EMS alum Beth Jarrett named first female pastor of local church

The Rev. Beth Jarrett, new pastor of Harrisonburg First Church of the Brethren, speaks with Shannon Lokey during the weekly Wednesday dinner Oct. 16. (Photo by Michael Reilly, Daily News Record)

Soon, a picture of the Rev. Beth Jarrett’s smiling face will be added to the collection of portraits hanging at Harrisonburg First Church of the Brethren, but it will be markedly different from the others. Jarrett, who started leading the congregation tucked adjacently to Westover Park in August, is the first female head pastor of the church.

Not that her gender had anything to do with why she’s in her newfound position. According to both a member of the church’s search committee and the head of the Church of the Brethren’s Shenandoah District – which oversees the local church – Jarrett’s experiences, talents and other qualifications, not her gender, were what made her a perfect match for the congregation.

“She’s a very strong relational person, works well with all sorts of people [and is an] excellent worship leader and preacher,” said John Jantzi, district executive minister of the Shenandoah District, which covers 102 congregations from Front Royal south to Lexington, west to Pocahontas and east beyond Charlottesville. “We’re just really glad she’s where she is.”

For the 12-person pastoral search committee of First Church members, it took roughly a year and a half to find and secure Jarrett in her new role after former pastor the Rev. Ron Wyrick retired in 2011, but the committee believes it was well worth the time.

“We felt God’s hand in it that … this was supposed to happen,” said Micah Morris, a Shenandoah County resident who’s been attending First Church since 1984 and who has served on two of its pastoral search committees. “We’re two months in, and things are going really, really well. There’s a lot of excitement throughout the congregation.”

Brought to the committee’s attention by word of mouth, Jarrett’s reputation as a really good pastor had spread to the First Church congregation, Morris said. After interviewing her, “the entire committee was really blown away by her personality, her energy, her just clear love of God,” Morris said.

The fact that the original interview between the committee and Jarrett was held via Skype is indicative of how times have changed since Jarrett was growing up, when the lack of female pastors was felt.

“When I was growing up, there weren’t any [female pastor] role models,” said Jarrett, 49, of Wilson, N.C.

“Unfortunately, it was like, you could be a teacher, you could be a nurse, but pastor was not one of those. … It wasn’t that I was told that I couldn’t be one. I just wasn’t there; it just wasn’t in my realm of possibilities in my mind because of what we teach our kids, indirectly.”

About Pastor Beth

Jarrett always knew she had a strong passion for the Bible, but it wasn’t until she returned from a decade of missionary work overseas that she entertained the idea of going to seminary.

After Jarrett and her husband, Harry, married in 1986 as twenty-somethings, they decided to head to Italy with the Youth Evangelism Service the following year. The couple met while in undergrad at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C. – he was a theater major, and she, an opera major – but they didn’t want to rush into careers in the arts.

After spending a year helping to start a church in Bari, Italy, the couple was asked to return to Sicily as long-term missionaries. They accepted and went on to help plant five new Mennonite churches in Italy.

While Harry did more of the preaching in Italy, his wife lead worship and even starting a music school for children who couldn’t afford lessons.

That showed her still-present passion for churches to be “more than just a Sunday morning thing,” she says. Her desire to express God’s love in tangible ways and to reach out to the community is one reason she was drawn to First Church, she added.

Upon returning to the States in 2000, Harry, whose family is local, enrolled at Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) and later began serving as associate pastor at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church. Beth served as the church’s choir director for four years, and as director of youth ministries at Pleasant Valley Church of the Brethren for two years. She also taught voice at Eastern Mennonite University as an adjunct professor and offered private voice lessons from her home studio.

In 2002, she decided to enroll in EMS, graduating in 2006.

She and her husband then moved to Lancaster, Pa., and served at Neffsville Mennonite Church after helping to conceptualize The Table, a Mennonite church still meeting at EMS.

“I loved it,” Beth Jarrett said of serving at Neffsville. “[But] I couldn’t wait to get [back] to the Valley.”

Now, the couple is living on the homestead on Harry’s family farm just south of Harrisonburg on Sunny Slope Lane. This summer, he opened a wedding venue on the former turkey farm, called “On Sunny Slope Farm.” The spot has already hosted six weddings.

He has also made First Church his church home. The couple has three children, Sarah Whitmore, 25, Christopher, 23, and Harrison, 21.

While her husband’s extended family is a part of the Church of the Brethren, Beth attended churches of various other Christian denominations as a child. She settled on Church of the Brethren as an adult because she felt the need to make her faith “more real,” she says.

“I had a strong faith in God and the Bible as I knew it growing up, but I knew that, for me, it needed to be more than just lip service or something I believe in my head,” Beth said. “I think I found that in the Church of the Brethren.”

With a jelly bean dispenser sitting on her new desk, Beth explained that she wants her office to be kid-friendly and welcoming to everyone.

She also explained a ceramic white candleholder surrounded by faceless people that sits near the jellybeans.

“It reminds me of church because it’s people gathered around light,” Beth said. It also reminds her of the quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

“When we’re all working together, something bigger than ourselves can happen,” she said.

Beth keeps a blog at treeofmamre.com.

This article was published Oct. 21, 2013, courtesy Daily News Record.