Rev. Kerri Parker is the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, a community of 19 Christian denominations that covenant to engage in a common ministry focused on church unity, peacemaking, social and economic justice for Wisconsin’s most vulnerable residents, and revitalizing congregations. She took that job in October of 2017 after serving for seven years as pastor at McFarland United Church of Christ. Prior to that, she was executive director of the YWCA Rock County for six years.
What does Jesus mean for you?
Jesus is the witness at the crossroads, who by his very presence, changes everything.
I remember when I worked for a nonprofit that advocated for survivors of domestic violence. There was one particular courtroom that was a difficult place for them; but when we instituted a courtwatch program, it improved outcomes dramatically. The simple fact of having someone in the room, watching what was happening, made a difference. It opened up new possibilities. In some ways, I think of Jesus like that – God showing up in the broken places, divine presence holding open new possibilities.
Name your favorite 3 Christian music artists?
I have this game I’ve played with my daughter since she was young, called “spot-the-Jesus,” in which we’ve looked for faith connections in film, musical theater, books, and music. I don’t like pigeonholing artists into one particular genre, or thinking that only one kind of art can be “Christian.” I’m willing to let any music be food for Christian living if it inspires us to lead a life of greater justice and mercy, to love our neighbors more deeply, and in that, do better in our call to love God. On any given day, that might be classical, movie scores, what’s on Christian radio, or a performance I’m attending. With that as background, today I’ll claim as my current favorite music artists for inspiring me to live a Christian life: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bobby McFerrin, and the raised voices of whatever community I happen to be worshiping with!
What is the church body doing well and what could we improve on?
So many congregations have a spirit of persistence – they have built up a deep network of care, and even in times of difficulty, they do their best to make long-standing programs work. The commitment to the places we have come to love through generational connection or as an adopted faith home is beautiful to see.
That commitment to existing activities and relationships, though, sometimes comes at the cost of the willingness to innovate. Our plates become so full with what we’ve come to believe we must do to survive, that we don’t always make room to imagine what we might do, to live more fully and faithfully into God’s future.
What scripture really defines where you are today in life and why?
Luke 10:25-37 (the story of the Good Samaritan) has been a powerful text for me over the past year, as I’ve been regularly reflecting on the question, “Who is my neighbor?,” and feeling the urgency of crossing from my own limited awareness to encounter my neighbor where they are. I feel the obligation to interrupt the regular course of business and recognize that generous attentiveness to the neighbor should be the regular course of business.
Your ministry had changed from serving a congregation to leading a statewide organization. In what ways do you think of ministry differently now?
When I experienced the call to Christian ministry, it was the call to “feed my sheep” – from the twenty first chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus asked Simon Peter to do the same. There was this clarity that the proper expression of my love for God was in taking care of God’s people. In the congregation, I was immersed deeply in the flow of an individual community’s life, and the weekly rhythm of reflecting on a Biblical text in light of their spiritual needs. Everything pointed to telling God’s great story on Sunday.
My ministry now is less closely woven with that weekly rhythm and the faces of particular people. Even so, that sense of call to community care remains. I ask myself everyday: how am I building connections that nourish and equip people of faith to go out, and do extraordinary things – to undertake work that heals and reconciles, that causes the world around us to sit up and take notice?
You are representing a variety of Christian faith traditions. How do you maintain your own tradition while dealing with so many others?
One of the joys of my own tradition is its emphasis on being a uniting church; so even when my work takes me away from worship in one of its congregations, I feel like I’m still living out that tradition! I follow social media feeds and listen to podcasts generated by clergy of my own denomination, and I have preached for colleagues when they’ve been away from the pulpit for a Sunday. Whenever work doesn’t take me away from home, my family and I plan to be in the pews on a Sunday morning.
What’s on your bookshelf for the first part of 2018?
Too many books to fit on the bookshelves! My to-be-read pile continues to grow. I just finished reading John Pavlovitz’s A Bigger Table, in which he challenges the church to authenticity and true diversity – in all of its messiness. My morning reading (I try to do a half hour every day before I look at anything else) is Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. My fun book at the moment is the Smitten Kitchen Everyday cookbook, which I got for Christmas, and has sticky notes on at least half the pages with recipes I have marked to try. I also just started Jesus and the Disinherited, in preparation for being a breakout group facilitator at the late April Howard Thurman event at Upper House in Madison.