For the Better by Nikki Finkelstein-Blair

Once in a team-building exercise our group was asked to create a cover page for our autobiographies; I drew one of those signposts with multiple arrows all pointing different directions, and titled my “book” Neither Here nor There. I grew up in a family that moved to a new house, new city, new state every three years or so. I attended three elementary schools and three high schools, and somewhere around seven churches by the time I went to college.

Then I married a minister-to-be, and we went to his seminary. Then it turned out HE was married to a minister-to-be, so we went to MY seminary. Then it turned out I was in fact married to a Navy chaplain, and we began a whole new life of relocations, every three years or so. Now I’m raising kids who will attend multiple schools and churches; who will someday look back on a life that feels “neither here nor there.” Or maybe a life that is: here, and there, and there, and there, and there…

We talk about this a lot in our family. To be honest, we may oversell it a bit: It’s an adventure! Look at all the new things we get to do! Look at all the wonderful friends we’ve made! Try this delicious local recipe! Snap a family photo in front of this landscape, this skyline, this historic site!

And it’s true, it is an adventure. But it’s also true that sometimes, moving on is a heartbreak.

Other times, it’s a relief.

Usually—it’s a bit of both.

For me personally, it’s also a constant readjustment of my sense of call and vocation. Every move marks a new phase of our family life and my life as spouse, mom, and minister. While my husband fits into his newest Navy job description, I wonder how to fit my gifts and my dreams to the needs and opportunities of our newest community. Sometimes the opportunities are slow in coming. Sometimes I’m too hesitant (the introvert’s curse!), and take too long to seek out kindred spirits, and to discover where I might serve or how I might grow in a new place.

Recently we visited one of those local Landscapes, one of those Historic Sites that fill our family scrapbook, and I snapped this photo. Amid the moss-dripping trees of South Carolina, the Old Sheldon Church has stood since before the Revolution. It’s been destroyed twice; the ruins of its columns, walls, and pulpit are surrounded with crumbling gravestones. I didn’t expect to find a description of our life—maybe even a description of my own calling—on its walls:

Let us
leave feeling Old Sheldon
is not worse, but better
for our presence.

This is now my prayer: “Let us leave feeling this place is not worse, but better for our presence.” When we move away from each of our homeplaces, we are certainly changed. We carry new experiences and lessons and friendships with us, safely packed in bubble wrap, ready to unpack for the next new community with its own unique needs that will challenge us and frustrate us and delight us in all new ways.

But we are not the only ones who are being transformed as we come and go. Here, now, on this sacred ground, in this place with a history we have not witnessed and a future we won’t be part of—for the short time we are here, we make a difference to this place. When we let go, when we walk away, our fingerprints and footprints remain. For better or worse.

God, let it be for the better. Amen.

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in Charleston, South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.

 

Psalm 106: Truth-telling by Julie Pennington-Russell

We have sinned—right along with our ancestors.
We’ve done what is wrong.
We’ve acted wickedly…
But God saved them from hostile powers;
redeemed them from the power of the enemy. Psalm 106:6, 10

The small, no-frills room is illuminated by a few mismatched lamps and a solitary 60-watt light bulb overhead. The walls are adorned with fraying inspirational posters: “One day at a time.” “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” “God grant me serenity.”

Welcome to Spirituality Hour, a gathering I facilitate once a month at a residential treatment center for women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. The participants are as varied as the hodge-podge assortment of chairs they’re sitting in—old and young; black and white; educated and barely literate; wealthy and hardly scraping by.

The one thing they all have in common—and this is why I love Spirituality Hour so much—is that each woman has hit her own personal “bottom” and knows it. For that reason, all conversation in the room is bracingly honest. As one of them said to me on my first night, “Honey, we ain’t got time for no bull.” Sure enough, Spirituality Hour is a bull-free environment.

“I haven’t had a sober birthday since I was twelve,” says Carol (not her real name), a grandmother of three.
“I traded my mother’s wedding ring for a ten-bag bundle of heroin,” says Tanita, not yet twenty.
“I left my kids alone during a four-day bender,” says Eve, wiping her eyes. “When Child Protective Services took them away, I wanted to kill myself. But even more than I wanted to kill myself, I wanted another drink.”

These women wear their honesty like a life preserver. What each one has come to understand—usually by way of deep suffering—is that pretense, concealment, and denial have functioned as cement shoes, pulling them further into darkness. Truth-telling, as excruciating as it may feel, is the only way up and out of the sucking whirlpool.

The writer of Psalm 106 may or may not have been an alcoholic—who can say for sure? What we can say is that this psalmist knows something about the miracle of healing that takes place whenever the people of God tell the truth about themselves. Psalm 106 is a national confession of sin. It’s a historical trek through Israel’s many failings and God’s extraordinary patience and compassion.

We have sinned—right along with our ancestors.
We’ve done what is wrong.
We’ve acted wickedly…
But God saved them from hostile powers;
redeemed them from the power of the enemy. (Psalm 106:6, 10)

I get the feeling that this psalmist would fit right in at Spirituality Hour with Carol, Tanita, Eve, and the rest of us rag-tag hopefuls who are just trying our best to come clean with each other and with God. Hands down, it’s the most hopeful hour of my month. Why? Because, honey—we ain’t none of us got time for no bull.

Julie Pennington-Russell is a much-loved preacher, pastor, and mentor. She has pastored three Baptist churches, has mentored too-many-to-count young ministers, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

This is What a Minister Looks Like: Kristen Muse

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we are so pleased to introduce Kristen Muse. 

Where and how are you currently serving in ministry?

I am currently serving as the associate pastor at Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. I have had the opportunity to serve here for the past twelve years in a variety of roles. There are many hats that I wear as the associate pastor, but my main focuses include Christian education with adults, outreach, missions, pastoral care (particularly with senior adults), and communications.

What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your ministry journey?

Prior to coming to my current ministry position, I was in a place that valued the work I was doing but found it difficult to acknowledge me as a minister. As I look back over that experience, I acknowledge even more how blessed I am to be in a congregation that affirms my gifts and has allowed me to develop these throughout the years. I think some of the biggest challenges in my journey have come from trying to balance administration and people needs as well as ministry and family life. It is difficult to decide what becomes a priority. I also think ministry can be isolating at times. Being intentional about connecting with other ministers, finding people to be authentic with, and finding those places that feed your soul are so important.

How do you stay healthy, ­­physically and mentally, ­­in the midst of your busy life as a minister?

I try to make time on a consistent basis to exercise. This is often in the early hours of the day before I get into the office. I have found that this becomes an important thinking and praying time. It helps me get focused for the day. I try to eat well and fuel my body and spirit with the things that sustain me. Planning ahead and scheduling my day helps me to stay focused when life gets really busy. Although I don’t get everything accomplished, I have a plan as I begin the day and feel better when I can at least cross off one thing as the day goes on instead of sitting at the end of the day and wondering where the time went.

Who have been sources of inspiration for you along the way as you have lived out your calling?

I am continually inspired by the stories in scripture in which God uses the ordinary; when the unexpected people and situations are used for greatness in the kingdom. I have had several people along the way who have encouraged me and pushed me. Some of these have been professors or mentors, but often they are children or teenagers who want to sit and talk about their faith and struggles. I am inspired to continue to live out my calling when I have the holy privilege to walk along people in some of their darkest moments when I don’t know what to say or do, but we sit together in God’s presence. I am reminded in those moments of the call that God has placed on my life and am inspired.

Don’t Wear White to Work by Stacy Sergent

On my first shift as a full-time chaplain, I fell down on the job. I mean that literally. Before I even got into the hospital, I was walking down the steps in the parking garage, and I slipped. It had been raining all day, and the stairwell was open to the elements, leaving almost invisible puddles on some of the stairs. Luckily, I only had a couple of steps to slide to the bottom of the staircase but that landed me on my backside in a much bigger, muddier puddle. Did I mention that I had decided to wear a long, white skirt to my first night at work?

“Don’t wear white to work” was one of the first lessons I learned the hard way as a chaplain. It seems I have to learn a lot of things by experience. After a few rough interactions, I also learned “Always stay on the charge nurse’s good side” and “Take time to eat while you can.” Running afoul of hospital staff and ending up so hungry that you get grouchy are two things you do not want to do as a chaplain, especially at the same time.

Some lessons really required un-learning things that I had learned to do in other situations. Although it comes as second nature to so many of us, I quickly came to understand why “Don’t reassure people that everything will be okay” are good words to live by in a hospital. Very often my job means meeting people in situations where everything will most definitely not be okay. Although for many of us saying nothing is extremely uncomfortable, I had to learn “Not every silence needs to be filled.” It is often those scary, empty silences that make more room for God. That may be the most important lesson I have learned in my years as a chaplain so far, and it is as true for me as it is for my patients: “You are not alone. God is here, and that makes all the difference.”

Stacy N. Sergent is a graduate of the School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University. She is a CBF-endorsed chaplain at MUSC Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Her first book is Being Called Chaplain: How I Lost My Name and (Eventually) Found My Faith.

 

Psalm 105: Memory and Gratitude by Julie Pennington-Russell

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness.
Let the whole world know what he has done. Psalm 105:1

In the sixteenth chapter of 1 Chronicles, a worship service is taking place. The people of God are celebrating the return of the Ark of the Covenant, the emblem of God’s presence and glory, to Jerusalem. On this historic day, after the animal sacrifices and a pre-worship buffet of bread, meat and raisin cakes, the people get down to the business of praising God. King David appoints some musical types to strike up the music—harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets. Then Asaph, the worship leader, steps to the platform. What proceeds from his mouth is a hymn, written especially for this occasion by David himself, the “sweet shepherd” of Israel—a song that’s also in the pages of Israel’s hymnbook as portions of Psalms 105, 96 and 106.

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness.
Let the whole world know what he has done. (Psalm 105:1)

At the center of the people’s praise on this momentous occasion are the twin themes of memory and gratitude. These worshipers recap for one another God’s goodness, poured out on them again and again throughout their history:

Remember the wonders he has performed,
his miracles, and the rulings he has given,
you children of his servant Abraham,
you descendants of Jacob, his chosen ones. (Psalm 105:5-6)

All through the Old Testament God calls the people of Israel to remember what God has done for them. Why? For one thing, they have a stunning aptitude for corporate amnesia—as their forty-year gripe session in the wilderness demonstrated so many years before. But mostly I think it’s because Yahweh, who loves them and wants the best for them, is helping them all along the way to discover this truth—a truth that will heal us as well: gratitude extracts the poison from adversity.

There are numberless ways of remembering God’s provision and care. Many congregations today make it a regular practice to include “God stories” in worship—personal accounts of God’s mighty acts. Some people keep an ongoing list of answered prayers. I have friends who capture meaningful moments of growth or insight with a photograph, poem, or painting. The important thing is not what we use as reminders, but simply that we remember God’s goodness in our lives.

So today I invite you to break out your camera, pen, paintbrush, saxophone, or whatever’s handy, and do this: Remember the wonders God has performed . . . you children of God’s servant Abraham, you descendants of Jacob, God’s chosen ones.

Julie Pennington-Russell is a much-loved preacher, pastor, and mentor. She has pastored three Baptist churches, has mentored too-many-to-count young ministers, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Lee Ann Rathburn

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces a remarkable minister, and today we are so pleased to introduce Lee Ann Rathburn.

Lee Ann, tell us about your current ministry position.

I am a clinical pastoral education (CPE) supervisor, certified by the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), which is a long title that means that I teach and supervise ministers who are providing pastoral care in a clinical setting. The clinical setting that I happen to be working in is a large hospital system—Seton Healthcare Family—in Austin, Texas.

CPE is a model of education that puts the student in a context where they can consistently provide ministry to people in crisis or who are in some way in need of spiritual care. I don’t teach students the “right” thing to say or do in every pastoral care situation, but I teach them how to be the “right” person walking into a situation to provide care. Being an effective minister involves knowing oneself intimately—knowing how your past history informs your pastoral identity; knowing how to maximize strengths and manage limitations; and knowing how your faith and theology come to bear in a particular situation. CPE gives folks an opportunity to be engaged in ministry and to have supervision and a peer group as they reflect on who they are as pastor and person. I have students who come to CPE right after seminary to give themselves some time to live into the role of minister outside of the academic setting. I also have second-career ministers and experienced pastors who may want to be even more effective pastors or who may be discerning a change in ministry vocation.

What do you love most about serving as a CPE supervisor?

I love having the opportunity to journey closely with other ministers in formation. The CPE process was transformative for me as a woman minister. I had served part-time as a hospital chaplain while in seminary but had not had the support of a supervisor and peers who could help me reflect on and make meaning of my experience as a minister. I came out of my year of CPE residency knowing myself much better and feeling much more confident and competent to serve as a pastor in any ministry setting. As a CPE supervisor, I walk with others in this transformative process and get to bear witness to their growth in knowledge of self and pastoral care skills that will serve them wherever they land in ministry.

I did work as a hospital chaplain for a few years before becoming a CPE supervisor. I loved meeting people of faith and no faith in the hospital who might never walk into a church and yet who were struggling with questions of meaning and faith in the midst of their or their loved one’s health crisis. It felt like sacred ground to become an “intimate stranger” with people who may be having the worst day of their lives or may have just lost someone they loved very much. I do still visit patients with my students and continue to be amazed at how much I receive from seeing the strength, trust, and resilience of so many patients.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered along the way in ministry?

I had one failed ordination process in 1992 before landing at Second Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas, where I felt fully supported as a minister and was ordained on August 29, 1993. My first ordination process was initiated by the pastor of a church that had never ordained a woman before. The pastor was convinced that as church members got to know me better they would be very open to ordaining me. I went along with him and gave my testimony in church, met with the deacons and other groups, and taught different Sunday School classes so that the congregation could get to know me. Along the way, it seemed like the congregation became very fearful about a shift in their theology regarding women in ministry and about the potential denominational and political ramifications for them if they ordained a woman. The process ended up becoming a mess, and I felt scapegoated. Thankfully, after I moved to Lubbock to work for Methodist Hospital, I discovered Second Baptist and experienced a positive and healing church family who embraced me and my gifts for ministry.

What practices and disciplines keep you renewed and refresh your spirit?

I try to do at least one silent, contemplative retreat a year—at least for a long weekend—if at all possible. I have a spiritual director who I used to see monthly but now see more from time to time. I also try to do daily meditation. I need the silence and stillness to bring me back to awareness of the “ground of my being” and to a centered perspective of being so deeply loved and accepted by God.

A Word for Women Ministers Currently Not Doing Ministry by Aurelia Pratt

If you are wondering if you are doing ministry, even though you aren’t in ministry, you are.

Your calling is deeper than this current job or season. Your calling penetrates everything and everyone you encounter. It was real. It is real. You are a person of God in this world.

You have been given gifts from God, and those gifts are being used day in and day out. Indeed, you have all the tools you need. It must be so hard not to use them exactly how you thought you might. But trust that even now those tools are being sharpened.

Your daily tasks are significant. Your everyday, ordinary rhythm is meaningful.

If your place of work is not what you had hoped for, tell yourself: “I am not just working a menial job; I am forming important relationships. I am discovering new opportunities. There is purpose here.

If you are staying home, parenting little ones in this season, tell yourself: “I am not only wiping butts, I am shaping souls! There is purpose here.”

And tell yourself: “I will learn to find the holy, sacred, God-things of each day. I will share these revelations with others through my words and by my presence. In every moment, there is purpose.” After all, this is what people of God do. This is the real work of a minister.

If you are wondering if you are doing ministry, even though you aren’t in ministry, you are.

And if you have trouble believing it, we will believe it for you. We will promise to see in you what you can’t see in yourself. And when you don’t have the spirit to pray about it, we will pray for you and over you. And as your fellow women ministers, we vow to affirm your gifts through action.

We will ask you to preach in our churches. We will share our resources and networks with you. We will keep you connected to opportunities, and we will support you as work through your calling, even as we struggle through our own. We will stand together, empowering each other every step of the way. Why?

Because you are a person of God in this world. You are a minister. And you are not alone in this season.

Aurelia Pratt is teaching pastor at Grace Baptist Church, Round Rock, Texas.

Psalm 103: Everything Inside Me by Julie Pennington-Russell

Let my whole being bless the Lord!  Let everything inside me bless his holy name!
Psalm 103:1 (CEB)

I come from church-goers on my mother’s side. My Grandma Lucy was a pillar of the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and a Worthy Matron of the Eastern Star. In most of the old photos of Grandma, she’s wearing a simple housedress and apron—her “everyday clothes.” But a few pictures show her at Mt. Vernon UMC, dressed to the nines in a fur jacket and pillbox hat—her “church clothes.” For Grandma Lucy, as for many from her generation, the practice of wearing “Sunday best” to worship arose from a genuine desire to honor the Lord.

I have a young friend whose faith inspires me, and who, like many from his generation, is decidedly more casual in his choice of worship attire. Once, when an older man in the congregation chided him for his “disrespect towards God,” I overheard my young friend’s gentle response: “I’m trying to offer God my real self,” he said. “Not just my Sunday self.”

I wondered later if my friend had been reading Psalm 103: “Let my whole being bless the Lord. Let everything inside me bless his holy name.”

Everything inside me? Seriously, everything? This flies in the face of the sacred Southern aphorism: We may think it, but we do not speak it. But what if this is the very thing God hopes for most—not the polishing up of our shiny selves, but instead the offering up of our whole selves?

Let everything inside me bless God’s holy name. Sure, the happy, thankful part of me is going to find it easy enough to sing. But what about the other parts—can they also bless the Lord? According to Psalm 103, you bet they can:

The exhausted part of us can sing praise to the One who “renews our youth like the eagle’s.”

The part that’s angry at injustice can bless the God who “works righteousness and does justice for all who are oppressed.”

The part that’s suffering can sing to the God who “heals our sickness.”

The part that’s guilty can sing to the God who “forgives…and removes our sin as far as the east is from the west.”

The part of us that’s weak can bless the One who “knows our frame and remembers we are dust.”

Who can say where God lands in the “furs vs. shorts” debate in worship. As with most things that really matter to God, I imagine it comes down to the heart, and not just our Sunday heart. Our whole, real, raw, unpolished heart. This is the best offering of all.

Julie Pennington-Russell is a much-loved preacher, pastor, and mentor. She has pastored three Baptist churches, has mentored too-many-to-count young ministers, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Ellen Di Giosia

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces a fabulous minister, and today, we are so pleased to introduce you to Ellen Di Giosia. 

Ellen, tell us about your current ministry?
I serve as associate pastor of faith formation at Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. I’ve been on staff here for just over seven years, was first the children’s minister for four-and-a-half years, then I became full-time and added adult formation and family ministries to my responsibilities.

What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your ministry journey?
Even in churches that hire and affirm women in ministry, there are still pockets of patriarchal weirdness. I’ve been told to always wear jackets so that my elbows don’t show, have received official church correspondence addressed to “Mrs. [husband’s name],” and listened as colleagues said that we couldn’t invite a woman to preach because “we just had one last month.”

Most of the challenges, though, have been the same ones that every minister faces. I’ve worked in three wonderful churches, but even good churches have issues and dysfunction. In one case, it became too difficult to stay, and in another, I chose to ride out an intense storm. Using family systems theory has been helpful in these cases. Asking questions such as what does it mean to bear the anxiety of a system? How can I be the presence of Christ when that anxiety has begun swirling around me? But even when you identify things academically, it is still intensely painful. Having friends and ministry colleagues that I trust and can talk to about these times has saved my ministry.

What brings you great joy in life and ministry?
Recently I’ve been privileged to help establish Texas Baptist Women in Ministry. I’ve discovered a passion for talking to women about their ministries and encouraging them as they pursue their education. That’s bringing me a lot of joy right now.

I love leading in worship in so many ways–in prayer, music, and preaching. The preparation time is deeply worshipful for me, and I come into myself most fully when I am leading in that way.

One Sunday not too long ago, I got to church feeling discouraged and exhausted. I processed to the chancel, wondering how I would make it through the service. When I turned around to face the congregation and saw the faces of so many people that I love and who minister to me, I nearly burst into happy tears. They are what bring me the most joy.

What is the best ministry advice you have ever received?
I was debating whether or not to apply for a position I’d heard about and wondering if I was really qualified. In Texas, where there are still so few Baptist women serving in pastoral roles, it can be easy to get into a mindset of scarcity–“there aren’t enough jobs,” “we’re all competing for the same ones,” “if they’re going to hire a woman, it’s not going to be me.” A fellow pastor told me, “You will bring something that no one else has to that ministry – yourself. Ultimately, only YOU can be YOU, and that may be just what is needed.” It reminds me that this is not a competition; it’s an opportunity for a church and a minister to journey together for a time. I don’t need to try and outpace anyone else–I just need to be me and trust that God will use me wherever I am.

All the People by Erin Robinson Hall

Ecclesiology through the eyes of a three-year-old preacher’s kid cracks me up.

Our son, Logan, recently learned the little rhyme where you lace your fingers together, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors, see all the people.” He has no use for the beginning stanza, where the hands are supposed to make a building and the fingers make a steeple. Instead, he starts off where it matters to him: “all the people.” As his story goes, “Here’s the people all in line. They all line up. . .to eat.”

I laughed and shared this summary of the body of Christ with Ruth and Carol, who minister to children and preschoolers in our church. They pointed out that in his experience, we do spend a lot of time at church standing in line to eat. Wednesday night suppers, covered dish lunches, VBS cookouts, ice cream socials. My kid has noted a true mark of being Baptist. Eating is our thing.

Shared meals are a beautiful thing. We know that these moments can host the kind of holy conversations that make us community. But, once we receive a plate full, we gravitate to our own tables with our own people. We know where we sit. Maybe my little one notices what happens before we are fed.

Lined up and hungry, we tend to make conversation while we stand together. Sometimes our conversations just skim the surface of our day, sometimes we tell about concerns and hurts. My son sees me talking with the people who stand next to us in line, our brief conversations connecting us as much as any Sunday morning liturgy. I hear the tired mom in front of us tell about her frustrating meeting at school. We turn behind us and listen to the eighty-year-old widower say that he got good news from his doctor today.

If my child’s picture of church is being shaped from this image of us standing side-by-side before we share a meal, I am okay with that. He sees people checking in with each other. He sees a wealthy man, who rarely waits in line these days, happily waiting for his plate like everyone else. Privilege gets in line in the body of Christ. He sees a poor man, who drifted in from the neighborhood, welcomed to the head of the line, told he can have a warm meal any time he is hungry. This line is not for members only.

If my son’s picture of church is a line of people waiting to be fed, I get it. One of the most holy moments I know is when we stand and walk forward for communion. We may arrive for worship and gravitate to our own pews with our own people. We know where we sit. But the line for this meal invites us to move from our fixed positions and step nearer to one another. If you have ever watched the people coming forward to receive the bread and the cup, you know the wonder of the line. There are stories each person brings forward with them; there are moments that have moved them toward this particular line for this very meal.

Here’s the church, here’s all the people.
 

Erin Robinson Hall holds a Master of Divinity degree from Candler Theological Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia. She has served as minister of congregational life at Heritage Baptist Fellowship in Canton, Georgia, and for nine years taught in the public school systems of North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia. Erin is currently working on a Doctor of Ministry degree in Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. She lives in Macon, Georgia, with her husband, Jake, and their two-year-old son, Logan.