I’ve received a lot of questions and concerns about why my church would create a staff position they cannot pay for. I’m assuming that means far more people share the question. Here is a bit more of the story:
I first met St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship when my friend Leslie gave my name to Pastor Samuel to come speak to a Sunday School class about the Baptist denomination. As I prepared, I looked at SLMF’s website and poked around into their beliefs and practices. What I discovered was a theology that matched my own. I said to Allyn, “Oh no, I might be a Mennonite.”
After an incredibly hurtful experience at another church, I began to attend St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship when I was not supply preaching or doing interim work elsewhere. Soon after, I approached Samuel about doing my final seminary internship with the church.
During that summer internship, I asked a lot of questions about what it would mean for me to be a Mennonite, about how all the processes worked, about the image of the wider denomination. By the end of the summer, I had fallen in love with SLMF and used it as the model when answering questions about my “dream congregation.”
I made the denominational leap to become a Mennonite and have continued to be a part of SLMF for the last two years post-internship, often dreaming about what the next steps would be.
My husband, Allyn, and I have felt called to be in St. Louis, which certainly limits ministry options . . . particularly when you have joined a denomination with all of two churches in the entire metro area (the other is entirely African-American). But still we felt (and continue to feel) that this was the place where God wanted (wants) us.
For awhile, Allyn and I wondered if I was supposed to start a church. About a year ago I had a conversation with Samuel, which led to occasional meetings of our families and a conversation with our conference minister about what all that might mean. As we talked about dreams, it seemed that what was emerging was not a separate congregation, but a new ministry within St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship.
All the while, my role at SLMF was changing. When Sam and Rachel’s son was born, I filled in for several weeks of paternity leave. I was asked to take two of our teenagers to camp. Various church members would come to me for pastoral care. A few teasingly referred to as “Pastor Jennifer.”
We began conversations about what this next phase of ministry might look like. I knew from the very beginning that there was not yet any available funding. We talked about a volunteer role as associate pastor . . . and it felt incredibly awkward. The leadership team didn’t feel right assigning me tasks because they didn’t want to presume too much. And I didn’t want to simply dictate what I would be doing, because that didn’t feel right for the structure of the church.
I began thinking about the new church model. The common model for the beginnings of a new church is to ask people for support. What we were proposing at SLMF was similar—a new ministry start. So I talked to the leadership team about this “missionary model” of funding (so named because almost all missionaries in almost all denominations are currently required to raise their own support). It opened up a new level of freedom. We were able to work together to design a job description that fit the needs of the church and my gifts and desires for ministry.
The congregation was afraid at first. No one wanted to do something that was unfair to me. Let me be clear: it has never felt unfair to me. In this position I will get to work beside some of the most loving and generous people I have ever met. And that isn’t unfair—it is an incredible gift.
In addition to pastoral care and some Christian education, I will be doing new work in our surrounding neighborhood, a place where something like 60 percent of the residents are first generation immigrants—most refugees fleeing from violence in their home countries. Our neighborhood has a lot of hurt and a lot of poverty. It will be my job to get to know the neighborhood and find ways that our congregation can partner with residents of our corner of St. Louis.
This is ministry that I am passionate about in a place that I am passionate about. My entire seminary program was based on being forward-focused, on realizing that the church landscape is changing. One of the things drilled into us was that the funding of church positions is changing. And so St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship agreed to take this step of faith with me. It is, I believe, a Holy experiment. We have agreed to listen to this whisper of the Spirit and see where it takes us over the next two years. I hope you will be willing to partner with us and see where the Holy Experiment leads you.