By Sam Chamberlain, Correspondent
When Ele Clay chose Lutheran Church of Hope for her yearlong contextual learning experience, she never imagined just how nontraditional the internship would be. Like most interns she preaches and presides, teaches confirmation and does pastoral care, yet it’s the way these ministries function, and the robust missional focus of this mega-church in West Des Moines, Iowa, that has shown her just what a church is capable of. “It’s like a small church,” Clay says, “But with a lot of people in it.”
Born in the West Indies, she first came to the United States for college. Graduating with an M.A. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and serving with Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) in Birmingham, Ala., for six years, Clay describes this work as the critical formation of her Christ-centered ministry. Not only in shaping her voice as a woman preacher in a predominantly male-led denomination, but also in seeing the ways a missional church serves and grows.
While she’s a candidate for rostered ministry in the ELCA and the Southwestern Texas Synod, “I’m a Christian first,” Clay says. Most importantly, she feels as if her experience brings her a deep sense of ecumenism. “I have a respect for all traditions,” she says, “And particularly those that have nurtured my own faith.”
In the fall of 2013 she began classes as a distributed learning student at Luther Seminary, and was immediately drawn into the tight-knit community these online students are known for creating. “It all started in Greek,” she says—laughing. “That was my first introduction—twice a week—into this community.” Ever since, she’s remained connected with her cohort, even during internship, which often can be the busiest point in a seminarian’s career. “Oh yes!” she says. “If they don’t hear from you for awhile ... they’ll track you down. There’s no hiding from cohort 7.””
Serving at Lutheran Church of Hope—or Hope, as it’s casually called—has only reaffirmed her ministerial call. While the congregation’s main campus is in West Des Moines, there are satellite sites in Ankeny, Des Moines, Johnston-Grimes and Waukee. “I’ve learned a lot by observing how such a big church functions,” Clay says, “But also by getting involved in the many ministries offered at Hope. The building never feels closed!”
“The first six months have gone by so quickly,” she says. As an intern she’s preached and presided in chapel and assisted with children’s worship, taken turns with an emergency cell phone hotline, taught confirmation class, preached at a Wildwood Hills Ranch (a retreat center for at-risk youth), provided pastoral care and made hospital visits. As a public service to the community, Hope does funerals for anyone, member or not, of which she conducted two very early in her internship.
With a focus on building local communities—rather than commuting to the main campus—Clay got involved in a new “Hope local site” in Ames, Iowa. “I was so humbled and excited,” she says, “They asked me to come and preach at their very first live worship service—Ash Wednesday.” As she moves into the second half of her internship, she says, “I really am seeing people live out what we learn from the Bible: to live lives rooted in ‘being church’ to others, as Christ wants us to be.”