Three Michigan clergy women talk about mentors who made a difference in their faith journeys. Who were the women who inspired YOU growing up?
During Women’s History Month, Michigan Conference Communications reached out to clergy women across the state to learn how sisters in faith have nurtured their lives and ministries.
This is the first of two features that tells the story of how family members, friends, and colleagues provided inspiration, encouragement, and support during these leaders’ spiritual journeys.
The women also provide words of counsel to those who are feeling God’s nudge today.
Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, Chief Connectional Ministries Officer UMC
My mother was an extraordinary woman. When she decided to go back to school to get her degree in English, she had to figure out a way to study with five kids. She did that by reading her assignments to us. We would sit at her feet while she would read to us aloud. For instance, she read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the short stories of Anton Chekhov to us. She introduced us to Black literature—writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou. She encouraged us to memorize poems. We all memorized “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. For Mother’s Day one year, I memorized and recited Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
In exposing me to literature, my mother taught me to preach. She did not preach herself or even speak in front of groups. But she taught me the cadence of language. As a result, I developed a sixth sense of how words should sound. My mother had the greatest impact on my preaching.
During those years when my mother was getting her degree, she also was struggling with mental illness. She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. That is a horrible illness that caused trauma in our family and her most of all. But my mother dealt with that and raised five kids.
Her experience made me a better pastor. It helped me be more sensitive to the needs of individuals and families dealing with mental illness. For instance, as a local church pastor, I always made an effort to visit those hospitalized in mental care facilities. Our tendency sometimes is to make hospital visits only to the physically sick. And of course, right now, such issues are rising in importance because this pandemic has been a challenge in terms of mental health. It has been an experience of compounded trauma. How are we going to deal with this? This is an area of ministry that I am continuing to explore.
The Rev. Dr. Joreatha McCall Capers was the pastor of Stewart Memorial United Methodist Church in Daytona Beach, FL, where my husband and I worshiped early in our marriage. She encouraged me to help lead the early service and to serve with the youth group. She also was the first woman that I had seen in the role of senior pastor. I had grown up Baptist and had been taught that women could not be pastors. Her presence in that role opened up possibilities for me. When the Spirit began to call, she was there to show me that women could preach, pastor and lead. She also encouraged me to get involved with a conference held at Bethune Cookman College for Black women in ministry. I was part of the hospitality team. There I heard the Holy Spirit-inspired preaching of women like Valerie Bridgeman Davis and others. It was at that conference that I actually accepted my call.
I have been surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. I remember walking into the Grand Rapids District Office for my first interview with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry and seeing the broad smile of my Superintendent, the Rev. Susan Hagans. Her presence in that role helped me to feel like I belonged. I remember when Bishop Linda Lee came on as bishop, she and the Rev. Molly Turner were willing to meet with me. I was just entering the process, and they both sat down with me to talk about ministry. Then there was the Rev. Dr. Linda Hollies, who is deceased. We had very different positions on issues, but she mentored me despite our differences. And an AME pastor, the Rev. Dr. Gloria White Hammond, mentored me even before I knew that what I was doing was ministry.
I’d name others. Laurie Haller, who is now a bishop, reviewed my ordination papers, and the Rev. Lynn Pier-Fitzgerald walked me through that process. Clergy women like Ethel Stears, Margaret Jones, Lynn Grimes, and Laurie DelPino counseled and supported me. And then there were the lay women with whom I served. Marilyn Rothert and Joan Kelsey at University UMC in East Lansing. Shirley Perkins at Trinity in Grand Rapids. These and so many others are my great cloud of witnesses!
I recently watched the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will likely be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. Some of the questioning was hard to hear. Some of it was overtly racist and directed at her by senators who had no moral credibility to question hers. But then I listened to Senator Cory Booker’s affirmation of her. He told her that she was worthy. He talked about the joy he felt at her nomination.
His words brought me to tears. And, I would say similar words to women considering a call to ministry, especially Women of Color. “When you face what you will face, remember that you are worthy, and God has called you. God rejoices in you. Rejoice in yourself. And, don’t let anybody steal your joy.”
Rev. Melanie J. Carey, Lead Pastor Nardin Park UMC
My great aunt, Mary Jane Purrington Carpenter, inspired me as I was growing up. My middle name is Jane in her honor and now in her memory. ( She died in her mid-90s about a decade ago. Aunt Mary Jane was a Quaker and founded a domestic violence shelter in New Haven, CT. ( I was born in Hartford, CT.) She was also very active as a mediator and would help people resolve conflicts. I loved to hear her stories and advice. My aunt was the best listener. And she was also a great cook and gardener. Her fresh tomatoes in August are still the most delicious food I have ever tasted. She was so supportive of my call to ministry when others in my family were not. Her notes of encouragement made such a difference to me.
The Rev. Sondra Willobee was one of the first clergy women I ever met. She was so encouraging to me as I answered my call to ministry. Later, Barbara Lewis-Lakin and Mary Margaret Eckhart from the Board of Ministry visited me in seminary and, along with Sondra, modeled how ministry and motherhood were possible. They inspired me to keep answering my call.
So many clergy sisters have supported me through the many joys and challenges of ministry. Too many to name. Sadly, sexism and bias are still alive and well at all levels of the church. During the years I served in judicatory roles, there was always at least one church, sometimes more than one, that would tell me at the time of an appointment change, “Please don’t send us a woman.” The support of clergy sisters and many clergy brothers has helped me and other women in ministry to keep on serving.
I would say to other women what Judge Brown Jackson has said during her confirmation hearings, “Persevere.” Trust God’s call on your life and the gifts you offer. Talk with other clergy women for support and understanding, and don’t give up. Never give up.
Rev. Hillary Thurston-Cox, Pastor United Methodist Church of Ludington
My mother was an inspiration as I grew up. She always wanted to be a missionary serving India. She also wanted to be a mother. In that particular time, you couldn’t be both. But she always had a heart for mission programs, and during her lifetime, she went on several short-term mission trips. For her 25th wedding anniversary, she and my father went with a mission team to Costa Rica. Together they built a church on a mountain.
I didn’t have any women in my life that served as pastors. The first time I met a female pastor was in college. I studied ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University and took a class called “Women in Ministry.” The professor was Gen Springer, an ordained Wesleyan minister. She invited me to her church, her home, and surrounded the female ministry students with a team of women ministers.
Two other women impacted my ministry deeply. The first is the Rev. Betty Smith. She was part of a congregation I served. She was so gracious and offered her gifts to help when needed, from funerals to assisting with the care of shut-ins. Pastor Betty was a cheerleader and an encourager of mine in the local congregation. She and her husband have since moved to Clark Retirement Home, but Pastor Betty has remained a steady presence in my life. In what could only be described as a move of the Holy Spirit, she and I have served some of the same churches, including my appointment to the United Methodist Church of Ludington. Newly appointed, I called Betty for insight. She was overjoyed that I would get to serve a congregation she loved so much. I felt lifted by her prayers in the transition. I call Rev. Betty Smith my “Elijah.” Just like the story from the Hebrew Bible, she brought me along in ministry. I hope that I am her Elisha!
The second important influence on my ministry is the Rev. Julie Elmore. She and I became friends at Annual Conference. Our children are close in age, and we always ended up at the same programs and luncheons. Julie showed up at my birthday party shortly after a new appointment, a new friend in a new place. Since then, we have helped each other through parenting in the toddler years, COVID-19 homeschool, loss of family members, stayed up way too late during legislative sessions and supported each other through the ups and downs of local church ministry. Our husbands and our children became friends, too! Now we are co-deans of Black Bear Camp at Lake Louise, our friendship giving birth to opportunities to minister together in Jesus’ name. I can’t imagine leading a congregation without Julie as my friend and coach!
What would I say to other women feeling nudged by God? The United Methodist Church is a terrific place to serve as a woman in ministry. There are countless opportunities available that will not limit what you can do. In my experience, other female pastors are generous with those discerning a call. Tap into their experiences and wisdom. Set up a lunch or a Zoom call. I’ve done this for a friend in licensing school. We had such a great conversation!
I would add, don’t let any person define who you can be or how you are called. Lean into God’s faithfulness, and you just might be surprised what happens.