By Starlette McNeill
I have served as an associate minister at a handfull of churches in the District of Columbia. All were unpaid and offered too few opportunities for mentoring, leadership development, preaching and the ecclesiastical practice of one’s gifts and talents. Most often, we sat in the pews, looking up to a pulpit that looked more like a mountain.
Mustard seeds were stuck in our teeth, as there was nothing that we could say to move the leadership to change our position. There is only one pastor. Though a few of us had been called to serve in this capacity, we had to wait to be called to serve as pastor at another church before opportunities for mentoring, leadership development, preaching and the practice of gifts and talents would be afforded us.
I was called to serve as the associate pastor at Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Md., and have been blessed to serve alongside Rev. Dr. Bruce Salmon, who extends and looks for every opportunity that would allow me to grow as a leader and lead as a pastor. I know that this is not the norm, that his disposition is not common. Unfortunately, female leaders in the Church are still treated as absurdities and oddities.
Poet and novelist Margaret Atwood said, “We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.” Despite countless biblical and current examples of female leadership, I and so many other women are grouped with bearded women, flamethrowers and contortionists, stared at as if a part of some sort of traveling freak show. Though women are known as accomplished multitaskers, their looks of surprise seem to ask, “She can cook and preach? She can parent and lead?”
After preaching, I have been told on more than one occasion that I was considered too cute to be so smart. These observations came from women. I must have missed that class, as I didn’t know that I had to choose between beauty and brains.
But, the story of a woman’s calling should not begin in the pew or end with such reductionist comments. Despite the limited perspectives of others who cannot fathom God speaking through a woman, I am one of God’s messengers. History and personal opinions are of no consequence as I experience and practice ministry just like any other male or female. Persons who would dismiss my voice on the basis of gender would only get one side of God’s story.
Just this week, I noticed that Sunday has changed for me. I accepted the call to serve as the associate pastor almost two years ago and while the title changed, my view had not. I still saw myself seated on the pew looking up. But, I had, in fact, switched seats. I am now in the pulpit, seated next to our pastor.
I have also fully entered into the world of ministry with office hours and visitations, church business and deacons meetings, Bible study and prayer meetings, weddings and funerals. I, too, am being squeezed by the pressure of delivering the sermon from week to week. I am a writer but as a messenger, I am on the receiving in. And I have to be in a posture to listen, which can be difficult with office hours and visitations, church business and deacons meetings, Bible study and prayer meetings, weddings and funerals. I often find myself praying for the eternal life of my members in the here and now: “Please don’t die. Amen.” And while these things are done in service to God and God’s people, it is not a coupon to be doubled. It does not count toward private devotion and cannot be used as proof of a personal relationship with God.
The Sunday morning experience demands the best in welcome and greeting, in preaching and prayer, in song and fellowship. Because “souls are at stake,” right? That’s a really high bar, that if I don’t do or say the right thing that a soul might be lost forever. There’s no lost and found box for that. This is a part of the preacher pressure and contributes to a “messiah complex.”
So, if persons confess Christ and join the church after the message, then my job here is done. Lights off. Door closed. Gone to Starbucks.
However, I have, in effect, erased the thin line between my vocation and my personal relationship with God. While the two feed each other, they are mutually exclusive. I am called to preach and I am in a personal relationship with God. I must be able to do both.
And it is tempting to think that there is a peak to our relationship with God, that this is as good as it’s going to get. It is a trick to believe that if I become a leader and work for God that I no longer have to work on my personal relationship with God. It is the lie of the weekly worship routine. There is more to this preaching life than writing bulletin messages, choosing songs, scriptures and children’s storytellers.
Yet, it is possible to serve on Sunday morning and to lose Sunday. We can be so focused on the worship experience of the members that we forget to worship the God of our experience. We are so careful to acknowledge returning members and to welcome visitors that we forget to acknowledge God in our life. We can become so concerned with paying attention to the program that we forget the God we have all come to serve. We start to lift our hands or sing in order only to motivate others and not as an expression of our love for God.
As leaders, we can come to church on Sunday and it can begin to feel like any other day. But, Sunday is not another day in the office. I have learned how to be in the pew and the pulpit at the same time. Sunday saved.