For two months, the new pastor of two Salt Lake City Methodist churches has been driving to the homes of her congregants to introduce herself and to take selfies.
The Rev. AJ Bush pulls up to a house, rings the doorbell and proceeds to have a friendly, albeit socially distanced, conversation with members of at least 60 households now under her charge. And, of course, she documents the event for social media.
That’s because Bush arrived in Utah during the coronavirus pandemic and the churches have not been worshipping in person for months.
“It’s important for me to show up, so people know that I’m here, and that I’m willing to show up for them and that I want to show up for them in this weird time,” she said. “... It’s been super valuable. I’ve loved it.”
Bush, originally from Colorado and previously based in rural Wyoming, moved to the area after Bishop Karen Oliveto, who leads all seven districts in the faith’s Mountain Sky Conference, appointed her as the new pastor of First United Methodist Church and Centenary United Methodist Church. She replaces the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, who is now the United Methodist Church’s Utah/Western Colorado District superintendent.
Bush started her new position in July, and she has been leading the estimated 25 members of Centenary United Methodist Church and around 50 members of downtown Salt Lake City’s First United Methodist Church simultaneously through weekly livestreamed services.
She plans to spend the first year listening, learning and conversing — getting to know all she can about her churchgoers. She also intends to understand the churches’ ministries, including a breakfast for the homeless program. From there, she can help strengthen those ministries and communicate the churches’ values to the entire community.
“We’re an open and affirming congregation for LGBT people. We do a lot of social advocacy work. Some of those values of this church really resonate with people right now,” she said. " … One of the things that we’ve talked about is how do we share the story, and let people know that this is what we’re about.”
Path to pastor
Bush began her journey to the clergy as a child, excited to participate in youth ministry. But the designated pastor left her childhood church in Colorado before she was old enough to participate in the ministry. Though disappointed, the experience sparked a desire to become a pastor.
“That was kind of the first time I recognized that this was an important role and that there needed to be people to fill that role.” Bush said. “I started to notice my own interest in that work and kind of thinking like, ‘Oh, this is something that I could do.’”
After graduating from Colorado State University in 2011, she worked as a social worker at Meals on Wheels through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
“I wanted to explore if maybe God was calling me to ministry outside of the church because I have a passion for social justice and social work and advocacy and community organization,” Bush said. “Within the first month, I wrote [to myself that] I don’t think social work is where my ministry is supposed to be; I think my ministry is supposed to be in the church.”
She graduated from Southern California’s Claremont School of Theology in 2015 and was assigned to a church in rural Wyoming.
“It was a big culture shock, but it turned out to be a really good experience for me, and it taught me a lot and pushed me a lot,” Bush said. " … For my first appointment, I actually feel very lucky to have been appointed there because they serve a very healthy church, and they taught me a lot of good things.”
Gillette, Wyo., is home to nearly 32,000 people. The small town’s Methodist church included about 60 congregants who had a variety of opinions on the LGBTQ community. That congregation taught her to “meet people where they are” and value diversity.
Coming to Utah
After five years there, Bush had a feeling the bishop would likely appoint her to a new congregation. She saw that Salt Lake City was open and thought she would enjoy working in a church that’s passionate about social justice.
“It kind of felt like a God thing,” she said. “That I had previously thought they would be a good match and then that was the call that I got.”
Before Bush’s arrival in Utah, the two Salt Lake City churches became reconciling congregations, meaning they declared themselves to be an affirming church that is open to LGBTQ members. First United Methodist Church has also participated in Pride parades and has members of the LGBTQ community in the congregation and on staff.
Bush said she appreciates the community’s passion for social justice, even as United Methodist churches nationwide remain divided on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.
“One of the things I’m grateful for here is that these churches already have that commitment and already have that value,” she said. “They’ve already done the work to be very clear about who they are and that they want to welcome everyone.”
The coronavirus has prevented Bush from fully experiencing the challenges that come with leading two congregations. The Centenary United Methodist Church community and the First United Methodist Church members worship together virtually right now by viewing the same livestream.
“I don’t know where that will lead or what will come of that,” Bush said. “But it has been an opportunity for people in two different churches to get to know each other.”
Churchgoers seem to appreciate Bush, too.
Becky Buxton, a lay leader at First United Methodist Church, was impressed with Bush’s dedication to spiritual development during a business meeting. She also appreciates the new pastor’s efforts to use everyone’s talents and generate excitement by encouraging the church to explore various avenues and not stick to the same plans.
“This is just what we needed,” she said. “Just something new and a breath of fresh air.”
McVicker is confident in her successor’s abilities to lead the churches.
“She’s very willing to try new things,” McVicker said, “and sees this as an opportunity to reach out to people in different ways.”