Guest commentary by Anna George Traynham
I know I’m biased, but I think the church I serve is strikingly beautiful, with the dark wood of the pews against the pinks and greens of the stained glass. The wooden pulpit is raised several feet, and there are two ornate chairs on each side. They really are beautiful chairs, carved to match the pulpit and hand-stitched with the symbols of our faith.
On any given Sunday, you will see two or three pastors sitting in those chairs during worship. If you are the type of person who pays a lot of attention to the little things, you will undoubtedly notice that when I sit in those magnificent chairs, my feet do not quite touch the ground.
I usually scoot forward in the chair, slouching a bit so my feet will touch the ground, but my back starts to ache before we have gotten to the passing of the peace. I have tried sitting all the way back in the chair and letting my feet hang loose, but then I start wiggling and distract myself and, before I know it, I have worried about my feet not touching the ground so much that I have missed the choir’s anthem entirely.
Downstairs in the church, we have a wall with black and white pictures of Central’s former senior pastors. I probably walk by that wall at least 20 times every week, and I try to remember to stop and look at the pictures on occasion: to give thanks for the legacies of the faithful leaders who have built and sustained the church I serve. Yet each time I sit in those glorious but uncomfortable wooden seats, I remember that, try as I may, I cannot fill their chair.
One Sunday in my first six months in this call, I was sitting in one of those chairs, feet dangling as always, when the lector read story of the call of David. That day, in that chair with my feet swinging, I heard the story completely differently.
God has recognized the new king in Bethlehem among the sons of Jesse, and Samuel is confident that he will recognize this new king, too. He knows the history of Israel. He has a metaphorical wall with a black and white picture of Saul on it, and Samuel is on the hunt for someone who looks just like him. Samuel is quick to pick Eliab from the lineup. Eliab is tall and strong; he looks king-like to Samuel. Eliab can fill Saul’s chair with no distracting, dangling feet.
But, as always, God has other plans. I can just imagine Samuel’s face when he realizes that God has not called the strong and kingly elder brother but the redheaded little shepherd boy.
David will not be able to fill Saul’s chair.
He is small. He is a musician. He is a different kind of king: one who dances and chants and plays the lyre. God has called a different kind of king. Israel needs a different kind of chair.
I think we do, too.
At the church I serve and in the wider church, I lead from a chair that was not built for me. I take that as an honor, to sit the seat of pastors past, but I also have to name the obstacle. Our chairs, the literal chancel chairs and metaphorical leadership structures, were built for men, especially white men. With wonderful exceptions, our greater church’s model of leadership still assumes that pastors will be married, straight, cisgender, white, affluent men.
The recent report from the Board of Pensions provides indisputable evidence of the pay gap between men and women who serve as pastors in our denomination. Clearly, the chair matters.
It is time for pay equity to be a reality and not a talking point. It is time for proper parental leave to be the rule and not the exception. It is time to make ourselves see the racism and sexism that is built into our institutions.
It is time to build a new chair.
I do not know exactly what that will look like. What I do know is that King David could never have filled Saul’s chair, and he was never called to. What I do know is that my generation of pastors and the generations after us will not fill the seats of church leadership in the same way as previous generations.
What I do know is that wherever I go in ministry, there will be a chair that was not built for me. Sometimes, I will fill it the best I can and carry the torch of those who came before me. Sometimes, though, my feet will not touch the ground, and my back will start to ache. And then I have to ask you: Will you help me build a new chair?
Anna George Traynham is an associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta.