THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Aline Silva-Schreiner

Each Friday Baptist Women in Ministry introduces a woman in ministry, and this week we are thrilled to introduce Aline Silva-Schreiner.

Where and how are you currently serving in ministry?
Currently I serve as a Gospel Catalyst for the Academy of Preachers, itinerant preacher for the American Baptist Churches of the Central Region and the prestigious Academy of Young Preachers, and as a certified Life Coach, and a discernment coach for the Fund for Theological Exploration.

What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your ministry journey?
The biggest challenge on my ministry journey thus far is misconception both of church and non-church folks. So, let’s set the record straight by receiving the wise words of my dear friend and fellow clergy woman, Jes Kast-Keat: The pastor is a person first, a partner second, a parent third (think of “parent” broadly), and lastly, the pastor is a professional.

What brings you great joy in life and ministry?
Every time a parishioner, coaching client, friend, or stranger realizes their worth and value, beauty and place in the Reign of God. Girl, that makes me smile! It reassures me: the risk of ambiguity is worth the reward. Because of my risky choice to accept the invitation to co-create with God, they too realize they were created in the image and likeness of the Holy One.

What is the best ministry advice you have ever received?
The Spirit does not operate apart from the ego. It is in their intersecting that friction is created. It is their collaborating, in the mutual giving and taking, that friction brings forth the sparks necessary to bring about fire.

A Salesperson, Joseph, and the Spirit of God by Jen Lyon

As one of the pastors of a small progressive Baptist church in Atlanta there is hardly a dull moment, but I must admit that I expected my 10:30 a.m. appointment with the copier salesperson on Tuesday to be just that, dull and uneventful. The part of our meeting that pertained to the copier was dull and uneventful, but I noticed a hesitation in ending our conversation. She stopped and started a sentence a few times searching for the right words, like an artist reaching for the perfect shade of green, until she finally just gave up and said, “Can I just tell you something? I am just shocked to find a female pastor here. Do you go by Pastor Lyon or Rev. Lyon.”

“I mostly go by Jen, but I am ordained and a pastor, so the others work too.”

“I have never met a Baptist pastor who is female,” she said.

“I understand that. It is not very common, especially in the South,” I said.

“Did you always want to do this?” she asked, “I mean, no offense, but why would you want to be a part of something that doesn’t want you?”

Her question has haunted me this last week. I have answered many questions about the intersection of my calling and my gender, but I have never been questioned exactly in that way. I was reminded of the end of the book of Genesis when Joseph confronts his brothers who valued him so little that they literally forced his removal from their family by selling him in slavery. When they finally see each other face to face and the power dynamic has shifted in Joseph’s direction, he says to them:

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20, RSV)

It is true, there have been and continue to be many voices who fervently speak out against women in pastoral leadership. I have personally been told by well meaning “brothers (and sisters) in Christ” that I am wrong, that in fact I am actively defying God and cannot be apart of their “church family.”

And I am left again with that question posed by the sage copier salesperson. Why would I want to be a part of something that doesn’t want me?

I choose to follow God’s call in my life because Joseph’s words in Genesis 50 are true for me as well. What others mean for evil, God means for good. The congregation I am a part of is full of folks others have left behind or pushed out and those who stand in allegiance with them. I cannot count the number of conversations I have had with people in our congregation recounting how someone has told them they can’t be fully a part of church because of one thing or another, and I can say, “yep, me too.” It is in those moments that I know the answer to the question, because what I have experienced as rejection, the creative Spirit of God turns into inclusivity. And that is the life giving work of God. I will always choose to be a part of that life giving work.

My prayer for my sisters in ministry and all those who hear words of hate from the mouths of people of faith, is to remember that what some mean for evil, God means for good.
 

Jen Lyon is pastor of congregational leadership at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

Easter People: Our Ears Are Flooded

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29

“The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly…” (Acts 16:14)

Paul’s mission to Macedonia, the beginning of his long and loving relationship with the church at Philippi, began with an encounter with women at a place of prayer. Among them was Lydia, a Gentile who believed in the God of Israel. Though she did not share a Jewish heritage with the Jerusalem-based disciples, she knew and worshipped Yahweh.

When Lydia heard Paul talk about Jesus, draw the lines from the God she already knew to the Christ, it wasn’t just an auditory exercise. God prepared her: not only by opening her ears so she could understand, but by opening her heart so she could respond in faith.

Lydia listened with her heart. Eagerly: leaning in toward Paul, eyes fixed on his face, anticipating his next word. Holding her breath, her heart racing. She was a no-nonsense woman, the head of a household, a business leader… and the call of Christ grabbed her attention, compelled her to offer up her home, her resources, her life to the Way.

I want to be a listener like Lydia, open-hearted, expectant, responsive. But our world is full of racket, and my instinct is to cover my ears, try my best not to have to hear it. As a kid, I’d grip my pillow over my ears during thunderstorms, and hide in the house on the Fourth of July; I wish it was as easy now to block out the uproar, the bellowing, the explosions. I’m afraid of missing the voice of God.

Lord,

We’re overwhelmed by noise: the
talktalktalk
and argue and complain and insist and insult
and claim to have the best product
and sell the best solution
and boast of the best way.
It is a rip current.

We can’t help it:
if we didn’t tune out,
press our hands over our ears to muffle the sounds,
we would go under.
We would lose ourselves
in the angry waves.

Please don’t wait for us to surface,
to grasp those rare moments of peace that allow us to
hear our own names,
to glimpse the shore,
to breathe.
Don’t wait;
come to us as you did to Lydia,
open our hearts to
prepare us for your story, to
prepare us for your salvation.

Though we cannot bear the noises that crash over us,
we will listen eagerly for you.

Our ears are flooded, O Lord.
In your mercy,
speak to us by heart.

 

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

THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Eileen Campbell-Reed

Each Friday Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and this week we are pleased to introduce Eileen Campbell-Reed. 

Eileen, tell us about your ministry journey.
As a girl growing up in a Baptist church, I was not only baptized at the age of seven, but also saturated in a Baptist world … showing up for Sunday school, memorizing scripture in Bible Drill, singing in children’s choir and attending missions education on Wednesday nights. I was a member of GA (Girls in Action), what historian Bill Leonard likes to call Baptist Girl Scouts. I earned my GA badges, and when I hit middle school, I became an Acteen. Now Acteens is one part geography lesson, two parts achievement program, three parts teenage girlish angst, with a healthy dose of missionary zeal thrown in for good measure. I worked through the Acteens’ achievement program and became a Queen Regent in service … crown, scepter, cape and pin. That made me as close to a Baptist debutante as one can get without the actual social manners lessons or debutante ball. Instead we held a worship service on a Sunday night once a year in the spring. We walked down the aisle to a trumpet playing “God of our Fathers” and received our regalia. Most years we gave short speeches about what we had learned. Not sermons, mind you. Then we ate cookies and drank punch in the fellowship hall. Definitely no dancing.

When I look back, I suppose I spent a lot of my early life working through Baptist achievement programs. And yet I wanted so much more out of my church and spiritual life. The youth ministry program at my church helped me on this quest for more. It was on one of many summer mission trips that I realized I could continue doing what I loved – teaching, leading, organizing for the sake of loving my neighbors as Jesus taught. Such work might even become my career! My sense of vocation and calling emerged out of the work of teaching children, working collaboratively with other youth, and participating in God’s love and mercy. What I would have said at the time was that I felt called to keep sharing that love and to make that the focus of my life and work.

I decided on my seminary before I even got to college. What I didn’t know was how much going to Southern Seminary in Louisville would shape the rest of my journey into ministry…

What challenges have you encountered along the way?
I often say that my entire ministry formation – beginning in 1984 with my senior year in high school – took place in a “crucible of conflict.” That year Southern Baptists passed the now infamous “Kansas City resolution,” condemning the ordination of women to pastoral ministries. I remember vividly sitting on the back row in the sanctuary of my childhood church. It was summer – just after my graduation. I heard my pastor, Hershel Chevallier, reporting on his trip to the SBC and the passage of that resolution. That moment presented me with a lasting epiphany: I was crystal clear that Baptists had raised me and called me to ministry, and yet on some large scale they were telling me that I couldn’t pursue that calling. I felt sure this could not be right. I was determined even more to fulfill my calling no matter what the resolution said. The call was not only from Baptists but also from God. That took priority over anything Baptists might do or try to hinder my call.

And try they did. In college my professors suffered the indignities of having their classes recorded and their jobs threatened. In seminary the whole school was under siege as Southern Baptists took over the board of trust and ousted our president Roy Honeycutt. Professors were fleeing at an alarming rate. Nearly twenty of them left in the years I was a student. Eventually many professors became the leaders in the new schools that stepped into the educational gap that opened up for those of us who departed the SBC, those who believed women were called to ministry. I graduated in the last class at Southern Seminary with leadership from Dr. Honeycutt.

It took me nearly two years to find my first place of service in ministry. Those were really challenging months. I interviewed at twelve different churches and agencies. In those days of the early 1990s, there was so much transition with churches leaving the SBC and trying to figure out where they belonged. Calling women to serve was a part of the politics of the day, and finding a church that really wanted me and my gifts – getting the right fit (and not just the politics) was so important to me. I did land at just such a place. And I served Heritage Baptist Church in Cartersville, Georgia, for over five years. I learned so much while immersed in that new kind of Baptist place – a church begun out of conflict and choosing to affiliate only with the newer Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance of Baptists. They let me get my feet wet in all kinds of ministry and really try on the pastoral role fully … preaching and teaching, marrying and burying, baptizing and presiding. All the while I also led youth ministry and Christian education for the church.

My childhood church ordained me soon after seminary, and when I had begun my work at Heritage. It was another five years before my home congregation ordained some women as deacons for the first time. I’ll likely be the only woman ever ordained by that church for congregational ministry.

I understand my ministry now to be teaching, supporting, and encouraging new ministers. I do this with my seminary classes, my research and writing, and through relationships with young (and older) men and women who are pursuing their call to ministry. In the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project we are following along fifty women and men as they move from seminary to ministry. This is the first genuinely national, ecumenical and longitudinal study of ministry. We are seven years into the work and learning so much through witnessing the unfolding practice of ministry in the lives of these ministers.

Tell us about your book Anatomy of a Schism. What did you learn from the research and writing about Baptist women ministers?
Wow. I have learned so much. The project really began when I went to graduate school at Vanderbilt. I wanted to know how it was that Baptist clergywomen seemed to thrive when all the odds were stacked against them. What were their resources and strengths? How were they so resilient even when jobs for women were scarce, churches were kicked out of Baptist groups for ordaining and calling women, and women’s work in ministry often ended abruptly over church conflicts? I thought about the conflict and fracturing of the SBC as important background to understanding their lives and the pressures they were facing. After interviewing a number of women and really working on their stories, I had pivotal conversation with one of my history advisors, Kathleen Flake. She helped me turn the project around and ask not just how the women had thrived, but: how did the clergywomen’s stories help me understand the culture and conflicts of Baptists in a different way?

This shift really let the project accelerate into a new kind of interpretation – one that is psychological, theological, and pays attention to the function of gender – of the SBC schism. The women’s stories are valuable totally on their own. They teach us many important things about ministry, about the part that our unconscious understandings of gender play in church life and theological understandings. They show vividly some of the embodied and relational learning required for good ministry practice. Yet the clergywomen’s lives are also like windows into the living history of Baptist identity and social conflict in the late twentieth century. Each woman’s story works like a case study for the gifts and challenges of learning ministry over time, and also like a rich well of insights about what was at stake in the SBC during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

For instance, Baptist clergywomen and their supporters weren’t simply trying to “prove a point” or “win their rights” as ministers. Nor were they merely symbols of a fight between men – tossed around like a football. Women were acting as agents – lead characters if you will – in their own stories. They struggled to live their callings in a new way, to see themselves and be seen by others as fully human – not second class ministers or people. In the process they imagined – and more importantly lived – their callings in ways that reached for authenticity and redemption. And along the way they were helping to reshape the meaning of being a Baptist and being a minister in the twenty-first century.

What advice would you give to a teenage girl who is discerning a call to ministry?
Pay attention. That is the spiritual work of this life. No matter what you might (or might not) be called to do, paying attention is at the heart of your calling. God’s wake up calls are everywhere around us: the yellow-green of the leaves for just that one week in April …. the five perfect bluebird eggs … the whispered encouragement from your grandmother … that urgency to read more and preach better. But if we’re not paying attention, we are likely to miss these wake up calls. One of the best ways to learn the quality of careful attention is to pray. Not so much with words and talk but with silence and breathing.

Find someone who will walk with you and talk with you and help you pay attention to your life and your calling. None of us has all the wisdom or all the learning. We really need each other and our best learning comes in community. Look for peers, mentors and teachers who really get the game of ministry and can help you learn to play it. Like other games (playing the guitar or cooking or parenting) rules are important and necessary. But rules alone don’t give you all you need for the improvisation required for such complex and rewarding games. Find folks who can give you loving support and honest feedback. A challenging combination, but people who can do this are the very best for supporting the long journey into learning the practice of ministry. In our times we need all the support, feedback and companionship we can get!

Ministry and Grief: Unexpected Lessons by Mary Alice Birdwhistell

Grieving is difficult for any of us at any time or season of life. It’s especially difficult for those of us serving in ministry. How do you offer words of hope to others when you’re not in a very hopeful place yourself? When you’re serving in such a public role in the congregation, what do you share about your grieving experience, and what do you keep private? How can you find space to grieve and to begin to heal?

I don’t claim to have the answers to any of these questions, because I recognize that the ways we minister and the ways we grieve look differently for each of us. However, after a significant experience of grief in my own life recently, I have discovered a few things that might be helpful to consider for those of us who find ourselves ministering during a season of grief.

Give yourself permission to grieve.
As a pastor, I often feel like I should be the one who “has it all together” – there’s no space (not to mention time) for me to be sad. And let’s face it – I’m stubborn, and I really don’t like admitting that I’m sad! You and I can do a lot of things to convince ourselves that we’re not sad. We can stuff our feelings of sadness, we can overwork and distract ourselves from them, or we can turn to other activities or addictions to help numb our sadness. However, the reality is that our sadness is always going to come out, one way or another. I’ve learned that these past few months, so I’ve tried to give myself permission to fully experience whatever it is I’m feeling and to allow that to be okay.

Be appropriately vulnerable with your congregation.
If I have committed to journeying with a faith community through the highs and lows of their lives, then it makes sense that I would also commit to sharing the highs and lows of my life with them. Ministry is a two-way street. That doesn’t mean that I break down in tears with a congregant who simply asks how I’m doing, or that I share unnecessary details about my life situation with someone who hasn’t earned the right to hear my story. However, there have been moments when I felt that I could share about my grief with the congregation, even in a recent sermon, and I found that they deeply appreciated and honored my willingness to be vulnerable with them. Ultimately, it led to an even deeper connection between us and more meaningful times of sharing with one another.

Allow your congregation to minister to you.
Near the end of a meeting a few months ago, a woman leaned over and said to me, “How are you really doing? We want the honest answer.” She and the others around the table held space for me to express my sadness, and then they gathered around me and prayed for me. Many people from church checked in on me over the past few months to offer their love, prayers, and support without expecting anything from me in return. This, my friends, is one of the biggest gifts of congregational ministry – when the congregations we seek to serve turn around and minister to us in such beautiful and unexpected ways.

Practice self-care whenever and wherever you can.
When so much of our emotional energy is being spent in other ways, it can feel as if we have nothing left to give. It’s during these seasons that we need to practice radical self-care. Over the past few months, I’ve joined a yoga studio. I’ve gone on walks several days a week. I’ve spent good time with close friends. I’ve also spent good time with God – writing and reflecting on my spiritual journey. I’ve allowed myself to sleep more than usual. I’ve seen my counselor regularly. I’ve traveled home to spend time with family. I’ve been compassionate to myself – just as I would be compassionate to someone in my congregation who is grieving. These times of self-care have breathed new life into my soul and have given me the energy to continue ministering to others, even during a difficult season.

When you’re ready, begin to write a new chapter.
I found myself in a pretty dark place during the season of Lent, but after some time, I realized that I was looking forward to Easter in a way I never had before. In my mind, I set Easter Sunday as the beginning of a new season – a reminder of the hope of new life. Of course, I knew that there would still be moments of sadness after Easter, but it was a helpful marker in my mind to encourage me to take a step forward from a place of grieving to a place of hoping. This Easter season is giving me the hope to begin writing my next chapter.

The reality is that grief will always be a part of all of our stories. Grief can cycle in and out of our lives, and often it hits us when we’re least expecting it. My journey in grieving is teaching me to be more generous to myself and to be more understanding of the great battles other people are facing that most of us will never know about. But though we will grieve, we do not have to grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). I’m grateful for that promise, and for a congregation who faithfully walks alongside a minister who is also grieving. Thanks be to God.

An Easter People: Us and Them

(Easter 5, 4/24)

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Rev. 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” (Acts 11:12)

I think we’re hard-wired for belonging. Even those of us who are dyed-in-the-wool introverts yearn to be known, to find our tribe. Maybe it goes back to survival, safety in numbers and all that. Or maybe it’s psychological; we come to understand ourselves as we navigate our relationships, and when we find shared interests, shared passions, a shared approach to life, we feel included. We feel comforted and confident. We feel at home.

So we gear up in our team colors–sometimes literally, decked out in jerseys and rally caps. Sometimes we do it virtually, with shared memes and clicks of the “like” button. Sometimes we do it socially, with inside jokes and select invitations, and sometimes we do it subtly, with club rosters and even with church rolls. There can be no mistaking: we are “us,” and they are “them.”

Peter had returned to Jerusalem to verify the reports: Gentiles had indeed accepted the word of God. Suddenly the centuries of Jewish traditions, the Messianic theologies, the fulfilled prophecies that bound together the first Christian believers could no longer function as the fence between “us” and “them.” How can those who are unclean–who don’t keep kosher, who don’t observe the festivals, who don’t make the sacrifices or share the genealogy–how can they follow the risen Jewish King? And how can they belong to the Way of Jewish Christians?

This way:

“…the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:15-17)

The Holy Spirit is pure gift. Every time. The Spirit is a gift that blows where God wills, not where we direct it, and not only where we observe it. It blows through fences and over walls, in traditions that seem unorthodox, in languages we can’t understand, and even (in Peter’s case) in menus we don’t approve of. Then the Spirit invites us to the picnic in all our variety, not requiring us to flatten our distinguishing characteristics, but asking us not to make distinctions.

Asking all of us to be “us.”

No one can prevent God from providing this Spirit, this gift, this vast buffet, this party with the doors wide open, and unfamiliar music echoing, and the language of laughter spilling out into the streets. No one can prevent God from bringing us together in praise.

So get a foothold in the chain-link that has defined “us” and “them”; reach a hand across, even boost yourself over. If you’re uncomfortable joining in an unfamiliar tradition, pray that those who do practice it will be blessed. Learn a few words in a new tongue; start with “your baby is beautiful,” or “come sit here,” or “that looks delicious.” Then pass the plates.

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

THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Anne Scalfaro

Each week Baptist Women in Ministry introduces a woman in ministry, and this week we are thrilled to introduce Anne Scalfaro.

Anne, tell us how you are currently serving in ministry.
I am the senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Denver, Colorado (an American Baptist congregation). Following a two-year pastoral residency at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, I began at Calvary as a pastor in 2008. In 2012, I became the acting/interim senior pastor at Calvary and officially became the senior pastor of Calvary in 2013.

What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your ministry journey?
Aside from the most universal challenge we all deal with in ministry (setting boundaries and creating a healthy work/life balance), in my short tenure in pastoral ministry, I have faced quite a few significant challenges. The challenges have come in different forms, but through it all, I have seen God’s grace through the people of Calvary–their resilience, commitment, faith, and encouragement have kept me going.

My biggest pastoral challenges so far have been related to suicides: a former pastoral staff member, a youth, and a young adult. My most recent pastoral challenges, which are still very difficult, include the death of one of our long-time congregation members in Galilee last fall on a trip to the Holy Land that I was co-leading and the death of one of our long-time youth volunteers who was killed in a car accident in March. The layers of grief in those kinds of circumstances run deep. And the roots take hold in the congregation in ways that are hard to articulate. The gift has come in becoming more vulnerable with one another, especially in discussing mental health struggles very openly and honestly within the church. The past several years, I have officiated twelve-plus funerals a year–which takes its toll. However in an odd way, because of my own experience and comfort level with grief, I feel that, perhaps, part of my specific and unique calling by God to be at Calvary has been related to these significant losses. Funerals have become one of the most fulfilling parts of ministry for me–because of the tenderness and honesty of the moment, the expressed gratitude and celebration of life, the open admission of grief, the creative work to honor each person individually and each family situation differently, and the willingness of people to discuss the hard questions of faith at such moments.

Aside from pastoral care-related challenges, the other significant challenges for me have been personnel related. Our church voted to become Welcoming and Affirming in December of 2011, and while that vote was overwhelming positive, we did lose some long-time members which was hard for the congregation and for us financially. In January of 2012 my colleague (the former senior pastor) went on a mental health leave and six months later resigned. It was a very difficult time, serving as acting senior pastor and ministering to him and his family behind the scenes. That same spring, three of our office staff resigned, which compounded the workload in the office and also my own grief of losing four staff members from our office in such a short amount of time. These are people you care for and work with each and every day so it’s tough when that dynamic shifts so suddenly and drastically. I can’t put into words the emotional complexity of it all, but I will say that if it were not for the prayers of many people, the lay leadership at Calvary, and God’s strength and grace, I would not have made it through that year or remained in ministry.

Other personnel challenges that I have had over the past two to three years are things most pastors face at some point or another: having to let staff members go because of behavior, performance, or budget challenges, and having to reduce salaries across the board because of financial constraints.

Through all of these tough situations, the hardest challenge is usually not the situation itself, but all of the confidential information you carry that you cannot tell others. And therefore, you can often be misunderstood because people do not know all the circumstances related to a decision you have made. I have learned how to differentiate myself well from hurtful criticism in that regard, but it is still hard to have your intentions questioned when you are trying your best in that moment to lead with wisdom and grace. It is never easy to see a staff member go (for any reason). You know you are affecting their lives and their family in profound ways. At the same time, I have learned that part of leadership is looking at “the good of the whole” and doing what is best for the entire church, while also dealing as pastorally as you can with individuals when situations come up. It is not helpful leadership to not make a hard decision, if it is the right decision, just because you know it will be hard. Things will only get harder–for the church, for the individual, and for you–if you do not act. This challenge never gets easier, even with experience. The longer I am in leadership, the more humbling it gets.

What brings you great joy in life and ministry?
So many things bring me joy in ministry. First and foremost–the people. I love hearing people’s life stories . . . in a coffee shop, a home, a hospital room, a hike, or sitting on a church pew. I enjoy the deepened connections that come with hospital visits (and pastoral care in general). I enjoy working collaboratively with my colleagues to plan worship or special worship experiences during seasons such as Advent and Lent. (I have the best staff. They are gifted beyond measure and we have a lot of fun together! And I have a wonderful supportive pastor emerita in my congregation–Mary Hulst, who is a grace-filled mentor.) I love getting creative with daily Holy Week Services or quarterly Healing and Wholeness services; I enjoy designing rituals that invite people share their struggles and griefs with one another while also drawing hope and healing from Christ and the community.

As a person, my favorite thing in the life of the church is worship–so that is my favorite thing as a pastor too. I find worship to be this time of re-orientation to God, of pivoting back to what I might have strayed from or forgotten during the week: that God loves us all deeply and that God calls us to love others deeply. The perpetual nerd in me loves preaching and sermon preparation. Scripture, the stories of God’s people, give me so much to hope in as well as so much to struggle with, and I love to share that passion for the Bible with others. For me the confusion and challenge of the Bible is what makes it so powerful, and so very relatable to our lives. It is always a joy to baptize people and to serve communion, both of which are intimate and public moments full of meaning. To be able to look a congregation member in the eye and call them by name as I serve them the bread and the cup is the greatest of privileges.

Calvary is a church that works hard to be Open to All Closed to None, which is truly hard work if you really mean what you say. And we’ve struggled and continue to struggle to truly live up to this radical call of Christ. But as we try, over the past few years, I have experienced the deepest and most lasting joy in welcoming people into our congregation who did not feel welcome in other churches before, or who felt that there was no church for them, or that they were not worthy of God’s love. I am encouraged and uplifted by the testimonies of people who say they have never felt as accepted as they do in our community. To me, being this tangible embrace of God for one another is what church is about. Being a Christ-like community means doing things that may be out of our comfort zones for the sake of giving someone else the opportunity to feel comfortable for once. Being able to come together and worship freely is such a privilege–one we often take for granted. And when we can welcome people as they are into our communities and work together to worship God and serve others–then we all begin to be transformed in the process. And to see that transformation in others . . . and in myself . . . well, it doesn’t get much better than that! It’s the clearest evidence that God’s Spirit is alive within each one of us and at work among all of us.

Beyond ministry, my husband, Damon, gives me the greatest joy because of his love and support and fun-loving nature. Our puppy, Deacon, is also a great source of joy, especially when we spend a lot of time outside together. (I’m training him to be able to be up at the church with me during the week . . . hence the name) Family aside, practicing yoga is what keeps me spiritually renewed and physically healthy. Yoga teaches me so much about how to be truly present and how to let go of outcomes and focus on the process. Yoga reminds me to focus my energy on what I can do, not what I cannot do. These are great lessons for life and for ministry. In many ways, I feel like I am the best version of myself on my yoga mat–the version of myself I’m working on being in the world . . . especially at work.

What is the best ministry advice you have ever received?
“To never stop asking for advice.” Actually, I’m not sure anyone has ever told me that, but that is my answer because I receive so much advice and support from mentors and lay leaders and friends and congregation members all the time. I can’t narrow it down to one thing. Pastoral ministry would be daunting and near impossible if I believed I had to do this by myself. But to know I have the support and wisdom of people who have gone before me and who are journeying alongside of me–well, that makes facing each day an opportunity for learning and growth. I try to surround myself with people whose strengths compliment my weaknesses, I have a couple of people who I always reach out to for emotional support and guidance when things are tough, and I try to ask a lot of questions and listen discerningly for the wisdom in the answers. And I listen openly to everyone who has an issue or complaint, because even if I see things differently, there is some wisdom and truth in every perspective.

The best advice I have ever received and continue to receive is from my mentor, George Mason, of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. His is an “incarnational advice” and presence: his life’s ministry (something I have witnessed and benefited from since I was nine years old), his continual support through my calling and journey to ministry, and now our mutual support of one another as colleagues who share the joys and struggles of leading our respective communities with one another. I can only hope that I am as good a mentor and colleague as he has been to me. And to all of the struggles and joys I listed above, he would say, “This is what we do.” Indeed it is. And it is a great privilege to do it.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Preacher by Starlette McNeill

“It takes a village to raise a child” is an African dictum. The expression underlines the belief that children need to be raised in community, that it takes more than two or even four hands to mold and shape a child into a productive citizen and a self-actualizing human being. All hands must be in, accounted for and accountable for the love, support, guardianship, and supervision of the child. The expression speaks to the fact that we all have a hand in modeling appropriate behavior, conversation, and dress as it informs little eyes and ears.

This was the norm and the expectation in Foley, Alabama, where I lived with my grandparents. If you did something wrong in the neighborhood or in the classroom, everyone knew about it. Even before social media or hash tags, your bad behavior was trending on your street. Everyone looked with disapproval at you as you walked home, knowing that you were in trouble.

Village Baptist Church is where I presently serve as the associate pastor. While not the origin of the church name, I can only think of my congregation as the village. And for me, it makes sense.

This is my first pastorate, and this congregation has provided an opportunity for me to find my true preaching voice. For many years, I have been able to hide behind the pastor as an associate minister, adapting my presentation and style to fit the liturgical pathos of the church. I have also served as a pulpit supply and guest preacher. I was very familiar with preaching on special occasions and according to a schedule with a group of other ministers. But, preaching as an associate pastor on a regular basis and to persons for which I am a model for appropriate behavior, conversation, and dress is altogether different. No longer in training or waiting my turn to lead at a church, I stand behind the pulpit and beside the pastor.

I came in guarded and uncertain of what to say to a congregation that created sacred space for persons with PhDs and GEDs, with diverse socioeconomic and denominational backgrounds, from different countries, continents, and cultures. What to say about faith in Christ was not hard but how to say it proved trying.

I needed to speak across cultures and while erasing color lines. I hoped to communicate authority to my elders, energy and accessibility to my tech-savvy teenagers, and authenticity for my young adults who were busy with education, careers, family, or some combination of them all. Finding one’s voice in the midst of a diversity of sounds, experiences, and expectations is quite a challenge. It is hard to walk with disciples who are literally going in so many different directions. But, they did not let me leave the sanctuary without affirming that they were with me.

Words of affirmation, encouragement, solidarity, and even preaching tips were offered. They were not only listening but also thinking about what I said. I soon realized that we were preaching together.

I took preaching courses in seminary. I continue to read books and listen to sermons to immerse myself in the perspectives of others on the Bible’s meanings and messages. I have even been a fellow at the Joe R. Engle Preaching Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary so that I could focus on the art and craft of preaching.

And while I am grateful for all of these opportunities, it has been my village that has done the most to mold and shape me as a messenger of the gospel of Jesus Christ. More than classes, books, and fellowships, I needed the hands of this congregation— because it takes a village to raise a preacher.
 

Starlette McNeill serves as the associate pastor at Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland, where she enjoys reading, writing, and going to Starbucks. She is a wife and the mother of an amazing two-year-old named John.

An Easter People: Acts 9:36-43

(Easter 4c, 4/17)

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…” (Acts 9:36a)

My Grandma was a quilter.

In their retirement years, my grandparents moved to the Ozark woods, and watched birds, and grew vegetables, and went to church, and walked gravel roads, and fished, and my Grandma cut up swaths of calico fabrics and stitched them back together again into intricate patchwork patterns. She bound the layers of each blanket by hand, one tiny stitch at a time for thousands of stitches. Every bed in her house–and many of the beds in all of our own houses–was dressed with one of her quilts.

And when she died, the vestibule of the funeral home was decked with photos, and her quilts. were draped over the tables and hung as backdrops on the walls. And all of us gazed at her face in the pictures, and at the work of her hands around the room: a lifetime made up of small important acts, small deep loves, small sturdy stitches.

Women have been doing this for ages: filling the world around them with acts, with loves, with handwork. In Acts, the women of Tabitha’s village gathered at her death, weeping, gazing over all the works of her hands: letting the fabrics slide through their fingers, examining the stitches that shaped the garments, remembering the capable hands that had made them.

But Tabitha wasn’t just a sewist. She was a disciple, stitching together “good works and acts of charity” just as surely as she could make a robe or a tunic.

This is the only time in Acts where a woman is specifically called a disciple. In fact, it is the only New Testament use of the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple: “mathetria.” Though the widows weeping at her death focus their attention on her seamwork, Tabitha’s material accomplishments are a tangible, touchable reminder of her spiritual commitments. A reminder of a life full of important acts, deep loves, sturdy stitches.

A life that was not yet ready to end.

I wonder if Tabitha went back to her sewing after Peter restored her to life? Did she have a work in progress that she could pick up and continue to completion? Did she wonder how much more good she could do, how many more acts of charity she could fit in, how many more tunics she could create?

Did she learn to see each row of stitches as a timeline stretching forward, and each individual loop of thread as a gift of love?
 

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

THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Tracy Hartman

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we introduce you to our friend, Tracy Hartman.

Tracy, tell us about your ministry journey.
I am currently the Daniel O. Aleshire Professor of Homiletics and Practical Theology at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. I teach preaching and spiritual formation, and I direct our Internship and Doctor of Ministry programs. As far as I know, I am the only woman teaching preaching in moderate Baptist life. (If you had told me twenty years ago that I would be a seminary professor teaching preaching, I would have laughed). I also serve as a life coach and in interim pastorate roles, and I do a lot of pulpit supply. I love my calling. No two days are ever the same! I also love the constant interaction I have with both the academy and the church.

While I was in school, I babysat, managed the office at private school, served as a youth minister, and kept the books for my husband’s business (which I still do).

What are some of the best lessons you have learned along the way in your years of ministry and teaching?
As a supply and interim pastor, I visit a lot of churches. One lesson I have learned is to not give up on churches or what God is doing in a particular place. I preached at one church about twelve years ago and assumed it was in its dying days. I am a member there now (I would have laughed if you had told me that too), and we had over seventy-five children in worship on Easter Sunday alongside of several hundred adults. It has been humbling and a joy to watch the renewal that God has brought to this place.

At the seminary, I am constantly reminded that my ministry is as much about what happens outside the classroom as about what happens in class. There have been many sacred moments in my office and in coffee shops as I listen to students’ stories and coach and mentor them through the challenges that seminary brings.

Above all, my most important lesson has been to be the best minister I can be–a minister who just happens to be a woman. My work and research has shown that one of the things that lowers resistance to women in ministry (particularly in preaching) is exposure to a competent woman in that role. For many years, I was the first woman a church had ever invited to preach (thankfully those days are mostly over now). Rather than to advance an agenda or carry a flag for the cause of women in ministry, my goal has always been to preach faithfully and build relationships. I believe this has helped far more in the long run.

Who has inspired you along the way as you have lived out your calling?
In high school, I was inspired by my pastor, Jack Marcom. I first heard a call to ministry under his preaching ministry, and he was the first one to encourage me to think broadly about call. In college, I had the privilege to study and work under Carolyn Blevins; she remains a long-time friend and mentor.

At the M.Div. level, I was inspired and mentored by Tom Halbrooks, Linda McKinnish Bridges and Nora Tubbs Tisdale (my first preaching professor), and at the doctroal level, I was mentored by Beverly Zink Sawyer, my Ph.D. advisor. These people all drew out the best in me and encouraged me on my journey.

Most importantly, though, have been my parents–who always told me I could do anything I wanted (although I doubt ordained ministry was ever on their list), and my husband and children who have supported, sacrificed, and cheered me on the whole way.

What advice do you give seminary women as they are preparing for ministry?

  • Be open to the process! My call changed dramatically during seminary. I spent a good bit of time in my formative years in very conservative churches, and I had never heard a woman preach before I enrolled at BTSR. I was terrified when I fell in love with preaching, but I trusted key mentors who encouraged those gifts in me.
  • Network, Network, Network (and have a strong support group)!
  • Rejoice in the progress that women have made, but realize that challenges still remain. Many churches will be quick to say that they believe women should be pastors, but that their church isn’t “ready” to hire one. Unfortunately, salary inequality still abounds. When I get discouraged, I try to step and look at the bigger picture, remembering that the work we do now paves the way for women who will come behind us.
  • Don’t forget to pause regularly to breath thankfully into the mystery of a God who calls each of us to this chaotic and wonderful journey!