By Bromleigh McCleneghan
Alice Crawford, Nancy Olsen, Lori Bartel, Marie Harris, and, of course, my mom. These were the women who drove the children’s ministry at First UMC in Park Ridge, IL, when I was a kid. They started “the Cricket Club,” which brought us together for music and stories, and the best craft projects ever, on Thursday afternoons. They taught us how to make puppets out of plaster bandages and how to sing. We had red T-shirts with hand-drawn knock-offs of Jiminy Cricket smiling on the front. We learned a glue gun can do just about anything, church is where life happens, and church is a place for everyone.
But it wasn’t just those amazing women who taught me about God. I was welcomed and nurtured in the faith by my dad, who served as my pastor as well as my father for the first eighteen years of my life. There are those who wisely speak against “dual roles” – a spouse should not pastor their partner; a therapist cannot treat a friend. But the rules are a bit different for parent and pastor, I think, perhaps because the relationship is not egalitarian in the same way as a marriage or friendship. The parent, and the pastor, has some authority.
If someone struggles to be a good pastor or a good parent, I can imagine that holding those roles in tandem would be a bit of a disaster. But my dad was wonderful as both (as, actually, was my mother, who was not pastor, but worked as Christian Ed Director when I was a kid). Not perfect, of course, but wonderful enough to inspire me to pursue ministry and parenthood myself.
I think the secret to Dad’s success was his willingness to take everyone, even kids – even me – seriously – to consider us valuable and able participants in the life of God and the life of the church. My sisters and I were loved for who we were as children of God, as human beings, but also in all our particulars: Whitney for her raised-eyebrow approach to life and commitment to work for the marginalized, Taylor for her generous spirit and ability to do anything, and me, for my desire to read and discuss books and ideas all the time, even when it made me late for school. We were kids who were subject to parental authority and who argued about curfews and cars and who had neglected to help with the laundry, but we were also always engaged in our common life.
At church, we participated in the family Good Friday service, and sang in the children’s choir, and attended youth group and Sunday school, just like all the other kids, but we were also invited to share of our particular gifts: I served as lector and eventually youth preacher; Whitney once performed a carol in American Sign Language; Taylor played her viola and went on mission trips.
I grew up with a father who loved my sisters and me fiercely; my sister is pregnant with her second son right now, and we were just reminiscing about how people would ask our dad if he was disappointed to only have had girls. He was offended. I grew up knowing that it was great that I could sing and serve and care for children, typically gendered activities for church girls, but that it was also great and wonderful that I could debate theology and politics, that I could write and preach. My gender was a part of my identity, but not all of it.
Neither my family nor our congregations were ever perfect, but this Women’s History month, I celebrate and give thanks for the people who raised me to see and appreciate the particular gifts of all people, male and female, young and old: to know that the body needs all its members, and that all its members, diverse as we may be, are made one in Christ Jesus.
Bromleigh McCleneghan is the associate for congregational life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. She is coauthor, with Lee Hull Moses, of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People (Alban Institute).