Women in Ministry: Outside the Church Walls

God called Nicole Reilley to minister in the church. Then, God called her out of church. At least, church as she'd always known it. Hers is a story of great bravery - and even greater faith.

Since I was little I wanted to make some small difference in the world. I know that is a common feeling and to type it makes me blush a bit, but I really had a sense that God was calling me. After a series of twists and turns in my mid-twenties I found myself returning to college to study religion. This is where I thought I could make a difference.

This was a natural progression for me, as faith had been the centerpiece of my family life. I grew up in a Roman Catholic family and my father and I had long conversations about faith over dinner. Some of my earliest memories are of being in worship and listening to scripture. But I struggled too.

I questioned the nuns at my junior high school, as I could not accept some of the church’s teachings. Eventually I stopped going to the church of my family and began the rounds of visiting other churches, trying to find where I fit. By my senior year in high school I had visited dozens of churches, from fundamentalist to charismatic to mainline. I didn’t find a home, and eventually I left church altogether as I went off to college.

But in my mid-twenties, as I ran out of money, left college and began working, I once again felt the pull of the faith and found my way back to college as a religious studies major at California State University, Long Beach. My years studying were an awakening time for me. My major afforded me the opportunity to chase each question and concern I had about faith. I loved having the time and space to study scripture, the church, spirituality, Zen Buddhism, Islam and Judaism alongside Christianity.

I also fell in love with the United Methodist Church in my mid-twenties. It was a place where my inquisitive nature was welcomed and my call to ministry affirmed. I didn’t see myself as a pastor but figured I’d obtain a PhD in church history. Instead, I found the local church to be a place where I could make a substantial difference, and I stayed for twenty years pastoring churches in Southern California.

My sense of call focused on teaching and preaching, and I began serving my first church as the lead and teaching pastor the year I turned thirty. People responded to my connecting life and faith as I shared my own struggles to believe and follow. As a young mother I connected with other moms and families. I also found many people in those churches willing to invest in me by giving me the needed space and encouragement to grow and develop.

But in my twentieth year of ministry, as I turned fifty, I had to admit to myself that I was feeling a combination of boredom and frustration. It was almost like I went to sleep one day totally excited about the local church and I woke up the next day to a strange new world where the local church no longer felt like home. I took great comfort in these words of Carl Jung: “Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideas will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, in the evening will have become a lie.”

I needed something new in this second half of my ministry but I did not know what that was. But as a friend wisely reflected, I was pretty clear on what wasn’t working: the consumer culture I found in the church, the lack of disciples being made, the deepening financial crisis that affected churches, and the cost of aging buildings. These were the things I did not want for the next twenty years, but where was God calling? Slowly I began to wonder if the difference I could make in the next twenty years would be outside the church walls.

With a sense of the Spirit’s guiding (but totally unsure where I would end up), I left my role as lead and teaching pastor to spend a summer reading and learning about fresh expressions of church, learning what other models of being the church existed and thrived. I felt God’s leading to cultivate leaders to start, lead and grow micro-communities (house churches/missional communities) in Southern California under the United Methodist Church. I received training and encouragement from others doing church differently, including those at 3DM, The Academy for Missional Wisdom, and those already leading non-denominational house churches. We currently have six communities and four more will begin training in February.

The transition from the local church to running a network of house churches (and being on the leadership team of one) has been a challenge for me on several levels. First, I no longer receive a salary, which initially played havoc on my self-esteem! Second, leaving the local church caused a bit of amnesia with the larger UMC, which no longer knew how to spell my name (really). A year into the process of starting micro-communities, I took on the role of lead and teaching pastor at a UMC, trying to see if I could both do this new ministry and have the stability the local church would bring, but I found these two areas of ministry to be so different from one another that it wasn’t workable. So these have been some of my challenges in this new time in my ministry.

But as I look forward I see how uniquely suited I am to this work and what a difference I am making. It is a small difference, but I feel a willingness to continue to discern how I might help others do church "without buildings, budgets and big shots" (to quote Felicity Dale, a house church leader). I am not certain where this will lead me, but one thing I do know - this new time in ministry lets me focus on growing as a disciple and helping others do the same and that is a great gift.

Rev. Nicole Reilley is an ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. She is currently writing her first book. Find our more about her journey at www.othermodels.wordpress.com and about United Methodist House Churches at www.umchousechurches.com or by contacting her at RevNicole[at]aol.com.

About the Women in Ministry Series 
The Women in Ministry Series is a collection of guest posts that aims to provide an alternative to the women in ministry debates by telling the stories of women in ministry and encourage women to explore their God-given callings.

Contributions Welcome: Contact Katherine at katherinepershey[at]gmail.com to pitch your post idea in 2-4 sentences. You can stay updated on the latest post each week by signing up for the weekly e-mail list.

Comment Policy: Everyone is welcome to leave a comment. However, this series takes for granted that women are called by God into every facet of ministry. This is not the place to debate that point and such comments will be removed. Women have been told “no” in far too many places. This is one place that is committed to saying “yes.”

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Next Week’s Contributor: Amanda Peterson

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