Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry features an interview with a fabulous minister on this blog. Today, we are thrilled to interview Joanne Henley. Joanne IS what a minister looks like!

Joanne, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving?

My sense of vocation has always been linked to service. The thread of service which is woven through the fabric of my professional life began with my role as child life specialist at a children’s hospital in North Carolina. There I learned some hard facts about suffering, the limits of medical science, and the confusing action (or inaction) of God. I also witnessed the incredible love of parents for their children, long before I had my own, and the dedication of the medical team to caring for complete strangers. I stayed for five years before leaving to teach English in southeast Asia.

I have learned along the way of ministry and life that some experiences become markers, lines in the sand. They create the sense of “before and after.” So it was with my experience living and working overseas, which I loved. It was there that I was the stranger to whom radical hospitality was extended; the sick to whom care was provided. It was there that the wrong mosquito bit me, and I contracted dengue hemorrhagic fever. The symptoms appeared in the middle of a Friday night in December when I was staying on a little island. I had arrived via a wooden fishing boat, piloted by a young man with whom I could barely communicate due to the differences in our languages. I was grateful to be traveling with a friend who spoke English. Before the next Friday arrived, I would feel the most profound loss of control that I have ever experienced and find myself wondering if God had called me to that place only to let me die there. It was an experience so confusing, viewed through the eyes of the theology I then held, that I had to spend years reconstructing my faith. Yet, I held onto the sense of being drawn toward ministry, which had come just a few weeks before I became sick.

In August 1999, I began my formal journey into vocational ministry as a member of the inaugural class at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Given my experience with illness, perhaps it is not surprising that I found my way to healthcare chaplaincy.  After graduation, a clinical pastoral education residency, ordination at Ardmore Baptist Church, and endorsement by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I joined Novant Health as an oncology chaplain. I reached board certification with the Association of Professional Chaplains in 2008. After eleven years in the cancer center, I accepted the role of corporate director of spiritual care at Novant Health, leading chaplains in fifteen hospitals across the organization. I have found professional chaplaincy a profound privilege, as a front line chaplain and an administrator.

In 2019, I began to feel the pull for a change. This one felt as risky as leaving my job and moving to southeast Asia in my twenties. In early 2019, I began ICF coach training, as a way to enhance my leadership skills. What I discovered was a field that beautifully complemented my chaplaincy practice and enabled me to pursue a long-time dream. Today, I am the owner of  Meaning Works LLC, a coaching and consulting business, and remain connected to Novant Health as a PRN chaplain.

What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?

I have spent decades, now, listening to people’s stories; witnessing their discovery of strengths, resources and meaning in some of life’s most challenging moments. This has been my greatest source of joy. I often share with people that my personal definition of hope is that there are options for our lives that we have not yet imagined. There is no way to fully describe the privilege of being in conversation with people as they begin to see new options, nor the joy of seeing people embracing life after a moment when they might have felt like life was over.

One of my favorite stories is about a woman named, “Beth.” Beth was an elementary school art teacher in her sixties, diagnosed with cancer. I saw Beth in the outpatient chemotherapy area one day soon after her third recurrence. Cure was no longer an option. Working was no longer possible. She was angry. In the course of our conversation, I asked her: “If you were to complete the statement ‘Cancer is…’ what would you say?” Her response was immediate. “Cancer is a thief! . . . It has taken my life away, my work.” I sat with her and we talked. The next week, she was back for more chemo. “Last week, you told me cancer was a thief. How would you finish the ‘Cancer is . . . ‘ statement, today?” I asked. This time she paused. “Cancer is an awakening.” Wow. The same experience can be described in two profoundly different ways. This is the gift and power of story.

What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?

Burnout. To be a minister in any setting is to hear and hold important stories shared by people in vulnerable moments. I have found myself at different points experiencing the cumulative effect of sustained presence with suffering. Conversations with colleagues have often led me to think that people have the perception that chaplains somehow have burnout trained out of them. Some chaplains might believe this, too. This is not the case.

In the midst of days which feel full, I have often relied on advice given to me early on in my ministry: “Go do something different.” A breath of fresh air, walk around the parking lot, or conversation with a friend have often served to remind me that the web of God’s presence holds all of us and all our stories.

What are the practices you have embraced that keep you healthy–physically, spiritually, emotionally?

I have found connection the key practice for maintaining my health. I have remained connected to a counselor most of my professional life, believing that those of us who listen without judgment need someone to offer us the same gift. Time with friends and family keeps me connected to the larger communities which surround me and to God’s sustaining grace in my life. Time alone renews my connection to God and that which I find sacred, especially through the practices of journaling and walking outside.

Every part of what I have shared, here, is marked in my mind with the faces of people who have accompanied me on the journey. My gratitude for them is overwhelming.