Each Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. Today, we are excited to introduce Emily Hull McGee.
Emily, tell us about your ministry journey, the places and ways you have been serving and are serving.
My ministry journey starts, I suppose, where many others’ have too — in the Baptist churches of my childhood. I was loved so well by countless teachers, leaders, ministers, and members who delighted in helping the youngest among us meet Jesus through the work of the church. None loved me better or stronger than my family — mom Jane, dad David, and brother Andrew — through whom I ‘lived and moved and had my being.’
Mom and Dad are both pastors and co-labors in ministry, and that ‘family business’ of ministry stretched several generations back. Stories of my Granddaddy Bill’s work in Baptist life were those of legends in my house and church those growing-up years, and ministry was simply our way of life; it was what I knew . . . so, of course, I wanted nothing to do with it when I grew up!
My winding road to ministry took me on some pretty fabulous detours in my twenties — educational experiences in music and the arts, living and traveling to some of our world’s great cities, and surrounding myself with delightfully-weird and creatively theological fellow travelers on the road. But the transformative season of life I was so fortunate to spend with fellow seminarians at Wake Forest University School of Divinity truly solidified for me my budding sense of call. I sensed a palpable tug from God to the heart of the city, with one foot squarely planted in the Church I long had loved and who loved me well, and the other foot embedded outside the Church but alongside the wounded, the indifferent, the cynics, and the curious. Upon graduation in 2009, that call led me to Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where I served for six of the most formative years in my life and ministry as their minister to young adults.
My season of life at Highland gave me the freedom to create, to cultivate a community with people so much like those who had formed my call to ministry, to test my ministerial wings and find my voice in the pulpit. And from the deep relationships of Love I formed there, I knew I would be sent forth in that same Love when God called again — this time in July 2015 to serve as Pastor of First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
I couldn’t be prouder to serve here at First Baptist for such a time as this. Together, we are creating beloved community with each other, engaging deeply with a vibrant and transforming Winston-Salem just outside our doors. We are learning what it means to risk boldly for the sake of the gospel, how God is at work doing a new thing among us, and what our unique call in this pivotal moment will be.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
The joy in ministry has been abundant! I seem to thrive in collaborative environments where teams of people (like staff teams, lay folks, peer learning groups, friends) call each other honestly to courage, excellence, and faithfulness. I have had the great honor to serve with some of the finest ministers I know, men and women from whom I learn so much. Watching them come to life as they live more fully into their sense of calling is truly thrilling. Getting to walk alongside people through all their changing seasons, where one day in ministry holds the full measure of life and death, is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of this work. Listening in on God’s work of Love in the lives of our members and catching a glimpse of how their faith moves beyond Sundays and Wednesdays is so encouraging to me. Especially fun also is the practice of welcoming new folks into the life of the church, particularly those for whom church is an unfamiliar landscape. Living out this odd and wondrous calling alongside peers and colleagues who have become dear friends in ministry makes it sing!
But of all that, the greatest source of joy for me in ministry and in life (because really, are the two ever separate?) is that of my family — the one into which I was born, and the one I have helped to create. The love shared within my immediate family deepens and broadens with each passing year. My husband is my beloved partner in life and ministry, and our three kids ground us, delight us, frustrate us, and define us each and every day.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
One recent challenge in ministry has dominated much of my work as a pastor. Before I even began at First Baptist, the church was months into conversations about our aging facilities that had become unwieldy to manage. My call here as pastor coincided with that work, and together, we formed a new committee and got to work to research, discern, and propose to the congregation a comprehensive plan to address these substantial concerns.
One major component of the challenge was in the housing of our church’s fifty-year ministry of the Children’s Center — a full-day, five-star, 150-kids and forty-three-staff educational center that had been the leading voice in our community for excellent, accessible childcare for birth through pre-K. Building challenges had hit the wall with government regulations (real demands of a ministry like this), and a crisis point was looming. After extensive, comprehensive research of all sorts of options, our committee realized that in order for our church to address the legion of problems around the building and equip our congregation for a healthy, vibrant future in the heart of Winston-Salem, we would have to close the Children’s Center.
It was a devastatingly hard decision for our church, knowing the hundreds of people who would be affected by it and the thousands more all around the community who have proudly called our Center their (or their children’s) home for these early adolescent years.
And it was deeply painful for me in my dual roles as pastor and as the mom of three little ones who were thriving in our Center. What a joy it had been to take my kids into the church house with me each day, to pause at my office door when their class passed by and waved on their way to weekly chapel, to pop downstairs for baby snuggles or to peek in on their learning, to learn better how to parent my kids from their wise and faithful teachers, to hear the delighted squeals of discovery as background noise to the work of ministry! Although I was certain this was the right decision for the future of our church, it also was one that directly affected our family in complicated ways. Holding the understandable outpouring of anger from other families in tension with my own personal grief over such a substantial change in our lives was just plain hard.
(As an aside, though, I’m so glad to say that by the time the Center closed on December 22, 2017, all the staff who wanted to find new employment had quickly done that, and all the families — including ours — whose kids needed placement had found it elsewhere. My three are doing just fine, as is their mama!)
What advice would you give to a teenage girl who is discerning a call to ministry?
Perhaps it’s a stroke of divine timing that I’m writing my answer to this question having just returned moments ago from coffee with one of our church’s amazing teenage girls. We didn’t talk about a call to ministry, but we did cover much ground about all the forces pressing upon her as a high school female — the pressures of adolescent social life, carving a path as a girl in male-dominated spaces, practicing her Christian faith in less-than-hospitable environments.
And as we talked, I felt an overwhelming urge to remind this dear one of who and whose she is: first and foremost, a beloved child of God, one whom God loves fully, fiercely, freely, and unconditionally. No matter what other narratives she is told throughout these trying years, the most profound is that story of Love, the one which tells her she belongs to God, and that we belong to each other.
Were she ever to share with me a sense of ministerial calling, I think I’d tell her that very thing again. What better reminder from which to be sent forth than that which is most essential!