Note: I wrote but did not publish this reflection one year ago upon attending my last The Young Clergy Women Project/Young Clergy Women International conference. I offer it now as clergywomen from a number of denominations and locales gather in St. Louis.
I departed my first – the first – Young Clergy Women Project conference in inner turmoil. In 2007 I was floundering in ministry. As a moderate-to-progressive Baptist, congregations in northwest Alabama that aligned with my theology were scarce, and open positions in them were rare. Yet as the spouse of a United Methodist pastor under appointment, I had no say in where I lived. Just before the conference I was called to a staff position at a nearby church. This opportunity was a huge relief to my self-esteem and my bank account. I would be in ministry full time! With benefits! My start date was set for the Sunday after I returned home from the conference at the Cathedral College of Preachers in Washington, DC.
My relief morphed into exhilaration and then plummeted to an “oh, crap” feeling over the course of the TYCWP conference. Something in me was unleashed through that gathering of clergywomen, through our study and practice of homiletics. Maybe it was my preaching voice. Maybe it was clarity about the shape of my call. Maybe it was a sense that I was settling for a position that didn’t match my gifts in a setting that had already shown glimmers of toxicity. Whatever it was, it told me I had no business beginning my new position. As I traveled home, my husband was on a retreat and unavailable to help me process. My parents could only commiserate. So I went to work that Sunday, a sour feeling in my gut.
As you might imagine, the eight months I served at that church were not pretty. (I claim my part in the debacle. I was too fearful to heed the gut-jabbing elbows of the Holy Spirit.) In the end, I was forced out. I probably would no longer be in ministry after that experience. Except…I now had a community of YCWs who had helped me claim a new understanding of my ministry at the conference. Who afterward accompanied me through the many low points of my short-lived job. Who picked me back up when I was emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and sometimes even physically prostrate following my resignation.
And so, as frantic as my inner monologue and as chaotic as my vocational life became out of that first TYCWP conference, I couldn’t imagine not going to the next one. In fact, I’ve been to all of them but one, which got pushed off my calendar by a mission trip. All of them have been great. A few have been life-altering.
The conference is (by far) my most extroverted week of the year, when I float between groups of conference participants, skip naps and stay up late for conversations – if you know me well, you get that this is not my usual M.O. – and drink up all the wisdom and laughter I can. Those of us who have been attending conferences since those early days get to check in annually after tracking one another’s family additions and losses, changes in positions, and cross-country moves on social media throughout the year prior. Those of us older young clergy women also get to welcome first-time attendees and learn about the latest practices and resources from pastors just coming out of seminary.
This month’s Young Clergy Women International conference – the organization, like my own tenure in ministry, is no longer tenuous – was my last one, as I’ll turn 40 shortly. It felt like coming full circle. I arrived at the closing worship with a settled spirit, celebrating that I am feeling more creative and productive in ministry than ever before. After the sermon, proclaimer Casey Fitzgerald asked each participant to describe herself with a single word, to tell that word to another YCW, and to receive affirmation and anointing from that colleague. My word came immediately: encourager. Some YCWs laughed and nodded in confirmation when I told them my word. I am an encourager. I am an encourager because so many YCWs have encouraged me by recognizing and calling forth my gifts, by sharing with me about the amazing ministry they are doing, and by telling me to rock my new haircut. I am who I am as a person and pastor in large part because of this community. And I am ready to leave it in the capable hands of young clergy women, which I no longer am, and support it from afar as I re-join friends who have gone on to the alumnae group.
Bless you, YCWI. Keep on doing great things for the people of God, in the name of God.