From not knowing any female ministers to being the first female senior pastor of First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Jennifer Newell had a long and interesting journey to accepting a call to pastoral ministry.
Born and raised in Dayton, Newell attended the University of Tennessee Chattanooga to study economics.
“The first economics class I took it occurred to me that economics had an answer for a question that had been bugging me, which was, ‘Why do we do what we do?’ and one of the reasons we do what we do is because we get paid to do it, because there is a reward for doing it,’ Newell said.
Her enjoyment of economics led her to take extra academic hours, topping out at 24 a semester.
“I loved exploring this idea of why we do what we do,” Newell said. “Because there are plenty of people whose only motivation to get up and go to work is their paycheck, and that seemed kind of sad to me. … Then I had an internship in Washington, D.C., for a summer with te Congressional Budget Office, doing cost analysis of bills, and I realized this was not what I wanted to do with my life.”
For Newell her college years were a time of questioning what she believed and had been taught in church during her childhood.
“Sometimes what happens is we raise kids to believe a certain thing, and it is very important to us as parents that they believe these certain things, but you don’t really own that when you are at home because you do what your parents want you to do,” Newell said. For a while my version of struggling with it was to absolutely ignore it, and that didn’t work.”
After graduation, Newell seriously considered attending law school in New York. She was accepted to a program studying the effects of poverty on women.
“I got accepted to this program and then I realized how deeply in debt I would be,” Newell said.
She decided not to go through with her plan.
“At the time, it was kind of disappointing and disorienting not to do it,” Newell said. “It was hard for me to come to terms with [the fact] this wasn’t who I was going to be.”
Newell found herself taking the bus to work three part-time jobs in Chattanooga.
“It was pretty stressful,” Newell said.
A promotion at McKay, a used book and music store, meant she could quit her other jobs. Then, she became a manager.
“I learned so much there about what it means to run a business,” Newell said. “I grew up a lot at McKay.”
She was later promoted to director of communication and training.
“A lot of the administrative stuff that I have to do here (First Cumberland Presbyterian), that’s the easy stuff for me, because I’ve done that for so long,” Newell said.
Newell became engaged the same month she started working full time at McKay. That was February. The pair married that May.
“We didn’t want a long, drawn-out engagement where everybody tells you what to do and how to do it,” Newell said. “The stress of wedding planning, we were not up for.”
Newell and her husband began attending Quaker meetings.
“We thought that was a place we could find an entry back into a religious life,” Newell said.
While she liked the people she met, she felt this particular religious atmosphere was not for her.
“I was a terrible Quaker. You sit in silence for an hour and you are supposed to be meditating on God and reflecting on your relationship with God and being open to what God has to say to you. Most of the time I was thinking, ‘I need to go to Walmart and I need to get milk (etc),’” Newell said. “I needed more structure. I needed more words.”
Later, repeated invitations from a neighbor led the Newell family to First Cumberland Presbyterian in Chattanooga.
“He would say, ‘I reckon you oughta come to my church.’ That’s how he said it,” Newell said. “We went back at Christmas because I wanted to sing Christmas songs … and I was blown away. I found something that was true. Something really powerful … I found an opportunity to have a faith that was grown up.”
It was while attending the church that Newell began to think about pastoral ministry.
“I felt this tug at my heart and it seemed really an arrogant thing to say you were called to do so. I was like, ‘Yeah, that can’t be right,” Newell said. “So I tried to ignore it and I decided I would do everything you could do in the church but that.”
While she was very involved in her church, she still felt restless.
One Sunday in church her pastor spoke of the idea that following Jesus often means giving up something.
“And I realized there were some things that I had to give up,” Newell said.
One of those things was her apprehension about entering pastoral ministry.
“It took a lot of wrestling and prodding to kind of get to the point where I said ‘Yes, OK, I’ll do this,” Newell said.
In the summer of 2006, Newell began classes to be ordained in Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The closer she got to ordination the more at peace she felt with her decision.
While pursuing ordination, Newell came to First Cumberland Presbyterian in Cleveland as the director of children’s ministries. After her ordination, Newell accepted the associate pastor position at the church. She became senior pastor in 2013.
“This is such a gracious place. They have let me learn as I go. Let me try new things. They are very willing to make room for new ideas, and if it doesn’t work there is a lot of grace and forgiveness, and we try something else,” Newell said.
When not working at the church, Newell likes finding treasures at thrift stores. She also enjoys crafts and hopes to get back into stained glass projects at some point.
She enjoys reading biographies and books with the American South as their setting.
Newell and her husband, Chuck, have three children.