I was a seminary student before I heard a woman preach for the first time. It wasn’t that I hadn’t spent a significant amount of time in the church. I was married to a pastor, and I’d been a lay leader in the church in various roles since I was a teenager. I was in my 30’s when I entered seminary with a R.N. behind my name and a background in intensive care and parish nursing.
I loved nursing. I wasn’t looking for a career change. I was actually looking for a master’s degree in pastoral care and counseling to augment my parish nursing. But somehow by the time I had visited the seminary and talked with a professor, I left that day knowing I would enter seminary just three months later on the track to ordained ministry.
With a clergy husband, I had a pretty good idea of the life of a pastor. Or so I thought.
There is a world of difference between observing a pastor and fastening that plastic collar around your own neck, donning the white alb and draping a stole across your shoulders. We step in front of a congregation to lead worship, and into the pulpit to proclaim the Good News in a manner faithful to scripture and to our tradition. We tread lightly on holy ground with the people we serve where God is at work in hospital rooms, kitchen tables, funeral parlors, and wedding celebrations. It never dawned on me that I would face different challenges than my pastor husband.
I was in my second call as a pastor when I heard about a fascinating study that had just been published out of UCLA (Shelley E. Taylor). For years students had been taught that the human response to stress was “fight or flight” based on the research of Hans Selye. It turns out those studies were all done on men.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the stress response of women was questioned. Instead of the expected “fight or flight” response, a woman’s stress response was defined as “tend and befriend”. Long story short, although it is true that all people are wired to be in relationship, this is even more crucial for women. NOT being in meaningful relationships is as bad for a woman’s health as smoking or being significantly overweight.
The implications of this are truly significant. While nearly all clergy struggle with loneliness and isolation, the health impact on women is even greater than that of men. It is difficult for women to thrive in congregational settings that are often in isolated rural areas or small towns.
Enter the virtual community of the RevGals. While I had served as a parish nurse for nine years prior to being ordained I had enjoyed the wonderful camaraderie of other parish nurses in my area. There was joy in sharing resources with one another, or a program that could be done on a shoestring budget. We were as quick to share concerns and ministry ideas as we were to pray with and for one another. I expected my clergy colleagues to be the same. But the majority of my colleagues were men and they seemed to have a different agenda.
Somehow the virtual, ecumenical, global community of clergywomen was able to offer what the parish nurses had given to one another face to face: support and encouragement. “Tend and befriend”. There is more than enough stress to go around, and the RevGals shared their hard days, holy moments and the healing power of humor with one another in the closed facebook group. From prayer requests to ministry questions and sermon support, the RevGals come through again and again.
In the first half hour of reading this book in a public place, I could not suppress the laugh that rose in my throat, or the tears that followed soon after. The book is divided into six sections that hold 73 short reflections:
- Fierce and Fabulous for Jesus: God’s Calling and Our Identity
- A Taste of Heaven and a Splash of Glory: Sharing the Sacraments
- Ashes to Angels: Ministry and Death
- They Don’t Teach That in Seminary: What We Learned Through Experience
- It’s Complicated: Being Pastor / Partner / Parent / Person
- Outside Over There: Moving in the World Beyond Our Churches
Whether you are a clergywoman, married to one, hope to be one someday, or call one friend, daughter, mother, or pastor, this book is a quick and delightful read. You’ll get a peek into this holy calling that can drive us to tears of frustration or the tears of sheer wonder and awe of the privilege of doing this work.
When I was a confirmation student only the boys were allowed to be acolytes. Now there’s a woman in the pulpit and she’s there to stay. Thanks be to God!