Today, in our continuation of the Church Lady series, we have the opportunity to hear from Marlena Graves, a fellow Redbud Writer and woman of faith! She is the Minister of Pastoral Care at her church, and also a powerful writer! In her writing, Marlena reflects on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus amid the beauty, wonder, and tragedy of this God-haunted world. She is a bylined contributor for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics and Gifted for Leadership blogs and has contributed to many other publications. Her first book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Brazos Press – Baker Books), came out in June. I am so thankful for her honesty and willingness to share her story with us today!
1. Tell us a little bit about the church that you’re a part of.
My family and I moved here last August. My husband is a philosophy professor and was hired in for a tenure-track position at the local university. So in a week or so, we’ll have lived here one year.
We had a wonderful community where we lived and so we knew that a central part of our lives would be our church community in this new place. The church is our family, a means of grace in our lives. We’ve had wonderful experiences in churches, though we’ve seen the good, bad, and ugly because we’ve been a part of the leadership in one way or another in many of the churches we attended. So it was essential for us to find a good church. At first, we went to a church about a mile from our house because we wanted to be able to walk to church and because we appreciated the liturgy. But after some issues arose, we decided that it wasn’t the church for us. We then decided to go to St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church, a church just over a mile down the street (in the opposite direction). It’s about a twenty-minute walk.
We chose to go to St. Andrew’s because while we were attending the other church, the pastor of St. Andrew’s and his wife (who live close by) invited my husband and me to a small group. We couldn’t both attend because we had no one to watch our girls; we were new to the area. So, my husband offered to watch the girls while I attended the small group. I immediately fell in love with our group and their Jesus life. This past Christmas Eve, we decided to leave the first church and attend St. Andrew’s. It’s the first time we’ve ever left a church (aside from moving away) and I felt guilty about it because we tend to be terribly loyal through thick and thin. We had attended the previous church four months. Yet, St. Andrew’s is much more warmly hospitable and so we decided to attend. We are grateful we did. It has made all the difference in feeling a sense of belonging in this new town. We have a people—a place to belong and where we want others to belong.
2. What does it look like, in your life, to be an active part of your church?
This situation is a bit different. Throughout the winter, Shawn and I started attending another small group at our pastor’s house. This time, the church provided childcare in the pastor’s home so that we (and other couples with children) could both attend. While there, during a time of prayer, I mentioned that I needed to find a job in order to make ends meet (I had left a full-time job last year when we moved). The group prayed for me, and soon after I found out that the church was hiring two new people: a full-time Minister of Discipleship and a part-time Minister of Pastoral Care. Initially, I thought of applying for the full-time job. But, I had become pregnant with our third child, our third girl, and didn’t think it wise to work full-time. I applied for the pastoral care position. And to my great delight, I was hired.
I started in the middle of June. And I love it. My responsibilities mostly involve senior care, hospital and hospice visits, and funerals. My desire is that all of us would be enfolded in to the life of Jesus at St. Andrew’s and that everyone would be rendered visible, no matter one’s age, ability, or disability.
3. How are your unique gifts and abilities strengthened by being part of a local church?
You know, I’ve always seen myself as a physician of the soul and others have seen and treated me as such my entire life. I didn’t grow up with rigid complementary roles defined for men and women. It wasn’t until I attended a Christian college that I heard of such things. And in college I embraced it briefly (in theory more so than practice). But then I went to seminary and got my M.Div. and heard the other side—arguments for women in all church offices. I have friends who don’t think women should be pastors, friends who think women can be pastors but only if they are under men, and friends with opinions across the continuum. I deeply respect all of them. I let my life and my testimony speak for itself. I’ve been shepherding/pastoring in and out of the church for years. In fact, when my husband taught at a Christian university where the unofficial view was that women could not be pastors, several male professors asked me to be on the teaching/pastoral care team with them in an urban church plant. It was four other guys and me on this team. They, along with the church, saw and affirmed my gifts. Many of those who opposed my position in theory reconsidered when I ministered among them. And they are my friends. I’ve had both an inward calling and outward confirmation of my gifts.
Now, as I mentioned above, I’m working primarily with seniors. And I am thanking God because we all, at some point or other, render some people invisible. It’s as if past a certain age, we don’t “see” people if they aren’t related or close to us. (No doubt this is partly a function of our seemingly youth-obsessed American culture.) I’ve just been thanking God every day that he is allowing me to really see people – to love them and be loved by them. When we lived and worked on the college campus where my husband taught, I remember thinking: “I love these college students, but I wish there were elderly people around, a more intergenerational culture.” I’m excited to learn from them, be loved by them, and to return that love. They are all precious in God’s sight. We all are.
4. How has being part of a church challenged and changed you?
Throughout most of my church and Christian experience I’ve had the opportunity to be around those who think very differently from me. I’ve been in churches, ministries, and educational institutions where people had different political and theological opinions – not when it comes to the central tenets of the faith, but other issues. Not too long ago my husband and I (and now it is climbing to about fifty others) were treated badly by an aggressive fundamentalist faction in the leadership at the Christian college where we worked. Through their scheming and maneuvering, they were successful in overthrowing the institutional leadership and nearly two departments on campus on which we were a part. Now, by their confession, those aggressive and scheming fundamentalists are part of the church. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ and I had to learn how to love those who treated us and our friends, coworkers, and superiors badly. I had to set aside retaliation. It’s hard to love people in the church who aren’t acting like Jesus. At the same time, it makes me doubly cautious and conscientious. I don’t want to become like that which I despise. So, I am challenged to love the church, not a nameless group of people, but the people around me when they don’t act as I think Jesus would or should. That is a real challenge. And I need grace to do it.
5. Why do you value church? What do you love about church?
I love the church because it contains many of the most beautiful and brilliant souls in existence. Sure, there are those who act like serpents. But there are so many who act like Jesus and have been Jesus to me. They have loved me into resurrection. Most of those who I admire and who have formed me by their lives—whether they be living or dead for centuries—have been a part of Christ’s body, part of that “great cloud of witnesses.” I owe much of the goodness in me to God’s spirit working through them. I wouldn’t be who I am without the church. I also love that I can find Jesus in all sorts of denominations and that he doesn’t play favorites with his affections. He loves our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters (of course!) and our Protestant brothers and sisters. I’ve seen him in all such quarters. Jesus isn’t prejudiced like we can sometimes be, showing favoritism or displaying partiality to a privileged few. So, I love the church because Jesus shows up through his people. In the church, in the members of the church, I see Jesus and I am changed. And I hope that people see Jesus in me and are changed by interacting with him. That is my prayer.
Marlena, thank you so much for sharing your life with us today! Your heart for those who are often not seen in our society is beautiful and reflects God’s heart! Make sure to hear more of Marlena’s heart in her book, A Beautiful Disaster.