Women helping women

I know a lot of clergywomen. I run in different networks designed for them. I coach them. I am one myself. And I cannot think of a single one that is not creative, smart, and committed. Why, then, aren’t more clergywomen serving as senior pastors in big pulpits or leading middle judicatories or denominations?

Some of the reasons  are cultural and structural. Women, socialized for humility, are more likely to be shamed (by men and women) for assertively sharing their successes and ideas. Women’s contributions are sometimes co-opted by men, who repeat and get credit for what women have said, sometimes just moments before. Women often have smaller spheres of influence because of the ministry roles to which they are called, giving them less exposure for big steeple pastor searches and elections to leadership on a larger platform. That’s why I piloted a cohort called Trinit-A this fall to help the participants become more comfortable and confident sharing their successes and innovations, celebrate each other’s gifts and accomplishments in ways that encourage continued growth, and go to bat for one another and themselves in spaces dominated by male voices.

During the first session, I asked the members of the cohort what their personal hopes for our time together would be. The group named a desire to share what we learned with others. One of our chosen methods was a blog post. And so, with the cohort’s blessing, I would like to name some of the themes that emerged from our conversations.

Affirm specifics. The group members noted that often they hear their male counterparts celebrated for specific talents and tasks, while they are generally – even generically – referred to as “great,” “sweet,” or “wonderful.” They encouraged affirming in others and in ourselves particular gifts or accomplishments. That makes it more likely that the clergywoman in question will stick in hearers’/observers’ minds and will stand out more in search processes.

Re-write your bio. When we guest preach or speak or lead a retreat, we are inevitably asked for a bio to put in the bulletin and other marketing pieces. Look at yours. In what ways have you undersold your credentials? (If you’re unsure, consult with one of your biggest cheerleaders.) Then take another run at a bio that captures the fullness of your track record and abilities.

Take your rightful seat at the table. Sometimes we’re invited to the table. More often we have to invite ourselves. Either way, it’s important to show up to leadership conversations, reframing, questioning, challenging, and offering our insight on our own behalf and others.’

Network to connect others. For some, networking is still a dirty word. For others it’s not, but it feels awkward. Networking, done right, is intended to benefit both parties. But there’s a way to make it not just win-win, but win-win-win as Michael Scott would say. Consider how you can use your relationships to introduce people who would be of interest to one another but might not meet without your help. Then those people (and the ones they serve) have benefitted, and you lodge in others’ brains as someone who is connected and generous and wise about potential collaborations.

Link hands across denominational lines. Some denominations have more women in ministry than others. Regardless if you’re a pioneer or a third wave clergywoman, though, it helps to have relationships and sounding boards among female clergy in other denominations. These spaces offer perspective, a greater pool of support, and opportunities to share more honestly than is sometimes possible in small denominational worlds. They also lay the groundwork for multi-denominational collaboration.

Highlight positive voices. This fall a certain (male) evangelical leader made a big hubbub about telling a certain (female) author, speaker, and Bible teacher to return to her domicile, among other offensive statements. That incident got a lot of play on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, but it didn’t do much for women other than accentuate how entrenched the patriarchy remains. Instead of giving men who belittle women a bigger platform, the cohort advocated for pushing the voices of women and their allies. It’s just as easy to click share or retweet if you see a clergywoman doing something good or saying something insightful as it is to pass along outrageous content.

Keep track of all you do. The cohort was built on the participants’ willingness to announce recent accomplishments. There were long pauses on the first couple of calls, though, as the members scrolled through their days to remember something worth sharing. After a couple of weeks, one of the women suggested keeping a running list between calls. That shifted the conversation. Responses included, “I didn’t realize how much I do!” and “I thought this was something everyone did. It never occurred to me before now that it is a legit accomplishment.” We’re better prepared to talk about ourselves when we acknowledge all that we do.

Know that your success is my success, and vice versa. We’ve probably all heard a congregation say, “Well, we tried having a woman pastor, and it just didn’t work.” It might be decades before that church is willing to call a woman again, even though the issue was likely not the minister herself but the fit or the church’s lack of support. On the other hand, you might have also heard, “We had a woman pastor, and she was amazing. Let’s call another one.” When one of us succeeds, we broaden the path for all our colleagues.

If we announce our accomplishments and affirm and amplify each other, our whispers of giftedness and faithfulness become shouts that skeptics can’t ignore.

Thank you to this pilot cohort of Trinit-A. I enjoyed being with and learning from you so much.

If you are interested in a future Trinit-A cohort, contact me.

Image courtesy of The Young Clergy Women Project/Young Clergy Women International.

 

Networking that doesn’t feel icky

The last semester of seminary was an anxious time for me. Every day I felt more unemployable as my classmates were appointed or called to their post-graduation churches. Meanwhile, I went on interview after interview, breaking the top two or three several times before hearing the “no” that every minister in a search process dreads.

A big factor in my failed searches was that I didn’t know a lot of people. I was a name on a page, with too little experience to make search teams want to find out more about me. One reason for my small network was that I simply had not met a lot of people. I had only recently found my way to the progressive Baptist world, which was where I wanted to serve, yet as a Candler student most of my friends and professors were United Methodist. But there was also the side of me that rejected networking as I understood it: schmoozing and getting ahead based on the connections I had, not the work I had done or the skills I possessed.

In time I realized that “networking” is one of those words that needs to be re-claimed, like evangelism. Good, healthy networking is not about ladder-climbing. It’s about showing interest in other people and their work. It’s about learning from and sharing wisdom with others. It’s about, in short, understanding our interdependence and strengthening relationships such that both parties can more fully inhabit their personhood and their call.

Putting on a Murphy Brown suit and making it rain business cards won’t accomplish those ends. But in his WorkLife podcast, organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently offered up ways to network that do build genuine bonds:

Build your skills. As you learn, you not only increase your range and expertise, you meet people in the areas where those skills are needed, some of whom are regularly contacted by organizations looking for those talents. So in the world of ministry, seek out parachurch trainings about how to be a head of staff or mediate conflict or navigate the interim time between settled pastors. Attend continuing education events offered by seminaries. Get coached. Go to denominational gatherings that offer practical workshops.

Give help. Want to learn how to do something new and show your willingness to be a team player? Offer to pitch in. Take on a project at the middle judicatory level. Mentor a new minister. Offer your expertise in a consultant-type role. Lead a retreat. Tread with intentionality, though, making sure you aren’t just accumulating tasks that no one else wants or that others expect women to do.

Ask for advice. Not everyone loves to be asked for help. That can, at times, feel like a burden. But who doesn’t like to be asked for their wisdom? Contact someone who is doing something you’d like to do and ask a few brief questions about how that person got there. If you want to serve a big-steeple church, reach out to a large-church pastor you admire. The same goes if you’re feeling called to be a CPE supervisor, judicatory or denominational leader, or any other role. The veteran will feel recognized for work well done, and you will gain knowledge and plant your name in that person’s memory.

The key in all of these types of network is to be sincere in your interactions. Truly be interested, and you will likely be amazed at the doors that will open for you.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash.

A celebration of my preaching box upon its retirement

I have yet to find a pulpit or lectern designed for someone who is 4’10.”

This wasn’t really an issue until my senior year of high school. As a condition of graduation, all seniors had to give a talk to the entire student body. It was likely that my audience would only be able to see my teased hair over the big wooden podium. I thought, Hey, now I won’t have to see any bored or disgruntled faces!  On the other hand, I’d be putting in a whole lot of work for nothing. No one’s gonna listen to a floating coiffure.

My dad came up with a solution. He asked someone at the family business to build a box for me. This person found some wood scraps and carpet leftovers and whipped them up into a platform.

 

I used the box for my senior talk, then put it in storage for a long time. When I received my first call to a church, though, I dusted it off and carted it to Winston-Salem. It has traveled with me ever since. I often leave the box in the car when I supply preach for the first time at a church, until I see if I need it. (I can dream, right?) My host usually greets me, sizes me up, and says, “We have a platform we can get from the choir room…” I listen politely and then inform my host that I have my own box, a faithful companion for lo, these 23 years.

The box is not much to look at. The carpet is that industrial kind you find in offices. It’s been fraying at the edges for a while. It kinda stinks after having my feet on it so often.

But.

The box is practically indestructible. I have never doubted its ability to hold me those six inches off the ground. It is the perfect size – not too big to carry, but wide and deep enough so that I have only almost fallen off of it once. The carpet pieces protect against any distracting shoe noises. At some point along the way I inscribed a couple of Bible verses on the inside of it that give me some extra juice when it’s time to preach.

Not only that, but I imagine Robby, a long-ago employee in a now-defunct business, searching through the warehouse for just the right materials, lining up the wood, driving a million nails into it to make the box as sturdy as it is, and cutting the carpet scraps just so. A lot of care went into giving me a good foundation. The box represents all the encouragement and guidance I’ve been given through the years, which bear me up when the ministry gets rough.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a collapsible stool on the random row at Aldi – the one that has the short-term specials on any number of home/personal care/school items. The stool is much lighter than my box. It has rubber on the top and the bottom to keep it – and me – from skidding. It won’t trap foot stench. It folds up flat. It can live in my trunk for, you know, any random preach-ins or height-boosting needs. I realized then it was time to retire my preaching box.

The box still lives under my desk, so anytime I’m coaching or writing, it’s holding my feet up so they don’t go to sleep. It’s living into its purpose in a new way. I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it. (I’ve had it for over half my life, for goodness’ sake.) It will still be a trusty companion. It just won’t travel anymore.

And so, for all the miles it has gone, for all the ways it has held me up, and for its continued support, I give thanks to my preaching box. Well done, good and faithful servant.

It is not good for ministers to be alone

As I thought recently about the clients I currently have the privilege of coaching, it occurred to me that most of them are solo pastors. Some have very part-time administrative staff, facilities managers, or directors of specialized ministries, but by and large their offices are echo chambers during the week.

Now, let me be clear that I found it very helpful to have a coach when I served as an associate pastor. Multi-minister staff dynamics can get pretty gnarly, and it helps to have an outsider to process them with. But I want to give a special shout out to my solo pastor clients who are refusing to Lone Ranger it and are instead proactively seeking a conversation partner and an encourager. Isolation ramps up the potential for all kinds of personal and vocational snags, and seeking out a colleague is an important piece of health and effectiveness. Thank you for modeling the power of relationship for other solo pastors and for the people in your care.