Female Firsts

Think about a time that you’ve been The First at something. 

Maybe you were the first person in your family to graduate from college.  Maybe you were  the first person under the age of 18 to receive a Nobel Peace Prize or the first woman to swim the English Channel.  Maybe you were the first person you know who perfected a homemade pie crust.

I just spent the last week with an extraordinary group of “Firsts.”  Many of us clergywomen – especially of a certain age – have been the first in some way:

  • the first clergywoman someone ever heard preach
  • the first clergywoman who serve as pastor of a particular church
  • the first clergywoman to be Head of Staff of a particular congregation
  • the first clergywoman to chair a certain committee or commission
  • the first clergywoman to be ordained in your Presbytery, Diocese, Conference, or Association.

Among those at whose feet I sat last week included the first Baptist clergywoman ordained in Italy, the first Arab clergywoman to be ordained in any denomination in the Middle East, the first Presbyterian clergywoman ordained in Guyana, the first clergywoman to serve as Provincial Secretary of the Anglican Church of Kenya, the first clergywoman ordained in the Mennonite Church in Colombia, the first clergywoman to serve as Executive Secretary at National Council of Churches in India, the first clergywoman to serve as Vice President of the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda.  I could go on and on.

Being the first means being a pioneer, a risk-taker, a target.  Because women have been oppressed in blatant or subtle ways, we seem to step up more quickly to support others who are oppressed. This is one of many reasons why women make good leaders whether we are talking about church, politics, business or non-profits.  We know what it’s like not to have a voice.

(Note: This is also true for LGBTQ people and I also do not mean to exclude other genders in this post but the topic last week was specifically women.)

Almost all the women meeting in Magnano, Italy could speak about their experiences in being a pioneer, a risk taker, and a target because we have been all of those things.  Although women from Asia, South America, and Africa told more dramatic stories about being in danger as women and specifically as clergywomen, all of us – even from North America – have stories about being targets of harassment in the context of our ministry.

And so into this context we talked about the role of women in the Church.  There are many reasons why some denominations and traditions do not ordain women to the diaconate much less the priesthood  – but danger is one reason.

One clergywoman said that – in her country – it’s not safe for women to be out alone during the daytime, much less at night.  And so if there is a pastoral emergency after dark, no church would expect their female pastor to go out and address it . . . so they are more likely to call a male pastor.  In some cultures, it’s considered inappropriate for a woman to be alone with a man (or men) even in a business setting and so congregations do not want to call a pastor who cannot participate in meetings with the other pastors.

These are things that many clergywomen do not have to worry about.  Issues about the leadership of women in the Church are intersectional issues also dealing with violence, racism, and poverty.

I have many thoughts about last week, but this post is written to honor women throughout the world who take enormous risks to follow Christ’s call.  They are exploring a path with dangers beyond gossip and shunning.  They are occasionally told that they were not created in God’s image, unlike the men in their cities and villages.  And more often they are told that they – too – are indeed created in God’s image but they are rarely treated that way.

May God bless The Firsts, The Seconds, The Twentieths among us to serve Jesus.  It’s often a test of faith.

Image of the participants of the Ecumenical Consultation on the Role of Women in the Church at the Bose Monastery in Magnano, Italy last week.




Who Do I Think I Am?

The last time I traveled to Italy and Germany, I was in my early 20s and could get away with choppy attempts at asking how to get to the train station.  Now, it feels like I should be fluent in everything by virtue of my age and  life experience.

The truth is that I am not fluent in everything.  I’m not even fluent in most things.

It feels gross to need to ask someone in her own country if she speaks English so that I can buy dinner. Ugh.

(Note: If only My Dream Super Power – Universal Polyglotism – was real.)

Again: it feels gross to need for the locals to speak my language so that I can function in a land where I am a stranger and guest.  Who do I think I am?

The conference that brings me to Europe this time will be an All-English-Speaking event.  There will be guests from all over the world talking about the ordination of women and everyone will be multi-lingual – except for me and any other English Only Speakers who have been invited.  When we expect people to taper their daily living to meet our own needs, it smacks of entitlement and arrogance.  But on this trip, there are English speakers everywhere: in hotels, in restaurants, in shops, and even in the WCs.  Women who make very little money cleaning public toilets have more linguistic talents than I will ever have.

Get that woman a job with an international bank.

How is it that we expect people to speak our language but we feel no inclination to learn theirs?  And in their own nation?

People seem to appreciate it when I try.  While in Germany, I answered a question in Italian which is super impressive, except that I’m in Germany.  I find my high school Spanish kicking in, but again – I’m in Germany.  Someone actually answered me in Spanish today and then I had to say that I can’t even finish the conversation in what is probably her third language.

This is an issue of humility and grace.  Maybe we in the United States would all be speaking German now if we had lost World War II.  Maybe if computer languages had not been set in English, we’d be at a disadvantage.  Maybe the future will demand that everyone speak Mandarin.  Or Arabic.

The Church could learn so much from this issue.  Do we expect everyone to speak “Church”?  Surely we do not, if we are serious about welcoming new people to Christianity.

Do we expect everyone to cater to our own language requirements?  Or do we love them enough to want to try connecting on their terms?

As you read this, I will be meeting new friends for whom my way of being the Church is not in any way like theirs.  Will I work as hard as they are working to connect?  I hope so.

And when I get home, I’m starting Italian lessons.  Seriously.  I’m considering a move to Lake Como.  Or Positano.

Spreading the Ashes

You are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19

I never took a seminary class dealing with Spreading the Ashes.  And it shows.

Once – in the process of spreading Mrs. G in a church rose garden – a strong wind blew my way and Mrs. G landed in my nostrils, my mouth, and even in my ears.  I didn’t know Mrs. G in this life but we became one.  She is still in the creases of my robe.

In another situation, the ashes blew all over the family and not in a comforting way.

If you’ve ever been in possession of a loved one’s ashes, the decision about What To Do with Them can be an easy decision to postpone.  I have many friends with Mom, Dad, and the family dog in an urn in the bedroom closet beside the snow boots.

Spreading ashes so that they blow out with the wind feels unsettling.  We can’t control where they land.  Someone might sweep them away or rake them up.

It’s the ultimate in letting go.

I visit my parents’ graves about once a year in North Carolina.  I don’t believe they are really “there” but it’s nice to have a reference point to make a pilgrimage when necessary.  When ashes are spread, the pilgrimage is different.  It’s a moment looking at the ocean or into the garden and it seems more ethereal.

Ethereality is something I’m working on these days.  I am blessed to experience it on this journey to holy places in Italy and Germany.

*Please refrain from making comments naming names today. Thanks.

When Ordaining Women Is Still An Issue

This will be my last post for several days.  I am traveling to Italy for a conference on the Ecumenical Perspectives on the Role of Women in the Church.

There are still some Christian traditions that don’t ordain women.  

It’s weird for me to type those words as a clergywoman who was ordained 33 years ago in a denomination that first ordained women the year I was born.  And I serve a denomination that not only ordains women, we ordain queer women (and queer men, for that matter, and trans people and all kinds of people.)  We believe that the same God who called Moses and Ruth and David and Mary Magdalene calls a whole array of human beings created in the image of God to serve in the name of Jesus.

We believe that God calls our leadership to look like our members and so, if a church has female members the church should have female leaders too.

We believe that Jesus first appeared to women after the resurrection.  They were the first evangelists.

We believe that the Gospels show that Jesus ministered among women who were often the first people to get it.  Exhibit A:  The persistent Canaanite woman. Exhibit B:  Mary who annointed Jesus before his death.

Still there are siblings in Christ throughout the world who interpret the Bible differently saying that men and women have gender-based roles or noting that Jesus’s disciples were all male.  (Note:  They were all Jewish too.)

I remember thinking – in my earliest years of professional ministry – that I was tired of having to explain why it was Biblically ok for me to be ordained.  I remember wanting to serve in a geographic area where “everybody” agreed that the ordination of women was indeed God’s clear will.  And now, because the ordination of women is one of my sacred assumptions, it’s easy for me to forget that not everybody assumes the same thing about who gets to be a priest or pastor.

I travel to Italy with what – I hope – will be an attitude of humility. Some traditions who do not (yet) ordain women want to hear from those of us who do. This is a first step.

Imagine what would happen if we sought out those with whom we disagree in hopes of learning from them. The world would be very different.

Image of the Rev. Margaret Towner on the day of her ordination: October 24, 1956.  Rev. Towner was the first woman ordained to the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament in the United Presbyterian Church.  She was wearing a man’s clergy robe that her mother was altering just minutes before the ceremony because there were no clergy robes at that time for women.

Agreeably Disagreeing

Like neighborhoods and private clubs, congregations are increasingly sorting ourselves into pockets of sameness – at least in terms of political perspectives.

Yes, churches have always been communities of disagreement but our differences often focus on paint colors (“I can’t believe they chose aqua for the sanctuary walls“) or some other property-related issue.  Do you know many congregations with a broad array of political perspectives sitting side by side in worship?

This is yet another age in which we judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically. Bret Stephens

I once served a congregation comprised of people of different political parties, different theologies, and different perspectives and it was fine.  They not only got along with each other but they supported projects and people with whom they disagreed.

A guest preacher one Sunday talked about her work serving an LGBTQ organization and one of our elders asked to speak with her privately after worship. He said somthing like this:

I don’t agree with everything you shared but I see that you are a person of deep faith. I’d like to make a contribution to your organization.  (Note:  He gave her a check for $100.)

There was an elder in the same congregation who consistently questioned “all this interfaith stuff” but one Sunday he sat on the same pew with two Muslim men from Turkey and before he left after worship, he brought them to meet me.

These gentlemen are visiting from a Muslim congregation.  They would like to meet you.  (Note:  They came back another Sunday and brought Turkish snacks for coffee hour.”)

Can we imagine this happening today in church?  I hope so.  I hope it happens all the time but I wonder.

How do we agreeably disagree with each other in these quarrelsome times?  First we ask questions – especially of ourselves:

  • Why are we uncomfortable with certain people?  Do they frighten us?  Do we believe that their ideas will rub off on us?
  • Can we see past nationality/color/political party and instead see each other with the eyes of Christ?
  • Would we be willing to talk with those who disagree with us – and by listening, could we truly listen and place ourselves in their shoes?(Listening is not the same as waiting for our turn to talk.)

These are contentious times and we are clearly a divided people.  But can agree that:

  • People are suffering in the world and all of us are called to help relieve their suffering?  (Hurricanes and earthquakes have no politics.)
  • There is deep hurt in our nation and some are desperate enough to do something that will grab our attention? (e.g. Take a knee.)
  • A variety of people feel ignored and misunderstood in this country, and they just want opportunities to work and live?

How can the Church model agreeable disagreement?  We begin with ourselves.  We begin by realizing that we don’t have to hate the people with whom we disagree.



Essential Pairings

Remember when Thrillist won our hearts by pairing Girl Scout Cookies with specific wines in 2015?  It was life-giving.

There are essential pairings in life that bring strength and comfort into the world. For Christians, it’s bread and red wine (or bread and Welch’s grape juice.)  For those celebrating Rosh Hashanah this week, it’s apples and honey.

I experience deep personal joy when the following are paired:

  • Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
  • Bacon and eggs
  • Yolanda Pierce and a microphone

During a recent flight, I read The Dinner Party by Stephie Grob Plante in the Southwest Magazine about a real non-profit that organizes dinner parties for strangers who have experienced loss.  This phrase grabbed me:

“Food and grief, one of the most consistent pairings in human history.”

God knows this is true.

Most likely, we have all experienced the”consistent pairing” of food and grief.   When my mother died, Mary Moreau – a woman I barely knew from church – brought a broccoli and chicken casserole.  When Rachel’s husband Mark was caught having an affair with Thelma in Chapter 13 of Heartburn, Rachel smashed a key lime pie in Mark’s face at a dinner party.  And in thanksgiving for Nora Ephron, a friend brought me a key lime pie – which we ate in its entirety – after a seminary boyfriend cheated on me.

Food and grief are one of the most consistent pairings in human history.

As the world around us is reeling from multiple hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and refugee crises, we whose first inclination would be to take food to those who grieve find ourselves – most likely – unable to pair these particular tragedies with pie or casseroles.  But there is another life-giving pairing that every single one of us can offer to our neighbors in need.

Please pair your compassion with a financial donation. I suggest Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for three big reasons:

  1. Most of the money goes to those in need (Only 12% goes to administrative costs.  Anywhere from 0-15% is the highest score in Charity Navigator.)
  2. PDA sticks around when most other relief organizations go home. (Example:  we are still assisting those impacted by Katrina and Sandy.)
  3. PDA organizes teams of volunteers who go in after the first responders finish their work.

You can donate $10 immediately by texting PDA to 20222.

You can donate more by going here.

Please do not send socks or used clothing.  Please do remember the essential pairing of prayer and money.  It’s almost as old a pairing as food and grief.

Image from Thrillist.


A Church Without Labels

“We have adopted the labels of our culture: liberal, conservative.  This only divides us.”  The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the PCUSA at the meeting of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly 9-19-17


The Belhar Confession of my denomination states that unity is “both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ.” So why are we so divided as God’s people? On any given day in the Twitterverse, Christians are battering each other with mockery and aspersions.

I am often labeled as a follower of Jesus who is a member of a certain mainline denomination and a certain political party who grew up in a certain college town and now lives in a certain county in Illinois. But labeling me according to any of these factsdoesn’t describe who I fully am.

“Are you conservative or liberal?”

My favorite answer to this, personally, is “It depends.”  It depends on the topic. It depends on the stakes. It depends on the details. It depends who’s asking.

Please note that the Bible is an equal opportunity offender and there are verses which are wildly radical (when they were first spoken and now) and there are other verses which are rather conventional (when they were first spoken and now.)  There are passages which – read in context – seem to say one thing when they actually say something quite different.

The verses about women not speaking in church is a great example:  it seems to be a very conservative teaching when actually it presumes a very liberal message. A “Bible Church” pastor taught me that Paul presumes that women should be in a church gathering in the first place – which was a radical idea for the First Century.  And women were most likely told to wait and ask questions when they get home because 1) they have a lot of questions, never having been part of the temple lessons before and 2) it’s like watching the third Harry Potter movie with someone who never saw the first two.  They need to suck it up and ask their questions (“So is Sirius Black a good guy or a bad guy?) when they get home. The point was not silencing women.  The point was preventing disruptions in worship.

Am I liberal or conservative?  Radical or traditional?  Evangelical or Interfaith?  Yes.  Again, it depends what we are talking about, etc.

If unity is a gift and an obligation – which I believe – then we could do a better job as the Church embracing this gift and fulfilling this obligation.  It’s easy to be the Church when everybody agrees with everyone else.  But we are called to be at table with those with whom we disagree.  God does God’s best work at those tables.

Image source.

Recognizing Our Own Super Powers

I loved watching Lena Waithe accept her Emmy Award Sunday night with these words:  “The things that make us different — those are our superpowers.”  You can watch a clip of the episode she wrote with Aziz Ansari here.  It’s worth it to watch the whole episode on Netflix.

This week I’ll be in Louisville for a week of meetings at our denominational Mother Ship.  Of all the things I love about professional ministry, I admit before you and God that the board meetings I’ll attend will engage in Church Things that make me tired: policies and procedures and budget line items.  These are important matters, to be sure.  But I find myself asking, “Did Jesus die for this?”  If we cannot offer a resounding “Yes!” then maybe we need to rethink our efforts and recognize our own (God given) super powers.

God has given us everything we need.

At the risk of sounding naive and simplistic, we are drenched in super powers by virtue of our baptism, our faith, and our calling.  God has got this.  And we have been given the responsibility and privilege of serving in God’s name.

Our super powers involve the ability to love our enemies and to rise after dying. The weak become strong and the last become first. We have the super power of being salt and light.

But we forget.

I for one have witnessed these super powers.  I’ve watched people like Lena Waithe who’ve suffered for being different, rise up to use their gifts to make the world more beautiful.  I have watched People of Color overcome the ugliest of humiliations only to stand up as pillars of integrity in the midst of evil.  I have seen people crushed by grief able to face the world again and experience joy.

I believe God grants us these super powers.  But we either don’t realize that we have them or we forget.  I look forward to focusing on my super powers this week and I hope you will too.  (Repeat after me while sitting in your own meetings:  Did Jesus die for this?  If not, why are you there?)

Image of Lena Waithe, the first black woman to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series last weekend.

21st Century Leadership: Collaborating Beyond the Usual Suspects

The days are gone when leaders can be Lone Rangers.  And the days are long gone when Pastors can possibly be good at everything  – cloistered in a theological library to craft sermons while simultaneously scheduling pastoral visits, preparing for classes for God’s children of every age, and ensuring that the lights are on and the bulletins are printed.  Even small rural congregations would be wise to recognize this.

Most of us have become more specialized professionally and it starts young. Suburban children go to science focus schools starting in kindergarten. They specialize in sports and musical instruments from a young age.  For whatever reason – time limits, peer pressure – we pick our thing and go with it.  There aren’t many Renaissance People these days.

We need specialists.  But most of all we need to collaborate with them.  This article explains what I’m talking about.

(Pixar is) “very intentional about wanting people who are artists and animators, and the coders, and the music people, and the screen writers to be constantly bumping into each other in random ways to spark ideas.”

What if we as church leaders invited people to share their expertise – whether it’s in agriculture or dentistry or law enforcement or graphic design – as we discern what our communities need in mission and ministry?  A great church staff includes authentic collaboration between the educators, musicians, administrators, and the pastoral leadership.  But we also need to collaborate with the banker, the guidance counselor, and the caterer for ideas and perspective.

The art of collaboration” blends conventional ideas with “spice” – that simple something that turns expectations upside down or stretches our plans in new directions.  Sometimes adding jalapeno to a cornbread recipe results in a miracle.  Adding a pop of color to a little black dress or a string to a finger painting makes all the difference.

Even the smallest congregation can expand it’s collaborative influences.  But it takes a leader – most likely the pastor – who will let go of the reins and invite new voices with a variety of specialties into the visioning.

Image of Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger.

When I Say “Name a Force for Good” What Pops into Your Head?

Mother Teresa?  The Gates Foundation?  Doctors Without Borders?  The Rebel Alliance?

The Presbyterian Church USA? (Not kidding about this one, but my hunch is that your first thought was not church-related.)

The Church doesn’t have a fabulous reputation even though people of faith joining together have displayed a power to be a force for good like no other organization.  Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh congregations throughout the United States have made a difference that has changed lives for the better.

But my context is the Church.  I believe that – as a follower of Jesus – we are called to transform the world for good in Jesus’ name.  The problem is that many congregations exist primarily for other reasons:

  • To be landlords for other organizations.
  • To be social clubs for weekly get-togethers.
  • To perpetuate an institution.
  • To promote certain individuals or pet projects.

These are Great Times for the Church if we happen to be focussed on transforming the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ.

But these are bleak times if our congregations are focussed primarily on targeting new members, getting rent from tenants, offering comfortable gatherings for friends, surviving as an institution survival or fending off grimaces from the church matriarch/patriarch. Those churches will continue to struggle.

Nevertheless – in spite of diminished church participation throughout the country – congregations are essential in serving the needs of the world.

Note that I’m talking about congregations.  Not individuals.

Why can’t we just “be good people” out there on our own – individually buying Tom’s Shoes and collecting unperishable items for homeless shelters?  We can certainly do these things.  But together we can do more.

This article – which is a must read – reminds us why collective efforts are essential if we are serious about Changing the World.  We have just witnessed in the past week through flooding, burning, shaking, and fleeing that there is much work to do to bring restoration and healing.  God uses even tragedies to teach us.

“Floods are invitations to recreate the world. That only happens successfully when strong individuals are willing to yoke themselves to collective institutions.”

My hope is that – as the world continues to struggle with disasters of every kind – we will recognize that we need faith communities:

  • To fuel ourselves to meet the realities of life (through worship)
  • To equip ourselves with tools for ministry (through education)
  • To pool resources for funding important projects (through financial stewarship)
  • To reach out into the world as a true Force for Good (through mission)

We have been blessed with immeasurable opportunities to serve our neighbors. We do it better collectively because there are more resources, more hands, more perspectives.  And subsequently there is more impact.

I imagine a time when I ask, “What pops into your head when I say ‘Name a Force for Good’?” and you say:  “The Church.”


Mosaic of (clockwise from top left) Mother Teresa, Melinda and Bill Gates, a team of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteers, and Doctors Without Borders workers.