I cringe a little when I think about those words spoken to me so many years ago. “What you are feeling, this calling to ministry, this calling means you are meant to marry a minister.” In my middle teenage years, this was one response I received when I first became aware of my ministerial calling. Even though they would sting later, those words did not sting then. My grandfather was a minister and my grandmother a minister’s spouse. I thought, “So, I am called to be like my grandmother.” I loved my grandmother. Why would I not want to be like her? She was strong and opinionated. She was loving and supportive. And she also added a heavy measure of sass to any basketball game, whether she was watching her grandchildren play or she was watching the Tarheels on TV. She was not perfect, but I loved her.
As a teenager, I shared these thoughts about my calling with my grandmother. I still remember the restaurant we were in and the smile on her face as I talked. I was flattered when she said she thought I had the qualities to be a minister’s spouse. Long hours without your spouse, being moved again and again for a new calling, and living your life in a fishbowl were certainly no easy task. It meant something to me when she said I had the gifts to be married to a minister.
But I was sixteen, I was not thinking about marriage.
After a few years, and a few religion courses in college, I began to nurse some anger about this advice offered to me. I finally began to ask myself why I could not be a minister. This feeling of calling that I couldn’t quite put words to, seemed to speak to my own vocational decisions, not just those of a hypothetical spouse.
It took me until my mid-twenties to seriously pursue the calling I first felt as a teenager. Perhaps this delay took place because of the mixed messages I received as I was trying to make sense of what was calling me from within and without. Perhaps I needed time to be sure this was the path where I belonged, the path where I would be at home. Perhaps I needed some distance from the people who would tell me I was not welcome to call ministry home. Perhaps I needed time to develop the strength of a minister’s spouse, just like my grandmother.
I often think about the ministerial legacy left by my grandfather AND my grandmother. Both their lives taught me what it means to be a minister. Their lives taught me what it means to have grace for our spouses and for our congregations. It is not cheap grace. This grace is messy. Sometimes, it comes after harsh words. Sometimes, it comes in the midst of deep silence. This grace has to be re-negotiated day after day and year after year. This is grace that, not only allows, but beckons each person to make their calling their home.
In addition to my memories, what I still have of my grandmother is an opal ring. When I wear the ring, it reminds me of the strength it took her to make her calling home, and it reminds me of my own strength, the strength I received from her and from each woman in my family.
Oh, and did I forget to mention? I also married a minister.
Amy Starr Russell is associate minister at First Baptist Church, Henderson, North Carolina.