Getting to know Jema

Getting to know Jema

St Peter’s was delighted when Jema Ball agreed to join the clergy team as Associate Vicar – her first post since completing her Curacy in Countesthorpe, Leicestershire. Jackie Bland visited her at home to find out more about her life, her calling, and her hopes for the future.

When I arrive Jema’s enjoying a rare moment of peace in her new home in Hillfield Road – stay at home husband Jonno has taken two year old Malachi swimming, and elder daughter Keziah, 5, is at the Chattabox Holiday Club.

 It seems a bit unfair to disturb this peace, but Jema ushers me in, makes coffee, and settles comfortably in her study, feet tucked under her in a comfortable armchair. She’s open, friendly and happy to talk about her 32 years of life to date, including how she came to first take up a CofE vocation and to join St Peter’s as the long awaited Associate Vicar.

Jema’s vibrancy shines through from the start; she has no doubts that she is in the right place, at the right time. She’s secure in the knowledge that she has been called by God to the priesthood, and equally certain that she is called to be a mother and wife, and that these vocations can be balanced healthily in the service of God and other people.

The role of Associate Vicar at St Peter’s ‘ticked all the boxes’ for Jema to be able to be both a devoted mother while her children are small, as well as  serve the church family – especially younger families and young people, using her experience and daily life to make connections, and hopefully bring more people to experience God.

‘ I hope that by being seen at the school gate as a Mum, doing ordinary things with small children and welcoming friends into our home, will help people to see that Vicars are normal – we have marriages like everyone else with ups and downs; we juggle our lives just like everyone else does.’

Growing up Jema was not aware of a calling to the priesthood, although she suspects many of the people that knew her as a child and young person were not surprised when she eventually made her decision.

In her case the calling was almost literal, she clearly remembers the moment in a church service when she was exploring what might lay ahead post-university, and praying deeply for direction, when she felt a direct sense of God telling her that she should pursue a life as a priest.

‘It wasn’t a voice, but it was a clear and immediate answer to a question I had in prayer.’

 Even so, with a pragmatism that so evidently balances her deep faith and spirituality, after the service Jema immediately sought the counsel of the Vicar to help her discern whether or not this was a genuine call.

She got what she needed in an unexpected way - the Vicar, a woman who already knew Jema well said that she had had a dream only the night before in which Jema became a priest!

At 20, with a lot of other things going on in her life, Jema knew that the time wasn’t right to act on this calling immediately, but she now had a surety that this was the way she wanted to go.

Jema graduated from Manchester University in ‘Anatomical Sciences’, and then took up a role with UCCF: The Christian Unions at the Head Office in Leicester, where she could be closer to home in Shepshed, Leicestershire, where family and (then prospective) husband Jonno were based.

She found the UCCF role very helpful, particularly the emphasis the organisation had on Bible study and the core role of the Bible in faith. Although Jema comes from a Christian family that was always very active within the churches they attended, she had not encountered this more disciplined, Bible-based side of faith before.

‘It was brilliant working there’ she recalls. I really grew in confidence and got to attend lots of conferences and talks, as well as progressing personally and being given a lot more responsibility. It was a key time of growing in faith in the context of a conservative, evangelical organisation.’

It brought its challenges too, though, when Jema decided to pursue the call to ordination. A lot of people within the UCCF at that time thought that women should not be in positions of leadership, believing that it ran counter to what the Bible teaches.

Jema had to think this through carefully. She says she did so ‘with the help of the help of the Spirit.

‘Whilst I believe wholeheartedly that the Bible is God’s Word, I don’t think we should always interpret scripture absolutely literally’ she says.

‘Some passages in the Bible are poetic, for example, and others clearly reflect the rules for that era, or particular circumstances.’

The other life that was running parallel to her calling to the priesthood, and perhaps what suddenly makes Jema’s journey to the ordination remarkable and poignant, was the start of her own family with Jonno.

Jema and Jonno met as young people within their church youth group, aged 15 and 18 respectively. She describes ‘turbulent first years’ in their relationship because they were very young, but by the time she was 17 they were ‘settled and secure’ within their relationship, and it promised to be a lifelong partnership.

Having weathered the test of Jema being away at university for three years, she returned home where she and Jonno became engaged and subsequently married while she was working at UCCF.

As Jema considered when to actively pursue the commitment she felt to the priesthood, she and Jonno were also considering when to start their family, and in line with the dual nature of her calling in life they decided to try for a family and pursue Jema’s prospective career in parallel. The outcome of this was that Jema became pregnant in the June of that year and the testing Bishop’s Advisory Panel to determine her suitability as a priest was scheduled for the following December.

This might have been a challenge in itself, but another story was unfolding.

‘At the 20 week pregnancy scan lots of problems with the baby were discovered’, explained Jema, ‘We were told that it wouldn’t end well. There followed lots of scans and none of it was good. We were told we could choose what to do about the baby, we could end the pregnancy, but that was not where we were at.’

Jema recalls this as ‘a horrible time’ but also as an amazing time as the full love and support of family and friends was revealed.

In the midst of this time of uncertainty was the prospect of the 3-day Bishops Panel interview which would determine whether she could pursue her now cherished dream of being ordained.

Those supporting her within the church and her journey to ordination were also incredibly supportive and made sure that she felt she could cope emotionally, and Jema went ahead, 7 months into her difficult pregnancy, for her critical interview.

The Panel knew about her situation, but miraculously, none of the other prospective ordinands asked her anything about her pregnancy, and despite everything she recalls the Panel as a good experience.

‘After all I like talking about myself’ she jokes.

Jema was thrilled to be selected to go forward – her journey to the priesthood was now well on its way.

By contrast, baby Solomon was born at 38 weeks, and as expected, did not survive the birth.

‘He hadn’t developed any kidneys’ Jema explains. ‘It was just one of those things that happen, nothing could be done about it.’

Jema describes this time in her life as ‘deeply traumatic...

‘It was my first experience of something like this, and yet I have known God more through that experience than at any other time in my life. We went through a time of intense grieving, of emotional healing, helped by a good Christian counsellor.’

With some distance between the experience of intense loss and the present day, Jema now reflects:

‘If grief can be pure, then that is how I would describe it. In a sense it was easier because it was contained; you are mourning a life you’d never know.

‘God allowed us to go through this experience and I think that through it we have our eyes more open to the pain of others.’

Genetic testing confirmed that the same thing was not likely to happen again and Jema and Jonno set off to settle in Bristol where she was to train for the priesthood, knowing that they could try again for a baby.

She absolutely loved Trinity College where she found that there was a great atmosphere with room for people to hold different views.

And with impeccable timing Jema became pregnant again during her first year, with daughter Keziah obligingly being born in the summer break. After the summer Jema returned to college with Jonno taking up his now familiar role as stay-at-home father.

Jema’s Curacy saw the family returning to their familiar territory in Leicestershire to take up a post covering four churches in the Countesthorpe area, a large village in south Leicestershire. There, working with Vicar David Hebblewhite whose outstanding support she pays tribute to, Jema played a full role, while developing a special focus on young families and establishing ‘Messy Church’ with attendances of over 100 each month.

‘Messy Church’ is great, says Jema, ‘It attracts people who wouldn’t otherwise come to church, and through it you can see evidence of people’s attitude to church changing.

‘People will say things like - I am not religious, but I still want my children to come to this – you can have more honest conversations when you are surrounded by glitter and paint’!

During Jema’s Curacy son Malachi was born and Jema took ‘a little bit of maternity leave’.

As the Curacy drew to a close Jema and Jonno started to look for a job within the Church which would enable her to make her full contribution, whilst at the same time enabling the family to continue to thrive while the children were small.

‘I had already decided that if possible an Associate Vicar post would be right for me, although we knew there weren’t many around’ recalls Jema.

‘And then Jonno showed me the advert for this post at St Peter’s and I just said ‘WOW’.

‘I asked for special permission to apply and Leicester Diocese was great, really supportive. They had been so good to me, supporting me all the way through my training and challenges. They said they didn’t want to lose me but they cared about me enough as an individual to let me go. I cannot emphasis enough how great they were to me.’

Jema was thrilled when she was offered the job here at St Peter’s. When I asked what she liked immediately about the church she quickly responded:

’The professional nature of it, St Peter’s clearly understands that public profile is important for the church – that was a big plus. I also like the way it values ministry amongst people of all ages.’

Jema’s role will have a big focus on developing St P’s work with young families, helped by the fact that she is living out the day to day realities of being a young parent herself.

But she’s also looking forward to making a contribution in all areas.

 ‘I love all aspects of church, I love the liturgy, I grew up with it, and so I am very at home with that style of worship too.’

And how, I ask her, does she think we can open up the church to more people?

‘For me following Jesus is normal, life giving, and a way of life through which you are blessed and can be a blessing for other people. I think when people see that authentic life lived out by Christians it can often prompt questions, and those questions can lead to conversations, perhaps over many months or even years which can eventually lead people to a point of intellectual and emotional commitment. Sometimes people may even start coming to church for other reasons and much later the real meaning actually ‘clicks’.

Jema uses any opportunity she can to get to know people and tries to initiate conversations about our spiritual lives, where it feels right to do so.

‘I believe all people are inherently loved by God, uniquely created by Him, and that people can come to know God in different ways. It’s often about helping people to connect with their inner, innate spirituality, and through that helping them to come to know God.

‘I think that the Holy Spirit lives within every person on this planet – we are all God’s workmanship and in that sense we bear his image and carry his Spirit within us.  But when a person acknowledges Jesus as their Saviour, the Holy Spirit comes to fill them in a unique and different way.  This journey can often take a long time for many people, and people across the world come to know God in different ways.  We must be careful not to limit God by only expecting him to reveal himself to people in ways that are familiar to us. Perhaps in that I am not as black and white as some people.’

Jema believes that as Christians we should do everything we can to extend God’s welcome to everyone, whilst not forgetting that being a Christian, coming to faith, does involve making sacrifices. Sacrifices materially perhaps, but more importantly sacrificing ways in which we say and do things, sacrificing ways of living which are not congruent with God’s best for us.

‘In this I believe we should be firm, even if it doesn’t make us popular,’ she says.  ‘We are all sinners, in need of God’s grace every day.  We are all called to walk the costly path of laying down our own desires and wants, and becoming more like Jesus.  It’s hard, and that’s why we need each other – the family of faith – to support us, encourage us and cheer us along the road of discipleship.’

St Peter’s recent move to introduce two Sunday services, in contrasting worship styles, also excites Jema, and she saw it work well in her previous church.

‘Obviously any segregation has to be done carefully and with caution, she says,’ seeking God’s guidance prayerfully, but we have to recognise that people have different spiritual styles which suit different expressions of worship.

‘I believe everyone has a spiritual style, their way of connecting with God, and part of our work is to provide opportunities for people to connect with God in a way that helps them most. We have to be a community that meets everyone’s needs, and not just in church, some people’s style is to connect with God outside of church.’

In her previous church Jema says that they worked hard at community cohesion across the two services and that this worked well, with a small group of what she called ‘intermediaries’ – people who attended both services and helped to knit the two congregations together.

‘It’s important that whatever happens that we still see ourselves as one church’ she says.

Finally I ask Jema, as one of the new, younger generation of clergy, what she would do if she were the Archbishop of Canterbury.

She laughs out loud at the idea but I coax a little and she thinks for a while...

‘One of the criticisms often made of the church is that it’s divided – several different communities. I think it’s great that we have different expressions of worship but I think we also need more unity – the more unity the better. Justin Welby is doing a great job of this, viewing things more broadly, recognising that the CofE is not the only way that God is working and there is some great stuff going on. It’s fulfilling and right to be working together with other churches and ultimately church is more attractive where there is unity.’

‘The other thing I like to see is people’s horizons being extended. Often we are so caught up locally that we forget what’s happening across the world. Recently we saw Justin Welby deeply affected by being at the site of a mass grave in the Sudan; it was profoundly humbling.

 I would like to see a stronger concept of a worldwide church and that we should understand the need for this and pray for it. This is one area where I would like to continue to see the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury focused.’

Putting the world to rights is interrupted by a sound from the front door and Malachi runs in after his swim, followed by Jonno, and it’s time for Jema to focus on family again.

I’ll end the interview with Jema’s word when she first saw her job advertised by St Peter’s. It applies equally to my first impression of her:



Welcome Jema!

Jackie Bland, September 2015