I had an interesting conversation with my boss yesterday. Please bear in mind that this is a man whom I like immensely, whose talents I admire, whose company I appreciate and whose presence here is a gift to us all. We were in the car (where lots of good conversations with all kinds of people tend to take place), driving back from a pastoral care afternoon. We’re currently in hot-and-heavy-search mode for a full-time Pastor for Student Ministries position and he is in the thick of it, searching for someone with experience who can jump into one of the most important roles on our staff. Somewhere in there, he talked about what’s required for ministry, most especially full-time ministry. “I tell everyone who applies that they’ve got to think in terms of 50 hours a week -minimum. There’s just no way you can come into a ministry position thinking you’re going to work 40 hours a week, unless you’re a slacker.” And that got me to thinking about this whole part-time ministry gig I’ve been engaged in the last 13 years. Is there space for that kind of work, is it legitimate, does it make sense?
This is an issue that I have always struggled with, especially as a woman in ministry, especially as a mid-life woman in ministry, who began her ‘career’ after already occupying a pretty full-time position for 25 years – wife/mom/community worker. I have always wondered why it is that ministry requires more hours of labor per week than any other job out there (well, at least most jobs out there). The one for which I was not paid required about 168 hours a week, in other words, 24/7. I never imagined, when I answered God’s call to enter ministry at the age of 49, that I would have to ADD another 50 to that. In fact, it was pretty clear to me that I simply could not do that and live. I know others who have successfully managed that transition, who pour themselves into a 50, 60, 70 hour ministry week, carefully parcel out small amounts of time and energy for family and friends and do so without looking back, but that is not who I am, nor even, to be perfectly honest, who I desire to be.
Trying to take a Chrismas photo this year, with all seven of our grandkids. This shot sort of captures the core of my life – where my primary commitments lie. It is out of this particular core that I do ministry, which makes my life and my call somewhat unique, I think. God called me to family first and pastoring second, and that is the ‘order’ in which I have tried, often unsuccessfully!, to keep things. Unfortunately, there is no model, no template for this kind of life and I have had to make it up as I go along. And it is a mysterious idea to most men, I think, whose ability to segment their lives is truly remarkable to me. I am eternally grateful to my family for their patience with me through this long process.
So when I went into this profession, it was with the self-awareness that full-time commitment was not in the cards. But how do I explain that to others when I’m not sure I can fully explain it to myself?
Here’s a stab at it, I guess. It has to do with the way I’m wired and with the way I was raised, and with the way my basic understandings about life and how it works were hard-wired into my brain during the era in which I grew up. It also has a lot to do with my understanding of God’s call to me – as a woman, as a wife/mom/grandmom/daughter/daughter-in-law/sister – and as a pastor. And that particular call looks, in many ways, quite different from God’s call to almost anyone else I know.
This is my ‘other’ life, one which has brought deep joy to me and which has required the building of a new identity, that of pastor and professional. For whatever reason, God has given me gifts of preaching/ teaching/caring and God has asked me to use those gifts in service of the church. Figuring out how to do that well has been challenging. It took some convincing to find a job that would be limited to 30 hours a week (called 3/5 time in our profession – and, of course, it seldom was only 30 hours a week.) But I found two – one unpaid at Pasadena Covenant for 3 years, and one here at Montecito, paid – with a pension, no less – for the last 10 years). At the age of 61, after 2 fairly strenuous years of full-time leadership (which proved my initial thesis absolutely right – that I am not cut out for full-time, full-bore leadership responsibilities), I asked for and received a reduction in my hours to 20 per week, a number which has been particularly conducive to sanity for me, accessibility for my family and presence enough for my congregation, especially as our new senior pastor has come to take his rightful place as the person of primary authority and spiritual leadership.
I was born in 1945 and grew up in the 40’s and 50’s. My parents were solid, middle American church-going, Jesus-following Christians – my dad a college prof, my mom a homemaker. My mom instilled in me the ‘ideal’ of meeting a Christian man, getting married, producing children and repeating her life, with her devotion to her husband and children, parents and siblings. My mom was (and is) beautiful, fun, smart and talented, though she seldom believed any of that to be true. She and my dad deeply desired that I get a college education – but that was truly secondary in their minds to my getting married. Which I promptly did, midway through my senior year at UCLA – a decision I have never seriously regretted and for which I am truly grateful as I look at the long arc of our life together.
For a long time, I lived a life very similar to my mom’s and my husband’s mom’s lives. Although, I have to say, I never felt particularly good at it. I learned a lot in those early years and because I have an innate love of learning, it was fun to figure out how to prepare meals, how to be pregnant, how to care for infants and toddlers. But at the same time, I found much of my life to be exhausting and quite lonely. My children were born in 1968, 1969 and 1972 (when I was 23, 24 and 27) and those were the years when every single woman’s magazine had articles about ‘wasting your education’ as a full-time homemaker. My work was valued very little in the culture I lived in and that caused a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in my spirit and in my life. I could do no other – my family of origin had deeply imprinted on me the proper ordering of life, at least as they understood it at that time – and I knew myself well enough to know that I couldn’t leave my babies for someone else to raise. The idea of my husband fully sharing in child-raising responsibilities simply never entered either one of our heads. It was a very different time.
So, I planned birthday parties, became room mother, did the Brownie thing with my daughters and the Little League thing with my son. I went to Bible studies and even began a program for younger moms once my own kids were in school, which I planned and led for five years. Maybe that should have been a clue…
During those years, I got into deep discussions with trusted friends and relatives about the role of women in the church. Coming from a background where I made sure the word ‘obey’ was in my wedding vows, where women taught children only, where the idea of a woman in the pulpit or even serving communion was unheard of, it is still somewhat surprising to me that I began to entertain the idea that perhaps God’s design was not as I had been taught.
I remember going to a woman’s Bible study, led by a very competent woman teacher, where that teacher sat down from her teaching when a male custodian briefly entered the room. I found that absurd and terribly sad. So I went to a women-in-ministry conference sponsored by Fuller Seminary in the mid-1970’s and began to do some reading and thinking and praying about the whole issue. I landed somewhere in the middle, which is a space I should be very familiar with as it seems to describe so much of my life! I couldn’t fully endorse the full-on feminist agenda at that time, but I also could no longer live comfortably within the confines my early training had placed around me.
It took me five years to work up the courage to apply for seminary. Five years after the first persons came to me, gently suggesting that God might have something new and different in store for my life. I heard this from students in a Bible study I was teaching at the time and I heard this from both of my pastors. But I worried about the impact of that amount of change on my marriage. I worried about what my parents and my parents-in-law would think. I wondered how it might impact my children. And I was terrified that I might fail.
With the encouragement of some women friends who had been balancing work and family for a long time, I did apply, when my youngest child was a senior in high school. I was accepted and I began a 4 year adventure that took me to all sorts of interesting places, ultimately leading me into pastoral ministry in the local church. I did a lot of work to get there – not only academic work, but deeply searching personal work as well. Moving out into the professional world, most especially into the professional pastoral world, went against everything I had lived and believed for a very long time. It took time for God to work through my resistances and my fears, it took time for me to jump through the hoops required to become officially ordained, it took time for my husband and me to arrive at a relationship that was comfortably egalitarian, with space for me to pursue some personal dreams.
So…now it’s 13 years later, I’m nearing 62 and my husband is about to retire. And I am struggling once again. Do I take off this hard-won pastoral hat and put it aside forever? That’s what the choice feels like about now. While to me, working at a 20 hour per week pace feels comfortable, doable, satisfying and obedient, to others I think it may look like dabbling. Is there any room at the table for someone with my particular skill set and my unique sense of call? I’m not sure. We’re tossing around ideas about how to do this – once again, the territory is uncharted – and there are no clear answers yet. Any creative suggestions are most welcome!