It’s common for boy to meet girl (and vice versa) at Union College. Melissa Palmer and Greg Howell’s love story at Union, however, is unique and certainly unlike any Hollywood romantic comedy.
Both Melissa and Greg studied theology at Union, and they found each other in Dr. Sylvester Case’s Greek class. Somewhere in between parsing verbs and translating the gospels, they found true love. Dr. Case himself performed the wedding ceremony.
Ah, a tale as old as time.
Since graduating from Union in 2003, Melissa and Greg have pastored eight churches in both Washington and California. Melissa notes, “It’s kind of neat how Greg and I have received our ministerial training side-by-side, from undergraduate work through seminary at Andrews.” They studied together and have often pastored together.
Currently, Melissa serves as full-time family pastor at the Carmichael Seventh-day Adventist Church in Northern California. Her husband Greg now pastors part-time at Carmichael while he completes a doctorate in church history.
“It’s hard to have a split life,” Melissa said. “When you’re at work, you miss your kids. When you’re at home, you wonder about work.” Every working parent can relate, but that honesty is what makes Melissa an effective family pastor: She’s in the thick of real life, yet she’s not afraid to speak openly about her struggles.
In her new book, You’ll Laugh About This Someday: Devotions for Frazzled Moms, Melissa merges her pastoral and motherly roles to help others experience God’s peace even when they feel surrounded by chaos.
A pastor who is, first and foremost, a mom
One thing is for sure, Melissa said, “both parenting and pastoring have one thing in common: neither is a nine-to-five job. You never leave it, no matter what time of day or night. Both parenting and pastoring are with you always.”
True, but pastoring rarely includes having a “barfing child crawl into your bed” at night. Or a young son who is convinced he is Batman. And it’s candid stories like these that make You’ll Laugh About This Someday so delightful and encouraging.
Melissa loves being a mom. Her book radiates that love. “I absolutely love watching little personalities as they grow. I love the snuggles, the cuddles. I love it all.”
The book began as journal entries and Facebook posts, none of which she intended to publish in print. “Every author has an audience in mind,” she says. “I think I wrote with myself in mind.”
She later mustered the courage to share her thoughts with a writing group led by Seth Pierce ’03, and he encouraged her to publish. It seemed impossible to Melissa that her private reflections would be useful to others. The book’s reception has proven not only their utility, but how insightful, profound, and hilarious her reflections can be.
She’s certainly not afraid to say what mothers are thinking but are too afraid to say aloud. Reflecting on parenting, she says, “You’re never really sure you are doing it right. You definitely never feel proficient at it. About the time you think you’ve figured things out, everything changes.”
Likewise, she’s not afraid to admit things she dislikes about motherhood, such as laundry and grocery shopping. Matching socks is a constant struggle, and she has yet to get used to … well … poop. What’s more, her dream of being a stay-at-home mom ended in defeat. “I tried it, but I found it so hard to be at home all day with a toddler.”
She returned to the workforce as a pastor, the field of her college training. At first, she felt pressure, especially as a family pastor, to be the perfect mom. The fishbowl is very real to pastors, their spouses and children. Yet it didn’t take long for her to know perfect is not what congregations want. “I think most parents are looking for companionship more than answers or perfection. I think my family gives people courage when they see we’re not perfect either. We’re going through the same struggles they are.”
“If I feel any pressure now,” she says, “it’s simply to make sure my kids meet and fall in love with Jesus.” Like all busy families, she laments, it’s easy to get lost doing the little things while forgetting the big things that matter. Passionate about Jesus in all aspects of her life, Melissa wants desperately for her kids to know Him.
A mom who is very much a pastor
The uniqueness of her position is not lost on Melissa. She and Greg took their jobs at Carmichael the week before the 2015 vote at General Conference on women’s ordination.
The timing of the vote has given her perspective on her vocation. “My journey is a funny one. I didn’t ask for this call. I wasn’t searching for it. But there was no question I felt God impressing me to take it. I didn’t go looking for this, but I wanted nothing more than to be obedient to God.”
She’s been at Carmichael Church for eighteen months and delights in her supportive congregation and conference. “I am so honored to minister in this way. Every time I step on the platform or work with families, I feel so honored to be called. And that’s all ordination really is, a public recognition of what God has already done by calling you to pastoral ministry.”
The vote on women’s ordination remains controversial, and Melissa is aware of that. She worries about the youth and young adults in the church and how the issue and debates may harm their view of the church. However, the vote has also provided opportunities and myriad chances to talk about what it means to be called.
Mostly, she says, “If God really wants this to stop being an issue in the church, He should stop calling women to ministry.”
The need for family ministry
As both a mother and a minister to families, Melissa passionately hopes the church will find ways to help parents. While the church provides ample programming for children, it’s time to consider the spiritual health of parents, too.
“Parenting is something we learn on the job,” according to Melissa. “The learning curve is steep. Parents are often unsure how to talk about Jesus in the home, how to have family worship, or how to tend to their own spiritual development.”
One wonders if we tended to the spiritual health of moms and dads, might we reap the harvest later with kids who adore Jesus and have a healthy view of themselves. This is the blessing motherhood has given her to her ministry—both as a mother and as a compatriot in this difficult thing called Christian parenting.
Melissa Howell’s book, You’ll Laugh About This Someday:
Devotions for Frazzled Moms, is available through the Adventist Book Center and most major book sellers, including Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.
By Mike Mennard is a writer, musician and adjunct professor at Union.