Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces a fabulous minister. This Friday we are pleased to introduce Stacy Sergent Lawton. Stacy IS what a minister looks like!
Stacy, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
I felt a pull toward ministry when I was in college, but I had no idea what that would look like for me. My discernment of that calling would take another ten years. In the meantime, I served as a summer missionary in Virginia Beach while still in school, and I then spent two years in France as a Journeyman with the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. When I returned to the US, I thought seminary would be a good next step. Having only come into Baptist life my senior year of high school, I didn’t really know that there were different kinds of Baptists or what the differences were. I visited two SBC seminaries, and both times had tour guides who were dismissive of my questions about the course offerings. One said something like, “You don’t need to worry about that. It’s not as if you’ll be preaching or pastoring a church.” Nothing like that was said to the male prospective students touring with me. That was a clear sign to me that this was not the environment in which to explore my calling. I didn’t know what kind of ministry God was calling me to yet, but I knew that I didn’t want to be in a place where people would limit my options from day one just because of my gender.
I shared these experiences with a close friend from my hometown, and he encouraged me to visit the divinity school where he was studying at Gardner-Webb University. Once I did, I knew that I’d found the right place to prepare me for ministry, and I learned for the first time about other kinds of Baptists, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. During my years at Gardner-Webb, I had such wonderful professors, men and women, who both challenged and encouraged me. They became mentors and friends that I still cherish. I worked for a summer as an interim children’s minister at a local church, but much as I loved children, that experience didn’t lead me to believe I’d found my calling. As I took the basic courses required of all students, it was my pastoral care and counseling class that most left me wanting more.
Soon I made that my focus area, even though that meant completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education before I graduated, a terrifying prospect to me. I put it off until my final year, and about a month into my unit of CPE at Carolinas Medical Center, I realized that I was not only surviving but thriving. The gifts with which God had blessed me–and even things I had always thought of as faults–turned out to be very well suited to hospital chaplaincy, much to my surprise. By the time I had completed my Master of Divinity degree, I knew there was nothing I wanted more than to be a chaplain. I was accepted into the residency program at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center and spent a year completing four more units of CPE. Near the end of my time there, on May 31, 2008, I was ordained at Fernwood Baptist Church in Sparthanburg. Shortly after that, I was hired as a full-time chaplain at Medical University of South Carolina Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina, where I’ve been ever since then. While in Charleston, I have been a very active member of Providence Baptist Church, which is where I preached my first sermon, served communion for the first time, and had many other firsts. The people of Providence have continued to help me grow in faith, allowed me opportunities to be a minister and be ministered to, and have been family to me. They are a big part of the reason I can continue year after year in the hard and holy work to which God has called me.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, many will say, “Oh, that must be such a sad job.” Though I do often deal with sad situations, I love chaplaincy because I get to see God do miracles, and sometimes I even get to be part of them. These may not be miracles of physical healing, though I do see those from time to time. Most often the miracles look more like someone finding hope in a situation that looked hopeless a moment before, or someone letting go of something they never thought they would be able to give up, or someone choosing love when it would be so easy to choose anger or fear or apathy instead, or someone being at peace even while the worst storm of their life is raging. I have found joy in the assurance that Christ’s sufferings mean none of us have to suffer alone. I have found joy in learning from my patients and their families more about life and death than I ever could have learned on my own. I have found joy in the times when the scales of my own biases have fallen from my eyes long enough for me to recognize a person so very different from myself as one created in the image of God just like me.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
Early on especially, maintaining healthy boundaries was hard for me. I took on too much and tried to give more than I had to give to too many patients. I had to learn that it’s okay to say no when a needy patient asks for your personal phone number or when a patient wants to hold on to your hand long past the point when you’re uncomfortable.
Being a minister, or a woman, doesn’t mean that you always have to be “nice” and comply with unreasonable requests. I also had to learn that I don’t have to do everything on my own. There are other chaplains, other people in the patient’s life, and of course God, all of whom are capable of helping the person in need when I can’t anymore. For a long time, I would stay at work long past the end of my shift, afraid to leave a situation in which I’d become personally invested. This always left me with depleted resources the next day when I had new families who needed a chaplain. Now I know the importance of handing off to my colleagues when they come to take over for me, and the importance of prayer as a way of “handing off” the patients to God when they leave the hospital or I know I won’t see them again. I can be at peace knowing that God continues to walk with them long after our paths have diverged.
What is the best ministry advice you have received?
My seminary mentors taught me that the best pastoral theology comes when we live faith as our authentic selves. That is what people need from ministers, more than all the correct answers and orthodoxy. So many of the people I meet in the hospital are Christians who have been told that they aren’t allowed to get angry with God, ask God why this terrible thing is happening to them, or even to feel worried and afraid. I’m thankful that the women and men who taught me ministry shared their struggles with me and let me see how they were working out their own faith in the midst of those struggles. They showed me that a growing faith is not a flat path leading straight to God; it is a journey of peaks and valleys on which even the most dedicated traveler might want to give up sometimes. When I hear a patient or family member fretting that they must have lost their faith because these very normal questions and feelings are arising, I don’t hesitate to let them know that I’ve had similar thoughts at the most difficult times of my life and that the Bible is full of people who did as well. Sometimes the permission to be honest with God about their anger or grief or fear is exactly what they need to draw closer to God.