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God’s grace cannot be contained

Jess Davenport being ordained

Rev. Jess Davenport concludes the series of articles on our newest ordinands with a heart full of gratitude for the Spirit-led formation that helped her navigate God’s call.

Co-Pastor, Portage: Chapel Hill UMC

Editor’s note: Click this link to read the series of eight articles on our newest ordinands.

I first felt a call to ministry when I was 19 years old. I attended the United Methodist quadrennial gathering in Jacksonville, FL, with some other campus ministry students as a delegation from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.

Jess Davenport and mentor
Jess (left) enjoys the company of Rev. Dr. Jennie Edwards Bertrand (right), a friend and mentor, during a winter ski trip in college. ~ photo courtesy Jess Davenport

I distinctly remember being a part of the Wesley Foundation at Illinois State University my whole freshman year and part of my sophomore year and how I grew in faith. During that time, I heard a preacher say, “United Methodists can worship John Wesley more than Jesus.” In a broader context, I took that to mean sometimes we get into the semantics of the Book of Discipline, gatekeeping church from those we don’t allow full access to the rights and rhythms of church life.

In that moment, cheesy as it sounds, I felt my heart strangely warmed. If it happened to Wesley reading Romans, it could happen at a United Methodist quadrennial event.

I promptly told my campus minister that I was called to ministry and not to bring it up again. I was mortified. Who wants to work weekends? Besides, my parents were teachers. My grandparents were teachers. I continued with my education degree, becoming more involved in my campus ministry.

When I took my first teaching job, I knew more profoundly that I was avoiding God’s nudge. So, I started the candidacy process, went to seminary part-time, and was offered the job to lead the campus ministry I so loved.

I graduated after six years in seminary, working full-time in church and going to school part-time. My husband and I had just welcomed our first child, and he was completing law school. We knew we wanted to move from Washington, D.C., back home to the Midwest. However, I didn’t feel comfortable entering the ordination process. I was not sure I could ethically take vows that would preclude me from marrying committed individuals in love or being in collegial relationships with called and gifted queer folks.

Jess with other women clergy
Jess (second from right) gathers with other clergy women to lead prayer at the Women’s March 2020 in Kalamazoo. ~ photo courtesy Jess Davenport

Part of my faith formation story is that I have never known a United Methodist church without queer leadership. From the United Church of Sandwich in Illinois through every church I belonged to and served in, they all had meaningful queer leadership and participation.

In 2019, when the Michigan Annual Conference had a straw poll regarding inclusion, and the Board of Ordained Ministry committed to not bringing clergy up on charges related to sexual or gender identity, I knew I could start the ordination process in line with my full call.

Throughout the ordination process, I was grateful for the cohort of colleagues I got to know and spend time with at retreats, over Zoom, via texting, and at conferences. They were God’s presence in affirming experiences, sharing their own, and encouraging me. The laughter was also huge in a process that can be very intense. I had taken a week off to write for ordination, and that week also happened to be when my whole family got COVID-19. The texts, flowers, and soup folks dropped on my doorstep were reminders that while I think God is in the official process, God’s grace cannot be contained to arduous Methodist ordination guidelines.

All eight ordinands of the class of 2023
All eight ordinands from the class of 2023 pose for a selfie at the Michigan Annual Conference. ~ photo courtesy Jess Davenport

During the ordination service at last year’s Michigan Annual Conference, I was so lucky to stand with my father-in-law, Rev. Thom Davenport, who put my stole on me for the first time. In addition to being a great grandfather, Thom has this incredible gift of seeing the good in everyone and naming it.

Rev. Barry Petrucci, my co-pastor during my provisional period, was also with me. He got to see the good, bad, and ugly and still wanted to be by my side. Our friendship reminds me of what an honor it is to be “an elder among us,” because the relationships you can form doing the work of church vocationally are deep and meaningful.

Of course, Rev. Dr. Jennie Edwards Bertrand was formative in my call and, frankly, my young adulthood. She’s known me for half my life, and no one has spent more time with me examining this call, encouraging and challenging me on the way. Her laugh singlehandedly got me through some of my most challenging moments.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that the Spirit has not gone anywhere. The church will need to grow and change, as it has through every century for millennia, stewarded by millions of saints before us. Perhaps naively, I am confident that if we take risks for the sake of Jesus’ beloved kin-dom, the earth will reflect heaven more fully until Jesus’ reign is final and we feast at that heavenly banquet.

Last Updated on April 10, 2024

The Michigan Conference