Last week, I was Ordained an Elder in Full Connection in the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Egalitarianism led me to this moment in my life and is an extension of my theology and faith.
Women as equals in ministry is second nature to me. In high school, my home church received a clergy couple as pastors. This was southern West Virginia United Methodism. I was a youth representative on our Administrative Board at the time. I recall the contention over the salary packages for Julian and Patricia. Who would be the Pastor and who would be the Associate? Patricia had been Julian’s District Superintendent, which threw a monkey-wrench into the traditional hierarchy. J&P had told the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee that they would be Co-Pastors. For me, it was a simple math equation: take the Pastor’s salary, add the Associate’s salary and divide by two. It was not that easy for others. That they had different last names was also an issue.
At the time, my life was characterized by loneliness, save for Sundays. Very shortly after arriving at Trinity, Patricia asked me to consider full-time ministry. Though a senior in high school, I had not given much thought to my career. After a series of senior-year disappointments, I skipped school to talk to Patricia about ministry. It was an Ordained woman who gave me The Christian as Minister which began my own journey to the stole.
That journey would wind its way through the mission-wing of the United Methodism Church, first through the US-2 program, then on to the General Board of Global Ministries. Along the way, I encountered a US-2 class populated by 21 fiesty, lovely, funny, serious, activist young women (and 2 other dumbfounded men). Of those 21 women, at least 4 are now in ordained ministry and at least 4 others are in full-time ministry as lay-people (the other 13 are changing the world in other ways). Collectively, this US-2 class is the most influential group in my life. They healed me of many high school insecurities, cheered me on as I tried new things, forgave me when I sinned and communed with me when I really needed friends. For much of my 20’s I assumed (and hoped) that my future wife would come from that collection of extraordinary women.
At the GBGM, I became particularly fond of a missionary clergy couple who were stationed at the GBGM for a year. Like Julian and Patricia, David and Kristen were a clergy couple doing mission work. They are both serene activists: almost zen like in their sincere kindness and their unassuming demeanor. David became a role model of the meaningful Christian life. Now, I think of David and Kristen as role models in clergy-couplehood. They also showed me how to be clergy and missionaries.
I met Meredith my first day of seminary, though we had almost crossed paths two times earlier. She was studying in St. Andrews as an exchange student the year that I lived in Cambridge. We both were at Ground Zero on the first anniversary of 9/11. I read about her traveling the US and forwarded her story to other US-2s. We married our final year of seminary. We negotiated how we wanted our ministry lives to be. We want to pastor together at some point but not immediately. I had a strong desire to return to West Virginia and she was willing to make her home here. We made the long trek to Mullens, WV just so we could be licensed and appointed for the upcoming Conference year. When the District Superintendent phoned to tell us about our first appointments, Meredith was away. Serious about equality, I told the DS to call back when she would be there (yes, I desperately wanted to know right then and there). We were serious about doing this together. We stumbled our way through our first Annual Conference together and moved to Morgantown in July 2006. The plan was going rather well.
Three months later, Meredith was recommended by the District Committee on Ministry for Commissioning as a Probationary Elder. I was held back. I stumbled again the following spring and again the following fall. I had several paragraphs drafted outlining the reasons for these setbacks, but they are now history. It’s probably good for me to put that era to rest. Noteworthy for this post is the strain that Meredith and me experienced as a result of her success and my initial failures. She worked tremendously hard as a probationary elder. She attended and gave proper attention to her residency requirement. Her paperwork for Commissioning as a Probationary Elder and for Ordination were superb. She excelled in her initial appointment and has contributed fruitfully to the Annual Conference.
But she and I are a team. As a team, where one suffers, the other suffers. She bore more than her fair share of disappointment over my time in the wilderness. And her successes were tempered by my failures. In my efforts to support her candidacy, I went with her for her interviews. I recall being in Morning Prayer with her and the other candidates, wildly vacillating between joy over her achievement and sadness over my own status. For two years, she was advancing and I was stalled. I worked really hard to overcome the obstacles in my way and no one was more happy than Meredith when the DCOM recommended me for Commissioning.
For me personally, Ordination week was wonderful. So many right and joyful things occurred. On Wednesday night, we were being presented to the Clergy Executive Session for the final approval. One-by-one the stage door would open, one of us would march through and exit, and a vote wold be taken. The door opened for the person in front of me. I caught a peak of the crowd and saw Meredith…who also saw me. That split second of eye-contact was enough to put me at ease. Though we were told not to be comedians, I managed to snap a pic with my phone of the clergy session’s approval. Bishop Grove encouraged us to learn and pursue Wesleyan holiness: nothing more and nothing less than perfect love of God and perfect love of neighbor. He reminded us that we were not applying for a job, but committing to a lifestyle. His lesson was certainly old-school, but deeply refreshing. The next day, Bishop Grove addressed ordinands and candidates for commissioning during lunch. He spoke of being Wesleyan, of the need for pastors to be theologians. He wondered about the need for apprenticeship approach to growing disciples in the local congregation.
Thursday night, the Order of Elders hosted us ordinands for evening Eucharist. I was so tired but went anyhow. The leaders of the Order of Elders invited us to share about our process and our callings, as Ordination was imminent. The scripture was Ephesians 4 (“…some would be apostles…”). After the others had shared, I had two burdens on my heart, two sadnesses on the eve of my ordination. One of them was the stark realization that Meredith had not been able to fully celebrate her own ordination, regardless of my own eventual peace with the process. In this instance, our desire for mutuality within our marriage compelled her to wait on me. I did not fully appreciate her until that late-night communion session. There would be for us no pie-in-the-sky illusions about Ordination: it is a difficult process that takes its toll on those who endure it.
Friday afternoon, we gathered to answer Wesley’s historical questions during a session that also honored retiring clergy. I got the privilege of receiving the mantle from a retiring Elder. I learned that this was an old EUB tradition, referring to Elijah. I didn’t think much of this, but my mother was very moved by it.
Friday night was the Ordination service itself. The service was beautiful. My wife and I made the decision to let my two-year old daughter stay up to see it. She was completely exhausted. I could hear her at times in the balcony. Bishop Grove’s sermon may have been the best I have ever heard. It was authoritative, appreciative of the pastoral life and challenged us to a higher level of ministry. The moment came when it was time to be Ordained. I was the first alphabetically. I ascended the dais with Meredith and my sponsor. We were warned about the heaviness of the laying on of hands, but that wasn’t my experience. The moment was calm but generous, quiet but important, simple but profound. I really didn’t feel much, but I loved it anyway. I hugged Meredith and the others around the circle, then returned to the altar rail. That was it. I was ordained. No one can ever take that away.
We got back to our room very late Friday night, still needing to do the parenting thing: bath and bedtime for our little girl. We took a moment to consider this journey, one taken together. Traveling together, supporting and helping each other: that is the essence of equality. We take turns leading and following and resist the temptation to keep score. There were certainly officials and friends along the way that guided me into Full Connection, but Meredith was the foundation. She kept me encouraged and focused. She helped me snap out of internalizing my failures. I am a much better person because she has stood by me.
The Next Goal
There is one crucial moment left for Meredith and I in this path of shared ministry, which won’t take place until next year. One of the traditions of Annual Conference is that during the Ordination service, Ordained Elders and Deacons are invited to process, fully vested, as a celebration of the anniversary of their ordination. I cannot wait to process with Meredith, hand-in-hand, as equals. It will be the culmination of a process that led us down different paths but has also led us closer. Praise be to God.
I believe in equality through my experience of the ordination process. On the platform blessing my ordination were two lay women, two female Elders and a female Deacon. I have tried to pay attention to the fact that my ordination occurred during Mutuality Week, around the 40th Anniversary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the 40th Anniversary of Title IX.
I also believe in it through my experience as a father. The presence of my daughter was the icing on the ordination cake. Right now she lives in a town where the most visible women are the prostitutes on the avenue. Wanting and striving for opportunity in her life is my foremost practice of equality. Perhaps that’s the best definition of feminism: the pursuit of freedom and fullness of life for all God’s daughters.