When Samantha Jesse was a little girl growing up in Covington, Va., near Roanoke, she wanted to be a veterinarian. But, she said, "When I realized that putting animals to sleep was part of the job, I said, 'No.'"
It turned out to be a good decision for Centreville United Methodist Church, because Jesse entered the ministry, instead, and recently became CUMC's first-ever female pastor.
"Samantha is neat because she's a young woman just beginning her ministerial career," said church member Maureen Cook. "She brings a female touch and a gift for things that are different and unique than a male brings. We'll be able to help her grow in her ministerial calling, and she'll help us."
JESSE GRADUATED from Ferrum College, just south of Roanoke, in 1998 with a bachelors in environmental science and biology. She then taught science at a private, Christian high school in Raleigh, for two years. During that time, she decided to go into full-time ministry. Said Jesse: "After a series of events, it was very obvious that God was calling me to it."
The school where she taught had chapel services and, one Wednesday, she wrote a sermon in her head and was later asked to preach at Friday's service. But when she walked into her classroom that Friday, the students were crying.
"A couple students and a parent had been in a bad car accident," explained Jesse. "I listened to the students; it shook them up pretty badly. Later, after I gave my sermon, I realized that, if I hadn't taken the time to listen to God calling me, I wouldn't have prepared that message — which was just perfect for them."
That fall, she attended Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She graduated last May with a master of divinity degree and took the job at CUMC, the end of June. She and fellow pastor, Don Carlton, replaced the church's long-time pastors, Bert Sikkelee, who retired, and Tim Tate, who's heading a church elsewhere.
"It's a wonderful congregation," said Jesse. "They've been friendly people — open, welcoming and easy to love." Jesse, 28, also noted that the average age of the congregation is 35-40. "And there are lots of young couples with children, so there's a level of energy and enthusiasm that's different from other congregations."
SINCE HELPING lead a church is so new to her, she didn't know what to expect, at first. But she's fit right in. Said Jesse: "I have felt a sense of camaraderie and connection with Bert and Tim, so I don't feel like I'm filling their shoes — just picking up where they left off."
In fact, Sikkelee is her clergy mentor for the next three years. It takes seven years to be ordained, and Jesse has three more to go. At CUMC, she said, "I really want people to grow in their relationship with God, and to grow in their understanding of how much God loves them and how important it is for them to love each other."
She said she tries to meet each person where they are, instead of trying to mold and shape them into what she thinks they should be. "I believe that God will be responsible for doing the transformations in their lives," said Jesse. "I try to reassure them that, regardless of their circumstances, God is with them, experiencing those circumstances with them."
She said part of her desire to help people see how much God loves them probably resulted from her scientific background. "I have the gift of recognizing and understanding the intricacies and details of nature and creation," she explained. "I see that as the evidence of God's love for us, and what evolved out of that was my prayer to recognize the details and intricacies of His people so that I could better minister to them."
However, Jesse admits, sometimes she has to remind herself to be patient with herself. But the more experience she acquires in her new post, the more she's starting to get into a rhythm, so things are becoming easier for her.
THE MOST difficult part of being a pastor, she said, is "seeing people in pain and feeling helpless because you can't do anything to change or fix it." She's also saddened watching how it affects those around them who see them suffering.
But Jesse also finds satisfaction in several areas. "There are no two days that are the same, and I really like that about this job," she said. "And I've really enjoyed the camaraderie and the working relationships I've made here with the staff — that's been very rewarding."
Probably one of the most humbling things, she said, is "when someone comes up and says, 'What you said in your sermon, or said to me, really made a difference in my life.' What's humbling is that you're being used to deliver God's message, and you realize how important it is to be faithful to that. I love preaching and being in ministry to people; and when you're doing something you love, it's very fulfilling."
It's also appreciated by the congregation. Nancy Rowland, a member since 1987, describes Jesse as open and genuine and says her enthusiasm is a "real gift" to the church. As for having a female pastor, she said, since the congregation's composed of both men and women, "to have both represented in the pulpit is great." Added church member Kathryn Rudkin: "Samantha's so professional and good, you'd never guess she just came from the seminary."