Ruth McKinney has worked in ministry for about 30 years, but when she was recommended to be pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church earlier this year, it was a daunting prospect.
She had thought she might get a part-time job at a small church — not a larger one that was organized in 1870 and meets weekly.
Having grown up in North Carrollton, she had heard of Wesley. But as she began reading more about its history, her disbelief grew. “I’m like, ‘God, you’re trusting me with Wesley?’” she recalled.
Still, she took the job on, beginning work July 1. The coronavirus pandemic has limited the activities there, and she still hasn’t been able to meet many people in her congregation.
But she says she has received a good response.
“I love what we have, and I think it can only get better,” she said.
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McKinney, 55, was born in North Carrollton but spent part of her childhood in other places, including Germany and Texas, while her father served in the Army. The family returned to North Carrollton when she was about 10.
She said she enjoyed biking, “playing in the dirt” and other activities growing up in the small town. At J.Z. George High School, she played basketball, ran track and even took part in intramural football as well as cheerleading. She grew up in Vincent United Methodist in North Carrollton, where she sang in the choir.
She also inherited a love of reading from her mother: “She’d put a book down; I’d pick it up; I’d read it.”
McKinney graduated from George in 1983. She took business courses including typing and office machines there and was interested in being an accountant. But after entering Mississippi Valley State University and seeing the amount of theory courses and CPA exam preparation that was required, she opted for a business degree instead.
After her junior year, she met Kenneth McKinney, and she soon left school to marry him. They moved first to his hometown of Fulton and then to Biloxi after he joined the Air Force. While in Fulton, Ruth McKinney finished her business degree at Valley in 1989.
She worked a variety of jobs in Biloxi, including serving as a secretary and administrative assistant at Faith Tabernacle of Praise, a nondenominational church. After the family returned to Fulton, she worked for Deposit Guaranty bank in Tupelo as a teller and then in the investment department before taking a teller job in Fulton.
Working closer to home helped, she said: “The stock market doesn’t stop because I have to leave and take care of my children.” Besides, she didn’t enjoy selling bank products: “I didn’t even like selling Girl Scout cookies.”
She found work she enjoyed at Itawamba Community College, where she started as a secretary in the associate’s degree nursing program. She advised students on how to improve their grades and/or test scores to get into the program and informed them about other options such as the licensed practical nurse and certified nursing assistant programs.
She said she liked helping students accomplish their goals.
“I did that for probably seven or eight years, just helping the young people get through the AD nursing program — crying with them when they didn’t make it through, crying when they graduated,” she said.
She continued her advisory work in Itawamba’s division of Economic and Community Service, where she created C2C (Counseling to Career), a workforce development program that taught at-risk young people skills such as communication, problem solving, financial literacy, math skills and time management. Those who completed the program would have access to job opportunities.
“The goal was to remove the barriers so they could become sustainable citizens,” said McKinney, who still stays in contact with some of the students she helped.
But the job was far from her mother, who still lived in North Carrollton. So McKinney moved to Grenada and began work with Operation Hope, a Grenada nonprofit that does financial coaching for those wanting to improve their credit or open small businesses. Four years ago, she returned to North Carrollton, where her mother now lives with her.
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McKinney said her pastor in Biloxi, James Black, told her years ago that he believed she had a calling to go into ministry.
Over the years, she taught Sunday school to a variety of age groups, did some preaching and even helped with musical activities at various churches. She and her husband also opened a nondenominational church in Fulton, Faith Deliverance Outreach Ministry.
She eventually felt she had a calling to be a pastor, although it took a while before she followed it. She talked to the district superintendent for the Greenwood region, and he told her a year later that she appeared to be ready. Then came the opportunity at Wesley.
She said she and her congregation have a “beautiful relationship.” Then again, she said, “we don’t have as much as we could have, because the pandemic hasn’t allowed us to actually fellowship and get to know one another.”
The district superintendent warned her that her congregation might not be able to worship in person for a while. But she knows something about remote worship, having led Tuesday night Bible studies on Zoom. She also had prayed with a group regularly over conference calls, and the church leaders decided to conduct their services that way.
“It was the easy thing to do without having to necessarily have internet, because internet can be spotty,” she said.
The church typically has about 28 callers at a service. Roll is taken at the end to gauge how many people have been listening, and that averages 50 to 55 people, including some from other states.
After the conference call opens by 10:45, people take time to “visit,” and McKinney usually just remains silent.
“I listen to them, and I just enjoy the joy of hearing them getting a chance to talk,” she said. “You can have one or two — ‘Well, hey, babe, I haven’t seen you!’ — because nobody’s getting out.”
After she greets them with “Good morning, Wesley!”, they proceed with announcements, music, Scripture, prayer and the sermon — much like a regular service. It’s worked well for the listeners, many of whom are elderly people who may be susceptible to the coronavirus because of underlying health conditions.
McKinney said she has met them gradually over these few months — “I know their voices, and they know mine,” she said with a smile — and the number of listeners has grown.
She tries to apply Scripture to their everyday lives, and she appreciates it when they respond. “If they don’t give me feedback that says they got it, then I don’t feel like I’ve really done anything,” she said. “Preaching is a good thing, but it’s not the thing for me. The thing is when the people get it — if I’ve made a difference in somebody’s life.”
She is continuing to work out of her home for Operation Hope, spending a lot of time on the phone or taking virtual appointments on FaceTime or Zoom.
Now divorced, she has two sons and one daughter. The eldest son, Galvin, lives in Texas; the other son, Kenneth, lives in Memphis; and daughter Ashlee lives in Tupelo. McKinney also enjoys seeing her grandchildren when she can and communicating with them on FaceTime.
McKinney, who completed a master’s degree in higher education/student personnel at the University of Mississippi in 2010, now is taking ministerial courses at the Center for Ministry at Millsaps College.
She said she is optimistic about Wesley and hopes it can extend its outreach and witness to people.
“I like to come down here on Saturdays and just sit on the steps of the church, just being in the community,” she said. “Can’t really go see people, but I can wave at them as they drive by.”
• Contact David Monroe at 581-7236 or firstname.lastname@example.org.