A local church with a long and storied history opened a new chapter with the installation of its first female senior pastor. The Rev. Rhoda Howell was appointed by the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church to serve as pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in July. Howell came to Covington from Trinity United Methodist Church in Dalton and has served at various churches in Cobb County.
Howell grew up in Xenia, Ohio, where a neighbor took her to church as a child and introduced her to the love of Christ. She later married her high school sweetheart, and his career travels led them to Georgia. At a time when they were struggling as a family, they decided to reconnect with the church. Howell began to get involved with various "behind the scenes" ministries at the church they attended.
When their children entered middle school, Howell decided to go back to college at Kennesaw State University, where she considered several options before getting involved in the counseling program.
"At that time, I was struggling with the idea of obedience to God and what it would mean for my future," said Howell.
During her senior year at Kennesaw State, Howell became dissatisfied with her job in the counseling program and began praying for direction for her career. A pastor encouraged her to apply to the Candler School of Theology at Emory, and he made calls on her behalf to expedite her application. She believes that God opened all the doors for her to attend graduate school at Emory, providing scholarships and a youth ministry job position.
"This is where the journey of obedience really began," said Howell. "I used all the excuses, ‘I’m too old. I’m a woman. I don’t speak or pray in public.’ God prompted me to surrender and obey, and I said, ‘Why not?’"
Howell was ordained in 1999 and served in churches in Kennesaw, Mableton and Woodstock before pastoring in Dalton and moving to Covington. She sees Salem as a sweet, loving church with a rich history and excited for Jesus. The people there have welcomed and accepted her in a loving way. She especially appreciates the way the congregation loves to sing.
In a church with a history as long as that of Salem United Methodist, Howell believes that knowing the roots of the church allows her to see its place in the community as well as how the church can adapt to changes in a region that is growing the way Newton County is.
"The depth of the church allows them to endure the storms of change as long as we honor the history," said Howell. "There are sometimes changes that have to be made, but I always try to approach change with caution and sensitivity."
Howell believes that the vision for ministry that God has laid on her heart is to make disciples, to bring people into a relationship with Christ, to teach them Scripture, and to grow them in their faith. She says that that vision informs decisions regarding programming and other aspects of church life.
As a pastor, Howell loves the joy of seeing people take the next step in their faith journey; she has seen it firsthand at the churches where she has served as well as hearing from people years after she has moved on to other churches. She says her greatest ministry challenge is balancing obeying God with pleasing others. She knows how change can affect church members personally and sometimes hurt their feelings.
Having lived in a more rural area for a few years before moving to Covington, Howell is getting used to traffic again, as well as a more hectic pace of life. She likes that Covington is growing; even though the economy has slowed growth, Howell believes that Covington is on the verge of major growth. She sees great opportunity for ministry in the community, as well as opportunities on the horizon for business growth in Covington.
Howell is aware of the historic nature of her tenure as the first woman pastor at Salem, but she believes the best way to acknowledge it is to downplay it. She says that God called her to serve him as an individual, not as a woman. She also says she respects those who do not believe that women should be pastors, but she reminds people that it was God who called her to serve.
"I don’t think he called me to be a banner carrier for women’s rights," said Howell. "He called me to preach the Gospel, and I try to focus on what God has called me to do."