McKinley eager to do 'good soul tending work'

In the years since Rev. Sara McKinley answered her call to ministry, she has served as an associate pastor, a senior pastor and a member of the body that helps credential pastors across the Florida Conference. Now, in her latest role — newly appointed director of the Office of Clergy Excellence — McKinley finds herself working as “a pastor to the pastors.” 

“The reach of this position is very broad, but it is good soul tending work, building relationships one conversation at a time, truly listening to the stories of each pastor — reflecting back what I hear and encouraging them to listen to their own teacher that is within each of us,” she said.

Born in England and raised in Africa, McKinley talks of a passion for helping pastors and congregations become more welcoming to those on the fringes of societal boundaries.

Accepting God’s timing as the best timing, McKinley officially took over the post in July, moving to Lakeland from First UMC Gainesville, where she served as the senior pastor. Prior to that, she served as senior pastor at First UMC Coral Springs, which followed nine years as associate pastor at Plantation UMC.

“Sara knows the mission field that is the Florida Conference,” Carter said. “In addition to her fruitful pastoral leadership, she is deeply acquainted with the work of the Board of Ordained Ministry.”

McKinley is a good fit to head Clergy Excellence because she’s respected across the conference and “highly relational,” he added.

“Working collaboratively, my hope and prayer is that Sara can lead us in the cultivation, call and equipping of clergy for the church of the future — not the past,” Carter said. “Our systems and habits are often the product of where we have lived. The adaptive challenge is to define clergy excellence in a changing landscape of church, culture and mission field.”

Karen Taylor, who’s been in a covenant group with McKinley for nearly 20 years, said McKinley’s gifts of administration and faith will serve her well as she oversees Clergy Excellence. “I can see her working beautifully with candidates who are hoping to be ordained,” she said. “I love Sara because she raises you up to the next level. She’s an encourager, and you can count on her for honesty.”

While McKinley feels challenged by her new job, she is also filled with hope.

“The most exciting part of it is the possibility of really developing young clergy and clergy who have the skills for what’s next in the church in the future,” she said. “We’re going through a sort of sea change at the moment, and I think the kind of pastors we are going to need are very, very different in many ways.”

She envisions pastors needing to become more willing to move beyond the existing walls of the church into nontraditional spaces and engage more Fresh Expressions of church within their communities. Many young clergy and those considering the call to ministry are already said to be exploring these new mindsets, and McKinley finds that trend refreshing.

“I’m really impressed with some of the young clergy who are coming along, and I love working with them and mentoring them,” she said. “They’re not so tied to traditional forms of church. They’re willing to be open to new and fresh ideas.”

As the newly appointed director of the Office of Clergy Excellence, McKinley acknowledges that becoming more inclusive can be an uncomfortable process, but she predicts it soon could become a critical issue for the church.

Currently across the Florida Conference there are roughly 34 clergy members under the age of 35. McKinley wants to double that number in five years. She also wants to help pastors develop 100 new lay leaders under 35 and identify 10 congregations in the conference that have active ministries that are engaging young adults in their local communities.

“That, to me, is what excellence would look like in a revived church,” she said.

Born in England and raised in Africa, McKinley also has a passion for helping pastors and congregations become more inclusive and welcoming to those on the fringes of society.

“It was a very interesting upbringing, and I think it’s impacted me hugely,” she said. “I don’t really have any fear of people from other cultures and other religions. I really relate to them, and I think I have a lot to learn from them.”

McKinley acknowledges that becoming more inclusive of people from different cultures, socioeconomic levels, sexual orientations and nationalities can be an uncomfortable process, but she predicts it soon could be a critical issue for the church.

“I think Millennials are going to demand that,” she said. “That’s going to be one of the ways the church will change and one of the ways we need to prepare clergy.

“And though much work remains in that area, the key is looking to Jesus’ life as our best example,” McKinley said. “It doesn’t mean we have to all think exactly alike. But we do have to love absolutely alike. We do have to listen and care for each other.”

As she settles into her new job at conference headquarters, McKinley enjoys walking around the nearby lake with Pierre, her pet Yorkie, reading and the challenge of assembling new furniture. She’s also busy helping her son, Andrew, and his fiancée, Genevieve Price, prepare for their May 2017 wedding.

“There’s a lot to this job, and I’m still learning,” she said. “I love talking to people and hearing their ideas. I am very, very open.”

 --Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer who lives in the Fort Walton Beach area.

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