Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces a fabulous minister, and today we are pleased to introduce Alicia Porterfield. Alicia IS what a minister looks like.
Alicia, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
Having been raised in an extremely conservative Southern Baptist church, I wrestled long and hard with a burgeoning sense of call during college. There were plenty of negative voices at the Baptist Student Union (BSU) at the University of Georgia where I spent much of my time, joining the ones ingrained in my memory, my head, and most indelibly, my heart. There were also supporters who helped create a safe place for me to explore that call and try to figure out what in the world God was doing in my life. I’m especially grateful to Becky Matheny, who was head campus minister at the time, for providing a role model and being a down-to-earth encourager; Ron Little and Franklin Scott, also at the BSU, and Buddy Revels at Milledge Avenue Baptist, Athens, Georgia, which became my church home, listened, guided, and prayed me through what felt like a very perilous journey.
Once I set my face toward following God’s call into the unknown, the path started unfolding, slowly and only step-by-step-in-God’s-timing, before me: divinity school at Duke University; life-changing internships at open-minded and open-hearted Ravensworth Baptist Church in Annandale, Virginia, and the BSU at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; then ten units of Clinicial Pastoral Education (!!); becoming a board certified chaplain; another degree from Duke Divinity; serving as an eldercare chaplain at a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Pinehurst, North Carolina; serving as a retreat leader, pulpit supply pastor, curriculum and Bible study writer; mid-wifing the Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood book and blog; then serving as an interim pastor at First Baptist Church, Carolina Beach, North Carolina, a call that required much, gave even more, and changed everything.
The interim pastorate in Carolina Beach re-awakened in me a passion for serving God’s people in a congregational setting and, after twenty years of marriage, my pastor-husband and I began looking for a place to serve together. Doors did not open in the familiar places we knew as home. Instead, a door opened at an American Baptist congregation, Fifth Avenue Baptist Church, in Huntington, West Virginia, where Eric serves as senior pastor, and I serve as associate pastor-adult education. Moving house, jobs, and three adolescent boys to a new church in a new state in a new and very different region has been both a grand adventure and profound challenge. Yet the chance to serve this congregation and community using my gifts fully, openly, and “officially,” is worth the hard stuff—most days. I am so very grateful.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
Preaching, teaching, writing, worship, and pastoral care are my natural favorite aspects of ministry. The opportunity to walk with, be present to, and care for people in their hardest, holiest, and most-everyday-moments has been and continues to be one of my deepest joys in ministry. I find joy in the opportunity to empower believers through engaging with scripture together, exploring the church’s story and our stories, and deepening our prayer lives. I’m a card-carrying Bible nerd, so any chance to dig into scripture brings joy to my heart, especially when we are reading at a heart-level. Helping people delve into their own discipleship is a source of great meaning to me. I love to help create discipleship opportunities from classes to small groups to retreats to studies that welcome, affirm, and inspire. I am so very moved when people claim me as their pastor; what a humbling, joyful gift to belong to each other and to God.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
As a child of the Southern Baptist Convention and a product of UGA’s BSU, I knew that living into God’s call on my life would mean striking a new path in unfamiliar territory. Would that new territory be as a woman in ministry in Baptist life or another denominational story? I decided to stay, having discovered that I was Baptist down to my marrow, though it has not been a bed of roses. Even as I watched men I knew find ministry positions with apparent ease, God kept inspiring me by putting in my path women in ministry from whom I could draw hope and courage: Velma Ferrell, Geneva Metzger, Ka’thy Gore Chappell, Wanda Kidd, and Peggy Haymes. I continue to draw encouragement and inspiration from all the Baptist women God has called since I graduated divinity school; these gifted women and their open, determined hearts are absolutely beautiful to me.
In the last ten years, before we moved to West Virginia, there were several dry patches in ministry as I searched for a position that would partner well with my life as the mother of three boys and the wife of a pastor. In the middle of that wilderness, I discovered painfully that several people/places were delighted to enjoy my ministry gifts and skills, but not willing to make my work “official” with a hire or a position or, quite often, even remuneration (sound familiar?) It wasn’t that I didn’t want to serve wherever the doors opened—I did. I simply wanted to serve with some honoring of my education, skills, experience, gifts, and call—that I was a minister. Those were not easy days, yet they did prepare me to take a leap of faith into the interim pastorate and then into a whole new place of service.
What is ministry advice would you give to a teenage girl discerning a call to ministry?
I ardently believe that discerning a call is not meant to be solo work, so I would encourage a teenage girl to seek out several safe women in ministry to pray and discern with–and to ask every question she can muster. When possible, do some job shadowing and test the waters. Look for opportunities to lead and serve, from Bible studies to mission projects to worship leadership so she can see what fits her. Reflect intentionally on these experiences in her prayer life and with her circle of mentors. Keep asking questions of God, of herself, of her mentors. And remember that God has been calling women since the beginning, though professional vocational ministry for women may be more recent. She is in good company!