I recently had a chance to catch up with Martha Spong, the originator of therevgalblogpals community and editor of the recent book, There's a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments and the Healing Power of Humor (Slylight Paths Books). With so many friends and colleagues who have been part of the blogging community and this new book, I am grateful that Martha took a moment to share a bit about herself, her ministry, and this book.
My interview with Martha Spong
Martha, can you tell me a little about yourself. Give me the mini bio and then where you find yourself these days and what are you up to.
I grew up in Virginia as a Southern Baptist who always thought she would marry a minister. When I moved to Maine in my 20s I joined a UCC church and discovered I had a call to ministry myself. Many years later, I married a PCUSA pastor, so now I am both pastor and pastor's wife. We have four "hers and hers" children and live in a manse in South Central Pennsylvania. I've served 8 churches with memberships from 25 to 500, most of them in some transitional capacity. Along the way I helped foundRevGalBlogPals in 2005, which moved from being all-volunteer to having me as part-time Director in 2013. I'm passionate about ecumenical ministry and reminding people that instead of fighting over the details of theopraxis, we ought to remember that Jesus Christ is our highest common denominator.
This is a great book. I have read a bunch of entries from people I know as well as some folks new to me. How did you decide who to invite?
We opened it up to all of the 300+ bloggers in the RevGals web ring. I invited some people who were already published to participate while humbly admitting I knew they might need to be more focused on their own writing. Many of them responded positively, and I'm grateful they participated. My particular thanks go out to Carol Howard Merritt, who not only encouraged us to recognize what a great platform we are for women's voices, but who also took the time to write a Foreword that is one of the most beautiful pieces in the book. Some came from bloggers who I knew only slightly and others from old friends. A few of our bloggers didn't think of themselves as book quality writers, but I knew they had great stories to tell and asked them to submit essays that I am excited to have as part of the book (especially Stephanie Anthony's "For Some Reason").
I love the breadth of topics. How did topics get chosen and what did you have to leave out?
When we were asked to do a book proposal, I gathered some active members of RevGals whose blogs I loved to help brainstorm the topics we might include. Call, the sacraments, ministry at time of death, things no one tells you in seminary, these all seemed like no-brainers, they are such an important part of everyone's ministry story. We also wanted to show what some of the barriers are to revealing our pastoral identities when we go into settings outside the church (from Marci Glass'sbelly dancing class to Katya Ouchakof's gig teaching water aerobics) as well as what we learn from the activities that really force us to get out of our heads (such as Laurie Brock's essay about working with her horse). Last, we knew we needed a range of personal stories about the complications of having our personal lives seem inseparable from our vocations. As I look at the finished book, I wish we had more examples of what it's like to be single, childless or child-free in ministry. We started out with four proposed essays on dating or being single, but in the end only one was submitted, in part because the topic is so painful.
If you have to name three of the largest obstacles or frustrations that female preachers face these days, what would they be?
The most frequent difficulties I hear about are complaints that people cannot hear us - in part because they are not accustomed to listening to a female voice as authoritative and also, in my experience, because even the good sound systems are calibrated to a deeper male voice. That complaint frequently diminishes when the congregation gets to know the voice and the person, but in the converse, women with especially strong voices, both literally and metaphorically, get pushback for being "too bossy."
I think women get a lot of intrusive feedback about their appearance (although I know it happens to clergymen, too). Makeup, hair, earrings, shoes and clothing choices are not considered to be personal but public.
More crucially, many women come out of seminary with the same hopes of moving up the ladder that their male classmates have, but local churches tend to look at a man as the "better" candidate even when he is less experienced or a woman has skills that are a fit for the congregation's needs. Whether in a search and call system or an episcopal system or appointment system, women often end up serving smaller churches in less desirable locations. At the PCUSA NEXT Churchconference this year, I attended a workshop about closing a church. All the pastors who participated were women.
On a bright note, however, three "big steeples" in different mainline congregations called relatively young women as Senior Pastors in the past year. There is hope!
And for men like myself, who hope to be helpful, what can we do to actually BE helpful
If you hear about an open pulpit, before you reflexively recommend a guy you know, ask yourself if you can recommend a woman you know, too. If you're looking for someone to speak at your church or conference, look around at the clergywomen you know and put the spotlight on someone who hasn't gotten it yet. And if you hear church folk or clergy colleagues putting down women, and clergywomen in particular, treat it the way you would a racist or homophobic generalization and don't let them get away with it.
What kind of feedback have you received so far?
Very positive! The book is already going to a second printing.
When I looked at the table of contents, the first thing I thought was, "Wow, that's a lots of preachers to try and wrangle." Switching to the process side, what was it like to work with so many contributors?
I've been called a prodigious cat-herder.
Seriously, it was a matter of doing a lot of follow-up and encouragement along the way. The publisher, SkyLight Paths, really believed in the project and they gave me tremendous support. That helped me do the same for the writers.
As a blogger, how have you seen the blogging world change over the past few years?
The conversations that used to take place in blog comments take place on Facebook. It's a loss of a community I treasured, honestly, but I try very hard not to be someone who falls into whining about what's been lost and instead look for ways to optimize what we have now
One piece of advice you would give for any new preacher?
Don't try to say it all in one sermon. Remember there will always be a next week. (The best advice I was ever given, by the way, and it came from my male Field Ed mentor.)
Okay, pay forward. What is an organization or individual who more people should know about?
Rachel Hackenberg is a United Church of Christ pastor who writes amazing books and devotional prompts. Her most recent book is Sacred Pause: a Creative Retreat for the Word-weary Christian.
You can subscribe to her prayer prompt emails (weekly most of the year but daily during Lent and, I think, Advent) at http://rachelhackenberg.com. She's gifted at helping readers and writers both get outside of themselves and go deeper inside. (Full disclosure, she's a friend and a RevGal, but I get no bonuses for promoting her!)