ministry | presence & listening.

While I would love to sit here and write a post about all of the things that I have learned thus far in ministry, it would be a novel by the time I touched on them all (maybe one day!) I still have so much to learn, but two things from the ministry experiences I’ve had thus far, and from the pastors and various other ministry leaders whom I have observed, shadowed, and learned from, two actions in particular have stood out to me as being of utmost importance – the ministry that can be done through your listening and your presence. The two go together and are often underrated because they seem far too simple to be effective. But while listening and being present with someone may be simple, it’s meaningful, because both are signs of genuine care and have the ability to positively impact a person & their circumstance, more so than we realize – I don’t think we don’t give God enough credit when it comes to his ability to work through us!

Because I have both seen and experienced the importance of these acts, it has become important to me, as a friend, daughter, sister, aspiring pastor, and human being in general, to carry them out, and I hope to offer a calm presence or the ability to sit and listen each day to those whom I encounter, whether it be in church, in school, on the sidewalk, in the store, in my neighborhood, and anywhere else God will have me. Listening to somebody when they speak about the trials they’re facing or even the joys in their life can be so meaningful to them and can remind them that they are not alone – to be listened to is to be cared for, and to be in the presence of another in the midst of sorrow is to be comforted – ministry, I believe, can be carried out in both such acts.

When I think about why these two specific things have found a place of importance in my heart for the ministry that I am called to, I think of two main reasons —

# 1) I myself seek them out in those whom I confide in, and therefore I want to be that for others, the way people have been for me – when I find myself wanting to verbally express what I am feeling, my hurt, or my confusion, I ask myself: who is going to listen to me because they genuinely want to? Who is going to listen and offer their honest thoughts, whether it’s what I want to hear or not? Other times, rather than talking, we find ourselves wanting somebody who can simply sit down beside us and be a calm presence while we think and process our thoughts & circumstances. People appreciate being listened to, and people appreciate being in the presence of someone, especially when they are hurting.

# 2) Whether it be because I am studying psychology,  am aspiring to become a minister, or simply because I like to sit and have coffee with people, converse, and listen, individuals come to me often with issues that are typically on the heavier side, and while I do happily talk with them and do suggest other resources for them if I feel it is over my head, more times than not, I feel as though my presence and these two listening ears of mine have the ability to minister to those individuals more than my moving mouth does. I want to give all that I can, and sometimes, that is simply myself – my time & my presence.

I’ve shadowed a handful of pastors through the years as they have attended to what I believe to be one of a pastor’s most important tasks, and that task would be pastoral care visits (in hospitals and at the homes of individuals who are no longer able to physically attend church). Something that I have observed along the way during these visits is the pastors’ willingness to sit and listen, simply being present with the individuals, some of whom were in their last hours of life, some with terminal illnesses, some not aware that we were even there, some who had had a bad fall which landed them in the hospital to recover. My grandfather has dementia and has progressed to the point where he does still speak but my family and I seldom know what he is trying to say, so we will often resort to smiling and nodding along, but just the other day, my mom and I were sitting on the couch watching T.V with him and he turned to us and said, “it’s so nice having you guys here.” My church grandma, Ruth, is bedridden at the moment, and talking is often very tiring for her, so there are frequent and long pauses during our visits together. When I go see her, I’ll sit myself down beside her, and sure, there will be silence, but even so, when I stand up to leave, she’ll so often say “you’re not leaving, are you?” Gordon, her late husband, (my church grandpa) didn’t have the strength to speak much as he got closer and closer to meeting Jesus face to face, but when I would go into his room, I’d sit there and hold his hand, and he knew I was ‘there’, though we didn’t really speak, he knew I was present.

Presence matters, friends. It means something – God’s love doesn’t need to only be spoken in order to shine through us. It can be observed through us by our actions and it can be felt in the silence as well.

Something also important to remember in ministry and in life is that you are not always going to know what to say, and that is okay. You are not always going to know how to respond to the things people bring before you. You are not always going to understand. You cannot ‘fix’ everything, as much as you want to. When somebody is sitting before me and struggling with something heavy, painful, and not ‘fixable,’ I can learn the classic, “it’ll get better,” you’ll be okay,” “God is with you” and while there is nothing wrong with any of those words, I have found that I often resort to saying them when I panic in the moment because I don’t know what else to say or how to handle silence – but having the ‘right’ thing to say or merely having a response is not nearly as important as sitting with that person and simply being a calm presence, perhaps praying with them/over them. You don’t have to understand exactly what they are going through, and you don’t have to have an immediate response or the ‘right’ answer. There have been times where people will talk to me for what seems like hours and I won’t have any idea how to respond to the things they are laying before me, and it is in those moments and even before those moments happen that I ask God to please help me and give me the wisdom and the words – words I couldn’t possibly formulate and communicate well to a hurting individual on my own. God will give you words when you have none, but sometimes – your presence will be enough. We all have thoughts to process, tears to cry, words to speak, figurative mountains to climb, and sometimes, it’s just easier to do with somebody by your side. Many, if not all of us, know that the presence of somebody during those moments of releasing our hurt, whether it be through tears, words, prayer, deep breaths, or silence, can be so encouraging and comforting – it can be seemingly pointless but it does hold power. If you’re ever in a conversation with somebody, and while they are talking, you’re thinking of how you’re going to respond and what you’re going to say because you don’t want to leave even a moment of awkward silence, odds are you’re like I used to be (and sometimes still am) – you fear the ‘awkward silence.’ But I have since learned that silence isn’t something to be terrified of and it doesn’t have to be awkward – I think I learned that because of the number of times people have come to me and I haven’t had the ‘right’ words to respond with, leaving me with no option but to sit and think for a bit, or just accept that I have no words, and allow myself to simply sit with the person and just ‘be’ – more times than not, that is enough. When you were a little kid, did you ever run into your parent’s room in the middle of night after having a bad dream? You snuggle up in between your parents, and they may have asked you why you’re there, but they don’t begin a conversation or anything, you just laid there and tried to fall asleep again in the silence, but instantly you felt comforted by the mere knowledge that someone was beside you.

There is power in presence.

Friends, don’t underestimate the meaning your presence has to the whomever you are present with. Don’t underestimate the meaning that your ears have when it comes to listening to somebody speak in the midst of their hurt or in their need for a confidant to spill their guts to. God has the ability to minister through you in a variety of different ways, and these are just a couple. We’ve all heard the saying, “we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” So listen. Offer the two ears God gave you to whomever is confiding in you, as you acknowledge that they sought you out for a reason and they are opening up to you for a reason. Be present. Sit with them in their hurt, grief, depression, struggle. Be the calm presence they may need. Plop yourself down before or beside them and simply let them know you’re there, with them & for them. It makes all the difference in the world. It’ll be easy to feel you’re not doing enough, but something I’ve learned to do (because I’m a ‘fix it’ person who can’t always fix things) is pray to God and ask him to guide your words in those situations.

Your presence means something, even if it seems meaningless or boring to you. Remember it doesn’t have to involve a bunch of people, bright lights, a big stage, pews, or a 30 minute sermon in order to be ministry. Ministry is carried out in a variety of different ways, and listening to others and being present with them are most certainly two of them.


If you’re reading this and you’re in need of someone to listen, myself and many others are here for you! If you’re reading this and you’re somebody who has taken the time to listen to my words or who has calmly been present with me in my trials & joys, I appreciate you!

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weak enough to lead?

This year at annual conference, as I was scanning the Cokesbury section, I came across a book titled, “Weak Enough To Lead” by James C. Howell. The title jumped out at me in such a way that I didn’t even need to read the summary on the cover before snatching it off the table and heading up to the register to purchase it. The book jumped out at me because its topic was one which I have wrestled with a lot in life, feeling as though weaknesses somehow deem me incapable of leading, especially, leading in ministry and as a pastor someday. At times, I have found myself plagued by this feeling of defeat, as though I was too weak or ‘not cut out’ for what God has called me to do. I have always been a perfectionist, always set high expectations for myself, and am hard on myself if I ‘fail’ or don’t reach my goals at the very time that I had planned. I don’t like to complain or dwell on bad things, and admitting struggle or weakness is something I am not great at. So, perhaps, after stating all of that, it’s not too hard to imagine this book being one that I just couldn’t pass by. As I have read it more and more, I have found that it addresses every single thing I have listed above, and more.

Many times, I have thought to ask myself, “am I too weak to lead?”

But never once have I thought to ask myself, “am I weak enough to lead?”

That is the very question this book examines:

Am I weak enough to lead?

My recovery is something that I am very open and honest about in my conversations with people and in my writing, which many of you know. I am almost 5 1/2 years in recovery from anorexia, and I’ll actually be on a mission trip in Cuba on the 5 1/2 year mark, but you better believe that I am still going to jump up and down a few times out of joy and celebrate the accomplishment it is to me. Something I am not so open about, however, is the fact that recovery is a journey more so than it is a one time decision, and like any journey, it has bumps, detours, obstacles, highs, lows, and everything in between, and for the sake of being honest and at the risk of being vulnerable, I do still struggle at times with my recovery, and it is for that very reason that, at times, it has made me feel as though I am somehow too weak or too incapable of leading. This isn’t because I see my recovery or the fact that I have struggled with an eating disorder as a weakness, rather, it is something about my life that is not perfect, and as a perfectionist, one can see how that could affect my confidence in my leadership abilities. It wasn’t until recently that I came to the realize and truly believe that being a pastor and being in recovery are not mutually exclusive. I thank God for helping me realize that, and I thank him for continuing to assist me in believing that.

My recovery and the ministry I am called to are two of the most important things in my life, and God knows that full well. He knows that I am in recovery – heck, he has been with me every single step that I have taken since day 1 of being diagnosed, to day 1 of beginning recovery, all the way up until now, and he’s still trekking along beside me, behind me, and before me.

God also has called me to be a pastor. He has called me to a life of ministry for him, in service to others. God knows I have weaknesses, and in fact, he knows those weaknesses inside and out, better than even I do. Even so, that doesn’t diminish his confidence in my ability, through him, to pursue his call upon my life to be a leader in the Church.

I don’t personally think for one second that God looks at us and thinks, “she is strong enough for this” or “he is strong enough for this.” God doesn’t call only people who have no weaknesses or no imperfections, because if we’re being honest, those people don’t exist. This book has made me think about the possibility that, rather than calling us based on our strengths or how equipped we are, God looks at us and says,

“She is weak enough – I will give her the strength she needs to lead and I will use her weaknesses for the benefit of my kingdom.”

“He is weak enough – I will give him the strength he needs to lead and I will use his weaknesses for the benefit of My Kingdom.”

Brothers and sisters, it is normal – innate, even – to have weaknesses. There are many differences between you and me and everyone else in this world, but something we all have in common is that we all have weaknesses. We all have brokenness. We all fall short. We all have pain. We all endure hardships. We all sin. We all mess up. We all fail. We are all imperfect. No leader is without any of those things.

I am thankful to have not only a hand full, but two hands full of mentors, pastors, and simply amazing leaders in my life, and one of the many things I respect most about those leaders is their willingness to acknowledge weakness, to be vulnerable, to show emotion, to admit when they don’t know something, to acknowledge their imperfections, to admit their faults, to talk about their fears and their challenges, and let people know that being a leader doesn’t negate the fact that you’re still human. I pray to embody that authenticity as an individual and as a pastor someday. I have more distrust than I do admiration for leaders who try to portray themselves as these perfect individuals who are never weak. Because that’s fake. We all have weaknesses so to portray yourself as though you have none is inauthentic and misleading for those who look up to you and those whom you are leading. Having weaknesses and being a leader are also not mutually exclusive. If anything, they make you a better leader.

I am preaching to myself just as much as I am preaching to you when I write this, but do not be ashamed of the things that you consider to be weaknesses in your life, especially when you have a God who is eager to use those weaknesses! Don’t cover them up, rather, embrace them. I know that is easier said than done, but God can actually use them and perfect his strength in those weaknesses. Our weaknesses do not deem us incapable of leading. We are weak, but God is strong. We have flaws, but God is flawless. We are imperfect, but Jesus was & is perfect. I encourage you to ask the question: Am I weak enough to lead? & What does that mean to and for you?

To close out this post, I wanted to leave you with a quote to contemplate from the book I just have mentioned above (I strongly recommend picking up a copy!!)

…Is it that God uses our strengths? Or is it even truer that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness? (Howell, 2017). 


 

Loving and gracious God,

Thank you for using our weaknesses, perhaps even more than you use our strengths. Thank you for being present in our lives as a stronghold and rock, so that we don’t ever have to rely on our own strength. We pray that when we feel incapable or weak that you would remind us that yes – we are incapable and we are weak but you are strong and you are capable. We pray that you would fill us with spirit and enable us to go out and lead, and serve, in your Son, Jesus’ name. We pray that we would be weak enough to lead. Take our pride, God, and take our desire to be perfect and replace it with humility and peace not only in who you’ve made us to be but in who you are. We pray all of this in your name –

Amen. 

 

a post for pastor appreciation month

One of my favorite things in the world to do is use writing as a way to express gratitude and love for people, so today, as we acknowledge clergy appreciation day, and more broadly, October as Pastor Appreciation Month, I am going to try and do just that. Even as a writer, I have to say, however, that it is certainly difficult to find enough words to express appreciation for pastors to the extent to which they deserve to be appreciated. Pastors undoubtedly have one of the hardest jobs in the world, yet they continue that job each and every day, acknowledging that it is not simply a job, rather, a lifestyle into which they have been called by God to pursue.

Every year when this month of pastor appreciation rolls around, it always reminds me of how very thankful I should be (and am) this month and always, to know all of the pastors in my life.

Each and every pastor I know or have simply crossed paths with has taught me something that I will undoubtedly carry with me for the rest of my life, and I am so grateful. So, if you are pastor and reading this post today, I just want to thank you. Thank you for pursuing God’s call upon your life, and dedicating the life that you have been given, to God, in order to serve his church and his children. This post today is for you, and I want you to know that you have impacted me in one, if not more than one, of the ways written below. Thank you for all that you do each day to first be a disciple, so that you can make disciples, and love and lead others. I know that pastors are imperfect human beings just like the rest of the world. I know sometimes you find yourself exhausted, burnt out, overworked, and very much in need of a vacation. I know you become hurt, stressed, and think that you are not doing a good enough job, or feel as though what you are doing isn’t effective, or feel as though you have to have all of the answers but don’t – I want you to know that you are doing good, you are making a positive difference, and you are putting a huge smile on God’s face each day.

You all have taught me so much; more than I ever thought I needed to know about ministry, about being a pastor, and about simply being a Christ follower.

You have taught me to never take anything too seriously, including myself. Yet you have also shown me what it looks like to lead during difficult and very dark, serious times. You have taught me and reminded me that I do not need to be perfect in order to lead well or effectively. You have exemplified for me what it looks like to  remainin patient and full of grace, during church meetings, during conflict, in every conversation, with every person (even difficult people). You have been there when I have needed someone to simply be an ear. You have listened to me talk about my triumphs and trials, and you have been there as I have cried tears of sadness and tears of joy. You have offered me wisdom that I will remember and carry with me in the months and years to come, especially wisdom that I myself will need and use when I become a pastor myself. You have reminded me about the importance of self care, Sabbath, and not spreading myself too thin, which I know you probably struggle with too, and I’m sure when you’ve told me that, you were preaching it to yourself just as much as you were preaching it to me. You have shown me how to stand up for what is right, without fearing what others may think. You have helped me develop thick skin by offering advice that you have gathered from your own personal experiences in ministry. You have reminded me over and over again that there are always going to be naysayers, so I should simply let their comments roll off me like rain. You have reminded me of my call when I have felt discouraged and unable. You have never once doubted me as an individual or as an aspiring pastor, rather, you have challenged me. You have challenged me in a way that makes me think and better discern, and in challenging me, you have reminded me that it is because you love and because you want to help me become better. You have welcomed me into your churches and into the pulpit; I know it takes a certain level of trust to allow someone to come into the church you pastor and preach a message to the congregation you shepherd, and I will never not be grateful for those of you who have welcomed me to do just that. I am so incredibly grateful for your presence and for the light and perspective you have brought into my life. I am grateful for your support and your encouragement, as well as your constructive criticism. I am grateful for all of the hugs, for the opportunities to preach, for the serious chats and the ridiculously silly chats over coffee or lunch, for the ways in which you have mentored me, and for the many, many other ways in which you have impacted my life for the better.

It makes me excited (and only sometimes nervous) to watch intently (no pressure) as you each do this whole ‘ministry’ thing. When I was younger, I never said, “when I grow up, I want to be a pastor” because I didn’t know this was something God had in mind for me until junior year of high school. But these days, when I see you all leading church services, meetings, preaching, or whatever it may be – I can’t help but think about how excited I am to get to do that someday. You have let me in and shown me all of the many different sides of ministry; the good, the bad, and everything in between, and I am so glad for that, because though chaotic and intimidating sometimes, it has given me a better understanding of what the ministry I am called to is all about…It’s messy, but it’s beautiful, and it’s all for Christ.

So now that I have rambled on for way longer than I should have, I hope what you can take away from this post is that all of you have impacted me and helped shape me into the individual I am, the aspiring pastor I am, and the pastor I will be someday, and I will always be thankful for that. And if you are a pastor I do not know, I can say with confidence you too have impacted the lives of many. I know there is no such thing as a perfect pastor, rather, an imperfect person simply following a perfect God’s call to serve his church – keep doing what you’re doing, and know I’m praying for each of you.

To Pastor Rob, Rev. Davis, Pastor Megan, Pastor Paul, Pastor Will, Pastor Marc, Pastor Sarah, Bob, Rachel, Danny, Pastor Fuss, Pastor Larry, Pastor Steve – to every pastor I know, whether we’ve met once or know one another quite well, please know I have nothing but love, respect, appreciation, and care for you, and I hope you know that today and always.

 

thick skin & ministry

This post is one that I have been wanting to write for a while now, but it is a post about a topic that I am very much still growing in and learning about each day, so, I urge you – instead of reading this and thinking, “Oh, you don’t know the half of it” try reading it with the knowledge that I acknowledge I have far more to learn and experience, and many more thick layers of skin to develop in life and more specifically in ministry. I am well aware that I am, “only 20” 😉

When you are a leader of any kind, you may find yourself in this mindset – you desire so badly to seem strong, all of the time. Especially if you’re young, you may strive for this because people so often look down upon people who are younger. If you’re in a leadership position, or taking on something that requires a lot of you, you may find yourself wanting to seem as though you are tough, all the time, as though you basically don’t have feelings, nothing bothers you, and if it does, it’s “no big deal,” because, “you can handle it.” I can recall numerous times where I have found myself with this mindset in the church setting, sweeping things under the rug instead of allowing myself to feel them and have them make me better. The hard thing about being that type of person though, is that, those things you tell yourself, don’t always work. You’re not as perfect as you want people to think you are. You do let things get to you. You can’t handle it all on your own. You do have feelings, and guess what? Your feelings are valid. The hard part is actually believing that and accepting that. It’s hard to understand that while, yes, thick skin is needed in pretty much every aspect of life, you can’t be strong all of the time. Thick skin is something that develops over time. It’s a process. You aren’t born with the thickest skin that you will ever have, and, the thing about thick skin is that it only develops by going through tough experiences – you get tough by feeling what it is like to endure trials. I think that one of the hardest lessons I have learned thus far since hearing God’s call to ministry and pursuing that call, is learning how to have thick skin, what that means, and what it looks like.

My freshman year of college, I developed a layer of thick skin that I never knew I needed. That layer of thick skin was so that I could handle people’s condemnation of my pursuit to full-time ministry due to my gender. And I can do that now – I can let such comments and rejection roll off me like rain – it’s a piece of cake, because of that whole year spent developing such thick skin. It has helped me more than I could ever tell you, and I am grateful. But as I have continued along in my journey towards ministry, diving into different areas of the Church, and interacting with different people, experiencing it all, I have seen all kinds of sides to ministry – the good, the bad, the ugly, and then some. Seeing all those sides has continuously made me realize my desperate need (for God) and for a whole new layer of thick skin that I lacked; a layer that I am still developing, day by day, experience by experience, hardship by hardship. As I said, it’s a process.

I, like many others, wish that I could look at a mentor, pastor, parent, or anyone older and wiser than me, and have them tell me that it gets easier. I wish that I could have someone who has lived longer than me, look me in the eyes and tell me how, somewhere along the line, it gets easier to have thick skin. But that’s not going to happen. It’s just not. No pastor will ever be able to tell me that and actually mean it, and I know that, because I’ve had pastors admit that to me. But, I did have one pastor say that, “you have to be so deeply rooted in your call that it sustains you through the hurt.” You learn how to handle it all better, but that doesn’t at all mean that it gets easier. You just get stronger, and your skin, thicker.

Now, before I jump into the post, I will admit before you that I am not by any means ‘qualified’ to write a blog post full of “how to’s” when it comes to ministry and having thick skin. Everyone in ministry knows that you need thick skin, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we all have an equal amount of. With my admittance of my not being ‘qualified,’ I do believe that God has used my experiences in ministry thus far to equip me to share these words with you all. I am still very much an amateur, I do not have all of the answers, and I still let things get to me way more than I should – I’m still growing, as lifelong learners do. With that being said, I’m thinking of all of the ministry experiences and encounters with people, both negative and positive, that I’ve had thus far (which I’m grateful for!) and maybe you and I share in some of those experiences or encounters. If so, I want to share some of what has helped me and what continues to help me. These are not nearly all of the ways in which I cope and learn to have thick skin, but nonetheless, these are things that God has helped place on my heart, because, the Lord knows full well that I could not do any of this without him. If I tried, I undoubtedly would have given up on my pursuit towards ministry a long time ago.


Consistent prayer. First and foremost, prayer is key. You and I know both that. When life has you down on your knees because you cannot bear to stand any longer, pray. When you’re sky high on life and all is well, also pray. When you’re struggling and finding that comments, obstacles, or people are getting to your head, and most of all to your heart, pray. I don’t think I have ever fallen before God with my arms stretched out for him to come and pick me up, more than when I am feeling as though I am in desperate need of him and of that thick skin we’re supposed to have. Thick skin is something that I have prayed for and longed for, and while I have it, I’m still developing it. It doesn’t come overnight. And know that God’s answer to your prayer for thick skin very well could be another battle or obstacle. May we learn to be okay with that, and keep ours minds open to that possibility. And do not stop praying.

Don’t take things personally. I cannot say enough how much easier said than done this is. As human beings, our desire and our human nature is to let things get to us. We overthink comments that are said to us, especially the unnecessary and sometimes rude ones. Thick skin is needed if we’re going to refuse to take things personally. ‘Let unnecessary or hurtful comments role off of you like rain’ is some of the best advice that I have ever been given. Similar to likely everyone reading this today, I have had things said both to my face and behind my back in various settings, including Church, that I have let get to my heart – I think it’s important to remind yourself that you’re not crazy for overthinking that one thing that that one person said to you; that comment which left you feeling offended, discouraged, and hurt. You’re not overreacting. But it’s also important to remember that what people say to you or about you can often be a reflection of themselves and how they feel or think about them, not necessarily you. Remember that. And remember this:

Pray for those who hurt you. This is probably one of the hardest things you will find in this post. I have found myself before God in prayer, literally in tears, because I knew that I should be praying for the people whom I was hurt by, but I just could not bring myself to do it. But friends, God wants to hear about it. He wants to hear about your hurt and he wants to hear that you have the Christ-like love to rise above your hurt and pray for that person who is likely hurting, themselves.

Have a tender heart. I know that we have all heard this quote before: “Have thick skin and a tender heart.” We are all undoubtedly capable of having a tender heart. So train your heart and train your mind to be tender when it comes to tough situations, especially situations that involve a person or persons. And I know that it’s hard. I know that is never what we want to hear. It’s much easier to resent people or situations that make us feel low and discouraged. But again, it’s what Jesus exemplified for us in the Bible. In the Church, doing ministry with so many other people, we have to follow his example, and his example shows us compassion, empathy, and tenderness. He has called us to have those very attributes when it comes to interacting with our fellow brothers and sisters. Jesus did it, and as a follower of him, we can do it, too.

Get used to it. You may have read those four words and thought, “This is awful advice, Ashley.” I debated putting those words into this post, but I wanted to, because it’s something that I’ve told myself, and something a lot of other people have blatantly told me, too, including my own mom, over and over and over again. If I’m ever struggling with a comment that someone said to me, or a tough situation, especially in ministry, being told to, “get used to it” actually helps. You’re always going to have that. Always. That’s a harsh reality. Learn to let comments go in one ear and go out the other. You’re always going to encounter difficult people. That is not limited to the Church. You’re going to encounter difficult people in every job field, in every area of life, everywhere you go. But you’re also going to encounter really beautiful people. If we’re being honest, everyone has beauty in them. So even when you encounter someone you would consider to be ‘difficult,’ show them love. Try to search for their internal beauty. We all have it.

Step back. There is no harm in taking a step back. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need time to process whatever it is that’s testing your thickness of skin (AKA whatever you’re struggling with), stepping back can be good. You don’t want to get burned out. Go have church on a mountain if you’re like me and love to hike and be in creation. Go visit a different church that you’ve never been to before and worship there. Have quiet devotion time by yourself instead of going to Bible study at your church if time alone is what you need. Take Sabbath. Sabbath is important (and I can and will write a whole other blog post on the importance of that). When you step back from a ministry setting, or whatever setting it may be, that’s presenting you with challenge, a hurt heart, or exhaustion, you’re giving yourself time and space for renewal and rest. So, when you’re done and ready to step back in, you’ll be re-energized and ready to take on whatever gets thrown your way.

Pray prayers of thanks & praise to God for tough experiences. These tough experiences that you have gone through, are going through, and will go through – they grow you. They strengthen you. They prepare you for the next tough experience. I know it’s very difficult to sit there before God and say, “Thank you” for trials when what you really want is to look up at him and ask, “Why, God?” But I guarantee you, you will eventually know why, and that ‘why’ will be revealed to you the next time you encounter a tough situation, when you’re able to handle it 10x better than you were able to the last time. I know that it stinks to realize, but yet another harsh reality is that you cannot always dodge crappy experiences. You can learn from them. You can allow them to make you better. When you open yourself to that kind of vulnerability and rise above the hurt in order to have it contribute to your development of thick skin, you’ll thank yourself, and you’ll thank God for the growth it caused.

Seek the wisdom & counsel of those who ‘get it.’ Think about the people whom you trust. Think about your mentors. I encourage you to let go of any fear that you may have of being vulnerable, and seek wise counsel, as the Bible instructs, when you’re in need of some guidance. It’s okay to admit that you do not know everything! Nobody does. But there are people who love and care for you, and who are willing to offer you guidance about how to get by – these are people who understand and have walked or are walking where you are walking now. Personally, if I had a dollar for every time that I have called my pastor or another mentor of mine and straight up said, “I need help” or “I need wisdom” I would be rich, because I am still growing, and when you know you have people who are ‘there,’ you learn to use your resources and seek their help, knowing that they have been where you are and can help you. This has saved me in so many situations; being able to get off my high horse and admit that I need help dealing with a difficult situation or difficult encounter with someone. If nothing else, it helps to know that you’re not the only one who has dealt with what you are dealing with. There are other people around you who have developed thick skin from fighting and getting through exactly what you’re going through. So do not hesitate to reach out, knowing that there is zero shame in doing so.


So friends, those are just some suggestions from a mini preacher who has learned a lot and still has a ton left to learn. I want to note that I am indeed incredibly grateful for the beautiful and messy parts of ministry that I have witnessed thus far, as I acknowledge developing thick skin down will help me later (though that growth will never stop!) And even after witnessing the ugly sides of ministry that have sometimes left me hurting and discouraged, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, because the beautiful parts and the passion far outweigh those negatives. (So, bring it on, world). And while this post itself was geared towards those in the ministry, you can apply these points to really any job setting, career aspiration, or life situation. No matter what you do in life, you’re going to be encountering people. No matter what you do, you’re going to encounter tough situations.

Know that you – yes you – have thick skin, and you are continuously developing thicker skin. Believe that, okay? I know how ridiculously hard it is to believe that and I know how easy it is to think to yourself, “Wow, why in the world can’t I handle this?” But it is in those moments you must pray and talk to God about it. I know that I put prayer in that list three times, and that was intended in order to show the significance of prayer when it comes to ‘having thick skin.’ 

To my brother or sister reading this today, remember: you’ve got this. There is nothing you cannot handle with The Almighty by your side.

20 church ministry lessons learned by 20

While I have learned far more than 20 lessons these past 20 years of life, and know I have far more than 20 left to learn, these are a few that stand out to me the most when I reflect on all that I have learned during my time in the Church thus far.

Lesson #1

You can’t pour yourself into ministry if you’re not being filled by the Spirit.

Self care is so, so important. Not selfish – important. I always knew growing up that pastors took one day a week as their Sabbath, but for the longest time, I never thought of myself as someone who should have Sabbath. But friends, Christ did not say in scripture that only pastors or people with full-time jobs should take a Sabbath! We each need to take time to rest, be renewed, recuperate from our life’s work, and be filled back up by the Spirit, so that we can go out into the world and do God’s work. Whether you read scripture or devotion’s in the morning / at night, pray through out the day or before you begin your day, download the Bible app or a devotion app onto your phone – whatever it may be that helps you connect with God each day and be filled, make sure you are doing that. You may have heard the saying, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” It holds true; so often we find ourselves going, going, going and neglecting to come before God, and it shows – it’s harder for God to bless our work if we’re not resting. If we aren’t resting, we’ll be attempting to do Gods work on empty. We must make sure we are coming before Christ and be filled by him, so that we can then go out and pour ourselves into the ministry we each do here on earth for him, like him.

Lesson #2

People will always think that you are either too young or too old.

I laugh as I write this, because out of everything I have learned in ministry thus far, this one is at the top of the list. I have definitely had my fair share of people look down on me and make comments about my being, “too young,” to do certain things in ministry, and I know that I will have plenty more of such encounters to come. And when I am old and grey, I know full well that I will have people think who will think that I am too old to do certain things. At some point in our lives, we will all encounter people, regardless of our career paths, who will tell us or think of us as being too young or too old. But friends, rest assured that God’s ability to use us, his children, is not determined by our age, gender, race, class, or anything else. God is able to use us just as we are, because he equips those whom he calls. If I’ve learned anything from being told I am too young, it is that you must persevere and listen to God above all else!

Lesson #3

Change can’t be optional. Change is necessary. 

Change is something that the church can be very uncomfortable with. People in general are uncomfortable with change because we as humans desire comfort. But growth does not happen if change does not happen. That goes for us individually, and for our churches as well. If we are not willing to step outside of our comfort zones, we will never grow. And growing as a church does not mean growing numerically; it really means growing spiritually as disciples. Though change within our churches can be difficult to accept, it can be the very thing standing in the way of making disciples. Know that while Christ assured us that he would always remain the same, he never told us that we should remain the same; not us individually or our churches. 

Lesson #4

Women in ministry have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

I am very grateful to be affiliated with a denomination that affirms women in ministry and I am grateful that I was raised in a household by two parents who taught me to be a strong and independent woman, never once discouraging me when I heard God calling me to ministry. However, I know full well that not every woman has had that same experience. So many women out there are still discouraged from ministry because of their gender because of a few select verses taken out of their intended context; while there are so many amazing, powerful, preachers out there who are female, as one of the millions of women who has encountered the pure hate and oppression for being a woman pursuing ministry, I know that we still have a ways to go. I think that it is so important when speaking and writing about this issue to note that restricting women from the role of a pastor or from any role in ministry, is not restricting the woman herself – it is restricting the work of the Holy Spirit. A call from God to go into ministry is just that; a call from God. Trying to prevent women from ministry is attempting to prevent Gods work. While I and many others are blessed to be surrounded by pastors, friends, family members, and various other ministry leaders who empower women in the church, but we need even more of that support through out the country and through out the world, from both men and women…May we continue doing the work that goes into shattering the glass ceiling.

Lesson #5

We must make it our mission, as the Church, to get out into the community.

The Church should not make it about drawing your community into your church more than you make it about actively showing your community Jesus. Doing this requires you – The Church – to get outside of the buildings walls and into the community where your fellow brothers and sisters are located. Opening your church doors on Sunday mornings isn’t enough.

Lesson #6

Inter-generational congregations are what heaven will look like.

I cannot express enough the importance of having a wide range of ages within your congregation. I know a church cannot necessarily control the ages of those who walk through their church doors, but that is why finding a balance is important (that’s a topic for another blog post). Inter-generational congregations are important because the young folks learn from the older folks, and the older folks learn from the younger folks. Having both the younger and older generations within a church also helps to break the stereotypes surrounding millennials in the church and stereotypes surrounding the older generation in the church. I have learned such valuable lessons from people at my home church who are 20+ years older than me, and I have even learned valuable lessons from those who are 10+ years younger than me.

 Lesson #7

Seek wise counsel. You don’t know everything and that is okay.

If I had a penny for every time that I have found myself needing to confide in one (or multiple) of the ministry leaders / pastors in my life for inquiries I had on various things, I would be one rich gal. The amount of times I have asked one of them to read over one of my sermons, answer a theological  question or candidacy question of mine, or confessed a dilemma I had no idea what to do about, are countless. We don’t know everything, we never will, and that is okay. We are always learning. This is why the Bible instructs us to seek wise counsel. To learn from those wiser than us. 

Lesson #8

Be okay with saying “no.” Set boundaries for yourself.

You can’t do everything. We aren’t called to do everything. That is why Paul reminds us that we are one body made up of many parts! We are to discern before we say yes when someone asks us to something. This is something that I admittedly have struggled with in ministry; saying no when someone asks me to do something. Sometimes this is because I don’t want to let anyone down, and more times than not it is because I really want to do it, but I’ve learned that we can’t do it all and we’re not supposed to. If you’re constantly doing, doing, doing, you’ll become drained. Even if it’s something you love, you must set boundaries for yourself so that you don’t become burned out.

 

 

Lesson #9

You can only plan so much.

Something that has become like a reflex now when something doesn’t go as planned in the church, is, “well, that’s ministry for ya.” You can’t control everything. Things will go wrong and not as planned. There will be Sunday’s where your pastor will come up to you five minutes before the service begins and ask if you would fill in for the associate pastor who is sick. There will be Saturday nights where your pastor may call you and ask to help him/her out with the Sunday service. There will be hiccups when trying new things in your church, there will be miscommunication, there will be a lot of improvising to do. So much of the ministry that goes on within the church requires one to be open to ‘change of plans,’ improvising, and filling in for others on short notice –  “that’s ministry for ya!”

Lesson #10

Get young people at the table where decisions are being made – encourage them to lead.

Millennials are not just the future of the church; they are the present and the future of the church. A lot of young people refrain from speaking up about wanting to lead in the church because they feel that they will be looked down upon, or think that they are incapable, which is why it is so vital for those in the congregation to encourage young people to step up and lead. Let them know that they are wanted in leadership and that they are capable with Christ of leading and leading effectively!

Lesson #11

Have solid, Godly mentors who can guide you spiritually, as well as in ministry endeavors. 

God should be our number one go-to guide, of course. However, God is so gracious in that he has also placed people in our lives who we can look up to. I have a handful of people, some who are in the ministry and some who are not, and these people are folks I know I can count on, anytime. Whether I need advice, someone to talk to, someone to cry to, there’s a person I know I can go to or call up. A lot of these people are folks who have more life experience than me, who can guide me through situations they at one point also found themselves in. Everyone needs people in their lives whom they can retreat to when they need help. We were not called to journey through this life alone.

Lesson #12

You don’t have to agree with someone in order to love them.

I’m sure that you all have learned this already, but we are not going to agree with every person whom we meet. That is okay!! Praise the Lord we are not called to agree with every person we meet on this earth! But what we are called to do is love them. We are called to love our neighbors, with no exception. Mark 12:30-31.

Lesson #13

When it comes to your sermons, have the “come and go” message in mind.

This is something I have tried my very best to do since I first started preaching. Every preacher has their own way of going about writing their sermons, so please don’t think I’m trying to tell you how to do it (I’m just a preacher in training) But I know personally I have always been eager to write my sermons in a way that emphasizes the importance of coming to Jesus, then encouraging people to “go,” and repeat. It’s not always spiritually healthy for people to come into church, hear a sermon that makes them feel good and not be encouraged to apply it to their lives when they exit the church doors.

Lesson #14

Church can happen anywhere – even in a coffee shop.

Never underestimate the power of a genuine one-on-one conversation. Know that ministry is something that you do not have to be in church in order to do. I can confidently say that I have had more conversations about God and about faith in coffee shops than I ever have in a church setting. Whether you’re in a sanctuary, a coffee shop, hiking on a mountain, on a walk, in the gym, in a mall, church can happen, because church is not a building, you and I are the church!

Lesson #15

Speaking of coffee…

This is no joke. I truly have learned about myself that coffee is essential in being effective in my daily life as well as being alive, awake, alert and enthusiastic on Sunday mornings. You all know the saying…“I need a lot of coffee and a whole lot of Jesus.” It is possible to be hyped up on Jesus and coffee at the same time. Enough said.

Lesson #16

Humble yourself.

If you’re a leader, I’ve always thought that it is important to let people know that you are not perfect. Of course we all know that nobody is perfect, but often times leaders are assumed to be people who never make mistakes. While leaders in the church and leaders in general are often held to a higher standard, that doesn’t mean that they are immune to making mistakes. I’m one of those people who likes to laugh at herself when she messes up. As a perfectionist, this has taken time and sometimes I’m super hard on myself for it, but it’s healthy to have the humility to know that you are not and never will be perfect (that’s why we have our perfect Jesus!) To give an example, every time that I wear a mic that has to go around my ear, without fail, it gets tangled in my hair and causes my hair to make this giant knot. Last time I preached, I remember looking at my mom as I worked to untangle it and said, “wow – there is absolutely nothing professional about me.” (We had a good laugh). God humbles us in the funniest, smallest of ways. To give another example, one of my friends once suggested to me that, instead of saying “thank you” when someone compliments me on my sermon, say, “praise the Lord.” Every time I say that, it’s humbling because it reminds me and those delivering the compliment that the sermons I preach is never from or about me, but from and about God, through me. Every time we succeed or do good in this world, God deserves the glory, friends.

Lesson #17

Don’t be afraid to talk about difficult topics.

Whether it be mental illness / mental health, politics, homosexuality, social issues, sin, etc. There are topics out there that may make people feel uncomfortable, and I am in no way, shape, or form sitting here today to suggest preaching about our president or controversial issues every Sunday, but also, we as the church need to be real. Whether you’re in the pulpit or sitting in the pews, as the family of God, we all have different thoughts, opinions, struggles, and joys that we should be able to share with one another. The Church should be a place where we can go to feel safe and have open discussions about things that are not the easiest to discuss, but things that need to be discussed.

Lesson #18

Pray: it’s that simple.

I get that prayer isn’t always easy to do or easy to want to do; we get busy, we sometimes feel distant from God, we may feel too ashamed to come before him – whatever it may be, prayer is so vital, friends. It is vital in ministry and it is vital in our daily lives. When you bring yourself to pray and get in conversation and communion with God, it flows right through you. Prayer doesn’t have to be formal, it just has to happen if we want to be in intimate relationship with God. I have learned and been convicted before that I have no business preaching to people whom I have not prayed for. Prayer is number one if we want to be effective in church ministry, and the wonderful thing is the one whom we’re praying to is always present for us. How amazing is it that we have this Father who we can talk to at any given moment and receive wisdom from?

Lesson #19

Have tough skin – try not to take things personally.

You’re going to hear things – a lot of things – that you could have gone your whole entire life without hearing. People sometimes make comments to you that they don’t intend to do harm or make you feel awkward, but it happens, and when it does, you’ve got to let it roll off you like rain. This is something I am continuously learning; we all have feelings and those feelings are not numb to being hurt, but learning how to hear not nice comments and having them come in one ear and exit the other, is so important.

Lesson #20

I would not trade or change this call to ministry for anything in this whole world.

It has been a crazy beautiful journey, full of ups and downs, and man, I love it to death. I know God is just getting started with me, but I know enough to know I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even on the days when I feel discouraged or drained, the Lord is so faithful in reminding me of who he is and why I do what I do. If I have learned anything, it is the simple truth that he is good, that his love for each of us endures forever and ever, and that is enough. That is always a reason to have joy. Friends, whatever sets your soul on fire, do it. Whatever you are passionate about, is likely the very way God wants to use you to build his kingdom. Know this, and run with it, continuously seeking God and his wisdom, guidance, and grace.

my call story

While this story of mine is one that is constantly becoming longer, evolving, and becoming more meaningful as God continues to work in my life, this call to ministry is such a significant part of why I write the things that I do, I wanted to dedicate a post on my blog to sharing it with you all, if you so desire to read more about why my heart is where it is.
While my parents took my sister and I to church every Sunday that they could, and had us say our prayers every night before bed and before dinner, it wasn’t really until my freshman year of high school that I began to desire more of a relationship with God. I attended my very first youth retreat when I was a freshman and it was when all of the youth group’s were gathered together in one room singing along with the band to the song, “How He Loves,” that I first experienced the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, in that moment, I told myself and I told God that I wanted to live my life for Him and His Church more than I had been already. I started getting more involved at my church in various ways – youth group, Bible studies, youth praise band – then came junior year of high school, when I began to see, hear, and feel God revealing this call to ministry.
I preached my very first sermon on Youth Sunday that year, and oddly enough, before then, I had been terrified of public speaking, yet, for some crazy reason, I volunteered to give the sermon. That was four years ago, and while I just barely remember the message that I shared with the congregation, I do remember the way in which God stirred up within me this passion to preach. To be before my fellow brothers and sisters and deliver to them a message God placed on my heart, was and is so humbling, and each time I get up to preach before a congregation, that same sense of Him stirring up that passion never fails to be present. That same year, I became much more involved with the worship aspect of ministry – serving communion, lay reading, attending church council and spiritual growth meetings, as well as prayer meetings. I simply loved being in the church, because there is where God seemed to always use me the most. The Church is where my faith was nurtured, where I first heard my call, as well as the very place where my faith and my call have both been supported, challenged, and affirmed the most. My home church has been my ‘home’ for practically my whole life – while I was born and baptized in Maryland, my family has attended the same church since moving here, where we celebrated my first birthday. So, that church has been my home for 18 years and counting. It would take an entire other blog post to sum up my love for that church of mine and the impact it has had on my life, so I’ll save that for a later date. But the people there truly are my family. We have all been through hell and back, both together and separately, but we have always had one another to lean on for support, love, comfort, and for the great reminder of who Jesus is and what his love looks like. It really is the people that makes up The Church – it is made up of God’s broken and imperfect children, who are in such desperate need of Him. It is made up of people who are called to go and make disciples and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is what my home church exemplified to me all these years, and they played a bigger role in my call to ministry than I could ever explain with words. I know that not everyone is a part of such an affirming church, so that is something I’ll never take for granted. I also know not everyone has a good experience in the church, but one of my prayers as a pastor someday will be that I would assist in providing the same church environment that my home church provided me for so many years, and continues to provide me.
So, as I said, my junior year of high school was when I really got started discerning this call, as well as when I got more involved with worship services. I began serving communion quite frequently, which quickly became a form of serving (and receiving) in which I felt closest to God. The idea of helping my brothers and sisters remember what Jesus did for us all on the cross for our trespasses, is so powerful. It is still, personally, one of the most meaningful ways to serve in the church, and for so many significant reasons. In high school, I struggled greatly with anorexia nervosa and I remember during my sophomore year of high school, it was so bad that I didn’t even want to go up and receive communion because I was so fearful of the calories in the bread and juice. In that moment was when I found myself needing to step back and realize that something had to change – I needed recovery, and I was confident that God was going to help me do just that. My faith played such a significant role in my decision to begin recovery, and I’m so grateful for that, because if it were not for my recovery, I would not be able to do what God has called me to do – I wouldn’t be able to write sermons, preach, serve, or do anything, and I likely would not be sitting here writing about this call. Not too long ago, my pastor asked if I would help him with communion because he was sick and didn’t want to touch the elements, and what a moment of clarity and assurance from God, as I lifted the cup and broke the bread. This pull and sense of call towards administering the sacraments is one of the many reasons I feel called to the ministry of an elder. (I’ll touch more on that later).
My senior year of high school rolled around and I shared two more sermons, both on Youth Sunday – one in the fall and then one in the spring before I graduated. The spring of senior year I shared my testimony with the congregation for the first time. I remember looking out into the congregation and seeing people in tears and the impact that that had on me – that sure did make me want to cry too, not because I was sad, but because in that moment was when I realized that the words I was speaking, or, the words God was speaking through me, were touching people, and speaking to them in ways they needed. This sermon was also one where I told my church family that I would be attending Liberty University for college! I was so excited – I knew that Liberty was a big Christian university and I could not wait to go there and take classes that would help prepare me for ministry. At that point, I knew God was calling me into ministry, and though I was not yet sure what area of ministry that was, I was confident that he wanted me in the Church. I should note that all I knew about Liberty, going in, was that it was big, beautiful, and the largest Christian University in the world (I did not know it had any denominational ties).
The summer before moving into Liberty, I was trying to decide what I would want my major at Liberty to be. After doing my research and praying about it, I decided that I would major in pastoral leadership, so, I signed up for the intro to pastoral leadership class and I worked my schedule around it. This was, however, until I was one day talking on the phone with the head of the department, who informed me that this specific major at Liberty was only for men. Confused was an understatement. I talked to my parents and they were just as confused as I was, so I called LU’s admissions to double check, because I thought, “this couldn’t be right.” (or legal). Admissions even had to put me on hold to go check and see if it was true, because the girl on the other end of the phone told me, “as far as I know, there are no restrictions on who can do that major.” She got back on the line to tell me, “it turns out, this major is only for men because of the Southern Baptist beliefs the school has.” I was shocked and rather confused, but I did my research. I found the scriptures where this belief comes from, that women cannot be head pastors. I researched, in depth, these verses, the Southern Baptist Convention, Liberty’s ties with the denomination, and read countless articles. I changed my major to Christian leadership and church ministries, and I simply told myself this was one belief the school has, doesn’t mean it has to affect me, and I left it. I in no way accepted the belief, I simply told myself it didn’t have to bother me, because God was calling me. I had never been introduced to this belief and despite what some may say, that is not because I was sheltered, it was simply because I grew up in a church and in a home which supported all of Gods children in whatever it was that they were called to. I will never stop being grateful for that. So, all of that aside, I went about my summer, continuing to do ministry in my church, and also, attended annual conference for my first time.
Annual conference had such a huge impact on my call. It’s funny, because the first year I attended this conference, it was voting year, so there was a lot of sitting around, waiting, and listening intently. Despite the voting and great amount of confusion that came along with hundreds of people gathered in one convocation center trying to figure out how electronic voting worked, I loved every minute of that conference. I drew so much energy from talking with different pastors and laity about ministry, various opportunities, their churches, my church, and so much more. I met our Bishop, at the time, and I’ll never forget him giving me a high five when I told him I was feeling this call into ministry. He is a great man! One evening, there was an ordination service, and while that service in and of itself was powerful and emotional, after the service, our Bishop told everyone in the room who was hearing God calling them to ministry to walk forward, meet him, and pray with one of the newly ordained elders or deacons. I walked forward with full confidence. Confidence that I had never had before. I will never forget that experience of walking forward and feeling as though Jesus was right beside me, holding my hand (because he totally was!) That moment of standing with a woman who had just been ordained that night and having her pray over me and this call I was hearing was so incredibly powerful, as was hearing all of the prayers being prayed around me for people who were also hearing a call, by people who had just taken this huge step in their call to ministry by becoming ordained. Walking away from that, I took a sign of relief, because God has just given to me such an affirmation of this call…
After annual conference, a couple months passed, and before I knew, I was all moved into Liberty – I loved it. I met some of the greatest friends, who are still some of my best friends. The campus was so beautiful, I loved the town that the school was located in, I found a wonderful church home away from home (Heritage UMC ❤ ) I loved my classes and I loved that I was going to be in classes that would help prepare me for a life in ministry. However, it was not long before I started getting into my Church ministry, Christian leadership, and Bible classes, where I quickly realized just how blatant the professors and school was about this belief that women and men have separate roles in the Church and in the home. Most of my first semester at Liberty was spent laughing off comments that students and professors would make on the topic. I coped with the irritating and hurtful affects of those comments by telling myself that it didn’t matter, as long as I knew that I was called and that God had my back. It worked for the time being, especially because I had another friend who was facing the same opposition for being a female striving to become a youth pastor. We laughed together, we researched more and more, we prayed, and we persevered.
Amid all of this, my pastor at the time back at my home church asked me if I would deliver the sermon on Christmas Eve at our 11pm service. I eagerly said yes and remember being so excited that I started preparing that sermon at least a month in advance. I don’t think I will ever be able to put into words how significant this was in my call story – my pastor, since day one of my call, had always been so encouraging and was always giving me opportunities left and right to live out my call, to learn, and to grow. For him to ask me to preach at a service that would lead into something as significant as Jesus’s birthday, was so special. It was a blessing, really, that amid all of the people telling me I couldn’t preach because of my gender, I had my pastor reminding me that I could by giving to me the opportunity to preach for the first time on a day that was not Youth Sunday. It was such a joy to have that affirmation from him and from God, in the midst of being in classes where I was being reminded that I couldn’t preach if men were present. I prepared that sermon and wanted it to be perfect (not that that’s possible), I remember telling myself I couldn’t mess it up, for it was Jesus’ birthday! In preparing and delivering this sermon, God made my call clearer than ever. Again, I looked out into the congregation to see tears, people nodding their heads, and I remember feeling humility like never before, because as gratifying as it was and always is to live out my call in this way, you always remind yourself that it’s nothing you’re doing and everything that God is doing through you.
Being home for a whole month for winter break and in a setting where I wasn’t taught or told I couldn’t do certain things in the Church because of my gender was something I needed. I was refreshed, renewed, and told myself I was ready to take on any adversity that I would face back at Liberty. I trekked on back to Liberty for a second semester of college I did not anticipate being nearly as difficult as it was. There was no laughing off comments, during that semester. There was no making light of the situation. The first I told you about? Our laughing together quickly turned into crying together on a weekly basis, out of hurt, confusion, and anger. When I say every day, I mean every day, I would hear a comment, have to answer a workbook question, or read a textbook / ministry book about why I could not do certain things, such as pastor a church, because of my gender. My friend and I resorted to saying we were business majors when people would ask, because we were exhausted from the debates, the arguments, the people telling us we were sinning, and the attacks we would get from people who would try to convince us that we were wrong and that, “God would never call a woman to be a pastor.” I would say my breaking point was taking an multiple choice exam in which one of the questions read as followed, “Women can do all of the following except” a) pastor a church b) pray c) teach other women.” I’m sure it’s obvious, but the answer they were looking for was letter a.
(But thank goodness we’re allowed to pray!)
I was definitely brought down by people – by Christian’s – lower than I ever thought possible, but because of this, my reliance on God grew more and more every single second of simply walking that campus. I ended up adding a major half way through the year (psychology). I have always loved psychology – it is actually my current major at my new school as well, because I know it will help me greatly in ministry, and I’ll be going to seminary after undergrad to learn all of that good stuff anyways! However, even in the psychology classes I was taking at Liberty, I was learning about gender roles, and even had a professor state on more than one occasion that women can do everything in ministry except be a lead pastor, and a woman’s place is, in fact, in the home while the husband makes money. (Because, after all, it’s definitely not the year 2017).
Amid my second semester, I did a practicum at the church I attended while I was away at school, which was such a light. Under the leadership of the church’s pastor and associate pastor, I was able to shadow them around, go on hospital visits, preach a sermon one Sunday, serve communion, lay read, and more. I was able to sit in on funeral preparations and talk with them about how they go about preparing their sermons. I so dearly loved and love the church family I gained there, and the pastors I had the privilege of having as mentors. I know my year at Liberty would have been much more difficult if it had not been for their love and support, and their ability to laugh at the things I was learning in my classes. While being in an environment where my call was picked apart, I was to live out that call in a church setting that was constantly affirming me, making me better, and helping me grow.
About a week before classes ended, I made the decision to transfer from Liberty. I didn’t know where I would go, or when, but I knew I needed to be elsewhere in order to pursue God’s call upon my life. That place hurt me a lot, but it taught me a lot too, even if most of those lessons were outside of the classroom. I learned how to listen to God’s voice above mans and I experienced what its like for the devil to try everything in his power to keep you from God. At Liberty, I came to know compassion, patience, and grace on whole new level that I hadn’t known before my year there. It’s ridiculous (in a good way) the way I can hear or see things that I strongly disagree with and be okay with it, simply because I acknowledge everyone doesn’t have to agree in order for us to love one another. I learned, there, the importance of being able to disagree with someone and still love them, as well as the importance of learning when to speak and when not to. I will forever be grateful for my year at Liberty, and am convinced it will only make me a better pastor. Because of this, even if I could change the year I had there, I would not. I know God let me go through all of that for many reasons, but one being because he knew in the midst of it all, I would see and hear him tell me what he wanted me to do with my life louder and clearer than ever.
So, when I finally decided to transfer, it was too late to transfer to another four year university and feel confident that was where I was supposed to be, so, I settled on community college. It was not my first choice, but it was a realistic one. I decided I would take gen ed classes there until I could confidently decide where to complete my undergraduate education. This ended up being a blessing in disguise in so many ways. The first blessing, of course, was getting myself out of a very unhealthy environment where I would likely end up doubting not only my call but my God more than ever. I realize that my time at Liberty was not the only time I will have to defend my call, but also realize that now, I am not choosing to put myself in the position of having to defend it on a daily basis and be torn down for it. Another huge blessing that came with being home at community college, was that I would also be back at my home church. When summer came around, I was asked to assume the role of co-lay leader at my home church. After a good amount of discernment and prayer and my decision swaying left and right, I decided that I would take on the role. At the time, our church was in the midst of getting a new pastor, because our former pastor was off to be the new D.S in another city. I loved our former pastor very much, and still do! He has been a mentor of mine since day one of my call to ministry and has never once stopped supporting me, and while I was sad to see him go, nobody is more fit for the position of D.S than him. So, my position as co-lay leader began when our new pastor arrived. The ministry of a co-lay leader I believe is best described as a ministry of presence, so this position involved myself, along with our other lay leader, attending meetings and communicating with our church’s pastor. What a joy and a challenge this position was, all at once. It gave me insight into the life of the Church and what all it takes to keep a church functioning properly more anything ever had before. I never thought of myself as someone who would be a lay leader at a church at age 19, and I know my age was a bit weird to some people, but this position taught me so much. It showed me areas and aspects of ministry and of people I had never seen before, and I watched so intently how my pastor handled situations with grace – I have certainly been blessed with incredible and Godly mentors, and pray to be just half the pastor all of them are someday.
I started getting my name out there and being open to guest preaching at various churches on my district as pastors would need someone, and I’ll tell ya what – every time I am asked by a pastor if I’ll preach at their church, I get just as excited as I did the first time I was asked to preach on Christmas Eve. God works through me when I’m serving in the church or when I am preaching in a way that I could never begin to take credit for, simply because I, myself, could never speak to people the way God speaks to them. Who am I to represent God, I don’t know, but I am grateful every day for this call, and for the love and strength of God which enables me to do what I do.
Fall of 2016 I was able to take more steps in the process to becoming a certified candidate for ordination while I was home and at community college, which was another huge blessing that came from being at community college. I was able to work with my pastor through a discernment guide, interview before DCOM and then again before SPRC. I went before my home church to receive at least 2/3 votes of approval from the local church, which, thanks be to God, I was able to do. I am still in the process and have a few more steps to complete, and it has been a joy. Leaving a school I had every intention of being at for four years and deciding to transfer was the largest leap of faith I have taken in life thus far, in my almost 20 years of life, yet it is one process that God has proven to be faithful through, and I cannot contain the love I have for Him. God knows what he’s doing, all of the time.
I was at community college for one semester, and now, I am a sophomore at James Madison University, and folks, I am absolutely in love. I’ll be majoring in psychology, which is a subject I love, as well as something I know will come in handy many times through out my life in ministry – it already has! During undergrad, I will continue to be involved at my school through intervarsity, which is a Christian organization at JMU in which I have already met some of the greatest friends. I will also continue guest preaching whenever the opportunity presents itself (or whenever I make an opportunity for myself). My goal is to be a certified candidate for ordination before I graduate college, and then head to seminary after college, where I will work towards receiving my Masters of Divinity in my pursuit to becoming an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. If you’re reading this and you know me, I just want to thank you for the role you have played in getting me here. I am in love with the God who placed each of you in my life and will never be able to thank Him enough for giving you to my undeserving self. Whoever you are, thanks for reading this, and thanks for tagging along with me on this incredible journey. Here’s to what is and what will be!
Grace and peace,
Ashley 

breaking the glass steeple: one sister at a time

Last night at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, we were assigned our new bishop, Bishop Sharma Lewis.

I was watching the live-stream of the conference a couple days before this, not yet knowing she would be assigned to us, and I remember thinking how cool it would be to have her as our bishop. I have never been under the leadership of a female bishop before, and while of course I would be just as thrilled if we were assigned a male, I knew it would be a joy to witness this woman’s leadership as I discern my own call, as another woman in ministry.

I say this with a full heart and gratitude for the experience, that after not only witnessing but also experiencing firsthand the oppression against women still going on within some churches today, I have a newfound respect and love for the United Methodist Church – the beloved Church that I had the privilege of being raised in, and the church I pray to be ordained in someday (Lord willing). I am thankful and I am proud to be a part of a denomination that is affirming and supportive of women in all areas of ministry, and I grieve with those who are still stuck in the trenches of oppression, and, in some cases, pure hate that some churches envelop women in today. For that reason, I am so thrilled to see a good amount of bishop’s who are women, as I know that without a doubt, that models for other young women, that it is possible to make it in ministry, regardless of ones gender.

As I sat in my bed last night and heard that Bishop Sharma Lewis was coming to us in Virginia, excitement overwhelmed me, pure happiness showed from the ginormous smile on my face, I was hopeful, and then the tears began to flow (happy tears, of course).

After watching and listening to this video posted below, my heart grew (like the grinch!) and then, the tears came right back. Part of this was because Bishop Sharma Lewis was close to tears, and also because you could hear her gratitude and joy when she speaks in this video. It’s so genuine. I already can’t wait to meet her because just from the videos I have seen, she is so full of life and her love for God and the church is fierce! The fact that she acknowledges that so many women have gone before us to pave the way for even more women to pursue their calls to ministry, and now her and many others get to help break that glass steeple – it is a very, very beautiful thing. The fact that there are so many bold, brave, strong women pursing ministry is a beautiful thing, because Lord knows it was not always this way, and although there is still progress to be made, progress has been made, and that is something to celebrate every single day.

Bishop Sharma Lewis’ Speech

I wanted to take the time to turn my countless thoughts on this whole process, into one big blog post, because I know I’m not the only woman out there who finds this inspiring. I know I’m not the only one who has experienced discouragement from ministry because of my gender. I know I’m not the only 19 year old woman called to pastoral ministry!

I want this incredible woman, Bishop Sharma Lewis, to give you hope. I want all of the amazing women out there who are impacting this world greatly by their roles as pastors, to give you hope. If the Lord allows me, such an imperfect and undeserving aspiring pastor, I pray he will use me as an instrument to portray this message, that you can do it too. You can be like all of those other women who are local pastors, elders, deacons, lay people, youth pastors, and bishop’s.

As a 19 year old female… As somebody who has not heard the last of her discouragement for aspiring to be a pastor… As somebody who knows just how hard it can be… As somebody who has doubted her call… As somebody in this process to certified candidacy… As somebody who loves the Church… As somebody still in college and also trying to figure out this life and this call…

As your fellow sister in Christ – 

I’m here for you. I support you. I love you. God loves you.

In this world, all through out your life, you will have people who will strive to get you off track. There will be people whom you will encounter and it may seem as though it is their personal mission to derail you from going down the path God has laid out for you. Your being passionate about something enough to actually go after it, just as God has called you to do, intimidates some people, especially if that person does not yet know what God has called them to do. I encourage you to have compassion on these types of people, and remember that they, too, are children of God.

I also want you to know, in case you haven’t experienced this firsthand, that there are incredible pastors and leaders in the church out there who are men, and they will be supportive of you. It burdens my heart to know that there are some girls out there who have yet to experience any of those men, but I assure you and promise you, they are out there. Some of the most people influential people who have guided me and helped me discern this call have been men, and they never once made me feel less than them. They never once talked down to me. You will have that in life – where people will talk down to you – but it is not how every church is, I can promise you that.

I know how much it hurts to have somebody tell you straight to your face, as blunt as can be, “you can’t be a pastor, you’re a woman.” I’ve heard before – I’ve heard it more than I can count – and I know I will hear it again. So be it. I’m ready for it. I’m ready for it because the worldly opinions that others have of you do not trump the opinion that God has of you, and they most certainly do not trump God’s call upon your life – Not now and not ever.

If God has called you to do something, he will equip you, he will guide you, and he will see to it that you pursue that call. I have seen him work in this way, and I am so confident that if you have not already see it for yourself, you will soon.

Please know that you have me and many others rooting for you. I urge you to reach out to someone in your church if you are feeling a call to ministry – find someone who can guide you along this incredible journey. If anything I have found that this is not something a person can do alone. You need support, and above all, you need God. So stay in touch with him, always bring yourself back to Him with every single decision, every challenge, every triumph, and every concern, and do not ever give up.

When you feel drained, discouraged, and doubtful, I urge you to first look to God, and look to all of the strong women who are already breaking the glass steeple. Look and see them, and remind yourself that you can do that very thing, if you continue to press on.

My sister in Christ, I believe in you, and I am so excited for you!