Archive for May 2016

Beautiful and Bold

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  Over the past few years, I've gotten deeply impassioned when talking to young women about relationships. I did this a few weeks ago at a university talking to girls studying to be pastors, launching into a great monologue of seeking a partner and not just seeing a spouse as a weird goal.
    It's partly because I'm starting to move into that older woman stage of life, where I shake my head and roll my eyes at the youth and their crazy ways. It's really because, like all women, or men, who get some life experience under their belt, you look back with hindsight and a twinge of pain, and hope that your small words of warning will be heeded by someone like you, so they are spared some of the heartache.
     I didn't date until I was in college. Because I went to college in the early 2000's it was on the heels of the great evangelical purity movement that had taken all of our youth groups by storm. Not only did I carry the baggage from that movement, and the countless books I had read pertaining to the topic, but going to a Christian college magnified the movement ten fold.
     There were no Sarah Besseys or Rachel Held Evans, because they were still wrestling with the same issues at the same time. There were no calls for a Christian Feminist movement, at least not in the circles I ran in. There was focus on the family, purity rings, and complimentarianism in all of its glory.
     The first guy I "talked to" about dating was timid and shy, and I read him the riot act about not taking the headship in our relationship. Why wasn't he pursuing me more? Why wasn't he taking the initiative? It was his job, his role to take the initiative. My friends quickly rallied to my side, taking up my cause, quickly cherry picking scriptures and telling him he needed to lead if he wanted to actually be in a relationship with a good Christian girl like me.
     We never went from "talking" to "dating".
     When I finally went from "talking" to "dating" a guy, I was elated. I got those butterflies in your stomach, the tingles up and down your arm like tiny firecrackers. We both cared for the poor, we both were passionate about youth ministry, and about Jesus. It felt like a dream. It felt like all of those books I had read were correct, and I often told people "when you just wait for God to piece your love story together, He sends you the right person." Because I thought he was the right person.
      Then one very late night, he called me as he often did, and we were talking about a conversation he had had with someone at work about something in the bible. I said "Oh yes! It's in Romans 8." He stopped talking.
     "I wish you wouldn't do that." He said.
      "Do what?" I responded, completely clueless at what I had done wrong.
     "I wish you wouldn't just know things like that. I wish you wouldn't just tell me the answers. It's intimidating."
     It was my turn to be quiet. I never told him, but I sobbed into my pillow that night. I had been "intimidating" to boys for much of my life. I was outspoken, I was well read, I loved to learn, and I was, and am, incredibly opinionated. More than once boys and men had made comments about how "intimidating" I was, or how I wasn't "really a girl" I was more "like one of the guys." It was heart-wrenching. I wanted to be seen as a girl. I wanted to be viewed as pretty and sweet, as gentle and kind. I wanted to be someone guys wanted to date, but I also wanted to read and speak my mind, and talk about how much I loved the Bible. I cried big wet tears, because I felt in that moment that I couldn't be both. I couldn't be loved and pretty, and be outspoken and bold.
      So, I stopped talking as much about the Bible, about the books I was reading at school, and history of Christianity, and I got really really depressed. As I talked less, our physical relationship got more and more intimate, because at that point I felt I needed to do whatever it took to stay together, to keep him interested, to not be intimidating. Which only deepened my depression and the deep chasm in my heart.
      If I could tell my younger self anything, it would have been to break things off in that moment. To not compromise yourself and your voice to keep going in a relationship that wants you to be submissive and sweet, because that's just not who you are. But the older me wasn't there to tell my younger me anything, and so I kept going.
    One day while having a conversation about my dreams for youth ministry, and how I was going to balance my calling with being a mother, he stopped me and said "Wait! You don't think you are still going to be a pastor when we have children, do you!?" I froze again.
     I thought that was the straw of irreconcilable differences for us. Of course I'd still be a pastor while I was a mother! I was called to be a pastor when I was young; why would God just take that calling away from me because I had children?
     This broke me. I talked to so many friends about how I thought that was it. How we couldn't be together. In all the wisdom 20 year olds can muster, they told me to stick it out, that things can change, that this didn't need to be a deal breaker.
      It did need to be a deal breaker. It wasn't, but it needed to be. If I had allowed those red flags, those signs, those feelings of unrest to speak truth to my heart, instead of listening to the stupid books I had read, and the guilt I would feel if things didn't work out, I would have been spared a lot of wasted time, and a lot of heartache.
      If I knew then, what I know now, about what relationships can look like, about what they should look like, I would have gone into everything so differently.
     My husband is about as opposite of that first relationship as one can get. He quit a job he liked, without knowing if he'd have another one, to support my call to plant a church. We talk about each other as teammates, and he pushes me to speak my mind. I have never heard the words "you are intimidating" come out of his mouth once, but rather I've heard "you need to speak more, you have something to say". He has washed dishes and cooked me meals , he does laundry better than I do, and we have talked about managing a family and a ministry together as partners. He doesn't see my boldness as a counter to my femininity, in fact he values it, and cherishes it. He doesn't feel emasculated when I am in charge at church, instead he tells me he is proud of me and cheers me on. We work together in all things. We serve each other. We care for each other. We submit to each other. It's beautiful and life giving.
     I wish someone had told me when I was 20 not to lesson my voice to make a man more comfortable. I wish there was someone who really sat down with me and told me that submission isn't relegated to women, but to both men and women as we work as a team. I wish that my friends had said "men don't have to take the initiative all the time, we work together as equals." And those voices might have been there, but they were hidden under stacks of "I kissed dating goodbye" and purity ring ceremonies lying to me that God had created one perfect person for me, and would conveniently send him my way when he was ready.
     There isn't a one. There isn't some golden formula, and God doesn't bless us ten-fold for waiting to kiss a guy until we are engaged (These are all things I believed at one point). There are real broken people, who have to navigate real feelings, and who have to learn to live life the way God wants us to, as partners, as equals. It's hard, but it's beautiful.
     So, I get impassioned when I talk to young women, because I don't want them to walk through months or years being told that they are intimidating for being bold, or that they are "one of the guys" when they don't fit a mold. I want them to know they can be pretty, desired, sexy, and wanted AND be bold, fierce, strong, and smart. That not all men are intimidated by intelligence, the best guys definitely aren't, and that they want to be with someone who loves them for who they are, not for a role they play. I want young women to walk boldly into whatever it is that God is calling them to be it motherhood, pastoring, teaching, healing, or speaking.
       You are not less of a woman for speaking mightily. You are not less pretty or sexy because you are smart. Don't allow those lies to penetrate your heart. Don't give up who you are to play a role. Don't silence your voice. Don't sell yourself short for anyone. Not because there's a guarantee the right guy will come along and love you for who you are, but because being who God created and called you to be is so much better than being miserable for someone who doesn't value that. You can be both beautiful and bold, never think otherwise.

Childless Female Pastor



     There are a lot of wonderful pieces written by a great many women leaders about motherhood and church life. How having children has increased their understanding and empathy for others. How giving birth connected them in ways to God they didn't see possible. Even articles about balancing life as a mom and a pastor.
     Much less often are words penned about what it means to be a childless woman pastor. However, that's what I am.
     We got married at 28, which in normal society is deemed average, in church society is deemed as ancient, so when I began ministry as a single 22 year old just out of college, I was already a bit of an oddity. When my husband and I got engaged, people assumed we were 5-8 years younger than we really were. Faces were shocked when I told them the year I had graduated from college, thinking I was obviously a recent college grad, who just didn't quite make the ring by spring deadline. Often we would be disregarded when giving our thoughts on things, in favor of people much younger than us, because they had kids, the assumption was that they were older than us. It was and continues to be incredibly frustrating.
      I have a masters degree, 7 years of full time youth ministry and 2 years of senior pastor ministry experience, I'm an ordained elder, have traveled to many countries and states, and I have 31 years of life experience, and much (if not all) of that gets disregarded at times, because I don't have children.
      Not only does the vast amount of experience I have get disregarded, but my own feelings and perspective is deemed less than. I have been told such things as "well you can't possibly know love, you don't have children." Or "you don't really know anything, because you aren't a parent." Two phrases that aren't just completely wrong, they are incredibly hurtful and dehumanizing.
      While I will be the first to admit that there are many things having children probably teaches someone about God and life (I've read all your blogs, books, and stories), there are many things that being childless has taught me as well.
      It has taught me that people are the beloved of God regardless of whether or not they have children. We often favor people with children in the church. We throw elaborate baby showers, we have baby days, we spend lots of money on ministering to families with children, even hiring pastors for that specific task. There are many women (and men) whether through choice or circumstance who do not have children, and while we should not stop celebrating children in our midst, we should take the time to celebrate the great and beautiful people in our churches who don't have children.
     Invisible is how many childless people feel within the church. They don't get the parties, or the celebrations. They watch the cute little families pushing strollers into church each and every week, and are often overlooked in the bustle. Everyone loves cute babies and pregnant bellies, single and/or childless people are sort of just there. They are expected to put themselves out there and serve others because it is assumed they have unending amounts of time and energy (other phrases often told to people who are childless) because they don't have children.
     I've gone home and cried many a night after attending baby showers, and big church baby day celebrations. I love throwing parties, I love celebrating new life in our churches, I love babies, but it creates this deepening wound that says "you might never have this" or "you aren't really anything, until you have children." Despite good intentions, it's easy for those types of displays to make those of us without children to feel less important to the community of faith, and in turn, less valuable to God.
    So having no children has taught me to be aware of that. To look for the gifts and talents of the people in our faith community without children. To see them, and recognize they are just as much gifted by God, and are called to work for the Kingdom of God in great ways. They are created in the image of God, and deserve to be celebrated for all the ways God is moving in their lives, in the big and the small.
     Being a childless pastor has also taught me that you have no idea of what inner battles others are fighting, and it's cruel and unfair to make assumptions about anyone. I've heard well intentioned church people tell childless couples that they are "selfish" for not having children, without knowing those people at all. I know childless couples who struggle with infertility, who have gone through failed adoption after failed adoption, others who are self aware enough to know they would not make great parents, and still others who choose not to have children in order to have schedules more conducive to the long hours of certain ministries. These are not "selfish" people, they are just people, who through circumstance or choice have been thrust into a different position than others.
      Other assumptions that have been made of childless people, including myself, "you aren't trying enough", "you're trying too much", "do you even want children?", "can you even have children?", "have you ever thought of adopting?", "you'd make great parents. You'll change your mind." I get uncomfortable every single time someone asks me about our having children. Every. Single. Time. There are about 4 people I've talked to in depth about having children, my husband, my doctor, and a couple close female friends. That's it. I don't think it's the world's business, and it is incredibly frustrating for people to shove themselves in like it is their business. The chances are, you have no idea what someone else is going through, unless they have told you, and even then, you probably only get a glimpse.
       That being said, I've also learned to extend grace over and over and over again. Really hurtful things have been said to me, incredibly hurtful things, and I have to turn around and love people just the same. I have to love them after they ask "is that a baby belly I see!", when it's not, it's just fat, which will probably get bigger from that incredibly hurtful statement and the stress eating that will ensue. Grace has to become my life force, but I also must extend grace to the people I know nothing about. I must never assume the worst, but always cover my words and my thoughts with grace.
       Women say all the time that having children have made them a better pastor and Christian, I don't doubt that at all, but not having children at 31 has certainly made me a better pastor. I see through a lens many women don't, to see how child-centric church can be. How painful days like Mother's Day can be, and have had to preach and pray despite tears choking in my own throat. How families without children need pastors too. They need bible studies, Sunday school classes, celebrations, and friends. They need places to serve, and often need to be asked to serve in places like the nursery and the children's department, places people often automatically exclude them from regardless of their gifts and talents. They need less assumptions and to be listened to more. To have people who actually hear about their experiences and don't disregard them for lack of having children. They need people to acknowledge that while the love they have for their friends, their spouse, their family, and God aren't the same as the love one has for children, it is no less real, important, and life giving. They need places where it's safe to grieve, with people who won't offer unwanted advice, but who just grieve with them. They need places to rejoice over their accomplishments, their advanced degree, their new job, the ways God is moving. They need places that look at them as the beloved of God and not just a stepping stone to some sort of better life that only those with children know about. They need the church to elevate following Jesus more than the act of becoming parents, something that all of us childless or not, need to be reminded of daily. They need to hear over and over and over again "you are good enough as you are. You are the beloved of God just as you are."
      Because, childless church people, you are. You are the beloved of God, you aren't your miscarriage, your stillbirth, your abortion, your PCOS, your endometriosis, your unexplained infertility, your single-hood, your choice to not have children... You are more than all of those things, and the Church should be the one place that communicates that to you, even if the world doesn't. You have a place in the amazing Kingdom of God, to do great things, and if you feel invisible in church on Sunday morning amidst the hustle and bustle of cute little families with their cute little kids, know that I see you. I see you, and you are loved, just as you are, where you are, and God sees you too. God sees the desires of your heart, whatever they might be, and if no one else is celebrating the great things happening in your life, God does. You are important, not because of what you might or might not be someday, but for who you are right now, where you are right now.

The Burden of Exceptionality

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   There is a phrase that continues to be repeated by male leadership when asked how to encourage local churches to be more open to having a female pastor. The phrase is "If we have exceptional female pastors to point to, that will enable other churches to consider hiring a female pastor."
    At first observation, this phrase seems supportive and maybe even a little bit like common sense. If you see an exceptional pastor, why wouldn't you want that for yourself and your church?
     Only, what happens when a female pastor is not exceptional? Should a woman's merits, talent, gifts, or even her chemistry with a specific congregation be used as a plumb line by which all other women in ministry are measured? Are the only women capable of being great pastors those who are viewed by leadership as "exceptional"?
     The answer should be a resounding no.
     Maybe the biggest problem with this thinking, is that it lays an unnecessary burden on an already burdened vocation. Added to reading, writing, preaching, balancing budgets, fixing clogged toilets, counseling church members, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry, is a glaring "oh, and do all of that exceptionally for the sake of women in ministry everywhere!"
     It is an impossible standard. No one is good at everything, let alone exceptional.
     While one pastor might be an exceptional preacher, she might not be an exceptional caregiver. Where one pastor might be a great administrator, she might not be a great counselor. We are all gifted differently, and to expect one person to be exceptional in all areas, is not only unfair, it is counter to the illustrations of the Church we see in scripture.
    Scripture is clear, we are all gifted differently, and we should not be envious of the gifts of others, but use the gifts we have for the kingdom of God. If we expect one woman to be exceptional at all things, we are robbing the church of one of it's greatest messages, that it takes all of us, working together, to truly illustrate the kingdom of God to the world around us. It takes everyone working together, and promising a church a pastor of exception, sets them up to not only miss out on a wonderful pastor, but to miss out on their own gifts and talents for the kingdom.
      Not only can one woman not be good at everything, everyone has bad days. You are sick, your kids are sick, your dog is sick. The sound system fizzles out. A congregant said "I need to talk to you Pastor" when you first walk into the building, and it's the day leadership is there to check in on you.
     Just because one woman has a bad day does not mean every day is bad, or that every other woman is not great at pastoring. It doesn't even mean she's bad at pastoring, it just means a bad day. One woman's bad day (or bad year, or bad decade for that matter) in ministry, should not define every other woman's.
     Holding exceptionality as the standard by which every woman is judged, leaves a very small window for women to climb through, leaving many others behind, who don't know how to climb the same ladder. Not only is this a high standard that many, if not all, feel incapable of reaching, this is a standard completely subjective to the people who are placing it as a standard. Exceptionality means different things to many people, and the problem with defining exceptional in the context of church, is that in recent years, it has tended to mean the pastors with the biggest ministries,  the best preaching, or even a charismatic personality. In a faith tradition where few women are leading the biggest ministries, this is an impossible standard. It becomes difficult to point to the exceptional preaching skills of a woman, if she is not placed in places to even hear in the first place, and personalities are as varied as their are people. Having this high of a standard leaves many, if not most or all, women feeling inadequate, or ill equipped, and leaves so many burdened on Sunday morning, as they try on the twentieth outfit in the mirror ensuring perfection, thinking "maybe this isn't really what I'm called to." Or trying to balance too many things, and when things fall apart, being used as an example for "why we won't hire a woman again."
      In my first full time ministry position I was told "we really wanted a man, but now that we know you, you are definitely an exception." The thought was meant to be a compliment, but it did not feel like one. Why was I an exception? There were (and are) plenty of women in ministry as gifted as I am, if not more so, who would have been tremendous in any of the positions I have held throughout the years. Holding me up as the exception did not elevate me, it lowered others. That's what exceptionality does more often than not. Everyone loses when we use "exceptional" as the plumb line for measurement.
     It isn't that their aren't exceptional women pastors out there, I know many, it's that our definition of exceptional is so far above what most of us human beings can be. Pastors aren't exceptional because they lead the biggest churches, preach the best, or have charismatic personalities, if that is the measure, we all lose on a bad day. If that is the standard, women will never be placed in bigger churches because in order to pastor a big church and be heard preaching, requires jumping so many hurdles to even get there, and most are getting lapped seven-fold by the men getting those opportunities before them.
      The plumb line for measurement shouldn't be this rigid view of "exceptional" but should rather be "look at these called, gifted, and faithful women." The stories we share, shouldn't always be ones of exception, the few who were able to jump over hurdles and climb through windows, to somehow make it to the top beyond all odds.
      The answer has to change, the narrative has to change if women are going to be placed in churches to be the pastors they are called to be. The stories should sound different than exception, they should sound gracefully and beautifully ordinary.
       We should be sharing  stories of women who stand up in the midst of hardship and adversity, to still preach on Sunday morning with love in their hearts. We need to seek out and elevate women who have been in ministry for years, who have never preached in front of thousands, or even hundreds, but who week after week preach to their faithful few. We should start sharing the stories of God's faithfulness in the midst of trial, of hope in the midst of defeat. The stories of women bailing out flooded basements until the early hours of Sunday morning. The stories of women who weep at bedsides of beloved congregants as they pass from this world. The stories of women answering phone calls at 2 in the morning, of visiting jail cells and sterile hospital rooms. The stories of women who are in so many ways inadequate and unexceptional, but that still reflect the greatness and grace of God to those around them.
     Maybe holding up faithful instead of exceptional, will take some of the burden off. If nothing else it illustrates a much better picture of our calling. It shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where we were never called to be exceptional, just faithful. It shows churches the type of pastor they need, and the type of church they can be, a faithful one.
     At the end of life when we stand before Jesus it is not exceptionality that he applauds us for, but faithfulness as he says "well done, good and faithful servant." It's not the best sermons, the best dressed, or the one who juggled the most programming, that gets looked at with esteem in the kingdom of God.  They are those who serve without looking for any esteem at all. Those who are last. Those who are faithful.
     So maybe instead of pointing to "exceptional women", we point to an exceptional God and the incredibly faithful women who get to serve God as pastor. I for one feel like that would take some of the burden off. I may never be exceptional, but I hope and pray that I am, and will continue to be, faithful.

To The _____________ Woman

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To the _______________ woman,
     You are not your label. You are more than that.
      You are not "just" a stay at home mom, driving your mini-van with the cheerios crushed into the upholstery.
     You are not "just" a single girl netflix binging for another Friday night, looking at another meme about loving pizza.
     You are not "just" a divorced woman, struggling with an unexpected grief and loss as you navigate the waters of whether or not you even want to find love again and fighting back tears as you see the old couple holding hands at the mall.
    You are not "just" a childless woman, with the judgmental stares and glances from others about whether or not you even want to have kids, and the comments from your mom about when she'll get grand kids.
    You are not "just" an old woman, wondering if you even have a voice anymore in the midst of the loud voices around you.
    You are not "just" a young woman, filled with wide eye wonder, naive to the ways of the world.
     You are not your label. You are more than that.
     You are not "just" a working mom, trying to keep up with carpool while spilling coffee on your new suit as you push on the gas a little faster to make it to work on time, only to notice that at least the coffee stain covers the spit up stain from earlier this morning.
      You are not "just" retired, navigating a new found free time and a shockingly difficult adjustment to a fixed income, and the discovery that "retired" is not the correct word for how busy life has become after a paid job.
     You are not "just" a grandmother, filling your grand-babies with sugar and love and sending them home, or raising them when your children could not.
      You are not "just" beautiful, with the stares and the compliments and the questions of whether people like you, or just how you look.
     You are not "just" smart, with your quick responses and insight to the world around you, with your love for science and math, something they told you "girls aren't usually into."
     You are not your label, you are more than that.
     You are not "just" a survivor, an introvert, an extrovert, a feminist, an aunt, a daughter, a friend.
     You are not "just" a boss, an employee, a foster-mom, a blogger, a teacher, a diagnosis.
    You are not "just" anything.
     You are the beloved of God.
     You are the beloved of God whether your label says broken, or sad, or lonely, or single, or married, or stay at home mom.
      You are the beloved of God whether your label was given to you by someone else, or you have given it to  yourself.
      You are the beloved of God no matter your age, your status, or your income.
     You are the beloved of God.
      You are the beloved of God, whether you identified with my stereotypes of you or not.
      You are the beloved of God now in this moment, whether you feel like you deserve it or not, whether you feel like you are succeeding or struggling, whether you feel worthy or not. You are the beloved of God.
      You are never "just" anything, because you are the beloved of God.