By Charlie Lehman
EVANSTON, Ill. - First the nudge. Then a prod. Finally a shove. God just wouldn't leave her alone.
Jenifer Stuelpe Gibbs, who graduated with a master of divinity at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in May, was happily ensconced in a rewarding career as an educator in Indiana. A native of Grabill, Ind., she graduated from Indiana University and taught 4th and 5th graders at an urban school in Indianapolis from 1995 to 2000.
She was recruited to work as a professional development coach, and for the next five years traveled across the state helping schools stay student-centered while implementing laws demanding accountability through an assertive testing program.
"I loved my job!" she said. She was within two courses of a master's degree in education at the University of Illinois. "I thought I would never leave it. And then God started messing with me."
The God stuff began ramping up when she joined St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. For most of her childhood, Gibbs didn't attend church except youth groups at friends' churches. In college, she said, "I began my exploring throughout college and in my early 20s, I attended church at probably every denomination and non-denomination you can name."
She said a lot of occurrences brought her to St. Luke's. "I'm not sure if it was Methodism or the church, but I felt a sense of home." At St. Luke's she taught Sunday school and was inspired by pastors with strong ties to Garrett-Evangelical.
"I got antsy in my job," she said. "My faith journey had come to a point when I felt like my life should be more God centered. God was nudging me."
After trying to figure out how to center God in her life through her church's numerous lay opportunities, she got another nudge - make that a shove. She vividly remembers the night it happened.
"I got in bed," she said, smiling broadly. "I was pulling up the covers when suddenly I was talking with God, like somebody sitting in front of me. 'So, how about being a minister?' God asked. My response was, 'That's ridiculous!'
"I called my prayer partner immediately. 'Isn't that silly?' I asked. With no hesitation she said, 'No, I think you should do that.' I called a couple of other friends, looking for the right answer, but it never came. Even my family confirmed that it was at least worth an investigation."
She visited Garrett-Evangelical for a Leadership weekend, and that made all the difference.
"What did it for me was sitting in the chapel, before stained glass windows, on the floor. I had stolen some time up there by myself." Nudge, nudge, nudge. "I chose Garrett-Evangelical because in that moment I knew that's where God was calling me. I made a deal with God that I would come for a year, do some discerning and see if this is good and the right decision."
With little church and Bible background, the learning curve during that year was steep, she said. "I had a theological dictionary with me all the time. I was older than most of my classmates. It was a little like shell shock …. I was very confused about what I believed biblically and theologically about the role of women in the church."
But there's no quit in Jenifer Stuelpe Gibbs. She graduated with a certification in spiritual formation.
More to story
There's more to the story, of course. While studying in Evanston, she met Jeremiah Gibbs in an Old Testament class. They got engaged on Easter 2007 at the Noyes Street Caf‚. They were married a year ago August after he graduated with a master of theological studies and was weeks away from beginning his pursuit of a Ph.D. in systematic theology and Christian ethics here with a full scholarship.
Commissioned in June as an elder in the former South Indiana Conference of the church, Gibbs was appointed as associate pastor at First UMC in Bloomington, Ind. She is one of four clergy at the 1,500-member church. Ultimately, she would like to be a spiritual director for pastors as well as lay seekers.
So that when God nudges, we get the message.
Charlie Lehman serves as public relations director at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.