Apr13WedApril 13, 2016
Last week I stood in front of a worship gathering called District Assembly with a whole company of elders and laid hands on a new ordinand. Some call her Debie. Others call her pastor. I call her mom.
Once the General Superintendent had confirmed her ordination in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I prayed,
If it’s possible to steal a prayer, I stole this one from the Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:2-4.
Paul’s words are deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition of renewal. Clearly Paul knew the words of the prophet Jeremiah who spoke of a new covenant that God would write on the heart of a people whose life is authored by God. Because despite all the prophets God sent, all the revivals Israel experienced, all the preaching, teaching and writings of Israel, words could not bring about the undivided and unadulterated love that identifies a holy people. No, the harder people worked at being holy, the further they missed the mark. Truly, this is a miracle only God can work.
I was a senior in high school the first time someone told me, “If you want to make it as a woman in ministry you have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as a man.” These words were meant to be helpful. I had just come back from a meeting of the Christian Club council in which my friends and peers tried to convince me the call of God on my life could not be to a preaching ministry because God would not call me to something that was against God’s will (of course they were just plain wrong, God bless their hearts!).
Instead of giving a response to these friends I took the advice about women in ministry. I worked hard.
I worked hard through college. I worked hard through seminary. I worked hard as youth pastor and a lead pastor. To be fair, I like to work hard and I love ministry so it never felt like a drudgery. But in the back of my head I heard that voice, one that repeated itself in so many other ministry colleagues and mentors throughout the years, “You have to work twice as hard.”
It’s a message that all pastors receive in one way or another: 'If you want your church to thrive, work harder.' 'If you want your ministry to be fruitful, work harder.' 'If you want to have doors opened to you, work harder.'
My mom is such a mom. What I mean is that she has an irrational and unfounded belief that I am the most amazing preacher/pastor/person that has ever walked the face of the earth. Since I was a little girl she has been speaking these words into my life, words that have no basis in reality, words that don’t make sense spoken over an awkward girl with just decent grades and an amateurish interest in rhetoric. She never told me to work harder because she thought I came out of the womb like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.”
Of course, I'm exaggerating a bit. I'm a preacher, after all.
My mom grew up in a Christian home but in a very different time and place. She didn’t have these kinds of words spoken into her life. She didn’t grow up in a world filled with examples of women in ministry and leadership. For 40 years she has served God as pastor’s wife, pastor’s partner really as she served in nearly every area of ministry including preaching. But she never thought that perhaps this was the call and gifting of God on her life; not until this last decade, that is.
Right around the time I was receiving my first district ministers license, my mom was making her way down to an altar to respond to God’s call.
If it’s hard for any woman in ministry, it is especially hard for a woman in her second career.
Should I tell her she must work three times as hard if she wants to “make it” in ministry? No, because she is the one who taught me that the call of God is not contingent upon hard work. She is the one who taught me that I didn’t need to try harder to be loved by God. She is the one who taught me how to simply receive grace.
Even with a mom like mine, I have put so much weight in grades, titles, positions and recommendations. I don’t know how a 32-year-old could put much more on her bio. I am exhausted. And not a single word on my resumé makes me worthy of the new covenant written in the blood of Christ. And not a single word of recommendation could convince my friends from the Christian club that God had called me to preach.
I am desperate for the words that can only be written in the power of the Spirit, words that come from the author of our faith, words that change our very nature.
In the Church of the Nazarene I believe we have reached a point of desperation when it comes to women in ministry. We have affirmed the place of woman in ministry with our words for over a hundred years. Our words affirmed it when my mother had no examples to see it. Our words affirmed it when I was told to work harder. And yet, the words of our history, theology, and tradition have not changed our hearts!
God is calling women, gifting them, pouring the Spirit into them. And the church is all too often standing guard at the door asking for letters of recommendation, proof that they have worked harder, will work harder, than their male colleagues. Perhaps worst of all, when women show up at this door without the right letters in hand, we fail to see that the same systems of the church that are guarding the doors have also failed to give recommendation.
Hear the words of Paul continuing his letter to the Corinthians:
“Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
This is not about me. It’s not about my mom (who I have probably embarrassed, [Hi, Mom!]). It’s really not about women. This is about Christ and our witness to His lordship. We place confidence in women called to ministry when we see Christ, not letters of recommendation.
And this applies not only to women! How many pastors out there are dying in ministry, trying to work harder and be found worthy of this calling that is beyond our mortal capacity!
Since the inception of our denomination, Nazarenes have had the right words to say about women in ministry. But for so many women, there is no life in those letters. The letter kills. The Spirit gives life. Oh God, save us from being slowly euthanized by our empty words. Open our hearts to the life-giving words of your Spirit!
Only the Spirit can bring about the change we desperately need. But this does not let us off the hook. I am NOT saying, sit back and wait for God to change hearts about women in ministry. On the contrary, I am suggesting that a sign and witness of a heart that is transformed by God and a church that is renewed by the Spirit is a clear support and advocacy for women in ministry.
We have so many opportunities of responsibility to look for this sign and witness of the Spirit.
Local congregations, the next time you elect a church board, ask if they would support a female candidate in a pastoral search. Ask if they would support a women at any level to teach, lead, and preach.
District Boards of Ministry, Credentials and Ordination, speak words of life into the women who come before you to affirm their call. Don’t ask them to defend their call because they are women. Let them know that if they serve on your district YOU will defend their call to anyone who has questions. Don’t ask them about how they will juggle the demands of home and family with ministry, trust in the same God who has helped you live a whole and fulfilling life as you follow God’s call.
District Assemblies, elect General Assembly delegates who support women in every aspect of ministry. Seek out women on your district to pray, speak, read scripture for the whole assembly to see this sign and witness of the Holy Spirit.
District Superintendents, bring female candidates to church boards regularly. Ask women to serve on district boards and teach district classes. Make women visible on your district at every opportunity, not because you are giving opportunity for these women, because you have an opportunity to point to a sign and witness of the work of the Spirit!
Instead of telling women to work harder, let’s point to the sign and witness of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Instead of looking for pastors with impressive bios, let’s look for Christ in the women and men who God has called. Instead of standing guard at the gate of the church, let’s join the welcoming celebration in the Kingdom of God!
I’m so grateful to my mom for never requiring a recommendation from me, for believing the call of Christ was more than enough.
I have no doubt our church would flourish with more women like my mom - who possess an unrelenting belief in the call of God, who speak words of life and love - among the company of clergy, on district boards and in local and district leadership, speaking words enlivened by the Spirit of God over our next generation of leaders.
What might our churches look like if the Spirit were to breathe new life into the words we have believed for so long? Is this not the picture of revival so many of our churches are praying for?
The future of the church will be written, not in our striving and working, but in the Spirit who brings new life. It's always been this way for the church. The future of the church will be written, not on pages of history books or across our bios, but on the heart of a people with an undivided love for and trust in God. This is holiness. This is who we are. This is who we can be with the help of the author and perfector of our faith.