Each week, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. This week we are thrilled to introduce Libby Mae Grammer.
Libby, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
I have taken the long, scenic route to church ministry. In my undergraduate time at Shorter College, I found myself rebelling against my call to ministry and majored in Spanish, studying abroad in Seville, Spain for a semester. I still minored in religion and writing, but l was not sure I wanted to go to seminary, despite my call to ministry when I was thirteen years old. I took a job as an immigration paralegal right out of college in May 2007 (since I had a Spanish degree and needed a job—this worked well), and this job has served to teach me a great deal about immigration law, professional work, and the big, complex world that we live in. To this day, I work part-time for this law firm from home.
When I did decide to start seminary at McAfee School of Theology in January 2008, I was still undecided about what ministry would look like for me – but one thing I was sure of: I’d never be a minister on staff at a church (never say never…).
During my studies at McAfee, I focused my efforts in Academic Research and Christian Ethics. I had decided that my calling was probably more suited for the academy and that I would become an expert in a subject who could teach others about the intricacies of Christian Ethics in a university or seminary setting. I loved to write, and I relished the thought of being a long-term student (yes, I’m a total nerd). I wrote a thesis for my M.Div. titled “The Baptist Response to Undocumented Immigration,” merging my work and school worlds.
After a couple of years living in Chattanooga and continuing my job as a paralegal, I decided to try my hand at a more academic master’s degree in theology, moving myself and my new husband (of only half a year!) to Charlottesville, Virginia to study at the University of Virginia Religious Studies Department. There, I was introduced to Christian Feminist scholarship in a deeper, more meaningful way, and I found myself always asking the question, “but what does all this theology mean for real people—for Christians in church?” Again, I wrote a thesis on undocumented immigration, this time from a Christian feminist prospective, specifically from the margins (Womanist, Black Feminist, and Mujerista theology).
At the end of that degree, we had moved to the West End of Richmond, Virginia, so that my husband, William Underwood, could work on his degree at VCU. We joined a lovely, thoughtful congregation just up the road from where we live—River Road Church, Baptist. After a few months of membership and singing in the choir, I found myself chatting with our then-pastor about a pastoral internship. Perhaps I was meant to be in a church ministry setting after all; the academy just did not seem to be answering the harder questions for me—the question of “how now shall we live?” needed real people involved in the answers!
Since January 2015, I have served the good people of River Road Church (comma-Baptist; a meaningful distinction for this very ecumenical and liturgical congregation!). I began as an intern, a position I held until September 2015, when I took on the additional responsibility of Interim Minister of Christian Education and Spiritual Formation when our pastor retired.
Our church has entered a new season with a new pastor. Daniel Glaze began his work among us in November 2016, and I am delighted to be offering support and leadership among these good people.
Meanwhile, I do continue to write. I have a book coming out with Wipf & Stock Publishers in the coming months that combines the work of my two master’s theses. It is titled Privilege, Risk and Solidarity: Understanding Undocumented Immigration through Christian Feminist Ethics. I also enjoy the blogging and article-writing that I am asked to do at church and for other groups. I also have just begun work on a Doctor of Ministry degree at my alma mater McAfee, where I hope to blend the work of ethics and practice in my ministry—working toward my end goal of constructing an ethical methodology to help churches learn about and move toward deeper ethical reflection.
My call to both pastor and write are affirmed and flourishing these days, and it seems that no matter how far we try to detour, God manages to find us and send us back where we need to be. For me, that place right now is serving God’s people in the church.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
My greatest sources of joy are those whom I serve in my positions of ministry, along with those with whom I work. While an interim time in a congregation is always an anxious time, even feeling a little hopeless sometimes, the people and staff of our church have weathered and grown through the adversities and are living into new hope with a new leader.
I love the gifts and talents we have among us at River Road—from an amazing chancel choir (of which my husband and I are both a part), to excellent teachers for all age groups, to a plethora of retired ministers who still serve among us in so many ways, and so much more. The richness of this congregation, and their continued support of women in ministry (including the calling of a new pastor who happens to be on the BWIM board!) further reminds me of what wonderful people are here and working toward the Kingdom of God in Richmond and around the world.
My other sources of joy are those who continue to teach me and challenge me—from my professors at McAfee who continue to teach me about church ministry and ethical reflection (David Gushee, Rob Nash), to my ministry coach here in Richmond whose wisdom helps me be a better minister and writer (Bob Dale), to my supportive family and cheerleading squad at the church who remind me that being a little harried is to be expected when writing a book.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
Over the years, probably my greatest challenge has been my own anxiety. I have had the worry of being on staff at a church (growing up as a minister’s kid can be a little scarring), the worry that I was never quite qualified enough (imposter syndrome is the worst part of the academy, by far), and the ongoing struggles with society’s views of women as somehow lesser qualified to provide spiritual leadership (moving to a more open and progressive congregation was a necessity for me. I am ever-grateful for the general openness of Virginia Baptists to women in ministry). Being finally embraced as a full minister, especially now with the strong support of a great new pastor, these challenges are slowly being overcome with joy and hope for the future of my ministry.
Another big challenge for me is self-care. For many months, I have been working two part-time jobs that kept me very busy (sixty+ hours a week), plus writing and attempting to be a good spouse and mom to dog-children. Now that we are headed toward my husband’s new job (he just graduated in December), I am beginning to feel a little bit of weight lifted from this worry. But I will always face over-extension with my perfectionist tendencies, and I am ever-grateful for folks who remind me to slow down—including the D.Min. faculty at McAfee who insist that, as part of the learning process, we as student each take a twenty-four-hour silent, unplugged retreat. I am also thankful for my circle of ministry and discipleship friends in Richmond, with whom I have spent many evenings discerning our callings together, and praying for each other’s peace and contentment with God.
Who has inspired, encouraged, and affirmed you as you have lived out your calling?
In December 2010, I was ordained to the ministry by a group of wonderful people at a small church in North Georgia. They believed in me, supported me, and blessed my ministry. On a snowy day, a group of my professors from McAfee, along with a row of McAfee friends/students, drove up from Atlanta in spite of the weather to offer their hands as a blessing.
From there, the congregation at First Baptist Chattanooga, Tennessee (Golden Gateway) provided me ample opportunities to use my seminary training as a supply preacher, small group leader, worship leader, and in many other ways. I had ministry guidance, love, and unbridled support from these wonderful folks who became our home church for my husband and me. It was from them, from Michael Cheuk at University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, from River Road Church’s now retired-pastor Mike Clingenpeel (and the whole of the RRCB staff since then), and from all those who support me in my writing and my ministry here and all over the United States that I feel more called and affirmed today than I ever have been.