Finding My Way as Jarena’s Daughter
December 1, 2023
Some time ago, I sat in on a panel of women in ministry discussing the life and ministry of the Reverend Jarena Lee, the first woman licensed to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). As women ordained in the AME church, we affectionally call ourselves “Jarena’s Daughters.”
As a young woman, attending church, it never entered my consciousness that I would be anything other than a lay person who loved God, loved worship, and loved working as part of ministries in the church. I was raised in the Baptist tradition in the southern part of our country where there was no provision for women in ordained ministry. I was content with being a lay leader.
That contentment stayed with me through my young adult years and well into my early 40s. By then I had relocated to New York City and become a part of the AME church. It was in the AME church where I saw, for the first time, ordained women in leadership as pastors and assistant pastors. Still, there was no tug at my heart for being more than someone who volunteered easily for anything that needed to be accomplished as a lay person.
I believed I would live out my life being a good “church member” lending my organizational skills to the Christian education ministry. However, that began to change. I had no dramatic call experience. My call was subtle…a “knowing” that I could not ignore. The more involved I was with ministry opportunities, the less satisfied I felt. So, I increased my involvement thinking I needed to do more to feel satisfaction.
Finally, I agreed to attend a seminar facilitated by my pastor, whom I respected deeply, along with his wife, the assistant pastor. These seminars were offered periodically for anyone desiring direction and guidance on being in God’s will. During that seminar, the puzzle pieces came together, revealing a picture I was not expecting. I left the seminar, sat in my car, and cried, overwhelmed by the realization God was summoning me to ordained ministry.
Long ago I began a regular practice of journaling my thoughts. After that seminar, I filled pages and pages, pouring out my doubts, fears, and misgivings about the path that lay ahead. Part of my trepidation had to do with my denominational requirement to attend seminary and attend the denomination’s training institute. After all, I was married, a stepmother, a grandmother and employed full-time, in my mid-40s. Going back to school was not a part of my career path. Yet, I knew if I was to fulfill God’s plan for me, I would have to do it. I made a bargain with God! If I answered this call and enrolled in seminary, I would expect God to make sure that I would do it well. I did not want to be mediocre! Such arrogance! It makes me smile when I reflect on it now.
Off I went to seminary, trepidation, and all. It was while in seminary that I discovered my gifts for ministry and found a community that was supportive and nurturing. I discovered I had a voice that God could use in God’s kingdom.
I worked full-time and attended classes in the evening. I began at a very slow pace, thinking I would never really complete this 96-credit master’s program in divinity. Nor did I think when I finally graduated that I would enter pastoral ministry. I would concentrate on Christian education, that is until I was assigned to my supervised ministry site (what is now known as field education).
My site was in a small congregation whose pastor was female, who quickly became a mentor. As I worked through the goals of my covenant, I experienced such joy in working in a parish. My home church had a membership of four thousand. My field education site had a membership of less than fifty members. Yet, it was the connection that I made with the members, on an intimate level, that opened me up to pastoral ministry. The times of theological reflection with my supervisor were transformative. She was not just an able mentor, but she was a woman in ministry, in leadership in her denomination and comfortable with who she was. Under her supervision, I gained a new perspective on parish ministry and saw it as a possibility in my future.
When I reflect on that time, I realize that all God desired was a willingness on my part to walk in the path designed for me. When I said “yes” to parish ministry, God provided the opportunity. Within a month of graduation from seminary and receiving my ordination as an Itinerant Elder in the AME church, I was appointed to pastor a congregation in upstate New York, while I still lived and worked full-time in New York City. It is a four-hour commute, round-trip, to the church, but is the greatest joy of my life to serve the members of that church.
I was working full-time and serving the members when God impressed upon me to return to school in a Doctor of Ministry program in pastoral care and counseling. God does have a sense of humor! How, I asked, am I going to add one more thing to my already stretched life. Not to mention that the school I applied to and was accepted at was in Madison, New Jersey, an hour away from my home and job. Something had to change.
During my time of prayer and reflection, I asked God what I could eliminate. The answer was my job! It took a tremendous leap of faith to leave a job that I loved and held for twenty-four years. So, about midway through my doctoral program, I left my job to continue the program, while serving my congregation. Still needing some income, I answered an ad posted by the seminary for a part-time recruiter for students. That position gave me the opportunity to assist prospective students in discerning call and preparing for theological education.
Upon graduation from my doctoral program and through a series of events, which made it possible, I accepted the position of director of Field Education for the seminary. That was nine years ago.
My journey has taken me from the pew to the pulpit to the academy. Additionally, I now oversee several churches in my denomination. There is an intersectionality in my calling. The privilege of traveling alongside students in their preparation for ministry has enriched my life. Serving a church keeps me in touch with congregational care and concerns. My administrative and organization skills provide the tools for overseeing my churches.
When I reflect on where I am now, I am grateful for my journey and look forward to what is to come. I am Jarena’s daughter, and her legacy lives on in me and other women who answer the call. God does make the way.