you keep me without chains

As I continue to shape my next post series, here’s another post pulled from the unpublished files.  The moment recalled in this story was a defining moment in finding my pastoral identity.  I’m still thankful for the challenging words of this denominational leader. 

I walked confidently into that room.  I knew who I was, I knew what I was called to do and I was ready to share it with the people on the other side of that table.  

I was most of the way through an interview process where I had to sit with various leaders of our denomination and basically sell myself.  They would say it’s more for them to get to know the graduating class, but we all knew what was really happening – we were pitching our personal brands of ministry hoping that someone was willing to help us find a place to practice said ministry.  

My interviews had been going well, I felt encouraged and I had no reason to believe this next one wouldn’t go just as well.  My time in this seminary had helped me fine tune exactly what I felt God was calling me to. So I entered that room boldly, sat down and shared what I had to share.  

When it came time for them to ask me questions, one of our leaders looked me squarely in the eye and asked if I would consider a senior pastor role.  I was caught off guard and so I said something about how I didn’t feel ready. All my experience was in youth ministry. I was 27 years old. What church would hire a young youth pastor to run their whole church?  That seemed crazy.

He paused a second before he responded.  “Why do you think it is that the majority of your male colleagues have come in here with less experience, younger than you and every one of them has said they wanted to be a senior pastor?”  

I stared blankly at him, not quite sure how to respond.  I knew what he was saying was right. I’d walked three years beside these men.  I sat in class with them, I led worship alongside of them, heard them practice preaching, debated ethics with them.  I had first-hand knowledge of their brazen self-confidence.

I knew the question wasn’t meant to get a response from me.  I think the point was being made that I had put a glass ceiling above myself.  Because even in my own denomination that ordains and calls women, even though I had served alongside and under the leadership of many gifted and talented women, I couldn’t see myself doing it.  

And this man was calling me out on it.  Because my response could have been that right now my call was not to be a senior pastor.  I could have said that I’d be open to it someday. But my response was that I was not ready which he could see through to the heart of what I really felt – I didn’t see myself doing it.  

The truth was that I had just spent three years in seminary trying to prove to myself that I really was called to ministry.  I spent three years wrestling with my identity as a leader in classes full of men who seemed to never question those things.

So the reason that ceiling was there for me but not for them? They’ve probably never been asked whether or not women could be pastors.  They probably never had someone laugh in their faces or ask them if they were becoming nuns. They probably didn’t get feedback in preaching class about the amount of make-up they had worn.  

I am not at all minimizing their own soul work that had to be done.  We all have stuff we have to work through. But in that moment, in that interview, I realized that even I looked at myself and wondered if I could really do this.  Not because I am not capable, but because I am a woman.

Make this chaos count

There’s that Theodore Roosevelt quote that floats around, especially in that area of the internet specifically created for Christian ladies, that says “Comparison is the thief of joy.”  For the most part I go along with it because in reality, it’s really true a lot of the time. We usually use it when we’re talking about how we shouldn’t compare our weaknesses to the strengths of others.  The phrase “Stop comparing your behind the scenes to their highlight reel” comes to mind.

And that is very true and something that is buried deep within us that we need to watch out for because it’s rooted in insecurity, not truth.  

But there’s another side to that equation, also buried deep within us, rooted in pride.  You could call it competition. You could call it vanity. Galatians 5:26 calls it vain glory or conceit.  It’s almost like we choose to compare our highlight reel with someone else’s behind the scenes that relationship has given us access to view.

Once, early on in my ministry career, I was in a conversation with a colleague.  I had just come out of an odd meeting with a denominational leader and I was looking to debrief.  I recounted my meeting to my colleague and told her of how this other leader had told me to pursue a position that I thought was way out of my expertise.  I thought the whole thing was ridiculous but wanted to process it with someone who really knew me.

As I told her the story I remember feeling simultaneously flabbergasted and hopeful of some potential in myself that maybe I wasn’t seeing.  I paused for her reaction.

“It’s sad to me that it seems like our denomination is skipping over my generation for leadership opportunities.  It’s like we’ve been forgotten.”  

It’s my earliest memory of professional competitiveness.  I was being perceived as a threat, even if the actual comment being made wasn’t necessarily about me at all.  The problem is that I internalized it. I believed the lie of scarcity being fed to me in that moment.

I took that lie of scarcity into my future interactions with other women in ministry.  I began to feel that competitiveness whenever someone got an opportunity that I wanted, that I thought I deserved, or that lifted them up.  I let it grow deep down inside of me until it took over.
I had to take a hard look inward to realize what I was doing and how it was breaking my relationships with my female colleagues.  Being a woman in ministry is hard enough without adding in a factor that pit us against one another. Here are a few ways that helped uproot this vain glory in my own heart and how I keep it at check.

Do some looking back at moments that defined my value. Looking back at my ministry career, there are moments where God revealed my calling and my gifts.  It came through lots of venues and through lots of people. I sat down and took an inventory of all those moments.  Fleshed out the spaces where God had called me to lead and how I felt in those moments. There have also been a lot of moments like the one I described above, where I questioned my value because of someone’s words or actions towards me.  I sat down and wrote them all out as well. Naming them removed their power, praying through them made me realize what were lies and what was truth.

We have a tendency to deny our hard moments because they shouldn’t define us.  And they don’t have to define us. But they do have power, and it’s only by naming them and taking their power away from them can we overcome those lies.  Once we’ve done that we can replace them with the truth. Because a bandaid of truth won’t heal a wound that hasn’t been cleaned out.

Stay connected to God through his Word.  Once we’ve done the cleaning out, now we bandage the wounds up with truth.  For me that has been through reading the scriptures that have given me life and purpose.  Philippians 1:6, Hebrews 12:12, Psalm 139. Scriptures that I’ve memorized to help me stay connected and reminded of who God has created me to be and how he has walked alongside of me.  

Gut check your feelings.  Plenty of times I hear news from friends and colleagues that is exciting for them and disappointing for me.  That feeling doesn’t necessarily go away. But it doesn’t have to take over my thought process. When I feel that way I do a simple gut check for myself.  Why does this person’s success make me feel a certain way? Is there an area of my life or ministry that is disappointing to me?

Often times, I’ve noticed, I feel that feeling because I have an unresolved issue in my own life/ministry.  It’s the whole “grass is greener on the other side” mentality. Most of the time whatever that other person is celebrating isn’t necessarily something that’s right for me, but I feel jealous because of my own frustrations.  This gut check has become an easy way to identify areas that need working on.

I also tell a trusted person about my feelings.  I have a couple people who will let me name my own selfishness and pride to them.  They won’t let me wallow in it but they know that for my process to be complete, I need to say it out loud before I can let it go.  So these few trusted people will let me say it, without judging me, and then gently tell me to move through it.

Genuinely cheer them on.  Even if I feel a certain way about the news, I force myself to cheer them on.  I make it a practice to name why I think this opportunity is great for them. To be able to say it in my head and heart makes it possible for me to cheer them on publicly and in person genuinely.  Even if it takes a journey to get myself there, I try my best to genuinely cheer them on and encourage them. I have never wanted to inflict the kind of pain I felt that day I described above. But I know that I have, so when needed, I apologize and use my words to encourage them.  
The lie of scarcity tells us that there’s not enough room for all the amazing women (and men) that do the work that we do.  Competitiveness is born out of this lie. Being competitive isn’t necessarily sinful, but allowing it to fester to the point where we put other people down or make them feel less than us is sinful.  We have to be able to name that sinful pattern in our life in order to break it.

How have you seen competition rear its ugly head in your relationships?
What work do you need to do?
Have you let competition break a relationship with a colleague?
Who do you need to seek forgiveness from?

my earth is somebody's ceiling

I had a friend ask me the other night what the ratio of men to women would be in my ordination class.  I thought that it would probably be about 70% men.  We then went around the table and talked about the various ratios of men to women in each field represented at the table.  Architecture, Marketing, Accounting, Computer Sciences, Ministry.
Some talked about the absence of women in their fields when they began schooling.  It was eye opening for me, the youngster at the table, to think of a time when women didn’t even number among graduates in some fields.
You see, I look at this 70-30% within my total ordination class and I still think, that’s pretty good.  I know if I only thought through brand new ordinands, that would be a much more equal number but we are also talking about those transferring their credentials from another denomination.  Generations before us when women being ordained was much less common.
I’m thankful for the denomination I serve in because of their affirmation of women in leadership – all levels of leadership – in the church.  But there are still churches in our midst that wouldn’t dream of hiring a female pastor, or have a female Chairperson, or even allow a female to read the Gospel in service.  Even when I struggle to find my voice in a still male dominated denomination, as I struggle to see myself reflected in our own leadership and at our own events, I think of other traditions that are far more conservative.
I met a woman recently who was called to ministry.  I could see it in her presence, but she is part of a tradition that has been determined in their decision on women in ministry.  She spoke of the pain of being told she couldn’t serve both verbally and through the actions of the church.  That the gifts that she felt the Spirit had given her would go unused in a lot of ways.  But she was faithful to her tradition.  She had grown up in this tradition and wasn’t willing to give up on it because of this one discrepancy.  One that I would see as a deal break but that she is willing to suffer for her faithfulness.
Her story blows my mind.  I lament at the heartbreak she feels but I also applaud her courage to not run but to stand firm.  Not causing a riot but slowly and patiently allowing God to work through her in this church.
With all the gender equality work that has been done in our country and with so much left to do, I applaud women who have worked hard to have rights in the workplace.  I applaud women who haven’t been afraid to be the “token” or the minority.  And I applaud women who are still fighting.  As much as I think there is still a glass ceiling, even in my own world, I realize that the earth I stand on is someone else’s glass ceiling too.

before I put you in those boxes

Pastoral Identity.  We spend so much time talking about it in Seminary.  So much time thinking about it.  We talk about how hard it is to nail down, how hard it is to believe in yourself, how hard it is to listen to that small voice of God saying you are called and gifted – especially in the face of every day life and ministry.
Then you get into your first call.  People start referring to you as their Pastor.  You fill out your taxes as a self employed member of the clergy.  You get your ministry license.  Later you get your ordination.  Your denomination recognizes you or your congregation if you are a non-denominational pastor.  You start to put Rev. in front of your name – or not.  Everything point to the fact that you are the pastor.  Your identity should be rock solid right?
You are Pastor.
But then you’re out in the “real world” one day and you think about the work that you do in comparison to those sitting around you at the coffee shop.  Or someone asks you what you do and then responds in one of those many hurtful or confusing ways…
“You’re a what?”
“You don’t look like a Pastor.”
“But you’re so young.”
“But you’re not wearing a collar – you don’t dress like a pastor.”
“Can women even be Pastors?”
“You must mean you work with children. Or do you do women’s ministry?”
The thing about being a pastor is that it permeates every single space of your life.  It makes a lot of life decisions for you.  The way you act, the things you do, or don’t do.  I can’t really think of another profession that has that much power over your life.
Because the thing with Pastoral Identity, is that it isn’t your average profession.  It’s a calling on your life from God.  It’s different.  It’s in the Other category.  But our brains can’t fully handle it.  They can’t fully comprehend what it looks like when there isn’t anything to compare it to.  Just like I look at people in other professions and think “I could never do that…” I shouldn’t be surprised when they look at mine and think the same thing.  Right?
So what does it mean to struggle with Pastoral Identity?  To have something so contextualized to your specific call but also your general call.  Because I believe that I was created in a way, gifted in a way that prompted me to be called by God to be a pastor. He has equipped me and shaped me to be a pastor.  Simultaneously, I have been called by the church I serve to be a specific type of pastor – to serve a specific congregation, in a specific town, during a specific time.
There are things that I believe that God has called me to be about that effect my position and vice versa.  So how do I remain faithful to both at one time?  Pastoral Identity means we are constantly asking a series of questions about ourselves and our world – What does it mean to be a pastor here?  What does it mean to be single and a pastor? What does it mean to be female and a pastor?  What does it mean to be Latina and a pastor?  What does it mean to be a pastor?
How do we figure it all out?  Through community and BY THE GRACE OF GOD.  We interact with the Spirit and we try our hardest to decipher what He is leading us to.  And we attempt to walk the walk.
The thing is – I look at other around me in the coffee shop and I think to myself, “I could never do that.”  Because I believe in my call.  I believe that I was created for this and I now that I wholeheartedly love it.

I'm getting stronger everyday

On a recent episode of a TV show that I watch occasionally there was a scene between a woman and her mentor.  The mentor was in the hospital and was imparting some final words of wisdom on her mentee.  The mentor was telling of hardship she had experienced due to an unplanned pregnancy and the heartbreak that comes with choosing to give her child up for adoption.  The story was gut wrenching, hard to handle even though I knew it was fictional.  Then the younger woman, familiar with heartbreak herself, replied to her mentor with the statement I’m sure we’ve all asked of those who have walked the hard road, “I don’t know how you found the strength.”
“Honey, we’re women.  The strength finds us.”
This statement rang so true to me.  So divinely placed in this 43 minute episode of dramatic interpretation of our world, for me to hear during this week of my life.
Men seem to be born with strength.  They seem to have it ingrained in their DNA, at least those born into our western society.  I’m sure there is an argument to be made for the fact that this is more a societal perception than an actual fact but nonetheless, they seem to carry it with their mere presence.
Women on the other hand, they seem to be more delicate in all ways.  There is this perception that women are not strong, they are frilly and weak – in need of protection.  There are songs about it, movies about it.  I would never say that women aren’t strong.  But I think that this particular kind of strength, the strength to overcome heartbreak and seek redemption in its place is God given.  In other words, the strength finds us when we need it.
We can’t conjure this kind of strength, it is sent to us by the Spirit and we are mere receivers of it.
I come from a family of strong women, on both sides.  Women who have fought soul crushing heartbreak and came out still standing.  And I guarantee that each of them would say they could not explain where the strength came from in those moments.  They know that they could never have found it on their own, they would say that God saved them when they needed saving the most.
I can recognize this because I see it in my own life too.  I see moments where I could not even see straight or walk straight.  But I see how I was lead from those moments by the hand of a God who loves stronger than any force of this world.  And that hand is the one I cling to, that strength has found me and prepared me for life in this broken world.
This strength seems so foreign, and you don’t even really notice that it found you until you’re on the other side.  And it’s a beautiful thing.  I think this could easily explain how God used so many women in the Bible do to incredible things, like birth the savior of our world or lay a baby among reeds hoping against hope that he will be saved.  God gives strength to women to do great things because they cannot do them alone.
Honey, we’re women.  The strength finds us.

watch your back, I'm nobody's girlfriend

Earlier today I jokingly referred to this week as “gender week” in a text to my lovely roommate. I made this joke because in our online class this week we are discussing the roles of women in the church and in relationships and in one of her other classes they were discussing gender. In yet another class this week I got into a mild debate over gender inclusivity and why I am not the cheerleader for gender inclusive translations. (for the record, I am a cheerleader for overall inclusiveness, just not when you get away from the Greek…)
But I digress.
In an online forum for our online class this week we were asked the question of what our thoughts were on the message of the NT writings on gender roles. One of my colleagues made a post that basically gave the excuse that as a woman pursuing ministry, that was her stance in the debate. She didn’t feel the need to get involved when the debate gets started, she would just keep her mouth shut and listen rather than be a part of the discussion.
Now, to her benefit, this debate gets shoved in our faces a lot here. Being a part of a gender inclusive denomination is great, I am all for it. But the debate is constantly at the forefront of our classes, our teacher’s lectures and our forums and clubs. We can recite to you why women should be in ministry as well as quote scripture defense and tell you what scholars have debunked the verses that tell us to be silent. We are well versed in this debate, or so we think.
The thing is, that someday we are going to be in ministry outside of this little Covenant bubble. We are going to be out in the real world and faced with a lot of people who do not think we should be in ministry. And not necessarily because we aren’t called or gifted but more so because how could we be called and gifted? That’s not how God works. That’s unbiblical. And these people that think these things, they aren’t bad people, they don’t hate women. They love women, but they’ve been raised in a system that believes these things. They have never questioned it, they have never been asked to question it. It’s almost never personal…and yet that’s how it feels when we hear it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told I’d make a great pastor’s wife. Or how I’ll do great children’s ministry some day, since the minds of children are the only ones I can mold. I’ve been asked why I’m in seminary if women can’t be pastors. I’ve been asked if women are allowed to be pastors. I’ve been told that with ambition like mine, I’ll never get married. I’ve been asked if I’m only pursuing ministry because I’m not married. I’ve been asked where a man fits into my “life plan”. I’ve gotten it all. And the worst is when it comes from those closest to me. People who know how independent I am. People who know my passions and gifts.
And I have to tell myself over and over, it’s not personal. It’s not me they are questioning, it’s the system they have grown up in.
But this is why we, as women, cannot just sit there and look pretty. My choice of vocation is not enough to educate people. I have to know the debate, I have to know what to say when those questions come up. Even if it means that people will think worse of me, even if I get called a feminist. Even if I become “intimidating” and shunned for it.
(PS…today’s title comes from a recently loved Matt Nathanson song called “Modern Love,” it’s my jam. I just like the sassiness of the girl he describes and the fact that she is unapologetic about it and that THAT’S why he is intrigued by her. It makes me happy, although I realize that out of context that’s a weird sentence.)