I was invited to assist in the worship service where I attend church this past week. In my muscles and brain I knew what to do, what to look and listen for, and how to behave. I have led worshiping communities in prayers of confession, pastoral prays of thanksgiving and intercession and dedication of the offering for nearly 35 years. This past Sunday morning I remembered how many stages I have moved through in those years; this particular Sunday I was the Honorably Retired guest, stepping up to meet a need of the present staff.
Years ago I preached my first sermon. I had not yet entered seminary, and I had never heard a woman preach. Later, in two of my three parish calls, I was the first woman on staff. Those were years when little girls in the congregation would draw a picture of me and bring it to me as a gift. Those also were the years when certain parishioners let it be known that they would not welcome a hospital visit from me, no matter if I were the only pastor available, because I was a woman. Those were years of great delights, deep stresses and tears, and a formidable learning curve for me and for the congregation. I was the new one in the life of the church, on many levels. My days were roller coasters of elation and despair, of joy and grief!
I moved into the middle and most active years of parish ministry where I found my voice as a preacher, where I was invited to design and speak at women’s retreats, where I was often the one called to stand in the gap when life or lives in the church frayed. My church worldview expanded as I encountered people from my denomination whose worship expressions differed from those I knew well, and then again as I moved out to engage people in ecumenical gatherings and interfaith dialogues. I had to learn with more sinews some interior spiritual practices of setting boundaries, of discerning which call was for me, of taking a “long, loving look at the real,” of listening to my own longings through the lenses of therapy and spiritual direction. I served three different churches as part of a parish staff, and became more adept in to “reading” a congregation. I loved so much about those years, and cherished not only most of the work and the people, but loved the sense that I had “come down in the place just right” for me.
My last years before retirement were teaching inquirers and students in seminary those things I had learned both in my D.Min work, and also the churches I served. It was a happy challenge to “pay it forward” to women and men seeking to serve God as pastors and chaplains.
And now I am the Honorably Retired pastor and spiritual director. My contributions are more often private rather than public. My congregation numbers one or 10, usually not too many more. It is satisfying and delightful soul work that I am called and allowed to witness.
But sometimes I am wistful when I see the opportunities offered to women in ministry now. There are congregations who can’t imagine a church staff that doesn’t include a woman pastor. Social media has opened the floodgates to women telling their stories of faithful listening to God’s calling them whether it is in academia, like Melanie Springer Mock, in her book Worthy, or like Kate Bowler in her Everything Happens for a Reason; or women in the parish like Heidi Neumark or Rachel Srubas; or women who have carved out ministries at large, such as MaryAnn McKibben Dana and Diana Butler Bass. I read each of them with delight and gratitude, grieving with them where they have suffered, rejoicing with them in locating their particular calling, and letting them be beacons for Light for me as I in my present place also serve and wait.
It is a good and gracious thing to be in service to the Holy One, no matter one’s age and stage of life!