Sustaining Pastoral Excellence
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Praying for Our Sisters, Singing for Our Lives

Whether men or women, all clergy struggle with such issues as long hours, church conflict, and isolation.  But for women clergy, the challenges of pastoral ministry—especially the isolation—are compounded and intensified. Because women are only a small percentage of parish clergy nationwide (roughly 15 percent in mainline Protestant denominations), they typically have a difficult time finding female colleagues and mentors. Within denominations, women pastors are usually scattered geographically. While male pastors can be a valued source of support, most women pastors yearn for a “sister” pastor who knows and understands the unique challenges of women in ministry.

As a woman pastor, I have been blessed to experience and to be sustained by the ministry that women can provide to other women.  Three years ago, I was chosen to be part of Women Touched by Grace, a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program conducted by the Benedict Inn Retreat and Conference Center in Beech Grove, Ind. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the program brings together 30 clergy women from across the United States and Canada for 10-day sessions focused on building community, parish leadership, spiritual direction and prayer disciplines. Representing 11 Protestant denominations, we were all serving congregations when we were selected, either as associate, solo, or senior pastors.  A third of us are single, a third are married with children still living at home.  We were all chosen because the selection committee believed we were the top candidates; we already exemplified excellence in ministry. 

From the outset, Women Touched by Grace took us in directions we could not have imagined. Two years into the program, four of the 30—myself included—found ourselves out of parish ministry, at least temporarily.  One of the four retired sooner than planned, and I and the other two are wrestling with the difficult decision whether to enter specialized ministry or leave ministry altogether.  All of us made it past the critical five year threshold when significant numbers of new pastors decide to leave.  Yet we all continue to struggle with the issues that face women in ministry.

Numerous studies as well as anecdotal accounts attest to the challenges that face women pastors. Women, for example, leave the pastorate more often than do men, some studies suggest, in part because of the traditional preference in many congregations for male pastors. Women pastors also tend to leave ministry sooner than men, and once out, tend to stay out longer.  In addition, women pastors have a more difficult time moving up to their second call, taking longer than men to obtain a position.  A greater percentage of women clergy serve in non-parish ministries, and those who do serve in parishes are more likely than men to be associate, interim or supply pastors and not the pastor in charge. 
Underlying these broad statistical realities, however, are the horror stories that clergy women share in their national and regional gatherings.  Again and again, I have heard stories of harassment, intimidation, and abuse of clergy women—but also stories of women who stay, persevere, and maintain long and successful ministries. For women clergy, sustaining pastoral excellence is not only about spiritual practices and leadership skills.  It is also about retaining gifted women pastors for whom ministry is all too often an ordeal of grace under fire.

Our SPE program has equipped us to take risks. It has given us the courage to discern and to make needed changes, even if that might mean leaving ministry.

Many of us in Women Touched by Grace have wondered if the program staff had any idea how unstable we would turn out to be.  In addition to the four of us who are in transition without a call, eight other women pastors have changed calls since the program started.  More than just the usual turnover, these changes resulted from the strengthened spiritual leadership we have gained.  Our SPE program has equipped us to take risks. It has given us the courage to discern and to make needed changes, even if that might mean leaving ministry. We have learned that pastoral excellence requires special support during times of transition, when clergy struggle with issues of call, gifts and identity. 

One of the greatest needs experienced by pastors in transition is peer support, which Women Touched by Grace has provided in abundance.  All the participants are in small, ecumenically diverse covenant groups of five women. As Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger noted in Pastors in Transition, many clergy find it difficult to talk about their problems with denominational supervisors who will be involved with future placements or with colleagues with whom they may compete for future appointments. But thanks to the diversity of our groups, we have been able to tap a wealth of experienced leadership while revealing our most vulnerable selves without fear of reprisal.  Between meetings, we continue to support each other through online chat rooms for our covenant groups and a list-serve for the entire group. Each woman pastor has both a trained spiritual director brought in for the program and a prayer partner from within Our Lady of Grace Monastery, the Benedictine Community that sponsors Women Touched by Grace.  Both these peer support persons are women.
It’s not a new thing, this notion of women in ministry supporting one another. Mary, the Mother of our Lord, turned to her older cousin Elizabeth for affirmation and support in her unique calling.  Both women came to know themselves as women touched by grace. Indeed, that became their identity.  The angel even addresses Mary saying “Hail, full of grace” instead of calling her by her name.  At each session of our program, we have deepened that same identity within ourselves.  At one gathering, as we entered the chapel, we found a sign that read “The meditation today will be delivered by a Woman Touched by Grace.”  Every day, each of us says a prayer that was written for us:

    Creator God,
    As women touched by your grace, we stand before you, open vessels.
    Fill us with joy and compassion, with fidelity and faith, with love and
    all good things to the point of overflowing.
    May others who thirst come to us for refreshment and in us, find you.
    Make us worthy bearers of your word and stewards of your gifts so that, in all things, you alone may be glorified.
    We ask this in the name of Jesus, our brother and savior. 

We also have a song, “Touched by Grace,” that was composed for us.  The refrain goes “Touched by grace, we are women touched by grace, from the hand of God, from the heart of God, who sends us forth, who sends us forth to serve.”  Powerful reminders of our identity as called women pastors, the prayer and the song sustain us in the challenges of daily ministry and in the particular difficulties of transition. 
As a woman who had already experienced many of the same things her young cousin was going through, Elizabeth was able to minister to Mary in the ways that women have long ministered to other women:  gathering in circles, passing on wisdom, and praying together. For the 30 Protestant pastors in Women Touched by Grace, the women with whom we gather and pray and from whom we receive wisdom are Catholic women religious, members of The Sisters of St. Benedict. Denied the opportunity to lead worship and to preach, they make us realize how privileged we are to be bearers of God’s word. Having built, administered and led their own faith communities for more years than all Protestant denominations combined have been ordaining women, these Catholic Sisters are a rich source of wisdom. Their prayers undergird us not only when we gather in session, but constantly.  At the close of our sessions, just before we leave, the women pastors stand in the front of the chapel and the Sisters raise their hands toward us and bless us.  Women Touched by Grace fosters the creation of deep community through prayer, worship, ritual, shared experiences of faith and ministry, and hospitality.  Each session, we are welcomed back like family arriving for a reunion.  Until the last person arrives from the airport, we are not complete.
Two years ago, when we gathered for the third time, a pastor who had recently been diagnosed with cancer was unable to stay for the entire ten days. Before she left, we gathered around her to offer prayers for healing. Because we couldn’t bear the thought of being without her, we lit a long-burning candle and put it at her place at the table after she left.  When we took the group picture, we put her candle in front of us.  A year later, when we gathered for our fifth session, another pastor had been diagnosed with cancer and could not attend. We kept a candle burning for her as well and made a video so that she could share vicariously in the community. 

At the end of each session, a covenant group takes its turn conducting a closing blessing. Once, we anointed each pastor with oil and a spoken blessing.  Another time, the covenant group read John 13 and then led us in a ceremony of foot washing, an act that deepened our intimacy. These were women whose names are safe on our lips and whose sacred stories we carry in our hearts.  They are our companions on the rocky road of ministry. When we each knelt to wash the feet of the person next to us, we all knew who had been touched inappropriately as a child. We knew who had not been touched for many weeks as a newborn baby. And we knew who longed to be touched as a person living alone. We had taken the risk to reveal ourselves and to be known to each other, and now we risked knowing each other by touching and being touched.

Once, a covenant group gave us a parting gift that we all use in our daily practice at home to bless and pray for each other.  They adapted the Catholic rosary to Protestant uses.  Handmade by the group members, each bead on the rosary featured a different symbol chosen to represent each of the women pastors.  Around the rosary, the beads were strung together in groups of five, with each cluster representing a covenant group.  The beads hanging from the end represented members of the program staff.  In the months and miles between sessions, scattered about the country, we touch the beads in turn, holding each absent sister in prayer.

A year ago, at our fifth session, a woman pastor who had been elected to a leadership position in her denomination joined us for worship.  She was experiencing considerable conflict in her new position.  After worship, we gathered around her, laying on hands and praying.  As we encircled her, we sang several songs, the words enveloping and soothing her like a healing balm: 

    “sing out a song of the soul . . .”
    “do not be afraid, I am with you. . . ” and
    “we are a gentle angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”   

For us, singing has become another way of praying. In our sessions, we gather daily with the Sisters and chant the psalms, singing antiphonally back and forth to each other across the chapel.  As women pastors, we have had to learn to blend our voices in community.  Inclined to sing boldly, letting our individual voices stand out, we have had to work to unite our voices as we unite our prayers.

As our program now draws to a close, we are already mourning it. Last spring, we held our last session at the monastery, and this month, November 2006, we will join together for our final gathering, this time in pilgrimage to the Benedictine community in Rome.  But we are not willing to let go so easily. As Women Touched by Grace, we are determined to find a way to continue this program so that other women pastors can receive the same sustenance that it has given us.  Last May, I and several others began serving on a visioning team that is searching for ways to continue Women Touched by Grace.

Bringing together the best Catholic and Protestant traditions of prayer and leadership, this program has equipped us as spiritual leaders. As women pastors, we have learned that sustaining pastoral excellence means learning to minister to each other in travail and in transition. Rather than focusing on the practice of ministry as “grace under fire,” we have learned instead to focus on our identities as women touched by grace of another kind. We have learned to pray for our sisters. We have learned to sing for our lives. 

The Rev. Dr. Sally Brower is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and lives in Charlotte, N.C.

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The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.