Founded in 1837, First Cumberland has had at least three female associate pastors.
Yet, they have never had a female senior pastor until today.
Former Associate Pastor Jennifer Newell will accept the senior pastor position in a special service.
“Its really just a matter of promises I make to the congregation. Promises they make to me and we make to God together,” Newell said.
The promises focus largely on vowing to support each other within the church moving forward.
“I guess I never really imagined of myself as a pioneer,” Newell said. “I’m not doing this because it’s another glass ceiling to break through or anything. I really feel God has called me to do this despite my worry. It was a long time before I even felt I could pursue this call. It was six years where I kept saying this is a bad idea I don’t think I can do this, and God kept saying, ‘Yes you can.’”
Search committee member Karen Shultz said Newell was chosen from six applications. Shultz said this was the first time the church was considering someone within the church. Prior to Newell the church had been without an associate pastor.
While the congregation is small, First Cumberland has a diversity of ages.
Shultz said the committee was looking for someone who could connect with various age groups and be patient with small children.
“I am very excited to have the opportunity,” Newell said. “On the one hand it feels comfortable, because I have been here a while and we kind of know each other. I see so many possibilities for us in downtown. I love that we are downtown and we are staying here.”
Shultz said Newell was finally chosen because she is “very intellectual and on the flip side is a mom with kids.”
She said this brings a flexibility and connection to Newell’s sermons that the other candidates did not have.
On Sept. 10, the church’s search committee selected Newell as the next pastor. While the search committee made the decision on whom to hire, the selection had to receive final approval from the district. This approval was in October. Today the position was made official.
“I will also be our first female senior pastor in our entire presbytery, (district that covers from here to Atlanta) as far as we can tell. … Other than there is a woman who started a church in Atlanta,” Newell said. “A Hispanic pastor started her own church, but as far as an established church choosing to hire a woman (senior pastor) I think I’m the first.”
Newell came to the Cleveland church as a director of Christian education in 2007. Then, she was completing her seminary studies. In 2009, she received her ordination. She was then hired as the associate pastor.
Since April, when the senior pastor took a job with the denominational offices, Newell has been serving both roles. In her new role, she hopes to lead the church “to be better neighbors” to those in the downtown area.
“There are a variety of needs,” Newell said.
The pastor said she wants to encourage people to serve in the community.
“It changes you to get to know someone instead of writing a check or donating a can of food,” Newell said.
The church is positioned between Lee University and the Cleveland Municipal building. Newell said she would like the church to be a “good neighbor” to these organizations. She also hopes to partner with the other churches downtown in the future.
“In my dream world, we would find things that we have in common and do things that are good for this community together,” Newell said.
As she transitions into the senior pastor role, Newell said one of the challenges would be elements of the position that are not necessarily outlined at the outset.
She said the new position brings more responsibility with it.
Newell first felt God calling her to pastoral ministry in 2000.
“The irony is I thought I could lose myself to ministry and kind of become less and less upfront about things and kind of disappear into this grand plan that God had, and God just keeps shoving you in front of people,” Newell said.
Originally from Dayton, Newell moved to Chattanooga to attend the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. She and her husband still live there with their three children.
Newell said her family has been supportive of her journey into full-time ministry.
“They know that this is something that I’ve worked for and wrestled with, and they are glad I have this opportunity,” Newell said.
She said she tries to be careful when talking about using her children in sermon illustrations.
Newell said if she wants to tell a story with her children in it during a sermon, she asks them first, and gives them the option to say they do not want the story used.
“My husband’s been very supportive,” Newell said.
It was in fact her husband who offered Newell the last bit of encouragement she needed to pursue the position.
After working at McKay Used Books for more than 20 years in various administrative roles, Newell found herself at a crossroads this summer on whether to commit more energy to her McKay position or pursue the senior pastor position.
Newell said her husband told her it was ministry that she was always “excited and talking about.” He encouraged her to pursue the senior pastor position.
Tuesday was Newell’s last day at McKay.
She said the first time she preached two Sundays in a row was in April.
“This is a job I was told years ago that you need a real soft heart and really thick skin,” Newell said.
Newell said she is excited about using her creativity in planning sermons for the Advent season.