Each week Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. Today, we are thrilled to introduce Becky Caswell-Speight.
Becky, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served.
Unlike many women my age, I was fortunate to have been encouraged by my congregation to follow God’s call to enter vocational ministry. St. Matthew’s Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky has always been a strong proponent for women in ministry. I am grateful that this is where I grew up. Because of them, I never questioned my calling due to gender. The church shared my excitement. I received cards and notes of encouragement from many members. I was told stories about the trailblazing women that had been ordained at my church. One fellow church member, Wade G. Rowatt, made numerous trips to campus to keep me updated on all the new seminaries forming and helped me consider where to apply after graduating college. It wasn’t until I walked into my first preaching class and a young man told me that I wasn’t allowed to be there because I was a girl that I realized my upbringing at St. Matthew’s Baptist wasn’t the norm.
Midway Baptist Church in Kentucky was the first congregation I served. They gave me an opportunity at the young age of twenty-years-old, and set me on the path of congregational ministry that I continue on today. This ministry path has led me to places of service in Christian camp organizations, congregations, and a domestic violence in Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, and now in Stone Mountain, Georgia Christian. In the beginning of my ministry, I concentrated on the faith development of teenagers. I was blessed with a mentor that had been a youth minister for many years and I wanted to provide a similar blessing to others. After nine fulfilling years in congregational youth ministry, my calling shifted from youth to family ministry. This change came during a time of significant transition for my family. In a period of five months, my husband Josh graduated from seminary, our oldest daughter was born, we moved our family from Texas to Virginia, and I began studying at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond while also working at a local domestic violence center.
During this time of discernment as a student, a new mother, and an advocate for victims of domestic violence, I began to see life for families and children with new eyes. At the shelter especially, I witnessed what it was like for small children, through no fault of their own, to live in a world of chaos. The children’s chaotic lives in the shelter were juxtaposed against the rather calm life of my young family. Life wasn’t fair for the shelter kids and I wanted to do something to help make it better. This led me to search for answers while at seminary. Family systems theory became my focus of study and ministry with families became my concentration in church ministry. Since graduating from seminary, I have continued this concentration at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
What are the greatest challenges you have encountered along the way?
Seasons of ministry are just like the seasons of life–there have been challenges that I have faced that have brought me immense joy, and there have been challenges that have brought me incredible pain, which have caused me to question my call.
The greatest challenge that I’ve ever faced in ministry happened while I worked with youth and a few of my students were in a horrible car accident a few days before their high school graduation. It has been fourteen years since that day, but I can still vividly remember the smallest details of that day and the moments just after it. The death of a young person is awful and, for me, this one was particularly tragic. She was an incredible, vibrant young woman who stretched my theology and pushed me to be a better minister. However, saying goodbye to her was not nearly as challenging as walking with her friends and my students as they grieved and tried to comprehend the pain they were feeling. As their minister, I didn’t want any of them to have to carry their pain on their own. Over the next few weeks and months, we went grocery shopping together, we sat through two funerals together, we organized counseling sessions together, we grieved together. I remember barely sleeping or eating. I worried constantly about how they would see God’s love in the midst of so much pain. And to be honest, I still worry. Did I miss anything that would have made that season of life easier for them? Did I help ease their pain? Will those seniors remember their high school graduation with joy or with sorrow?
When you are called to minister to youth and children, it is hard not to forever see them as an extension of who you are in the world. Logically I know that all I could do was walk with them, listen to them and be available to them when they needed me. Emotionally, though, all I wanted to do was take away their pain, and I never could do that for them. How I made it through what was my most difficult moment of ministry was by having an amazing community of friends and colleagues in ministry. This tragic moment in ministry taught me to trust in God in the hard moments, which are going to come, and to lean on the people God has surrounded me with for support and encouragement when I am tired.
What brings you the most joy in ministry?
Looking for the small moments of real ministry bring me joy. A few years ago, I was reminded of the importance of one of these moments by a former parent. This parent wrote me to tell me about a time that I had their child in my ministry and how she was dealing with extreme anxiety issues which caused her to not want to participate in most activities. She was too scared to go to Sunday school for fear of her parents getting hurt while they were separated. Then one morning I noticed them sitting in an empty room playing with a small sand box. I sat down next to her and asked her if she knew why we had that sandbox. Then I asked her to tell me about her favorite Old Testament story. She said that she liked the Ten Commandments. I went into the church’s Godly Play room, and grabbed the Ten Commandments story. For a few brief moments, she and I sat at the sandbox and shared with one another the story of the Ten Commandments. I was very aware of a number of other important things that needed attention that Sunday morning, as they do every Sunday morning. But for those few minutes, the only thing that mattered was a child that I knew was uncomfortable in our traditional setting but willing to learn about God.
Finding a space for ministry with just this child on a busy Sunday created a safe place at church for her so that she could have ears to hear God’s story. It was a holy moment for me. After our impromptu ministry session, she slowly began attending Sunday school on her own again. And not too long ago, I saw her on a mutual church trip, without her parents. I am very proud of her and the way she has overcome the challenges she faces with her anxiety.
When I answered God’s call to ministry I dreamed that all of my ministry moments would be like this holy moment. Now I realize that the moments like I experienced with that young lady are the moments in ministry that keep us going when ministry feels less than amazing.
What is the best ministry advice that you have ever received?
Our home is Louisville, Kentucky where I was born and raised. My husband, Josh, and I met in Kentucky and were married in Louisville just two weeks after we graduated from college. Since that time, ministry and school have taken us as far as fourteen hours away from Kentucky.
Moving to Texas in our first year of marriage was difficult. The stores and restaurants were all different from what I was used to at home. Texas culture was so different from Kentucky, though my husband (who is from Texas) felt right at home. Our new church was a university church filled with bright, engaging, informed congregants. I was like a fish out of water. Even our family traditions were changing. In my first year in Texas, I went to my husband’s grandparent’s home for a fish fry for Thanksgiving. I mean, who goes to a fish fry for Thanksgiving? No turkey, no pumpkin pie, no mashed potatoes. Oh, but there was Dallas Cowboys football. The people that comforted me when I struggled were fourteen hours away in Kentucky and I was truly homesick. And it was exactly during this time I received the best ministry advice that I have ever received.
My sister, who is older than me and is a wonderfully-gifted preschool teacher, told me (in the way that older sisters do) to get myself together and grow where I’m planted. I remember thinking to myself, “Seriously, you’ve never lived more than thirty minutes away from Mom and Dad. How do you know anything about how I’m feeling right now?” The truth is she didn’t know what it was like to live away from family, but after talking to her that day, I realized that she was right.
After heeding her advice, I began to build some of my strongest ministry relationships–relationships which helped me the next year when tragedy struck. And while I have yet to attend another fish fry for Thanksgiving, I did go on to host college Thanksgiving each year at my home for displaced students who had no other options during their break. The fish fry became tame compared to the side dishes that showed up at this annual feast for students. By taking my sister’s advice and actively building my village, I realized that an essential part of moving and growing into a new ministry setting is to “grow where I am planted.” I have been most successful when I have done just that. (But, please, don’t tell my sister she was right.)