Just about every aspect of Jennifer Loeb’s life has led her into the ministry.
Even as a sales clerk at Macy’s, Loeb found herself counseling customers and coworkers. Her position in the plus-size department found her boosting women’s flagging self-image as they shopped for clothes.
“I became the chaplain of Macy’s,” she said.
Loeb, 54, is the new pastor at First Presbyterian Church. It is her first church as an ordained minister.
It’s an accomplishment 15 years in the making. Loeb also has a degree in early childhood and elementary education. And while she found teaching a rewarding career, she continued to feel God calling her to the ministry, she said.
“In moments of calm, I could feel this compelling calling that I just have to do this because God wants me to. It didn’t matter where I was; God was there.”
But finding the time to change careers and dedicate to seminary was difficult, a little messy, and incredibly humbling.
Loeb was born in Bonner Springs, which back in the 1960s was about the same size as Iola. As a teenager, the family moved to Aurora, Mo., another small town. She ended up at a college in Boca Raton, Fla., when the family moved to Hollywood, Fla., between Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
She was married while still a student at Florida Atlantic University and in a few years had children. Her daughter Emily is 23 and son Eric, 21.
Ten years into the marriage the relationship was on shaky ground. Also, the call to become a minister had only grown stronger.
Thinking she had her husband’s support, Loeb accepted admission into the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tenn. Two weeks before the move, he announced a change of mind; he would not accompany the family.
Loeb forged ahead. A year later, the couple divorced.
And then things really fell apart.
“I needed a job and the kids were hurting,” she said.
She quit school and moved to Indianapolis where a brother lived.
“It seemed like a good place to go,” she said.
She took a job teaching kindergarten at a private school, but could barely make ends meet.
At 34, it was the first time she faced life on her own.
“It was a really scary time,” she said, noting she could not perform even the simplest of household repairs.
For two years she worked in a clinical pastoral residency program at three hospitals in downtown Indianapolis.
“I loved that work, but it didn’t pay much either.”
Still, it fueled the fire for her to pursue the ministry. She enrolled in the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
About the same time she also became director of Christian education and pastoral care at Fairview Presbyterian Church.
“I was able to take a class every now and then. Work was demanding. And my children had challenges. So many times, I thought I’d never make it,” she said.
In all, it took her 15 years to finish her master’s in theology.
IN PERHAPS an ironic twist of fate, Loeb then had a brush with poverty.
Equipped to lead a church, her position at Fairview Presbyterian was eliminated after 12 years with the church. She was unemployed but enrolled in the official search for a church.
“It made it difficult to look for a job,” she said. “I had to be honest to say I may leave at any time.”
In the meantime, she worked part time at Jason’s Deli and at Macy’s department store in Indianapolis. She earned $7.50 an hour at the deli; $8 at Macy’s.
“I learned a lot about the working poor, even though I was at the cushy end. I did have a car and a roof over my head.”
She also had a brother who spotted her loans.
“I would have lost my house without that help,” she said. “The deli said they would give me full-time work, but it was rarely more than 32 hours a week and the schedule always changed, making it impossible to get a second job,” she said.
When Macy’s hired her full time she found herself counseling customers.
“I know Michelle Obama is a great role model,” she said. “But she’s made a lot of women feel ashamed of their upper arms,” Loeb said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the first lady’s toned arms.
“I had such sympathy for these oversize women,” she said, noting her daughter also deals with weight issues. “So many women suffer because of body image. It was rewarding to help them find clothes that made them look beautiful.”
She also found working in the suit department that sometimes shoppers were looking for clothing for a recently deceased member of the family in preparation of their funeral.
Loeb says it’s a privilege when people let her into the “messy” part of their lives.
“It’s one of the greatest honors and privileges that people trust me to share those moments,” she said.
“I can feel God’s presence so strongly when people are hurting. That’s the time people reach out to God.”
In spite of the rewards of her job, Loeb was falling short on funds.
“I was making $1,000 a month. That was enough to pay my mortgage, but not put food on the table or pay the bills,” she said. “It was an impossible situation.”
What kept her sane was “knowing there’s a reason I’m living this,” she said. “I figured at some point I would need to know this firsthand.”
It was 18 months before Loeb was able to move on.
Since her arrival in Iola, Loeb has participated in the Circles out of poverty program.
“My heart is really there to help make a difference through Circles,” she said. “It’s a program that offers a lot of hope and resources.”
AS A PROFESSION the ministry faces new challenges, Loeb said. One is lower attendance, almost universally. Also, fewer choose to be ministers.
“The church has got to let go of some of the past to meet the needs of today,” she said.
A majority of those 30 and younger, particularly, don’t see a need for church.
It’s when a church provides a sense of community, is a home, that it becomes successful, Loeb said.
“People today consider what would compel them to go to church. It must make them feel connected. It’s not so much about going to church, as it is feeling a connection to a larger community.
“Also, a worship service is to be participatory. It’s not coming to watch a show. It should not be a passive activity.”
As for First Presbyterian, “I’m still trying to get a pulse on the congregation’s fears; their passions; and where God will lead us.”
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