The first sermon by the first female pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City touched on a topic that deeply concerns women around the world, but is often glossed over from the pulpit: sexual assault.
On August 7, Reverend Jamie White stood before her new congregants in the historic red sandstone church of South Temple, near the Catholic Magdalen Cathedral, and described a life-changing attack at the hands of her high school boyfriend who resulted in a pregnancy.
She felt lost and alone with few options, White told an elated audience, until a friend dropped off a kind letter of support and some money.
“He presented himself,” she said in her sermon, just as the friend of the apostle Paul did in Philippians, and just as the members of the congregation are commanded by the scriptures to do for each other.
Having a female pastor for the first time has already highlighted new differences from the past 150 years of sermons.
White’s approach was typical of the young pastor, who deftly pieced together New Testament passages and Greek puns with modern experiences and contemporary interpretations.
True, White spoke from notes and was well organized, but her approach was relaxed and conversational, rather than rehearsed or stilted.
And it was the extraordinary skills that made White stand out among more than 50 candidates who sought the job of the new minister of the first Presbyterian, after the church’s longtime minister, the Reverend Michael Imperiale, took over. his retirement in 2019.
“We watched them all preach online,” said Beverlee Simpson, co-chair of the church’s search committee. “The first time we zoomed in with her was like a thunderclap. We all knew she would be a great fit for First Presbyterian’s needs. She has a great understanding of what God’s people need, and she has a lot of ideas and energy to serve the community.
White, Simpson said, “fitted all the slots we were looking for.”
So how did the California native, who was raised in a Pentecostal church and recently studied ancient languages and scriptures at Princeton Theological Seminary, end up leading a prominent church in Beehive State? ?
Like many people, White’s spiritual journey has had many twists, turns, and detours — but, she thinks, they’ve all led her to this place.
To Utah, then away and back
After graduating from high school in central California, White moved to Utah to live with a relative, while having her child. It was there that she met her future husband, Dave White, while attending Central Christian Church, an assembly of faith of God near downtown Salt Lake City, and together they raised their three children.
However, the ministry still called him, White said in an interview.
She received her undergraduate degree in pastoral leadership and biblical studies from Vanguard University in Southern California, which she completed online. Later she attended Fuller Theological Seminary and eventually Princeton, where she earned a Master of Divinity and was named an Apollos Distinguished Scholar. She has received numerous awards, including the Presbyterian Leadership Award, Promise for Ministry Award, and Robert K. Kelley Memorial Award in Ministry.
“Jamie is one of the finest ministers I have ever taught,” his theology professor, the Reverend Kenda Creasy Dean, wrote in a recommendation. “She is a born leader, an incredibly astute listener and as wise as she is intelligent. Her mature grace and deeply genuine collegiality not only make her an immeasurable gift to all who know her, but also an absolutely incredible pastor.
The professor concluded, “I sincerely wish Jamie was my pastor.”
Before going to Ivy League school, White served as a youth and family minister at Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church in Millcreek, where she became almost an associate pastor – designing and leading ministry programs, planning and leading worship, preaching and teaching, training lay leaders and supervising other employees and providing pastoral care to the congregation.
White wasn’t sure, however, that she would be a good match for what’s called a “high church,” or one that’s fairly traditional in its approach to liturgy, scripture, and ritual. After all, First Presbyterian was organized in 1873 and the building was erected in 1903. It’s a lot of history and tradition to draw on.
“I’m pretty informal as a person,” she said. “But I read their mission study, where they have been and where they are now, and the needs of the city, and they set their goals and priorities with an eye to the future to meet the needs of the actual city in which they are placed.”
She found it “incredibly refreshing and hopeful,” White said. “I thought, ‘If they’re serious, then I’m a really good fit for them. “”
But she had to decide if they really wanted to, because, she said, “it’s not the same community as it was 20 years ago.”
Vision for the future
Like so many older congregations, First Presbyterian has seen many people leave, especially younger members who occasionally come but do not stay.
It now has around 450 members, but weekly summer attendance is more like 200 (with a few more still watching remotely on Zoom).
“How to create a space where young people want to be here and feel useful and needed?” White asked the search committee. “We had some fun conversations about what that might look like.”
Such changes require adaptations and take time, White said, but she and congregation leaders are “eager and ready” to begin.
Music has always been a strength of the church, which includes a large pipe organ added in 1911 and seven stained glass windows, but in recent years leaders have tried to add more contemporary music, including guitars and drums , she said. “I don’t want to lose the traditions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spice it up a bit and have a more informal feel to worship.”
And she wants to talk more concretely about today’s challenges for families and individuals.
“I don’t think people aren’t interested in God or spirituality,” White said, “but they walk into a church and ask what does this have to do with my life?”
Reverend Steve Aeschbacher, who served as acting pastor of the Gothic Church, is “very excited about Pastor Jamie’s ministry and the future of the First Presbyterian”.
She combines “the intelligence, charisma, heart of a pastor and a deep, contagious love for Jesus,” Aeschbacher said. “She has a clear vision for the future and at the same time is happy to listen and learn from others. Her long history in the valley and in ministry means she can get started right away. I can’t think of a better way to start our second 150 years than with our first wife as senior installed pastor.
On top of that, White knows “how to navigate the religious community in Utah,” Simpson said. “We all come together, cooperate, appreciate and love each other.”
Some of the pastor candidates suggested that they would come to Utah, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to reach out to these believers or convert them.
White is not like that, she said. “She doesn’t feel called to change anyone.”
Additionally, White can attract new members, appealing to a wide range of believers.
“She’s that voice and that face that says church isn’t just for your grandparents,” Simpson said. “It’s up to everyone to come in and meet Jesus here.”
With more young people leaving organized religion, she said, White is “our hope.”