Young clergywomen find support online


By Bromleigh McCleneghan*
Sept. 26, 2011 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan gives the children’s message at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church, St. Charles, Ill. A UMNS photo by Mark Lewis.

I didn’t go to seminary to be a pastor.

I was 21, a preacher’s kid, graduating with an interdisciplinary degree that was essentially a religious studies and journalism major. I couldn’t imagine myself as a clergyperson. But the master of divinity program at the University of Chicago had scholarship money, and a dual master degree program with the Public Policy School, and so off I went.

The U of C, unlike many schools, insists that its master of divinity students spend a year interning in parish ministry regardless of their perceived call, and for me, this formal requirement forced me to consider my vocation in a new way and, ultimately, to recognize in myself a call to ordained ministry as an elder. I loved serving Communion and preaching, preferred leading church programs to participating in them.

Many of my friends — I went to school with a disproportional number of members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — were ordained shortly after graduating.

But for a number of reasons — including but not limited to the interminable ordination process we have in The United Methodist Church — despite the fact that I graduated at 25 and was approved every step of the way, I wasn’t ordained until I was three months shy of 30.

I found plenty of time in those years to doubt my pursuit of ordination and commitment to serve in a parish; and, to be fair, if I’d had the option of serving elsewhere during those provisional years, going back to school for a Ph.D., or trying to find a campus ministry gig, I would have jumped at it. Of course, there were things that I loved about ministry in my first church: a good majority of the people, preaching all the time, administering the sacraments and the life of the church. But I remained in the parish because I was required to do so.

I would surf the job board and the Christian Century classifieds on doubt-filled days, looking for escape hatches. What made that time bearable and ultimately fruitful was the network of mentors, colleagues and friends I have been blessed to assemble over time.

The need for support groupsI had a head start in this regard: My dad is a United Methodist pastor who has become a valued colleague over the years, and I latched onto the director of our tiny master of divinity program and continued to call her for advice and perspective well after graduation.

Our local clergy lectionary Bible study group — me and the “old” guys — was a fabulous source of fellowship and thoughtful debate and led to some wonderful ecumenical worship in our community.

My conference requires participation in a provisional leadership development group, and those meetings led to invaluable connections with other United Methodists that I was simply lacking after attending a denominationally unaffiliated school. Those meetings also provided opportunities for our leaders to slip me copies of books about “Antagonists in the Church,” an enormous service in moving my lamentations into ministry.

The Young Clergywomen Project

Studies show that young clergy are routinely in danger of giving up ministry in the first couple years, especially if their first placement is rife with conflict. Denominations, seminaries and the various arms of the Lilly Foundation have been working diligently to reverse this trend by providing funding and institutional support to those in their first years in the parish.

A key example of this has been The Young Clergywomen Project, which began in 2007 as “a means of resourcing and researching the youngest clergy women (under 35)” through gatherings at the Washington National Cathedral’s now-defunct Cathedral College of Preachers, a password-protected blog and an “e-zine” called Fidelia’s Sisters.

When the grant period ended, the project became an independent nonprofit organization, which continues to publish Fidelia’s Sisters, host online conversation, organize and run conferences (recently, at United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology and Duke Divinity School), and now to publish books by young clergywomen in a special imprint through Chalice Press.

Knowing, as the project tagline suggests, that “you’re not the only one” goes a long way in reducing burnout and both the self-aggrandizement and despair of lone-ranger ministry.

When you’re the only girl in town, and you aren’t invited to the clergy Bible study, the virtual community found online helps give voice to your frustration and leads to transformative action. It also helps to have a wider gauge for when we’re experiencing injustice as a result of our age or gender, or just feeling sort of peevish or self-pitying.

These networks have functioned the best in my life when they’ve blended formal and informal structures and connections. I’m an editor at Fidelia’s, and I love that work, but I also love the group of women clergy I gather with for brunch every month or so to just catch up and pass around babies, maternity leave policies, and books.

A life in ministry can be so full — and that fullness can be draining. Full of responsibilities, full of conflict, full of discernment. But that fullness can also be an incredible gift: It is a unique gift of ministry that I can abandon my office on a sunny fall morning for conversation with my friends and call it work. And, indeed, it is work: the good work of sustaining one another in ministry, so that we can better go about our call to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.”

*McCleneghan is associate pastor and director of Christian education at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church, St. Charles, Ill., and is on the editorial board for The Young Clergy Women Project.

News media contact: Kathy Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or .