Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we are pleased to introduce Diana White.
Diana, tell us about your ministry journey.
I felt an undeniable calling to “The Ministry” when I was in the sixth grade, while attending an International Missions Commissioning Service of yes, you guessed it. . .the Southern Baptist Convention! It’s humorous to me retrospectively that an organization that now limits the roles of women was the denomination sponsoring the event where I felt called by God. I am not sure that I was paying attention to any speaker that night, but I am sure that I was listening to the Holy Spirit. I pushed down any feelings of calling for many years after being bullied by a girl at my church who called my response to that service “so weird.”
Years later, as a senior in high school, I was asked to accompany my youth minister, Mary Jo Gessner, as she led a retreat for another congregation. Mary Jo spent a lot of time telling me that she saw a calling on my life. She told me all about a place called seminary and how to get there. I remember her specifically suggesting history as being a good major for college in preparation for seminary. I still pushed back against this calling, unable to see myself in the role of any kind of minister.
I chose to major in interior design in college, because my dad told me to just choose something. My mom told me to reconsider college because she thought I was destined to become a hair stylist. (My destiny as a hair stylist came to fruition as I cut hair on the “black market” in college to make a little cash to pay bills. I am now also the stylist every morning for my two daughters. My eldest is a very demanding client). During my early years in college, I rarely thought about my calling until I served on the Passport Camp staff, first as a videographer and then as a Bible study/mission project leader. I had attended Passport for many summers as a teenager and could always envision myself on their staff. The two summers I served were helpful in discerning my call. My second summer the Passport theme was “Wake Up!” The emphasis was on listening to God’s call on our lives. The camp was designed to awaken calls in teens, but each day I heard it as a personal calling. I continued to struggle to see how I would transition from my undergrad major in interior design to a much different academic path in theology school, but a fellow Passport staff member told me that seminaries looked for students with diverse academic backgrounds, even interior design majors.
When I was back on campus at Samford University, my Bible study leaders, April Robinson and Brian Pitts, encouraged me in my call. They each helped introduce me to the “right people” and to the “right schools” (I had no clue otherwise. I didn’t even know that there were “different kinds of Baptists”). I had a few conversations and encounters that happened “at the right place at the right time” that helped me gain scholarship interviews. My journey to McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta was one that seemed destined.
I began seminary in the fall of 2005. I was too scared to take on any education debt, so I searched for a ministerial position to help me pay for housing and food (and yes, to also gain experience). During my first semester at McAfee, I served as the interim youth minister for Vineville Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. That was a grueling nine months of commuting from Atlanta to Macon, while also constantly studying and writing papers. I also began dating my now husband. My youth group at Vineville was diverse with students from various socio-economic backgrounds. Some had very sad home lives. My time in Macon was an eye-opening experience. I also had a very sweet relationship with a woman named Ms. Chris who gave me a room to stay in whenever I needed it. She was my Macon grandma. I couldn’t have made it without her hospitality.
The summer after my first year of seminary I cut back my commute from ninety minutes to a mere one hour when I began working two days a week at First Baptist Church of Griffin, Georgia as the middle school minister. I was fortunate to be mentored in youth ministry by the senior high minister, Hambric Brooks. My Griffin church was much larger than any church I had ever attended. Like the youth group I served in Macon, the youth group in Griffin was diverse and included kids from very different backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives on life. It was good to spend two years growing in relationship with those kids.
In May, 2008, I graduated from seminary, got married, went on my honeymoon, and began my first full-time ministry position–all within ten days. I served for seven-and-a half years as the minister of youth at First Baptist Church, Madison, Alabama. I began that position shortly after the Madison church had been through a painful split and about 250 people left over the issues surrounding the ordination of a woman on staff. My time there was challenging, fulfilling, frustrating, wonderful, and exhausting, and I gained confidence in my calling to pastor.
I am now the pastor of Covenant Community Church in Elba, Alabama. Covenant is a twelve-year-old non-denominational congregation located in a small town to the west of Enterprise. Elba is a short drive from the beach! Our church members are from many different denominations and philosophies on life. We choose to celebrate the sacraments and celebrations of the denominations represented in our church. For example, we celebrate “believer’s baptism” as well as “infant baptism.” It is wonderful to serve in a place that is not only welcoming to me but to all people.
What challenges have you encountered along the way?
I have encountered many challenges in my thirteen years in ministry. I have been bullied by an interim minister while I was pregnant. I have been on a church staff when another pastor was “let go.” I have been the subject of rumors and the scapegoat of angry parents. I have shed many tears over things that were out of my control. Thirteen years of challenges really does thicken your skin, but that thick skin sure helps me sleep deeply at night!
Nothing has been as challenging as navigating the waters of ministry here in Elba. My husband and I moved to Elba just after the Christmas Day Flood of 2015 cleared from Hwy. 87. We knew going in that Elba was a flood-prone town. We never knew that my first days as pastor would be spent setting up shop and giving my first sermon and working on disaster relief response efforts and visiting some church members in their destroyed homes filled with sand and ruined belongings.
Yet the real tragedy hadn’t even happened yet. The flood was nothing in comparison to the events of New Year’s Day 2016, just a couple of days after arriving. On that day, I received a frantic call that one of our youngest members was coding in the hospital. I didn’t even yet know where the hospital was, but on the way there, I received a call that a beloved member, Brooke, age thirteen, had died suddenly from complications with a heart defect. That night I helped take her mother home from the hospital. I had no good words. I was only a hand to hold and a presence. Being a new presence in a small, close-knit town is difficult during tragedy. I had not yet learned the names of people or streets, much less built trust. But there I was among receding flood waters and people with eyes flooded with tears. I knew my first year in the pastorate would be full of challenges, I just didn’t know the challenges would happen immediately.
What resources have been helpful to you in your recent transition to Elba and to pastoring?
During my call process, I read as many articles about Elba as I could get my hands on. I read the census data and city demographics. I studied school system websites and area Facebook pages. There was plenty of information available about the floods of 1990 and 1998. There were even articles written about the anomaly of a church like Covenant existing in lower Alabama.
I always get my best information from people! The Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship staff, Terri Byrd and Lucas Dorion, had preached many times at Covenant. In fact, Lucas was the interim pastor for much of their in-between time. I already knew both Terri and Lucas so I trusted them to answer any questions I had. I also knew a few people that either had grown up in Elba, lived nearby, or still “have people” in Elba. Each connection helped me gain clarity and perspective as I prepared for my first visit with Covenant.
Nothing prepared me, or could prepare me, for the culture shock of moving to a small town in the true South. I am amazed each day with the amount of knowledge that people here know about each other, about each others’ families, about “who lives/has lived” where, and about who is kin to whom. I even have people ask me questions when they see my car at my house at times that they deem unusual. We recently bought a house, and I didn’t even had to tell anyone. They already know! The small town culture is also a lot like traveling to countries where everything, including start times, is flexible. I asked, when visiting to preach for the first time, “What time do ya’ll start?” The serious and accurate reply was, “When the bulletins get here.” I then asked about what time Wednesday night fellowship supper ends and Bible study begins. The answer was, “When we are done eating, but don’t start so late or go so long that you’d cause ensemble rehearsal to begin late. We don’t want to get home too late.” I decided six o’clock is our start time, at least officially anyhow.
Molly Phinney Baskette, in Real Good Church, writes about how to be a welcoming church, how to be a Rev. Mama, and how to keep office hours in a local coffee shop. I know lots of ministers who like to write and study in coffee shops. Well, I actually have my office located in the coffee shop/restaurant that Covenant Community Church owns and operates. Our church exists as “Just Folk Coffeehouse” in downtown during the week. I’ve had to adjust to working in a coffee shop (not to be confused with working as a barista in a coffee shop). It is difficult to keep on task, meet deadlines, and balance all ministry needs of a solo pastor when you are constantly surrounded by people, especially if you are an extrovert. I love it most days, but without disciplining myself to sometimes close my door and put on my headphones, I would get absolutely nothing done, especially on bridge club days.
What is the best ministry advice you have received?
My last pastor and boss, Bert Breland, was a great friend and mentor. I was very open with him about looking outside of youth ministry and even outside the Baptist denomination. He encouraged me to be brave enough to take a small church where I would have to “do it all.” I often thought I would gradually work my way up to the pastorate from youth ministry, but Bert encouraged me to just jump right into the pastorate. He said, “there is no better way to learn to preach than to preach” and “no better way to learn to do than to do.” It is simple advice, really, but it was very meaningful throughout my discernment process. Bert also often reminded me that, as a pastor, you cannot choose the people in your church to love. A pastor is the pastor for all of the people, from the nicest person to the most evil schemer.