by Lisa Long
I grew up in a traditionally conservative denomination, one that does not allow women to be leaders or pastors or even teach men who are not younger than they are. Sometime after my parents’ divorce when I was in grade school, my faith, studying the Word, and my relationship with God became the most important part of my life. It was around middle school that I stumbled upon Psalm 68:5 that talks about God being a father to the fatherless: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” Having been abandoned by own father I recognized that God was offering me a killer deal. So, I took him up on it. I asked him to fill the void my earthly father left, to do exactly what that verse said—to be my father. That was a significant turning point in my life. I wanted to know my new father. Really know him. So, I set out to do just that. This relationship became the driving motivation of my life. The more I learned the more I wanted to know.
I distinctly recall the cork board outside my philosophy courses in college. I used to stare at it, mesmerized by seminary advertisements. Always rolling through my thoughts was a singular massive wish that I could go, but my experience declared that impossible. I am a woman. I was taught early in my religious experience that women have a proper place—that place is second to men. Seminary and pastoral training are reserved for men. Yet, day after day I was drawn to that cork board like iron to a magnet. Dreaming. If only the impossible were possible.
I struggled to choose a major in college, finally landing on psychology. By three years in I felt I’d come to a spiritual crisis, a crossroads. Stay and die or leave and live. Melodramatic, I’ll admit. Nevertheless, this felt like a spiritual revelation. And I responded. I transferred to Bible college with no real knowledge of what I, a woman, could do with a Bible college education. I didn’t care. Whether or not I ever did anything productive in the eyes of society with this Bible education did not matter to me. I desperately wanted it, at my core I needed it.
When I was ordained alongside my husband, a worship pastor, I still wasn’t sure where I fit. Being ordained, allowed to study at a seminary and even earn graduate degrees is a glorious feeling for a girl who grows up believing such things are impossible. Yet that triumphant feeling that springs from opportunity does not simply erase the second class feeling so deeply engrained into a woman’s identity.
It would be easy to wish I’d known then so much of what I know now as a woman in ministry. No doubt I would make more strategic choices that would more efficiently move me farther. I would have eyes to see beyond my experience. I would have more wisdom and sharper discernment. I would not be so readily intimidated. That would likely make me feel better about my middle aged self, the insufficient progress that frustrates me, and how far I am from where the dreams of my youth envisioned me at this age. But I believe it’s better to lean into the tension between God’s sovereignty and my free will and the mystery of the intricacies that line the path God directs for me.
Even if on the majority of days I feel like a colossal failure, I have come to understand that my definition of success isn’t always the same as God’s. I don’t know if I will ever feel like I have learned enough or like my achievements are acceptable. Still, I get to influence the lives of young people every day. I have been given a position of authority. More importantly, I earned a position of authority. That is to say, I build the relational foundation that earns invitation to speak truth into the hard places of young lives. I get to mentor young girls (who I pray benefit from the experience and perspective I’ve gained through the years).
Our large Wednesday youth group meeting is somewhat of a production with various segments. One of the segments is called Devos—the cool way to refer to devotions. For four years I have been mentoring senior girls to lead this segment. Each year a girl with strong leadership skills and a gift to speak is chosen. When she first comes to me she doesn’t always know she has these skills or doesn’t even feel very gifted.
Typically, she is somewhat shy and timid about the prospect of speaking before her peers each week for a year. It is my job to train her. Each year I watch as her talents unfold before our eyes. She grows in confidence. She owns and becomes comfortable with her own voice. Along the way we meet weekly. We are sharing life. Without fail a relationship is built between us. I become invested in her life, in the whole of her. She asks me questions. With God’s help I answer from whatever I have learned along my own path and with the Scripture hidden within me. My only rule is to be honest. I have found that we do not say goodbye when college comes along. She is no longer a youth, yet she comes to me. And I love it. It is absolutely one of my favorite parts of youth ministry.
I am keenly aware that I am privileged to shape the minds, hearts, and spiritual lives of future wives, mothers, and world changers. It is sacred ground. Investing into these girls and then witnessing the fruit as they walk into the fullness of their gifts is a profound satisfaction. I stand before God fully aware that what he has given me is in no way second class. I am confident that he shares this deep satisfaction. Together we watch as his glory shines through her accomplishments. We are proud of her. That is the moment that erases the second class feeling. Then I know not only by faith but by experience that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
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