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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.

The Behind the Scenes of Baptist Pastor Search

In response to sharing my story in the recent article Switching Denomination: Why some Baptist ministers are leaving, I’ve heard from so many women who have experienced something similar to what I have experienced. While this is reassuring that I am not alone in my experience, it is also disheartening. As I listened to these stories, I realized that there is a behind the scenes to the pastor search process in the baptist world. I have heard again and again from denominational leaders in the CBF that there is nothing they can do when it comes to congregations actually calling women to be pastors or churches affirming LGTBQIA+ persons. Even when I heard these statements, I challenged and pushed. There was something about these statements that were not only defensive but also passive, allowing leaders the option to not take action or responsibility for what was happening in parish ministry.

And then I received an unexpected phone call. It was the head of a pastor search committee. The pastor position was not yet listed, but I had been recommended for consideration. At first, I felt extreme affirmation. A surge of pride overwhelmed me that instead of carefully crafting an interest letter and yet again changing the format of my resume, I was having a direct conversation with the head of the pastor search committee. These are the conversations I had been trying to have for five years. Resume after resume, email after email, phone call after phone call, just to try to get in front of a pastor search committee. I have written so many interest letters and sent so many resumes without ever hearing anything at all and now I was in a very important conversation. As the surge of pride ebbed, another realization washed over me. My heart sank as I understood. This is how it works. 

Over and over again, I had been told I was a strong candidate for full-time pastor positions. Conversation after conversation with mentors and denominational leaders led me to reformat my resume, refine my writing, and push myself again and again only to find that I was not being considered for the pastor positions I applied for. Coaching training was suggested. Intentional interim training was suggested. All of these not a financial possibility as a bi-vocational minister.

I was on the phone as it dawned on me that the one thing no one was willing to admit to me as I searched and searched is the behind the scenes phone calls that take place. The insider baseball recommendations. No one was willing to say that there are candidates that are recommended when a church contacts denominational leaders and mentors for suggestions and there are candidates that aren’t. Even as I was engaged in one of those behind the scenes conversations, I was struck by how much harm this not-talked-about, never-discussed part of the search process is harming very talented, very earnest ministers, especially women and LGTBQIA+ ministers. If you don’t know these conversations take place and you don’t know that it actually really matters a lot who you know, then you begin to think it is you as a person and as a minister. You don’t have enough experience. You don’t have enough passion. You don’t have what it takes to pastor because you aren’t being considered anywhere. You aren’t worth a conversation, an email or a letter in response to your submission for consideration.

This is not true.

I know too many very talented, highly educated, and extremely gifted female ministers who simply aren’t being considered or once they are called to pastor have their pastorates end abruptly. Women candidates and women pastors in the baptist world are held to impossible standards. As a woman pastor, you are expected to solve the financial crisis that many churches find themselves in (from male pastors who have mismanaged funds and not adapted with the changing economy). As a woman pastor, you cannot be a good preacher, you must be an exceptional preacher. As a woman pastor, the administrative tasks and expectations are often increased. I know numerous woman pastors who format and print and fold their own bulletins every week. In many cases, an associate pastor and senior pastor position are combined. While balancing all of these expectations, women pastors know that if they misstep and if they are asked to resign or their contract is not renewed, the congregation will be more likely not to call a female again. On top of that, women ministers are also still experiencing sexual harassment and sexist comments as they are trying to minister.

This is not a problem of individual candidates.

This is a systemic problem. This is a denominational problem. This is sexism. This is brokenness. This is spiritual abuse being covered up and denied.

I finished the phone call explaining to the person that based on what I saw on their website, they were not ready for a woman minister. “But we would like to have some resumes of women,” was the response I received. This was not the first time I had personally heard this statement. Three years ago, I would have submitted my resume saying that considering women candidates was the first step in calling a woman pastor. Maybe it is, but for the first time since I was called to pastor and to preach seven years ago, I didn’t have to “put in my time” and “be patient.” For the first time, I could say no. No to the behind the scenes phone calls. No to the systemic problems that allow for baptist churches in 2019 to act as if they are welcoming and affirming when there is no intention to actually call a woman pastor. No to the unrealistic expectations placed on baptist woman pastors. And no to the denominational denial that all of this exists as part of the pastor search process for women and LGTBQIA+ persons.

For the first time in my life…

I am not a member of the Baptist church. On Pentecost, I celebrated with Garden of Grace UCC and officially transferred my letter of membership to this welcome and affirming community of faith. UCC operates through congregational polity just as the Baptist tradition does. The UCC celebrates Eucharist every time they gather. They are notably different from the Baptist tradition in their emphasis on social justice and taking a stand to include and welcome all regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or marital status.

Even when I was told by my home church that they didn’t believe women were called to preach, I still remained baptist. Even when I was told by denominational leaders that although they wished it were different, there just weren’t that many Baptist churches who were willing to call a woman as pastor, I still remained baptist. Even when I was told that I needed to wear my hair back while preacher and wear a black suit with pants rather than a skirt or a dress, I still remained baptist. Even when I introduced myself as a Baptist pastor and was met with shocked and confused expressions in the Bible Belt, I remained Baptist. I remained Baptist for thirty-four years believing and hoping that things would change and they have, but that change is so incremental and so slow that I found myself in the pastor search process in competition with some of the colleagues who I valued the most. More than once, I withdrew my name from the pastor search process because I found out there was another woman in the running and I knew both of us wouldn’t make to the top three. Again and again, one woman knocks out another one and I did not want to be in competition with other women. In the latest data, women still comprised less than 25% of senior pastors and co-pastors in the branches of the baptist church who even welcome and affirm women as pastors.

This week and next week two branches of the baptist church will gather in Birmingham, AL. Both will be discussing the impact of sexual abuse and sexual harassment in their churches because the abuse has been so prevalent. These hidden issues have finally surfaced in a way that denominational leaders can no longer silently pretend it doesn’t exist.

This season of not being officially a baptist for me is an invitation. An invitation to rest, not having to fight, defend, or prove I am called. An invitation to be, simply be the person and the pastor I was created to be. Thanks be to God for the continual invitation to be a part of the holy and mysterious work of bringing the kingdom of God here on earth.

Finding Yourself Again

I remember with our first child, looking at the woman in the mirror and not recognizing the eyes looking back at me. To be sure that was because he came into the world through an emergency c-section after a long labor. I didn’t realize the trauma I had been through until my partner showed me the pictures I hadn’t seen before. The pictures right after his birth, the pictures I don’t remember taking. He held us both steady throughout that first night until we both were labeled stable.

This time it’s been a bit easier to find myself again. Maybe it’s because our daughter’s arrival was less traumatic. Maybe it’s because there was some idea of how this whole mom life goes. Maybe it’s because we lost one in between our two that solidified the true miracle that is life coming into this world.

Whatever it is, I find myself more readily and more eagerly saying no to things and relationships that take away my energy, our energy. I find myself excited for the days that we have at home to ourselves to grow into family. I find myself not wanting to wish this time away or plan this time away, but just to be in the moments of our three-year-old holding our four-month-old’s hand, hearing them talk to each other, seeing them learn to love each other.

I marvel at how they can look so similar, but already be so unique and different. I marvel at how I can be the same person I was when he was four months old and be a completely different person for her now. With him I was always worried I was losing myself: my body and my schedule were dependent on the food he needed and when he needed it. What was threatening then, is reassuring now. There is so much of me in both of them: so much struggle, so much wrestling, so much accepting, so much forgiving and now so much being that they are both here together forming and informing each other.

And here we are together growing into family. Challenging and forgiving. Holding each other steady when one of us can’t find themselves until we each find ourselves again.

A Women’s Place in SC

This week 100 years ago, women earned the right to vote in the United States, but not every state was in favor of giving women this right. Matthew Isbell points out that there were noticeable patterns across the country. As I looked at the stark, glaring red of South Carolina, I wondered how much had changed over the past 100 years. Women have been elected to serve on the state and national level, but is there an undercurrent, a subtext that pervades our state and our culture here in South Carolina that continues to try to limit a women’s influence?

As a female clergy in the Bible Belt of South Carolina, there have been more times than not that I have been asked again what I do after I answer I am a pastor. This hasn’t changed in the five years since I have been pastoring in South Carolina. The number of women whose stories I read and hear who have been taught that their role is to raise children and to be a homemaker hasn’t decreased over the past five years and has actually increased.

Although South Carolina is no longer the deadliest state for women to live in due to domestic violence, we are still ranked number six in the nation and just this week faced the horrible realization that domestic violence doesn’t just impact women, but children too. There are still many, many women who live in fear of their lives and their children’s lives in our state but don’t have the financial means to create a life independent of an abusive partner, especially a life in which they can also support their children.

Living in the capital city of the first state to secede from the Union before the Civil War reminds us that history matters and that the voices that wanted to secede a protect slavery still exist in the descendants and power and money that came on the backs of other people. Living in the capital city where many people come to receive medical services from the Veteran’s hospital is a daily reminder that there is not enough affordable housing for people living on fixed incomes and that there are not lasting protections for those who fought to protect our country.  Even though South Carolina made a name for itself because of its ability to grow so many different cash crops, we are living in the reality of food deserts where there aren’t fresh fruits and produce available for miles and miles.

Our history matters and the voices that spoke out to support slavery and racism and to limit voices of women, African Americans and anyone considered other still impact the way our city and our state operate. We cannot move forward until we take a long look at our history as a state. We’ve already seen multiple presidential candidates visit South Carolina because we are a powerful player on the national political stage. I just hope we can move towards a future where we make a name for ourselves for something besides oppressing, silencing and enslaving other people.

Pastor Mom

Our church photographer captured this photo after service and I can’t imagine a better picture of what it looks like to be a Pastor Mom. I have so much help in an amazing partner and an amazing community who are so generous. With their help, I feel like I can truly step into both of these roles: inviting God’s people to dream and grow and inviting this little one who joined us four months ago to dream and grow.

At times, I catch my breath because as a young girl I never saw a woman pastor. I never saw a woman preach. I never dreamed that this picture could be possible.  At those moments, I am caught up in the holy mystery that calls to our deepest selves. The holy mystery that whispers possibilities of wholeness and newness in ways we never imagined. That holy mystery beckons to each of us inviting us to see parts of ourselves long hidden or oft silenced. That holy mystery comes powerfully into our lives, transforming and changing us into new creations.

No matter where we are on this journey, the holy mystery offers us communion with something so much greater than ourselves and I believe that the holy mystery cradles us and offers us milk, safety, and rest for the journey we are on.

Perhaps the holy mystery is whispering during this Eastertide season to lay back and drink deeply resting in the truth that death has been overcome and transformation and resurrection are all around us.

Postpartum Profit: A review of maternity and postpartum retail

The postpartum period is one that is grossly neglected in American healthcare. Once a woman is released by her doctor at or around the six week period, her postpartum care is nil. At six weeks, the postpartum period is completed. You can resume your normal activities, except you are completely different and so is your body.

There have been some movements, especially body positivity movements that have tried to counter the oppression and depiction of maternity leave as a vacation in America, but way too often those body positivity movements are met with trolls encouraging the women brave enough to depict their real postpartum bodies to get tummy tucks or to never post again.

In the midst of all of this, there is a very practical issue that your clothes don’t fit. The maternity clothes you have make you look a little too pregnant, your pre-baby clothes don’t fit at all or are snug in completely new places. And so the postpartum retail space has opened up including tops that make it easy for nursing moms to nurse, supposedly.

Thanks to a generous and understanding partner I have had three experiences with postpartum/maternity companies and they were all completely different:

Teat and Cossett: For Christmas, my partner gifted me with two nursing tops in preparation for our new little one. One was a sweatshirt that could be worn around the house and another a nice gray dress I could wear to work as I tried to balance nursing and working. Just this week, five months after he purchased the item and three months after we had our daughter, I inquired about returning the items because they finally fit, but they were the wrong season now that Spring has come to South Carolina. Here’s what I received in response to my inquiry:

Hi there:

I am very sorry, but you have certainly passed our return and exchange window.  Your items were purchased five months ago.  Please let me know if there is anything else I can assist you with.

Best,

Zara

Something about the “certainly” flushed me with shame that I didn’t fit in the size I thought I would fit in after having our second daughter. On doing a bit of investigating, I found that there return policy to contact them and then 10 days to get the item back to them. 15 days. I am not sure what the expectation is here, but I know I certainly was not able to keep up with what day it was and certainly would not have remembered that there were postpartum clothes I needed to return if they didn’t fit, especially since my body was changing every single day.

Milk Nursingwear: I really have an amazing partner who not only tells me I’m beautiful but also encourages me to buy clothes that fit and that are comfortable and allow me to nurse and pump. I ordered a nursing tank and a dress from Milk and was very impressed with the fact that they sent a return label with the order. I tried them on and was immediately disappointed as they accentuated unflattering portions of my postpartum body as well as clinging to my incision scar. As I went back to look at the Instagram posts I had seen, I slowly realized that the models they were using were probably not, in fact, postpartum moms as the clothes fit the models perfectly. Even though I was disappointed, the return was so easy and I had a full 60 days to make a decision on whether I liked the clothes.

Kindred Bravely: This is where I purchased my favorite nursing bra. The fabric is so soft and it also doesn’t show stains or leak through to clothes. I am not sure how they do it, but it really is amazing. Not to mention, they are currently running a special where you buy a pair of pajamas and they donate one to a mom with a baby in the NICU.

The maternity and postpartum retail industry is a $2 billion domestic industry serving 6 million new moms, but ultimately it is still an industry, an attempt to profit off of women and families in the joy and uncertainty of bringing new life into the world. I have heard and read so many posts of moms who are struggling not only with the way their bodies have changed but also with how their lives have changed.

I still consider myself to be postpartum and our baby was born in January. I considered myself to be postpartum for the whole first year after our son was born and I considered myself postpartum after our miscarriage. I too fall prey the societal pressure to “look like I did pre-baby” and to “bounce back to work,” but slowly and intentionally I am saying no. No to things that sap my energy so much I can’t care for our new little one and the rest of our family. No to companies who have return policies of only 15 days and no to companies who design to a certain type of postpartum body.

Pastor’s Kids


I never thought about being a pastor and a parent as I was growing up because the concept of being a pastor was not something that women did and I certainly never saw a woman with young kids who was a pastor. When I saw these images, it made me stop in my tracks because here my kids sit next to me, supporting and affirming me by being a part of our new congregation, Garden of Grace UCC. Here they sit, as the service is beginning talking to me, asking me questions, wanting to participate and drinking milk from sippy cups.

This an absolute miracle.

When I answered a call to pastor and to pursue seminary nine years ago, I never imagined these pictures would be a reality. I never imagined meeting a partner that would go with me on this journey and affirm and support me as a pastor and as a parent.

As we sit here in these images in the shadow of the cross, I can’t help but remember that these pictures wouldn’t have been a reality without a lot of dying to self and dying to the things I thought I knew about who was called and who wasn’t called.

This is resurrection and evidence of the Risen Christ. Alleluia!

 

“Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice”

In the girls’ bathhouse at my grandparents’ pool, there was a sign that hung on the wall:

Sugar n’ Spice

and everything nice

That’s what little girls

are made of.

I remember thinking that was a cute saying, especially because it rhymed and painted a picture of a smiling, bow-wearing little girl. Actually, that may have been the image that was painted at the bottom of the sign. Although the saying brings back fond memories, it’s not one that is hanging in our house with three girls.

I don’t want my girls to see that hanging on the wall and think they have to be nice or sweet. This Tuesday one of the most important organizations in the Columbia area, Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, received threats to the staff and organization because of the work they are doing to combat, educate, and provide healing for sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse.  Three out of four victims know their abuser before the abuse occurs, so when we teach our girls to be nice and sweet to people they know and fear strangers, we are not recognizing the percentage of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual abuse that is committed by family members, family friends, and other close acquaintances. When we teach our girls to be nice and sweet, are we inevitably telling them that they can’t talk to us about things that aren’t sweet and nice if they happen to them?

The threats to an organization that does such important work prove that there are people who want girls and indeed adults to be sweet and nice rather than fight for safety for our children and against injustices in our society. We live in a world where sexual abuse, rape, and sexual violence occurs every 92 seconds. And I’m going to keep talking about the things that are not nice and sweet until we know that our world is a better place for our children.

Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands had to cancel one of their major fundraisers because of these threats. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could show our support financially?

To Nurse or Not To Nurse: On Aching in the Bones

Oh this question is one that is riddled with mom guilt by too many people because the very nature of the question is binary as if there are only two choices in the quest to nourish and support your child. This is simply not true and the wrong premise. As I work with young mothers and first-time mothers, I often phrase the question, “Are you going to try to nurse?” I explain quickly that whichever they choose is completely fine and that I simply want them to know that I can help them find supplies, resource, and community for whatever choice they make.

If the women I work with tell me that they are going to try to nurse, then I try to point them to resources that will tell them what to expect. My response to this question when I was pregnant with our first child was, “I am hoping to,” understanding that there is no way to anticipate what the labor and delivery experience is going to be like and no way to know what is going to happen with your milk until your baby is actually here. Our firstborn came into the world in a scary and traumatic whirlwind that left me in an emergency c-section and Sam holding our son for close to two hours after he was born and stabilized. There was so much of the time after the surgery in recovery that I don’t remember, but I do remember Sam walking in with our son and saying, “He’s really hungry.” Not sure of how much time had passed since his arrival into the world, I was disoriented and very lost. I pulled him to me and was thankful that he latched immediately and began nursing. This was one thing that went as I had hoped in our labor and delivery story and I couldn’t stop the tears at that moment. That would serve to be the easiest time I fed our baby during the first night of his life full of heel pricks and glucose level reports and ultimately being told we had to give him formula because his blood sugar was too low. We tried to give him the tiny bottle the pediatrician resident gave us only to have him throw up all of it.

By the time the lactation consultant came in the next morning, I was in tears because we had been told that they were going to have to take our son away and keep him for up to 2-3 days. The lactation consultant was the first person I saw after they had taken our baby to the special care nursery. Everything we had experienced all the fear and pain and trauma came out in our conversation, but especially my hope to do the one thing I had left to hope for: to nurse my child. She was wonderfully patient and explained that we could pump and take it to him and that she would do whatever she could to limit the amount of formula he had to get. I was so grateful and relieved.

It turns out that our son only needed one bag of fluids to get his blood sugar back on track and that we were able to nurse from that point on, but there was so much about the actual process of nursing I didn’t know. I didn’t know about the 2-day cluster feeding, but our night nurse was wonderfully supportive and told me each time she came to check his and my vitals what a good job I was doing and how hard she knew it was having had a c-section to reach over and get him to feed him. No one told me about the 2-3 week cluster feeding or how you will suddenly understand the phrase “aching in your bones” in a real and deep way after a night of cluster feeding. No one tells you how physically demanding nursing is or how frequent growth spurts are because your baby needs for more and more milk increases during those first six weeks. And although you may hear a funny anecdote here and there, no one will tell you how frequently you end up in the position where you need to feed your baby and you don’t have the right top on or you don’t have a nursing cover or a blanket and you end up in the bathroom stall trying to feed your baby while not touching anything.

Friends and family may tell you with good intention that “breast is best,” but not how difficult it is to keep your milk supply up if you have to return to the hospital for any reason or return to work or how pumping is not intuitive, but a process with lots of parts and planning. And no one tells you how messy nursing and how many times you will put on a new shirt only to have to change your shirt fifteen minutes later.

I’m thinking about all of these things I didn’t know with our first as we walk this nursing journey again. That lactation consultant who listened so compassionately to our story and told me she would help me learn how to pump and that she would personally go and check on our baby to see what was going came walking through the pre-op curtain the morning of January 22. She told us that she would be the nurse in with us during our c-section and she would be the one who was in charge of watching our daughter and getting us skin to skin as quickly as possible and helping us nurse if that’s what we wanted to do. My partner was the one who recognized her and told her that she was the shining light after our traumatic first night with our son. She smiled and said, “I thought I recognized you.” I don’t know how our nursing journey would have gone if we hadn’t had this woman and the nurse who supported and encouraged me during that first cluster feeding session and if I didn’t have really close friends who sent me articles and sent me stories about their own experiences and told me it was good no matter how long our nursing journey was.

This time I got to be skin to skin with our daughter in the operating room and got to nurse her within thirty minutes of her birth. And although I know so much more this time around, what I ultimately learned is you never truly know how this parenthood journey is going to go and that the most important thing is to feed your child and to seek support from medical professionals, experienced parents, and parents who are right there in the middle of the journey with you. We need community, we need sanctuary to ask questions and to express exhaustion and frustration, we need real stories of real journey and not binary options or easy catchphrases. We cannot do this parenting alone.