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On Waiting in Uncertainty

A couple of weeks ago the lectionary text was from Genesis when three strangers appeared to Abraham. He offered them hospitality, rest, and retreat. They offered him the assurance that that word he had heard from God was indeed coming. Sarai, his wife, who was by the tent heard the promise that she was going to have a child and she laughed. One of the strangers pointed it out to her. She responded, “I did not laugh,” and then comes one of my favorite lines in Bible, “Oh yes you did laugh.”

I think Sarai denied having laughed because she knew that this was an important message. A message that was from the Divine. A message that was changing their lives. A message that encompassed all her hopes and dreams and all of her years of waiting.

The laugh was not one of unbelief as she has so often been characterized as having, but rather a laugh that gurgled in the deepest part of her soul. A laugh because the very thing she had been waiting and dreaming and hoping for couldn’t possibly come true now.

The season of waiting is so very difficult because we don’t know how long the waiting will be. Waiting for test results. Waiting for a call to a ministry position. Waiting for a child. Waiting for a relationship. Waiting in line at the grocery store. Waiting for a train to pass by.

Whatever we are awaiting, there is something with us that urges us to action in the midst of waiting. We feel like we are supposed to be doing something else besides waiting because waiting is doing nothing. Just today I was at a railroad crossing and I saw the first car and then the second and then the third turn around and go a different way because they simply couldn’t wait for the train to pass by.

Waiting makes us feel powerless. Waiting makes us feel anxious. Waiting makes us feel vulnerable.

None of these are emotions we would choose. All of these are difficult. So, we run from waiting not wanting to feel powerless, not wanting to feel anxious or vulnerable convinced that in the meantime we can do something to make the waiting go away.  As hard as we try, the waiting creeps back to our lives and to our attention.

Whatever you are waiting on, be assured that waiting is a spiritual practice that asks everything of us and asks us to empty ourselves before God. This is good and important work. Waiting asks us to remember that God is with us and God will not leave us and God keeps God’s promises. Breathe deeply in the waiting. Once we settle into the waiting, our eyes will open to many ways God is working and moving among us and within us.

Why Spiritual Abuse is Difficult to Consider

I can remember where it started. I was sitting in the back of a classroom at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. I was in my first year of seminary, and I was hanging tightly to the friendships I had made during orientation. We were far enough into the semester that we had gotten past our surface-level introductions. We had already seen each other break down in tears over midterms and in sharing our stories. We were now in the deep waters of walking this journey of answering a call together.

I remember hearing the term spiritual abuse as one of my classmates told her story. She told a story that sounded so similar to mine even though we grew up in different faith traditions, in different communities of faith, that I was speechless. This is what I had been told it meant to be a woman. This is what I was taught I could and couldn’t do, but surely I hadn’t experience spiritual abuse, had I?

If I started to consider that perhaps the theological teachings I had always believed were in fact being used to manipulate, coerce, and silence, then what? I couldn’t possible come out of this realization with a faith that was intact. I was in seminary for goodness sake, I couldn’t question to the point of having to reconstruct and analyze every teaching in just three years, could I?

But then I heard another story and another story. Woman after woman, man after man who were told they could or couldn’t do certain things because “people would leave the church,”  because “women weren’t called to do that,” because “it would cause a split the church,” because “that’s not the way things were done” over and over again church leaders using their power to control and maintain the status quo. Again and again passionate, gifted ministers being put into holding patterns being coerced into “waiting their turn.”

This is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power. There is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. We need these voices in our communities of faith. We need these people to speak up and speak out about their experiences with spiritual abuse. We need these stories to come to light so that our communities of faith may become places of hope, healing, and wholeness rather than places of hurt, abuse, and brokenness.

This is not an easy journey.

It is not easy to consider whether we have experienced spiritual abuse. It is not easy to ask ourselves the tough question of whether our communities of faith are places wrought with spiritual abuse, but this is the confessional work the season of Lent calls us to do.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

When we leave our spiritual practices, protocol, and patterns unexamined, we leave room for spiritual abuse to occur over and over again. May this season of Lent be a time of reflection and analysis. May Almighty God give us strength on the journey.

The LGBTQ Question

When I was approached by a member of our church to perform the wedding to her girlfriend, I wasn’t surprised or shocked. Since I started classes in seminary, I knew that this would be a part of my ministry as a pastor of a church and as a minister. We studied and discussed the LGBTQ question in each of our classes because our professors knew the world we lived in. My classmates and I didn’t always agree on how the church or a minister should respond to a request to perform a same-sex marriage, but we all knew as individuals, as ministers, and as churches we were going to have to address the LGBTQ question.

In my ordination council, I was asked how I would respond if someone asked me as a pastor to perform a same-sex wedding. I wasn’t surprised or shocked by this question in my ordination council. I knew this was going to be a part of my ministry as a pastor and as a minister. My response was the same as it would be if anyone asked me to perform a wedding. I wanted to sit with the couple and engage in counseling and after we sat together, we would work together to plan a ceremony or work together to continue to work on their relationship.

But after I was called to pastor and I began to talk to my pastor colleagues, I was shocked and surprised to hear that many of them weren’t planning on addressing the LGBTQ question in their congregations. They just didn’t think it would come up. Actually, they hoped it wouldn’t come up.

If it did come up, they were planning to decide what to do as ministers in a staff meeting or have a small committee decide and then inform the congregation of the church’s stance. I was shocked and surprised because in our discussions and conversations in our seminary classes, making a decision without a guided conversation with the entire congregation was the recipe for disaster. It meant that the church as a whole didn’t have the opportunity to work through the issue.

I slowly realized the disconnect that was taking place. In many cases, the pastors and ministers who were avoiding the conversation about the LGBTQ question or restricting the conversation to staff meeting or a small committee weren’t prepared for the question. These pastors and ministers went to seminary in a different day and age. Their classes and discussions didn’t mention or discuss the LGBTQ question at all.

We are at a transformational period in our churches. In light of marriage equality being upheld by the Supreme Court, which overruled individual states making laws to ban same-sex marriage, churches are going to have to address the LGBTQ issue in 2016. There is no way that churches are going to be able to avoid the issue.

The way churches and pastors handle the conversation around the LGBTQ  question will greatly impact the future of the church. My hope is that pastors and ministers invite their young colleagues who have studied, discussed, and trained for this question in seminary to take the lead on these conversations because these young colleagues will be the ones who are responsible for leading and guiding the church into the future. My fear is that the pastors and ministers who weren’t trained for these conversations and are three to five years from retirement and who would rather not address the LGBTQ question at all will try to rush through the discussions and conversations surrounding the LGBTQ resulting in divided, broken and hurt congregations. These congregations will be left for their younger colleagues to try to reunite and reconcile into some kind of semblance of church. Please don’t leave us churches like this while you enjoy your retirement.

We aren’t scared of these conversations because we know this is part of our ministry and our calling. We have prepared to lead our churches and God’s people through this transformational period, but you have to let us in. You have to call us to be your senior pastors and your youth ministers and your children’s ministers. You have to ask us for our guidance during staff meetings. You have to invite us to the table.

We’re ready.

Part-Time vs. Bivocational Ministry

At the CBF General Assembly this year, I led a breakout session about bivocational ministry. Throughout my time in divinity school, we talked about the future of ministry being bivocational ministry, but I was surprised to find out that when I tell people I am bivocational, they are surprised. The more ministers I meet, the more I am discovering that bivocational ministry is not an unusual concept, and yet to many people it still seems out of the ordinary. If bivocational is indeed the future of the church, then it is important to distinguish between bivocational ministry and part-time ministry for churches and ministers. What I have found is that the two terms are often used interchangeable when the expectations are quite different.

I have found more than once a listing for a bivocational ministry position that is really a part-time position. There are several ways to distinguish between the two. Part-time positions are often stipend positions and as such there are not negotiations or considerations about pay raises or the possibilities of pay raises. Part-time positions don’t include discussions of benefits or any kind of “add ons” to the position. Part-time positions don’t always have an advanced degree expectation from the applicants and are often filled by seminary or college students. Part-time positions also often include a rotating amount of hours.

In comparison, bivocational ministry should look a little bit different. If the position is truly meant to be bivocational, then it means that the person who takes the position should be able to double his or her salary and arrive at the averages salary for a minister. The average salary for a minister can be found by consulting denominational leaders or can be compared to teachers in the area with similar education and years of experience. Since the bivocational position is meant for the person who holds the position to work two jobs, then the hour expectations should fall within the 20-30 hours per week expectations. In addition, the hour expectations makes it difficult if not impossible to hold a full-time job in addition to this position, so the discussions in a bivocational ministry position should include some talk of benefits and/or “add ons” to the salary. Salary discussions should also include plans or possibilities of raises. Bivocational ministry positions often have the expectations of a completed advanced degree or work towards an advanced degree.

This discussion is important because it empowers the minister who is looking for a position and a church who is looking for a position to be accurate in their expectations of a position. In addition, if bivocational ministry is the future of the church, then we need to better understand what that term means and what a minister who seeks a bivocational ministry position needs in order to provide for himself or herself. These conversations maintain a respect and understanding of the professional nature of ministry and minister even within the changing landscape of church life and church leadership.

When expectations are clarified and understood by both sides, then ministers and churches have a better chance of working together to further kingdom work.


Where’s the Finish Line?

I’ve been told that I (or rather we, since Willie and Waylon are on this journey with me) are only a quarter of a mile from the end of the trail in Columbia that we’ve been running for over a year. Every time we run this particular trail, we don’t reach the end. Those who have told us how close we are to the end have reached the end and offered guidance based on comparisons of trail markers. We’re so close, which makes each run frustrating and alluring and challenging all at the same time.

Today as we turned around, yet again shy of the illusive end of the trail, it reminded me of conversations I had with classmates who are a year behind me at Gardner-Webb and how they are counting down until graduation. As I shared in their excitement and in their proximity to concluding the journey of seminary, I also warned them that once they graduated, there weren’t really any more finish lines.

Sure, as ministers we know there are times that are busier than others (Advent, Lent, and the summer), but these aren’t finish lines for in just a short time they will be around again. And that’s certainly not why we chose a life of ministry. We didn’t choose to be ministers, but instead were called. And part of being called is learning a different evaluation system than other professionals, right?

But how do we make the transition from having known squarely whether the work we were doing in the classroom was an A, B, or C to the knowing whether work we are doing in our congregations is making a difference or is in fact good?

There will always be weeks where I wish I could have done more or done differently because ministry isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. So, how do I, as a minister, know when I am at the trail end for the day or the week or the year? How do I know when I’ve reached the finish line and can really and truly rest for a bit?

I’ll be honest and admit, I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that my friends and colleagues who haven’t found the finish line and still keep pushing themselves further and further, aren’t in ministry anymore. They burned out trying to do more and more and more. I also know seasoned ministers who have been in the ministry for years who have reflected that they wish they hadn’t spent as much time striving for the finish line at work because they more they did, the more time they were on the trail and away from their family and friends.

I can’t help but think about this as the sun is shining and the evidence of Spring and new life is everywhere. Surely, this Lenten journey is over, right? Surely, we can put off the challenging messages of welcoming the little children to Jesus and not standing in their way and the challenge of selling all of our possessions and giving them to the poor to follow Jesus until next year. Let’s get to the finish line of Easter morning that’s filled with hope and new life and joy. But when we push on past all of the turns in the road and uncertainly of where the journey will end, we lose part of the struggle of the journey, and we lose part of the training of ourselves. Reaching Easter isn’t really the finish line: becoming more like Jesus is.

For me, I’m ok with being really close to finding the trail’s end without actually reaching it because once I do get there with my two running partners, I want to be able to enjoy it. I don’t want to be so exhausted that we can’t make it back relishing in each and every inch of the whole and complete trail.

It’s hard to explain to people, especially people who have been following Christ longer than I have been alive, but it is not time to rest and be assured that we will hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant,” because we haven’t reached the finish line. As long as we have breath, we have more work to do. As long as we continue to wake up each morning, there’s something else we could do to become more like Christ. We aren’t at the finish line yet, as individuals, as churches, or as ministers.

And so we press on.

Reconciliation and Rest

One of the things I hoped for when I graduated from seminary in May was some more time. Time to rest. Time to read. Time to reconcile relationships. The intensity of completing a 90+ hour degree in three years made it impossible not to strain relationships, not only because I was changing professions and my life’s direction, but even more so because I had to skip out on life events of friends and family because there just simply wasn’t enough time.

I wanted to make a concerted effort to try and reconcile and repair those relationships and for the past six months, I have been trying to do just that. It takes time to do that. Time to listen rather than reproach. Time to linger rather than rush. Time to schedule rather than be scheduled. It’s not easy, especially with the bi-vocational life I lead, but it’s so important.

There are still many times I will find myself at theological odds with family and friends; however, although I have spent three years and countless hours dedicating myself to develop and form those theological ideas, none of that time matters if I can’t live and enact those theological ideas with the people whom I have spent my life growing and learning.

Our rhetoric is so full of black and white and dissension rather than peace that there has to be another option. There has to be an effort on each end of the theological spectrum to find some kind of common ground. This doesn’t mean compromising what you believe, but it does mean seeing each other as human beings and not as enemies. It means offering love rather than hatred working together to offer hope to those so full of hopelessness.

For me, this is essential to my ministry. Even when people question my calling as a woman pastor, even when people call me names, still I pray my response will be one of love and peace.

Watching Summer Fade Away

I was sitting on our back porch last night watching the puppies sniff the wind and smile knowing that the cool breeze meant that summer was fading away. There was certainly something inside of me that sighed with disappointment that we had to get back to a routine where bedtime had to be stuck to and lazy summer nights were gone.

There was another side of me that sighed with relief as I felt the cool breeze creeping in, certainly because of the reprise from 110 degree days and long, hot runs. This is the first fall in 29 years that I won’t be in a classroom (do you think that will last?) as a teacher or student and marks the shift from student to minister more fully in my mind. Not that this summer hasn’t been filled with meaningful worship and hard work as we started Emmanuel’s Table. Rather the shift is more evident to me as I watch the yellow school bus ride down the road full of kids and see my car sitting in the driveway resting after so many weeks upon weeks of commuting.

Just as my professors prophesied, my days and weeks are already full to the brim with time that used to be spent sitting in 3-hour classes With that full schedule so, too, do I have a full heart as I await what the fall breeze has in store. The rhythm of ministry is different than the rhythm of teaching and learning. There is an unexpectedness that is constantly right around the corner. Plans are made to be modified and adjusted to walk or meander alongside seeking evidence of the divine in daily life and hoping for revelation.

I put my nose to the wind and smile just like the pups.

The Future of Baptist Women

A recent ABP article, discussed how women ministers are being received in the moderate baptist world and there is some good news:

Opportunities to lead churches are increasing for women in Cooperative Baptist life, but not fast enough to stop the loss of qualified female ministers from the Fellowship, a panel of ministers said during the 2014 General Assembly in Atlanta Thursday night.

I went to the CBF General Assembly excited to experience and learn for the first time as a pastor rather than a student. While it was so good to see so many women in ministry who were doing well and had accepted pastorates, I was overwhelmed with the number of recent women seminary graduates who couldn’t find a church to serve. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. In some instances, these women have submitted resume after resume and in some cases have made it to the final few candidates only to be told one of two things: you don’t have experience or we aren’t sure we are ready for a woman.

Their experiences were in internships and other ministries positions, not pastor positions. It makes me wonder what has shifted in the seminary experience. So many of my professors spoke of the churches they pastored while they were in seminary. Have churches who invest in student pastors disappeared?  It also makes me wonder if the women who are being called to pastor positions are overwhelmingly women who have held church staff positions for years. While this is certainly wonderful, it leaves a predicament for the future of baptist women in ministry.

If baptist women who are just graduating seminary are leaving the baptist world in order to find churches who support not only women in ministry, but young women in ministry, then in 5-10 years, moderate baptist life won’t have women pastors. The issue in moderate baptist life is not merely a gender issue, but an age issue as well.

This is a change that the moderate baptist world will have to consider if it wants to stay viable, but change is not easy:

The older we get, we more easily default to what we know. It’s like a river that for many years has cut a deep gorge in the earth. It would be hard to change its course. It simply becomes harder to think about other options.

Our brain’s habit centers more easily kick in as we age. It’s like a tug-of-war between the familiar and easy (what we are used to, our habits) and the unfamiliar and difficult (the change).

What we have created is a wonderful opportunity for possibility, but that possibility has to have churches and leaders who are looking ahead and planning ahead.

I am so happy to pastor one of those churches. We hope others will join us.

Sole Stride

me and Sam  2
Today, I went running for the first time in a really long time without the pups. After Tuesday’s 3 mile run and a dog yappy hour, Waylon has been limping a little bit. I’ve realized as much as I have been sitting over the past three years each week in class and commuting, I just want to run and be out and about. The pups are loving it, but I think I am wearing them out, too!

As I was running by myself, I realized after the first few turns that my running stride has become inextricably linked to Willie and Waylon. We have run so many miles and paths that directing them and having them to run with is a part of how I run now. It was very strange to run today and not have them look back over their shoulders at me to see which way we were going, and I like to think to check on me.

As I was thinking about this on my run, I wavered back and forth between “this is a great” and “this is really more challenging without them running with me.” Then I started to think about the ending to this seminary journey I’ve just celebrated with graduation on Monday and how my soul stride has been inextricably linked to my husband. Yes, I got in my car and went to seminary and I did my homework by myself, but without his steady pace and checking over his shoulder to make sure I was ok, there is no way I could have made it through my seminary run.

It’s easy to get to the point of being on your own or doing your sole striding in your daily activities and think you don’t need someone else or a community to stride with, but I think for the sake of your soul striding, you might want to reconsider. We weren’t meant to take this life journey on our own. We were meant to travel with people, hurt with people, and celebrate with people.

A year ago today, I was desperately looking for pulpit supply opportunities for the summer, hoping and praying that I would be able to preach more consistently. I was overwhelmed with the number of people who offered their pulpits and congregations to me because they believed I was called. Now, a year later, I have a wonderful community who has called me. They saw me as a pastor last August, but now after our 8 month journey together, they have called me as their pastor.

I am incredibly blessed that in my soul striding, I have a husband who wants to take this journey together and  a congregation who is ready to run.

Sometimes I forget…

that my experience as a teacher and more specifically as a reading specialist might be a central part of my ministry. Because I was a public school teacher, I had trained myself to show my faith in encouraging families and working hard to provide a quality education to children in poverty and in at risk situations.

But now, as I near graduation, I can’t help but think that there’s a natural integration between the two educational tracks I’ve taken. I was thinking about this as I checked with a local children’s home asking about potential mission opportunities for our church. In passing as I was finishing the call, I mentioned that I would be interested in volunteering if they had any children with particular reading needs or delays (I can’t quiet the teacher in me) to which the director responded that they were getting ready to implement an after school program and really needed guidance from someone with a background in education as to how that would best work.

I don’t know why I mentioned my experience as I was about to hang up. I don’t know why I got an inkling as I drove by that children’s home, but maybe, just maybe answering this call to ministry means stepping fully into who you are created to be and acknowledging that all your passions can come together in a way that you yourself could never imagine.