| Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry features an interview with an amazing minister on this blog. Today, we are excited to interview Courtney Pace. Courtney IS what a minister looks like!
Courtney, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
Over the past twenty years, I have served in a variety of congregational, parachurch, and institutional settings, both religious and secular: children’s praise dance team director, Sunday School teacher, children’s minister, family pastor, youth pastor, hospice chaplain, associate pastor of adult discipleship, graduate teaching assistant, higher education administrator, professor, preacher, writer, advisor, activist, and board member. I serve on the boards of Equity for Women in the Church as well as Nevertheless She Preached, and I founded and serve as chair of the Clergy Advocacy Board of Planned Parenthood Greater Tennessee and North Mississippi. I am a proud supporter of the Human Rights Campaign and Black Lives Matter. I have primarily served Baptist congregations, though I have had opportunity to preach and teach at United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, Methodist, and unaffiliated congregations as well. I have taught at Baylor University and Memphis Theological Seminary, and I also utilize my social media following for online teaching. I often interact with people who have been severely wounded by religion, who find me a safe place for exploring that pain and reimagining what healthy spirituality will be for them.
I currently serve as associate vice president of talent at FedEx Employees Credit Association, where I oversee our Human Resources department, employee training, and community volunteering initiatives. We are a not-for-profit financial institution, so our work is focused on financial justice and empowerment for our members, and I get make sure our employees are well cared for as they support our mission.
It’s easy to think that ministry has to look a particular way, or that our careers should progress a certain way. Ministry takes place in so many different forms. Women have always worked around institutional models to find ways to offer genuine ministry to each other and to their communities, and my career trajectory seems to be following that path as well. It’s time that we stop thinking of these alternative routes as less than or as some degree of failure. Rather, we join with our foremothers in doing good work in the ways we sense God leading us to do it. Yes, I wish that we didn’t have to address our gender as a factor of that work, but that doesn’t mean that the ways we are making to do the work are any less legitimate, valuable, or influential than those who follow a more traditional route to ministry. I’m convinced that “should” and “supposed to” are some of the most harmful words in the English language. Since when has God ever limited God’s self to what humans thought was “normal”?
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
Working with young people is both challenging and rewarding, but I cannot describe the joy I feel as I watch them grow into adults and have the privilege of continuing to offer them spiritual care. Many of my former children and youth have stayed in touch with me, reached out in moments of crisis and celebration, and are now successful in their chosen professions. I count it pure joy to have played a part in their development and to be able to support their continued spiritual growth. I wrote about my experience with my youth in my chapter “Rev. Dr. Mom” in Divine Duet, edited by Alicia Porterfield.
For nearly a decade, I have curated an online discussion community of former parishioners, students, skaters, and others who wish to stay in conversation about religion, faith, politics, social justice, and other contemporary issues. The group now has over 150 members, from disparate parts of my ministry, committed to being an online community of support and engagement with each other. I continue to be encouraged at how this group is growing and how members are connecting with each other in meaningful ways.
I will forever be grateful to Dr. Ruth Ann Foster, one of my seminary professors, who opened my eyes to how Jesus affirmed the ministry of women in the text. She catalyzed my feminist awakening. I am the only female graduate of my seminary to become a seminary professor, and I am grateful to have carried on her mantle. (See this BWIM article upon the tenth anniversary of Dr. Foster’s death).
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
My Texas upbringing taught me to be tough, but it also normalized patriarchal ministry models, such that I did not realize what was ahead for me as I accepted my own call to ministry. I did not realize how many members of my family were stuck in patriarchal ways of thinking. I did not realize how much I had limited my own imagination because of sexism. Having typically been successful in school and at work, I did not realize how much sexism I would find in congregations and how difficult it would be to walk alongside people who did not realize they had swapped cultural sexism for authentic Christianity.
As I moved into my academic training, I gained a greater understanding of how sexism compounds with racism and classism to systemically oppress. I recognized my own white privilege and worked diligently to divest myself of white ways of thinking and being. (By this I do not mean to condemn those born with white skin, but rather to remind white people who oppose racism that part of our work is to recognize how racism has ingrained itself within us–whether we meant it to be there or not–and to move toward equity and justice rather than remaining within our privilege.)
Through my research on Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall, I was deeply challenged by her prophetic preaching about the Baptist church and its history of tolerating sexism, racism, and classism. Her womanist preaching has shaped me as a preacher and theologian more than any other source save the biblical text itself, and I found that moving into that commitment to justice as a necessary part of the gospel further isolated me from some bases of support. There were some who could back my opposition to sexism but who drew the line when I called out racism. There were some who were okay with talking abstractly about opposition to systemic oppression, but would not participate in any kind of personal reflection or repentance. There were some who were committed to opposing injustice, but would not see LGBTQ or reproductive justice issues as necessary parts of Christian justice activism.
To live into my truth, I have had to prune some of the branches I was sure would always be part of my tree. I had to leave my first marriage. I have lost friends and connections with some family members. But I have also gained an indescribably wonderful community of believers who accept me for who I am (rather than who they want me to be), from which I can serve as I sense God leading me. We are not in this alone.
What is the best ministry advice you have been given?
Most seminary curriculum is based on western white male voices. Rather than trying to force myself to fit their mold, the best advice I’ve been given is to be myself. Certainly we want to be receptive to the collective wisdom of the Cloud of Witnesses, and it’s important to learn from those who have gone before us. But, God has made each of us who we are, with our particular idiosyncrasies and giftedness, and the best way we can follow our calling is to be ourselves.
We will drive ourselves to insanity trying to fit into a place where we just do not fit. Our shape isn’t the problem. We are just in the wrong place. Once you find the place where you can be your real self and you fit, you feel the liberating power of God at work. Our foremothers of faith have taught us this well…be yourself, even if you have to circumvent the route you thought you’d take. God called you, not you pretending to be someone else, not you as the percentage of yourself that others say they can handle. God called you. Be yourself.