The first sermon of the first senior female pastor at Salt Lake City’s First Presbyterian Church addressed a topic of deep concern to women everywhere but often left unmentioned from the pulpit — sexual assault.
On Aug. 7, the Rev. Jamie White stood before her new congregants in the historic red sandstone church on South Temple near the Catholic Cathedral of the Madeleine and described a life-changing attack at the hands of her high school boyfriend that resulted in a pregnancy.
She felt lost and alone with few options, White told a rapt audience, until out of nowhere a friend dropped off a kind letter of support and some cash.
“He showed up,” she said in her sermon, just as the Apostle Paul’s friend did in Philippians, and just as members of the congregation are commanded by scripture to do for one another.
Having a female pastor for the first time already highlighted some fresh differences from the past 150 years of sermons.
White’s approach was typical of the young pastor, who skillfully stitched together passages from the New Testament and some Greek wordplay with modern experiences and contemporary interpretations.
To be sure, White spoke from notes and was well-organized, but her approach was relaxed and conversational, rather than rehearsed or staid.
And those are the extraordinary skills that made White stand out among more than 50 applicants who sought the job as First Presbyterian’s new minister, after the church’s longtime minister, the Rev. Michael Imperiale, retired in 2019.
“We watched them all preach online,” said Beverlee Simpson, co-chair of the church’s search committee. “The first time we Zoomed with her, it was like a bolt out of the blue. We all knew she would suit the needs at First Presbyterian perfectly. She has a great grasp of what the people of God need, and she has lots of ideas and energy for serving the community.”
White, Simpson said, “fit all those slots we were looking for.”
So how did the California native, who was reared in a Pentecostal church and most recently studied ancient languages and scripture at Princeton Theological Seminary, end up leading a prominent church in the Beehive State?
Like many people, White’s spiritual journey has had many twists, turns and detours — but, she believes, all of them were leading her to this place.
To Utah, then away and back again
After White graduated from high school in central California, she moved to Utah to live with a relative, while having her child. This is where she met her future husband, Dave White, while attending Capital Church, an Assembly of God faith near downtown Salt Lake City, and together they have reared their three children.
Always, though, ministry was calling to her, White said in an interview.
She received her undergraduate degree in pastoral leadership and biblical studies from Vanguard University of Southern California. She later attended Fuller Theological Seminary and eventually Princeton, earning a master of divinity degree as well as being named a distinguished Apollos Scholar. She has received numerous awards, including the Presbyterian Leadership Award, the Promise for Ministry Award, and the Robert K. Kelley Memorial Award in Ministry.
“Jamie is one of best ministers I have ever taught,” her theology professor, the Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean, wrote in a recommendation. “She is a born leader, an astoundingly astute listener, and as wise as she is smart. Her mature grace and deeply authentic collegiality, not only make her an immeasurable gift to all who know her, but an absolutely incredible pastor.”
The professor concluded: “I sincerely wish Jamie was my pastor.”
Before going to the Ivy League school, White served as a youth and family minister at Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church in Millcreek, where she became almost an associate pastor — designing and running ministry programs, planning and leading worship, preaching and teaching, training lay leaders and supervising other employees, and providing pastoral care to the congregation.
White wasn’t sure, however, she would be a good match for what is known as a “high church,” or one that is fairly traditional in its approach to liturgy, scripture, and rituals. After all, First Presbyterian was organized in 1873 and the building was erected in 1903. That’s a lot of history and tradition to draw upon.
“I’m pretty informal as a person,” she said. “But I read their mission study, where they have been and where they are now, and the city’s needs, and they set their goals and priorities with a forward-looking eye to meeting the needs of the actual city they are placed in.”
She found that “incredibly refreshing and hopeful,” White said. “I said to myself, ‘If they are serious, then I really am a good fit for them.’”
But she had to decide if they meant it, because, she said, “this isn’t the same community it was even 20 years ago.”
Vision for the future
Like so many older congregations, First Presbyterian has watched many people leave, especially younger members who come once in a while but are not sticking around.
It now counts about 450 members, but weekly attendance in the summer is more like 200 (with some others still watching remotely on Zoom).
“How do we create a space where younger people want to be here and feel needed and necessary?” White asked the search committee. “We had some fun conversations about what that might look like.”
Such changes require adaptations and take time, White said, but she and the congregational leaders are “eager and ready” to get started.
Music has always been a strength of the church, which features a large pipe organ added in 1911 and seven stained-glass windows, but in recent years the leaders have tried adding more contemporary music, including guitars and drums, she said. “I don’t want to lose the traditions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spice it up a bit and have a more informal feel to worship.”
And she wants more real talk about today’s challenges for families and individuals.
“I don’t think people are not interested in God or spirituality,” White said, “but they walk into a church and ask what does this have to do with my life?”
The Rev. Steve Aeschbacher, who has served as the interim pastor at the gothic church, is “very excited about Pastor Jamie’s ministry and the future of First Presbyterian.”
She combines “intelligence, charisma, a pastor’s heart, and a deep, infectious love of Jesus,” Aeschbacher said. “She has a clear vision for the future and at the same time is happy to listen and learn from others. Her long history in the valley and in ministry means she can hit the ground running. I can’t think of a better way to start our second 150 years than with our first woman as installed senior pastor.”
On top of that, White knows “how to navigate Utah’s religious community,” Simpson said. “We are all growing closer and cooperating and appreciating and loving one another.”
Some of the pastor candidates suggested they would come to Utah, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to address or convert those believers.
White isn’t like that, she said. “She doesn’t feel called to change anybody.”
Plus, White can attract new members, appealing to a wide range of believers.
“She is that voice and that face that says church isn’t just for your grandparents,” Simpson said. “It’s for everybody to come in and meet Jesus here.”
With more young people leaving organized religion, she said, White is “our hope.”
Correction • Aug. 14, 8 a.m.: The Rev. Jamie White attended Capital Church for a time in Salt Lake City and in-person classes at Vanguard University in Southern California. A previous version misstated those references.