NORTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Thirty years ago Jean Holmes was a young married woman living in Summit, NJ when her husband took a job at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church (WAPC) as the organist and choir director. A lifelong Methodist hailing from the Midwest, Holmes began commuting to North Plainfield each Sunday to attend services.
Last month Holmes came home again, accepting the position as Interim Pastor for North Plainfield’s Presbyterian community and happily back in the building she came to love in the 1970s. She is replacing Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, who served the congregation for the past five years.
“The Watchung Avenue congregation was very loving and nurturing to me when I started attending seminary,” said Holmes. “And I’m happy to be here now in their time of need.”
Holmes has always had a love of the Bible and the stories of Jesus’ love, but she had never considered becoming a minister until well into adulthood. Still, her call to study her faith was strong enough that Holmes began taking classes at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison when her children started nursery school. But even then, becoming a pastor was not on her radar.
“I didn’t see a path to the ministry when I started because back then women weren’t ordained very often,” Holmes said. “But even though I didn’t know what my future held, after my first class at Drew I knew I was home.”
Scheduling classes around her children’s at nursery and later elementary school schedules, it took Holmes seven years to receive her divinity degree. For much of that time she still thought she was working towards becoming a Christian educator, but soon friends and family were asking her why she didn’t consider the ministry.
The idea finally took hold for Holmes, but she still needed an extra nudge to take the final step. She visited Pastor Tom Tewell of the Presbyterian Church in New Providence, and told him of her dilemma.
“He sat down with me, took both my hands and said, ‘Let’s pray about it,’” said Holmes. “It was as if God was speaking to me through Tom, and I knew then that I was going to become a minister.”
Holmes had moved on to other churches where she served as a pastor after 1990, but she never lost touch with her fellow congregants from North Plainfield. It was while having a social lunch with some friends who attend church at WAPC that she learned they had a need for an interim pastor.
“My friends said they were in need of an experienced Interim Pastor,” said Holmes. “While they weren’t thinking of me as a minister, still I raised my hand and now here I am.”
Holmes has served as an Interim Pastor for other churches, where her role is to be the spiritual leader of a Presbyterian Church after a pastor retires or moves on while preparing the church for their next permanent or “called” pastor. The new pastor could be Holmes or someone else, depending on the needs of the specific church.
Holmes sees her job at WAPC as bringing the “good news” of Jesus to the community, and feels being upbeat is vital to her success. She uses a technique called “Appreciative Inquiry” where she looks for the positive in the church and spends time emphasizing that with the congregation. This way everyone feels they have a good base to work from, and are able to build on that as they prepare for a new permanent minister.
“We spend too much time being negative and judgmental, and not enough time on God’s love and the message of our church,” says Holmes.
The new pastor is also very excited by the diversity of North Plainfield, much of which has occurred in the time since she began attending other churches. Holmes has made six missions to Nicaragua to support families and faith in the Central American country, and sees an opportunity to do the same sort of outreach here.
“We have a universal message, whether in English or Spanish,” she says. “I’m very excited to see the Hispanic population here, and to help bring God’s message to them.”
The Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church has more than 130 members, and Sunday Services usually have around 50 congregants. The church is very active in the community, participating in the annual Clean Communities event, the North Plainfield Street Fair, and hosting the YMCA of Plainfield and North Plainfield’s satellite after school and summer camp programs. The church also serves as the location for Head Start in eastern Somerset County, provided by the Somerset County Community Action Program.
Despite her role as the primary spokesperson for the North Plainfield church and her job preaching every Sunday, Holmes also sees a need for people to take quiet time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
“I believe we need to take time to be contemplative in silence, to be discerning in our spiritual lives,” said Holmes. “It’s important that we listen for what God has to say to us instead of telling him what it is we want.”
Services at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church are held every Sunday at 10 a.m. at 170 Watchung Avenue in North Plainfield.