Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Shepastor: “Know What You’ve Got…Excerpts from the ‘Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling Event’ Ashland Theological Seminary”

Last Wednesday, I was blessed to serve as the lecturer/workshop leader for an event sponsored by Ashland Theological Seminary. The event was titled for my book, Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors (Judson Press, 2013)I was joined in the presentation by my friend and brother, The Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle, President of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. Together we addressed the persistent struggles women pastors face as they, by faith, pursue the role of senior/solo pastors.
A recent Duke University study (December, 2015) revealed the following in the article, "How Thick is the Stained Glass Ceiling?" It states:

Even as U.S. congregations become more ethnically diverse, a new analysis of Duke University’s National Congregations Study shows that women hold only a small minority of those faith communities’ top leadership positions. Women serve as senior or solo pastoral leaders of just 11 percent of U.S. congregations — indicating essentially no overall increase from when the study was first done in 1998. These women-led communities contain only about 6 percent of the people who attend the nation’s religious services.

(Click here to read article, Duke University)
In light of these statistics, many women pastors have difficulty remaining hopeful and even sure of their calling and “merchandise.” With these experiences in mind, I was drawn to Proverbs 31:18, KJV which declares,

“She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.”

Below are excerpts from the sermon I preached during the event, “Know What You’ve Got.”

A young music artist by the name of Rachel Platten recently came out with a hit song called, “Fight Song.” Getting her first hit was no easy journey. She’d been writing and striving for 15 years to be heard. Song after song was rejected. During an interview on the Today Show, Hoda Kotb asked Rachel, “While you were going through all of this, did you ever think that maybe this was the wrong direction for your life and that maybe you should give up?” Rachel responded, “No, the voice inside me was too loud saying, ‘You’ve got something…don’t quit!’”

In order to push past adversity, past rejection, past inner voices of doubt, past fear, past taunts debasing and denying your giftedness and calling, you’ve got to KNOW what you’ve got! This simple verse of scripture, couched between lines of a passage traditionally used as a theme for “Women’s Days,” is often lost and over looked. The fact that the woman described in this passage is an industrious, business savvy, creative, well rounded, “got it going on, self-confident” woman is often swept under the rug and instead side lined for the emphasis, that “charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised…”

As if, fearing the Lord and knowing how to take care of your business are some how antithetical to one another. But that is another topic, another sermon for another day. Tonight, I would like to focus upon this concept of knowing, perceiving, in tune with, understand what you’ve got…what God has strategically placed within you…your worth, your skill, your vision, your giftedness, your reason…your purpose.

Although the King James Version is frowned upon because of its antiquated and formal language, I like it’s rendering of this verse…Proverbs 31:18:

“She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.”

She perceives…
Perception is a powerful thing.
Perception, in other words how you visually, experientially (through the senses) and psychologically take in information, process information and then form a view based upon how you have interpreted that information serves as the basis for how we see ourselves, others and the world around us.

But God has placed down within us something that can super cede that which our natural senses and perceptions dictate. It is a divine sense of knowing who you are and to what God is calling you to be/become. It is to use Rachel Platten’s words, that “loud voice saying, “you’ve got something!” To use the Queen’s descriptor in our text as she counseled her son on what to look for in a good woman, “she perceives that her merchandise is good…” But how do you hear that loud voice and perceive that your merchandise is good when all around you is denying your internal reality?

Before you were shaped and formed in your mother’s womb, the Lord called you and anointed you to be a prophet, a pastor, a preacher yet the world and the church declares, God does not use women in that capacity… Well, somebody might be saying, “That was a long time ago. Women are now serving as preachers and pastors. Doors are opening. We are holding prominent positions in the world and the church. This conversation is old and over with. Let’s move on!” Mentalities like that may not realize that they are caught up in smoke and mirrors! It is tantamount to thinking that racism is over in America because we have elected our first African American President and we have a number of African American millionaires, billionaires and CEO’s! But how many know that racism and sexism is alive and well in America?

While it may seem that the struggle for women clergy is over, data proves otherwise. According to a 2015 Duke University study on the number of women serving as senior/solo pastors, the number still lingers at 11%...the same as in 1998! Yes, we have seen advancement in the number of women being called to and placed in senior/solo pastor positions, but the advancement is minimal and at a snail’s pace. The fact that we can name them indicates how few there are. The tendency is to suggest that women clergy who “don’t make it,” or whose small, fragmented, struggling congregations aren’t thriving, growing and excelling…the tendency is to blame the clergywoman… “She must be doing something wrong, she must not have what it takes…maybe that isn’t really her calling…”

All of these assertions can impact how a woman “perceives her merchandise.”
As mentioned earlier, there are great similarities between sexism and racism. Recently, both Dr. McMickle and I were involved in the Conference of National Black Churches Consultation held in Charleston, South Carolina. The purpose of the Consultation was to address the historic and ongoing racial tensions in America and to consider the role of the Church in bringing about racial healing and reconciliation. One of the lecturers, Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones gave a powerful illustration concerning the impact of institutional and internalized racism upon perspectives…an illustration that I found particularly relevant, also, to the plight of women pastors.

You have a copy of the article, “The Gardner’s Tale” in your notebook. But to highlight the relevancy of her discussion about racism to our discussion of sexism and women clergy, consider the “red flower pot” and the “pink flower pot…”

The two seeds are the same in terms of substance, potential and overall makeup. The only difference is that the color of one is red and the color of one is pink. The RED seeds, however, are planted in rich, dark, beautiful soil while the PINK is planted in old, rocky, sandy soil. The RED flowers grow tall and robust. Everyone admires and congratulates the RED flowers. They even look at each other and affirm, admire and congratulate one another!!!

The PINK flowers on the other hand struggle to make it out of the rocky, sandy dirt. The few that do are scraggly, and surrounded by weeds. The few that do gain some height are still short and frail, in comparison to the strong, tall RED flowers. They look at themselves and one another and think, “There must be something wrong with us. Why can’t we grow? Why are we so weak and thronged by weeds?”

Suddenly they look around and see a few PINK flowers in the RED pot. Somehow, the two or three pink seeds got mixed up in the RED flower pot. But when they look over at their pink brother and sister flowers, they too are looking upon the PINK flower pot with disdain, “Humph, look at us…we are PINK FLOWERS…we are growing and thriving…we are strong and robust…there must be something wrong with THOSE pink flowers. They just don’t have what it takes…they must not be trying hard enough…they don’t represent us!”

The PINK flowers who happened to get into the good soil don’t realize that given similar circumstances, they too might be thronged with weeds and scraggly! The PINK flowers in the rocky, sandy soil struggle to develop an awareness and internal affirmation that “their merchandise is good.”

While we need to celebrate the accomplishments and successes of our beautiful, strong, resilient clergywomen who have fought the good fight, pressed through rocky, sandy soil and also those who have been blessed to be planted in dark, rich, beautiful soil, we stand in danger of partying too long!

In my own denomination, American Baptist Churches, USA, along with Cooperative Baptists probably lead the way, in terms of calling women to serve in executive leadership roles and in senior/solo pastorates. The fact remains, however, that the numbers are still miniscule. Because we are so proud and excited for those who have broken through the stained glass ceiling, there is a lackadaisical spirit and even resistance to whole heartedly tackling this persistent, ongoing struggle among our churches to call women to serve as senior/solo pastors. Again, those churches that do call us are predominantly Euro, elderly, dying, very small congregations. We discussed earlier the cultural struggles, on top of a myriad of other issues this presents for women clergy in general and clergy women of color, in particular.

The argument and excuse used is that a majority of mainline Protestant churches in America are small and dying. But when I look around Cleveland, Ohio, for example, recently we had a major turnover of pastors… a “changing of the guard” if you will. NOT ONE of our Baptist congregations called a woman, although a plethora of women are seminary trained and WELL qualified to serve. At least SIX pastors of relatively healthy, stable, mid-sized to large congregations in our area over the last 5-7 years retired. Not ONE of those churches called or maybe even strongly considered calling a woman.

For those few women who were called to pastor congregations, most were small and dying and other denominations. One or two made it into small churches that were heavily endowed with financial resources that made ALL OF THE DIFFERENCE. Those are the EXCEPTIONS, not the rule. I am convinced that God raises the “exceptions” to change the rule. It is so easy to slip into the “Pink flower in the Red flower pot” mentality if you are one of the FEW who have made it out. It so easy to look upon others with disdain and assume that you are where you are because you are “all of that!”

No, no…we are where we are and have become all that we have become because of the grace and mercy of Almighty God! God has blessed us to be so in order that God can use us to make a difference, bring about a change and help somebody else to see that yes, they too have “merchandise that is good!” God calls us to help raise up somebody else. God calls us to help open up some doors for somebody else. God calls us to make some waves, point out the disparity, raise the hard questions and yes, speak up and say, “Something is still wrong that in 2016 I am still one of a few!!!”

I am not suggesting that everyone has the same gifts and talents and abilities and wherewithal. I am not suggesting that we can ignore the giftedness and exceptionalism of some individuals that cause them to rise above many others. But what I am suggesting is that there are MANY MORE gifted, many more anointed, many more empowered…many more women clergy with wherewithal that are stuck in sandy, rocky, dry, weed filled pots and are dying without the help and concern of others. Dying, struggling, hungry and lonely…yes, because we’ve been engrained with the notion that we can’t trust one another, because of insecurity and fear, because of the “crab in the bucket” mentality that lives and thrives among those deprived of real opportunity, because of the jealousy and envy that swells up among the oppressed…because of these things, we lack the encouragement and support that we could have among each other. All of these things, I have termed, “the strange fruit of oppression.”

Yes, God can and will use you anywhere. Yes, God can still get the glory even in the sandy, broken, dry pot. But it is not acceptable to become resigned to the fact that we are all CALLED to the sandy rocky pots. There is a difference between being called and being relegated to a place. Was God glorified through the faithfulness of the slaves as they met in old, broken down shacks after they worked themselves almost to death and then still went out and prayed, and sang as the people of God? Absolutely! Was that God's plan and will for their lives…NO!

Is God honored as people work three jobs just to earn a living wage and yet tithe and serve in their local congregations? Yes, God is honored by the faithfulness of His servants, but I believe God is grieved by the system that keeps them in that oppressed condition! Is everyone called to pastor large, affluent, resource filled congregations? No, but should the door be open for those who are? YES! The point is not to say that all women clergy should be pastors, that all women clergy should be called to “plush” situations, that all women clergy should have mid-sized to large, resourceful congregations. This is to say, however, that clergywomen should be given REAL opportunities to pastor churches in every category, whether small, broken, dysfunctional or healthy, stable and resourceful.

Finally, no matter where you are called, no matter where you find yourself serving, no matter what doors have not come open and what ceilings have yet to be broken, you’ve got to know that your merchandise is good. You’ve got to recognize the reality of the “pot” in which you currently serve and understand that your situation does not define your substance! Understand that your predicament does not define your personhood. Realize that your valley does not define or dictate your value! Know that you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Know that with God, ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE, know that your gift will make room for you, know that God can and will use you, no matter your circumstance, know that you can make a difference for the Kingdom!

Keep on preaching, keep on teaching, keep on telling men, women boys and girls that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. Keep on lifting as you climb, keep on pressing towards the mark, keep on trusting in the true and living God, and no matter what doors human beings try to keep locked, God will open doors, no matter what ceilings human beings try to hold over your head, God will break through, keep believing that Greater is He that is within you, than he that is within the world.
God will lift you, God will keep you, God will sustain you, God will make a way for you God will carry you through!

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Until next Wednesday,
In Faith, Hope and Perseverance,
Pastor Chris

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