Each week, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. This week, we’re thrilled to introduce Shelley Varner-Perez

Shelley, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
My ministry journey began when I was seventeen-years-old and first sensed a call to vocational ministry. That year I served as a youth intern in my home congregation, First Baptist Church, Plymouth, North Carolina, helping organize youth ministry activities. It during that internship that I I preached for the first time, and I remember being terrified to do so! I had never seen a woman preach. As an undergraduate, I studied Religion & Christian Ministries at Campbell University. Initially, I wanted to be a Christian counselor, then I felt a call to church ministry. During college, I spent a summer serving as a youth ministry intern through BSCNC Summer Ministry. I continued at the same location, First Baptist Church, Hope Mills, North Carolina, during the following academic year and had opportunities to preach in addition to youth ministry.

During my senior year of college, I faced a very difficult decision about where to go to seminary. Ultimately, I chose to attend Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. It was a deeply formative experience and a difficult place to maintain my Baptist identity. During Seminary, I completed a CPE internship at Capital Health System in Trenton, New Jersey, and promised myself I would never again do chaplaincy. I also completed a Pastoral Internship at Fellowship Baptist Church in West Windsor, New Jersey, and changed my membership to American Baptist Churches, USA; the congregation ordained me the day after I graduated from seminary.

My first full-time professional ministry position was as associate pastor at First Baptist Church, McMinnville, Oregon, where I developed a small groups ministry and became acting pastor for the sabbatical for twelve weeks one summer. It was a rich and exciting experience with a great team of staff and lay leaders! Some months later, I decided to step away from church ministry and found myself doing informal ministry at Starbucks as a “barista pastor” (my co-workers’ nickname for me) in the drive-thru line near a community hospital, honing my deep listening skills. Unexpectedly, I found myself enrolling in a CPE Residency at the Portland VA Medical Center, re-entering chaplaincy as years earlier I had promised myself I would not do. As it turns out, chaplaincy and the VA have been a home for me, and apart from a brief rotation in one of Portland’s trauma centers, I have been at the VA for almost seven years.

I recently celebrated my fifth year as a Board Certified Chaplain by the Association of Professional Chaplains. My patient care areas are Critical Care, Transplant, and Women Veterans Health, including trauma survivors. As a healthcare chaplain, my “congregation” is the hospital employees, and the patients and their loved ones are the “visitors.” My ministry also extends to my chaplain colleagues in Oregon and Southwest Washington as I plan continuing education events quarterly. In September, I will embark on a new journey as a Transforming Chaplaincy Research Fellow and begin a Master of Public Health program. My goal is to promote research literate chaplaincy that advocates for evidenced-based spiritual care practices and interventions. My journey has included unexpected twists and turns, and at this point I can say that each of those has contributed in a meaningful way to making me the minister I am.

What are the greatest challenges you have faced in ministry?
One of the most significant challenges was becoming ordained. I wanted to honor the support I had received from my home congregation (Southern Baptist), yet open doors in a new denomination (American Baptist). My ordination council was a very disheartening and disillusioning experience, despite having a positive resolution.

Secondarily, I struggled to find community after moving to a new state (from New Jersey to Oregon) for my first professional call. I enjoyed my seminary community that included many peers and frequent meal-time conversations about theology, scripture, and world events, and I grieved that loss very deeply. The small community where my congregation was located had an age-gap between college-aged students and young families, which left me without a natural place to fit in. Add the “pastor” label in the religion-wary Pacific Northwest, and it was an uphill climb.

Being a young single female held challenges around my attire (how to find age-appropriate clothes that were modest enough, dressy enough, but not too formal); developing my sense of pastoral authority; finding my voice as a female (without just copying the way male pastors did things); protecting time off; and equal compensation.

What are your greatest joys in ministry?
My greatest joys have been being present with people in formative moments in their lives, whether joyful or painful; incorporating art into my chaplaincy ministry with women Veterans; surprising people who underestimated the ministry a female clergyperson could provide; occasionally leading worship with my now-spouse Yovanny who is a church musician; and connecting others with resources in their local community or within ministry circles.

Two powerful ministry moments stand out to me. The first occurred when I was associate pastor at FBC McMinnville. Each year, the Baptist church holds a joint Ash Wednesday service with a local Catholic parish. The priest became flustered to learn that one of the pastors who would be participating in service was female (me), which was new to him. When it was time to administer ashes, I moved to the front of the sanctuary, and a long line of girls and women formed to receive ashes from me. As I placed the mark of the cross on each of their foreheads, I wondered if it was the first time for many of them to have a woman clergyperson serve them. It was a sacred moment for me.

The second occurred as a chaplain, also on an Ash Wednesday. I was asked by an operating room nurse to “scrub in” to administer ashes to a patient whose tradition each year was to attend his church’s Ash Wednesday service. Because he was scheduled for an early morning surgery, he was not able to attend the service that year. I provided ashes to support his spiritual practices and calm his spirits. The operating room team paused their work for the moment I made the sign of the cross on the patient’s forehead.

What is the best ministry advice you have been given?
Love your people. Nurture friendships outside the congregation. Find a spiritual director. Seek professional counseling when needed. Find mentors and truth-tellers: people who will tell you the things that are difficult to hear. Sometimes courage looks like failure. A piece of “advice” I picked up by observing professional ministers whom I admire: “unconventional” may appear to some to mean “unsuccessful,” but it does not mean “unfaithful” to God’s call.