Three women with three distinct callings. One who seeks ordination but not necessarily preach and teach regularly, like a pastor. One who most enjoys communicating God’s love to children, using music and other arts. The third, a nurse practitioner, is drawn most to people on the fringes of society.
In an unusual move, three people from one church — and three women — have the go-ahead to seminary in the track toward ordination. All start in the fall. Earlier this month, St. Luke United Methodist Church members indicated, through vote, that these three among them showed promise for ordained ministry — or, in religious-speak, that their lives are “bearing fruit” in such ways that the denomination can use them.
Sara Garrard’s mother, the Rev. Cindy Cox Garrard, was among the first women ordained in the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. It might stand to reason that one of her two daughters would seek that path as well. But Sara said there was no pressure from her parents.
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A religion major at Emory University in Atlanta, Sara Garrard recently received her degree in three years rather than the usual four.
“I would say it’s been a lifelong dream, but I definitely shunned the idea of becoming a minister — until probably my sophomore year,” said Sara Garrard, 21. “I thought I’d be a politician, or the ambassador to Israel.
“God showed me this, though small things. One was through my sorority (Gamma Phi Beta). I have a heart for ministering to women. As for politics, I’m still very passionate about it, particularly with social justice issues.”
Another influence was taking Hebrew at Emory.
Starting in September, she’ll spend three more years at Emory — this time at Candler School of Theology, studying for her master of divinity. It’s also her mother’s alma mater. During that time, she’ll have “field” experience working with churches and doing mission work — quite possibly to include Israel, Garrard said.
Of seminary, “it’s a good time to clarify your call and hone your skills,” said Garrard, who’s home this summer working at a new United Methodist congregation in Columbus called The Ridge.
Garrard said she wanted to stay at Emory because of the varied backgrounds of the professors. Though it’s a United Methodist school, Candler has teachers representing the Unitarian Universalist tradition, the Episcopal Church and Roman Catholic, among others. Garrard said that variation of perspectives appeals to her.
Closer to home, her mother was an inspiration, though Sara Garrard said she didn’t push seminary. Cindy Garrard is the minister of program at St. Luke.
“She is a lot more patient than I am,” Sara said. “She’s wise beyond her years. I go to her for questions, and she’s supportive of me when I make mistakes in my faith. She’s my mom, of course, but she’s also my friend.”
She wants to be an elder in the denomination, an office in the church that allows people to administer sacraments and perform other rites like weddings and funerals.
She was settled in her career, but something was missing — something she couldn’t put her finger on.
“I felt a calling that was left unanswered,” said Nicole Gill, 37, a Family Nurse Practitioner at St. Francis Hospital.
In January, she heard Deaconness Sandi Hortman speak at St. Luke. Hortman, who works at Open Door Community House, ministers to the downtrodden — many of them homeless. As Hortman spoke, Gill knew.
Like Garrard, she will start classes at Candler in the fall. For the time being, she’ll attend part time. She and her husband, Robby, still have four daughters at home. The oldest child, a son, is a firefighter in Macon.
“Compassionate service ministry” is the broad name she’s giving her calling. “It would bridge my passion for ministry and medicine.”
Gill has had heavy doses of both. Outside of her full-time job, she’s participated in a drama ministry in Schley County, her previous residence; the Women of the Golden Rule — a drug and alcohol recovery center in Mauk, Ga.; and with Mission Columbus on Buena Vista Road, which is similar to Open Door in its focus on social services.
When the Gills moved to Columbus about two years ago, they shopped around for a Baptist church. But people kept inviting them to St. Luke, so they went. “I felt so at home,” she said. “Initially I thought we were there for the kids.”
Gill said hands-on ministry was modeled for her both through her parents and grandparents. Her grandmother in Michigan used to leave spare food at the doorstep for people in need. Her father used to dress up as Santa every Christmas to hand out free toys from a fire truck. “It’s a lifestyle of giving” — one she’s passing on her to her own children, she said. Words from Jesus as recorded in Matthew sum up her passion: “… inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ ”
Robby Gill is a nurse anesthetist at The Medical Center. He’ll continue working while Nicole goes to school. Because she’s starting out part time, it’ll take her more than three years to finish. But she’s not focused on that now.
“I’m not in a hurry,” she said. “To me, it’s the journey. I want to take advantage of opportunities that come my way.”
For the past two years, 23-year-old Hannah Massie has been the children’s music and arts director at St. Luke. A 2008 graduate of Columbus State University, Massie first visited Asbury Theological Seminary — near Lexington, Ky. — in 2007.
Instead of feeling like she picked the school, “Asbury picked me,” Massie said, after that initial visit. “I went to Asbury for a music festival, and I knew at some point I’d be back.
“I didn’t expect that ministry would be my full-time career,” said Massie, whose St. Luke office includes photographs of children, and artwork they’d done in crayon. But the past two years have revealed her gifts and helped her discern. Her initial major in college was education. Then she switched to music.
When she matriculates at Asbury in a few months, she’ll pursue a master of arts in Christian Ministry. It’ll take two years. “We’ll see what God has in store,” said Massie, who coincidentally will live in a house previously occupied by two seminarians from Columbus. One, the Rev. Jimmy McIlrath, leads The Ridge; and the other, John Fugh, will be the new associate at St. Paul in June.
Part of Massie’s inspiration came from the college ministry, the Wesleyan Fellowship, which at the time was led by McIlrath. “I got involved in some leadership roles that fueled my fire,” she said.
Massie wants to be ordained a deacon in the denomination. Separate from an elder, it is a more-specialized track. United Methodist deacons might be missionaries, for instance, or like Massie be employed by a church but not have a call to the pulpit. She grew up in Conyers, Ga., then moved with her family to Fayetteville. Her grandfather is a retired Baptist minister. For a time, she was Presbyterian. Outside of work, she enjoys cycling; she said she might have to take up horseback riding because she’s moving to horse country.
The Columbus District Superintendent, the Rev. Shane Green, described the steps toward ordination.
“The rarity, for sure, is there are three at one time — and that all three are women,” said Green. “St. Luke did not approve them for ordination but recognized that all three have a call on their life for ministry.”
Today, about half of all American Protestant denominations ordain women and about 30 percent of all seminary students — and in some seminaries more than half — are female, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.
Green compared the process to thresholds. The three women are basically at the beginning threshold, although the vote at St. Luke was a major first step. Following the local church’s approval, Garrard, Gill and Massie will then be examined on the district level, and then finally by a committee of the South Georgia Conference. Each step is increasingly thorough in examination.
As they move forward, the women will also undergo various tests, including a medical exam, psychological testing and background checks. Most mainline denominations have similar requirements.
In the United Methodist Church, candidates face the “fiercest” test at the end — the Conference level, Green said.
“(Ordination) is not something done lightly or quickly. We want people who can think and communicate on all levels — to someone with a Ph.D. to children. Not everybody can do that,” Green said.
The fact that St. Luke has approved these women “speaks volumes for St. Luke and Dr. Brady. They are cultivating people for ministry. The real spiritual vitality of a church is measured by, ‘Are they sending people into the ministry?’ For me personally, sending people to ministry is a category unto itself.”
Allison Kennedy, reporter, can be contacted at 706-576-6237