by Rev. Sherry Bryant-Johnson
I imagine my calling to be like the voice of the Teacher in Isaiah 30:21, a Presence within that whispers to me: “This is the way; walk in it.” For many years these gentle marching orders led me on what I thought was a random path of learning and doing. The ladies of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Zion (my hometown church) who taught Sunday School and directed the Christmas and Easter pageants fascinated me. So, when I reached adulthood, I taught Sunday School and directed Christmas and Easter pageants. The power of talk therapy to transform intrigued me. So, I studied psychology at Indiana University. A southern gentleman captured my heart. So, I let go of my life in Hammond, Indiana and settled in his rural Mississippi community. Questions about God, prayer, and life gripped me. So, I immersed myself in the the Bible, went to workshops, and devoured books by spiritual writers. Love, frustration, passion or curiosity moved me to learning and service—I thought. It did not occur to me that the road I traveled was carrying me to a specific destination.
I meandered into a job as assistant to the pastor at a United Methodist Church in 1991. As I worked as program staff/administrative assistant, my path began to make sense. I had entered a new world where my eclectic collection of learning, experiences, and skills were valued and affirmed. I realized that through my wanderings, God had molded and made me into a minister of the gospel. My proclamation of the Word was in my teaching, my listening, and in my praying, both in the church and beyond the church’s walls. After three years as a diaconal minister, I was ordained with the inaugural class of deacons in 1997.
As I journeyed through candidacy to ordination and met wise mentors along the way, I received the gift of words to describe the connection between my learning, doing, and serving— Christian faith formation. Practicing and teaching the means of grace have permeated my every appointment— associate pastor of a two-church charge, executive director of a United Methodist Mission Agency, and associate director for a center devoted to developing Christian leaders through lifelong learning. I also weave spiritual practice into training events and other nontraditional settings because of my passion to assist others, to hear more clearly, and to respond more faithfully to the Presence that calls to them, “This is the way; walk in it.”
I live out my own call these days as a spiritual director, retreat designer/leader, Bible teacher, workshop leader, and author. And I am currently exploring a new interest— offering spiritual direction and Bible study online.
In the 22 years since my ordination, I’ve encountered many along the way who do not appreciate or understand my ministry. I cannot allow the reality of rejection to stop my work or to divert my attention from the many sisters and brothers who celebrate with me.
I see the celebration of the unique ministry of the deacon as a gift as diverse and surprising as the ministry itself. This rejoicing breaks forth both in the church and in the community. It can be as subtle as a feeling of oneness in Christ with a directee, as endearing as a card from a parishioner during Clergy Appreciation Month, or as unexpected as a thank you hug from a pastor in the produce aisle in Kroger.
Whether my ministry is celebrated or ignored, appreciated or reviled, the Presence that whispers, “This is the way; walk in it” still speaks, and I must follow where it leads.
Rev. Sherry Bryant-Johnson is an ordained deacon with extensive training in spiritual direction as well as United Methodist professional certification in spiritual formation. Her ministry encompasses retreat leadership, teaching, small group facilitation, and writing. She was an editor/essayist for the anthology, Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color (Morehouse, 2014) and the contributing writer of Journey to Joy: Jesus is the Strength for Life, a VBS study for adults (Abingdon, 2016). Based in Jackson, Mississippi, she has served as the executive director of Bethlehem Center, Inc. and the associate director of the Center for Ministry at Millsaps College.