493: Interview on the Power of Prayer with a Mom Who Became a Pastor

What is a “faith leader”? We’re asking that question all week—because some of the most influential spiritual voices of our age are rising from people who aren’t necessarily clergy. We need new terms to describe this movement of faith.
    Here are two examples: Check out our series by artist Nancy Thayer, this week, on the ingredients that make a “faith leader.” And, don’t miss our reflection on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock—an event that pushed an entire generation to think of ourselves as spiritually called to … well, called to something. You tell us what.
    Today, our Wednesday Conversation focuses on the Rev. Tonya Arnesen—who is truly a “faith leader.” Now, she’s an ordained pastor and head of United Methodism’s landmark parish in the New Center of Detroit, Michigan—a historic church called Metropolitan.
    But Tonya didn’t start out on a clergy track. She was a homemaker who attended one of the nearly 1 million small groups that meet in congregations across America. Members of her small group began praying and studying and supporting each other’s spiritual vocations—and she wound up enrolling in seminary and becoming a pastor herself.
    This month, Tonya is serving as co-chair of the 2009 “Lift Detroit in Prayer” movement—which is known as “Lift Your City in Prayer” in nationally.
    (This Just In: We’ve received word that a Chicago-area group of pastors will lift their city in prayer, as well. Stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for more details. And, please, Email us with news about other efforts to pray for cities around the world. And, please, visit our “Lift-in-Prayer” Resource Page for more details.)


    DAVID: You started your adult life like millions of other Americans—with marriage, having children, joining a church—but you weren’t thinking that you would end up as an ordained pastor, right?
    TONYA: I was born in 1957. My Dad was a well-known minister—United Methodist. He was a preacher and teacher and he traveled a lot, especially in the South.
    I was married in 1978 and moved to Michigan and I started out working in a computer-services firm. In 1981, I had my daughter and I was a stay-at-home Mom, a full-time homemaker, for 12 years.
    DAVID: Prayer dramatically changed your life. This was prayer within a small group of women who met regularly in your congregation.
    TONYA: Yes, I got involved in a covenant prayer group at a Presbyterian church we were attending and it was through this prayer group that I had such a powerful experience that I sensed my own call to ministry.
    DAVID: You say there was a covenant among these women. An agreement to meet together each week?
    TONYA: Yes, we actually had signed a covenant together. We met once a week for an hour and a half and it was led in a round-robin fashion.
    We did some Bible study in the group but we primarily talked about topical things and we prayed together. It was in that covenant group that I really learned to pray and feel comfortable and confident in prayer. We experimented with different styles of prayer. We did a lot of study about prayer in that group and we prayed together and we prayed for one another.
    Part of the covenant was just our commitment to being a caring community for each other. I was one of the younger members. There also were retirees in the group. We had mentors from all different walks of life. Some of us were working in the home. Some of us were out in the workplace. Some were married. Some had never been married. We all committed ourselves to caring for one another.
    DAVID: What else was in your covenant?
    TONYA: The covenant was keeping confidentiality, speaking the truth in love, making time to meet together. It was to share in leadership and to pray with and for one another.

    DAVID: What drew you to this group that was to become such a big part of your life? You were a young Mom with a new child. There was a whole lot going on at home.
    TONYA: I needed the sense of community. Because I was an at-home Mom, I needed a way to connect intellectually, physically, spiritually with other grownups, since I was home so much of the time with little ones. This group was an opportunity to use my mind because much of the reading we did was very challenging and it kept me alive intellectually.
    Then, I began to feel a real call to ministry. I had thought about it when I was in college, but there were so few female role models for persons in ministry.
    I’m a fairly traditional female, but I began to see other models for ministry.
    Through our prayer group, I got a theological understanding and a biblical understanding of why it is important to pray. I began to pray more and I began to see changes happening.
    DAVID: Did this call to ministry come like a voice you heard? Like a career path that fell into place logically? Like a series of coincidences? Tell us more.
    TONYA: I began to see myself rising into significant leadership in the local church. At my church, that translated into becoming the leader for Christian education. Then, I was asked to get up during a church service and share a short moment on stewardship. That was a first for me at that church.
    DAVID: You’re talking about standing up during worship and talking to the congregation about what Protestants call “stewardship,” which means how and why people support the church, right? And they chose you to do that during a special season when a Protestant church talks about stewardship?
    TONYA: Yes, that’s right. Because my husband David and I were a young family and we were a single-income family, the head of the stewardship program invited me to stand up and talk about why David and I made it a priority to give to the church, when there were so many other ways we could spend that one income.
    My talk was maybe five minutes long.
    DAVID: Easy to do?
    TONYA: (laughs) I was scared to death! I had done a lot of drama in high school and college and I was a trained musician in vocal and piano. My college degree started out to be piano performance, but then I changed my major to religion, but this little talk was something that really did scare me! Talk about a sense of vulnerability to get up and talk like that about our family and the church!
    DAVID: You gathered up your courage, you gave the talk—and—
    TONYA: And, people responded that day. People came up to me afterward and talked to me about what the church meant to them.
    One person mentioned seminary to me, then a second person came up to me and said, “I want to be there when you’re ordained.”
    DAVID: But they didn’t really expect you might become a pastor?
    TONYA: Oh, heavens no! I hadn’t even spoken to my covenant group about the idea of full-time ministry. But, I could tell that God was moving me toward ministry as a vocation. Even at the time I finally did enter seminary, I thought I might specialize in pastoral care and counseling. But, then, I won a prize for preaching at my seminary and I could see the strong response I was getting to my preaching. I never thought of myself becoming the senior pastor of a church like Metropolitan United Methodist here in Detroit, but that’s where the journey has taken me.
    DAVID: And now you’re co-chairing the 2009 Lift Detroit in Prayer project, which reaches beyond any one denomination or faith. You work in the heart of one of the world’s great cities—Detroit—so, like your co-chair the Rev. Kenneth Flowers, you’re praying for the city all the time. We just profiled Ken’s amazing story of urban ministry.
    Tell us a little bit about why you care so much for the city. Why do you pray for the city?
    TONYA: First, we are the city.
    Often, we try to separate in our minds the city from the people of the city. My love for this city has grown through my commitments to this congregation—the people here. This congregation is the city. We are the city.
    Our congregation, Metropolitan, is just a microcosm of the larger city of Detroit. When we pray for one another, we are praying for the city. We are the city together.

    DAVID: How do you pray? What do you ask for? What do you hope will happen?
    TONYA: Prayer doesn’t just change things or situations. Prayer changes people. Fundamentally, I’ve experienced that prayer changes the pray-er. I find that when I’m praying for the city, God is softening my heart for the city.
    Over the years, I have encountered people with a mindset that Detroit could fall off the face of the map and the state wouldn’t be worse off if it did.
    I don’t just pray for situations and for things to change. When I’m praying, I’m praying that my own heart and mind and vision will change as well. When we’re praying for the city, we’re learning to care more. God is doing something in our own hearts and minds that helps us to see opportunities to make a difference.
    DAVID: As we’re talking, I’m recalling an interview we published back at the turn of the year with Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the great Jewish sage who was talking about the need for Americans to reclaim their conscience. He talked about the need to make fundamental changes in the way we look at the world—the need to lift up goodness.
    I hear some of that approach as you talk about prayer.
    TONYA: God changes us through prayer, but when you look at a lot of the prayer literature that’s published these days, a lot of it is all about—me. Just me. My self-improvement.
    What I’m talking about is the realization that we’re citizens of the world. We weren’t put here just to take care of our own individual needs. We were put here to make this creation a more hospitable and beloved place to live.
    I know that God is with us.
    I know that God is not done with us.
    I know that God is always working with us to do what is good.
    I know that God continues to call people wherever they are, wherever they live.
    And I know that people continue to say yes to God’s call.
    That’s part of what Lift Detroit in Prayer is all about. Just the fact that people from all walks of life and from throughout southeast Michigan will be coming into Detroit and paying attention to the good that’s happening in Detroit—there is power in that kind of prayer. There is something good in that kind of prayer.
And one thing I know:
    I know that God’s goodness is always more powerful than evil.


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