Leechford’s Work is West End — and the World

Minister Jane Leechford - West End United Methodist. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

First in a series about women in ministry serving West End

By Maggie Beamguard

Insider Editor

West End and Seven Lakes are served by a number of churches, large and small, mainline and non-denominational — and by several women in ministry.

The Rev. Jane Leechford, gentle and mild mannered, has served the area longest. She was called to First United Methodist Church seven years ago and leads, quite literally, a flourishing ministry. During her tenure, the congregation started a robust community garden that produces enough food to supplement the FUMC Food Pantry. 

Leechford, who grew up in Raleigh, is married to Robert and they have two children, Paul and Amy, and five grandchildren. She supposes she always had a call to ministry but didn’t recognize it until her children were born and they all started attending a United Methodist Church in Fayetteville.

Everyone’s “call story” is different, but they often include similar elements, including moments of personal epiphany and incidents of confirmation by others. 

Leechford’s moment of epiphany came in a quiet moment.

“I remember sitting in our family room and rocking our son to sleep, and later on my daughter. And these images of speaking to larger groups of people came to mind. And kept coming to mind every night.”

She didn’t know quite what to make of those images, but they have echoes in the Bible’s call story of Samuel in the temple, who heard a voice calling to him in the night. She believes they came to her as she tenderly nurtured her children because it was a time of day when she was quiet and still.

After the family began attending the UMC, she joined a Disciple Bible Study, an intense course of study in understanding the United Methodist tradition. At the end of the study class, members do a spiritual inventory and affirm one another’s gifts.

“It came my turn,” Leechford recalls, “And every single person in that group said that ‘you have the strengths of a spiritual leader, and we feel you would serve well in pastoral ministry.’”

She describes this as a humbling experience, especially since she had yet to understand where her own life was heading. 

Confirmation came from her own spouse not long after, during a church service led in part by a new associate pastor. Without turning to look at her, Robert said “You know what? You can do what she is doing.”

After that, she struggled with accepting the call and remembers wrestling with it all one night, but becoming very clear by morning that she would explore ministry. 

A church member who also happened to then be the president of Methodist University, Dr. Elton Hendricks, encouraged her to finish her college education there and helped pave the way for her attendance. She earned a bachelor of arts in religion before graduating from Duke Divinity School with a master’s of divinity in 2007.

Leechford was ordained in 2009 and served several churches in the eastern part of North Carolina before arriving at WEUMC.

She loves proclaiming the word of God, but her real passion in ministry is mission.

“I’m really called to mission, and I’ve traveled in many, many countries participating in, ministering with and leading mission teams,” said Leechford. 

“I think that what has been so wonderful for me is that through the United Methodist Church, I have been able to travel so much and experience a small part of the lives of people in other countries and seeing the poverty and hardship and seeing what happens when people are threatened in their own country.” 

Minister Jane Leechford – West End United Methodist. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

She serves on the board of Project AGAPE, which serves the people of Armenia. WEUMC members visit the area to build and restore homes and to bring clothing. They also send Christmas boxes to the children. 

“My heart is local and world missions,” she said.

The United Methodist Church in recent years experienced a difficult season as a denomination, with many churches dropping away over doctrinal issues largely to do with human sexuality. Leechford and her congregation have kept their focus on matters most central to faith.

“What we’ve determined is we just need to keep our eyes on Jesus and following Jesus. And if we do that, then Jesus is going to lead us. And I do believe that he is leading us and what we’re doing here,” said Leechford, who regularly encourages members during weekly worship services to take the church outside into the world.

She says members feel like they have their purpose and their own calling to serve the greater community and the world beyond from the community garden and the food pantry and the People’s Table, and the Bread of Life ministry, the summer reading program and many others. 

“We just have so many ministries locally and the congregation feels that they have discovered who they are and God’s plan for our church,” she said. “And they’re excited about it. Most everybody is in ministry here somewhere in this congregation.”

Leechford, who loves proclamation, studying and reading, understands her call to ministry as one that embodies a quiet strength and projects a positive outlook.

“I see myself as a quiet leader. I listen to people’s dreams and to the vision for the church, and my role is to empower them. I know that what takes place is not about me, it’s about God and God’s movement in people’s lives.”

She draws inspiration and strength for ministry from her guiding scripture, the Beatitudes in the fifth chapter of Matthew.

“I think of all things, it is the beatitudes that gives me hope. There are so many hopeful scriptures that talk about the love of God, but I think the passage that incorporates all of that and all of what Jesus did and said is in the Beatitudes.”

She believes everyone is called by God and that women are particularly gifted for ministry.

“They’re nurturing. They’re brilliant. They’re strong, thoughtful and detail oriented,” she said. “I just think that the world needs to see women in ministry because we have a lot of gifts and we’re good leaders. The main thing is that God calls us.”

She wonders what her life would be like if she said “no” to God’s call. She knows it would not be as fulfilling.

Leechford is writing a book about her experiences in ministry. She was prompted to delve into matters of identity and calling when she was introduced at an interdenominational service by a male colleague from a denomination that does not ordain women to pastoral ministry. She could see his brain going a little haywire with his predicament before he finally said: “What do we call you? Ms. Leechford?” 

She replied that Pastor Jane or Reverend Leechford was appropriate. This July 1 will be her 20th year in ministry. Her book will tell about her journey and it is for everyone who wonders about what it means to be called.

“I want to encourage people, not just women, but especially women, to listen for when God is tugging at your heart,” she said. “It’s a difficult journey. There is a beautiful world out there. And God calls all men and women to the specific places of our lives. Don’t ignore that call, no matter how frightening it may seem. Listen and act when you feel God is burning in your heart.” 

In her current context, Leechford is grateful to serve with a congregation that is called to love for one another, the people in the larger community and the world.

“We’re happy together,” she said. “You know, we have our bumps in the road from time to time, but overall it comes down to love that we have for one another and our community.”

Contact Maggie Beamguard at maggie@thepilot.com.