The call to ministry comes in many shapes and forms — and sometimes, it just so happens that it comes to both partners in a relationship. Some couples choose to share not only their lives but their vocations as they co-pastor churches together.
The Den talked with three alumni couples from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology about their journeys to ministry, the challenges and rewards that accompany their work, and the blessings of pastoring as a team.
Marty and Robin Anderson’s paths first crossed while working at a Baptist summer youth camp called Centrifuge. Robin, a North Carolina native with a theater degree from Webster University in St. Louis, and Marty, a Mississippi native with an educational psychology degree from Mississippi State University, met after being assigned to the camp at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. They got married a year later in 1999, worked at Centrifuge’s Carson-Newman University location for a summer and then moved to Atlanta, so Marty could go to McAfee.
“My dad’s a pastor, so I’ve been around church all my life,” Marty said. “I liked the church and kind of had this feeling this was what I would be doing. In college, I wasn’t sure, but after college, I decided to go to seminary.”
Marty had gone to another seminary for a year and found it wasn’t a good fit, but at McAfee, he discovered a program that was both nurturing and challenging.
Meanwhile, Robin was working in the education departments for a couple local theater companies when she received a unique opportunity. The church she grew up in had leftover scholarship funds and asked if she would like to use them to take some courses at McAfee since Marty was enrolled there. She started out with a few classes and was a full-time student before long.
Looking back, Robin can now see the ways in which her theater education and experiences were preparing her for ministry. Marty graduated from McAfee in 2003 and Robin in 2004 with Master of Divinity degrees.
“McAfee didn’t so much teach us what to think as much as it taught us how to think,” Robin said. “I think that’s been really helpful. As we are in different congregations and minister to different people, I think it has prepared us well to meet people where they are if their views don’t align to where we are.”
After having served in separate places of worship in Atlanta, the Andersons were pleased to both be able to join the pastoral team at University Baptist Church in Baltimore. Marty served as associate pastor for college ministries and Robin as associate pastor for education and outreach for seven years. For the past decade, the couple has co-pastored Commonwealth Church in Alexandria, Virginia. They have a 16-year-old daughter and twin 13-year-old sons.
“We balance each other out. When we were first married, I was working in a church in Atlanta, and Marty was in campus ministry in Atlanta,” Robin said. “It was hard that we were on different schedules. It was hard to know who each other was investing in. We really enjoy being able to invest in the same group of people.”
Robin said they tag team a lot of their pastoral responsibilities. They alternate preaching and leading communion, perform baptisms together, and make sure the more difficult duties don’t always fall on the same person. They also take turns going into the church office.
“It doesn’t work for everybody, but it seems to work with us,” Marty said. “Our hard part is figuring out how to balance church work and our relationships and our family. We try not to talk church all the time, which is a challenge.”
COVID-19 has presented many difficulties as the Andersons have adapted to virtual and hybrid worship experiences and tried to find ways to build community when people can’t be together. But they tackle those hardships together.
“What’s so rewarding is being able to invest in the lives of people, being there in their lives when they’re asking questions,” Robin said.
“Celebrating the good times and sitting with people in the bad times is rewarding for me,” Marty said.
Chelsea and Darien Waite were both planning to go into other lines of work when God intervened. The couple, married since 2018, met and started dating as freshmen at neighboring Atlanta colleges Morehouse and Spelman, where Darien majored in sociology and Chelsea in international studies.
Chelsea said she was about to sign a job contract to do consulting business marketing work when God told her that wasn’t what she was meant to do. She looked into McAfee, applied and was awarded a full scholarship. She was invited to a dinner for scholarship recipients, and Darien came with her. He had been considering pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology, but that changed when Dr. Robert Nash Jr., interim dean at the time, addressed the dinner guests.
“During that speech, I felt the spirit of God spoke to me and said, ‘You really need to check into this place because this is what you need to be doing with your life,’” Darien said.
The application deadline had already passed, but Darien reached out to the admissions department and was allowed to apply since there were still some spots open. He was accepted, and he and Chelsea began their seminary journeys together at McAfee in 2016.
“Theology classes are necessary; however, we miss the mark when we are not also studying God’s people,” Chelsea said. “McAfee excelled in teaching and coaching us on relationship building and the different ways that it can be done. Personally, our preaching class (with Dr. Martha Simmons) was life-changing. Her breakdown of what preaching is and the sacredness of it transformed me as a minister.”
Darien said McAfee did an excellent job of preparing him to pastor people, and he is grateful for the school’s emphasis on community and getting to know those in it.
“I believe that McAfee School of Theology is the mecca for parish ministry,” Darien said. “McAfee prepares you as a theologian, and McAfee also prepares you to navigate relationships and conflict in the church. The world can be a better place the moment we seek to understand more than we seek to be heard. I believe that McAfee gives you the tools to understand, listen and be in solidarity with those who may not be the same as you.”
As the pair worked at separate churches in the Atlanta area, a Morehouse College connection led to a new chapter. During the couple’s third year of seminary, Darien served as the campus host for fellow Morehouse alumnus Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and now a U.S. senator for Georgia, while he was teaching a preaching lecture series at McAfee.
They later reconnected during a workshop at Ebenezer Baptist, and Dr. Warnock told the Waites about a job opening at his church and interviewed them a few months later. The church ultimately split the position into two, so they could hire both Darien and Chelsea, and they joined Ebenezer soon after earning their Master of Divinity degrees in summer 2019. Darien is assistant pastor for youth, college and men’s ministries, and Chelsea is assistant pastor for children, college and women’s ministries.
“We were both serving in ministerial roles at two separate churches, so we were not actively seeking our next move,” Chelsea said. “But God orchestrated it. Our prayer was that God would allow us to serve at a church together because that was something that was important to not only our marriage but for our family. It happened so fast, but it was God answering our prayer.”
Chelsea said she walks with children through their spiritual journeys while exposing them to new knowledge and experiences. Her women’s ministry creates a space where members’ talents and ideas are celebrated and offers many opportunities for community service.
“We have a unique congregation,” Chelsea said. “The congregation is incredible, so gifted, so loving, so welcoming. It feels like a large church because of Ebenezer’s historical significance, but it’s really a small, close-knit church. The congregation at Ebenezer is like none other.”
Darien said he ensures the youth have space to be their authentic selves and explore God and their gifts and talents for serving God, and he provides an outlet for the men of the church to fellowship together and build connections. As co-leaders of the college ministry, the couple works to create a home away from home where students feel secure to grow their faith.
“It’s been a blessing,” Darien said. “Before, when we were at different churches, we were unable to spiritually grow together. Now, I’m grateful we can flourish in the same environment.”
“Our mantra is that above all else, we are husband and wife. We may pastor young people, men and women, but at the core of our ministry, the most important thing that we need to nurture and pay attention to is our marriage.”
Darien said pastoring together and being seminary graduates have impacted the way they are raising their 6-month-old daughter and made them more aware of how they want to usher her into faith.
“Before we’re able to pour into and be present for all the other ministries, we’re very intentional about making sure we’ve done that first at home,” Chelsea said. “There is never a dull moment. We work hard, but we play hard, and we have fun. I love that. The older you get, you can lose that ingredient of just fun, of laughter, smiling. We are a household that loves to have fun.”
Because they are together a lot at home and in the ministry setting, they make sure to create space for each other to refuel as individuals and to pursue healthy outlets, like walking and music, Chelsea said. Darien said one of the most challenging parts of ministry is not losing yourself in it and letting it become the sum of your identity. Therefore, it’s important to make time and room for those personal things that bring joy.
Anna Kate and Zeke Stephenson grew up states away from each other, but similar experiences led them to ministry. They were both psychology majors and religion minors in college and thought they’d go into counseling careers, until a summer camp helped alter their perspective.
When Zeke, a North Carolina native and graduate of Gardner-Webb University, and Anna Kate, an Alabama native who went to Berry College in Georgia, met in summer 2014 as staff members at Passport Camps in Birmingham, Alabama, they both already had plans to attend McAfee. Their separate experiences at the camp and with their churches had helped to solidify their decisions to go into seminary, and talking with McAfee students who were on staff at Passport helped push them to Mercer.
“I really didn’t look anywhere else,” Zeke said. “McAfee from the beginning was where I felt I needed to be.”
Zeke said McAfee’s faith development and practical courses in preaching, pastoral care, missional theology and youth/children’s ministry really made an impact and gave him the real-world knowledge he would need for his pastoral work. Anna Kate said the academic side of the school as well as the relationships built with professors shaped her immensely. In fact, it was Dr. Karen Massey who encouraged her to interview for her first position in children’s ministry, which led her to realize that was her calling.
Zeke and Anna Kate earned their Master of Divinity degrees in 2018, and Zeke became the full-time minister of youth and missions at Heritage Baptist Church in Cartersville, where he had worked throughout seminary. And while Zeke loved his job, Anna Kate couldn’t find meaningful work in the area, so they made the difficult decision to look for other opportunities, with the stipulation they wouldn’t leave Cartersville unless they could find a church willing to hire them both.
“We needed a break from looking, and about that time, First Baptist Church Orangeburg came calling, and we realized it was a good next step,” Zeke said.
The South Carolina church had separate hiring committees for the associate pastor to students and families and associate pastor to children and families positions, but they chose Zeke and Anna Kate individually and without knowing they were married.
In her role, Anna Kate works with children from birth through fifth grade. She chooses and coordinates the curriculum and leads the lessons and activities during children’s church on Sundays. She loves having candid and honest conversations with children and hearing their questions.
“Faith formation, that’s what children’s ministry is,” she said. “The time leading up to youth ministry is so formational for these kids to start developing and thinking about their relationship with God before they get into the deeper thinking that youth ministry provides. My goal is to create a space where they feel safe to question and wonder, doubt and explore what a relationship with God looks like.”
Zeke said he builds off Anna Kate’s children’s ministry in his work with the youth, who meet on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings and evenings. He focuses on building a community that reflects Christ through Bible study, devotional, prayer, games and fun activities with the students.
“It’s about helping them see the fuller picture of our scriptures, because it’s in their teenage years that they start making decisions about their faith,” Zeke said. “It’s about helping them create a solid faith, so when they leave the safety of their homes, they can hang onto that faith that will carry them through the next stage of their lives.”
The Stephensons, who have been married since 2017 and are expecting their first child in May, collaborate a lot in their work but have been intentional about establishing their own separate identities and ministries, Anna Kate said.
“It’s great to have a safe person to communicate with. We get what each other is going through,” she said.
And while building their ministries amid COVID-19 has been a challenge, they’ve been inspired by the investment and commitment of their church families.
“The two of us moving to a place where we’ve never been before was just a breath of fresh air,” Anna Kate said. “It’s so rewarding and life-giving to have these people in our lives.”
In fall 2021, the McAfee School of Theology celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding on Mercer’s Atlanta campus. The Den is sharing alumni profiles throughout the academic year to mark this milestone anniversary.