The protagonist of my contemporary romance is a woman who has just turned 40 and finds that she has plunged into a mid-life crisis. Someone once told me that she is the character most emotionally and intellectually close to who I really am. That is no accident. When I wrote the story, I purposely dove into my personal experience in ministry, particularly with my current congregation, with whom I have been for nearly 11 years. The church sequences in the book are my love letters to the people and life I have experienced in that United Methodist congregation. And, if you read the book, which is told in the first person, you might notice that Lins’ voice is like mine on this blog. I even went through a mid-life crisis in my 40s – but I ended up in graduate school. So, sorry, gang, no rocker and no band for me.
Simply put, Lins is like me, but not me. Maybe the best way to explain it is that she’s my avatar who lives in a fictional world.
In Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, Lins is questioning the career and calling she thought she had settled on in her twenties. Her daily life has a predictable pattern (if you can call serving a church “predictable”). She refers to it the “same old, same old.” In addition, Lins can’t stop thinking about the fun and satisfaction she had fronting a rock band in college. The nostalgia is so acute that she moans to her friends Pattie and Sue, “I just want to rock one more time before I die.”
But how did Lins get into ministry, to begin with? While it does come up in the book, I thought I would put her “back story” in one place to see if we could get a grip on her character.
Like most of us who are serving churches or ministries beyond church walls, we will tell you that we were called to it. But how that calling happened, when we first became aware of it, what we felt called to do differs person to person, but frequently we know before we acknowledge it.
Lins is a military brat and one of two children in the Mitchell family, the oldest being her brother, Dale. Her dad is a Marine and, because he is a “lifer,” the family moves a great deal. So, family, rather than location, becomes Lins’ anchor.
The Mitchells’ peripatetic life, however, comes to an abrupt halt when her father, who has been sent to Lebanon, is killed in the 1983 bombing of the Beirut barracks. Lins is only eight years old and later says of that the time, "was when everything changed.”
Her mother is given grief support by the military chaplain and the other dependents living on the base. Once she has passed through the first shock and through her husband’s burial, Lins’ mother makes a decision to take the family back to New Jersey and move in with her parents. Lins’ grandfather, who is a Methodist minister and affectionately known as Gramps by Lins and her brother, Dale, now takes a central role in her life.
It is Grampa who recognizes that his grandchildren need therapy to deal with their grief and sees that they receive it.
Let’s stop here to sum a few things up. Lins is shaped by a close family life, the sudden death of her father, and the support of a loving grandfather, who happened to be a minister.
Despite their tragic loss, the little family moves forward. Both the children grow up and attend college. Lins’ mother does not remarry and stays single until her death in a car accident about three years before Heart Soul begins. Lins does not speak much of this in the book, but I know there’s a story there.
However, all that is in the future for Lins the college student. While at school, she blossoms. A music-lover, she becomes the lead singer in a rock band with her friend Patti and Robbie, another friend who quickly becomes her boyfriend.
Lins is smitten with Robbie. In the book, she relates, “I was absolutely certain that he was The One. If I had been a cartoon character, my eyes would have turned into throbbing pink hearts whenever I thought of him.” And why not? The couple talked about getting married and “rocking into the sunset together.”
Since Robbie is a couple years older than Lins, he graduates first. And things change again for her because, predictably, the love of her life meets another woman. The next thing Lins knows, a “Dear Lindsay” letter arrives in the mail.
Remember how important relationships are to her? The break up devastates Lins. Feeling lost, she turns to Grampa for advice. Instead, he gives her a journal. She doesn’t understand how that is going to help her. Grampa tells her to write a little something every day: feelings, questions, observations. He says, “When you go back and look at your entries you may see a pattern, you may see where God is at work and giving you an answer.”
Sure enough, a few months later, Lins reads over her journal and sees that church was a large part of her life and that she had been doing lay ministry all her life. She says, “…it was as if a voice whispered in my heart, ‘See? You are mine, Lins. You are my child. Follow me.’”
How that moment of acknowledgment happens – and it can range anywhere from “ah-ha!” to “are "you kidding?” – will vary from person to person. But when it happens, things change. For Lins that means going to seminary, although she doesn’t go all the way to ordination. Her explanation is semi-autobiographical. I did the same thing.
"… I had a strong calling to teach and guide people in their faith formation. So, I became a 'Christian educator' and because I had some preaching and leadership skills in worship, later went on to become an assistant minister. I never bothered to get ordained…”
She also gives up playing in a band, although she still loves rock music, because she can’t rectify serving a church with being in a band. I had a similar experience. Eventually I gave up trying to write novels and shifted to writing “churchy” things like sketches for worship and youth group, Christmas pageants, and articles. Until... well, that's another story,.
When Lins hits 40, she wonders if she is called to something else. And that is where her story begins in Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll.
Strangely enough, as I read the material over to write this blog, I realized that Lins’ struggle to understand that God might be calling her to rock out shadows my own struggle to understand that God might be calling me to write novels.
On Monday, we’ll look at Neil Gardner – a guy who grew up in a family vastly different from that of Lins. He wasn't exactly raised by wolves, but close.
Image; The Great Central Fair, Philadelphia, 1864
So, I wear three hats – or is it I have three heads and put a hat on each one?
First, I work in a local congregation of the United Methodist Church as their assistant minister, director of Christian education, and communications director. That itself is three hats! Or maybe three heads. In which case, I now have six heads total.
Now I’m confusing myself.
Anyway, one of my vocational pursuits is serving a local congregation.
My second hat, or head, is being an author. That’s obvious, right? I really don’t believe I’d be writing a blog five out of seven days just for the fun of it. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy blogging. But the nearly daily deadline can be daunting. What if I run out of ideas? But, it's necessary if I want to get my other work out there – my historical fiction novels and my contemporary romance. Blogging helps. So, job #2 = author.
My third head with a hat is "historian." I have a Ph.D. in North American Religion and Culture from the Casperson School of Graduate Studies at Drew University. This means I am a bone fide history geek and my disciplinary title is “Americanist.” Bet you can’t guess the era I most enjoy! Too easy, I know. In truth, I have no idea where my affinity for the nineteenth century came from, but I’ve got it – and how.
But my nerdiness is really what I want to address. I’m a soooo geeky that I go bonkers over all that bizarre stuff historians just love. In fact, this very day I got excited over ordering something on Amazon.
You see, I’m working on a short story called “The Great Central Fair” of 1864 in Philadelphia. Part of the tale takes place at a fund raiser for the Sanitary Commission. The Sanitary Commission was a private organization established by federal legislation and designed to help wounded and ill soldiers during the Civil War.
What made the fair so “great” was that it was enormous. It was housed in a building erected specifically for it on Union Street, and its exhibits were numerous. Think of it as a county fair on steroids.
People thronged to the fair, and it raised over $1 million dollars in support of the Sanitary Commission. That was an impressive sum of money in those days. According to the website www.officialdata.org, the inflation rate between 1864 and 2017 is 1389.5%. Therefore, one million dollars in 1864 is equivalent to the purchasing power of $14,894,823.63 in 2017. Yes, that’s right. Let’s put our pinkies to our mouths and say, “Fourteen MILLION dollars.” That’s a lot of cabbage.
I was excited enough when I discovered a PDF copy of the Guide to the fair, something that had been published for its patrons. But since my eyes aren’t happy staring at a screen all the time, I thought I would print the document. To my disappointment, the PDF refused to be printed. Then I got a crazy idea. I wondered if anyone had done a reprint of the Guide. It was a long shot, but weirder things have happened. So, I did an online search. And, yes, I’m happy to report that weirdos really do rule the world. A reprint was available on Amazon. No matter what you think of Amazon, that place does have everything.
So, after doing the celebratory Researcher’s Dance of Joy (they teach this in graduate school), I placed my order for ten dollars. It was only $10; can you believe it? Such a deal! Soon I will be the proud owner of this reprinted piece of American history.
I'm looking forward to wallowing to my heart’s content in the Guide's descriptions of the exhibits and restaurants. Between the Guide and the photographs that I had found at the Library of Congress website, I will be able to give readers a sense of what going to the Great Central Fair was like.
Gee, I hope the Guide’s information about the restaurants include menus. Wouldn’t that be cool to describe what Frankie, Lydia, and beaus are chowing down on? O! Be still, my heart.
So now you understand where I'm coming from and there should be no doubt in your mind. Yes. I really am that much of a geek.
Until tomorrow, gentle readers. I’ll be back with a series of blogs about the characters in my lonely little contemporary romance, Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll. Because I love rock as much as I love history.
Image taken by Janet R. Stafford. First United Methodist Church, Somerville, NJ.
Like her older sister, Frankie’s interest in a vocation shows up early in the Saint Maggie series, but it takes her a while to finally decide the direction she wants to take. Frankie does not seem to be the type who becomes a minister. She is tomboyish, outspoken, and impulsive. She even announces: “Church is dull.”
Despite Frankie’s excesses and immaturity (she is only fourteen when the series starts), she is good-hearted and has been trained well by her mother to love God and neighbor.
Frankie’s distaste for religion fades when she meets the Methodist church’s handsome young minister, but she is crushed when she learns that Madison is interested in her older cousin Leah. In tears, she confesses to Maggie that she had visions of helping Madison in his ministry. “We’d be partners. I’d go visit the sick with him, and teach, and preach.”
Maggie writes in her journal about their conversation. She is supportive of her daughter, if Frankie is called. However, she has serious reservations.
If God truly is calling my daughter, what then? She would have to leave our church, for the M.E.C. will not ordain women. But who among the churches will ordain a woman? To which church would she go? She would be a laughing stock, reviled, or both. My God, could I stand by and watch that, even if You called her? But Your Son had to endure that and much more. And I know this, my Frankie is strong – and Your Holy Ghost will make her even stronger.
Maggie soon finds out the road blocks that would lie in her daughter’s path when Frankie’s short, impromptu sermon at camp meeting causes a stir.
By the time she is fifteen, Frankie has a growing interest in ministry. In Walk by Faith, her family has relocated to Gettysburg. Desiring desires a theological education, Frankie walks to the Lutheran Theological Seminary, where she meets the Rev. Samuel Schmucker. Schmucker was a real person, a German-Lutheran pastor, the president of the theological school. However, the conversation is fiction, although I tried to make their conversation true to what I know about him.
Frankie begins her pitch by saying that she knows Schmucker supports female education. She then adds that if “women have a right to learn… can we not also pursue more rigorous intellectual pursuits such as theology?” After impressing him with the list theological books she has read, Frankie tells the older man that she would be happy to sit at the back of the classroom or even outside the door and listen. When she mentions preaching, though, the following conversation ensues.
“Preaching is a bit radical for a woman, don’t you think?”
“The first people to learn of Jesus’ resurrection were women. And is not the first sermon simply the words, ‘He has risen?’ Could not we say they were preaching?”
Rev. Schmucker considered her argument. “We certainly could. But there are other passages which define woman’s role differently.”
Frankie could hold back no longer. “But, sir, the world is changing! You yourself have worked to bring that about. My family and I are helping slaves and freemen escape the war and go north, and I have been told you do the same. You have offered a theological education to men of color. You have founded schools for girls. Do you see what is happening? People who once had no voice are beginning to speak. God’s Holy Spirit is moving. As the prophet Joel said, ‘And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.’”
“And are these the days about which Joel spoke?”
Frankie demurred. “I do not know. I only believe that it seems to be so.”
“You are a very persistent young woman,” Rev. Schmucker said again with a smile. “I like your spirit.”
And that is how Frankie ends up auditing classes at the theological school. She also becomes her family’s pastor and leads a funeral service held in the Smith house. The battle in July, though, soon disrupts the entire town, including the seminary and Frankie’s book-learning, but her education in practical ministry continues. When she finds herself separated from her family, Frankie rolls up her sleeves and goes to work at the field hospital at the Spangler Farm. She continues to help the wounded when she returns to the Smith house in the third book, A Time to Heal.
Frances Blaine is searching for something to fit her unique gifts and inclinations, and throughout the series tries on different vocations. She teaches at the Blaineton School for a while. After the wounded in Gettysburg are moved to Letterman General Hospital, Lydia and midwife Adela Edler start a hospital for women and children in the old Smith house, and Frankie works there.
In Seeing the Elephant, though, seventeen-year-old Frankie goes to work in a different hospital – the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. At first, she volunteers by offering prayer sessions and Bible studies for women in the convalescent ward. But eventually she is offered a paying position as an attendant in the same ward. Frankie umps at the chance, but this still is not a perfect fit for her
Finally, in the closing chapter of Seeing the Elephant, Frankie confesses her feelings to her stepfather, Eli:
“…I don’t want to work in a hospital, nor do I want to be a teacher.”
“Well then, what do you want to do?”
She hesitated a moment and then blurted, “I want to be a minister! There, I said it!”
Eli beamed. “So, be a minister.”
“I can’t! It’s impossible.”
“That right? Who says?”
“Everyone, huh? What about God?”
“I don’t know what God says.”
“You don’t? Who do you think put that notion in your heart in the first place?”
We already know from history that Frankie will not have an easy time answering her call. She might have to change denominations, which would grieve her Methodist mother. She also might have to move west, where cultural controls are more relaxed, and women have greater opportunities. If she marries Patrick, then a move west becomes even more likely, because a young doctor also will find opportunity there.
A woman being called to ministry in the mid-1860s is not something for the faint of heart. But, as Frankie says to sister Lydia at the beginning of A Time to Heal, “We’re far from fragile flowers!”
Somehow, I think she’s going to answer the call.
Image: Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Library of Congress
Maggie’s other daughter by John Blaine, Frances (aka Frankie), has a “calling,” meaning she feels that God wants her in ministry. Not “women’s ministry,” but “ministry.” Period.
But if it was difficult for a woman to be taken seriously as a physician – or even considered a possible candidate by the medical profession, it was even worse for a woman drawn to ministering to a congregation to become ordained.
There were certain Christian groups who were open to women speaking in public and taking leadership roles. The most well-known among them were the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Women were welcome to speak in Meeting and held various positions within the Meeting. But the one thing a Quaker Meeting frowned upon was “hireling clergy.” There was no ordination. In fact, there were no pastors. Everyone could be moved by the Spirit to speak and lead.
As for the rest of the Christian groups, you can count on one hand the number of known women ordained by them:
The stories about Frankie currently fall between 1860 and 1864. A woman wouldn’t be ordained in a more “mainstream” Methodist group until 1866 when the North Indiana Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church ordained Helenor M. Davison. Still, that was the action of a lone Conference. The Methodist Protestant Church as a denomination did not began ordaining women until Anna Howard Shaw in 1880.
As a historical note, women were forced to take a step back in 1939 when the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South united to form The Methodist Church. One stipulation of the merger stated that although women could be ordained as deacons and elders, they only could serve in local churches and could not be grant full Conference membership. Why was that a big deal? Because Methodist Protestant women already had been ordained and now had to give up their Conference memberships to satisfy the stipulation. They were sacrificed on the altar of “unity.” Being a member of Conference meant a minister could be appointed by the Bishop and his cabinet to serve churches anywhere in the geographical area assigned to that Conference. Membership also meant the minister had voting rights at Annual Conference, as well as any other perks and protections granted to ordained clergy. Methodist Protestant clergywomen were busted to second-class citizens within The Methodist Church.
The situation finally was rectified in May 4, 1956,when the General Conference of the Methodist Church voted to give women full clergy rights.
I just want to note that the merger of 1939 exacerbated another inequality. Within Methodism, jurisdictions are geographically based. But the MEC, South only would agree to the union if a jurisdiction, called the Central Jurisdiction, was created specifically for black annual conferences. A movement eventually began to abolish the Central Jurisdiction, and finally was made official in 1969 when The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren.
Yes, I know all this Methodist stuff is confusing. You ought to try teaching it to 6th-8th graders in a confirmation class. It’s “bang your head against the wall because it feels so good when you stop” time.
My point is, our Frankie has a rough road to travel if she wants to serve a congregation. But she’s a tough, determined cookie, as I’ll illustrate in tomorrow’s Squeaking Blog.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder