This month we caught up with Rachel Callender, who served as half of the “Two Rachels” (the other was Rachel Davis), co-leading our children’s ministries for six months in 2017. Rachel C. also ran our children’s summer drama program on Sunday mornings in 2017 and 2018. Given the focus of our December issue on the arts and how we experience incarnation through the arts, Rachel was the perfect person to interview.
As a child, Rachel had speech problems. Because of this, as a young child, she gravitated to the silent arts, dance and painting, as a way to express herself. She was struggling in speech therapy – no wonder, as a therapist told her she would not be able to progress very far in life unless she learned to talk. This poor advice really eroded Rachel’s confidence, and her speech got worse. It was around this time that she discovered the magic of having a script so that she didn’t have to worry about what to say AND how to say it – she knew what to say. Rachel loved theater but hated school. She was fortunate to audition and be accepted into the Performing Arts Academy in Ocean County, NJ, where that love of theater went from enjoying it to wanting to make it a career.
While studying theater at Kean University and working professionally behind and on the stage, Rachel “felt that nagging itch from God,” and, following graduation, she went to seminary at PTS and stopped acting. But that training and performance experience play a key role in her ministry and in how she experiences the incarnation.
Rachel referred to the Bible story found in John 8:1-11 where the Pharisees bring forward the woman accused of adultery and Jesus turns away, kneels down and writes in the sand. Rachel explains that in theater, this is an example of changing viewpoint – a deliberate move to change the spatial awareness. Jesus doesn’t just react, he takes a break, changes eye contact, changes the viewpoint. Rachel says that “studying theater and acting is studying humans, the good and the bad of humanity. This is what ministry is. Ministry is grappling with the good and bad of humanity, even the absurdity of humanity. Theater talks about us as flawed, broken humans – which is what we talk about every Sunday.” Theater helped Rachel with public speaking and dealing with nerves. She said that when she got a script where she was playing someone evil, she realized that she couldn’t play that character without finding something to love about them. Rachel said, “I put myself in someone’s shoes on a daily basis. I have to be willing to peel back the layers and find something good, something to work with. This is vital for pastoral care, for not getting bogged down, when the world is closing in, when people are sick.”
Rachel is a true Jersey Girl and the 13th Callender to serve as a United Methodist pastor in five generations. You don’t get more Methodist than that! Her father and aunt still serve as elders in our GNJ Conference. When Rachel was growing up, she was “obsessed” with church. Because of her dad and being a PK (preacher’s kid), she saw being a pastor with all of the “dirt and grime” that go along with it.
Rachel was so blessed to receive a scholarship from the World Council of Churches to go to Switzerland to study after graduation from PTS. Those five months in Switzerland were “the wildest time of my life.” Her cohort consisted of 32 students from 19 different countries all living in one house studying humanism and interfaith dialogue. She went to Taize and even got to meet the Pope. While she was on the deacon path when she left PTS, it was during this time away that she had the epiphany that God had other plans for her and that her true track was the elder track – “my real thing was the local church, and I was just fighting it.” God’s plan for Rachel was the right plan, and now she’s a local Pastor.
Rachel served first as an interim pastor in Long Beach Island for five months – appointed one month before COVID shut everything down. Her first assignment, then, was pastor in a time of pandemic. The Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM) approved Rachel as a provisional minister, and she is now serving as an Associate Pastor at Medford UMC (fun fact, she lives in Jana Purkis-Brash’s old parsonage in Medford). At Medford, Rachel splits the preaching 50/50 with senior pastor Joe Moynihan, and directs the children and youth ministries, outreach and nurture ministries, and splits the pastoral care with Pastor Joe.
PUMC had a real impact on Rachel. It was her first paid church job and her first time doing children’s ministry! She is a natural born administrator, and Rachel C. was an experienced children’s minister. They shared these gifts during their time working together and learned from each other. Now that Rachel has responsibilities for children’s ministries at Medford, she so values what she learned at PUMC – “this was vital to my ministry.”
One more thought on viewing the incarnation through art. It strikes me that Rachel really helps spread the word of God through her love of theater. Rachel mentioned that “people relate to theater.” A benefit of Rachel’s love for theater, and as a young woman in ministry, is that young women in her church relate to her and look up to her. “Teenage girls get excited talking about theater and being creative. They think I’m cool and talking about theater and musicals breaks barriers. It makes me relatable. They can see that there are young, fun people in the church!” And I can attest that Rachel is, in fact, VERY cool and fun! Just follow her on Facebook, and you can see for yourself.
By Iona Harding