As the crow flies, Kasey Eller hasn’t wandered too far from her roots in Little Rock, Ark.
“I actually teach at the same middle school I went to, so I haven’t gone very far,” she explained.
But Eller, 39, has journeyed further afield when it comes to church and ministry. Previously a member of two other congregations in town, she joined Second Baptist Church in 2014 and was called to be its part-time minister to elementary children in 2019.
A full-time educator in public schools, she said the fellowship at “2BC” has helped her through the unforeseen challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, including balancing the intense callings of school and church and connecting with children in online formats.
And the congregation, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, also widened her understanding of the full potential for women in ministry, for LGBTQ inclusion and racial reconciliation during a time of massive social upheaval around issues of race and justice, she said.
More than talk about inclusion
Most impressive was that the church did more than talk about inclusion, she said. “When I arrived at 2BC, I noticed our slogan was ‘a different kind of Baptist church.’ I saw how different it was when I was asked to be a deacon.”
And it goes wider than that. “We have single people, young adults, women all part of the deaconate. That was not something I was used to,” she said. “Also, women preaching from the pulpit. That was different.”
Eller is a different kind of disciple, according to Preston Clegg, pastor of Second Baptist.
The church noticed her exceptional skill as a volunteer in the children’s ministry, he said. “We saw her gifts and graces at work, along with her genuine love for and relationships with the children. She also is a person of deep faith, who has been shaped by the church from her earliest days.”
A new staffing model
Her appointment to lead children’s ministry coincided with the church’s move to a ministry model in which gifted lay people supplement full-time pastoral staff, he explained. “As we moved into this model, Kasey was the obvious choice in this role. The same talents and training that made her Teacher of the Year in the Little Rock School District a few years ago now enrich our children’s ministry every week.”
Eller’s calling has shown through her performance in school and church during the pandemic, Clegg said. “I know this season has been tough on her in these dual roles. The pressures and challenges of each are, of course, compounded in these days.”
But the positions seem to complement each other, he added. “Kasey’s desire to build up all children everywhere has empowered her to meet the unprecedented challenges of this season with the same force of love with which she would meet any challenges in any season.”
Teaching school in a time of COVID
A career middle school math teacher, Eller currently serves as an instructional facilitator, requiring her to help with tutoring, student assessments and anything teachers need.
And they need a lot because they were required by the state to return to work this fall, while students had the option to stay home and learn virtually.
“Our teachers are having to navigate teaching virtually as well as in person while trying to keep themselves and other students and their families safe,” Eller said. “It is definitely taking an emotional, psychological and physical toll on teachers trying to do this, day in and day out.”
The stress at school spreads outward, she said. “If you ask me if I felt that stress, yes sir. And my mother and father are concerned, and it’s the same for my husband.”
But with three degrees in education, Eller said it is her calling to be in those spaces with students and other teachers.
It’s the same with ministry. “These are two positions you go into whole heartedly. It feels like you are cheating the positions if you don’t put your whole heart into them.”
Eller, who was raised in a Missionary Baptist congregation, said it is her faith that has helped her throughout her career and through the pandemic.
“You don’t have to say the word ‘Jesus’ for Jesus to be in your classroom,” she said. “One of my focuses is to make sure students see grace and love and make sure they have a love of math as well.”
Connecting with students
Bringing faith to bear — at work or in Sunday school — is about connecting with students, she said.
“For me it comes down to the relationships you are trying to build. Students learn from you when they trust you. Students learn from you when they know you care for them.”
At Second Baptist, Eller has spent the pandemic working to stay connected with students while in-person worship has gone virtual. That’s included Zoom parties and visiting homes to make eye contact with children.
“My job in ministry is to be engaging and to teach in a way that opens their hearts and their ears to who they can be in Christ in a personal way,” she said.
But the inspiration goes both ways. A church town hall meeting was held over the summer on how parents can discuss systemic racism and white privilege with their children. Eller said it moved her to see the buy-in.
“I was very happy to see the parents of our church were ready to have that conversation.”
Eller said the parents’ embrace of the process further confirmed she is in the right place at Second Baptist. She said it is inspiring to be part of a predominantly white fellowship that is seeking to confront its role in systemic racism.
“I’m excited for this process we are going through and for the hope of what justice could look like for our city and state and nation, and for our kids,” she said. “I’m grateful to be part of a congregation that is willing to do the hard work and ask the hard questions.”