The Reverend Courtney Clayton Jenkins is just 33 years old, but she’s shepherding one of Cleveland’s most historic congregations into a new home, just christened on New Year's Eve, under a new name: South Euclid United Church of Christ.

“I remember being as young as five, people asking me what I wanted to do, and saying ‘Well, I think I want to be a pastor, but it looks like a boring job.’ Nothing about this looks boring though, does it?” said Jenkins, who views her work with incredible vision.

“The pastor is a person that doesn’t sugarcoat life with faith, the pastor is a person who views life through the lens of faith,” she says.

We're starting a new series Thursdays on Channel 3 News at 6 about the women in Northeast Ohio's communities who make things happen. These are women who see the possible, women you'd like to have in your group, women we’re bringing into Sara’s Circle.

Sara Shookman's circle
Sara Shookman's circle

The Euclid Avenue Congregational Church, founded in 1843, was an icon next to the Cleveland Clinic. It was an icon that burned to the ground, March 23, 2010. A fire, started by a bolt of lightning, demolished the structure. On March 22, they’d called Courtney for an interview.

“This congregation, struck by lightning nearly 6 years ago, literally that story of wandering in the wilderness, where are we going to land,” she said, “They literally called me the day before. It was one of those divine moments. And I remember watching the church burn, feeling terrible for the people, and thinking, ‘That church is going to need a pastor, but it’s not going to be me.’”

Why not?

“I’m the youngest pastor in the history of the church, the only female senior pastor in the history of the church, the only African American pastor in the history of the church,” she says, “I imagine that after they voted, they probably said, ‘What have we done?’”

But they stuck with her, just as Courtney, who once had dreams of Fortune 500 success, stuck with seminary. Princeton Theological Seminary is where she met her husband, the Reverend Cory Jenkins, who leads Shiloh Baptist Church.

“He is my rock. In the midst of the 10,000 things that I do, he really is the one that makes sure that I’m grounded, that I’m centered and that I’m moving in a direction that is totally inspired by God,” she says. Together, they have two-year-old, Caleb.

Today’s church doesn’t have the central place in many families that it did generations ago. Courtney says it comes down to connections.

“We don’t know how to have real relationships anymore,” she says, “We know how to have surface relationships. We know how to have social media relationships. We know how to have colleagues, but it’s hard for us to even have relationship with God, when we don’t know how to treat and talk with one another.”

Rev. Jenkins isn’t afraid to be real, and she’s encouraging her faithful to do the same. It seems to be working: five generations, seven nationalities and growing. If your Sundays are feeling uninspired, The Reverend Courtney puts church, simply: “Have you tried it?”

“We’re a rare jewel. I don’t think that there’s really too many other churches like us in the city. That when we say come as you are, we actually mean that. Now you may not leave the same, but that’s not our fault. That has everything to do with God.”

Her definition of faith

“Faith for me, is believe in the trying God that will never leave me, never forsake me, died on my behalf and expects me to get up and do something about some of the stuff that’s going on in this world. That’s what faith is.”

Why she’s taken a “social media fast” for Lent

“We’re in this ever spinning culture that just moves faster, and faster and faster. And with social media, it moves even faster than that. How do we do that? We have to learn to pace ourselves.”

How she knew being pastor was her path

“I said to God, ‘I’ll give you six months.’ Because at that point, I was really focused on becoming the president of a Fortune 500 company. I wanted to be on the cover of Forbes, and all these other things, so this was a drastically different direction. I remember saying to God, ‘I’ll give you six months, and if I love it, I’ll do it for the rest of my life. And if I don’t love it, you can find someone else, you’ve got billions of people to choose from. I went to my pastor and I asked for a six month internship…I gave God six months, and I fell in love. I fell in love with ministry. I fell in love with God’s people. I fell in love with pastoring, and it’s been a wonderful journey.”

On her marriage

“[The Rev. Cory Jenkins] is a graduate of Morehouse, I’m a graduate of Spelman. Which if you’re familiar, I went to the all-black women’s college, and he went to the all-black men’s college, right across the street from each other [in Atlanta]. All the same friends, never met until the first day of seminary. Another divine hook up.”

How two pastors of two different denominations of churches work as husband and wife

“Usually when we come home, it’s like ‘Do you want to go first, or do you want me to go first?’ We spend time in the evening trading stories and kind of, ‘What would you do?’ We do not compete. We complete. That sounds real cliché, but it’s really the way that we operate. By him being confident with who he is, he is confident with who I am, and vice versa…Our saying in our house is our first church is at home. So if home is not right, we cannot come [to church] and act like everything is right.”

On two-year-old Caleb’s gifts

“Every night I pray that he becomes a leader in his generation, which I’m learning now is turning into my answered prayer that he’s bossy. Caleb keeps me grounded. Caleb keeps me laughing. Caleb keeps me aware. He keeps me on my toes and in terms of not missing great moments, divine moments, if you will, provided to us by God, to spend time together, laugh together. I love to read him bedtime stories. (Sara’s note: You can often find Rev. Jenkins reading these stories aloud on Periscope. Worth your time!)

How she manages it all

“It’s hard. It is so hard to manage all of this, healthy marriage, healthy children, but tomorrow is my spa day. That helps to make it manageable.”