The day I knew I was a pastor also was the day I first dressed like one.
The week before, I had sat in the pew with everyone else, generally in the front but always off to the side. But on that day, I put on the long black robe for the first time, completely hiding the hot pink dress underneath, and stood at the back of the sanctuary with the acolytes and the other pastors.
I was still in seminary and had not yet taken my ordination vows, but I was serving in a “supervised practice of ministry” at a Presbyterian church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan under the tutelage of exceptional church leaders who took their ministry — and the Upper East Side — very seriously.
As the organ began the opening hymn, I processed down the aisle and took my place in the chancel. I read the Call to Worship, accepted the collection plates when the elders brought them forward, and offered the Prayer of Dedication. And as I processed out to the same booming organ, I thought about the experiences that had led me to this point — church musicals, summer camp, religious studies in college — and the people who had confirmed to me God’s calling in my life — my youth director, my pastor, my parents.
I felt that this strange pastoral role was somehow where I belonged and that God was actively working in my life and calling me into ordained ministry. It never occurred to me that this might be an unusual thing for a 26-year-old woman to feel — and, in fact, for many of us, it isn’t unusual at all.
A few days later, I sat in the office of the Senior Pastor, glancing nervously out of his window at Central Park and at Christo’s Gates, which lined every path in the park that year. I sat with my legs crossed at the ankles, perched on a brown leather wingback chair, awaiting his judgment. Had I done everything right? Had I managed to convey both the solemnity of the worship event and a feeling of warmth and welcome from the church? Was my voice clear and loud enough, or was it too loud, as tended to be my problem? Did anyone notice that I had put the collection plates on the communion table rather than their assigned location on the pedestals below the chancel?
I waited for the wise ruling to be delivered in his booming baritone voice, born from previous years of training in opera.
“Well,” he said, “the most important thing is to always wear black shoes. Other than that, you were fine.”
Honestly, you wouldn’t really think that shoes would come first. But it’s these practical issues that tend to elicit interest, provoke conversation, and spark the mini-scandals of church life. And often it’s these practical issues that affect young clergy women the most.
That’s what I learned from this experience and others as I gathered stories from young women in ministry for the book “Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman,” written with my friend and co-author, Rev. Ashley-Anne Masters. She and I collected stories from clergy women serving in different ministries and denominations, stories that can be motivating, touching, amusing and even troubling.
We focused on issues and questions that we believe are common yet unique to young women in ministry, things like shoes on Sunday, dating and divorce, being pregnant in the pulpit and trying to balance Saturday nights and sermon-writing.
“Bless Her Heart” is the first book in a series written by, for and about the varied experiences of young clergy women, and it aims to shine a light on the frustrations of young women in ministry while also celebrating the joy, wonder and gift of our callings from God.
Of course, women in ministry, and specifically young women in ministry, are certainly not new. Among the Johns and Peters in the Bible, we also have the Marys and Marthas. In modern times, Antoinette Brown was the probably the first female pastor, ordained in 1853 at age 28 — just a year older than I was when I was ordained.
Since the 1950s, most of the mainline Protestant denominations have begun ordaining women, a fact you can see in many churches in Memphis and around the world. Right now, about a third of all students in seminary in the U.S. are women. That number is even higher at schools like Union Seminary where I attended and which was recently featured on an episode of PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” on the subject of women in ministry.
Yet as seminaries graduate more and more women, the words “young,” “clergy” and “woman” have come together to describe this growing group of ordained church leaders. There are so many young clergy women that we now have the Young Clergy Women Project, an organized network of more than 650 members serving in 10 different countries and dozens of denominations.
Many of us write for their online journal, Fidelia’s Sisters, on topics like “Called & Sent,” about the challenges of finding a church call; “Christ and Creativity,” which focuses on new ideas for ministry; and “The Single Rev’s Guide to Life,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The tagline of the Young Clergy Women Project — “Because you’re not the only one.” — testifies to their mission and calling.
We do not intend to argue whether or not women should or should not be ordained. Rather, we simply say that they are, and offer a glimpse into the lives of these women, and a chance to connect with and support one another in our ministries.
In my first church in New York, and now in my daily work here in Memphis, I experience the support of women and men of all ages and backgrounds, yet regularly connect with other young clergy women to share our stories and learn from one another.
Like other mothers and sisters in the faith, I am a young woman called to serve God. And I am part of a wonderful and growing group of pastors who are in many ways just like me — and who may, or may not, wear black shoes.
Young Clergy Women Project
Who: A network of ordained clergy women under 40. About 650 clergy women in dozens of denominations in the U.S. and around the world are participating.
What: Hosts annual preaching conferences, a website and Fidelia’s Sisters — an online publication by, for, and about young clergy women.
For more information: Visit youngclergywomen.org.
Rev. Stacy C. Smith works at the Church Health Center and Idlewild Presbyterian Church. “Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman,” written with Rev. Ashley-Anne Masters, was published by Chalice Press in 2011 and is available locally at The Booksellers at Laurelwood and online.