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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.

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.

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.

Nothing Could Be Finer…Unless You’re a Woman

I grew up in South Carolina and went to college in South Carolina. I’ve taught and worked in South Carolina for the majority of my professional career both as a teacher and as a minister. Although I love so much about the state, I am shocked at the number of people who don’t understand the realities we face in South Carolina.

South Carolina ranks #5 in domestic violence and is one of the top 5 states in the country for women killed by men. A recent report, just revealed that South Carolina is named one of 2018 worst states for women’s equality. Coincidence? I don’t think so. South Carolina continues to top charts in ignoring the reality that women in our state are in danger. They are in danger of losing their lives. They are in danger of discrimination, underemployment, and being looked over for promotions.

And none of this can change because women are severely underrepresented because we rank 49th in the political representation gap. Things will not change until we have more voices of women in leadership positions in our businesses, in our state house, and in our capital. Things will not change until we value the lives of the women in South Carolina as much as male counterparts.

There is much work to do.

Re-Rooting

I can remember clearly the first game we played. It was a network/web that was created through yarn tossed back and forth from person to person. We were a group of young clergy gathered together because of a generous Lily Grant and because of CBF Global’s mission to connect, encourage, and assist young clergy. In order to throw the yarn to someone, you had to find a connection to that person. I watched as the yarn went back and forth. These four people had been to a youth summer camp together. These three had been in seminary together. These two were serving college ministry in the same state.

I was the last one chosen.

I hadn’t been involved in CBF growing up. I was raised SBC with SBC roots running from both my mom and my dad’s side of the family. I was the only one from my seminary represented. I was the only senior pastor from my state. I was one of three bi-vocational ministers and one of only two female senoir pastors. I was in a whole new world. Still baptist, still connected, but for the first time I was an outsider.

This week both SBC and CBF will meet for their annual gatherings in the same city. Many people are watching and waiting to see whether the SBC will allow Patterson to preach to those gathered after his dismissal. CBF will gather for the first time after its momental decision to abandon the discrimentatory hiring policy against LGTBQ individuals. This is a historic week in baptist life.

I think back to those early days of ministry as I was coming to terms with my background of spiritual abuse. It was difficult to do the digging up of bad theology and to recognize the way spiritual abuse lingered in my own heart and mind. I didn’t feel at home in the SBC and I didn’t feel at home in the CBF because my bi-vocational life was so different than those who were called to full-time ministry positions. My lack of experience or relationships in the CBF maybe me feel even more like an outsider.

It’s taken me years to re-root myself. My fundamentalist, conservative baptist upbringing taught me to be certain of what I believed and that I was right in those beliefs while others were wrong or misguided or backsliding. I was convinced my sole purpose was to evangelize the world, even to those who called themselves Christians, but were not baptists. As I entered ministry, I was certain I was called, but my seminary education brought more questions rather than answers about biblical interpretation, interpretation history, and traditions in the church.

I don’t think you ever truly recover from spiritual abuse. I am pretty confident that I will always question and be sucipicous about hierarchy in the church, especially unquestioned, unchecked power in the senoir pastor position. I know that I will challenge and agitate to fight against systemic oppression, especially when biblical text is used to defend that oppression, but maybe these are my roots after all. Baptists have always challenged and agitated and fought for every single voice to be heard. Baptists have valued individual expressions of faith and personal relationships with Jesus Christ.

Maybe I have found my roots after all, right where they began, in historic baptist tradition.

Living in the Shadow of Those Women

I have been thinking a lot about the women in 1 Timothy, specifically the ones referenced in 1 Timothy 2:11-14:

11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

What provoked these strong words from the author of 1 Timothy? What happened  that the transforms this epistle from general teaching to specifics?

To be certain as a woman who was raised Southern Baptist I was taught these words. These were the expectations of God for me because of my gender and indeed these were the gender norms I was born into because of Eve’s transgressions. For twenty-five years, I bore the weight of these expectations and the reprussions of these women and even of Eve for no reason other than the fact that I was female.

I didn’t, however, hear a sermon preached about 1 Timothy 2:8:

I desire, then…

No, these words from the author of 1 Timothy were not his own, but were from God because of the apostleship claimed in the previouse verses and because all scripture was God-breathed. There was no question asked about why this would be the desire of the author nor any discussion about why this instruction was given so clearly in this text, but in another epistles, like Galatians, the claim is:

28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

I’ve wrestled with this passage because as I voiced a call to ministry as a baptist woman, I knew I was going to encounter resistance. I knew my call to preach and pastor would result in difficult conversations. What I didn’t know was that in being who I was created to be (not who other people told me I was created to be), I would be a theological crisis.

By answering a call to ministry, I tested the understanding and interpretation of scripture. I have been condemned to hell and judgement too many times to count (and these are the nicer reactions) and it all comes back to these women. The women addressed in 1 Timothy and the women addressed in 1 Corinthians 14. Epistles weren’t generally written to try and dictate theology, but rather were written for a specific occassion or purpose. Once I learned this about the epistle genre, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the world was going on with this women?

Was there an intense mommy war going on about whether women can work outside of the home or whether they should stay home with their children? Was there an intense debate about whether it was better to breastfeed your own child or make use of a wet nurse? Did one woman call another woman a bad name or God forbid say she had put on a little weight? Was it an outside conflict that had entered into the holy and sacred worship space? Or was it something more specific, like what kind of wine should be served at communion or whether wine or grape juice should be used or maybe who was in charge of the altar flowers that week? It had better have been something so very important because the ramifications of the argument or disagreement in the stark reprimand that women should be silent in these two communities of faith have been felt for over two thousand years.

It’s hard to believe these women could have that much influence.

Then again, if I think about my own journey, it has been women, not men, who have delivered the harshest, most soul-cruching blows in my search to answer my call to preach and pastor. It has been women who have told me how to dress (and not dress) in order to look more like a man in the pulpit. It has been women who have accused me of “just trying to make a name for myself.” It has been women who have told me that I was wasting my time seeking a theological education when I should be out serving the Lord. Not to mention the women who have told me that my heels were too high, my dress was too short, my pants were too tight, or that I needed a little more blush because I looked too pale.

Certainly, I have had wounds from men as well, especially religious male leaders, but these wounds haven’t been the hardest for me. The wounds from the women, the ones who I hoped would support and affirm me not just because we were women, but because they too have experienced the uphill battle for equality in our sociopolitical context. Thanks be to God I have found love and support and encouragement in some women, but the soul wounds  still aren’t healed.

Maybe the women to whom the author of 1 Timothy was writing and the women in Corinth didn’t know the precedent they were setting. Maybe they didn’t have any way of understanding the vast impact they could have on women 2000 years later, but we do.

We know the way that theological intpretation can turn into dogma and doctrine. We know the devastation that comes when we finally understand what is happening and voice our concern together only to have our united voice and concern rejected. We know the powerful way that women can unite against another woman even when it means supporting and affirming an abuser and a misogynist. We know because we are living in the sociopolitical and theological aftermath.

We know our power. We know that we have the power to unite or to divide. We know we have the power to harm or to destruct. We know we have the power and yet again and again we use it against each other rather than to create something new and beautiful.

I’ve held anger for these women addressed in 1 Timothy and in Corinth and indeed the women who delivered those soul-crushing blows to me as I pursued my call, but if I’m honest with myself, I’m thankful for these women because they have helped me realize just how powerful my voice can be.

May my voice be one of reconciliation and healing.

Expectation, Anticipation, and Revelation

As we worshiped together during the first Sunday of Advent yesterday, I shared with my congregation how difficult it sometimes is to manage the expectations of what this season is supposed to be. This is the season of love, joy, hope, and peace and we are expected to eagerly await the coming of the Christ Child and yet for so many of us the season brings only expectations of grief.

I have struggled against the expectations of how I was supposed to behave as a woman raised in a conservative community of faith. When I expressed a call to live out my faith, I was met with the response that I would make a great minister’s wife and that my calling as a teacher was just as important as a call to ministry. Underneath these comments were the expectations of what I could and couldn’t do as a woman. Those expectations didn’t fit who I was and who I was called to be.

And as this Advent starts, I am feeling the weight of expectation to bring hope, peace, love, and joy, but as I shared yesterday I am filled with grief this season. I am filled with grief for friends and family who are celebrating this season without loved ones who they have lost suddenly over the past year. I am filled with grief for my youth who have lost classmates and encountered unexpected death much too soon. I am feeling grief and disappointment that the expectation we had that this Advent season would bring the birth of the Christ Child and another child for us will not be realized.

While I hold this grief for us and for those we love, the anticipation of the Advent season is beating in my soul. This anticipation can only be held alongside the expectation of grief because of the revelation that the Divine is among us and indeed with us. The Divine is still whispering that this season is a special season of revelation of how God is with us. God is with us in our grief. God is with us in our disappointment. God is with us in our joy. God is with us in our peace. God is with us in love.

And God is with us in hope.

Hope that invites us to shed the expectations of how we are supposed to act, what we are supposed to say, how we are supposed to worship, what we are supposed to sing and who we are supposed to be in this season. Hope that instead invites us to simply experience the presence and wonder of the Divine. Hope that anticipates without fully understanding what we are anticipating.

May this Advent upend our expectations with the anticipation of the Christ Child, the revelation of the Divine here among us.

Spiritual Abuse and The Power of Silence

Since I started writing about spiritual abuse two years ago, I’ve been asked more than once to stop. I’ve been encouraged to stop talking about spiritual abuse because it causes questions and conversations that people are uncomfortable. I’ve been encouraged “to think about the people this impacts” and “to think how people will respond,” but the gnawing understanding that sweeping things under the rug and allowing these instances of spiritual abuse be handled internally only perpetuates rather than eradicates the occurrence of spiritual abuse in communities of faith is something I have to write and talk about.

Each time I’ve encountered this pushback, I am reminded of the times I was told to doubt my instincts, to question my gut, to keep silent as a child and teen. It happens in subtle ways as Michelle Obama points out in her recent address to a marketing and sales event called Inbound:

If you have been socialized to think your voice doesn’t matter…there’s so much going on that shushes us and it’s hard to overcome when you need to defend yourself because it’s hard to drum that stuff up…and keeps us from fighting the fights we need to fight for ourselves and for our children.

We have to overcome the socialization that has taught us not to talk about those things that we see and experience like spiritual abuse that people don’t want us to acknowledge, wrestle with, and ultimately overcome. We have to be open to hear people’s stories of being abused and molested in our communities of faith in years past and in the present if we have any hope of making it stop in the future, but the vast number of people who have shared their stories with me after sharing them with leadership in these communities of faith have been encouraged to do one thing:

Be silent.

Keep this quiet so that we can protect the community. Don’t talk about this because his reputation is on the line or the church’s reputation is on the line. Don’t share what you’ve experienced with anyone or we will take legal action. Again and again the recurring message: We don’t talk about this.

I do. This is spiritual abuse.

I hear you saying, stop talking about it and focus on the good things in communities of faith, but that’s what we always do. We always look for the good overlooking the systematic, entrenched culture of spiritual abuse in our communities of faith that causes a lifetime of trauma in children and teens and adults. Until I stop hearing story after story of spiritual abuse, I can’t stop talking and writing and asking questions trying to restore hope for those who have survived spiritual abuse.

Hope in a God who doesn’t use silence and oppression as tools for submission, but invites us to join in the work of healing and wholeness here on earth.