Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry features an interview with an amazing minister. Today we are thrilled to introduce Claire Helton. Claire IS what a minister looks like!
Claire, tell us about your call to ministry and your journey in discerning your calling.
I wound up in seminary almost on auto-pilot. Many of the events I would later look back on and name as part of my call story had already occurred before I even got to college, but I had no imagination to see them as a part of that narrative at the time. I had never seen a female pastor in real life, and although, as a fledgling feminist, I felt a strong compulsion to support women who were called to ministry, I thought I would be doing that as an outsider. I just couldn’t get enough of my undergraduate religion courses, and so it seemed like the logical next step was to keep studying in graduate work. Social justice was the faith language I had learned to speak, but in my experience I had never known that to be a part of the pastor’s work, so I really thought I was headed toward a dual divinity/social work degree.
About a year into my time at Truett Seminary at Baylor University, I found myself at the annual Texas Baptist Women in Ministry conference. After hearing the stories of so many women fulfilling their God-given callings in such varied and valuable ways, I walked away with my mind blown, my categories shattered, and a really long list of possible vocations I had never before considered for myself. I would spend the next couple of years in a vocational process of elimination, slowly crossing each one off the list until at last I had no choice but to embrace my calling as a pastor. That Frederick Buechner quote about calling being the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet is overworked, but for good reason. I had always been aware of the world’s deep hunger; it took me much longer to know myself well enough to recognize and claim my own deep gladness.
Tell us about the places and ways you have served and are serving.
Currently, I serve as senior co-pastor at Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisana alongside my husband, Zach Helton. We’ve been in this role since December 2018 so we are just getting our feet wet and so far loving every minute. We were introduced to the model of co-pastoring in seminary but were immediately informed it was the “unicorn” of ministry positions, much discussed but rarely seen, so we were incredibly excited and grateful when this position worked out. We’re sharing an office and so far I’ve only had to tell Zach to “get out of my office” two or three times, so I think we’re off to a good start.
Before this, we served on staff together at the church we began attending during seminary, also the church that ordained us, Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. I served as Minister to Children and Zach as Minister to Youth.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
In my role as a children’s minister I found so much joy in watching kids learn to ask questions about their faith, practice the holy discipline of curiosity, and speak the language of faith through the stories, liturgies and rhythms of the church year. It is a beautiful gift to walk alongside children in faith and to see it all afresh through their eyes.
Although I’ve only been in my current role for a few months, the greatest joy I have known so far is the incredible sense of the gravity of the work this particular church is doing; they are living boldly and professing a gospel of radical inclusivity and welcome. I’ve been here less than six months, and I’ve already lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone say of this church, “I didn’t know if I would ever have a church home again until I found this place.” It’s an incredible gift to wake up each morning with no doubt in my mind as to whether the work we are doing is making a difference.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
I mentioned in my call story that before I even acknowledged my own call to ministry I was ready and willing to support other women who were called to ministry. I have found that it has continued to be very easy for me to support other women pastors, to validate their callings and their giftings, their need for boundaries, and in particular their choices when it comes to navigating motherhood and ministry. It has been remarkably difficult to have that same grace for myself. It is a daily challenge to remember to embrace as true for myself what I believe to be so deeply true about every other woman minister I know.
What advice would you give to a young girl who is discerning a call to ministry?
Seek out the stories of women who are doing good work – and those who have gone before you. Listen to their voices when you can – their literal, audible voices, because hearing the way they speak, the words they choose, the cadence they use, because it will be different than listening to even the most supportive, egalitarian male minister (and I’m married to one so I can tell you I say that with the deepest respect for male ministers). It’s just so important for women to learn from other women who are walking this same road. So put yourself on a path that will expand your imagination for what is possible, and as much as it depends on you, open your heart to the possibility that God is calling you toward something you might never have dreamed up for yourself.