Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Book review: The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry

The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry
Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley

Alban, 2011
ISBN 978-1-56699-418-7

Don’t be put off by the title

This probably says more about me than the book, but I was a little disconcerted when David of Uniting Church Resources gave me a copy of The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion, complete with floral cover, and said that he’d ordered it thinking of me. In my head the collective noun ‘girlfriends’ is more likely to refer to a group of drag queens traversing the desert than to a group of my ministry peers. But once I got over the title (and the flowers) I found this an extremely helpful book.

The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion is written by four young women ministers who gathered for regular meetings through a vocational friendship grant from the Lilly Foundation. After a year of gathering the group went on a retreat and came to two decisions. One was to write to their denomination requesting a national policy for parental leave. The other was to write this book.

The four authors have divided the individual chapters between them. There are chapters on the experience of being a minister and being single, being a minister and being married, being a minister and having children; chapters on being a solo pastor or an associate; chapters on absolutely vital issues like self-care, dealing with difficult situations in ministry, and responding to a change in call. The authors recognise that they’re writing from their own ‘very particular experiences’ and acknowledge upfront that none of them is part of a racial/ethnic minority or LGBT – something they see as being partly a reflection of their denomination (p. xv).

Their denomination is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which appears to resemble the Uniting Church in Australia in theology, missiology and understanding of ministry. However, there are also obvious differences: apparently the PC(USA) doesn’t have a universal stipend, so the first chapter, ‘The Dating Game’ talks about the need to negotiate terms of employment including parental leave, and suggests finding out what churches of similar sizes are paying their pastors as a basis for negotiation. That’s not immediately relevant for UCA ministers, but the rest of the chapter, on clarifying expectations and dealing with any elephants in the room, most definitely is.

Another way in which the PC(USA) seems to differ from the UCA is that its churches sound much bigger, so the book includes discussions of working with church staff and being an ‘associate pastor’ in a church with a ‘head pastor’. I imagine that most UCA ministers will never be in the position of being associate to a head minister. However it’s still useful to be reminded that we ‘[work] for the woman upstairs, not the man down the hall’ (the subtitle of the chapter on associate ministry). Our ‘man down the hall’ may be a church council chairperson, a committed volunteer, or a dominant congregation member, they can be female as well as male, but the important thing to remember is that (no matter what they may think) we don’t work for them.

In the PC(USA) there is also the possibility that a call to a particular placement is for life, so that ‘sensing a call to leave your church may feel like a failure on your part’ (p. 138). Every UCA minister goes into a placement knowing that they will (usually) have to move on in five to ten years. Even so, the chapter is full of wisdom; my favourite is: ‘No matter what church you serve, you’ll encounter dysfunctional families, back-stabbing gossips, hypercritical leaders, and every other kind of annoying personality you can think of (p. 136). Sad, but true!

Hence my appreciation of this book. Its truths may be self-evident, but it’s reassuring and comforting to have them restated. Being a relatively young woman minister is strange; both inside and outside the church the stereotypical minister is an older man. With all its joys, ministry is an often difficult and lonely calling for anyone, but it’s particularly so for young women. While (almost) all ministers need to be reminded of the importance of boundaries and self-care, and encouraged that toxic situations are not our fault, woman ministers, constantly facing an extra layer of expectation from congregations and confusion from the outside world, are in particular need. Reading this book feels like having a coffee with friends who have wisdom and experience to share, and in this vocation we can never have too many of those.

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February 17, 2012 - Posted by | Ministry | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. As a (not so young) woman just starting theological studies and discerning my future role in the Uniting Church, it’s good to know that others have already started addressing the issues mentioned in the book, and that the Uniting Church already seems to have taken on board (or considered) some of these issues. Thanks to all the women out there who have taken on these battles within the church, and thanks, Avril, for your review of the book which I may otherwise have not seen.

    Comment by Liz Hudson | April 21, 2012 | Reply


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