I have the pleasure of introducing you to Jenny Rae Armstrong, a teaching pastor of Darrow Road Wesleyan Church in Superior, Wisconsin.
Jenny is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes about faith, social justice, missional living and women’s issues for Christian publications such as Relevant, Her.meneutics, Mutuality and Red Letter Christians. She is a speaker and the author of Busting the Motherhood Myth. Her new book about combining motherhood and ministry, Don’t Hide Your Light Under a Laundry Basket: 150 Bright Ideas for Wannabe World-Changers, will be released in August. The January/February 2015 issue of The Covenant Companion recognized her one of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s “40 under 40: Young Covenanters making a significant impact locally and around the world.” Jenny lives with her husband Aaron and their four sons. She is on the Redbud Writer’s Guild board of directors.
I caught up with Jenny to ask her about her life as a pastor, wife, mom and writer.
You grew up a missionary kid in Liberia. Tell us about that.
My friend Julie uses the term brutiful to describe things that are brutal and beautiful all at the same time. I think that would be a good way to describe the experience of many MKs, and certainly my own experience in Liberia. MKs gain so much from the people, places, and cultures they are raised in and among; however, they are never fully allowed to claim them as their own, and they lose out on the benefits of growing up in their home culture. There’s deep loss any way you look at it, but so much gained as well. And Liberia is a brutiful place. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful, bountiful land, or a more incredible, resilient people. But there has been so much pain and suffering—brutiful.
How have those experiences growing up impacted your thoughts on parenting while in vocational ministry?
Workaholism is an epidemic on the mission field, as well as in the Western church. There is a tendency to dress up an obsession with ministry in spiritual-sounding clothes, as if the fact that we are working “for God” makes it appropriate to live lopsided, unhealthy lives, and expect our spouse and children to deal with the fallout. In reality, however, the workaholic’s behavior is often just a righteous-sounding way to feed their need for approval, or satisfy their messiah complex.
One of the best gifts that my father ever gave me was in a conversation shortly before I graduated from high school. He apologized for allowing ministry concerns to cause him to be absent from our family as I was growing up. I answered that if God had called him to do those things, he had to do them. He responded by telling me that he believed God’s will was more like a wide, green pasture that God’s children were free to graze in than a call to a specific action or location, and that when he was younger, he got too much of his identity from work. What an incredibly healing conversation—and what a challenging one, now that I am in ministry myself!
The long and short of it is, don’t be a workaholic. But if you insist on being a workaholic, own your choices, and don’t throw God under the bus.
Along with everything else, you are pursing a Masters of Divinity (M.Div.) degree. Tell us what and where you’re studying, and how that’s going.
I’m about two-thirds of the way through my M.Div. at North Park Theological Seminary, and I love it! North Park is my happy place—a diverse, nurturing environment that emphasizes relationship and spiritual formation alongside academics. Plus, you can get really great Chicago-style hot dogs and the best French fries right across the street. Bliss.
What would you say are your biggest challenges in balancing ministry, parenthood, studying, and writing?
Your question contained the answer—balance! I am one of those people who enjoy having a lot of different things on the burner, but sometimes I feel like nothing is getting the attention it could or should get. I have had to learn to be content with giving the best I can reasonably give at that moment, not the best I could ever give if I lived in some fantasy world where I was unencumbered by other responsibilities.
What are your greatest blessings?
Good question. I have wrestled with some of the sacrifices my family has made to allow me to do what I am doing, particularly surrounding time and money in going back to school. I think it’s common for women in our society to feel like anything they do to invest in their own development is selfish, and given my childhood, I am hyperaware of how slippery the slope into workaholism can be. But I’ll never forget an instance a couple years ago when one of my sons came up to me after a speech, hugged me (this child is not a hugger), and said “Mom, I think you could win a Nobel Peace Prize.” It was a pre-teen flight of fancy, of course, but in that moment I realized that although they had made sacrifices, they were proud of me and were benefitting from having a front-row seat as I pursue the passions God has placed on my heart. That is my prayer for them, as well—that they will have the courage to whole-heartedly pursue whatever God has for them, in all areas of life, not just the ones we would identify as “ministry.”
You are passionate about building up the body of Christ by building up women. What do you see are the main sticking points that the church must overcome to see that become a reality?
This is a hard question, but if I were to give a very general answer, I would say the church needs to become more introspective about the ways their ideas about women (which are often informed by culture, not God) impact society in positive and negative ways. Ideas have consequences, and there are strains of thought about women in the church that don’t bear following, if taken to their logical end. We need to identify those ideas, examine them in light of Scripture using every ounce of the intellect, integrity, and diligence we have been graced with, and pray for courage to live as Jesus would have us live. And I believe with all my heart that Jesus has set women free to live lives of service alongside their brothers, not beneath or behind them.
What advice would you give to a young woman who is contemplating pastoral ministry?
Go for it! Seek out mentors who will encourage you, online, if you don’t know anyone in your area. Protect your heart from people or things that would discourage or embitter you—you don’t need to read every condescending article that pops up on your Facebook feed, or engage in debate with your unsupportive Uncle Fred. If you’re considering seminary, go to one that fully supports women in ministry and will make sure you are treated with respect. Just do your thing, sister! Preach the gospel, teach the Bible, care for God’s flock, and keep your eyes on the prize, which is always and only Jesus.
Give us glimpse into your new book on motherhood and ministry, and what you hope women will take away after reading it.
It’s a fun book, if I do say so myself! Basically, I wrote the book I needed when my kids were little, and I felt like my world had shrunk to the size of a pea. It’s a collection of essays and short tips that give moms practical ideas about how they can make a difference in the world—in their relationships, communities, spending habits, thinking, and in developing their own faith. It’s friendly, encouraging, and a bit snarky at times (it is my book, after all!), and since there’s not a lick of writing in that book that would take more than five minutes to read, it can be picked up without guilt and put down without frustration. I also invited many of my friends from the Redbud Writer’s Guild to contribute insights and ideas from other perspectives.
*You can follow Jenny Rae’s writing at www.jennyraearmstrong.com where she blogs, tackling sticky topics with girl-next-door humor and grace.