The Reverend Catherine Clark Nance – who recently began serving as the senior minister at Church Street United Methodist Church in downtown Knoxville -- has been both working from home and at the office during the pandemic.
On those three days a week when she is at the church, she has tried to eat her lunch outside in different places, and she has been amazed at the different communities she has seen around her.
“I have been looking at who our neighbor at Church Street is,” the former Brainerd resident and UTC graduate said in a phone interview regarding her latest appointment in a ministerial career spanning more than 30 years.
“When I look around, I see we have corporate offices, professional people, people who ride the bus downtown, hourly employees, UT, students living in apartments, and new housing.”
That has made her ponder how the church – in both normal and the current uncertain times -- can serve in addition to meeting the needs of its members and through such longtime outreach ministries as feeding the homeless and marginalized.
“I am helping my congregation really answer the question of how we minister,” she said.
“How do we be in ministry to people in the community who are going to work every day or have been laid off? How do we be the church for the city?”
While many pastors come to a church with new and fresh ideas, Ms. Nance has one really unique perspective – she is the first female senior, or lead, pastor of this church that traces its origin in Knoxville to 1816.
Although the United Methodist Church has fully ordained female ministers since the 1950s and has had a growing number of women pastors, her appointment makes Church Street the largest in Holston Conference currently headed by a woman.
The downtown church is among the five or 10 largest in the conference in membership. Another of the larger churches now led by a woman is the downtown Johnson City church, Munsey Memorial UMC, where another former Chattanoogan, the Rev. Carol E. Wilson, began serving two years ago.
Regarding her unusual distinction, Ms. Nance takes a more traditional – and modest – outlook than with her ideas for new ministry.
“I went back and counted and at Church Street, we have had 15 clergy women as associate ministers or on staff,” she said. One of them was her sister, the Rev. Barbara Clark, who has also played the violin in both the Chattanooga and Knoxville symphonies.
Rev. Nance does not claim to be as musical as the rest of her family other than still being able to play a hymn on a piano if needed on an emergency basis, but she sings praises of the other women who went before her.
“They paved the path, and I appreciate the gifts and work they did.”
The recent former pastor at First United Methodist of Maryville also said she has previously served several other appointments as the first woman senior pastor. She also points out that Knoxville has a woman mayor, and the University of Tennessee’s chancellor is a woman. The bishop of Holston Conference, the Rev. Mary Virginia “Dindy” Taylor, is also female, and the conference has had a number of women district superintendents.
“In 2020, it’s not a big deal,” this mother of two adult sons, James and Steven, said with a laugh.
However, she does admit that she is very honored to be at Church Street to serve all the members, saying the current staff has done a great job in helping her get acclimated. Also joining the pastoral staff in a new appointment is the Rev. Timothy Best, an associate pastor.
Ms. Nance, whose husband, Brad, works at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said coming to a church when most of the activities have been temporarily forced online has been different.
“You count on the first Sunday people being there because they are curious, and you make the immediate connection,” she said, jokingly adding that the welcome reception of punch and refreshments also helps.
She added that there has been a lot of grace involved with the membership toward her due to the uncertain pandemic, and she has been trying to connect through phone calls and occasional social distancing visits.
“I’m really relying on the skills when I started in ministry 30 years ago,” she said, adding that she realizes other United Methodist pastors in new appointments are also having similar experiences. “We are all doing the best we can to connect with our congregations.”
She has already felt a connection with Church Street as a whole, saying she loves its strong music program and enjoys walking into the historic Collegiate Gothic sanctuary/nave to record an online sermon or message.
Ms. Nance’s ministerial career had its roots in Chattanooga under the nurturing skills of a number of people at Brainerd United Methodist on Brainerd Road. Her parents, Joe and Libby Clark, held leadership positions there and taught Sunday school, and she darkened the doors on many Sundays.
“That was our second home,” she said. “I had a wonderful experience there. I loved every minister. It was a very positive experience and I always felt like I belonged.”
She also attended Brainerd High as a white student at a time when the school had an increasing number of Black students.
She considered the latter experience culturally enriching, as she did all her schooling. “I credit my parents for leaving us in public education,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience. I had wonderful teachers and principals, and there was good parental involvement.”
Ms. Nance also recalled that the Chattanooga public schools had a great music program for the elementary schools.
While later attending UT-Chattanooga, she was a political science major, but she felt unsettled about her future career plans, saying she was considering focusing on geriatric social policies. But then she had a conversation with the Rev. Charles Fowler at the United Methodist campus center about being a minister.
“One day I said to him that I wanted to be a Methodist minister,” she said. “He was very affirming, and said it made sense and he was not surprised. it just seemed to fall into place.”
She enrolled at Duke Divinity School in 1984, and 36 years later she has arrived at Church Street UMC. And in this new leg of her journey, this casual 5K race runner still feels that sense of call -- and acceptance.
“The congregation has been very welcoming sending emails and hand-written notes,” she said. “They have been very gracious in reaching out. I really do appreciate it.”