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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

Brighter As She Goes

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

On my 14th birthday in 1995, I said, “Goodbye” to all my friends and promised to write. My parents boarded a jet with my baby brother and me to cross the pacific ocean. My dad took his first pastorate post-Bible Missionary Church on Big Island, Hawaii. He had worked for a few years as a church administrator, but was ready to lead a congregation again.

When people hear that I lived in Hawaii they always ask the same questions: Do you surf? Why aren’t you tan? What was it like?

The answer: I never learned to surf. Because I’m white. If I’m being honest, the 4 years of high school I spent in Hawaii were tough but extremely formational.

That first summer was the worst. I had several weeks of school work left. I was not cut out for home school. Too much time alone. The church my dad took over was small. I was the youth group.

When high school started in the fall, things improved some. I never felt like I fit in. Maybe that’s typical for a freshman. Although I attended a Christian school, it seemed like the only thing my classmates did for fun was drink and do drugs. I would eventually find my crew, Erin and Chrissy. We were a pretty nerdy threesome. I wore oversized overalls and Looney Tunes t-shirts.

Me, Chrissy and Erin

A few weeks after our arrival, I sang in front of the church for the first time. It was a duet with my mom of “Softly and Tenderly.” I came in too early. I’m pretty sure the words came out like a whisper, “Sof…” I was mortified. Cried all week long, sure that everyone thought I was terrible.

Somewhere along the way I started to find my groove. My grandma Teale gifted me with an Alvarez classical guitar. “Now,” she said, “this guitar don’t play no devil’s music.”

“Never grandma…” I said. I’m pretty sure she and I had different ideas about what that meant.

A few weeks later I was leading a song or two on Sunday morning. We still had our song leader with a hymnal. But now we were singing a couple of choruses too. Sometime later one of the church ladies would tell me, “You know when you first started playing you were really lousy, but now you’re much better.” Thank you?

At some point I felt like there needed to be a children’s church service. My mom and I worked on this together. Eventually, I got tired of not having a youth group, so I started one of those too.

I went to church camp every summer, all of them. I would attend high school camp and serve as a counselor at kids camp. Eventually they elected me to the district youth council. That meant I was flying to Maui or Oahu every couple of months.

My mom and me at my high school graduation

The people in my dad’s congregation supported many of my crazy ideas. Like the church yard sale where we managed to raise a couple thousand dollars for my missions trip. Or the time I set up the bottom floor of the church like a haunted house for Halloween. One of the old men with eyes crossed, fake teeth popped out and a strobe light was insane! Of course there was a message about Jesus at the end.

That church in Hawaii was also where I would preach my first sermons. I was loved, nurtured and mentored into a leader. So much of who I am as a person was shaped and formed in all the best ways by my experiences there.

Recently I have been exploring other parts of the evangelical faith tradition. I knew in theory but hadn’t realized how the voices of women had been silenced until I began to hear their stories.

That’s why I wanted to take just a moment to celebrate the gift that the church gave me. I know that I’m not alone in this. I’ve met dozens of women who were encouraged to take leadership roles in the church and have done dynamic things. Although many have been silenced, the church has also allowed many women to find their voice. That was the case for me.

There were indicators that I showed promise. In college I was one of three seniors chosen to speak in chapel. Preaching in front of roughly 1500 of your peers is no joke. I was terrified, but I killed it with jokes about Wal-Mart and Mario Lopez from Saved by the Bell. My friend, Mary, said that she was having trouble doing homework in the back of the auditorium because I was so entertaining. Of course I talked about God and Jesus too.

I was in good company. It wasn’t a competition, but a few people told me I was the best. Well, I was the most entertaining at least. The other two guys chosen are clearly more scholarly than me. Both of them now have doctorates. One is a college professor. I checked Amazon. He’s up to four books and a DVD. The other is now the chaplain at PLNU, where we graduated from. Perfect, since he’s the coolest person I know. Both are easily two of my favorite people.

I’m at that point in life where you look at what you’ve accomplished versus what you expected to accomplish. Anyone else feel like their shooting star kind of fizzled a little? Maybe mine just has a really really long arc before it takes off. Could I be gradually getting brighter as I grow older?

As I listened to a podcast this week I heard a familiar story. Young, zealous for God, involved in ministry in high school. This guy sounded just like me. Except his trajectory bent a little different. By the age of 20 he had graduated from college, married and was in full time ministry as a senior pastor. Now he’s a college professor and being interviewed on podcasts about his books.

When I graduated from college, close to 20 years ago, that’s what I had in mind. I expected to be a senior pastor one day. At the time, I felt like it was important to say that. As a woman, I needed to say that. I knew plenty of women youth and children’s pastors, but only one lady Senior Pastor. I aspired to do greater things.

My sister-in-law, Beth, was a children’s pastor at the time. To my assertion she very kindly replied, “When you say that, it kind of sounds like you’re implying that other leadership roles are less important.” She rocked my world.

My roots as an evangelical gifted me with a specific definition of calling. There was this sense that God chose specific individuals for leadership and ministry. For example, scriptures like 1 Corinthians 12.28, “And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.” Doesn’t it say there that apostles are in first place?

Although this verse might sound hierarchical, the chapter is exactly the opposite. The Apostle Paul uses the human body as an illustration of the value of each individual, united by one Spirit.

There’s this idea that we each have a specific role to play. From scripture all of these callings are equally valuable and important.

But where we live in America, power and prestige are obviously better than service and support. We pay the CEO of a multi-national corporation more than a department supervisor. Why wouldn’t we pay a lead pastor of a multi-site congregation more than the youth pastor or worship leader? Furthermore, if the church was going to follow the structure of corporate America…

Ok, I have to take a minute for a side note here. There is one church administration class required for ordination. Which hardly prepares you for the responsibilities of being the HR, payroll, PR, procurement, legal, accounting, administrative, building and facilities manager, etc. that most pastors are required to be. In this class, our professor presented a diagram of church organization with the pastor as CEO. I found this off-putting, so I raised my hand to give a little feedback. I said that corporations are solely purposed to make profits with little to no care for human beings. Using greed-based structure as a template for church organization seemed like a bad idea to me. I thought it was a very compelling argument. The professor pointed to the tiny asterisk at the bottom of the page that said “**Prayer will be in every part” and moved on. My friend Beth did a great job of amplifying my point, but he was clearly unimpressed with my thoughts.

…they would also have a thin number of women in leadership at the top of the organization.

My dad told me I didn’t need more education, but I felt like I needed more qualifications. I wasn’t ready. He told me I didn’t need anyone to hire me. I could just pick a place and plant a church. But that was scary.

Guess what, my dad was right. He believed in me more than I believed in myself.

I would eventually submit my resume for a senior pastorate position. Just once, a few years ago. The district superintendent told me that I didn’t have enough experience. Apparently 12 years as an associate pastor is not enough to be considered for a church with 50 members. I am thankful he passed me over. My dreams have changed. As a small church pastor, I wouldn’t have been able to financially support my husband through his career transition. That didn’t keep me from being a little bitter that the male youth pastor they hired wasn’t old enough to have half as many years of experience as I did.

The truth is, I have no one to blame for my lack of ministerial career advancement but myself. I had plenty of advocates. There were people who believed in me. I may have talked a big talk, but when it came time to pursue a higher leadership position, I didn’t go for it. There were a lot of reasons. If you’ve read my Late Bloomer series, you might understand some of why I held myself back.

I know I’m not the only one. I’ve met countless women who think they need another degree or certification before they start applying for jobs. Over-qualification might compensate for a lack of confidence. We often lack the imagination to see bigger things for ourselves. There are plenty of outside forces that hold us back, but we also do it to ourselves.

I’m not sorry and I don’t regret my decisions. Every choice I have made brought me to where I am now. The good and the bad have made me who I am and I like myself most days. Plus, if I were perfect, everyone would hate me. Nobody likes perfect people.

I don’t think of calling as a specific role anymore. It’s not just one job title that God whispers in your ear. I still have this passion for people to know God. That doesn’t always come with a fancy job title or the perfect organizational structure. I also don’t think God is limited by the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be.

What does it mean to be called to ministry? Well, I’m still figuring that out. I hope it means that I get to show people God’s love. I hope being called has something to do with inspiration, that I might speak words of grace that heal and encourage.

How about you? What does calling mean to you? Have you ever held yourself back from something you would be great at? I know a lot of men who do it too. It’s about time we gather our courage and step up. There’s work to be done and we are just the ones to do it.

Next week I’ll write about being a lady boss and the benefits of diversity in the workplace and church leadership. If you’d like to receive and email notification the next time I post an article, click the subscribe button below.

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