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Profile in leadership

Meet the Rev. Jennifer Browne, new Director of Clergy Excellence for The Michigan Conference.

Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Conference

On December 15, 2017 Bishop David Bard announced the names of persons who will serve as the core leadership team for the new Michigan Conference. While many are familiar faces, each will be serving in the context of a new Director Model that takes people out of silos and into a team effort.

Bishop Bard noted, “We are working to organize our life together so that, centered in Jesus Christ, we are engaged in mission and ministry to our communities and the world, we are led by and are nurturing and encouraging bold and effective leaders, and we are supporting and fostering vibrant congregations.”

MICONNECT is introducing these persons and the positions in a new series called, “Profiles in leadership.” This week we meet the Rev. Jennifer Browne. She is currently serving as Lead Pastor of Georgetown United Methodist Church in Jenison. She starts service as Director of Clergy Excellence on July 1, 2018. Her office will be in the Clark Corners Suite, just north of the Lansing Ministry Center.

Please share a little personal background.

I was raised in the city of San Francisco, the oldest of three children. My parents were active members of the First Unitarian Church there, which they saw as a locus for community, learning and political activism, but not as a spiritual, and certainly not as a Christian, organization. We moved around a lot: I also lived in Claremont, CA, and Bethesda, MD, before I went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. Wesleyan has Methodist roots, but by the time I attended in the late 70s, had dropped any connection with the church. All l knew about John Wesley was that it was his portrait hanging in the stairwell of the library!

What about your call and preparation for ministry?  

My own awakening to a Christian worldview began in a history class, reading the 19th century philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. I was introduced to the possibility that one could be both intellectually curious and a believer! A year later, a vivid, personal and powerful experience of God’s presence set me on an exploration for a faith community and a seminary. For me, the call to the Christian faith and the call to ministry were simultaneous. It took me a while to realize that it didn’t work that way for most people! I was baptized at age 21 at the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Middletown and matriculated at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the fall of 1981. Union was (and is) an intellectually and politically exciting place but it didn’t do much to prepare me for hands-on ministry. Thus when I was hired as the Associate Minister at the First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, Michigan, I experienced all kinds of culture shock – not just the adjustment to the Midwest but to the traditional, “settled” kind of church life that preferred to maintain the status quo and had no desire to change the world! I went running back to academia, enrolling in a PhD program at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. But I’d also fallen in love and gotten married to a West Michigan Conference pastor. The story keeps getting longer and more complicated from here on out, including the birth of our two daughters and our return to West Michigan, where eventually I joined the Conference and began serving United Methodist congregations.

What characteristic continues to shape your faith journey?

While my background meant I was at some cultural disadvantage as a pastor, it gave me the advantage of seeing church life through a newcomer’s eyes. In many ways, I have more in common with Gen Xers and Millennials than I do with my own Baby Boomer generation. Why would anyone join a church that didn’t make a difference in the world? Why would anyone want to be part of an organization that didn’t value and promote diversity? Why do we think that listening to one person tell us what to think or believe for one hour on Sunday mornings is helpful or desirable? I’ve now spent more time “inside” Christianity than “outside” it, and more time as a United Methodist clergyperson than as a United Church of Christ clergyperson. But I hope I never lose that newcomer’s point of view – it helps me to remember that the way others see us is often very different from the way we see ourselves.

Pastor Jennie Browne is married to Eric Strand, the Director of Worship, Music and the Arts at Grand Rapids: First United Methodist Church. As she tackles a huge, new role, her personal goal is, “To get through my first year without neglecting my health (physical, emotional and spiritual) or my family. ~photo courtesy Jennifer Browne

What’s your professional background and what leadership lessons did you learn along the way?

Earlier in my career, I served a number of churches and other entities in several different denominations: Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian, along with the United Church of Christ. Once we settled back in the West Michigan Conference in 1993, my appointments were as: Co-Pastor, Reed City UMC; Assistant to the President of Albion College and Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies there; Associate Pastor, Brighton: First UMC; Associate Pastor, Grand Rapids: First UMC; Lead Pastor, East Lansing: University UMC; and Lead Pastor, Georgetown UMC (Jenison).The most enduring lesson of leadership I’ve learned – and continue to learn – is that self-knowledge is the key to doing anything well. Just as the church needs to learn to see itself the way others see it, so we as individual church leaders need to do the same. I’ve been helped in that process by a number of different teachers and classes in Family Systems and Emotional Intelligence, as well as many years working with spiritual directors. My best teachers have been church members who don’t feel the need to either inflate or deflate my ego, but can share their thoughts on my strengths and weaknesses with honesty and insight.

How would you describe the role of the Director of Clergy Excellence?  

It’s a brand new position within the Michigan Conference, so I don’t know if summarizing it is even possible! I will need to learn the map of the former Detroit Annual Conference—towns, churches and people. But my thoughts so far are that the DCE’s primary purpose is to devise, implement and evaluate systems of support and accountability for United Methodist clergy in this conference. I imagine that at first there will be lots of paperwork! While the DCE is not involved in appointment-setting or in disciplinary situations, my office is the place where the processes of candidacy, commissioning and ordination are tracked and recorded. There will be much to wade through as the two Boards of Ordained Ministry continue to blend their ways of doing things and come up with systems and procedures that are new to both of them. One of my goals is not to allow the more creative elements of this position to be neglected in favor of the more administrative elements. I’m looking forward to finding ways to bring opportunities for clergy spiritual development and education to our area, to helping clergy find the support they need, and to creating a culture of excellence in which clergy hold one another accountable for our effectiveness in our ministries.

The How: what kind of leadership style is needed as the Conference shifts to the Director Model?

I’m taking my cue from Bishop Bard here, since I’ve not been a Conference staff person before and don’t have first-hand knowledge of previous Conference staff leadership styles. I’m in complete agreement with him, though, that collaboration is the mode of leadership needed not only in the 21st century church, but in the 21st century in general. No longer does the “narrow steeple” organizational chart make sense – the old model in which one CEO heard from two Vice-Presidents who heard from four Executive Managers, etc., etc. As we make decisions, leaders need to listen carefully and widely; they need to ask to hear the minority voices as well as the majority voices; they need to work as a team with minds open to new solutions; they need to be willing to risk “failure,” which – as it turns out – is rarely just failure.

What is your vision for the Michigan Conference, especially with regard to the spiritual formation and ministry development for which you are responsible?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful the people of the Michigan Conference, clergy and laity, were all so securely grounded in the love of God that they could:

  • challenge themselves and one another to ever increasing degrees of commitment and service;
  • understand their own gifts and skills clearly, so they could use them to their best effect;
  • communicate and collaborate with one another in love and truth?

That’s my vision. No one ever accused me of thinking small. ?


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