I didn’t think it was really lost. I just hadn’t seen it for ages. In 2006, while attending the International Clergywomen’s Consultation in Chicago, I took a walk out to Lake Michigan during some free time. Along the way I caught up with a woman walking alone. She wasn’t sure how to get to the lake and asked if she could join me.
Bonnie was a Native American clergywoman working as a Hospice chaplain. We shared a bit about our ministries until we arrived at the lake. Bonnie wanted to sit along the water, and I continued along the lake shore. Half an hour later we walked back to the hotel together.
Bonnie said that she was feeling burned out from ministering day in and day out among people who were dying. She was questioning her call, wondering if she was making any difference in the lives of others. Bonnie shared stories of her ministry and said that this time away with other clergywomen was bringing healing and renewed energy to her life. I listened. That’s all I did.
Arriving back at the hotel, I hugged Bonnie, knowing that I might very well never see her again. As I turned to go, she said, “Wait a minute.” She took a beautiful turquoise ring from her finger and gave it to me. My jaw dropped, and I exclaimed, “Why are you doing this?” She said, “In the Native American tradition, when someone does something meaningful for us, we give them something in return. Thank you for listening to me.”
I put the ring on my finger. That’s not a big deal to most people, but a watch and a wedding ring is all I wear. Yet Bonnie’s incredible generosity prompted me to slip on the ring. Over the past eight years I’ve worn the turquoise ring just a few times but always kept it in my purse. It’s a sign of God’s grace and empowerment as well as a summons to support, mentor and advocate for other clergywomen on our common journey.
Cleaning out my office a month ago, I serendipitously discovered the ring. It had gotten lost in the move last year. Knowing that I was going to spend the next three days with other clergywomen, I slipped it on my finger again.
The theme for our gathering was Where Grace Meets Power; Standing for Each Other’s Greatness. What a joy to be in the presence of so many clergywomen of all ages, ethnicities and experience levels. What bound us together was our common call to practice courageous, grace-filled leadership. At the same time, my own growing edges were soon painfully exposed by the testimony of my clergy sisters.
I realized anew that being a white woman in ministry confers privileges in our culture and ecclesiastical hierarchy that are not evident until we hear the voices of the minority. Glancing at my ring, I was reminded that it was given to me by a Native American woman. I was stunned, convicted and, I pray, transformed by stories of rejection, racism and hopelessness shared by my Latina, African-American, Asian and Native American sisters. And, yes, these were stories of United Methodist clergy serving in United Methodist ministry settings.
But it’s not just race or gender that prevents clergywomen from claiming their own greatness. Bias exhibited because of generational differences, age, disability, sexual orientation, clergy status, personality and personal style also diminishes our self-worth and confidence as well as our call. If clergywomen cannot even claim our own greatness, how can we ever stand for the greatness of others, especially when our neighbor does not look, live, love, think or believe like us? Bonnie’s gift of the turquoise ring reminds me of my call to be prophetic.
As gaze at my ring, I realize that another growing edge is the ability to claim my power as a gift from God. One of the greatest affirmations of our Christian heritage is that power does not come from ourselves. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on the day of Pentecost. When we claim the power of the servant leadership of Jesus rather than the subjugating leadership of much of our world today, power becomes shared rather than dehumanizing.
Many clergy, both men and women, find conflict to be one of the most difficult aspects of ministry. Of course, conflict is not good or bad. It’s a natural and healthy part of human life. Unfortunately, many clergy are people pleasers, so we tend to ignore, downplay or run away from any hint of conflict.
The challenge is to claim our power by directly and graciously engaging and then transforming conflict by seeking solutions that honor all parties involved. Dr. Kim Cape, General Secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, reminded us of a John Wayne quote, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” Bonnie’s ring reminds me of my call to claim my power to be courageous, humble and grace-filled.
When I take off my turquoise ring before exercising, I am reminded of a third growing edge that will likely never go away: balance and self-care. Like so many clergy, I struggle to be a whole person in the midst of the high expectations, constant demands and relentless nature of ministry. Even if we work sixteen hours a day instead of eight, we still may not get around to visiting Jane, calling Jeff or showing up at Sue’s party.
I remember how burned out Bonnie was when she gave me the ring and know that I have been there, too. Workaholism and ministry do not mix well. Her ring reminds me that when clergy hold each other accountable to appropriate boundaries, necessary time away and regular exercise and hobbies, we declare to our congregations that we are only human. Only then are we free to live whole and integrated lives.
I wear this ring because of the generosity of a woman whom I met only once and will never likely see again. I also wear it as a reminder that millions of faithful lay people eagerly desire to partner with their clergy in making disciples for the transformation of the world. The church lives out its call most clearly when clergy and laity stand for each other’s greatness.
Thank you, laity, for embracing us for the unique children of God that all human beings are. It is difficult for clergy to live into their authentic selves without support from the laity. Thank you for not defining us by our skin color, body shape, clothes, age or family. Acknowledge our greatness, just as we pledge to acknowledge your greatness.
Thank you, laity, for also encouraging us in our ministry and helping us to become who God wants us to be. Ministry is a very challenging calling, and I’ve often counseled young clergy, “Don’t go into ministry unless the call is deep and compelling and God is not calling you to anything else.”
Affirm us, guide us, gently make suggestions, and help us to grow in our skills. You can even talk turkey to us when necessary, but please do it with grace, as we pledge to treat you with grace. Give us permission to take time away because we will come back fresher, healthier and more rested. Likewise, we will gladly encourage you to step away from leadership when you feel burned out or must tend to family or professional needs.
And thank you, laity, for empowering us as servant leaders. Thank you for being in shared ministry with us so that, together, we can dream dreams, see new visions, and creatively proclaim the gospel in an ever-changing context. By collaborating together, we truly can change the world.
I really don’t know what to do with this ring. If I keep wearing it, am I dissing my Mennonite heritage of plain and simple living? On the other hand, am I being stubborn by refusing to wear it simply out of principle? Am I just like so many of our churches, living in the past, clinging to outmoded ways that no longer apply to today’s world?
I need to be who I am and who God created me to be. So if I feel led to put on the ring, I’ll do it. I will claim my greatness by remembering the kindness of Bonnie, who gave me this gift out of gratitude. I will remember my clergy sisters and brothers who have given their lives to ministry and the laity whose support and encouragement calls out the best in us. And I will remember that there is more than enough, hope, courage and grace to transform myself and our world.