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Optics and Opportunity

While watching the debate, I was overwhelmed with the optics of three old white men debating the future of our country. For years, I have been the voice in worship planning that asks the question, “But does it look like we welcome and affirm women?” when the platform or worship participants are only males. Nothing about tonight’s debate looks like we value voices of females, voices of Black people, voices of Latinos, voices of LGTBQIA+.

“But the vice-presidential debate and the post-debate analysis will be different!” Yes, it will be, but there is still tonight and tonight it feels heavy to watch and listen to voices who have always been watched and listened to.

The New York Times reported this week that the pandemic will push working women, particularly working moms, 10 years back in the workplace:

Before the pandemic, many American mothers were effectively forced to stop working for some period of time because they could not afford paid child care. And research shows that the longer a woman is out of the work force, the more severe the long-term effects on her earnings will be.

This reporting comes after the reporting in May that women were disproportionally feeling the financial impact of the pandemic:

“Last month’s shattering job losses make clear that women are in the bullseye of this pandemic,” Emily Martin, VP for education and workplace justice at NWLC, said in a statement. “In leisure, hospitality, education, health care and retail — the sectors that are getting hit the hardest — women are the ones who are falling victim to the first massive waves of this economic crisis.”

I have talked to so many working moms who are getting up before the sunrise hoping to get some work done while juggling childcare options for kids who are quarantined, waiting to be tested, were possibly exposed, and whose childcare option simply disappeared with little to no warning. They spend their days caring for their children while desperately trying to keep the foot in the door at work in naptimes or rest times or after the children go to sleep only to do the whole thing over the next day. They are exhausted.

And then tonight, their voices are not heard and not represented.

Optics matter. Optics signal opportunities. And it’s clear tonight who has the opportunity and who doesn’t.

On Being a Spiritual Director for a Year

 

This week the pictures began to pop up on my social media feeds reminding me that it was just a year ago that I was commissioned as a spiritual director after a two-year certification program at Lutheran Southern Seminary. I was shocked to realize that it had only been a year since our last intensive when I had a baby in tow learning about the desert fathers and mothers for the last time in that kind of setting. Last June, I remember the greetings and the celebrations of being together. I remember everyone being surprised at the baby in my arms because the last time we had gathered I had been carrying her within me. It isn’t surprising then that this baby almost a year to the date would choose this week to finish nursing. Her whole life has been inextricably tied to this journey to become a spiritual director.

As I was looking back at pictures, I found myself also looking back at our coursework. The study of men and women who were looking for a deeper relationship with the Divine, not in search of answers but in search of wholeness. My journey was the same. I wanted to know more about what I didn’t know. I wanted to know more about how to walk intentionally and purposefully with people who were looking for healing and hope. I wanted to know more about this Divine breath that resides within my lungs.

Over the course of reflection, I looked back at the monastic daily prayer schedule. As I looked over the times, I looked at my phone calendar and realized, the times of prayer are awfully close to the times I have fed our baby over the last year. Perhaps there is something beyond coincidence to those parallel schedules. Perhaps much like an infant needs nourishment throughout the day, so too do our souls.

Perhaps there is something to humbling ourselves throughout the day remembering that we are not in control and we do not have the answers that provide our souls the nutrients they need to keep going. And perhaps after we have drawn close to the Divine, we find that the refreshment brings us much needed rest and peace.

May we listen to the cries of hunger from our souls and pause to give our souls nourishment throughout the day.

“Who do you say that I am?”

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

This passage from the gospel of Matthew chapter sixteen always challenges me. I can feel my palms sweating and my heart begin to beat a little faster. This is one of those moments between teacher and student where you know the answer is really, really important. Simon Peter answered the question and received a blessing from Jesus.

But in the gospel of Mark, the interaction goes a bit differently:

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

There is no blessing after Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, but rather a stern instruction to keep his identity a secret.

I can remember still the conversation I had when I voiced for the first time to preach and pastor. I can remember the sweaty palms and my racing heart as I tried on the new identity: “I am called to preach. I am a called to pastor.” My call came as a surprise and a relief. When I found space and sanctuary to look deep within and hear the voice that had been calling me for so long, I knew things and I would never be the same. It would take five years after that first timid declaration before I was able to say, ” I am a preacher. I am a pastor.” Still to this day, I hesitate to introduce myself to others as a preacher; knowing that in South Carolina to be a woman and to be a preacher don’t seem to go together; knowing that living into my calling and my very identity means creating theological crises for friends and family who had been taught that women were never called to preach and teach.

So to those of you struggling to live into who are called to be and timidly trying out those identities on a few close friends asking them to keep quiet about who you are, know that you are not alone. Jesus asked his friends to keep it a secret too. Jesus knew that living fully into who he was called to be would create ripples in his family, in his culture, and in his religion.

And to those of you ready to declare who are you, know that living into your identity is a blessing to your friends, to your family, to your culture, and yes to your religion, even if your identity presents a theological crisis to those communities. It isn’t until we are challenged that we grow. It isn’t until we see and hear someone living fully into their own identity that we get the courage to declare who we are.

In the Midst of Rain

Yesterday, I was trying to do a quick grocery store run before the thunderstorms rolled in with our four-year-old and our 11-month-old in tow. I was convinced I had timed it just right. I talked our four-year-old son through the planning because he gets a little nervous during storms. We had a plan and we were going to work together to accomplish it.

We got to the dog food aisle when the first thunder boom hit. The four-year-old stopped in the middle of the aisle and declared, “Mom! We have to get home to be safe during the thunderstorm.”

My first reaction was one of joy. He believes and perceives our home to be safe, his sanctuary from all the learning and growing he is going through right now. My second reaction was one of dread because I knew what was coming. I was going to have to try to load up the groceries, two children, and myself in the midst of the rain.

After we checked out, I took a minute to stop and think through things because I knew as soon as we were in the midst of the rain, my brain would be trying to move as quickly as possible. I tried to put my raincoat on the 11-month-old who found it hilarious to play peek-a-boo with it. I got the four-year-old all set with his umbrella. I got my keys ready and we went for it.

There we were in the midst of the rain. One dry four-year-old finding all the puddles and stomping in them in no hurry because his umbrella had him covered. An 11-month-old playing peekaboo with the coat, her eyelashes catching the raindrops. and there I was already soaked when we were only halfway to the car.

In the midst of the rain, I found myself belly laughing at what we must look like. Two children laughing and splashing and one Mama soaked through trying to remember every moment.

A Year of Rebirth

A word always chooses me at the end of the year and 2019 has been no different. It isn’t that I don’t set intentions or affirmations at the beginning of the calendar year, but rather that by the end of the journey of one more trip around the sun, a word has followed me through the year.

This year has been a year of rebirth.

In January, I accepted a call to pastor Garden of Grace United Church of Christ. It is the first time, I haven’t been baptist in my thirty-four years of life. I accepted that calling while eight months pregnant with our daughter. Starting something new while being so close to having a newborn is kind of the way my calling has always worked. It is something that doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. A whispering, a pulling me to something new.

This year I have reclaimed my identity as an evangelical or a re-evangelical, an identity that I have shied away from because of the conservative, fundamental experience as a child. This in and of itself is a rebirth, a joining of my childhood experiences to my expressions and experiences of faith over the past seven years as a clergy member.

The birth of our daughter was a scheduled c-section after our son’s emergency c-section and traumatic birth. I had heard over and over again that the experience of having a planned c-section after an emergency c-section would be healing. To be sure, knowing what was coming and when our daughter was coming was much different than our experience with our son. When we met the team who was going to be with us in the operating room, we recognized a familiar face. It was the lactation consultant who was the first hospital employee we met after the first night of our son’s life that was filled with heel pricks and tears and fears. She was the one who listened and cared for us after such a scary night and she would be the one who was caring for our daughter and me. Funny how things work, isn’t it? Our daughter’s birth was textbook in so many ways. In fact, there were two USC nursing students who were able to observe her birth and experience a c-section for the first time because there was no trauma or fear involved. Sam even got to help the doctor pull her out. This was so healing and so very important to me as a mother.

Two years ago, I accepted a job as an Administrative Assistant in the Academy of Faith and Leadership. This led me to a two-year journey to become certificated as a spiritual director and opened a whole new depth of my calling as a minister and as a pilgrim. I read and learned and healed from so much hurt in my own spiritual journey and I have begun to offer space and sanctuary for others who are also seeking to heal and deepen their own spirituality.

This year has also brought a rebirth to our business. Sam and I started working together again at Harrelson Co and we moved into a new office space, which is reminiscent of our time in Asheville where we worked together. Sam and I met while teaching at the same school so the time that we spent working in separate environments often felt off in some ways. Now we are back to creating and learning and growing together.

Rebirth is never easy. It is painful and awkward. It means revisiting old wounds and learning to walk again. Rebirth always brings new life, transformation, and understanding. Thanks be to God for this year of rebirth.

 

 

Best Books I Read in 2019

Every year for the past three years, I have participated in the book challenge on Goodreads. Every year I have set my reading goal for fifty books and I have yet to meet that goal. This year I read twenty-seven books out of the fifty and I am proud of that. This is a good experience for me year after year because it reminds me that I can’t do everything even those things I really want to do. I will keep setting this goal every year.

I have read some really good books this year, here are my top five books for 2019:

  1. The Artist’s Way: My dear friend Elisabeth sent met this book. She is a creator and she said that it changed the way that she approached creativity and the way that she approached her art. As a content creator, I knew I needed a little boost and this was exactly what I needed. This is not just a book, but a course of study that asks you to reflect on the things and the people who are getting in the way of you creating art.

2. The Minimalist Home: This was a random grab off the staff picks table at our local library and I still cannot stop thinking about it. I started this year by taking the LifeinJeneral #31daychallenge to declutter our home in preparation for our baby. This lead to a Lenten study of what we really need through the book Seven. This year concluded with this book and it was such a good ending to this year of focusing and analyzing needs and wants. To be sure, I have a long way to go, but this year has been a huge step on trying to living purposefully and intentionally.

3. Panda Journal: Although this isn’t a book I read this year, this is a book that has changed my life this year. I was trained as a teacher and this book planner/journal appeals to all my teacher-ness. It asks you to offer gratitude for three things every morning, as well as three things that you are excited about and three priorities. Only three. This has been such a huge visual reminder of what is really important and how time gets filled each and every day. I have already started on this year’s planner and I can’t wait to see what insights another year of starting the day with gratitude and excitement will bring.

4. The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic: This book appeared on my desk one day. I found out that a co-worker had sent it for me to read via Sam. I finished it in two days with tears streaming down my face. I have a wonderful partner in life and work that helps in so many ways, but trying to explain and articulate the things that are weighing on your heart and mind each and every day is extremely difficult. This year I have felt this much more with our baby thrown in the mix. Packing lunches, making sure that everyone has something weather-appropriate to wear, doctors’ appointments on top of trying to lead and guide a congregation has certainly not been easy. As I read this book, I felt seen and heard and that I wasn’t alone in this journey.

5. The Purity Myth: I am not shy about being raised in the height of the purity movement as a girl in a conservative evangelical environment. Even though I talk and write about spiritual abuse often, I didn’t realize how much work I still needed to do in owning my own sexuality. This book revealed so much about how sexuality, purity, pregnancy, and pro-life vs. pro-choice is all a part of the same conversation. A conversation that involves silencing women and seeing women as girls who are unable to speak for themselves and decide for themselves. This has started a lot of reflection and I know will show up in my writing in the coming year.

In the Midst of Sickness

It took us until September of this first year of our daughter’s of life until our two youngest kids passed sicknesses back and forth. Since September we have passed quite a few sicknesses back and forth in the way that happens when you add another mini human to the family mix.

As these moved back and forth, I found myself in Urgent Care two days after Christmas answering the nurse’s question: “Have you been around anyone who was sick recently?”

“Well,” I answered. “My son had a viral throat infection and then the croup. My daughter has had a double infection and another ear infection and my partner has had a flu-like cold.” The nurse looked at me and smiled, “So you probably just got all of that.”

My official diagnosis was a sinus infection and ear infection with a partially permeated eardrum (who knew you could even do that?).  As the doctor was telling me the medicines he was going to prescribe, I mentioned I was still nursing. He asked me how old our daughter was and I told him that she was eleven months. He then proceeded to tell me that the amoxicillin and other medication that he was prescribing really shouldn’t be taken while breastfeeding. After this, he delivered a lecture explaining there weren’t any benefits to nursing a baby past two weeks and really two months was the max benefit. He mentioned his credentials: he had been in family medicine before he started working at Urgent Care. I nodded and didn’t contest his analysis, but then he pushed and asked me what my plan was for feeding my baby while I took the medicine, waiting for an explanation before he would give me the prescription. Even in the midst of my not feeling well, I could tell that this was an abuse of power. I told him that I would figure it out and he asked, “So you will give her formula?”

At this point, I was not only shocked, but I was also upset. I knew enough to know that although there are medications you can’t take while breastfeeding, amoxicillin wasn’t one of them. In fact, our daughter had just finished a round of amoxicillin for her own ear infection. I explained that I had enough milk saved up hoping that would end the conversation, but he pressed again, “Enough for ten days?”

I answered with a curt, “Yes.”

So much of this experience reminds me of stories I’ve heard of mothers who have been involved in similar pressured conversations where medical professionals overstep the boundaries of their job to care for the mother to use their position of power to influence a mother’s decision on how to feed her baby. This is an abuse of power that isn’t only in the medical profession.

I can remember similar pressured conversations with religious leaders growing up in the midst of conservative evangelicalism where I was forced to answer questions that were inappropriate and way past boundaries that should have been maintained. This abuse of power is called spiritual abuse when it is enacted by a religious leader and one of the experiences that causes so much distrust within a person’s spirit, especially women who have these experiences.

Expertise and experience do not entitle or enable a person to take away the choices or decisions of another person. Expertise and experience without compassion and empathy only serve to cause more harm than good.

The fact that this medical professional took advantage of my vulnerable position of needing medication and used it as an opportunity to not only lecture but demean my ability to decide what is the best way to feed my daughter is unacceptable.

This has to stop in the medical world and in the institutional church.

On Finding Yourself

Recently we were at a friend’s birthday party at one of those jump jump places. Our three-year-old loves them, but as a mom carrying an infant, they cause my anxiety to sit at the base of my throat. On average there are about fifty-seven times I convince myself that I have lost my child and I am a terrible mother only to discover a minute later that he is in one of the ball pits.

The funny thing about this experience is that the three-year-old never once finds himself lost. He is fully and wholly engaged in having fun flinging himself off of multi-level spaces and jumping on every single surface (something he tries to do every day at home). As I marvel at his tenacity and his sheer joy, I sometimes wonder if I have lost myself.

Being a member of the clergy means I hear more frequently and more quickly about deaths. I hold space for people to find sanctuary sharing their stories of abuse, neglect, and loneliness. I am the one people call when they are in a difficult time of waiting for medical diagnoses for themselves and for loved ones. This is such sacred work and I am honored to walk these journeys with people.

As I hear these stories, I think about how I found myself by voicing a call to pastor. I found myself in answering the call to deliver God’s word to God’s people. I think about my first call to pastor and how many people I asked me, “How do you like pastoring?” and I answered without hesitation, “I love it. I know this is what I was created to do.” I found in answering the call to be myself.

There are so many voices that can distract and take us away from ourselves. Voices of religious leaders telling us that we can’t be who we are created to be because our very beings create a theological crisis for their understanding of gender, sexuality, and marriage. Voices of family members passing on guilt and shame rather than love and encouragement. Voices of colleagues and classmates who saw something in us that they wanted and so tried to belittle and demean us. Voices swirling in our hearts and minds making it hard to find ourselves.

Perhaps the most powerful and reconciling work we can do is to find ourselves.

Because when we do, we will find the image of God residing there within, breathing in our lungs, offering us the miraculous power to become.

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.