Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today, we are pleased to introduce you to Jennifer Wilder.
Jennifer, tell us about where you are currently serving in ministry
I am a new resident of Calvert County, Maryland, which is located on a peninsula thirty minutes southeast of Washington D.C. that juts out into western edge of the Chesapeake Bay. This time of the year there are lots of farm stands in this area, and for this mountains-gal-come-to-the-beach, this is the first time I’ve lived where cookouts involve crabs or where there’s a beach boardwalk down the road. There’s a lot of work to be done here–this county has staggering extremes of wealth and poverty and thousands of young people, but there are few churches where people can bring their critical-thinking, keen, and curious selves, and feel free and welcomed.
I am in my first months as pastor of Broadview Church here in Chesapeake Beach, which is redefining for Calvert County the work of church, and thus I get to re-define the meaning of pastor. Though a relatively small church, Broadview is just as involved in summer reading camps that partner with the county school system as it is with Sunday-focused worship. I’m just as often meeting the “spiritual, but not religious” folks for lunch-breaks as holding brown-bag lunches after church for community walk-throughs. We’re balancing the inward with the outward.
Tell us about your journey to this new adventure of pastoring.
I was called to pastor while serving in the Christian-base communities of El Salvador. Community leaders there are, what we call in English, community organizers and pastors all rolled into one. I was a part of these spiritual communities’ work to extend electricity to their rural areas and to prepare a generation of young people to question if promises and policies had their best interests in mind. In doing this type of work, the base communities transformed Christianity from a passive identity to an active and life-changing commitment. This way of being church and of being a faith leader called me.
Though I was born in North Carolina, attended college at Furman University in South Carolina, and served first in ministry in El Salvador, I was called north to New York City to attend Union Theological Seminary, a seminary that seeks to privilege the voices often marginalized from other God-talk settings. Judson Memorial Church in New York City, where I served as community minister, helped me learn and experiment with the ministry trifecta of bold and deep spiritual formation, allowed me to work for justice and community change, and gave me opportunity to explore the arts and creative life.
I’ve tended to open up frontiers, the last by serving as the first woman Protestant pastor called as campus minister at Cristo Rey New York High School in East Harlem in New York City. That school’s students come from low-income families, many of whom without the Cristo Rey experience would not graduate and go to college. The school molds, challenges, and loves the students, and most do graduate from high school, go to college, and embrace a life of service. I spent lots and lots of time wondering about and calling forth the spiritual development of fourteen-to-eighteen-year-olds.
I’m a certified in and practice spiritual direction, a ministry of helping others discern and respond to God’s presence in their lives.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered along the way as a minister?
I honestly did not meet a woman pastor until I was in college. In one sense, then, I had no models of women in official leadership roles, so what I am now, I almost wasn’t. At the same time, however, I grew up knowing that the women and other caring individuals, albeit in informal leadership roles, actually were the ministers of the church. They were who we turned to for help in knowing who God is. They looked in on us when we hurt and helped us celebrate callings and new beginnings. I thus was formed as an ordained minister whose calling it is to help form and support the other, often lay, ministers in process around me and to identify and activate a few more.
I have also wrestled with why I stick with the church as the change-making community needed today. At times, I’m jaded by how spiritual communities are frustratingly irrelevant, detached, and bland in the lives of people. Like the rest of you, I’ve seen evil done in Christianity’s name and have cringed and tried to figure out what to say or do. And I ask myself if I couldn’t/shouldn’t be doing something to better? It’s often then that a reminder of my call and the call of Jesus’ oddball church usually shows up. I see isolation and individualism, which are so rampant today, being broken through. I see our rag-tag group actually be the presence of God for one of our families made desperate because of job loss, debt, or medical crisis. I see radical, vulnerable honesty. And I know I’ll stick around.
What makes you most excited about your new ministry position?
Broadview. Broad is our view of how, what, and who is sacred. We’ve a knack for recognizing and celebrating the sacred in the ordinary. Broad is our view about the parts of our lives relevant for church. We bring our real, raw questions and invite others to as well. We may not find “the” answer, but we definitely create a place where we can be heard and engage and be treated with love, respect, and acceptance.
My ministry position is creative and creating. I’m loving that. Broadview rarely works in isolation, but rather we do mission trips alongside our sister Baptists churches, collaborate in youth work with an Episcopal church, and do the county-wide work on education, housing, and mental health in partnership with community organizations, mosques, and synagogues.
I love that Broadview offers the different generations of families in Calvert County a space for wrestling with the most meaningful questions of life. We’re teaching ourselves what it means to hold and accept difference, yet remain in covenant and community. I love that Broadview is a place to both be still and be active and know that God’s love is broad and deep.