Today I’m excited to share an interview by Martha Spong, editor of the new book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor. The book features stories and anecdotes from dozens of women clergy across denominations. Martha and I talk about the book, of course, but also a little about women and ministry, in general, and some generational differences. I loved this interview and am so excited to share it with you. Enjoy:
TS: Martha, though their are many contributors, you are the editor and principal “dreamer” of this book, so it’s an honor to have you talk about it. For those who may have not heard anything about the book, can you tell us a little about what it’s about and who the intended audience is?
MS: Thank you for writing about the book! It’s an anthology of stories and prayers about ministry written by more than 50 women pastors from five different countries, representing fifteen denominations. They are all members (past or active) of the RevGalBlogPals web ring, which we formed in 2005. We think it’s a good read not just for pastors, but for people considering ordained ministry and others who are interested in what a pastor’s life might be like.
TS: What inspired you to write this book and publish it?
There are a lot of wonderful writers in our web ring with distinctive voices and wide-ranging experiences of ministry, some because of their geographic or ecclesiastical context, and others because of personal factors. Their stories are hilarious and heart-wrenching and often humbling. I wanted to bring their testimony about faith and ministry to a larger audience, and so did the publisher, SkyLight Paths.
TS: I’m curious about your own call to ministry. Did you always want to be a minister? How did you know this was God’s call for your life?
I grew up in Virginia and had an ecumenical upbringing: a Southern Baptist mother and grandmother on one side, a United Methodist father and grandmother on the other, then six years of living where we attended a Presbyterian Church while I went to Episcopal school. In none of those places did I ever encounter a woman in ordained ministry, although some of those denominations had begun to ordain women. It never occurred to me it was something a woman could do until I was in college and was encouraged by my cousin, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. My dream growing up was to marry the minister’s son, with a child’s confidence that he would grow up to be a minister! That is not quite the way things turned out. I grew to understand that I had a call all along to a life in the church. And funnily, I am now both a pastor and a pastor’s wife. (And so is she.)
It seems like this book would be a great gift for a clergy woman who was just starting out in ministry What words of encouragement would you have for a new seminary graduate just beginning her ministry?
Don’t assume you’ve finished learning the things you need to know. Field Ed or Mentored Practice gives only a taste of what practical ministry will demand. We’ve all been taught by the people to whom we are called as pastors and teachers. Keep or cultivate a sense of humor. And be sure to read the section in the book called ”They Don’t Teach That in Seminary!”
TS: I will definitely look for the “they don’t teach that in seminary” section. I’m guessing there will be some familiar content there! I know there are a lot of contributors to this work and so picking a “favorite” might be impossible but is there any section or essay that you would highlight as being particularly meaningful to you?
I am particularly fond of the stories I asked people to write; they came from members of our web ring who identify as bloggers, but not so much as “writers,” although every one of them writes a lot for her work as a pastor and preacher. These were stories I knew had happened and wanted to include in the book. Among those, I love Stephanie Anthony’s about visiting her daughter’s religious school in a tradition that does not ordain women, “For Some Reason.” One that summons up tears every time is Jennifer Burns Lewis’s essay about her mother and baptism, “By Water and the Word.” And as a fellow knitter, I have a great appreciation for Stacey Simpson Duke’s “I Rise Before the Sun.” Really, though, I love them all.
TS: Ok, so changing topics a bit, I read a tweet the other day where a woman was talking about her daughter’s experience flipping through a book of presidents. The daughter looked up and said “mom, do you have to be a boy to be president?” I feel like the same is not true for female clergy, though. My seminary class was about 1/2 female, and many of my colleagues in town are gifted women leaders. On the other hand, I experience blatant and subtle sexism often in my work. What do you think about all of this? Do you think women have “arrived” or do we still have a long ways to go?
MS: I think we’re somewhere in the middle. There is still a lot of institutional sexism where salary is concerned. Women still face the assumption that a spouse will cover their insurance or that being married means they don’t need to be paid as much. This isn’t unique to ministry, but one would hope the church would do a better job becoming aware and making changes. One of the reasons RevGals took off as a community ten years ago was the cyber-bonding between women who did not have colleague groups. It’s fine if you’re in an area where there are lots of women clergy or even sympathetic or accepting male colleagues, but over and over I heard stories about being the only woman within fifty miles, or the only mainline pastor in a small town where the ministerium asked the lone woman to be the secretary at their meetings. Women seemed to be appointed to or accepting calls in smaller churches and towns. In my own life, I started as solo pastor in a church with 90 members, while my seminary classmates who were male went to churches with 200 or 300. Part of that was my choice. I had three children at home and was looking for a way to balance ministry and motherhood. But part of that is assumptions within the systems, too.
TS: Ok, it’s never polite to ask a person’s age, but I think that you might have some great insight about generational differences for women in ministry. How has ministry for women changed over the years that you’ve been in ministry? What advantages do younger women ministers have that our older peers do not?
MSI am very open about my age! I’m 53, and I was ordained at 41 after spending 8 years in seminary, in part due to a choice to be as available as possible to my kids. The biggest change I see is that women are now being seriously considered for what we think of, rightly or wrongly, as the “big” or “tall steeple” jobs in ministry. We believe God calls us to ministry on behalf of Jesus Christ, without setting limits on the size and situation of the churches, but the churches themselves have been slower to get there. One of the women called to a tall steeple this past year, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler at Riverside Church in New York, was part of our web ring very early on while serving a small and struggling church. The Rev. Shannon Kershner, a dear friend, is now the lead pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. It hasn’t been that long since clergywomen were voicing frustration that women were given only token consideration for these jobs; now we see relatively young women living into them and becoming recognizable in the wider world. I think that’s tremendously hopeful.
TS: What’s something you’d like to tell us about the book that I didn’t get around to asking?
MS: Although it’s not a book specifically about RevGalBlogPals, if you read all the stories, you’ll get some insight into our history as a community, including how we started and why we take those group pictures of our feet. 🙂
TS: Where can readers get a copy of this fantastic book?
MS: It’s available from SkyLight Paths Publishing (you’ll find links here to e-books, too), as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and UCC Resources. I’ve heard it’s in some seminary bookstores already, too. Ask your local bookstore to stock it!
TS: How can readers connect with you and the other contributors?
MS: RevGalBlogPals has a blog with daily content aimed at resourcing pastors. Twenty-three of the writers for the book are also on our blog team. And the book page on our blog has links to all their personal blogs.
You can also find us on Facebook, where we have a huge discussion group (2600+ members) as well as a page sharing resources from our blog and members, and you can follow us on Twitter.
Martha Spong is a United Church of Christ pastor, writer, blogger, and Director of RevGalBlogPals – a job that is equal parts Social Media Minister, Webmaster, Volunteer Coordinator, Event Planner and Dreamer. She lives in South Central Pennsylvania with her wife Kathryn Johnston, a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor. They have four children.