It should have been a breeze, becoming a pastor: it was in my blood and my upbringing. On my mom’s side, my grandpa was a pastor; three great-uncles were bishops and a seminary president; my grandma, mom, great-aunt, and two cousins were church musicians; my dad was perennially on committees and the council and spearheaded the creation of our parochial school.
I literally grew up in the church. The building was our playground: we’d roll under the pews and play tag in the sanctuary and lead adventures among the organ pipes while Mom practiced. We’d play hide and seek in the Sunday school rooms while Dad was in meetings.
We talked about church a lot, too. Mom was used to it, growing up with all those pastors.
As the baptized and confirmed daughter, grand-daughter, niece, great-niece, etc., etc., etc., of umpteen pastors, she couldn’t fathom having to pass an “interview” with a pastor prior to receiving Holy Communion, nor would she abdicate her right to a voice in church polity.
She would not leave her more liberal American Lutheran Church (ALC; a predecessor to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in which we were raised). In order to preserve family unity, Dad was persuaded to leave his more conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). They weren’t technically a “mixed marriage”, but they had definitely stepped outside the norm of their families. “Church” was on our dinner discussion menu often.
I was a stellar confirmation student.
The church was my home, and very literally my family. Becoming a pastor – being a pastor – should have been a breeze.
Not so much.
While the men in my mom’s family were prominent members of the clergy, being female has been most unhelpful in answering God’s call.
Fall of 1995, I was 25 and unemployed, so I moved to Iceland where a former (Icelandic) boyfriend assured me prospects were good. They were not. I lived for two months on my savings and frugality. Then, one random afternoon, I was looking out at the perpetual November sunset, eating the last of my granola, and I heard God say, “You’re supposed to be a pastor”. I don’t know if the voice was in my head or in the room, but it was as clear as someone talking right at me.
The next morning, I called home to say I knew what I was supposed to do with my life and I was coming home. My mom said, “You’re going to be a pastor, aren’t you?” I wanted to ruminate on the idea for a while, so I didn’t confirm her suspicions. Yet, since we’d never discussed this option, her response was a surprising affirmation of God’s call. I thought it meant smooth sailing. I moved home to apply to a seminary, thinking my family would be delighted.
Christmas Eve, 1995, I told my immediate family my intentions. Mom was excited – she’d already guessed; Dad was less enthusiastic. Dad respected his parents a great deal, and took the commandment to honor his parents to heart. Since they had raised him WELS, it was difficult for him to give up that denomination’s teaching that women should be silent in the church: WELS neither allow women a vote in polity nor do they ordain women.
But Dad’s response wasn’t about himself, he was concerned about his mom. Grandma Gert was well into her 80s at this point. Dad (like mother, like son) worried that my ordination might cause her bodily harm – like a heart-attack. While some of my WELS cousins laughed at my news that Christmas Day, Grandma’s gracious response was, “I’ll need some time to get used to the idea; I was raised that this wasn’t supposed to happen, you know.” I assured her that seminary took four years, so we’d have plenty of time. We talked for a good while that day. And a couple of years later, to both her and my dad’s credit, and my everlasting delight, her reluctance turned to blessing after hearing me preach my first sermon. From then on, Dad’s been all in: he sheds a tear of joy, now, when I serve him communion.
Mom’s excitement was mirrored by both my maternal grandparents: Meme exclaimed, “Finally, a woman in the ministry!” and Pepe pulled a note out of his shirt pocket on which he’d written (prior to my announcement), “Emmy’s going into the seminary”.
Yet, even my more liberal denomination has not been as affirming as one might hope. In seminary, aerobics class fliers were quickly undermined by fliers inviting people to come and see the “bouncing” and “jiggling” co-eds. There were no disciplinary steps taken. A female colleague was told (presumably by a “Chevy man”) – in an interview – that a church calling her, rather than a man, would be like opting for a Ford rather than a Chevy. Neither the synod nor the seminary said anything.
My ordination was delayed because my Candidacy Committee believed I didn’t appreciate the authority of “the Church” (i.e., bishops). This estimation was based partially on the results of my psych profile, which indicated that I was “overly assertive” – for a female. These were the Committee’s words when processing the test with me: “Your results are what we’d hope to see in a promising male candidate; but as a female they raise some red flags”. My results were positive if I were male, but as a female they were a detriment.
I suppose I proved the Candidacy Committee correct when in my first year of ministry, at a social justice forum, I suggested to The Bishop that our denomination forego our predilection for white/light/powerful/male-dominant imagery for God. This language and imagery has created and supports systems of inequality (i.e., white/black, wealthy/poor, powerful/marginalized, male/female relationships). I advocated that we incorporate more expansive imagery that would allow all ethnicities, socio-economic groups and gender-identities equal access to God and equal rights in claiming identity as children of God.
The Bishop counseled patience and acceptance of the status quo – as such change “takes time”. My retort – that women have been waiting for 2000 years – didn’t gain any traction.
Throughout my ministry, with impunity, male colleagues have questioned – in front of parishioners – my theology, my ethics and morality, and my skills in teaching, preaching, leading worship, and preparing liturgy. I have even been told that since my husband was employed, I should accept a smaller paycheck than my male peers; that is, rather than base my salary on synod guidelines, performance, or years of experience and education, the primary consideration should be my husband’s income; and, as a woman, I should willingly “make this sacrifice” for the congregation’s sake.
I was told I was “overly assertive” when suggesting comp days in exchange for a reduced salary – an arrangement enjoyed by local male colleagues in similar circumstances.
The list, sadly, could continue.
Yet, I still love the denomination my forebears helped form, and I am reluctant to give up my status on the roster, not only because it was hard-won, but because God so clearly called me to ordained ministry and there is so much I love about serving in the church.
For now, though, my husband’s paycheck has determined mine. His salary – and career – were more stable, so I resigned after almost four years of living 3 1/2 hours apart, so that we could live and work in the same place.
And God has planted me in a new setting where my gifts and talents are being used and stretched. My current Costumer paycheck is much smaller than my clergy salary, but despite my absence of training – and sewing skills! – no one questions my education, my experience, or my ability. And in this public school, I am paid to do what I had hoped to do in the church: facilitate abundant life by being present.
And – don’t tell anyone – but I find myself with a growing “congregation” which gathers every day and once in a great while, talks about faith – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Wiccan, agnostic, atheist; gay, straight, male, female, trans, ally; feminists, artists, activists; Euro-American, African-American, Somali, Asian-American, Latina, and all sorts of backgrounds together. I feel, often, that while I am completely out of my depth – as an untrained Costumer who can’t sew – I am “doing church” more now than ever before.