#Yoked: Vocational Niche

Yoked magnet

This is part of a series on clergy couples and their stories. Andy and I wrote a book about being a clergy couple and all the insanity that goes along with it called Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry. For the rest of the wonderful series, click here.

I did not go to seminary to get my MRS degree. I had spent my formative years in the pews and plastic molded chairs of Southern Baptist congregations, where I often heard that women’s worth came from being a wife and mom. While I deeply respected both of those choices, I wasn’t sure that either was for me. I also didn’t think Jesus loved me any less for my uncertainty.

At Candler School of Theology and at Oakhurst Baptist Church, my faith community during seminary, I was surrounded by people who were more interested in my development as a minister than my fulfillment of others’ expectations. I also learned what it means to be Baptist in the historical sense, and I celebrated that Baptist principles freed me up to diversify my definition of family. It was like my lungs were finally fully expanding, and I wasn’t sure how to channel all the energy I had previously used to justify my call to ministry on its own terms. (Thank goodness for my weekly appointment with a group of fabulous women and a karaoke machine.)

All this is not to say that I didn’t date. My friends encouraged me to pair up with a particular classmate for the entertainment factor: they thought we looked like a couple on a Precious Moments Bible. On my second outing with Matt, who was on his way to becoming a pastor in the United Methodist Church, he and I realized that we had gone to Space Camp a week apart in the summer of 1988. That coincidence made the room go fuzzy for me, and I knew instantly that I was in trouble.

Matt and I married after spending a very difficult first year of full-time ministry several states apart. We both loved our jobs, but I was the one to move since I was ordained and Matt was still two years away from the bishop laying hands on his head. With no professional prospects, I joined Matt in a part of Alabama dominated by the Church of Christ. We were optimistic (ok, naïve) about how eager the UMC connectional system would be to accommodate a two-call, two-call-system clergy couple. It soon became evident that I was to be the trailing spouse, no matter how committed Matt was and is to the equal importance of our ministries. In marrying Matt, I had vowed my willingness to itinerate, no matter how firmly I believed in congregational polity.

I had a hard time finding my vocational niche in Alabama. Moderate-to-progressive Baptist churches are few and far between. I was scared to find a position I liked, convinced we’d get a call from the district superintendent the following spring that it was time to pull up stakes. I loved Matt more than ever, but I was resentful that my professional options seemed so limited by circumstances beyond our control.

I eventually landed a job in a toxic setting. Oh, there were signs the size and weight of falling anvils before I put my name on the dotted line, but I was so relieved to be in paid, full-time ministry that I chose to ignore them. It was a brutal eight months, and at the end I was forced to resign. It was a turning point. I never wanted any colleague to go through what I had just endured. Suddenly I had not just a ministry, but a mission: to promote congregational and clergy health. I also had a renewed understanding of my own strength, Matt’s dogged support, and our ability not just to get by but to thrive when one of us was un- or underemployed.

I became trained as an intentional interim minister, consultant, and coach. I built up an ecumenical network of ministry partners. I no longer saw myself as the trailing spouse. Yes, we live wherever Matt is appointed. But the security of the connectional system has provided me – us – with opportunities to become versatile and to take calculated vocational risks. I love what I do, and new ways to do it keep unfurling in front of me.

This shift in outlook had another, very surprising outcome. I was now able to envision the future, not just wait for it to happen. And in a sacred moment, I saw our child – the one who wasn’t just yet to be conceived, but also yet to be conceived of, at least by Matt and me. I now wear the badge of Mama as proudly as Pastor. Not because anyone told me I must, but because it was my earnest desire and is my greatest joy.

After a well-timed pause between ministry positions that allowed me to focus on nursery preparation and gestational diabetes management, I followed my son back to work. I enrolled him in part-time church daycare, and then a part-time staff opportunity opened up at the same congregation. Now L cruises past my office door in the Bye-Bye Buggy, smiling and waving to let me know he’s having a blast with his friends. On the weekdays we’re not at the church, Matt (who, as a solo pastor, works mostly from home) and I take turns caring for L. When I’m locked away in my home office, coaching clergy or preparing for retreats, I hear muffled music, laughter, and bouncing balls.

The early days of our clergy coupledom were so anxious compared to these. I marvel that adding a third person to the mix has made things easier in some ways. I know it won’t always be this seamless. But for now I inhale deeply, thankful for every aspect of this life that has been shaped by a God who has a sense of irony, inexhaustible patience, and unbounded grace.

Laura SRLaura Stephens-Reed is a part-time minister on the staff of First Christian Church (Huntsville, Alabama), a clergy coach and congregational consultant, and a regional director of peer learning groups for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Her husband, Matt Reed, is the pastor of New Market United Methodist Church. Their almost-two-year-old son is an avid reader, climber, artist, runner, musician, and all-around merry- (mischief?) maker.

Streams Run Uphill: Official Release

Streams Run Uphill: Official Release

SRU Book Cover
Where streams run uphill, there a woman rules. —Ethiopian proverb

Happy Women’s History month! 

I’m also super happy to announce the release of Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color.

After Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology (The Young Clergy Women Project) I felt like there needed to be something about ministry and vocation itself as a follow-up to my journey towards a contextual feminist theology. Something a little more on the ground and touching issues that are often completely absent or misunderstood by others.

Some excerpts from the beginning:

It is the dynamic but unexpected harmony of streams that “run uphill” that compels me the most. There is struggle in an uphill endeavor, but miracle in its very existence. There is an irrationality about it, as well as a subversive, kingdom-shaking quality. There is something off-putting and hard to swallow but undeniably compelling about it. So, too, it is with the “other” clergywomen and our work and ministry, their calling and community relationships, their voices and their perspectives. There is a necessity for their ministries and their stories, a need more pressing now than ever.

I remember from a seminary class the words of our mujerista sister theologians: La vida es la lucha. Life is a struggle. Despite the distinctive quality of these stories, what ties us together, and with all our sisters around the world, is the struggle. We claw. We scuffle. We rise, tooth and nail, tear-soaked and blood-spilled in it all. But it is not only the hardships, the obstacles, and conflicts; it is the miracles. It is the miracle and wonder, the undeniable beauty of grace we encounter in ourselves and in our callings. We overcome much. We surmount even more. We triumph over the impossible. Yet, even more importantly, while much of the journey is uphill, the promise of God in community is that we never journey alone. We share each other’s burdens. We carry each other on our shoulders. We hold each other’s tears. And so, I hope it is with these words: that they would remind us of our shared baptism, the promise and proclamation of God’s claiming us, and how that is the most important voice in our lives, and one that comes to us and we hear in this community.

And in that sharing, we hear and know God’s unquenchable love for us and press on all the more.

To all those women, 
the mothers, the writers, the artists, and the prophets, who are an oasis 
and who stir up a fresh vision of God’s kingdom with their work and lives
so that we might continue faithfully in this journey.

We’ve got a great line up for the upcoming blog tour, author videos in the works, and hopefully webinars/discussions. These are SUCH important issues and all the honesty and vulnerability from the authors has compelled me to make sure we hear their voices, and offer a space for those needing to articulate the struggle. Please join us!