Editorial Note: The following is written by the REVEREND DOCTOR AMY DAVIS ABDALLAH. Congratulations, Reverend Doctor! ~CK
I was making pizza for dinner when the texts, “Congratulations, Reverend Doctor!” came in. Friends texted because I wasn’t in the room when the Christian and Missionary Alliance decided to ordain women. My eyes saw the name and then returned their attention to spreading cheese and pepperoni onto the pizza dough. My new name rumbled around in the back of my brain, but it all felt a bit anticlimactic.
The CMA licensed me in 2002 and consecrated me in 2020. I went through the same process as male ordination (consecration) but did not receive the name, “Reverend.” And now, as if by magic, I had it. I had longed for the name, but finally possessing it via text while I made dinner did not feel like a real change. If I were in the room where the decision happened, I would have received a prayer of blessing. I wonder if I would have felt different in that environment.1 Alas, I will never know.
My Path to Ordination
It has been a long, hard path to this point for our denomination as well as for me personally. I thought I would pursue consecration immediately after earning my Ph.D. But when I finished my degree in 2010, I pursued other writing, speaking, and ministry opportunities because there seemed to be little advantage for me in consecration. My licensure allowed me to celebrate the ordinances and to officiate weddings and funerals. While processes like consecration are valuable in and of themselves, the title “Consecrated Woman in Ministry” was confusing to anyone outside the CMA, so I would seldom use it. I pursued consecration in 2020 because I hoped women would soon be ordained and I felt it best to speak to that process from within, as a Consecrated Woman in Ministry.
New Names and Big Changes
And now, years later, I am suddenly Reverend Doctor. Name changes of this significance are usually marked by ritual. The change to Mrs. once married or to Dr. upon graduation have communal ceremonies and recognized, almost universal celebration. Like Mrs. and Dr., the name Reverend means something; it is a recognized level of authority that offers special privilege when you visit the hospital and a higher salary when you apply for a job. Those called Reverend are known to preach, teach, and offer spiritual nurture. I need a ritual for myself or preferably with community that will help me live into, embrace, and realize this big change.
A new name is a big change, but big changes aren’t always accompanied by a new name. Becoming a woman or man, getting our first job, becoming a parent, miscarriage, getting divorced, empty nest, and retirement are big changes. So are menarche and menopause. Many of these go unritualized.
Like Mrs. and Dr., the name Reverend means something; it is a recognized level of authority that offers special privilege. Those called Reverend are known to preach, teach, and offer spiritual nurture. Click To Tweet
But big changes, while sometimes great, also have huge challenges. Ritualizing them helps us embrace and move into these changes well. Before you get nervous that I’m using the word “ritual,” let me offer a definition. I particularly like Theresa Rando’s definition: a ritual is “a specific behavior or activity which gives symbolic expression to certain feelings and thoughts of the actor(s) individually or as a group. It may be a habitually repetitive behavior or a one-time occurrence.”2 Accordingly, then, activities like weekly Christian worship, daily prayer or quiet time, weddings, and funerals classify as ritual. Ritualizing is a general, common, human activity, but Christian rituals are special.
We don’t ritualize simply because it’s a nice thing to do. Rituals actually do something for us—that’s why humans keep ritualizing. The multiple benefits of rituals are delineated in my forthcoming book, Meaning in the Moment: How Rituals Help Us Move Through Joy, Pain, and Everything In Between. For our purposes, I will focus on ones most appropriate for the name change from CWM to Reverend. They can also be applied to other big changes.
Rituals Help Us Regulate Emotions
As you might imagine, this name change has evoked many various emotions. It was not a unanimous decision, so there are CMA churches (possibly with ‘CWM-now-Reverend’ members) that will choose to not recognize this change. Even within churches that recognize it, some members will disagree yet remain. There will be more and different emotions as we walk this path.
It is possible some may say, “She had a consecration service; isn’t that enough for her?” This in itself evokes other emotions; for instance, will we have the courage to ask for something that will recognize our new name and our faithfulness to God and the CMA that started when we were denied the name? That’s vulnerable.
These are just some of the complex emotions that surround this specific name change. Any big change has complex emotions, some that feel good and others that don’t. Rituals help us with them.
Rituals offer catharsis for strong emotions. They are a contained place and time where we can express our emotions and process them in community. In ritual, we are still distanced enough from our emotions that they do not overwhelm.3 This is what funerals do for us communally.
Rituals offer catharsis for strong emotions. They are a contained place and time where we can express our emotions and process them in community. In ritual, we are still distanced enough from our emotions that they do not overwhelm. Click To Tweet
Rituals Name and Make Invisible Change Visible
I’m writing about my new name, but when I received “Mrs.” and “Dr.,” it was the ritual itself that gave it to me. Rituals give new names.
They also name and act out invisible change. Christians believe that the two become one in marriage; in our ritual they come in separately, usually perform some symbol of unity, and then walk out together, as one. Not only are they now called “husband” or “wife,” but they have also acted out that unity.
Becoming a woman or man, miscarriage, and an empty nest are changes that are relatively invisible to others. A ritual makes it visible and names it to the community so that we can adjust our relationships accordingly.
Rituals give new names. They act out invisible change. Christians believe that the two become one in marriage; in our ritual they come in separately, usually perform some symbol of unity, and then walk out together, as one. Click To Tweet
Rituals are Symbolic
Forgive me for talking so much about marriage — it’s an easy example because the vast majority of us have witnessed at least one. And we know that marriage is highly symbolic. Let’s consider the wedding rings alone. They symbolize investment, unity, eternity, and even more. The ritual’s high symbolic act is to place the ring on another. And then, wearing that ring is a continual reminder of the marital bond for the individual as well as everyone else.
Carefully chosen symbolism is a key to effective ritual.4 Notice that the ring is not just for that day but for every day thereafter. It’s also recognized by the entire society; it speaks volumes without words. Symbols are like that.
How to Create a Ritual for a New Name or Big Change
I’d like to suggest three key elements for this ritual:
- Declaration of the new name/big change
- Anointing, laying on of hands, and prayer
- A gift/symbol
The change will feel most “real” when recognized by the broadest community possible. In the case of the CMA name change, a ritual of individual recognition, prayer, and gift on the main stage would have been most broad. However, doing the ritual at a district conference, a church, or even with a small group will also be effective.
Whether it is appended to a worship service or done with a small group of people, the first act is declaration. I need a CMA Reverend to say, officially, in the presence of witnesses, “This is the Reverend Doctor Amy Davis Abdallah.” Just as people are anointed and set apart by the laying on of hands in Scripture, I also need this. As for a gift or symbol, my dream is that we create something unique for these women and we all receive this gift. The number of former CWMs is not a huge group; I believe many more women will now be ordained, never to be a CWM.
If that doesn’t happen, or possibly before the gift is designed, perhaps the district, a church, or an individual can find a symbolic gift that is timeless and can be visibly displayed so that all may recognize the change.5
These three keys can be used for any big change. Their application will simply be unique.
In most big changes within our lives, we often roll with the changes in the moment, only looking back later in the realization that “Wow! That was big!” My counsel is simple, but different: Why not take the time to ritualize the change now rather than looking back five years from now? It will actually help you to regulate emotions now and later, as you name and act out what has transformed with a symbol that you can return to whenever your memory needs awakening.
/// Carefully chosen symbolism is key to effective ritual. A wedding ring is not just for the ceremony but for every day thereafter. It’s recognized by the entire society; it speaks volumes without words. Symbols are like that. Click To Tweet
Rev. Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah works as a professor of practical theology and worship, a writer, speaker, and ritual creator. She loves all expressions of beauty, mentors many, adventures in cities and on trails, and is a wife and the mama of two boys. Amy is founder and director of Woman: A Rite of Passage program. She authored The Book of Womanhood to empower women to be their true selves in the world. Meaning in the Moment: How Rituals Help Us Move Through Joy, Pain, and Everything in Between is her latest book, releasing in September 2023.
1 While I concentrate here on this name change, the CMA also made another name change: Women on church staff may be called “Pastor” rather than Director. For the sake of brevity and focus, I only address “Reverend” here.
2 As cited in Joanne Cacciatore and Melissa Flint, “Mediating Grief: Postmortem Ritualization After Child Death,” Article, Journal of Loss & Trauma 17, no. 2 (2012): 163.
3 See Joanna Wojtkowiak, “Towards a Psychology of Ritual: A Theoretical Framework of Ritual Transformation in a Globalising World,” Culture & Psychology 24, no. 4 (2018), https://doi.org/10.1177/1354067X18763797.
4 See Susan Marie Smith, Caring Liturgies: The Pastoral Power of Christian Ritual (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), Chapter 3: “Metaphors and Symbols.”
5 Because of the CMA complexities mentioned above, some whose names changed attend churches that will not recognize it. This means that an individual woman might get together with a small group of significant people in her life as well as an already ordained minister from another CMA church to perform this ritual. Hopefully, it will be recognized at her District Conference, or at least with a group of women whose names also changed.