Sarah Howell didn’t intend to become a minister, even though she grew up surrounded by church influences.
Her father, the Rev. James Howell, was senior pastor of Davidson United Methodist Church for most of her childhood before he became senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist. Through her father, Sarah Howell was familiar with Duke Divinity School.
“I never encouraged Sarah to become a pastor,” James Howell wrote in an email. “She went off to school (at Duke University), and I figured she’d be a medieval historian or a musician or a writer.”
But Sarah Howell, a graduate of Myers Park High School, said she was hooked after she took her first religion class, although she first considered a career in nonprofit work or academics. She eventually enrolled in Duke Divinity School and became an ordained minister. She’s now 27 and serves as associate minister at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem.
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On Oct. 19, the father and daughter will speak together for the first time in a formal setting at 4 p.m. at the Gathering Space of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary.
They will discuss their unique perspectives on the church’s past and future.
“We hope to explore what’s been lovely and ugly about where the church has been, and take that as a window into where the church will be heading,” James Howell said.
James Howell said Union Seminary originally asked him to make a presentation, and as he and faculty member Richard Boyce hashed through ideas, Howell kept saying, “You know, my daughter is really wise about this,” or “I'll check in with my daughter to get her perspective.”
“Finally, (Boyce) and I settled on the joint presentation notion, which I think is pretty cool,” Howell said.
Sarah Howell said she and her father’s viewpoints, even though separated by their 31-year age difference, do have points of connection.
She said her generation tends to question the institutionalism of the church more than her dad’s generation.
“I feel like I do that a lot in myself and in my work, which for me is helpful for the church providing its mission and purpose,” she said.
While she’s not interested in throwing out all tradition, Sarah Howell has found ways to innovate in her ministry. An example is her mid-week Roots Revival service, which features Americana and roots-based music and uses secular music in its teaching and preaching segment.
The liturgical service also features old hymns and traditional music.
“It’s been a really fun experiment in worship design and in community building for me,” she said.
She also helps plan the church’s four Sunday worship services and works in women’s ministries and with local and international missions. She returned from a short mission trip to Haiti in mid-October.
James Howell said many people are fearful, nostalgic or retrenching about church, but he and his daughter believe there’s a healthy and faithful way forward.
“Church will change dramatically by the time she’s my age,” he said. “So there are questions about how to worship, how moral issues shape us now, how to be church in a culture that increasingly cares little about church....”
James Howell said he and his daughter often talk about church because it is a shared vocation, and Sarah Howell said her dad has become a valued source of advice.
“I would have supported whatever (Sarah’s) calling turned out to be, although it’s fun doing the same kind of thing,” Howell wrote. “I can loan her my books.”