Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Today we’ve got Jenny Jackson on the show coming to us from First Lutheran Church in Topeka, Kansas. Jenny, it’s great to have you today.
It’s really good to be with you.
Jenny, would you tell us a little bit about just yourself, how you got to First Lutheran Church and maybe a little bit about the personality of your church?
Certainly. Well, I’m currently the senior pastor here at First Lutheran, but I came here four years ago, four and a half years as the associate, and I come from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America background. And so four years in seminary, and I’ve always had a call to the ministry personally. In fact, when I was in middle school, I saw the movie Sister Act, and I told my parents I wanted to be a nun. I’ve always felt called to the church and to be a servant of God in some way. So anyway, four years ago I was called as the associate pastor and then a year into my call the senior pastor retired, and I had no inclination, or even really a desire to be the senior pastor. I loved the current ministry I was in, which was primarily used in pastoral care, but all pastors know about the internal calls that they have to do something, but also there’s an external call, which is your community sharing God’s call for you. And so my congregation kept asking me to consider it, and I prayed a lot about it. I had a young family, I have a young family. I thought, gee, I would be the youngest senior pastor here, and their first ever woman senior pastor. And so I thought, but what would that mean? And it just didn’t matter. So I accepted the call about a year ago, and it’s just been a wonderful journey. My current church, the First Lutheran Church, is a wonderful place. I hear some stories from my peers about just some really big challenges, and we have challenges, we have conflict, but we communicate and it’s just a good group of people and a wide variety of ages and I believe a respect of the different ages, too. So I think that plays a lot into just the good community that is experienced here.
So tell me a little more about the community there at the church. Is this a very storied community that most of the members have been there for quite a long time, is this a younger crowd?
Our church actually just this year celebrated our 150th anniversary.
Yeah, it’s really wonderful. It’s great because we also can see how much we have grown and changed because change is hard. Every pastor notes that, most pastors will know it’s a hard thing to undergo, even with new churches, but we have been able to witness how much we have changed and needed to. And so that’s kind of given us permission and some encouragement as we understand the church needs to continue to explore what needs to change, and that’s been good for us. But yeah, we actually at our church have a heritage Sunday each year where we celebrate people who’ve been members for 50 years, and there is a large group of people that have been members for 50 years and more, and most of them grew up here and then they stayed and they raised their families here. So that’s been great because they are able to witness to a really long story of the church, and that’s been really integral, too. That’s just knowing our story and who we have been and also dreaming for who we want to continue to be in the future and how we can continue to witness to our community.
That seems to be a common tension and also blessing, sometimes both tension and blessing, which is figuring out how to honor where you’ve come from, and also having a vision on where you would like to see things go. And so would you mind, I know it’s a little bit of a hard thing to unpack, but just unpack some of the decision making in that, or even just some of the managing your own desires in the midst of those kinds of changes.
Yeah, sure. Well, I’ll also prevace that by saying our organist has been here for 47 years. Our music director has been here for 31 years. Our secretary has been here for 20 years.
So you’re the newbie.
I’m totally the newbie. I have fully felt that I’ve been welcomed into the fold here, but there’s also that reality that when you’re new to any place, you need to make a few deposits before you can take any withdrawals. So that’s definitely something I’ve understood and it’s very important to be a listener first, and I remember once hearing “don’t make any changes within your first year”. And though I have been at this church for four and a half years, I’ve only been in this role for just barely over a year, and it’s very different. It’s surprising how different I see things from this office than my associate role. But initiating the change is, you know, like I said, I’ve had a lot of deposits, which is just I feel listening and respecting the wonderful gifts that are already very present and that’s integral part to gaining the trust of your staff, but also the congregation, because there have been people here that I’ve taught Sunday school longer than I’ve been alive or even chaired a committee, which isn’t really great to be in a committee, in a chair person role for that long, but still they have a long history. And yeah, it comes with blessings and some challenges, but I try to lead in a loving presence, assuring them that they have a wonderful bank of knowledge that I want to learn from and to learn about this church that’s now my church too, and to partner in ministry. And I feel like that’s a really important key to working well together, to help them understand that we are partners in ministry, and I’m not some overlord that will come in and make the commands that they must follow. That’s just not a healthy way to lead any ministry or to work with other people.
We have a lot of executive pastors often on the podcast and a common reality they have is trying to figure out how to work alongside the senior pastor and understand their perspective. And you mentioned that you find your perspectives pretty different now sitting in the senior pastor position. So would you, I guess, explain a little bit what has shifted for you in the last year in the way you see your congregation and the way you see your role?
Well, when I was an associate pastor, as I said, my primary focus was youth ministry and pastoral care, and so I was blessed to have two major generations that I cared for, the elderly, and then the youth and children. And I enjoyed being able to partner those two generations together, that’s often probably more than two, but those generations together, but I also realized in that place that church is intergenerational and everything you do, you’re understanding that people are going to be impacting each other and worshipping together. As far as the changes that I observed when I moved to senior pastor as, well, I have to deal with like yesterday I was working on worker claims that somebody had filed, and so that’s maybe not nearly as fun as teaching little kids Jesus loves me, but it’s definitely a holy task to care for our staff and to make sure that they are feeling safe and provided for in a way that they need to be. And so as a senior pastor, it’s definitely obviously a larger perspective of the congregation. I also have the gift of being able to vision for the congregation and help them and empower them to see that there’s something greater for them to do in the community. We are pretty pretty graded outreach, but we’ve also done the same thing and that’s fine, but just empowering people and being able to see a bigger picture, which is sometimes overwhelming, but for the most part, a really wonderful gift to be able to impact a wider range of ministries in the congregation.
You mentioned outreach, which can be a challenge for a lot of churches, figuring out how to not just serve itself, but also serve the community around it. So what are some ways that you guys do that there at First Lutheran?
Well, I would say that we have a really large pre-school. It’s actually a Children’s Day Out, so it’s not a full time pre-school, but it’s part time and there’s, I think this year they added a class, and we have approximately 160 children from ages 2 to 6 that come. And in our church we’ve got that ministry for 40 years in the church and it’s just really a very integral part of our call is to educate children. So I started as an associate pastor, and when I was in college, I served as a children minister at my home church. So for me, I really really am a big advocate for children’s ministry and anyway, understanding that the things that children learn will be formative and it will impact their whole life. So teaching a 3-year old to say the Lord’s prayer is going to impact their whole life. So we have a ministry to nurture so many and I would say maybe 2% of those kids actually go to our church and it’s a community thing. But I get to go in there and do travels with those kiddos, which is a really wonderful treat once a month. Our congregation praying for them and providing ministry tools or providing tutoring or songs or gifts for those children or scholarships is necessary. That’s an important part of our outreach, that’s something inside. Next week, for instance, we have a drive through activities that would provide for our community free of charge that everybody kind of loves driving through, we usually have about like 150 cars, and so lots of people that get to come through and hear this story. And then a lot of ministries throughout Topeka are impacted by our church. We provide funds for our homeless shelter and a couple of other food networks, and that people would just kind of take initiative to serve. Sometimes I realize that so and so was serving and this one feeding program, and I didn’t even know about it and they just do it because it’s a call to serve in the community and to care for so many people. Our church, I will say, it’s not necessarily, I would say, a privileged church, but we have a lot of people with many resources that are able to care and spend their time and resources to serve others. But that’s an integral part of our church to serve those in our community. And I will hope that one of the things that I am trying to teach them is, yeah, it’s great to go and be a good person, but when you’re there, tell about Jesus, too. So that’s the component we’re trying to teach people because it’s great to go and serve food, but maybe it’s a little harder to tell a faith story for some. I mean the Lutherans are often called the Frozen Chosen, which is not totally great, but it’s not totally untrue either. They’re very very faithful people, I mean just some of the most faithful people, but training them, teaching them, it’s go out there and serve food, but maybe say your life in a different way and share your faith story too. So that’s a secondary component to it.
One of the benefits of occasionally seen churches that are from very very different backgrounds interacting with one another, we can complement and challenge one another in our strengthened weaknesses.
So true. It’s so great. Yeah, intergeneration or our community partnerships are wonderful.
So you’ve got this pre-school and you’ve got the church. What are some administrative challenges you face?
I would say my main administrative challenge would be, but I’m currently just struggling with is how do I pastor my staff, that I’m working with in challenging ways. So if I have an administrative issue or a conflict with a staff member, how do I…? I see them as a staff member, but I also see them as, in my case all of our staff members are church members. That’s not true for all churches, but in our case all of our church staff, that have been here forever, are all members. So I’m their supervisor, but I’m also their pastor, and we do have something called a mutual ministry committee, which it’s something that most Lutheran churches should have or it’s kind of like constitutionally we’re supposed to have, but they sometimes function differently. Ours functions as a personnel committee as well. And so that’s a resource in that way for myself, as I struggle with that balance of supervisor.
So what is this mutual ministry committee exactly?
Mutual ministry is supposed to operate as a pretty much of a pastor support committee. Pastor burnout is such a real thing.
And mutual ministry is meant to provide care and safe support for the pastor. So that doesn’t happen and different churches have theirs operating in different ways. And ours operate, like I said, in more of an overall personnel committee. So our mutual ministry committee provides and leads all of our staff evaluations that happen annually. But I think in some ways, they also offer support to myself as the pastor, and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, since I was the associate pastor and I became the senior pastor, we’re actually in a call process, so we only have one pastor, now we have an open need for our associate, so my role has been very heavy. And I had a baby five months ago, so…
It’s been a challenge in this role to balance everything. And the mutual ministry is there to offer support and to check in. So I know that every month one of the mutual ministry committee members is checking in in a very casual way, just saying, “How are you doing?” and they might take me out for lunch or something like that just to offer support.
Interesting. So it’s made up of members of your congregation.
That’s really interesting.
And there’s no minutes taken. It’s a kind of a closed door, totally confidential group of hand selected people that serve to support the staff and primarily the pastor.
What an interesting concept, especially for those of us outside the Lutheran church. I’ve not heard of something like that before.
It’s something that I think the churchwide constitution suggests that every church has, but it’s not necessarily something that every church does have. I’m thankful that we do have one, and I’m thankful that they help with the personnel issues, but also address the needs as pastors. Our last senior pastor, who was here for 17 years, he had a lot of health issues, and so the mutual ministry committee was very present and accommodating and supporting his needs, and also the congregation as they watched their pastor suffer through quintuple bypass. So that’s what our mutual ministry committee offers, is a steady hand, I think.
Jenny, where do you go to be encouraged as a pastor and to learn more?
Well, as a leader, I’ve always believed you need to surround yourself with people smarter than you. So I’m thankful for a couple of mentors, my home pastor, who I grew up with. He is my pastor since I was 12, and he just recently came up and baptized my baby. But I also kind of learn what not to do from some people. I have seen some pastors that I feel like the only reason they’re there is to have someone lean to them. So sometimes you kind of learn what not to do. I personally have a spiritual director, a counselor in Topeka, who does spiritual counseling for anybody, but she has a number of pastors that come and speak to her and just sit in prayer. I have a mentor also in town who’s a retired pastor, that’s just overwhelming with just inspiration and silly jokes and pastoral experience. You know, pastors have loads of story they tell and it’s encouraging to hear from one that you can sit and listen to and trust. So I think it’s important to find someone that you respect and that respects you, that you can share your joys and challenges with. And that’s something that is maybe not as easy for some, but I’m just very blessed that I have this mentor in my life that I can do that with.
What encouragement would you give to other pastors?
Well, I would say you are in your role, because God has called you there and that is one of the highest callings we have, and because of that you are never alone. And for those really tough days, I said to someone the other day whose daughter just died, I said, “Christ has experienced the worst of it and He is your coach and your teammate and your cheer leader and your closest friend. So if that’s your support, then you will make it through as well.” And then for those joyful times, I would say, “Hold on to those and be reminded that ministry is not for the pastor, but definitely for the people.” Realistically, some days are going to train you well a lot faster than others, but God is with you and you have a holy and wonderful task to share an amazing story. And that is what keeps me going too.
That’s beautiful. Jenny, thanks so much for being on the podcast.
Thank you for inviting me. It’s been great to talk with you.