We were sitting on a picnic bench, looking out on the Red River with our mini Australian shepherd’s leash in hand. We loved going out on walks by the Clyde Fant parkway—a path almost 13 miles long, filled with cross country runners and sickeningly-skinny college students from Centenary College training for their first marathons. We were, admittedly, the ones that slowed everyone down walking our dog like normal, semi-unhealthy adults. The sunset we faced gave us all sorts of gifts in color—almost looking like a kaliedescope with a blood orange color scheme the way the clouds were playing with each other in the sky.
It was one of those conversations.
You know…the really big and important ones.
“So you really think we can make this work? You would really move around with me? “
“Yes, I will.” Taylor said.
“And you won’t resent me for it when the Bishop calls and it’s our ‘scary place’—like Bunkie, or something?”
He turned from looking out at the rippling of the water, and stared at me square in the face with a sly grin, and said, “I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”
We were practical people—still are. No surprises. It was these kinds of talks that became our engagement. The ring was just an afterthought. But I distinctly remember toward the end, when we had exhausted discussing just about everything in the world we could ever worry about, I piped up with this random statement—one that I intended to be consolation or encouragement. But after six years in ministry as a pastor, I know now to be a flat out lie.
“You know, the church isn’t really always like this…I promise.”
It’s a pretty little lie that most female clergy say to their potential spouses, I’ve come to find out. This is likely because of the expectations the women in our lives had of us when growing up. I was raised by a Stepford wife for a mother, essentially—the frosted blonde perm that was sprayed so hard, a basketball would bounce on it or a match would set it to flame. She worked as a teacher, but always came home in time to have dinner on the table piping hot promptly at 5:30 when my dad would want to watch the evening news. And she sacrificed everything for us—and I both admired her and, in my later teenage years, was constantly frustrated at her for it.
The frustration came because I knew that I could never give that kind of life to anyone. Particularly at the advent of our marriage, I found myself trying to convince my gifted and talented husband-to-be that being “arm candy” for the rest of his life at church functions and enduring a few months of unemployment between moves wouldn’t be so bad. Or I have talked with other second-career clergywomen in middle age who discover a call on from God who say their husbands, at least in the beginning, say, “This is not what I signed up for.”
I told the pretty little lie because I was starting to realize what he was actually buying into. I realized that most times, the call I answered and the way of life I would lead wouldn’t bring order into our home, but utter chaos. It was a month after my Senior Pastor was asked to leave the church I served in Bossier City—my first appointment. In the wake of that conflict, I became the awkward 26-year-old novice charged with holding the congregation together for the two months between our Pastor’s leaving and the new one coming. This congregation at the time was a mish mash of women and men walking around with open wounds—just coming off of a brutal war.
Looking back, I can attribute caring for that congregation like trying to catch molasses dripping off a countertop—as much as I tried to cover and catch all of the places people’s frustration and grief that spilled over, inevitably parts (and people) would slip through my fingers, fall to the floor, and I became invariably a part of the sticky mess. The new one, I had come to find out, was not too keen on having female colleagues to work with, so as Taylor and I were preparing to take a leap and prepare a wedding, we also had to seriously consider the possibility of a move, too.
I don’t think my naivety about the general and baseline state of Christian churches stemmed from being clueless. Truly, at that point in my life, all I wanted was to believe the very best in people, and to not be surprised when they rose to the occasion. Any pastor that reads this today knows exactly what I’m talking about, I’d imagine. Many have had their own struggles attempting to fool ourselves that this way of life was only fleeting. We convince ourselves that the next place will be better, cleaner, potentially even easier to handle if only we can just endure long enough to arrive at the “Promised Land” of our appointive lives.
After six years in a job that I both love and fear when I wake up in the morning to face it, the best word I could give to candidates for ministry is this—the life of ministry in every place will never be clean, but it will always be good. I seldom use terms of “always” and “never,” but in this case, I believe these extremes are true. Good in its most pure form is not enjoyable, but meaningful. Good in the sense that in the times of conflict, the work most people do seldom improves, refines, or challenges them. Good in the sense that, in times of relative peace, there is no place or people that bends more toward the world that we wish we could experience. Good in the sense that no other work requires two people that love each other to draw ever close together to weather the storms that come.
We found ourselves at Dunlieth Plantation in Mississippi while attending a marriage renewal retreat specifically for clergy. We had just finished three years at First UMC-Baton Rouge together, and were craving the long break where we could reconnect and learn something new. On the second day, we were both sitting there, listening to the presenter talking about compromise and sacrifice—and the phone buzzed in my back pocket. “Baton Rouge District Office” was listed at the top of my iPhone screen. I knew I had to take it.
I answered, and my District Superintendent was on the other line.
“Katie, I have something to tell you. Your Senior Pastor is going to have to step down…”
I came back into the room, fighting back moist eyes and a twitch that happens when I get nervous, my mind racing through to-do lists and sermon ideas to fill the gap, trying to figure out next steps and to calm myself down so I might endure the rest of the lecture. Looking at the presenter, my world and anyone speaking in it looked and sounded like Ben Stein speaking in slow motion. Taylor touched my arm, I turned slightly to him, and he gave me that silent questioning look, “Well, who was it?” At break, I pulled my husband aside and told him the news so he would understand why I was acting so skiddish.
That night, we were sitting in bed, talking through options of how we could support each other to get through this–again. And I remember saying those familiar words:
“The church really isn’t always like this…I promise.”
He lifted his hand, ran his fingers through my hair, softly turned my chin towards him, and said, “Isn’t it?”