The following piece is in honor of my father, who recently marked 30 years in pastoral ministry and turns 60 years old today.
Rain dripped slowly down the window running off the sil into a gray abyss of machines and asphalt below. I watched a couple of drops run their course down the glass and off the side of the building until I couldn’t make out their shape anymore. Although it looked dreary and cold outside, the cold inside was masquerading the humidity outside.
I found myself, 35, in a hospital hallway waiting to visit a friend who had been moved a few days before from the ICU to a room. At the age of 92, her daughter had called and said they found pneumonia when they came in for what they thought was a simple broken wrist. Yes, she had broken her wrist, but she could recover from that. The liters of fluid on her lungs were a different story.
When I arrived, no one answered my knock. Pushing in, however, I heard the sound of water and talking behind, what I then saw were, makeshift curtains right inside the door, and I knew my friend was having a bath. I made myself known and then announced I would be waiting in the hallway.
As I waited and closely studied these drops of rain with my eyes, my mind entered into the graveyard of forgotten memories, an oxymoron, I know, but memories can be forgotten until you remember them once again.
The graveyard of forgotten memories
Two months earlier I sat in my office across a desk from Greg Garrison, a reporter with AL.com there to interview me about my book, Now That I’m Called: A Guide for Women Discerning a Call to Ministry.
Poised and ready for my interview, I was caught off-guard by a simple question: “What does your dad believe about women in ministry?” To him, this was an obvious question to ask. My dad has been a Southern Baptist pastor for most of my life. Given my age, my calling, what Baptists generally believe about women in ministry, and now my book, it would be assumed that we would have had this conversation. However, I was stumped. I didn’t know how to answer because I simply did not know the answer. The jolt of the question was not simply that Greg asked me a question I had never been asked; rather, it was a question that I had never asked my dad nor had even asked myself. “I don’t know,” I responded.
As I gathered my thoughts, I added something like, “Both my parents were very supportive of me and my call to ministry. I can’t remember us ever having a conversation where he laid out his doctrine for women in ministry—what we could or could not do. But perhaps he didn’t feel the need to do so given that we were in a denomination that largely did not provide a lot of space for women in ministry.”
That was my first entry point in recent years into the graveyard of forgotten memories. Perhaps I had buried a conversation with my dad in which he laid out a dogma regarding women in ministry. What did my dad believe about women in ministry? I entered into the dark recesses of my mind.
At first, it felt like I was looking through a junk drawer or closet instead of a graveyard (imagine Monica’s closet in that Friends episode) where everything lost and forgotten and unimportant (until you need it) was thrown together in a jumble. What would I find?
A special kind of supervised ministry practicum
I pinpoint my call to ministry to the summer before my sophomore year of high school during a summer camp called Super Summer. At camp, I had surrendered to a call to vocational ministry. Upon returning home, I announced the call to my parents and then my church. Looking back now, I realize I had been wrestling with a call to ministry for years.
Had I been born male, I would have boldly and unreservedly made my calling known much earlier, perhaps as early as age 10. By age eight I had cried to my parents, “Why didn’t God make me a boy so I could be a preacher?” It wasn’t that I despised being a girl. I just felt called to something that was off limits for girls.
As I tiptoed through my forgotten memories, searching for a buried conversation with my dad or even one-off comments he made about women in ministry, I uncovered some memories I had not expected to find, especially those of Geraldine.
I was a mere five when I first met her. Members of the small rural East Texas church my father pastored, she and her husband, whose name I cannot recall, both were gray haired, and my mother said I loved Geraldine.
As I came across my first memory that involved Geraldine, the setting was her house. My parents had taken my sister and me one evening to visit them on the eve of her heart bypass surgery. Kim, my sister, and I, were on one side of the room playing while my parents were on the other side visiting. I stole glances, studying the way my dad spoke to her and placed his hand on her shoulder to pray. On the way home, I asked him what was wrong with my friend. “She is undergoing surgery tomorrow,” my dad replied. I didn’t really understand what surgery was but I felt its seriousness.
Like Harry Potter’s pensieve, this first memory faded as another emerged. This time I was in the hospital. Walking down a sterile hallway with my mother and sister to meet my father, we passed Geraldine’s sobbing husband, barely able to walk, borne along by a nurse on each side. His sobs shook my little frame. I’d never before heard a grieving human wail. “What happened?” I quickly asked my father with a deep pit in my stomach. “Geraldine died during surgery,” he replied. It was my first encounter with death. Wide-eyed I watched as my father tried to comfort and minister to Geraldine’s bereaved husband.
Like smoke that memory faded away and a new one took its place. This time we were in our small, country church for Geraldine’s funeral. I still remember how her husband looked as he walked down the aisle—shoulders slumped, cast down, as if he’d been beaten. Once again, I watched and observed my father minister to the family.
These memories about Geraldine were just as much memories about my father. Geraldine and her family happened to be the first family I remember watching my father minister to in great time of need. This memory propelled me down a lane I wasn’t expecting to travel. While searching for a dogmatic conversation about women in ministry, instead I found memories that revealed a father who gave me a rich practicum for ministry.
My father’s gift
Visiting church members was often a family affair. In fact, much of my childhood was spent on ministry errands with my father and the rest of the family in others’ homes, hospital rooms, funeral homes, and the church. I observed firsthand, year after year, how to preach, to study Scripture, to pray and to minister in a thousand ways.
When I was in middle school, my mom was a teacher at a school 30 minutes outside of town, where they had enrolled my sister. This meant that my father was responsible for taking and picking me up from school. On many occasions, he would take me directly from school with him on a hospital visit. These visits were special because I could watch dad up close. I learned from these experiences that our union with Christ, the Word of God and the gospel didn’t have only spiritual implications; the Christian life had much to do with the here-and-now, in sickness and in death. What do you say to someone who is at death’s door? I was quickly realizing as one memory dissipated into another that shadowing my dad those years was like being enrolled in a special school for ministry with him as my teacher and mentor.
As my mind came out of the graveyard of forgotten memories, my eyelids and eyelashes fluttered as my brain and eyes sought to refocus together on the drops. A nurse came out and said, “She’s ready.” It was a strange experience as I stepped up to Frauken’s door. All I could see was my father, whose shadow I followed. Was I ready for this? What would I say?
I rounded her bed to her right side and smiled. Tears in her eyes she whispered through labored breathing, “I’m glad you have come.” I reached for her hand, remembering that my dad always touched his people—no matter what diseases or infirmities they carried. As I visited with her, words of Scripture and comfort I remember my dad saying made their way to my tongue. The visit was rehearsed in the best sense, not that it was pretend or manufactured. Rather, I realized I had been prepared for this moment.
I went back to see Frauken several days later when she had been moved to palliative care. The next week, I journeyed with two colleagues from Beeson Divinity School to pray with her one last time in her final hours in hospice care. We each took turns to read Scripture to her. I read to her from Romans 8:31-39:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I kissed her forehead and said my goodbyes. Two weeks later I put on my black dress and black shoes and drove to the church where Frauken’s memorial service would be held. Romans 8:31-39 was one of the texts read. I didn’t conduct the service. I’m not ordained. But as a woman who is called to ministry–and who is still trying to find a place in vocational ministry–I’m thankful for a father who prepared and taught me by example how to be a Christian minister.
I still don’t know what my dad believes about women in ministry. Perhaps we’ll have that conversation after this article. And it is possible that he didn’t intentionally bring me along as he ministered to others for the sake of my calling and training in future ministry. Still, what he did—perhaps more than what he said—has been one of the greatest and most significant gifts to my formation as a Christian minister.
Dad, thank you for 30 years of faithful gospel ministry—preaching week in and week out and serving at the feet of others like our Lord Jesus. You’ve served mostly in small churches and in not-so-glamorous ministries. You’ve never pursued fame or recognition, but have served with the intent purpose that God may be glorified and people may repent and be saved. Remember that God looks with favor on the lowly and he exalts those who are humble. Thank you for the loving example you’ve set for your family and your people. Keep the good fight. Run the race. For there is laid up for you a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award to you on that Day. (2 Tim. 4:7-8)