to the discipline of renewing my mind as Paul reminds us in Romans 12:

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As someone who experienced spiritual abuse, it is so easy when I encounter something challenging to fall back into the familiar path of dogmatic, closed theology where everything has a reason and everything has an answer. It is much, much more difficult for me to reverse that pattern of thinking and lean into the disorientation of not having the familiar markers of known answers to the unexpectedness of life, but this doesn’t produce growth. This produces an unhealthy attachment to the theology that doesn’t fit and isn’t applicable at best and theology that hurts and maims at worst.

As I rounded the corner to the end of the run, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was finished. Done with reversing the path. Next week I could return to the familiar, known path. I looked down at my watch. I ran 25 seconds faster each mile than I had last week on the familiar, known path.

Maybe disruption and disorientation is what produces strength and growth as it wakes up our other senses and other muscles to something new.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: On Needing Control and Order

“So I see your child has your OCD a little bit, eh?”

I laughed at my friend’s comment shrugging it off as a funny quirk, but as I wrestled with this a little more, I began to uncover another remnant of the spiritual abuse I experienced growing up.

There was always a reason. It didn’t matter if a youth died unexpectedly or a minister engaged in an affair or if someone committed suicide, there was always a reason. God always had a plan. God’s will would always be done. Explanations and reasons that brought about an orderly understanding of the unexpectedness you’re bound to encounter if you live in this world long enough.

There was no room for chaos. The unexpected when encountered fit into a nice, neat theological box of certainty. In times of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, I feel myself reverting back; depending on order, not wanting to ride the waves of chaos; clinging desperately to what I was taught rather than leaning into experiencing the Divine.

There have been too many experiences already in my short tenure as a minister where I have encountered people hurting, gasping for breath after the unexpected wave life has thrown at them. As they have looked at me and asked, “Why?” I haven’t been able to offer those boxed answers of certainty; those flimsy, life-preserver reasons that we toss at people to avoid feeling their pain. Instead, I have tried to look at them and say, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, but here’s a warm towel and some cold water and I’ll sit right here with you.”

As we near the raging wind that brought tongues of fires to hover over the followers of Christ, I can’t help but wonder how I can avoid the numerous times chaos, the wilderness, the unknown, the rushing wind is a part and indeed central to the narrative of those who follow God. Perhaps in trying to tame Creator God and the Holy Spirit, we are missing the opportunity to participate in the magical, mystical, unexplainable work of the Divine.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Having an Opinion

Elisabeth and I have embarked on a new adventure called The Minister and The Mystic. This new podcast is more real and true to our experiences and our stories . As we have talk each week, I become more and more aware of the impact spiritual abuse has had on my life. It’s overwhelming and scary to admit because I want so much to shed the past and move forward. Elisabeth gives me the courage to recognize and claim the spiritual abuse I’ve experienced as part of my story and yes, even part of my identity.

Part of that identity are leftovers and holdovers from the adherence to a strict set of dogmatic beliefs. One of these beliefs was the idea that women didn’t have their own voice in decision-making whether that be in church or in their families. I didn’t realize how much impact this teaching had on me. I didn’t realize the number of times I still pause in my closet asking myself what impact my decision about what clothes I choose to wear will have on other people; remnants of false teachings of sexuality that a woman is the one responsible for tempting a man by dressing a certain way.

I didn’t realize how I had been conditioned to anticipate and plan for other people’s needs to the point of forgetting my own needs. I didn’t realize how in conversations I had been conditioned to be a silent listener rather than an active participant who voiced opinions and experiences. I didn’t believe my opinions, my perspective, my take on the world mattered because there were absolute truths that superseded my voice.

I thought I didn’t have a choice in forming my voice. I thought I had to weigh my opinions against all the other voices swirling around in my head. These are the voices of spiritual abuse I must silence in order hear my own voice.

“What do you want?” my husband often asks me.

“I don’t know,” has long been my response because what I wanted was so entwined with other people’s wants and needs.

Slowly, but surely I am finding the courage to say what I want. Slowly, but surely I am wading through all the voices in my head that say don’t speak up and am sharing my opinions. Because my voice, my opinions, my story matters.

And so does yours.

Making Room at the Table

It’s been four years since I stepped into the identity of pastor for the first time. I’ve become accustomed to the people I meet in the Bible Belt who are shocked to find out there is such a thing as a Baptist woman pastor. I’ve become accustomed to the conversations and debates about what fully including women at the table means for the future of the church and the future of the Baptist identity. I’ve become accustomed to the resistance, shaming, and spiritual abuse that come from those who are scared of losing their power and control over the new seating arrangements at the table.

Sheryl Sandberg has become renown for encouraging women who want to become leaders and decision makers in the business world to “lean in” and take a seat at the table rather than hovering in the background of conversations and meetings. Taking a place at the table shows confidence, competence, and courage all important aspects of leadership.

But what she doesn’t cite is the fallout that follows once women take a seat at the table. Inevitably, when women start to take more seats at the table, there is less room people who have traditionally occupied those seats. As women begin to step confidently into their calls as ministers, as pastors, as leaders, as decision-makers, those who have been in power will feel challenged and threatened. There will be disruption and confusion because the table isn’t set as it always has been. No one is sure of their place or their power anymore.

This is what we need. We need disruption. We need to turn the tables. We need a different table setting. We need tables full of as many voices and perspectives as we can find. We need to bring out the table leaves and add more room and more seats. We need to sit beside each other sharing fellowship and needs. We need to bump elbows sitting beside each other sharing space, sharing food, and sharing ideas instead of fighting over seats like children in a game of musical chairs.

There is room enough for you. There is room enough for me. There is room enough for all.

Eastertide

I didn’t grow up in a community of faith that observed the church calendar, so the different seasons we celebrate throughout the year are still fascinating to me. Right now we are in the season called Eastertide. I love the image of riding the wave of the joy and resurrection throughout the next fifty days.

As I’ve thought more about it, the realization has washed over me that the joy of the Resurrection wouldn’t be quite as joyful without the deep grief of the Crucifixion. And so the life of the disciple is the ebb and flow of grief and joy, doubt and hope, peace and uncertainty. Back and forth, ebbing and flowing, as we follow Jesus Christ.

In those times of low tide when joy and resurrection seem but a damp, dim line far upon the shore, may we remember this. In the times of high tide when the pull of grief and doubt into the ocean seem impossible, may we remember this.

May we not teach only the high tide of Christianity, but recognize that grief and doubt and uncertainty are part of the Easter story, too. Pain and suffering, joy and hope, all wound up together in Eastertide washing over us over the next fifty days.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Alternative Facts

I ran across an article yesterday that there is archaeological evidence that in the early Christian Church there were female priests. Female priest administering communion. Female priests depicted with raised hands offering benediction, blessings, or perhaps even the word of God. I was shocked because I hadn’t heard this story. I was convinced that this was breaking news only to discover that the article was almost four years old.

Four years that there have been discussions about the role women played in the early church. Four years in which I have been ordained and called to pastor and I had no idea the conversation was going on. How could I, a woman in ministry, have missed something so relevant to my own life experience and calling?

Because we hear what we want to hear. Researches have discovered that the power of stating something that is false, is just as powerful as stating something that is true because:

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Impression is just as powerful as Truth? Surely not! Doesn’t Truth win out?

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

Evidently not. We believe what we want to believe. We don’t research to determine if what we are saying or what we are passing along is Truth and once we leak these impressions, they’re hard to shake in our own minds and in the minds of the people we’re sharing with.

If there is a place where this happens again and again, it’s in communities of faith where reason is often placed on hold and making a leap of faith is encouraged, but when faith begins to be tainted with manipulation and coercion, when false impressions are giving with the purpose of oppression and silencing people, it is not faith. It is spiritual abuse.

It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are ministers and communities of faith who are interested not in the work of God, but in increasing their own wealth and their own power and their own prestige. But there are. It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are victims of spiritual abuse who have been told they aren’t good enough and shouldn’t trust themselves on purpose to ensure adherence to dogmatic teachings. But there are.

These are not alternative facts, but real people’s stories.

Perhaps churches wouldn’t be in decline if we were able to accept this Truth rather than clinging to impressions of what we want to be true, but I know some of you won’t believe this because you don’t believe study after study that reveals the churches are in fact in decline. This is what happens when the need to cling to impressions is stronger than the desire to search for Truth.