I am on a plane on my way to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire and chatting with my seatmate who asks why I’m going to Africa. I give her my brief answer, “I am a United Methodist and we have churches all over the world. I am going to work with other United Methodists to plan how we are in ministry with one another.” But the question makes me think, how did I, a laywoman from West Virginia, end up on this plane on my way to Africa?
My first realization of service beyond my local church came in college where I was involved with campus ministry. My campus pastor, the late Rev. Martha Loyd, was a pioneering supporter of women in ministry and the first leader of our Conference's Commission on the Status and Role of Women. I didn’t know that then - I just knew that she was the first woman I’d ever known in ordained ministry. Martha nominated me to be on the Conference Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry. Eight inches of snow meant my first scheduled meeting was changed to a conference call. I remember sitting on my bed listening to strangers I could not see conduct a wide-ranging conversation about full-time and part-time ministries, and hearing words for the first time like “apportionments” and “payout shortfalls.” The next meeting came at the end of the semester. It was several hours away, I didn’t know anyone going, and I was busy preparing for finals, so I considered sending my regrets. And then a laywoman on the Board called and told me she’d pick me up and take me to the meeting (I don’t recall her asking!) After that, Miriam always checked to make sure I had transportation and that she expected me to attend. I also recall eating a meal with the board in a restaurant and ordering the smallest dish I could afford. No one had told me that the cost of meals would be reimbursed. Even so, having cash available was a challenge for a college student!
Marriage and graduate school took me out of the conference for several years. When I came back, I was asked to chair the Division of Campus Ministry. So at age 29 and a mother with young children, I was responsible for the coordination of our conference’s five full-time campus ministries. Our conference didn’t provide childcare at the time (they do now!) so I had to be creative in order to make site visits and meetings. I learned a lot about leadership and accountability by being a young woman in a church still dominated by men.
I went to Annual Conference and began seeing where I could plug in. I wrote for the Conference newspaper; I was part of the Resolutions Committee; I assisted the Conference Secretary. I headed a task force to update the Parsonage Standards, turning the church on its head by recommending that our churches no longer provide furniture. I learned about negotiating through passionately opposing positions – a skill that would become useful many more times. When our conference chose a quadrennial Stewardship Emphasis, I was asked to recruit and chair that group. During this time, Bishop Ives nominated me to become the Conference Secretary, replacing Dewayne, a clergyman who had been conference secretary for 30 years. As he moved into retirement, he mentored me along the way and never hesitated to show his pride that I was the first layperson and the first woman to be conference secretary in our Annual Conference. Now I’m one of the longest-serving Conference Secretaries in the denomination (although not challenging Dewayne’s 30 years!)
In 2004, I was elected as a reserve delegate to General Conference and in 2008, I was elected for the first time as a delegate to General Conference and also an 8-year term on the Commission on General Conference, including four years as chair preparing for General Conference 2016 in Portland. My world suddenly got bigger. I met and worked with so many people while chairing the Commission. When I stood on the platform to welcome the delegates in Portland, I was overawed by the sea of faces. But I was also amazed by how many of the people I knew without the aid of name tags! And I held in my pocket notes of support from people that had been nurturing me along the way.
I have a great deal of respect for the people I have worked and served with – women, men and young people who came from backgrounds wildly different from mine but who love The UMC. We didn’t always agree, but when I sat at the table I began to see that my voice mattered: That a laywoman from a small conference has something to say. I have learned so much I didn’t know: about The UMC, about our faith, and about listening to God’s voice in the midst of the pressing matters before us.
It has been my joy to work with and encourage other women of all ages and from many places to speak up and be heard. Being a leader isn’t always easy. Sometimes the tasks we are given suit our natural inclinations and we are well received. Many times we are asked to do things that push us well beyond our comfort zones and there are certainly moments of discouragement. When I pray Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer,” I ask to be employed or laid aside in whatever way best serves God. Even so, I am sometimes surprised and amazed at what is put before me. The work I have done would not have been possible if I hadn’t been given an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and then be supported when the road wasn’t easy.
I’m so grateful for the many areas where I have been able to serve. I love campus ministry, but I am glad that it wasn’t assumed that was my only interest. If I had been asked to list all the areas I would like to serve when I was 20, I doubt I would have known what to include. I’m pretty sure that there are things I have done that I would NOT have included because I didn’t know that I was capable in those areas. I’m glad that no one put me in a box and made me stay there! Are we looking for women, lay and clergy, whom we can nurture and support for the future UMC? Are we taking care of impediments to their serving, such as childcare, transportation and helping them feel included? Do we offer travel reimbursement without making a young mother feel like she’s being selfish? Do we remember to tell the college students how to be reimbursed and make sure they can pay the money upfront? And, perhaps most importantly, are we giving her time to grow into her position and at the same time accepting that she already has something to offer, even without previous official experience?
Now the plane is landing in Abidjan where, as a member of the Connectional Table, I will meet with the Committee on Central Conferences Matters to talk about the proposed general Book of Discipline and how that impacts the US churches and their decision making. Although I’m prepared, for a moment I feel alone. But then I recognize that I am surrounded by those people who have nurtured, encouraged and trusted me: a campus pastor, a determined laywoman, a retiring conference secretary, a former chair of the Commission on General Conference, an entire Annual Conference, several bishops, my sisters and brothers around the world that I have come to know as friends. We all get off the plane together and the Church and I are stronger for it.
Judi Modlin Kenaston grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, one of four sisters in an active United Methodist home. She earned a B.A. in Counseling and Rehabilitation and an M.A. in Education. She has taught in a variety of settings. She has been active in the West Virginia Annual Conference for her entire adult life. Since 2002, she has been the Conference Secretary and Journal Editor for the Conference. Judi and her husband are also certified in Marriage Enrichment leadership.
Judi was elected a lay delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and as a reserve to General Conference in 2004. She served as Head of the West Virginia Conference delegation in 2016 and in preparation for the Special Session in 2019. She was elected to the Commission on the General Conference in 2008 and served as the chair of the Commission from 2012-2016, planning the General Conference in Portland, OR. She currently serves as vice-chair of the World Wide Nature Working Group of the Connectional Table. In the Northeastern Jurisdiction, she has served on the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee since 2012.
Judi met her husband, Joe, at a West Virginia United Methodist high school youth camp and they were married six years later, proving that occasionally church camp romances DO last! They have been married for 36 years and have three grown children. They have lived in Chicago; Manchester, England; and several places in the West Virginia Conference, where Joe now serves as a district superintendent. Judi is a member of United Methodist Temple in Beckley, West Virginia. She enjoys spending time at their camp on the Greenbrier River, walking the dog, backpacking and adding pins to the map showing places the Kenaston family has traveled.