“Called by God.” There are few vocations in life to which we say people are divinely challenged, led, or directed. But as clergy, we find ourselves in that unusual category.
We each experience it in a different way. Some as children. Some later in life. Some in very direct, obvious, in-your-face moments. Some are quiet whisperings of the Spirit that guide us gently into serving the church, synagogue, fellowship, congregation, or whatever our body of faith might be called.
However we come, serving our flock, serving our God, is what we do.
So, how do our days begin? Probably much like yours. Personally, I wake up quite reluctantly. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I frequently grumble at the secrets of the universe and the darkness of the mornings and ignore my alarm clock and the activities in my home as long as I can.
While some of my more esteemed colleagues may rise early for Bible Study, prayer, journaling, or personal reflection, I’m just pleased if I can drag my lazy self to my NordicTrack. And is this a time of meaningful meditation? Oh, no. I keep myself moving by watching Netflix on my cellphone. I’m pretty much of the same mindset as Biblical scholar Martin Marty, who once said, “When it comes to meditation, I’m a good napper.”
Most pastors, at least in mainline denominations, of which I am a part, find our days to be pretty similar in one way”¦ our schedules are always changing. [Click on these links to learn more about “mainline denominations” or my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).] Other than Sunday, there is no “typical day.” But, when it comes to weekdays, no two days are alike. While one day may start with office hours, the next day may start in a hospital room, holding the hand of someone who is about to go in for surgery.
While some larger churches have multiple staff members who are able to share the responsibilities, basic ministerial tasks remain the same for all of us:
- to care for the elderly, sick, and dying
- to be available to the members of the congregation in good times and bad (and this generally means 24/7/365 – “vacation” or “day off” don’t mean much in times of emergency! We once had a park ranger track us down in a lovely, little camp ground on the coast of Northern California, late, late at night. Back home we went. Kids, dog, camping gear all thrown into the car as quickly as possible.)
- to lead any classes for the edification of the members (e.g. Bible Study, a topical study, or discussions on books of choice)
- fundraising – remember, churches are non-profit organizations and most congregations have budgets to match that status (we’re not usually like the big churches you see on TV!)
- volunteer recruitment and training
- counseling (family, couples, individual, any that is needed)
- worship service planning and leading
- sermon preparation and delivery
- worship center/sanctuary preparation (with our newer, more contemporary worship services, this has gotten increasingly complex and challenging, but a lot more fun, as we are able to use more fabrics, varying styles of music, videos, activities, and anything possible to aid in the spirit and joy of worship)
- preside over funerals, weddings, baptism, communion (while Catholics recognize seven sacraments, most mainline churches only recognize two: baptism and communion; in some of those churches an ordained clergy person is required to preside over those sacraments)
- attend/lead meetings”¦ meetings, meetings, and more meetings; after all, we are Community Organizers!
A minister may also serve as secretary (with sometimes archaic equipment; we still had stencils and a mimeograph machine at one church), custodian, plumber, gardener, traffic director, choir director, accompanist, wedding coordinator, furniture mover, etc. If there is a job which needs to be done, who ya gonna call? And, in many of these cases, there is little distinction between male and female clergy.
So, where do the gender differences come into play? I’ve had a crib in the middle of my office, toys and board books in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, and crayons and coloring books in a desk drawer.
While I’ve frequently seen my female colleagues with their children’s paraphernalia in tow or displayed around their offices, I can’t say the same of very many of my male colleagues.
So, how is being a WOMAN minister different from being just any old minister? I mean, apart from the obvious?
Being a pastor is absolutely the best job in the world. We get paid to love and care for people. We get paid to be creative and have fun AT CHURCH, one of our most favorite places in the world. We get paid to serve God, that holy and wholly mysterious being who holds us together and walks with us and inspires us and challenges us, always, to be better and better everyday. We get PAID to do all that. And more! It is the best.
But being a GIRL pastor sometimes just really sucks.
We Just Prefer Men (And I’m not talking sexuality, here!)
The Reverend Kerry Grogan of Kailua, Hawaii tells the story of the time she was doing her “candidate sermon” for a church. Just before worship began, the woman behind her leaned forward and said, with great excitement, “Next week we’re having a man come preach!”
Some years later, when Rev. Grogan had been serving a church in Kansas, the widow of a man she had been visiting told her, “He didn’t want a woman preacher screeching at his funeral.”
One Sunday afternoon, when my husband and I were serving a church as co-pastors, I went to visit one of our members. This was a woman for whom I had a great deal of respect and love. She’d been ill and homebound for a lengthy period of time, she was greatly missed at church, and I was looking forward to seeing her. I walked into her apartment, explaining that I was there to give her communion. She looked up at me and asked, with apparent confusion and disappointment, “But when will Pastor Gary get here?”
We might as well be honest. Some people are just more comfortable having men around. Some people prefer male doctors or male dentists. Some people prefer male DJs. And some people prefer male ministers. Some for their own personal, comfort level. And some for theological reasons”¦
Common Misconceptions & Theological Complications
When married couples serve as co-pastors, it can be perplexing for a congregation. Assumptions are something with which we must frequently deal. Rev. Julie Roberts-Fronk, of Pomona, CA, was once interviewing with a church’s search committee and was told, “You can’t be a pastor; you’re a mother.” Rev. Roberts-Fronk reports, “I was too dumbfounded to be angry.”
Rev. Alicia Harker of Robinson, TX says, “Hubby and I were interviewing with a church as co-pastors and were asked if we would expect to take vacation at the same time.” This isn’t an unusual question of clergy couples. What is unusual is the response that was given when Rev. Roberts-Fronk’s search committee heard this question. “Thankfully a wise elder said, what kind of stupid question is that? Of course they’ll go on vacation together. We’re perfectly capable of filling in while they’re gone.”
“Women should keep silent.” There are passages in the Bible that cause us trouble. And there are plenty of churches that take them literally. Most of our mainline congregations realized that the scriptures were written for a peoples long, long ago, in a land far, far away. We fully understand that at the heart of the scriptures is God’s love for humankind.
However, we do have folks in our congregations who are, if not Biblical literalists, are at least traditional in practice and expectations. And we women clergy have been, um, dare I say”¦ “plagued” by them? At the very least, they have made our lives challenging. At worst, there have been times when they have torn our hearts to shreds.
At the church where my husband and I served as co-pastors I was told, shortly after our arrival, that they had thrown out all the women’s relocation papers and had only hired me because they wanted Gary.
The board chair in that congregation also told me something that most clergy women have been told at least once: “Women cannot be ministers.” If the Bible tells women to “keep silent,” then we’d better do so. Which explains why Rev. Harker’s husband was asked, “”You let your wife preach?”
Who are we? Rev. Karen Lorack Mitchell of Centennial, CO was doing pulpit supply (guest preaching) shortly after graduating from seminary. One day, when she was visiting a small congregation near St. Joseph, MO, one of the elders turned to her and asked, “What do I call you”¦ a ministress?” (Clergy women of the mainline persuasion are not fond of sexist language. If a word is good enough for a man, it’s generally good enough for a woman: actor, host, adventurer, hunter, deacon”¦ you get the point.)
I have learned, over the years, that there are many assumptions that are tied to the clergy. The most common, of course, is that clergy are male. Rev. Chantel Nelson, now of Dallas, TX, tells of the time she had just been called to serve a congregation in Central Wisconsin. A woman in town approached her and began a perfectly innocent conversation about make-up. The woman soon asked Rev. Nelson that fateful, “What do you do?” question.
Rev. Nelson writes, “I told her I was a minister. You would have thought Jesus was standing next to me. I thought she was going to faint. She then asked what “˜church’ in that area would allow me to be their minister. I explained I was the new United Church of Christ pastor in town. She then proceeded to lecture me on the Bible being very clear that no woman could instruct a man. The man is the head of the household and the church. I was deceiving the people and leading them astray. We briefly touched upon the congregation I was serving as being Open and Affirming [United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ congregations that fully welcome GLBTQ persons] when she then said to me, “˜What happened to you? Black people are not liberal, they are very conservative.’ I replied to that comment with, “˜Yes, on TV and in the media that is how AFRICAN AMERICANS are portrayed, but obviously not all of us are.’ I’m not sure what offended her more, that I was a woman minister or that I was an African American woman minister.”
Rev. Cindy Ballard tells of the time she and her husband traveled to a church, where she was slated to fill in as pulpit supply. “A gentleman came into the fellowship hall where folks gathered before the service. He offered greetings to my husband and said something like we are glad you are here for us this week. My husband said he was sorry, but he was not preaching. When asked who was, hubby said his wife was. Then when asked what he did, his reply was he was the chauffeur.”
This type of mistake is not uncommon. When my husband and I attend clergy events, people automatically welcome him as a pastor and me as the spouse. It takes clarification, every time, to let them know that we are both ordained clergy and we are both the spouse!
Of course, the misunderstandings and assumptions are not confined solely to church people. The question of “What do you do?” and the follow-up answer of, “I’m a minister” is quickly followed by looks of dismay and a cessation of surrounding conversations.
Rev. Lory Hunt of Paris, TX, a former volunteer with the Big Brothers/ Big Sisters program, tells of the time she contacted her “little sister’s” teacher. The response came back: How great it is that the girl now has a positive adult MALE role model in her life.
Are we boring? Some of us are. Some of us are a real hoot. And a half. I have one friend who is the life of every party, goes to Burning Man, wears outstanding costumes to every Renaissance Faire, and posts the best things on Facebook. I’m the opposite. I’d make a good cat – happily napping 23 out of every 24 hours.
Are we perfect? Hardly. We muddle our way through our days like everyone else. Although, some are a little more perfect than others.
One Sunday, Rev. Roberts-Fronk was telling a story from a children’s book in a sermon and “instead of the word “˜condominium’ coming out of my mouth, I said, (you guessed it) “˜condom’ and didn’t realize it until the laughter started. Then there was the time I was presiding at the service for my dad and his new wife and addressed them as Jim and Norma (her name is Marilyn, my mom’s is Norma) I watched that word leave my mouth ever so slowly, buried by head in shame in my dad’s chest which was heaving with laughter along with the roars of laughter from all their friends. Hey, it gave them something to talk and laugh about at the reception.”
Rev. Kristin Barr of College Station, TX, tells the story of a friend’s ordination. In what should have been this new pastor’s shining moment, when she wanted to say, “now go do your ministry,” Rev. Barr explains that she gave “one of the BEST ministerial gaffes I ever heard!” The words that came out of her mouth, instead, were, “Now go do your minister.”
Last September, when we were in the middle of a heat wave, I had the brilliant idea of making an icepack and sticking it in my bra in order to survive wearing my excessively hot robe during a wedding. Whenever the attention was diverted elsewhere, I’d hug my folder to my chest, thus squeezing blessed, cool relief onto my body. Little did I know that my icepack was melting and leaking through my clothing. As I exited the sanctuary, quickly, thankfully unzipping my robe, I glanced down and saw the damage. ZIP! Back up went the zipper and the robe remained on until everyone had exited the building.
Oh, yes, we fumble and we blunder. And, when we are strong, we learn from our mistakes and fare better in the future. When we are fortunate, our congregations giggle along with us. There are still churches that see our errors, chalk it up to our gender, and decree that they will never hire another woman pastor again. (I’ve always wondered what would happen if they applied the same principle to men.)
Do clergy women actually have sex? I could tell you that, no, we do not. Our children are all immaculately conceived. (My husband’s typical response to such an assertion is, “Hey, I’m good, but I’m not that good.”)
Rev. Jan Egbert Sullivan, of Plano, TX, reports that her husband was once asked, “How do you deal with the celibacy?” Rev. Sullivan says, “I will leave husband’s answer to the imagination.”
Rev. Jill Sullins of San Marcos, TX was told during her pregnancy, “I’m mad at you. I know what you did to get that way.”
I can’t speak for every clergy woman on the planet, so I suppose I can just say that we like sex as much as the next woman. But it is one of God’s best creations, after all.
All in all, we keep our senses of humor intact. We live, we learn, we love, we persist. My denomination has been ordaining women for well over 110 years.
So why, not knowing what will come on any given day, do we even bother? Because God gave to each of us the heart for this and gave us the gifts which are needed for the tasks at hand. God called us into being. God called us into ministry.
Being a WOMAN minister is just one, tiny part of who we are. At the heart of it is the fact that we are God’s hands in a hurting world. And in the midst of our days, we receive blessings beyond belief”¦ a grateful smile, a hug from a happy child, a cup of tea from a lonely parishioner, the stories of people’s lives.
Rev. Grogan, my dear friend Kerry, says it best. “Being a clergy woman is a joy, really…”