Rev. Melissa Cooper

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The Church that Could Be, Pt. 3: Finding Direction

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As we enter a new year, many of us take this opportunity to re-evaluate or re-center our lives and our ministries. Ministry leaders, I want to challenge you to take this opportunity seriously. As our churches move into this new era of what church is being and becoming, it's important that we don't get so lost in the day to day struggles that we forget to dream. 

Over the next few days, I want to invite you to look at your church. To look at where it has come from, to look at where it is now, and, most importantly, to dream about what it could beYou can catch the first installment of this series here and the second here.

I received my calling in my early twenties, and while it has grown and developed in the last decade or so, the call to be a full-time vocational minister has not changed. The thing about that -- and this is where some of that cognitive dissonance of working for an institution that may also work against me at times comes in  -- the thing about being called to ministry in the church as a female is that sometimes, you don’t see a lot of folks who look like you doing what you feel called to do. 

I think much of this is changing - fewer and fewer of my female pastor colleagues are arriving at new churches and being “the first.” And yet, we still have miles to go. 

For me, I have probably had less challenge than many because of the strong and brave women who went before me. And still, there have been and still are challenges.

I have had some incredible mentors of a variety of generations of clergy. They taught me and nurtured me and encouraged me in every way possible. And yet, every direct mentor I have had in ministry, every clergy supervisor or director, has been male. Wonderful men, but men nonetheless. Men who did their best to prepare me for what ministry would look like, but men who did not have to face what my female colleagues have faced. 

Being a woman in ministry is different. And when you’re young, it’s different yet. And when you’re young and look even younger than you are - I felt like I had arrived in the last few years when people started guessing my age in the early 20s instead of the teens - it’s challenging.

There are techniques we take on - I have made sure every name tag I have had for every position has had my title of “Reverend” on it. It transforms conversations - for some young people, and women, it opens their eyes to see someone who looks like them with a title that might have been relegated to a grandfather-figure lookalike previously. And for those who are more the grandfather-figure lookalikes, I am immediately granted a tiny bit more credibility and respect than I would have had before. 

Even then, a name tag can only do so much. Being heard in a sea of older men is not easy. It’s not easy to speak up in a room that feels like a good old boys network that has unwritten rules and a secret handshake no one has yet shared. 

The challenge is, in order to be noticed and heard when your calling is in an area that is historically male-dominated, the behaviors and leadership styles you have to emulate are often those of your male mentors and counterparts. That’s how you get heard and noticed.

Except … those same behaviors and leadership styles, when espoused by a woman, end up earning you different titles. I’ve been spared some of the worst and nastiest, but “overbearing,” “opinionated,” and “unteachable,” have been thrown my way over time.

And it’s not just issues of sexism and ageism I encounter. My specific call and the work I do brings up a whole other issue. 

The past few years, I’ve found my call in advocating and equipping for intergenerational faith communities. Although intergenerational ministry is not just about children, much of my work has centered around supporting families in doing faith together, both at church and at home. Often my teaching, though focused specifically on faith formation, begins to toe the line of discussing parenting techniques and choices, and sometimes crosses over.

Well, the big surprise reveal is … I’m not a parent. I do not have children in my nuclear family. I’m also an only child, married to an only child. I don’t have a lot of first-hand, or even second-hand experience, raising children in a home. So even in a place where I am knowledgeable, educated, experienced, and yes, called - even then, my credibility is questioned because of my family’s choice to not have children of our own. 

So often, even those of us with the most open minds and the best of intentions create singular images for what kind of person can fill a specific role. This is what a pastor looks like, this is what someone looks like who can inform how I raise my children, this is what a Christian looks like … 

And this is why the intergenerational community is so essential - THIS is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 12. Community is about being sure that all parts of the body - hands, feet, and even those less often seen or celebrated - community is about bringing those parts of the body together, first because we are better when we’re together, when we’re working together and supporting each other in our individual callings. But also because when the body works together, the whole body, the younger parts can see how the more experienced parts are living out their callings - all of them.

The final installment in this series is coming Monday. 

Be sure you're subscribed for updates to ensure you don't miss future installments! This series is adapted from a sermon originally preached in May 2017 at Collective in DeLand, FL. 

Melissa CooperComment