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What is Spiritual Abuse?

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Spiritual abuse is the misuse of power by religious leaders or authorities to manipulate and coerce unquestioned adherence to a particular dogma for that spiritual leader’s own gain. This unquestioned adherence is often obtained through a pattern of conditioning. This conditioning can take the form of repeated dogmatic statements, repeated rituals, but is always used to the end of universal conformity.

The danger of spiritual abuse is that it leaves no room for questions about the religion or interpretation of the sacred text. Instead, the believer is left to depend on the religious leader or authority for interpretation of the sacred text. This denies the individual believer’s spiritual instincts and sense of self in particular when the believer does not fit the dogmatic picture of a believer.

Spiritual abuse can very easily lead to verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse because religious leaders or authorities can make abusive practices a part of the dogma or the believer’s path to understanding the divine. Spiritual abuse is not always linked to these other types of abuses, but always involves oppression and forced compliance. These are initiated through manipulation and guilt. Religious leaders and authorities fall prey to spiritual abuse when they try to control the believer’s faith journey and seek to maintain power and control over religious experiences.

In a sense, spiritual abuse is very much like the training of the storm troopers in the Star Wars The Force Awakens. They are trained to perform tasks without questioning or challenging orders. These orders may include mass murder or destruction of planets and all life forms on those planets. The only way to combat spiritual abuse is to question and challenge the dogma and patterns of conditioning used in order to create universal conformity, much like Finn in The Force Awakens who chooses not to kill the villagers.

I write this explanation because I know you are out there. You who has experienced spiritual abuse and still believe. You who sees something more and deeper in the sacred text. You who sees the desperate need that exists in this world.

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 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.

There’s No Woman Good Enough for This Pulpit

Recently I was interview by a student who was working on a project about baptist women in ministry, in particular women who service as senior pastors. She asked me, “What was one thing you would tell a woman who is called to preach or be a senior pastor and is finishing school or looking for a job?”

I replied, “I would tell them not to listen to the naysayers. There will be so many people who say there aren’t churches who will call a woman pastor, but there are women serving. I would also tell them to develop a thick skin because people say mean and hurtful things when you tell them you are a preacher and that you are looking for a senior pastor position.”

I try really hard to give churches and people the benefit of the doubt. Having grown up in a religious tradition for 25 years without seeing a woman preach or a woman in the pulpit, I understand that seeing be a pastor and perform pastoral responsibilities is sometimes new and unusual. I get that. Other times it is extremely evident that churches and people are using the fact that they have never had a woman senior minister as a way of supporting systemic discrimination.

There’s a difference between saying, “We haven’t found a woman candidate we believe would be a good fit for our pulpit,” and saying, “There’s no woman good enough for this pulpit.” The first has an open-minded approach, indicating the pastor search committee is seriously and honestly considering women candidates. The latter makes a sweeping generalization laced with sexism.

In the current economic context, it is difficult to find a senior pastor position. It is even harder if you are woman. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible, even in the midst of sexism and systemic discrimination.

Thanks be to God who welcomes and affirms and calls all different kinds of people.

 

Get Up

It was one of those nights, where we had already been up a lot. I think Ben must have been going through a growth spurt or maybe he just wanted to spend some quality time with his parents throughout the night. I heard his rustling in the midst of the fog of slumber, and I thought to myself I can’t get up. I can’t make my body move to get out of bed. It’s just not going to happen. I can’t get up. 

I fought hard trying to bring myself to full consciousness and finally put one foot on the floor, shuffling the ten to twelve steps to Ben’s room. As I looked down into the crib, he offered me a big, gummy grin, and I thought to myself Well, that was worth getting up for. 

There are a lot of reasons we find ourselves in this kind of moment telling ourselves I just can’t get up. Maybe like me, you find yourself in a time when you are just physically worn out. Maybe you find yourself in that position of not being able to get up because you are sick. Maybe it’s because you are so overwhelmed with grief or sadness or pain or hopelessness.

In Acts 9:36-43, Tabitha finds herself in that situation because she has died. The people who are grieving her loss and the loss of the great charity she offered people in need, sent word to Peter to ask him to come without delay.

I don’t know about you, but having been a minister for two and half years, I know this kind of call. It’s the kind of call, you know you can’t ignore, but you wish could wait until you finished your cup of coffee or until you had a chance to shower. It’s the kind of call that you wonder, “Does it really have to be without delay?”

We don’t know whether Peter was thinking these things, but we do know that he got up. When he got up, he found himself by the bedside of a woman who had passed away asking her to do the very thing he had just done: “Get up, Tabitha.”

And Tabitha got up.

We wonder why we don’t see the type of miracles we read about in Acts today. We wonder why God doesn’t work in the same miraculous ways God did in the book of Acts. Maybe it’s because we are, more often than not, more like the disciples in Mark who simply cannot see and cannot hear what Jesus is trying to tell us than we are like the disciples in Acts.

Do we believe God can still perform miracles or are we afraid to ask? Are we afraid of what people would say or think if we told them that we did believe in miracles? If God is still working miraculously in the world and we are not experiencing it, why?

Perhaps it’s because we don’t get up when we hear the call to go without delay. Perhaps it’s because we depend too much on our own ability rather than creative God working in and through us. Perhaps it’s because we are worried about what people will say or think about us. Whatever it is that’s stopping us from getting up is causing us to miss out on how God is transforming the world.

If we did get up, we, like Peter, would bear witness to miraculous things.

Surely, that’s worth getting up to experience.

What’s Next?

I’ve been asking the question, “What’s next?” throughout the Lenten season. I knew God was calling me to leave Emmanuel in capable hands and step into the darkness of the unknown. The unknown is not a comfortable place for me and my planning instincts. I’ve spent many sleepless nights wrestling with why I couldn’t see what was next.

I thought back to my ministry experience. Maybe there was something I was missing.

There was.

My first ministry position was in a church that didn’t have a senior pastor. I was the youth intern and the church was going through a series of transitions including hiring a new youth minister. I found myself in the midst of uncertainty, conflict, and tension as the church discerned what was the next step. I found myself counseling youth as they tried to understand what was happening at the church and in the youth group. I didn’t have any training for navigating this kind of conflict or pain, but I was there and I listened.

After a year with that church, I moved to Asheville and began pulpit supply. I received feedback that I had spoken to the very heart of what the church was struggling with and conflicted about.

My husband and I moved to Columbia and I continued pulpit supply. This time it was for a church who had been told it was time to call it quits. They were told, they didn’t really need to be a church. I was called to pastor that church because I saw that they believed earnestly that God had a call for them.

They were right. We spent the next two and half years discovering what that call was together. It was hard to leave that community of faith, but I knew there were other churches who were in the same position. I knew because I had served them, because I had preached in them, and because my friends were ministers in them.

So, I’m excited to be joining the Harrelson Agency team working on young minister consulting, bi-vocational pastor consulting, and church growth strategies. I am called to churches in conflict; churches who are hurting and who need a new vision. I also just happen to be one of those millennials as well. I can provide valuable insight into the thought process and spiritual practices of my age group. I can also help uncover the stereotypes around attracting millennials and why these are so dangerous to the future of the church.

In my ordination council, one of my ordination team members asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I answered without hesitation that I saw myself in parish ministry. This is work is critical for the health and future of ministers and churches.

I’m so excited to get started!

What White Males Don’t Have to Ask in the Pastor Search Process

Recently, Baptist News posted an article that provided some key questions ministerial candidates should ask during the pastor search process. They were good important questions and in some cases tough questions, but as I read the article, what overwhelmed me were the questions that the author didn’t have to ask in the pastor search process.

He didn’t have to ask if the committee was seriously considering him as a candidate because of his gender, something that his female colleagues always have to ask. In fact, female candidates even have to wonder about whether they are being considered for their merit or for grants and incentives like those offered by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri. Yes, you read that correctly, churches can get paid to interview a female candidate for the pastor position. They don’t have to hire a woman, just interview her. The idea is to help female candidates get their foot in the door since many, many female looking for senior pastor positions don’t even make it to the interview phase of the pastor search process. What has happened instead is that the incentive program opens the door not  for more opportunities, but for more theological and spiritual discrimination.

Perhaps instead of asking questions about the issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation the author should have advised white males to risk their position of privilege and power in the pastor search process by asking whether the committee was considering candidates from these groups who have been and are being systemically discriminated against.

After all, we have to.

If we even make it to the interview phase.

Roaming Robe

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I grew up in a tradition where ministers wore suits and ties because they were all male. Pastors were considered to be CEOs and so it made sense that their professional attire would match that of the business world. This always bothered me, especially after experiencing worship communities in which the ministers were set apart in clerical collars, robes, or vestments. In these religious traditions, it didn’t matter if you were male or female what mattered is that you as an individual were cloaked or robed in order to serve as the representation of God to God’s people.

Just this week, I saw a minister with his daughter in target cloaked in a ministerial robe and clerical collar. I wanted to stop him and say, “Hey, I’m a minister, too! No, really I have my robe in  my car.” It’s true. My ministerial robe is currently housed in the backseat of my car, which our five-year-old noticed this weekend. She asked, “What’s this?” as she held up the garment bag draped across the backseat. I explained to her  it was my robe that I wear when I preach, the stole I received when I was ordained, and the handmade scapular I received after I had served Emmanuel for a year.

She looked at me and said, “Oh, so it’s kinda like Mommy’s doctor bag that she keeps just in case someone needs a doctor and because she goes to different hospitals.” I thought about that for a moment and realized yes, that’s exactly what it was like. How many times over the past two and half years have I found myself somewhere where I wished I had my robe to wear in order to more significantly signal that I was performed God’s work for God’s people? Perhaps there’s power in a roaming robe, just like in a traveling doctor’s bag. The power to offer hope and healing as we encounter need in our daily lives.

When Gender Doesn’t Matter

When the fragility of life comes and taps you on the shoulder in one unexpected diagnosis, gender doesn’t matter.

When your marriage, your, family, or your career fall to pieces, gender doesn’t matter.

When death and violence come and sit beside you in Bible study, gender doesn’t matter.

When declining church membership and contributions overwhelm business meetings and conversations in the parking lot, gender doesn’t matter.

When a historic flood sweeps away homes, business, and hope, gender doesn’t matter.

When you’ve been excluded from other faith communities because of who you are, gender doesn’t matter.

When you’re the victim of domestic violence and looking for a safe place, gender doesn’t matter.

When your future is unclear and you way covered in fog, gender doesn’t matter.

When you and your children are hungry, gender doesn’t matter.

When you need someone to walk with you, to be God’s presence here on earth, gender doesn’t matter.

 

 

But There Are Women Pastors

I was recently at a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship event catching up with friends and explaining that I would be leaving Emmanuel. Although I don’t have the what’s next planned out yet, I am pursing full time pastorates. As I explained this, I saw the countenance on a couple of the faces change. I paused sensing there was something I needed to know about to be said.

“That’s great, but unfortunately there are not many churches who are willing to call women to the senior pastor position.”

I smiled and explained I knew it was going to be hard, but that I had found one church that was brave and courageous enough to call a woman, and I was pretty sure there were others out there. The conversation ended with good lucks and good to see you agains.

As I drove back toward Columbia, the conversation resurfaced. I reflected that five years ago, I had heard that there weren’t churches ready to call women pastors from at a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship day at Gardner-Webb when I explained I was called to preach. At that point the comment rocked me because I was new to CBF, but this time my reaction was different.

A lot has changed in church dynamics in five years. In the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina alone there are FIVE women currently serving as senior pastors. First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston Salem, NC recently called a woman senior pastor as did Lakeshore Baptist Church in Waco, TX. Historic churches like Riverside Baptist Church and First Baptist Church Washington DC and National Memorial Baptist Church have women senior pastors.

Baptist Women in Ministry has a series called “This is What a Minister Looks Like” that features women in ministry positions as senior pastors, associate pastors, chaplains, and in a variety of other ministry settings. They won’t run out of material for this blog series anytime soon.

As these thoughts ran through my head, I realized what I should have said in the midst of that conversation was, “But there are women pastors. There are more and more women being called to serve and to live into their calls. Things have changed in the past five years. Things are changing.”

I may be the first woman called to serve a particular church, but I know as I meet more and more women ministers that I won’t be the first woman in to serve in a particular state or region.

What a wonderfully affirming realization!

Why I Won’t Hold Up Hillary as a Role Model for Our Girls

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As we were talking about the SC primaries with our girls, I explained that I would be voting in the democratic primary the week they would be in Asheville with their mom. Our girls are 8 and 5 and both of them said I should vote for Hillary. I asked why, wanting to know what they had heard about Hillary as a candidate. They promptly explained, “Because she is a woman and it would be cool to have a woman president.”

I have to agree with them that it would be pretty awesome to have a female president, but voting for a candidate just because she is a woman undermines what I believe as a feminist. I work in an overwhelming, male-dominated profession. Although my brand of baptist often claims to have separated from the Southern Baptist Convention because of the view of women in the Faith and Baptist Message, moderate baptist churches still find it difficult to consider much less call women into ministry positions. Even when women are called to the pastorate or to ministry positions, they are making less than men.

I understand the draw of having a woman president to say that we have a woman president. Perhaps it would equal the playing field professionally and the mere presence of a woman as the leader of our country would serve to combat the inherent sexism that exists in our public rhetoric. Maybe by simply having a woman president domestic and sexual violence against women would be reduced.

Although I want all these things to be true and am working as a woman to do my part, I won’t hold up Hillary Clinton as a role model for our girls. Because although she has many accomplishments, I wonder if she would have been the first woman elected in New York had she not first been First Lady. This begs the question of whether she is teaching women to be your own woman or to marry well in order to get into the public eye, especially as she suspended her own presidential campaign and then became the Secretary of State. Is she fighting for women’s right or working to uphold a broken, inherently sexist political system?

The other real issue I have with Hillary as a role model for our daughters and women all over our country is her timeless, ageless demeanor. As someone who is concerned about the beauty standards that are already impacting our 8 year old and 5 year old, holding up a woman who has had plastic surgery in order to look younger and who dyes her hair in order to look younger is concerning. Are we teaching women they can’t age and still be respected?

It does matter that we haven’t had a woman president, but electing someone just because she is a woman isn’t the answer and could only serve to push women’s rights even further backwards.

Because if Hillary Rodham were running for president, none of us would know who she was.

That’s Not How You Are Supposed to Do It

As the news of my moving on from Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship in Lexington, SC has traveled, I have been confronted with even more people who want to know, “What’s next?” In our baptist tradition, we are used to pastors and ministers sharing with their congregations that they are moving on; however, when that news is shared we are also used to people sharing where they are moving.

Unlike our Methodist brothers and sisters who know their calls are going to change and that periodic moves are a part of being called, in the baptist tradition, it’s not uncommon to find pastors or ministers who have been in the same church for ten years or more. In fact, after some moving around in the beginning stages of ministry, a baptist pastor or minister very often settles down into a longer tenure as a pastor.

Which is why my current situation has evoked the reaction, “That’s not how you are supposed to do it.” In fact, I have had people who have been in ministry much longer than I have explain to me to share you are moving on before you have secured another position is not wise.

I understand their concerns and appreciate their investment in my life, but for me, there is nothing about this being called to ministry that has been what I was supposed to do. Instead, my call to ministry is what I must do. What I have to do. What I was created to do.

As a woman raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, I was not supposed to be called to preach or pastor. As a woman trained in the Cooperative Baptist tradition, I am supposed to be happy, content, and satisfied to have even found one church who would call a woman to be pastor.

Why push the envelope? Why challenge the system? Why take the risk?

Because the gospel ministry is full of examples of Jesus and his disciples not doing what they are supposed to do. Jesus and his disciples are told again that they are not supposed to be preaching and teaching a gospel different than religious leaders have been teaching.. Jesus and his disciples get thrown out of towns, imprisoned, beaten, and ultimately killed for not doing what their supposed to do.

When you answer a call to discipleship, you answer a call to see a light so bright you are glowing or blinded from the encounter. When you answer a call to discipleship, you find yourself in the wilderness, tempted to turn back to a life that’s predictable and certain from day to day. When you answer a call to discipleship, you wrestle at night with unknown beings and wake the next morning only to limp away. When you answer a call to discipleship, your name is changed, your future is changed, you are changed.

If we say we are disciples, we must deny ourselves (and the system of supposed to), take up our cross and follow after him with no certainty of where the journey will lead us.