Each week, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. This week, we are thrilled to introduce Jennifer Hawks.
Jennifer, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served.
When I dedicated my life to full-time Christian service at the age of seventeen, I thought God was calling me into medical missions, but God had another path for me. Neither of my parents are clergy, but both have been lay leaders in the Southern Baptist mega-church I grew up in. Dad is on the bus committee, mom the hospitality committee, and both chaperoned youth camps annually for almost twenty years. Their example and commitment gave me an early love for the church and her ministries. When I began coaching in our recreation ministry at sixteen, I had already been a camp counselor and Vacation Bible School teacher many times.
Despite my love for the learning process, I was miserable in my pre-med classes during my junior year of college. Since I thought God had called me to medical missions, this was not only academically frustrating but became a crisis of faith. I felt like I had already failed at God’s calling on my life, and I hadn’t yet made it to graduate school, much less my place of service. After much prayer and discernment, God revealed a calling for law school and seminary. This direction change was confusing since I felt called into ministry. My home church was active in various domestic and international ministries and would frequently ask for medical personnel, builders and contractors, and even people who could pray and walk simultaneously to join a mission opportunity; never had I heard a request for attorneys to meet a ministry need. Surely God was mistaken with these law school notions, and I just needed to wait God out.
As a shy, quiet introvert, law school is not a place any of my friends or family had pictured for me. In fact my mom’s initial response was, “You realize you will have to talk to people don’t you?” I was so shy as a child that I wouldn’t ask for extra ketchup from a fast food employee, so mom’s question wasn’t misplaced. One verse that I kept coming back to during this discernment period was Micah 6:8. I surmised that if one of the things God requires of us is to do justice, then some of us should be trained in it. Almost every single law school class confirmed my calling. There are so many ways the legal profession can be a ministry. I saw how the law could be an instrument of justice or injustice, a tool to rebuild broken lives or an onerous burden that prevents restoration.
After working as an attorney in Mississippi for six years, I knew the time had come to go to seminary. I moved to Waco, Texas to attend Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, a place which confirmed and clarified my call in large and small ways. As I researched the legacy of Mary Hill Davis (Woman’s Missionary Union leader extraordinaire and namesake for the state’s mission offering) for a class paper, I emailed all the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) department heads whose ministries receive funds from the state offering, including Suzii Paynter, then-director of the BGCT’s Christian Life Commission. Although I had included the questions I was exploring in the email, I told Suzii a little about myself and my journey and asked to meet her for coffee if she were ever driving through Waco. To my great surprise, she responded, and we ended up meeting for lunch during which she introduced me to the idea of public policy as ministry. While I had many affirming and inspirational experiences as a seminary student, this conversation was one of the reasons God led me to Truett.
My first post-seminary job was at Waco’s domestic violence shelter, the Family Abuse Center, which serves an eight-county area in Central Texas. The center had never had an attorney on staff. In addition to exploring how to improve client access to the legal system to supplement the amazing work of our social workers and counselors, I oversaw the legal advocates and rural outreach and education programs.
Many of my attorney friends were confused as to why I would incur debt to attend graduate school only to take a legal position upon graduation that was a significant pay cut from my pre-seminary legal positions. Several people that I met post-graduation couldn’t understand how someone could be a minister but work in a non-church setting. What they and my attorney colleagues couldn’t see was that my average day at the shelter involved more pastoral care than many of my pastor friends gave to their congregations in a week. I got to play a daily role in helping clients from households marred by domestic violence find a path to a violence-free future for themselves, and often their children.
Currently, I am the associate general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. If I had written my ideal job description, I couldn’t have come up with a better fit for my interests and giftedness. I get to do fun lawyer stuff like writing briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court and advocating on Capitol Hill, but I also get to write about religious liberty issues, teach groups about our work and their role in it, and read all sorts of Baptist history material. I often describe my job as the best job in the Baptist world and am continually amazed that this is how I get to participate in God’s kingdom-work.
What have been the greatest challenges you have faced in your ministry journey?
I think I can safely say that I have been my greatest challenge in my ministry journey. I don’t enjoy doing new things that I don’t think I’ll be good at, so when God sets something before me that stretches me, my first instinct is to immediately think “no way, not a chance.” I also often focus on my short-comings and create a list on why God should call someone better suited or more capable. When I focus on Him and not my faults, I have gotten to be a part of some amazing things.
Another challenge was communicating my calling when I wasn’t sure how it would be expressed vocationally. At Truett, professors and classmates often told me some version of “there are so many opportunities for a seminary-trained attorney,” but they rarely had any examples other than congregational ministry. Working at the shelter, some of my colleagues across the state inadvertently affirmed my calling by nicknaming me “reverend attorney.” Even though I always felt a need to explain that while I had a Master of Divinity I was not actually a reverend, their nickname got me through several other encounters with those (both inside and outside the church world) who discounted a ministerial role in a non-church setting.
What advice would you give to someone considering a non-traditional ministerial vocation?
The most helpful piece of advice I received was to pay attention to what makes you cry. Tears can be holy glimpses into vocational callings. A close second is a line from one of Suzii Paynter’s sermons she preached at the 2014 Texas Baptist in Ministry conference, “Be as diligent a voice in assessing your potential as your limitations.” Since I am so quick to identify my short-comings, this statement was a lifeline: honest self-reflection involves both. As technology increases and global access becomes easier, ministerial opportunities are limited only by our imaginations and willingness to step outside the box.
Who have been your best encouragers and sources of inspiration?
I have been blessed by countless encouragers over the years, beginning with my family. My parents gave me the freedom to explore an unconventional path while my maternal grandparents instilled in me a profound love of the Bible. My grandparents were both deaf so we used American Sign Language to communicate. Whenever they signed “Bible,” they were technically signing “God” plus “book.” I could sign before I could speak, and I have always had a special reverence for “God’s book.”
In college, I interned for Cindy Townsend at a small local church and ended up forming a lifelong friendship. Cindy helped pull me out of my shell (even getting me to perform in worship skits!), encouraged me to write, and demonstrated for me how to passionately pursue God no matter my current circumstances. Her friendship and example gave me the confidence to follow my calling before I could fully articulate it. Her mother, Barbara Jean Malone, has also been a great encourager, always being a willing listener and speaking with the wisdom learned through decades of church work. Cindy and B.J. are two of my cheerleaders, always in my corner.
In seminary, I was greatly inspired by my professor, Gaynor Yancey, and by Suzii Paynter. Both women supervised and advised me during my mentoring semester at Truett. Through their own ministries, Gaynor and Suzii opened my eyes to a world of possibilities outside of congregational ministry. They challenged me on multiple levels and never let me sidestep difficult personal reflection because of my academic abilities. They continue to inspire me to dream big about what can be accomplished now instead of procrastinating until some future perfect moment arrives. My Truett covenant group (Kristina Garrison-Clark, Anna Goetz, Jenny Hodge, Erica Lea, and Lindsay Swain) was a constant source of encouragement and continues to be so now that we are pursuing our diverse ministerial callings.
Finally, I couldn’t do my job without the encouragement and support from my coworkers, the Baptist Joint Committee board, and other supporters from across the Baptist world. It is a true gift to work in a ministry that I love with amazing coworkers who challenge and inspire me.