Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. This Friday we are pleased to introduce Latonya L. Agard. Latonya IS what a minister looks like.

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

My ministry journey began at New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, a small family congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, when I was very young.  For me, this church was a cradle of learning, authentic relationships, challenge, and spiritual discovery.  It is where I first learned about God’s goodness and abundant love for all people regardless of race, economic condition, background, material success, gender, or physical ability. I discovered that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Sara, Rebekah, and Leah; of Nat, Martin, and Malcolm, as well as Harriett, Sojourner, and Fannie; that the Lord who delivered the children of Israel from Egypt is still intimately involved in the work of liberation and freedom today.  So my ministry journey began with the clear understanding that God’s love resists evil and works through history to dismantle structures and strongholds of sin. God’s love cradles Creation and permeates all of life, and for this reason, God’s love ultimately wins, which is the glorious lesson of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God’s love can not be extinguished.

Throughout my walk with the Lord and my formal ministry as a pastor, my goal has been to live into this profound revelation. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s unconquerable love. As a preacher of the gospel, I believe that authentic ministry, at its best, must reflect this core truth of our faith.  My ministry journey has been an ongoing exercise in learning to love. This, of course, has not always been easy because the love of Christ demands forgiveness, justice, restoration, renewal, and joy.  It means embracing those who are most unlike me and serving those who may not ever appreciate me.  It means welcoming the stranger. Standing with the oppressed. Speaking the truth. That’s the kind of love that always gets me into trouble, because the love of Christ is dynamic and resists the pull of complacency and confident satisfaction with the status quo. This is not to say that my ministry journey has been full of pain. On the contrary, it is has been a joyful, rewarding experience.

I accepted my call to ministry in 2003 while serving at Malaby’s Crossroads Missionary Baptist Church in Knightdale, North Carolina. The day I set foot in their old sanctuary, I felt the same way I did when I first said yes to God in that small family church in Montgomery. At Malaby’s, I worked mostly with young people—teaching Sunday School and Bible Study, directing plays, organizing activities, and hopefully, showing them how to love God, themselves, and one another. I love stories, so whenever we discussed the Bible, I encouraged them to understand that God’s story of redemption has not ended.  It continues through them, through all of us.

In 2005, I began serving as an intern, and later as the pastor of congregational care, at a rural two-point United Methodist Charge in Bailey, North Carolina. This was my first time worshipping and serving in a cross-racial, cross-denominational ministry context. And my goodness was it a challenge! One Sunday I was enjoying the comfortable familiarity of worship in a traditional, black, missionary Baptist church, and the next Sunday I found myself profoundly spiritually disoriented, trying to find God’s presence in a white, United Methodist charge with four worship services.  This time I was the stranger, and it took me quite a while to find my bearings—not because the people were unloving, they were kind, joyful, and welcoming,  but because I had anchored God and God’s revelation within the bounds of my own experience. So at first, it was very difficult for me to worship and serve in that context. But after I opened my heart to love them and to receive their love, I learned something amazing. God had been there all the time, working in them and in me, and doing something new in all of us! Imagine that. By the time I left, I had arranged for my two church families—one black, one white; one Baptist, one Methodist—to worship together for Easter Sunrise service for a few years in a row. That experience gave me a wonderful glimpse of the amazing things God’s love can do if we are willing to take the risk.

Before accepting my call to Bazzel Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, I served as a case manager for the Support Circle Program for Homeless Families, which was managed by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh. My role in the program was to interview and work with homeless families to help them become self-sufficient within one year by pairing them with a local church. The local church provided a host of resources to assist the family, and I occupied the space in between, guiding the team to help without hindering growth and coaching the families to accept assistance without becoming dependent. This assignment exposed me to a level of need and systemic injustice that I had not previously witnessed. Jesus came to proclaim the gospel to the poor, and I came to view my work as a concrete manifestation of His message. To some, that may sound like a stretch, but when those families opened their first bank accounts or purchased their first automobiles or signed the leases to their apartments, I saw hope in their eyes, and hope, wherever it appears, does not disappoint. My labor alongside these families and churches was a labor of love, a gospel-labor that showed me the power of loving people when the world says they are unworthy of love.

In April, I will celebrate my eighth anniversary as pastor of Bazzel Creek Missionary Baptist Church.  I am the first female pastor in our 152-year history, and although it has not been a completely smooth journey, it has been perfect for me at this stage in my life. My love-ethic guides my ministry and has opened doors for dialogue, ministry development, and exciting changes within our congregation. Some of these include establishing a ministry for trauma survivors and partnerships with Interfaith Food Shuttle, Fuquay-Varina Food Bank, Hand of Hope (a local Christ-centered agency providing free services to young parents facing unplanned pregnancies), Habitat for Humanity, and FACES (Family and Community Empowerment Services, which provides emergency assistance to families in financial crisis).  I am also exploring new ways to help our congregation engage in other issues that negatively affect our community. One possibility is through the Industrial Areas Foundation, which helps local churches and other stakeholders organize to make larger-scale changes in city planning, education, housing, transportation, and elections. Fuquay-Varina is experiencing explosive growth, and my prayer is that Bazzel Creek MBC will see it an opportunity to show love and share Christ in concrete, meaningful ways.

What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?

My greatest sources of joy in ministry have been seeing people embrace and embody the love of God. As I mentioned earlier, these moments have happened throughout my ministry journey in my work with young people, at Bailey UMC, in the Support Circle Program, and in the community engagement we are experiencing at Bazzel Creek MBC. On a more personal level, I recall a tender moment I experienced with a member who knew she was dying and needed to make amends with a close family member. This family had been mired in a difficult history that included a variety of hurts, disappointments, and resentments. Over the years, a callous had formed to protect these two people from each other, but beneath it all, they both desired reconciliation and peace. I knew this because I had spoken with both parties privately, hoping that the Lord would open the door for restoration before it was too late. As I ministered at her death bed, I leaned in and whispered, asking if she was at peace, if she had said everything that was in her heart before she crossed over to be with the Lord. Tears began to fall from both of our eyes. She shook her head.  I simply said, “Call her.” She asked, “But what do I say after all this time?” “Tell her you love her,” I suggested. “Maybe that will be enough.” After ending my visit with scripture and prayer, I quietly left the room. I was uncertain if she would make the call, but I was hopeful that the door of opportunity had finally swung open. The next day, she was noticeably weaker. Her sons were crying silently in the other room. The end was imminent. I approached her bedside unsure of what I would say, but when I looked into her eyes, she smiled. I didn’t need to say a word. Something had changed. She told me that she had made the call. The family member had come to see her. They had talked for hours. “Now,” she said, “I’m ready.” God had shown up. The burden had been lifted. Love had won.

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

As a female pastor approaching my eighth year at Bazzel Creek MBC, I find myself facing many challenges, despite the clear evidence of God’s power and presence at work among us. One challenge, which I am sure is true for most historic congregations, is discerning how to celebrate our rich heritage while serving the community in relevant, impactful ways so that we are not trapped by a spirit of traditionalism. This means finding ways to encourage and equip the congregation to break free from outdated practices that are ineffective in our contemporary context. Additionally, in light of the polarization and politically charged atmosphere in which we live, I struggle to strike a faithful balance between the priestly and prophetic roles of ministry.  That is, finding adequate time and energy for an effective preaching and teaching, compassionate pastoral care, and prophetic practices of justice, hope, and love. In addition, I have found that pastoral ministry can be a very discouraging and isolating profession, especially for female pastors. It is difficult to determine who among my ministry colleagues can be trusted and entrusted with the gift of authentic fellowship. Not only must I and other female pastors deal with the normal pressures that come with this calling, but we also bear the weight of standing in a role traditionally, and still predominately, occupied by our male counterparts. With this comes the pressure of facing the unfortunate assumption that I am unqualified, unworthy, and unequipped for the task of pastoral ministry. For that reason, I and other female pastors must tread carefully yet powerfully in our calling.

Finally, like other ministry leaders, I struggle to practice self-care in a way that is consistent and reflective of my commitment to holistic ministry. Sometimes, I find myself working for weeks on end without observing a personal Sabbath for rest, reflection, and restoration. On a broader scale, this also includes finding time for recreation, quality time with my family, and opportunities to explore other interests that bring me joy.

What is the best ministry advice you have received?

My paternal grandfather pastored two churches faithfully for about thirty years, until his health declined and he determined it was best to retire. When I spoke with him about my call to Bazzel Creek MBC in 2011, he told he that he only had a few pieces of advice. First, he said that I must remember never to choose sides in the midst of a dispute within the congregation. “Stick with the Lord,” he said. “Stay on God’s side and everything will work out.” That was good advice. Then, he added, “You can’t fight people and lead them at the same time. God never called any pastor to fight His people. God called us to love them and teach them and lead them.” I have had to remember that more than once. And finally, he said, “Be yourself. That’s all you got anyway.” Thanks, Gramps. He was right about that, too.