A Ministry of Authenticity

As a child, I wanted to be everything. I often told my family and friends that I would grow up and become an opera singer, doctor, lawyer, florist and hairdresser. Yep, all at once. My family wholeheartedly endorsed my decision to be an attorney and some even suggested that I become a news anchor. However, at the age of 14, everything changed. After attending a few Christian summer camps and openly professing my faith in high school, I felt a strong calling to enter ministry. In my heart and soul, I knew what this “calling” felt like, but I did not have the vocabulary to articulate it. So I did what most teenagers do: I stuck with the original “family plan” and prepared myself to go to college. I majored in pre-med.

As you might have already guessed, I took the scenic route to seminary. I changed my major three times, interned at an investment firm, wrote grants for an environmental organization and took the LSAT, all before entering seminary. Like most other people, (remember Jonah?) I just could not seem to avoid God. It was not so much that I wanted to skip out on God’s call – I just did not know how to live out the call. As an African-American, Baptist woman from Southern Mississippi I had limited examples of what ministry for a woman actually looked like. I had no clue what would become of me with my Master’s of Divinity degree. However, I knew deep down inside that I was equipped, called and indeed enough.

During seminary, I spent so much time determining what I was not, that I did not truly embrace all that I was and could be. To my dismay and utter embarrassment, a few of my seminary cohorts can directly quote me as saying, “I do not like kids.” I would make this statement whenever I encountered children behaving unruly at the grocery store, movies, Target® or during worship. However, I believe that God laughed a deep belly laugh the summer of 2007 when I stood before the congregation at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC as their new Minister of Children and Families.

I believe that I have the best job at Foundry. I have the awesome privilege of leading children and families on their faith journeys through baptism, Sunday school, Confirmation, family camps, Christmas pageants and Bible studies. Yet, I do something even more important than those things. I fully bring myself to ministry. By being authentic to myself, I am able to help others be authentically themselves. One area of ministry where this matters the most is with our children.

For example, one morning in Sunday School, during a lesson on the Ten Commandments, my class of 3rd & 4th graders declared that they did not like commandment #5 “Honor thy father and mother.” The cause for their protest is not what you might think. These children knew that not all families had a mother and father, and that some families have only one parent and others have same-gendered parents. These children wanted to make the commandment reflect everyone’s family, especially their own. After fifteen minutes of conversation, they posted the new commandment #5 on the wall, “Honor thy parent(s).”

In my church growing up there was no racial diversity and very little diversity of any other kind. Yet here I was in a Sunday School class with children who understood and expected more of the Ten Commandments. In that moment, I realized that I am helping to form and shape our children’s expectations of church and the world. They will know what it means to be part of a church that is reconciling, open, accepting and full of God’s grace and love.

It truly matters that I stand before the congregation in clergy vestments with my dark brown skin, dreadlock hair and full-figure. It is important that each day I own my story, my voice and my gifts for ministry. It matters because these children will grow-up expecting to see gender and racial diversity amongst their church clergy, staff and leaders in an inclusive and loving community. And hey, that beats being a florist-newscaster-doctor-lawyer, any day!


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5 replies
  1. Rory McKellar-Mullen
    Rory McKellar-Mullen says:

    That is a powerful story, and not unlike my own in many ways. I think we are all a little like Jonah until we fully give ourselves to God’s will for our lives. And what an amazing group of youths in your class! Hearing such an open, honest articulation of God’s word from the leaders of tomorrow gives me great hope for the future. 🙂

  2. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    “children who expect more of the Ten Commandments” That made my day/week/liturgical season. Thank you!
    So glad your journey brought you to them!

  3. melanie gordon
    melanie gordon says:

    I was one of those “cohorts” who heard Theresa’s chorus of “I don’t like children”, and have been priviledged to watch her transformation that can only be explained by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the love she received from the children she serves. Foundry is blessed to have her!

  4. Sarah K.
    Sarah K. says:

    Oh my gosh, I love that the kids were not satisfied with that commandment, but instead of rejecting it, tweaked it to make sense for their community. That is really fantastic!


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