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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, SC and the Director of Consulting at Harrelson.Co. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book.

Keeping Pace

This morning I stretched out of the longest run since our six-month-old was born. It wasn’t anywhere near the mileage I was running two years ago when we found out that she was going to be joining our family, but it was significant because it was the first time since she was born that I started and ended my run keeping pace the entire run.

There’s an awkwardness to getting back into habits and routines after you have a baby, even if you have had one before. Everything feels a little bit different. The route looks a little bit different. The thoughts swarming around in your head sound a little different. As I turned onto the road that would add another mile to the run, I breathed deeply thinking, “I remember this feeling.”

I was remembering what it felt like to be connected mind, body, and soul because running always realigns me. I was remembering what it felt like to feel strong. Just as I was remembering and recentering, I heard breathing behind me. I knew it was another runner who must have turned down the street I did. I could feel my heart rate start to increase as I felt her presence. My high school field hockey coach’s voice suddenly sounded in my ears, “Pick it up! Beat her!” I felt my pace increasing inadvertently thinking I needed to outpace and outrun her. I didn’t want to get passed.

Even as I heard her getting closer, I steadied my breathing and steadied my steps. She is not running my path. She is not running my route. She is running her own. Maybe she’s at the end of her run and that’s why her pace is faster. Or maybe her pace is just faster than mine. Either way, my goal in my run this morning was to keep a steady pace, to get back to the rhythm of recentering and realigning. My goal was not to win or compete against anyone else. I was finding my own stride again.

This is perhaps the hardest thing for me as a mom and a professional to remind myself of. Instagram and our comparative culture make us want to outpace and outrun other moms and other professionals. We want to outdo each other by proving we are fast, efficient, and balanced. But the outpacing and outdoing each other is actually what undoes us. We wear ourselves running in circles trying to be better or more put together than someone else. What we need more of is people who are keeping their own pace and their own rhythm unaffected by the harried and hurried busy culture we find ourselves in.

Breathe deeply. Run your race. Keep your pace.

Forgiveness and Spiritual Abuse

As a member of the clergy, I get asked a lot of questions. One that has popped up quite frequently recently is, “Do I have to forgive the person that abused me?” This is followed closely by, “Do I have to forgive the people who knew about my abuse and didn’t help me?”

Maybe it’s the recent news of the sex trafficking circle among the elite leaders as more and more details are released about Jeffrey Epstein that has brought the question to the hearts and minds of others who have experienced abuse. Maybe it’s the vast number of people who have revealed that they are victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and rape in the #metoo and #churchtoo movement.

Whatever the reason, this question comes up again and again. There is rich precedent for confessing to a member of the clergy as a way of cleansing the soul and returning to a relationship with the divine. There are also many studies about how not forgiving can impact not only your spiritual self but your physical self as well.

As much as I want to offer a definitive answer to this question, I always answer, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that the practice of forced forgiveness, which is common in religious settings with religious leaders playing the role of mediator or witness not only revictimized the person who has been abused, but also serves to add spiritual abuse on top of the abuse is harmful and should stop. I have heard story after story of women and men who are forced into these situations and carry the weight of that spiritual abuse throughout the rest of their lives. This harms their view of God, their spirit and causes so many triggers that inhibit healing and wholeness. I also know that there are miraculous stories of forgiveness from those who have experienced horrible pain and grief.

Maybe there are some aspects of living and following after Christ that we won’t ever completely understand. Maybe there is some work, like forgiveness, that is not our work to do, but the Holy Spirit’s work to do. Maybe when we stop trying to find out the answers, we will instead open our eyes and hearts to bear witness to the miraculous ways that the Spirit transforms and resurrects our own lives out of the gripes of death.

 

Jumping Into the Deep End

Right as summer was winding down this week, our three-year-old surprised us by saying he wanted to jump off the diving board. First he wanted to jump with his swim vest on and then he surprised us even more by saying that he wanted to jump off without his swim vest.

As I watched him on the edge of the board, I thought about how far we had come in regards to swimming. Memorial Day weekend, I dragged him into the water because it had been a year since we had been in the water and because he had a healthy sense of fear about the water. And now three months later he is jumping into the deep end using his courage and his strength to keep himself afloat.

I watched him jump over and over again and marveled at his confidence and his courage.

Why does that disappear as we get older? Where does the self-doubt enter and change our ability to say, “I am going to jump and I am going to swim by myself?” Perhaps it’s because we have lost the feeling of sheer excitement and anticipation of standing on the edge of a diving board ready to be immersed in a new experience. Perhaps it’s because we have lost our sea legs and allowed the stiffness of routine to set in.

Whatever the reason, watching that smile creep across his face as he leaped into the air reminded me that we are never too old to jump into the deep end and never too old to be courageous.

First Day of School

As we count down the days to our three-year-old’s first day of school, I find myself digging through drawers trying to make sure that we have enough shirt/short combos for the five day week. Next, we look for shoes that fit and stay on his feet and water bottles that don’t leak.

In the midst of the preparation, there is one thing that never crosses my mind: that I would take my child to school and not pick him up.

That’s what happened to families yesterday in Mississippi. The first big raid was organized and implemented on the first day of school, which led children to being left at school alone. Again parents and children being separated. Again fear falling on the shoulders of children. These children ranged in ages from 4 to age 15. Thankfully community members stepped up to provide food and shelter to these children.

Political banter and rhetoric are swirling in the air creating a cloud of confusion about what is real and what is not. Let us not be confused. Let our vision not be clouded to what is happening to children in our country. Let us not forget that while this is happening, we all are playing a part as we continue to separate parents and children.

Behind the Scenes A Theology of Scarcity

I have this voice in my head that whispers a repeating line, “It’s not enough. It’s not enough.” Most of this time this repeating line enters my consciousness on Wednesday mornings as I am walking back to my car after leading the chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter. I have walked with the homeless community in Columbia since our son was born almost four years ago.

This ever-changing, diverse congregation is the congregation that has challenged and taught me the most. In the midst of some of the most difficult circumstances, they hold onto hope. In the midst of what most people would consider scarcity, they are incredibly generous. Their faith has asked me to look deeply at some of my foundational, theological views. As I have reflected, I realize I have clung tightly to a theology of scarcity.

When I was growing up, I often heard that I was not good enough or generous enough to make it to God. Not only was I not good enough, I was born not good enough. The very essence of who I was, was sinful. This is why accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior was so essential. In seminary, I learned that this theological concept was called total depravity of the soul. I also learned that while I was raised baptist this theological concept was most often found in reformed theology.

What I hadn’t put together until now is that this theological concept actually crept into my very being and bloomed into a theology of scarcity. It starts by believing that you can’t be good enough and turns into you are not enough and that leads to you are not good. It starts by believing there is nothing we can do to reach God and turns into there is nothing we can do to change unjust systems and unfair treatment of God’s people. It starts by believing there’s a limited amount of money and blessings for a chosen few and turns into making and keeping money and resources away from other people.

I heard this all the time as I entered into the process of pastor search as a woman preacher.

“We wish there were more churches, but there just aren’t that many who will even consider a woman pastor and even fewer who will actually call a woman pastor.”

“We wish we could offer you more money, but there just isn’t enough right now.”

“We wish that we could offer you benefits, but that just isn’t in the budget.”

“We wish that we could offer you a raise, but we have to grow first.”

All of this speaks from a theology of scarcity. A theology of scarcity allows us to limit what God can do to what we can imagine. If there is anything I have learned from my journey into ministry, it’s that God is much, much bigger than anything we can imagine.

A theology of scarcity limits the kingdom of God to a capitalistic market that profits off the back of the underpaid and undervalued workers rather than working together towards a greater good. A theology of scarcity purports that the meaning of life is gaining more through rapid and vapid consumerism rather than giving generously every time we have more than we need. A theology of scarcity excludes people because of their sexual identity, gender, or race believing that God’s people are limited rather than believing that ALL humans are created in the image of God and hold the Divine breath within their very beings.

Most importantly, a theology of scarcity allows churches, denominations, and minister the excuse that this is “just the way it is” thereby never having to change their beliefs or their actions.

Slowly, but surely, I am operating from a theology of abundance.

There is more than enough room at the table for everyone. There is more than enough food, clothing, and shoes for everyone. We have more than enough and so we share with those who do have enough so they too know the right and abundant life the Spirit of God is offering.

This theology of abundance opens the heart and mind to welcome and include everyone. A theology of abundance gives without thinking or wondering if there will be enough because there is always enough. A theology of abundance worries not about what I am going to put on my plate, but whether there are enough plates for all who are gathered at the table to fellowship and commune together.

As I am renewing my mental patterns, I find my words and my actions changing each week at Transitions. Rather than worrying about whether I am doing enough or trying hard enough, I find myself whispering the words, “You are enough. You are enough. You are enough.” to God’s people gathered around the table to encounter a God who always offers more and more and more.

 

Behind the Scenes Preparing for Worship

As a young pastor, one of my favorite aspects of the week was preparing for worship. This took the form of reading and studying God’s word and preparing a sermon. It also took collaborating with our music team to choose hymns and songs that would bring God’s people to a place of reflection and engagement. But there was another aspect of preparing for the physical place of worship that became a part of my week.

Since I was raised Southern Baptist, I was never introduced to paraments and the liturgical seasons in their fullness until I became a pastor. Preparing for worship often was changing out paraments on the pulpit and altar table, finding the same colored stole to drape over my robe in preparation for Sunday worship, and walking the sanctuary looking for spare coffee cups, Bibles or pens that had been accidentally left behind. All of this was preparing the physical space as well as preparing myself by praying for those who would enter and what they would bring with them: their concerns, their joys, and their griefs. As I moved around the sanctuary I learned I was actually preparing the space to hold sanctuary for all that would enter in on Sunday morning. In each of the churches I’ve served, I’ve had some form of this practice as part of my preparation for Sunday worship. It’s something I’ve done since my first days of teaching where I would do the same straightening the desks and recentering the reading rug. Preparing the physical space often opened room in my heart and mind for whatever came that day.

I can remember in my first official church job when I was a new preacher, I would sneak into the sanctuary in the dark and quiet to practice my sermon. I would walk up the stairs and into the holy desk trying to overcome all the voices in my head that told me I didn’t belong there, that this wasn’t a space as a woman I was supposed to take up. I needed this time to stand and be in the space of the pulpit. I needed to look up and look out. I needed to read the words the Spirit and I had prepared and feel how those words felt in the space. This preparation allowed me time to reflect and ponder whether the words were my own or were a message from God for God’s people.

This behind the scenes preparation was one of the aspects of being called that I fell in love with. There was something so sacred and so mystical about the experience that whispered to deep really important work. I knew in those first few days that this work of preparing space would be one of the most important things I did as a minister.

In the course of my ministry, I have preached,  taught, and been present in so many different places: hospital rooms, apartments, houses, churches, churches that don’t look like churches, a salon that is slowly being renovated to be a church, retreat centers, beaches, mountains, porches, pool decks, docks, grocery stores, coffee shops, fellowship halls, and every week in the homeless shelter here in Columbia, SC. I don’t always get to do a walkthrough of the space. I don’t always get a week of preparation or any preparation before I am called on to be God’s presence to one of God’s people.

Whatever space I find myself in I know that part of my calling is preparing the place where God will encounter God’s people. Perhaps this groundwork is the most important work we do as ministers and pastors. In the midst of all that is going on in our culture and in the lives of God’s people, perhaps this preparation in silence and solitude is the work God’s people need the most. Perhaps the message that God’s people are craving is not the answers to theological conundrums or political debates, but rather that there is a place and space for you to come and be with God.

Six Months Postpartum

This week our youngest started her nursery school. When I went to pick her up, the teachers told me that she was still sleeping and I chuckled to myself. Being the fourth child, I can just imagine that the dark and quiet room was just what she needed to get some good rest. Six months is a big marker because there is so much that starts happening all at once. She is flipping from tummy to back, back to tummy, tummy to back and actually moving different places. She has the cutest laugh that usually follows something her older siblings have done.

Six months also mark two seasons of being together as a family of four. We hibernated during the season of winter getting to know each other. We watched her grow and move and start to smile as the flowers bloomed and everything turned green. Now we are relaxing in the long summer days and nights playing games, watching movies, and going swimming.

Six months of being a family of four together learning and growing together. I can’t wait to see what the next six months will hold.

Behind the Scenes Stage Presence

When I first started preaching, I received advice from women preachers who had been preaching for years. Much of that advice centered around what to wear and what not to wear.

“Wear black suits because it will make you look more professional. If you wear lots of colors people won’t take you seriously.”

“If you are going to wear earrings make sure they’re stubs and nothing too flashy.”

“Wear your hair back because it will make you look more like a man, which people will be more receptive to.”

As a woman raised in a culture that constantly comments on appearance and bodies, I was used to hearing this kind of advice. I was raised at the height of the purity movement and was raised to believe if a boy made an inappropriate comment about my body it was because I was wearing something or doing something that tempted him. I didn’t think much about these comments that were centered on my appearance and wardrobe choices.

That is until I found myself in the middle of a worship service critiquing another woman preacher’s wardrobe choice. Even as I was listening to her message, my thoughts wandered to, “She shouldn’t be wearing…” Those comments and “advice” I heard had not only impacted the way I viewed myself in the mirror before I preached and was now creeping into my reception of other women preachers. It’s when I knew I had to stop the cycle.

Being on platform bringing the word of God to the people of God can become a competition, especially at denominational gatherings or conferences, particularly when there are stipends involved. Stage presence can easily turn into stage performance. Being called can easily turn into being heard.

The best piece of advice I ever received about preaching had nothing to do with what to wear or not to wear or how to present myself.

“If you ever enter the holy desk and are not nervous, then perhaps you are speaking on behalf of yourself and not from God.”

Behind the Scenes of Worship with an Infant

Recently Baptist News Global posted an insightful reflection of CBF’s General Assembly that challenged CBF to continue to push to include voices that haven’t been heard. While I appreciated the author’s reflection, there was a part of it as a woman pastor with a nursing infant that stuck out to me. The author reflected that there were baptist babies as a part of luncheons and lined up at the back of worship. She noted that this was a sign of growth and the advent of a new generation, which it is.

However, as a woman pastor with a nursing infant having attended CBF General Assembly being in the back of worship and trying to participate in meaningful professional development is difficult, to say the least. CBF General Assembly provides no childcare for children under preschool-aged. When I was nursing our now three-year-old son, I queried about the availability of a nursing room and was told there simply weren’t any rooms available. When I asked the hotel and conference personnel upon my arrival, they immediately showed me to a room that could be used for nursing, pumping, and safe storage of baby gear (something by law every business has to provide). What this means is that the conference organizers never even asked the hotel staff is this was available. They didn’t think about the number of woman pastors and young parents who would need quick access to a space to care for their infants that they would be caring for since there was no infant childcare available. Since I didn’t attend this year’s conference, I don’t know and can’t comment on whether this has changed or not. I hope so.

Preparing space for all kinds of pastors and ministers means attending to the needs of those pastors and ministers. When purposeful and intentional planning doesn’t take place, the default is to favor and include voices of a certain demographic and exclude or regulate to the back of the room new and different voices. When my partner and I attended General Assembly with an infant, we took turns attending worship (something that is not all that uncommon for young parents); one of us went to worship, one of stayed in the room to put our infant to bed. If the CBF truly wants more woman and young ministers in pastorates positions and truly wants these voices in worship and in breakout sessions, their practical needs must be met. Otherwise, young parents, men and women, will be confined to the back of worship trying to balance the responsibility of caring for their infants and participating in worship, something many pastors and ministers don’t get to do often enough.

By comparison, I was recently a part of an ecumenical worship experience where I was asked to preside over communion for a morning worship experience. I was asked to participate even though I had just had a baby. I was included and respected as a minister, not regulated to the back room. I led communion while wearing our daughter because morning worship aligned with her morning nap time (another scheduling consideration that reflects purposeful and intentional planning). As I presided over the table with my four-month-old nestled against my chest, I was able to be both fully minister and fully mom. I didn’t have to choose. I didn’t have to be one or the other. I was invited to be fully who I was in this season of my life and in this divine calling.

If we believe there is room enough for all, then we intentionally plan and create space for all kinds of people and their needs. When we don’t, we send a message and a picture about which voices are valued by being on stage and which voices are not as valued at the back of worship.

Behind the Scenes of Advocating for LGTBQIA+

As I sat in my ordination council, I knew that these were questions and conversations I would always remember. Although I hadn’t been given the questions before I met with my council, I wasn’t surprised when this question arose: “What would you say if a same-sex couple asked you to officiate their wedding?” I asked a clarifying question in response, “If they asked me to officiate their wedding in the church or outside of my role as pastor?” The committee person said, “In the church.” For me this question was one that was easy to answer, “I would bring it before the church because of our congregational polity, this is something the community would have to engage and discern.”

I knew that this was an important question. It was 2013 and many CBF churches and CBF ministers were wrestling with the same question as well as the impact of the answer to that question on their churches and the minister’s ministry. To officiate a same-sex wedding was to eliminate yourself from future positions in churches that were “just not ready” to engage the issue.

In 2015, I was asked by a same-sex couple if I would officiate their wedding. I explained that I would love to meet with them and talk to them as we journeyed together towards marriage. As we met, the conversation turned towards my officiating their wedding to getting married in our church. When they expressed their desire to be married in our community of faith, I knew I had to bring it before the community. We were a welcoming and affirming church. We had ordained women and LGBTQIA+ persons. I had been called as the first female pastor. In so many ways the church was on the progressive end of the CBF spectrum.  As we walked and discussed and prayed, I consulted mentors and denominational leaders as I facilitated these conversations hoping I was providing space for the safety of the couple and also the questions and struggles of the community.

When we decided as a community of faith that we would follow our welcoming and affirming words with the action of standing as a witness to this couple, I was overwhelmed with the power and love of being community together. I was 39 weeks pregnant with our first child and received special permission from my doctor to officiate the wedding.

To be honest, I didn’t think too much about the phone call I received asking me to keep our story and the journey we had taken from calling ourselves welcoming and affirming to truly being welcoming and affirming quiet. I knew the couple was both professionals and in South Carolina had to still be careful and I wasn’t going to share their story without them sharing it first. I was also very pregnant and was working out the details of negotiating a maternity leave policy that became an extended leave policy on the advice of several colleagues who had been diagnosed with cancer or autoimmune disorders hoping to lay the foundation for others who would need time to heal .

I didn’t think about that conversation until the six months after our son was born when I was at a CBF gathering. One of the session was about fostering the conversation about becoming a welcoming and affirming church. As I listened to the story of the people who were wrestling with the idea of maybe considering starting the conversation, I couldn’t help but think. We just did this. This is what just happened in our community of faith.

And that’s when I remembered that conversation where I was asked to keep our experience quiet because there were some churches that “just weren’t ready” to engage the conversation. Maybe it was because I was pregnant and a new mom that I didn’t recall or reflect on that conversation until much later. Maybe it was because having been raised Southern Baptist I was very used to being asked to stay quiet and to not talk or write about my experiences. Maybe it was because I was only two years into pastoring and cared very deeply about being accepted and belonging to the greater CBF community.

Now as I look back, I realize this silencing was what many others had experienced as pastors and as individuals. I began to wonder how many churches had asked pastors not to tell about their experience officiating a same-sex wedding? How many persons who were LGTBQIA+ had been asked to keep quiet about who they were? How many churches have kept quiet a request from a couple to bear witness to their love and their relationship?

I don’t know how many have been asked to keep their experiences, their identities, and their true selves quiet, but I know that I was asked to keep quiet.

And I know there are others.