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Believe what the Church could be

Jenaba Waggy getting ordained as elder

Rev. Jenaba Waggy continues our series of articles on our newest ordinands by celebrating what the Church can be if we follow the God who calls us into love, justice, and mercy.

Ann Arbor: First UMC

I was supposed to be a professor.

When I went to college, I had a whole life plan: attend graduate school, earn a doctorate, teach at a small college, and write on the side. I moved to Michigan to join the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University. In my second year, I started co-teaching medieval literature and history, taking the kinds of classes I loved, and starting to sit on hiring committees and present papers at conferences.

Attending General Conference
Jenaba attending General Conference in St. Louis, MO, with fellow Vanderbilt Divinity School students, Isaac and Stephanie (left to right). ~ photo courtesy Jenaba Waggy

I was exhausted and could not envision doing this for the rest of my life.

My friend Lofty Durham, a theatre professor, told me at one point that all jobs have horrible days where everyone is their worst selves, and you question why you would do this to yourself. The trick, he said, was to find the job where you believed in what it could do, what it said it was trying to do, that you got up the next day and went back into the fray. My friend Jan Volek told me to look at where I was spending my time, where my heart was made glad even when I was so tired. My pastor, Barry Petrucci, asked me if I’d ever considered ministry since I seemed to be spending a lot of time at the church and finding a home there.

I was horrified at the idea of working in the Church, so I finished my degree and kept working at the university. I would make it work. I would.

But I found myself getting deeper and deeper into church. I was on committees, the altar guild, reading book after book that Barry would lend me from his library. I became the calm space for my co-workers, doing what I would later recognize as pastoral care for those of us caught in the gears of administration. I joined an effort to unionize the administrative staff and realized I was learning how to fight for justice in the sermons I was devouring. After three years, I sheepishly slunk into Barry’s office to say I would be applying to divinity school.

Jenaba being commissioned
Jenaba enjoying the rain during the commissioning service at Troy Historic Village in 2021. ~ photo courtesy Jenaba Waggy

“Finally,” he said.

Off I went to pursue another degree for a life I never planned and had never really wanted, learning very quickly that life at an ultra-postmodern divinity school in Nashville, Tennessee, was an entirely different planet. I hated it, and yet I learned so much from it. I served a congregation that invited me to start thinking that maybe God was calling all of me to ministry; that maybe, when I told my parishioners God loved them, I could believe God loved me, too.

When the 2019 General Conference Special Session happened, I drove out with a group of classmates to attend. It broke my heart. I heard so much anger and vitriol and pain from people who thought that queer folk like me were one step short of demonic. And I heard so much anger and vitriol and pain from people who used queer folk like me as weapons to wage war within the Church. I thought about Lofty’s advice of the worst day and whether I still believed in what could be enough — and I drove back to Nashville and finished the degree.

I came back to Michigan absolutely terrified that I knew God wanted me in ministry, but I couldn’t be sure whether the Church would agree. I worked for a year as a hospital chaplain, still trying desperately to find a way to answer the call without going into local church ministry, but God continually pointed me toward elder. I wrote for commissioning, and Barry, Pat Catellier, Lisa Batten, Brad Bartelmay, and so many others gently herded me back to the writing table every time I ran. The war over queer folk came home; I was outed to my brand-new colleagues before I could even take my vows and wondered whether I would be cut down by hatred before I got anywhere near being able to stand as a pastor. In God’s grace, I was voted through and given my first appointment as a provisional candidate just one week before the pandemic shut the state down.

Celebrating during ordination service
Left to right: Barry Petrucci, Jenaba, Jess Davenport, and Pat Catellier celebrating during the ordination service in 2023. ~ photo courtesy Jenaba Waggy

I went to my first appointment without being able to meet anyone or see the town. I learned how to lead through laptops in an empty church. I took to virtual spaces to build community when I couldn’t do so in this new town. I found myself offering pastoral care to people who were queer and neurodivergent and deeply scared, just as I was, that the Church would take one look and turn them away. The calling became about apologizing for harm done and saying repeatedly that God loves you, God loves you, God loves you — all of you, wholly and terribly and beautifully. It became about hearing it for myself. I believed in what the Church could be if we followed the God who calls us into love, mercy, and justice, into building the kingdom here. I wrote my first book, and people started saying thank you for showing me we can belong, too. I took up an MBA and learned to be deliberate in shaping organizations that say no one is left out; here is what God’s love can look like in spreadsheets, mission statements, and nitty-gritty details.

I asked Barry if he would stand with me as I came out a second time, living into ministry as a trans person. He said God loves you, I love you, and so did my ordination cohort, my home church, Pat, Paul Perez, Lisa, Brad, Caleb Williams, Kayla Roosa, and many other beautiful people. When I was ordained with my friend Stephanie Powers and Barry beside me, I heard again that God loves you, beloved child, in all I am.

So, of course, I tackled poor Barry with the exuberance of it. How could I not? I can wake up believing that God loves me, and God loves you, and we are becoming what the Church could be, and oh, how glorious a thing that is.

Last Updated on April 16, 2024

The Michigan Conference