Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry features an interview with a fabulous minister. Today we are thrilled to introduce Jenna Sullivan. Jenna IS what a minister looks like!
Jenna, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
I think I have always had a little piece of a minister’s heart in me since I was a little girl. I was deeply empathetic and contemplative growing up. I first seriously felt the call to ministry after preaching at Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, at age seventeen. This church had nourished me in so many ways, and it was the first community of faith in which I felt safe. I also felt encouraged to grow as a leader and use my gifts for God’s glory. That time of preparing my first sermon was so precious. I felt closer to God than I ever had, and the words somehow flowed right out of my heart and into the ears of the congregation. The biggest thing I remember about that day was that there was a surprising ease about preaching for me—it felt like this was a part of me that had always been there—I was just discovering it. I guess God always knew it was there too.
I went to Rhodes College after graduating high school and studied religion as my major. Studying the Bible in an intellectual setting was so enriching for my ministry—and yet also so challenging. I also got to explore my passion for civil rights history in Memphis and community service. God was definitely deepening and widening my understanding of ministry.
After Rhodes, I attended Wake Forest University School of Divinity for three years. This was a season that showed me how diverse God’s world really is and how differently we can all understand the Divine. I got to sit in classrooms with peers from all kinds of theological and social backgrounds. I also got to put my ministry into practice during a yearlong internship at First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Learning from their pastor, Emily Hull McGee, was so inspiring and reminded me of how powerful the voice of a woman pastor could be.
I graduated from Wake Forest in May of 2018 and answered the call to serve Magnolia Road Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas. For this Arkansas girl, it has been good to return closer to family. The church I serve is a small but mighty congregation. Magnolia Road is full of energy, passion, talent, and potential. As associate pastor, I work with Emil Williams, who will be ninety-one years old this July. It has been amazing to serve in such a unique congregation. Emil has a long legacy of prophetic preaching and compassionate pastoral care. We bring the “old” and the “new” of Christian ministry together in a very innovative way.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
One of my biggest sources of joy in ministry is the moments of laughter. It has amazed me what funny things happen when people do church together. I love building community with church members and sharing the bonds of laughter. If we can’t laugh about it, we are taking ourselves and the work way too seriously. Another huge source of joy for me is the unpredictable nature of it. No day is the same. One day I am chasing a raccoon that has made an appearance in the sanctuary (okay, maybe not literally chasing, but you get the idea). The next day I may be visiting someone in the hospital or brushing off an old copy of Mere Christianity for a book study. That is what I love most about ministry—it is this sacred mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary. It is about fixing the paper towel holder in the bathroom AND praying for needs of the hurting. It’s about finding a “masculine-smelling” potpourri for the men’s restroom AND leading disciples of Jesus on their journey. It’s about distributing the highly-anticipated Wednesday night supper menu AND tackling the New Testament lesson. It’s about fussing over the exact color of window shades AND encouraging new efforts for a community garden. Church is all of that. For better or for worse, it is a lot of this world and a little bit of the next world. I’m just trying to do my best to point us toward God and God’s priorities while laughing along the way.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
There are many challenges. Perhaps one of the greatest is the isolation. Ministers are surrounded by people constantly and yet also constantly alone. There is no one in the church that they can completely let their guard down in front of and share their deepest fears with. Despite so much bonding and camaraderie, ministers are not “friends” with parishioners in the way you are friends with your college roommates. There are so many boundaries to navigate to create a healthy church culture. It is also very hard to learn how to trust my own voice and my own leadership instincts. Ministry forces you to look in the mirror more than you might prefer. It shows you your fears, insecurities, and dysfunctional beliefs every single day. But there are gifts with this. I have grown more this year than I ever thought I could. I have made several mistakes, but I have started to learn how to take responsibility for my mistakes rather than beat myself up about them. I’m learning to take myself less seriously and realize that I am only one gardener in God’s garden. The whole thing does not depend on me. Thank God!
What advice would you give to a young girl who is discerning a call to ministry?
I would tell her: “you can do this!” I would also tell her to invest in a high-quality deodorant and always maintain a strong support system. I would tell her that God delights in her and will guide her through the darkest days of her ministry. Mostly I would tell her that she is always wiser and stronger than she thinks and most of the time the answer is already within her. .