Blair Zant, North Georgia Annual Conference
As one enters Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, one will read these timeless words etched into the gothic stone archway overhead, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Every morning as I walked beneath them, I took this as a holy reminder of my purpose for being there: at the end of these three years, I would emerge spiritually transformed in preparation for transforming others. This would include three years of academic rigor, hours of reading, writing, and intense theological debate. This would include exposure to luscious worship, reflecting styles both new and ancient, homegrown and worldly, to which I would contribute as participant and leader. It would fling me into the deep waters of practical ministry in churches, non-profits, and psychiatric hospitals, both challenging and confirming my gifts and graces for service.
But the essential ingredient to my transformation may be summed up in two words: Christian community. My peers, professors, and staff supervisors served as the Holy Spirit conduits I needed to lift words of life off the page and shape me into a servant leader. You see, Paul was not directing these words at me. Or at you. He was not directing them to a particular individual, but to the entire church. He was directing them to us. In those three years, I realized that renewal of the mind—building scriptural imagination and conforming to the will of the Holy—would require leaning on and leaning into the community of believers.
When we are the person up front, it is important that we find discerning community beyond the local church. We need a community that will remain constant despite the changes in ministry seasons. Lately, though, I’ve discovered the need for a community that will offer constancy through the changing seasons in my call as well. What follows is the story of my beloved community, a group of women who have agreed to walk together toward transformation through the renewal of our minds and unfolding of our call.
Many of us have heardthis question at least once a Sunday in our work with the church. And for good reason. There are a lot of titles for those in our field: Reverend, Doctor, Pastor, Preacher, Teacher, Sister, Shepherd, Chaplain, and more. Fresh out of seminary, I longed to be “Reverend.” To me this captured leadership defined by theological wisdom, sacramental authority, and scriptural devotion. After three years of theological study and eighty pages of Board of Ordained Ministry paperwork, I felt I’d earned it. “Don’t you see this degree on my wall? It says I am a Master of the Divine.” Oh, the prideful naiveté of the recently graduated.
But once I actually began walking alongside my church community, learning their names and stories, I repented. I also wanted my leadership to be defined by my care for people—the guardian and guide of the flock, whose crook can both draw in the lost and prod the found ever-forward. The one who can speak with authority on Sunday mornings because he or she listened with compassion at the hospital bed or dinner table the night before. That’s who I wanted to be.
I arrived at my first church as the pastor-in-charge when I was twenty-seven years old. My congregation seemed to delight in a game they invented: “What do I own that is older than my pastor?” My age invited comparison to their own children and grandchildren, which made earning their trust and especially their respect as an authority figure a bit challenging. But “Baby Pastor” proved a term of true endearment. As a small urban church, they realized that part of their call was to nurture baby pastors for a few short years before sending them forward in ministry. But one church member decided to stray from the flock. As a lifelong Catholic, the term pastor was just too Protestant for her. She was also stumped as to what to do with a female clergy person—that she had certainly never encountered. So she made her own way. I knew I had earned her trust when she began referring to me as “Father Blair.” It made me wonder: in the church family, who is really parenting whom?
As my call has continued to grow, so did my collection of titles. To a wonderful man, I became wife. As he is also clergy, we became a clergy couple. When we served separate churches, I was sometimes the pastor’s wife. Last year, when we were appointed to lead the same church, I became co-senior pastor, though to many, I’m more easily referred to as “the lady Rev. Zant.” Each name, each title represents a facet of my ever-intertwining call to ministry and marriage. And with each new facet comes a deeper understanding of myself and of God’s will—that good, acceptable, and perfect will.
My newest title, however, has had the greatest effect on my perception of my call: Mommy. At the time of this writing, I am on maternity leave, having welcomed our second child, Bethany, into the world and into our family. Right now, my call is focused on providing her with love and care. She and her toddler-aged sister are my flock, and both demand my full attention. When I return to full-time ministry, with every other working parent, I will have to find a balance between church and home. How does one parent children and pastor a congregation and do both well? What does God’s good and perfect will look like for clergy moms? Can clergywomen have it all?
This conversation has reignited in mainstream culture lately, thanks in large part to Sheryl Sanberg’s Lean In and all the reactionary writings that followed. For young adult clergywomen and clergymen, the question is just as pertinent, and just as difficult to imagine sometimes. Either they will have to forgo being fully present for family to remain on track toward pulpit advancement, or they will have to settle for less demanding appointments to invest more time and energy in family. Before motherhood, I had great aspirations for my ministry and call: lead pastor, an additional degree. Then I became a mom and wondered what such dreams would do to my ability to be a loving and present influence for my girls. I’m just going to say it: I often fear that my call to ministry and my call to motherhood are in direct competition.
Two years ago, a group of young clergywomen with children decided to get together for conversation over lunch. We all came with the same question: how can we possibly make this work? As we began sharing joys, fears, and funny toddler stories, one sister broke down and made a confession. She had asked to be reappointed from her esteemed position as a pastor-in-charge of a prominent downtown Atlanta church to take an associate position at a less strenuous location. The root of her confession: she wanted more time to be a mom. And now she worried that in choosing her children, she was letting down her sister clergy. She felt she was disappointing the brave United Methodist clergywomen pioneers of the previous generation who had worked tirelessly to break into lead pastor roles in a denomination and conference dominated by men. And she feared she was shirking her responsibility to continue trailblazing for the younger clergywomen that would follow.
She named something very powerful for all of us: when it comes to our assumptions of what successful clergywomen look like, our minds need renewing. Do we need more large-membership churches pastored by women? Yes. Am I sick of receiving ministry conference postcards that carry only the names and faces of men on them? You bet. Do our people need more examples of strong, faithful women pushing the boundaries of what Christian leadership looks like? Absolutely. But is that the call of every single one of us who accepts a call to ministry? Yes and no. Yes, we are called to be strong, to lead unapologetically from wherever we are for the sake of the gospel. But there is no formula for what God’s perfect will is for a clergywoman. Paul reminds us of this with his body-of-Christ metaphor. Our transformation must begin with renewing our ideas of what clergywomen can look like.
Our small group of clergywomen concluded that first breakfast with a newfound sisterhood: We were the Reverend Mommies. Since then, we have met monthly. A typical gathering might include a lively debate about the lectionary text, best practices for hiring new program staff, and advice for weaning a preschooler off of Frozen without simply replacing Anna and Elsa with Rapunzel. Our stories serve to remind us that this will always be a unique balancing act.
Our stories, though, also remind us of the unique gifts that being a parent brings to our ministries. First, pastor/parenting has forced us to be much more efficient and organized, so that we can strike appropriate balance between time we give the church and time we give our families. We also agree that parenthood has made us much better in setting boundaries on our time, and on how much access we grant to our personal lives. At the end of the day, someone will have to settle for our emotional leftovers, but it shouldn’t always have to be our kids and spouses.
When it comes to the gifts parent/pastors bring to the church, we find it has given us crucial common ground with other young parents in our congregations and communities. This statistically illusive group suddenly feel more connected because their pastor “looks” like them. My husband and I also find that parenthood gives us new insight into nursery, preschool, and children’s ministry programs. Our staff in those ministry areas thrive, due in some part to knowing their senior pastors recognize the importance of the work they do for the kingdom.
In a few weeks, my husband and I will stand together at the baptismal font, as we do on so many Sundays. This time, we will take off our robes and stoles, indicating that—right now—we are not the pastors but the parents. We will present our youngest daughter before God and the Christian community, and pledge to raise our child in the Christian faith, with God’s help, in hopes that someday she might confess the faith for herself.
Then the congregation will make a promise. They will agree to help us raise our children and also help raise us. Yes, we are their pastors, but we are also their brothers and sisters. We may administer the water that gives them new birth, but the same graced water cleansed us, too. We may wear the robes and stoles, but we wear spit-up in the same places they do. We are not so different. It is as important for the congregation to be reminded of that as it is for us to remember it. My struggle to balance doesn’t make me a less effective pastor. Frankly, it helps me better relate with the struggles of so many gathered around me on Sunday morning; those who also fought to get one kid dressed while the other screamed for breakfast, made sure all the bags were packed, got everyone into the car, and then let go of the fact that they may or may not be wearing two different shoes.
To you other Reverend Mommies out there: we cannot allow ourselves to believe the lie that if our kid pulls all the envelopes out of the pew racks and throws them like confetti around the sanctuary, it somehow negates our authority as pastors. Nor can we feel guilty, believing that by leading our congregations fiercely, we are failing in being a good mom. Our kids need to see this side of us too. I am starting to believe that the best way we can live into God’s perfect will for us as pastors and parents is to strive continually for balance, knowing that it might need change every season—or heck—every day. So lean into your call. Do not be afraid to work hard, to lead, to show strength. And lean in to one another, to the Christian community vital to our continued transformation and renewal. This is how the family of faith will continue to strengthen and grow. This is how the kingdom will come. Lean in to every facet of your call—womanhood, ministry, marriage, and motherhood—because each facet was given to you out of God’s perfect will. Can we have it all? Some days, yes. Other days, we’ll have to choose. But if God has called us to all of these things, then God will give us what we need to do them for God’s glory.