Gifts from the Desert

Talitha Arnold

For most of my ordained life, I’ve served in the high desert of Northern New Mexico. I grew up in Arizona with a desert botanist for a mother. When I think of images for being a woman in ministry, the desert comes naturally to mind.

There are lots of parallels between life in the desert and ministry as a woman. Learning to live with scarcity tops the list. In a sermon Margaret Farley once described women in ministry as “standing on the edge of the world with no protective covering.” Women still often find themselves there.

Yet as scientists know, deserts can, for all their limits, be places of amazing abundance and diversity. The Bible affirms a similar truth. Deserts can be the place where, like Hagar, we encounter God directly or, like Sarah, we hear news that makes us laugh until we cry. In the desert, Jesus confronted the Tempter but was also comforted by the angels.

Lessons from the desert are many. Here are some I’ve learned as a woman in ministry in a land of little rain.

1. Put down roots. Desert tumbleweeds spring up quickly, but with their shallow, skinny roots they dry up and blow away once the rains stop. In contrast, saguaros – the giant cacti of the desert – can last for centuries because their root systems are as broadand deep as the height of the plant above.

One can’t survive the occasional dry seasons as a woman in parish ministry without being rooted – in prayer, in the study and delight of the Bible, in friendship, in an ongoing relationship with the mystery and power of God.

2. Appreciate complexity, especially your own. Life in the desert seldom fits into neat categories. The spiniest cactus provides the safest shelter for nests.

To be a woman minister requires living into the complexity of one’s own life, particularly as it pertains to traditional roles of women and men. The day after a senior minister told me to live more into my “feminine side,” a church member said he liked my sermons because “I preached like a man.” Getting caught between a rock and a hard place happens a lot in the desert.

When I sit with a grieving widow, organize a capital drive, or speak at the State Legislature, am I living into my femininity, my masculinity, or my just plain God-given humanity?

3. Learn to adapt. Some of the most creative life forms on earth are found in desert places, like the cactus with ribs that expand and contract depending on rainfall.

As a woman in ministry, you have to bloom where you’re called, like Cheryl Cornish ’83 M.Div., who revived a declining downtown church in Memphis with new worship and outreach, or Marie Fortune ’76 M.Div., who created a ministry beyond the church to advocate against domestic and sexual violence.

4. But also advocate for change. To survive the desert heat, sometimes you have to build a shelter. Rainfall is simply too scarce, the sun too hot. The church, whether locally or denominationally, is the one place where discrimination against women is still legal. To be the ministers God calls us to be, we need to change the landscape of injustice despite the severity of conditions confronting us.

5. See the interconnectedness. Desert life involves unusual partnerships among species. Young sa- guaros need the shade of palo verdes to survive the desert sun. In turn, the giant cacti provide fruit, nests, and shade for all manner of birds, animals, and plants.

I’ve depended on unlikely partners in ministry, colleagues who reached across race, gender, and creed. I’m deeply grateful for people like the Catho- lic sister who told me to “empower the priest in yourself so you can empower the priest in others”; the African American UCC leader who reminded me never to let the world’s “no” drown out God’s “yes”; the longtime friend who became the first Hispanic priest to head Santa Fe’s Cathedral. Our shared experiences of “ministry on the margins” have transcended our differences and made me a better minister.

6. Know the rock that gave you birth. Desert lands are ancient lands, measured in geologic eras. The sparse vegetation lets you see how one layer of rock builds on older ones.

At a General Synod a few years ago, I watched as the moderator, a young clergywoman, led the national meeting. “She knows she has a right to be there,” I thought with awe (and some jealousy). Then I realized that the women alums of the 1940s and ’50s probably thought the same in 1980 when they watched me and my classmates preach in Mar- quand Chapel. Like the layers of desert rock, each generation of women in ministry is founded on the work and courage of previous ones. Like that rock, the strength of any one woman comes from those many preceding layers.

7. Look for the blessings. A spring hidden among boulders, a cooling summer thunderstorm, a glori- ous flower pushing forth from a spiny cactus … deserts are filled with surprising graces. So is the work of a woman in ministry. There’s the male parishio- ner who initially isn’t sure about a “girl preacher,” but fifteen years into your ministry he tells you, and the church, that you’ve convinced him otherwise. There’s the older women who “get it” from the be- ginning. There’s the younger male colleague who affirms your leadership.

It’s dangerous to romanticize life in the searing desert. These days, the same is true of ministry. Despite numerous advances in the last decades, min- istry for women has become, in many ways, more difficult. In Santa Fe in 1987, three other women were serving churches. Now there’s only one. In the dwindling number of churches large enough to hire senior pastors, women are still outnumbered by men two to one.

Along with the challenge of getting the church to recognize women’s leadership, we now face the equal challenge of getting the culture to acknowledge the church. Recently Newsweek profiled “150 Women Who Shake the World,” an impressive list of political leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, human rights advocates, and celebrities – but not a single woman pastor, rabbi, nun, sensei, theologian, or any other spiritual leader.

There’s no denying that in desert times, life and ministry get stripped down to basics. But that’s when, like Hagar or Jesus, we can learn what’s truly important and what truly gives life. Parish ministry has forced me to go deeper into my faith and into my relationship with God. I didn’t choose to be a parish minister any more than I chose to be a woman. But I am grateful for both callings. Most of all, I am grateful to the God who led me into this landscape of being a woman in ministry, and who still challenges me to find its blessings and offer its gifts to others. 

The Rev. Talitha Arnold ’80 M.Div. has been minister of Unit- ed Church of Santa Fe, NM, for twenty-four years. Ordained in the United Church of Christ since 1980, she is also author of Worship for Vital Congregations (Pilgrim Press, 2007). She served as chair of the “Eight Decades of Women at YDS” women’s reunion last fall.