Nervously, I sat with the other parents at middle school orientation. Most of us could not grasp that our gangly, half child, half adult fifth graders would be allowed to roam free in such a large school, and would be expected to locate classrooms and show up on time, every day. What were these people thinking? The school counselor gained our attention with these words, “Middle school is about learning to advocate for yourself. In the elementary years, parents advocate for students; here, we teach students to advocate for themselves.” She explained that students would learn to ask questions about assignments, follow up with teachers about grades, and learn to speak up for themselves. Middle school is about learning to advocate for yourself.
As I completed my final year of seminary in the early 1990s, I knew ordination was the next step for me. Wise, kind leaders had assured me that ministry jobs were easier gained for non-ordained women. These leaders wanted me to have a chance to serve in a church, so they discouraged my ordination. However, I knew I wanted to be ordained, and I was serving a church that I perceived would be open to my ordination. In the months prior to graduation, I mentioned my desire for ordination to several church leaders. I waited for someone to initiate the process, but nothing was happening. I expressed my frustration to my mentor, Mary Lois Sanders, a woman in ministry. She shared a phrase of her mother’s with me. “She that tooteth not own her kazoo, the same shall not be tooted.” With these words of encouragement, she counseled me to submit a letter requesting ordination to the pastor and the church council. She assured me that if the letters did not incite action, then she knew of further steps to be taken. Shortly after the letters were submitted, the church voted to ordain me. I was ordained on May 22, 1994 at Bridgewater Baptist Church in New Jersey. The ordination service, as well as the reception, felt like a celebration of not only my ministry, but the ministry of the church. I would have missed this joy if I had not advocated for myself.
Advocating for yourself does not simply require “putting the word out there,” or even asking for what you want. Self-advocating is a multi-layered process of utilizing the system, seeking counsel, and persevering in your request. Advocating for yourself requires courage and patience. Speaking up for yourself makes you vulnerable – and to hope while waiting is taxing. Speaking up for yourself seems in direct opposition to the habits of pre-adolescence where they want to blend in as best they can. Maybe that’s why my daughter’s middle school emphasizes advocating for yourself. Rather than permitting pre-teens to fade into a group, being in middle school gives them the tools for standing up and possibly standing out. Like my daughter and her peers, God has gifted each of us with talents and skills. It seems appropriate that we would speak up for places of service. Advocating for yourself enables you to live out your calling.