Called to minister in sacred moments
March 9, 2020 by Ellie Johns-Kelley
More and more lately, we are hearing stories of free-range pastors. These are narratives of people engaging in ministry outside the box, or more specifically, outside the traditional walls of the church. One of those that comes to mind is Ruffled by Grace with the Rev. Michelle Wahila, a member of Pittsburgh Presbytery living in Paris, France. Michelle moved to Paris to pursue a call with a three-year term. Upon completion of that call, with her husband and children fully invested in their new home, work and school, Michelle began to discern her next steps in ministry.
Naming the sacred
As Michelle learned early in her ministry in France, clergy play no part in signing the civil document of marriage. Couples must first go to the townhall, more precisely the Mairie, for the civil ceremony where they take legal secular vows. It is only upon receiving the civil marriage certificate a couple may have a religious marriage service. This means that when a couple takes the extra step of a symbolic religious ceremony, they are truly seeking it out. Naming the sacred is not a side thought but a very meaningful endeavor for them. This takes away the element of simply being a drive-thru chapel.
Michelle never saw herself outside of congregational ministry. However, like a number of pastors and members, she stepped away after witnessing abuse of power in the institutional church. Throughout her ministry, Michelle found joy in marrying people. She will be the first to tell you, she is a sucker for a good love story. Serving as a free-range pastor in the wedding industry, she is a voice of inclusivity with her ministry. She discovered a vision of what church and community can look like, flourish and change. Michelle has a much broader and greater reach for the sake of the Gospel. She is the first to admit that it is harder to be in ministry outside the congregation. “There is less community,” she says. The key for Michelle is “how can you speak Gospel into the decision a couple has already made?”
In preparation for weddings and vow renewals, Michelle has discovered that 90 percent of those seeking her out for a marriage ceremony have a language of faith. They simply don’t know how to articulate it. She talks about the foundation of knowing who they are: truly beloved and created in God’s image. She helps them weave such language into service. She conducts ceremonies for many deeply religious people, whom are connected to communities of faith. In many cases, one spouse is Roman Catholic and the other Protestant. She engages plenty of people who have trouble with the institutional church, yet find it deeply important to name the sacred in celebrating their marriage. This ministry is a unique witness to the love and grace of God. Often, Michelle hears something along the lines of, “We left the church, but we want you. We like how you speak about faith.”
Michelle says, “I tell love stories because I believe in the love that is woven into the fabric of our human existence. YOU are beloved. Created uniquely, the ways that we give, receive and create brings greater love into this world.”
Faith is always present
Michelle is always in her collar, always talking about faith. She can be seen in her clerical collar in public spaces across Paris officiating marriage celebrations and renewals. Random people always stop and watch. One day she was stopped by an old French lady who asked: “What are you?” The woman said, “I couldn’t understand what you were saying.” (Michelle’s services are in English.) “There was so much joy. You clearly do it well.” The visual presence of ministry provides a unique witness to the Gospel in everyday life.
People in the wedding industry know her name. On several occasions, she has been asked to participate in a styled photoshoot lifting up all aspects of the wedding industry. We aren’t talking about photos for Presbyterian magazines. Her role is seen as an essential and expected part of the wedding ceremony. Most importantly, she is a witness to faith grounded in the reformed tradition. She is a witness to hope. Michelle elevates the wedding industry not simply with her presence but also by providing celebrant training. Many clergy detest weddings and ask Michelle to write up continuing education content to apply to what they do to celebrate marriage ministry. She helps them to develop liturgies and write a couple’s story into such a liturgy.
I look at Michelle and am grateful to God for her gifts of ministry, her deep faith and the rich theological education she received. I am grateful for congregations and individuals that support the Theological Education Fund to be a part of a denominational voice that says theological education is important and vital for equipping leaders to navigate these ever-emerging contexts for ministry. I am grateful for the love of God that defines all of life and for our Triune God who never gives up on us and calls us forth in mission and ministry.
Rev. Ellie Johns-Kelley serves as the Ministry Relations Officer for the Northeast Region. She works with congregations to create a culture of generosity, offers seminars and workshops, develops gifts and fundraising plans for ministries, and provides coaching to finance, stewardship and endowment committees. Ellie comes to the Foundation after serving for three and a half years as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Warren, Pennsylvania. Previously, she was Director of the Summer Youth Institute and Admission Associate at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Ellie received a BS in Biology at Muskingum University and a Master of Divinity degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She resides in Carmichaels, Pa., with her husband, Eric.