A Woman Fully Alive

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By Suzanne Burden | Twitter: @suzanneburden

O_Suzanne

“A female pastor. How wonderful!” she said. “And I got to see it before I died.”

She approached me after a funeral service, her beautiful scarf framing her face, a woman who looked to be in her 70s. I was rendered completely speechless. And I confess her words mark my memory with a sadness I have a hard time articulating.

You see, I live in a world where gender both qualifies and disqualifies you. Where “othering” is often the language of the day and I regularly observe all-male elder boards or male-led denominations attempting to dictate who they want me to be, how I should use my gifts, and what they will allow me to do.

As a woman who holds a master’s degree in theology, and who has served as an interim pastor and a chaplain, I am more confident than ever that God has created me to pastor and to preach, to teach and to shepherd. I can tell you that nothing comes more naturally to me than this. It actually caught me by surprise when I served as an interim pastor, the ease of my stepping into this type of service, the joy and the aliveness of it all.

If the glory of God is woman fully alive, I experienced that feeling of God’s glory and delight surrounding me, of freedom to fully embrace and live out of my giftedness and experiences.

Today, I find myself in a unique place. On the one hand, the Church seems to be recognizing that female voices are needed, that they are needed on church staffs, and that they need to be sought out. On the other hand, I am  often wanted only if I conform to a certain constrained ideal.

When I have been shamed about preaching or serving as a pastor, the “othering” has often come from other women. This hurts most of all. I want to see each woman set free, regardless of her circumstances, and the things that hurt most are the sideways comments.

I remember once sharing with a woman who happened to be the wife of a pastor in the community how a sermon outline had finally come together in my head. She looked up, startled, her eyes narrowing: “What is it you DO as a pastor exactly?” (i.e., Please tell me it isn’t preaching or teaching!)

I am amazed at the many people who want a description of what a female pastor does, when I think this should be fairly obvious. She does whatever is needed to help and aid a congregation in their spiritual growth: she teaches and preaches, she counsels and consoles, she stands in mud to conduct a graveside service in the cold.

Several other women approached me at different times to ask: “What does your husband think of all this?” It always perplexed me, because without my husband’s overwhelming support and encouragement, I wouldn’t have pursued ministry at all. Instead of feeling threatened by my gifts, he has been outspoken in his support. When I have been uncertain, he has encouraged me not to turn back but to step forward.

Once in awhile someone will approach me about a position in which I must shrink to fit. We want you to provide pastoral care, but not be a pastor; to help grieving families but not participate in funerals, that sort of thing. I have conversations with myself and my mentor in which I try to make these scenarios work, but I come up empty-handed.

God’s good work in me has not prepared me to shrink to fit, but to continue to expand so God can use me fully and freely.

In the midst of all this othering, I have watched myself become quieter at times. The ease and effervescence of my personality has been subdued as I experience the reality of being a square-shaped piece that others keep trying to fit into a round hole.

So when asked, I tell others I am an author and a writer, and it is true.

But inside my heart says: This is not all of me! Come closer and show me that you believe Jesus has set his daughters free, and I will dare to reveal this heart of a pastor, this longing to love as I was created to love, this beautiful part of me that makes me feel “other.”

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About Suzanne:

suzanne

Suzanne Burden lives in the Indiana heartland with her husband, David, where she serves as a part-time chaplain. She is the coauthor of the book Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God, and confesses to regularly making paleo chocolate cake in the microwave.

 

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Image credit: Lee Cannon

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  • Bev Murrill

    Suzanne, I so identify with you. I’ve been aghast at some of the things that have said to me, and all the worse because mostly those people’s haven’t been aware how rude they’ve been.

    I really love what you said about shrinking to fit! What a perfect way to identify what is so often required of us. I too have been pressured to shrink to fit… (I’ll never forget that term – it’s going to be my measuring stick for what is being required of me) and sometimes I’ve even tried to accommodate it… to my own undoing.

    Fantastic post – I’m reposting to Kyria. women leaders need to read this.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Thank you, Bev. Your voice and journey inspire and encourage me.

  • Monica

    Thank you for this message! I too, want to see women set free, and be someone who edifies, encourages, comforts, teaches and preaches. I also don’t believe I fit into a round hole or a particular box. I am who I am, a woman of God called to minister to His children, especially His daughters. I think it’s time we just owned our calling and do what we are to do. I choose to believe that God will make a way, His way.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Hi Monica: Sometimes it is hard to keep believing that God will make a way…but I have to believe it is true. Appreciate your comment. Somehow we that feel like misfits perfectly into God’s Kingdom purposes, don’t we?

      • Monica

        Yes, thank God! Be blessed and encouraged.

  • HBurns

    Thanks so much for this personal and profound message today Suzanne. I grew up never seeing a woman in any leadership context in church and I am so grateful for the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the strong push of good men & women in my world to step up to own the place God had given me as a pastor in our church. I know there is still so much to be done in this regard, so I am so grateful for your voice of encouragement here today. xo

    • Suzanne Burden

      Thank you! Already I feel healing and even freedom coming in from the simple act of writing these hard words. May the Spirit continue to move, breaking down those barriers…and may you grow in freedom as you minister.

  • Melinda Cadwallader

    Your heart is so lovely. I have no doubt that your pastoral care is impacting many, as some of the most loving and wise women pastors, who are changing the world, are doing so simply because they shepherd well, wherever they are and in whatever they do. I love the promise that man cannot close a door that God opens. You are living proof! Xoxoxo

    • Suzanne Burden

      Hi Melinda: I work a very part-time chaplaincy position and today one of my clients wished me a “Happy Pastor Appreciation Month.” It made my day, to be honest. Let’s keep encouraging each other and keep using every bit of our gifts and experiences wherever and however we can. This community of sisters will help to cheer us on. Peace to you!

  • pastordt

    Oh, Suzanne. I am so sorry that this still happens – and it does, over and over again. Please don’t shrink! Find a denomination that will support you fully and do what it is God has gifted and called you to do. Thanks for this good and yet gentle admonishment to us as women to be as supportive as we can be – yes, yes.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Diana: I am buoyed by your words. I’m not sure where I’ll find this place, but I believe God will lead me to it. In the meantime, I do what I can to minister to whomever I can whenever I can. Grateful for you.

  • Oh, Suzanne, I’m so glad your voice is here, and I’m so glad for this call to take up just exactly the space God has called us to inhabit. I agree with Bev: that “shrink to fit” metaphor is super-apt, and I think it applies to women everywhere. So often I’ve wanted to be smaller than God calls me to be, and it’s an act of faith and bravery to grow 🙂

    • Suzanne Burden

      No more shrinking…right, sister? Sure appreciate your encouragement along the way.

  • Robin Lake

    “But inside my heart says: This is not all of me! Come closer and show me that you believe Jesus has set his daughters free, and I will dare to reveal this heart of a pastor, this longing to love as I was created to love, this beautiful part of me that makes me feel “other.””

    How powerful are these words, Suzanne. My heart leapt to know God is continuing to “expand” women from the inside out. Being women healed and set free will bring conflict, but oh it will bring so much more freedom to those not yet healed. Any time something inside or outside of us shifts, everything and everyone around us has to shift a little too, no? Praying for you in this. In all of this. Thank you for your voice.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Your words very much describe my place in life right now on many fronts. But the idea that our healing will bring so much more freedom to those not yet healed brings comfort and peace. Lots of shifting happening here…I so appreciate your prayers and your story and your journey.

  • Jada

    Thank you for this, Suzanne! I totally get being a square-shaped piece that just doesn’t fit into a round hole! 🙂 Thankful for the support of my pastor-husband who fully supports my pastoral call in significant ways. Still, in some circles, I sometimes find myself telling folks, “Oh, I am a music teacher.” Which is true, but…there’s so much more. Grateful for you, your voice, and encouragement!

    • Suzanne Burden

      Thank you, Jada. Grateful for you, too.

  • Melissa Vanden Bout

    Me too. Me too, friend. That’s what I want for women, to live in that freedom, electric with joy and knowledge and power to do God’s perfect will.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Well said!

  • Sadly, what you experience is more the norm than the exception. But the great thing is that it’s changing. Power on, Warrior Women Pastors!! God is on your side!

    • Suzanne Burden

      Good words. We serve a God who has not only gifted and placed us in his family, but DELIGHTS in our service for him.

  • Gail Wallace

    Thanks for this Suzanne! The shrink to fit expectations have often made me want to disappear altogether and it’s helpful to be reminded that we are not alone in this struggle for our freedom in Christ.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Gail: I marvel at how in expressing our journeys we continue to encourage one another. Thank you for all you do. You and The Junia Project are a bright beacon of light.