Recalling the moment seven years ago when she first felt the call to ministry and began the journey that eventually brought her to Perkins, Rhonda Chambers can only conclude one thing.
“I tell everyone that God has a twisted sense of humor!” she says with a smile.
Chambers, 56, grew up in the church, but never met a female pastor until after she was married and raising two children.
“I was a stay-at-home mom for over 25 years,” she said. “I made a career out of volunteering at our home church, in the local schools, and at the hospital’s pediatric physical therapy department.”
One day, while walking her church’s prayer labyrinth, she says, God called her to work in the church.
“Shock and trepidation can’t fully describe what I felt,” she said. “Since I didn’t have a college education, I knew it would be a tremendous undertaking.” But within a few weeks, she started classes as a freshman at Tarrant Community College, and later earned her undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University. Perkins was the next step, and in May, Chambers completed her second year of studies toward an M.Div. She is pursuing ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church, and will serve at First United Methodist Church of Dallas for her internship next year.
“As I’ve gone through the process, I’ve realized that God was setting me up for ‘just such a time as this’ all along,” she said. “Over the decades, I’d worn many hats in our church. I volunteered constantly and served in many capacities – president of the UMW, leading women’s Bible studies, teaching Sunday School, Pastor/Parish Relations committees, building campaigns, preschool teacher, and more. None of those experiences were wasted.”
A favorite Bible verse guided her since she started her education as a 50-year-old college freshman: “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2b)
“At first, I did not consider it the most comforting verse,” she said. “I mean, who wants to walk through fire? But fire can do lots of good things too.” In talking it over with her father, he shared how he would collect old tire weights and heat them in an old cook pot over a flame. Once the metal melted, he would skim off the impurities that floated to the surface.
As the verse foreshadowed, her years preparing for ministry have been difficult as well as productive and refining — but never too overwhelming.
“There were many times when I cried and threatened to quit, especially around finals,” she said. “But Daddy was right, the flames got hot, but not too hot and God paid close attention – always sending me affirmations and comforts in the form of phone calls, notes, or sweet encouragements from dear friends. Throughout the last seven years of college, this verse has proven true.”
Perkins has also proven to be a good place for her. Chambers is a Perkins Scholar and a member of the M.A.S.T. (Minister, Author, Scholar, Teacher) program. One day, she hopes to write devotional materials that might help bridge the gap between seminary and the pews.
“There is such a huge gap between the way we study the Bible in church and the academic study of the Bible,” she said. She hopes to help laypeople better understand that the Bible is “the Word of God, but not necessarily the words of God.”
She was also elected to a position for the 2020-2021 school year that might have seemed impossible or even irrelevant: serving as the Social Life Chair at Perkins in the middle of a pandemic. While in-person gatherings weren’t possible, Chambers was undeterred.
She became a regular attendee of the Thursday Study Hall sessions, held via Zoom and organized by the Office of Student Life and Tracy Anne Allred, Assistant Dean of Student Life. The study halls provided a safe “place” for students to socialize and connect. That led to unexpected blessings.
“Previously, students from the Dallas and the Houston/Galveston programs rarely had opportunities to interact,” Chambers said. “The study hall provided a place where students could chat, laugh, vent, develop relationships, and nurture one another. The only rule was absolutely no studying!”
The event was so popular that plans are underway to continue the Zoom study halls next year, even after students return to campus for in-person study.
Because there was no way to offer in-person social activities, Chambers used the Social Life budget to create gift bags, each stuffed with Perkins branded giveaways — a mug, coaster and mousepad – which she is distributing to every student enrolled for the spring 2021 semester.
Despite the challenges of the past two years, Chambers says, Perkins has been a good fit.
“Perkins came highly recommended for its dedication to quality education and its reputation for academic rigor,” she said. “I am thrilled with Perkins’ commitment to excellence as well as their outstanding professors. It also allowed me to meet some absolutely amazing new people.”
Chambers balances her studies with a busy family and church life. She’s a longtime member of White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake – she’s been attending since the days when it was a small rural church. (Today, White’s Chapel has more than 16,000 members.) Chambers and her husband will celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary on June 9. They have two grown children, three grandchildren and a fourth on the way. With all this going on, Chambers stays grounded by spending time outdoors.
“I hear God best when I’m outside in nature’s cathedral,” she said. “I like to wander the trails in the woods by the lake or walk through our church’s prayer labyrinth.” When time permits, she loves heading out to the small ranch her family owns in East Texas.
“I’ll go hop on our big blue tractor and spend several hours cutting the front pasture,” she said. “If I really need to bend God’s ear, I’ll cut the back pasture too.”