By Chelsea Maxwell & Reverend Alexis Brown
In this conversation, Reverend Alexis Brown shares her experience of entering ministry while beginning her family. She reflects on the challenges the process of ordination presented for her family, including living in a dormitory as a young family and experiencing financial stress. Alexis explains how the church as a community helped keep her family afloat and that she envisions all people having the opportunity to pursue vocation and family.
CM: When did you hear your call to ministry?
AB: I was young when I heard my call to ministry, but it took me time to accept it.
I'm a second generation pastor. My mother is a pastor and elder in our denomination. Sexism is very prevalent in the African American community. When my mom became a pastor, she was the first woman pastor at nearly all of her appointments. I saw her pain and struggle while I was growing up. I was even challenged in school. I would be told, “Your mother is a pastor? Women are supposed to be silent.” My mom’s ministry wasn't affirmed in the way that I would see men being affirmed. It hurt to see that growing up. I knew I had a call on my life. I had a sense of what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t want to have the same experience and struggle my mom did.
At first I tried to work various jobs to fill the void of not pursuing my calling. I got really depressed working at different companies that I eventually saw lacked integrity. For example, I worked for a rental car company at one time. They wanted workers to sell damage waivers. By selling damage waivers, the company made money even if the consumer didn’t really need it. For me, that was an issue of integrity and a justice issue. If I'm going to convince you of something, I want to convince you of something that's not going to hurt you, but that can bring life to you. The void I felt working that job led to depression but ultimately helped me see that I needed to surrender to God’s call on my life. And, I did.
What was the process for pursuing your calling to ministry?
The process of ordination in my denomination is long, and my family has taken the journey with me. It has been a challenge at times for us. It takes about seven or eight years to be fully ordained, or “in full connection.” When you hear your call to ministry, you have to be affirmed by your local church. Then, if you are affirmed by them, you go to another board made up of clergy and laity. They vet you and help you process your call. If they affirm your ministry gifts, they'll certify you. If you're a certified candidate for ministry, you get funds to go to seminary. They don't pay for all of it, but it helps. It was around this time that my husband and I married. Then, while I was in seminary, my family lived in the dormitory with me.
The next step is to be a provisional candidate. For this step, you have a written exam that you have to defend to a board. After that, you have to compile a Bible study and sermon for which you are graded. If this part of the process is going well, then you are invited to a retreat.
The first time I took my exam, I was invited to the retreat. I was preparing to graduate from seminary. I had just had our second child. Doors seemed to be opening up for us. It seemed like everything was going to fall into place, but then I didn’t pass. That was very hurtful spiritually. It was also hurtful practically. When you pass the exam, you receive a pay raise. While in seminary, my family was living paycheck to paycheck. We had the dormitory’s roof over our heads. I still had my cell phone. I knew I could call my mom if it really got really, really bad. I had some access to resources. But, there were also times when we didn’t have money for basic stuff. I wasn't so destitute that we didn't have anything, but we were poor. It was challenging, and not passing the exam meant that we would be in that position – financially stressed – for another year. Without the resources we did have, I don’t know how we would have made it.
It sounds like there was a lot of stress on your ministry and family life during this time. What is an example of a time you had to make a decision that could have impacted your ministry and your family?
At the time, my family only had one car. We were living in Washington D.C., my husband was working in Baltimore, and a district superintendent asked to appointment me to a church that was an hour away. I explained the barriers I was facing to the district superintendent and turned down the appointment. One of my friends told me that I was going to be blackballed from getting another appointment. I prayed and said, "Lord, you called me to this, and I know you don't want me to be stressed. I know you don't want to put undue stress on my family. We're already stressing over time." It just wasn’t the right opportunity for my family, and I had to let that opportunity go. A week or so later, I was appointed to a church in D.C. We were still financially stressed during my appointment, and the church I was serving struggled to support us too. But, the next year I took my exam again and passed.
Now I am a campus minister at a historically black college. My husband is also in the people-business – he is a mental health contractor. We have three daughters. Our youngest was born this past summer.
What is something that the church as your employer could do to support your family and protect your time together?
I think perhaps making it mandatory to take a sabbatical. Weekly Sabbaths are not mandatory. On one hand, you tell someone to take care of themselves. But, then you give them contradictory, mandatory places to be and don't respect or value the fact that perhaps this could be a time where they really want to honor their Sabbath.
I've had a supervisor call me with an event that is going to take place, saying, "Are you going to be there?" I will respond, "Well, Friday's my Sabbath." And I receive push back, such as, "Well, I know I can't be there, so what are you going to do?" That's their nice way of saying that I need to be there, even though I am trying to honor my family and a time set aside for rest. The Church sometimes sends mixed messages about taking time for rest and self-care, and I do my best, but I think there needs to be a strict policy of honoring a person's Sabbath.
If you could have one wish come true, how would you use it to help families and family life? What do you see as like the biggest barriers families are facing right now?
There are so many myths about poverty and families experience poverty we have to dispel. Culturally, there are different barriers for families trying to flourish, such as barriers that are the result of racial and economic injustice. I am fortunate to have the church as my community and workplace – to have many hands and to have people to help me navigate challenges. It is because of the support from the church that I have had the resources to ask for help. I think that there are a lot more people like myself who want to live with purpose and for your family. I think a lot of people are that way, but they are burnt out because they don't have the support. They don't have the resources. They are combating voices that say they are lazy because they're poor. I believe that the poor work the hardest. We really work.
I know when I've had a hard day, sometimes it's hard for me to deal with my kids and the energy that they bring to the table. I just know that I identify with how people deal with that stress, and how that's really the underlying issue – a lack of resources. You can be financially stressed, but have resources and so be okay. But if you don't have support, it makes a difference.
Reverend Alexis Brown is Associate Pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church and Campus Minister at Howard University.
Chelsea Maxwell is the Program Associate of Families Valued, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, and the contributing editor of Time to Care.
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