From included to belonging: Pastor Jenn Burnett of The Well
By Christina Van Starkenberg
As Jenn Burnett and I sat down via Zoom to chat, her youngest child kept popping in and out of the camera range asking for snacks, a playmate, and a cuddle buddy. Another one of her children graciously found her younger sibling something to eat and so we had a few moments to chat, though as anyone who has children, or who has seen all of the videos of children interrupting their parents’ conference calls can attest, both Burnett and I knew this was not time to be squandered.
Burnett is the pastor of The Well, which is a Christian Reformed Church in Kelowna. It is a young start-up church that is temporarily homeless due to the pandemic, and Burnett has been the pastor there for two years. While their future home is an issue that will need to be addressed and solved soon, for now, Burnett and her congregation are content to meet for socially distant picnics in the park and over Zoom. After all, the virtual meetings allow all of their congregants to attend, including a young woman in the Netherlands, and it enables Burnett to lead her Bible Study for people living in Indonesia.
One of Burnett’s guiding tenets about church is that people shouldn’t simply feel like they are included or that they are allowed to be there, but they should feel like they belong. This feeling really took root when she was in university. “I was most influenced in university when people took me home for lunch. They invited me into their chaos,” says Burnett. “That’s what church is supposed to feel like.”
This sense of living life together is something that The Well does well. Before the pandemic they used to have breakfast together every Sunday, they designed the interior of the building with children and their messes in mind, and when Burnett’s young children would scream for their mother someone would take them out of the sanctuary and feed them cookies to calm them down so Burnett could keep preaching.
“They have a heart to serve Jesus. They have a heart to serve other people,” says Burnett. “That’s an important part of who they are. They want to be real and they want to create space for other people to be real.”
To show the members of their wider communities that it is okay to come to God in the messes of their daily lives. That it’s okay to look for help when they are struggling emotionally, mentally, or physically. That someone will be there to love and support them.
“We’re always trying to learn, how do you love people well,” says Burnett. “Everybody reflects some aspect of God – even those who are different from you.”
And so, while they might temporarily be without a church building, the congregation is still trying to minister to their communities. Burnett has been speaking with professionals in mental health care to learn from them what she and her congregation can do to help out during the current mental health crisis.
Burnett feels confident that she and her congregation can shift their path to meet their own needs and the needs of those around them. “It’s about inviting the Holy Spirit to lead us,” says Burnett. “There is no track. Jesus said, ‘I am the way.” He’s still moving, and we’re invited to keep up and keep step. Jesus didn’t leave a highway. He’s an active living Saviour who goes before us and comes after us.”
As Burnett and her congregation are walking down their path with Jesus, they are remembering to choose practices that nurture belonging across differences, so they can break through the polarizing ideas that pull people apart and build a stronger community where everyone is free to be who they are.
“My job is to be authentic, to create a safe space for other people to be authentic, to create space for people to interact with [the Bible] on their own terms and support them,” says Burnett. “This is family. This is belonging: cultivating connections and discussions.”
As our conversation drew to a close, her youngest son came back and crawled onto Burnett’s lap to show her his video game. And Burnett wouldn’t have it any other way, because for her parenting and pastoring are inextricably connected, because that is who she is within the family of God. She is a mother and she is a pastor, and her hope is that by being both she will show others that it is okay for them to be a parent and a leader.