I started to climb out on the rocks. I wanted to get the perfect picture of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. My husband called to me as I went out: “Be careful, Love! I didn’t check which ERs are in-network on this trip!”
“I’m fine,” I called back, “I spent my whole childhood climbing rocks in National Parks”
“Except you’re not a child anymore!” he reminded me.
“Oh boo to you!” I said, jumping to another rock.
Except, well, he had a point. We were at Acadia National Park precisely to celebrate my 40th birthday. Plus, I’m a total klutz — it’s maybe possible that I tripped over a rock and fell over backwards at the first Overlook (but who’s counting that?). 40 and a klutz. Sure, but I was going to see that lighthouse.
I jumped onto the rocks. I climbed down. I went further, seeking out the perfect camera shot. I didn’t get very far. Above me, at the overlook point, was mayhem. “MOMMY! I need you!” I heard from my daughter, who had apparently fallen on a rock and scraped up her leg. “MOMMY! I come!” I heard from my son, who was trying to follow me down the cliff. “Are you getting that picture?” my husband called down, while trying to comfort our daughter and prevent our son from running straight off the cliff. “I’m gonna need help! But take your moment. I’m getting it under control … maybe…”
I turned back to the sea and the old lighthouse. I took a few pictures. I took a deep breath as chaos ensued above me. I tried to breathe in peace, so I could go help the chaos. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I wasn’t the one to climb the rocks. I was the one to warn about the dangers of rock climbing, catch the ones running off cliffs, and kiss the boo boos when they do. I wasn’t a kid anymore.
Yet I do still feel young. Being young is part of my identity in my profession. I am a young clergy woman. A young female pastor. It’s not just my job, it’s also my identity. I was ordained 13 years ago, the day after my 27th birthday. In my denomination, this made me significantly younger than most of my colleagues and parishioners. It’s not always been easy being the young one. There’ve been those who assumed I could only be a youth pastor and not a solo pastor to all ages. There’ve been people who only asked me to serve on a board or committee because I’d bring down their average age requirements. There’ve been people who told me they didn’t vote to hire me because I looked too young in my picture. There’ve been scores (hundreds?) of people, who said something like: “I didn’t know they let babies be pastors.”
In the end, I may have enjoyed getting that last comment a little too much. Because when I hit the ripe ole’ age of 30, I would respond: “Well actually I’m the same age that Jesus was when he began his ministry.” It became my mantra to rude people in hospitals, or rehabs, or presbytery meetings, or beside strangers on planes. Jesus was 30 and no one thought he was too young. I only ever received 2 responses: 1. The person was offended and walked away, leaving me alone and perfectly happy not to talk to them. 2. The person laughed really hard and proceeded to engage in a meaningful conversation.
Today, though, I am 40. I am currently 7 years old than Jesus was when he lived on earth. Granted, I would never say those words – that’s clearly 1 step too far. But also … I haven’t had to use the retort in a number of years. I haven’t been called a baby lately. There are a few gray hairs poking out on my head. Bags under my eyes from raising small children. Saggy skin from birthing an 8lb baby and a 10lb 4oz baby. Wrinkles from living through 18 months (and counting) of a global pandemic. Wisdom (I hope) in my eyes from 13 years of ordained ministry and 10 years serving First Presbyterian Church, Haddon Heights. Yesterday, my daughter called out to me out of the blue: “Mommy, tomorrow you are going to be an old clergy woman.”
She was right (a little hurtful, but right). I got “the” email from the official Young Clergy Women International group: we thank you for your ministry, but “having reached the month of your 40th birthday, it’s time for you to graduate from YCWI.” They kicked me out, graciously and lovingly of course. For the nearly the entirety of my ministry, Young Clergy Women International has been nothing short of lifesaving to me and my ministry. This online community is my favorite space on the internet – the community is comprised only of clergy women under 40 and I venture to say it is the most supportive community on the face of the earth. Every post begins with camaraderie, support, and goodwill. It is non-judgmental. The community is filled with women I’ve known, women I’ve met through the group, and women I don’t know in real life but feel like I do. It is here that I’ve gotten support in times of great joy and in times of great sorrow. I’ve been able to find support for the many facets of my RevMama life: from solo pastors to parents to partners to preaching tips to sermon series to fashion advice. Yet now, as my clock ticks from one decade to another, I must leave my support group. It’s in the contract I signed when I joined in my late 20s: the group is for under 40, I promised to leave when I’m 40.
Today, I am no longer a Young Clergy Woman. I’m an Old Clergy Woman (Middle Aged Clergy Woman?) or as my new online community graciously calls us: Young Clergy Women Alumni. While I feel sad to leave, I also feel ready. My 40+ colleagues are waiting for me on the other side, and we are no longer facing many of the situations our younger colleagues are. It’s time to move on, and as I do, I promise to always be inclusive and understanding of my younger colleagues, their insight, their ideas, their contributions, and their ministries. Just as so many were supportive of me in mine.
This is what I was thinking about this week, as my family celebrated my milestone birthday in one of my favorite places on earth: Acadia National Park. It was in Acadia that I took my first steps when I was 11 months old. So, it only seemed fitting that we would take our family here for our first vacation as a family of 4. Here, I’m taking my first steps into a new decade, alongside my beautiful family and all the people God has put in my life in my first 40 years on earth.
My favorite spot in Acadia this visit was Little Hunters Beach, a quiet beach filled with large smooth stones. My children had the best time investigating rocks and tide pools. My husband and I had the best time marveling at “God’s playground” without having to prevent small children from running off cliffs. From where I sat on the rocks, the Atlantic Ocean waves crash in. The rocks tumbled. The mountain cliffs loomed behind us. The trees stood tall. It was majestic. I picked up all the rocks with a red swirl pattern and stacked them up. I thought of all the years, the waves, and the waters that tumbled these stones to make them smooth. To make them colorful. To make them sturdy and strong.
As I stacked them up, I thought of all the ways I’ve been formed over the years. All the waves that have tumbled me. All the smooth waters that have helped me sail. All the experiences that have made me more colorful with each passing year. All the people, places, and experiences that have made me sturdy and strong. All the ways that I’ve been stacked up and lifted up by my God and by the beloved people God has put in my life. At 40, I feel less tossed about than I did at 30. I’m no longer out there in the ocean in search of a place to land. I’ve found my sandbar. My people are rooted with me on the beach: a loving spouse, two beautiful children, a tight-knit family, supportive friends, and a church family who continue to care deeply for one another, our community, and the work to which God calls us.
As this pastor looks at 40, I am blessed by memories, grateful for what I have, excited for what lies ahead … and, well, tired.
As the great Van Morrison sings:
I want to sing this song for you
I want to lift your spirits high
And in my soul, I want to feel
The beauty of the days gone by
The beauty of the days gone by,
It brings a longing to my soul
To contemplate my own true self
And keep me young as I grow old
(Van Morrison, “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” Down the Road, 2002.