15 years ago, I held my one month old child in my arms and was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. Looking back on it all, I have no idea how my husband and I survived that season of life. We graduated from seminary when I was 37 weeks pregnant, moved three weeks postpartum, were ordained a week later, and began co-ministry at our first church the week after that. Whew.
I remember stopping at our Iowa post office to pick up the mail with my newborn child in a stroller and someone said to me, “April, please make sure you take it easy. You just had a baby.”
I thought to myself, “Take it easy? Who is going to unpack all the boxes in my house and do all the ministry things if I take it easy?” I was foolish. I should’ve taken it easier and allowed people to help me. As a first time mom, in my first real job, in a new house, in a new state, I was so unaware of how many burdens I was carrying all at the same time.
Not long after, I developed postpartum depression, though I didn’t recognize it as such. I wasn’t sad. I was angry. I was anxious. Everything felt like it had a cloud over it. I felt like I had a fog pressing in all around me. I felt like my world had shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. I think this is why a lot of people never seek help for postpartum depression. They don’t recognize what is happening to them, and it isn’t always clear from the outside looking in either.
About a year later, the fog lifted, and the year after that I had my second child. The postpartum depression waited about four months to hit me that time, but this time I knew more of what I was dealing with. I reduced my ministry responsibilities, thanks to my flexible husband who was willing to take things off of my plate so that I could take care of myself.
As I reflect on the last 15 years of ordained ministry, I notice ministry has shifted every five years or so. These five-year blocks of time are like books or seasons, and I thought it might be helpful for me to write them out.
Book 1 – The first five years
The first five years of ministry were a wrestling match with imposter syndrome. When I entered the seminary classroom, I brought my books, my shoulder bag, and all of the theological baggage that told me I didn’t belong in ministry. Even though I studied Scripture and realized that God has *always* called and equipped women to be leaders, I still carried that nagging “What if I’m wrong?” voice in my mind.
I brought that uncertainty with me into my first church. I looked for reasons not to preach. I breathed a sigh of relief when thyroid surgery meant I needed to take six weeks off. I hid my gifts. I tried to shrink myself. I hid behind my husband’s gifts, all while he encouraged me to step out and lead with the gifts God had given me.
I was the first ordained woman in my classis (regional governing body), and the first woman to preach at the chuch where my husband and I were called to serve. I remembered a conversation I had with someone years prior. She told me I was a trailblazer as a woman in ministry. I informed her I had absolutely no desire to blaze any trails. She looked at me and said, “Well, you already are.” I hated it that she was right.
During that season, I started blogging and telling my story. Some people make sense of their lives by reading books or talking to people. I figure things out by writing. I wrote and I tweeted and I got a lot of encouragement. I also received a lot of disapproval and criticism from people who didn’t believe I should serve in ministry. It was a season of sifting and reflecting and discernment.
Book 2 – The second five years
Somewhere around year 5 of ministry, I felt a change. My children were growing. My oldest went to full day kindergarten. I started to realized I enjoyed preaching, and I felt a tremendous amount of satisfaction planning and leading Bible studies. The conviction that God had called me into ministry was migrating from my head into my heart and out through my hands. I was serving with more passion and life. I am grateful for a congregation that bore with me for those first five uncertain years. They loved me and encouraged me and believed in me, even when I struggled to believe in myself.
In year 8, we sensed a nudge that it was time for us to move. We accepted a call to move to a church in western Nebraska, which just happened to be in the same town as my grandparents. We journeyed west, and started setting down roots. We planted a garden and bought a house. We decided that this was a place where we wanted to dig in and grow.
Somewhere around year 10 of ministry, I realized that I was no longer afraid to be me. I loved preaching. I was eager to serve. I was surrounded by people who were cheering me on, and my husband and I were finding our rhythm as co-ministers.
Book 3 – The third five years
Years 10-15 have been a blur. My kids are growing (how do I have two teenagers?) and life seems to be moving so fast. This season has been a tug-of-war of sorts. Years 10-12 saw so much growth and momentum. Our Bible studies were growing. There was energy in worship. Almost every day, I came home excited and encouraged.
And then COVID hit. And everything was stopped in its tracks.
We spent two years figuring out how to pastor through a pandemic and how to school kids online and then in-person with masks. We wrestled cords and wires as we set up a livestreaming system, and we networked (over Zoom) with other pastors who were doing the same thing. Everything was new. Everything was exhausting. And there was absolutely none of the feedback and encouragement that helps re-fill the tank.
Today, as I write this, I feel a mixture of hope and grief. I lament the first five years of my ministry and I wonder what those years would have been like had I not been burdened with self-doubt and insecurities. I celebrate the growth, the experiences, the times of stretching, and the times of encouragement. I am grateful for the opportunity to use my gifts for ministry while also having the flexibility to be with my kids for their special moments. I am grateful that I get a front row seat to watch my husband’s growth in ministry. He inspires me so much.
I look back and I see God’s faithfulness, and I look forward and wonder what will happen next. I feel firmly rooted where I am, and I have no stirring in me to look for anything else. But, I’m also unsettled as I imagine what ministry will look like in a post-COVID world. Will God restore the momentum we had before? Will ministry be like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity? What will it look like for God to “restore our fortunes” in this season? And how can I be faithful in that?