Middletown pastor’s goal: Make church ‘place where Jesus would hang out’

Carrie Jena just returned from Southern California after being inducted into the California PGA teaching hall of fame.

For 25 years, Jena taught others how to play golf — or as she calls her career, “hitting a little white ball over pretty landscapes.”

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On Wednesday, Pastor Carrie was back in Middletown, sitting in her office at the Gathering, a downtown church she founded 10 years ago. She called receiving the Hall of Fame honor a “book end” to her career and a sign from God it was “time to move on.”

So early next year, Jena, 59, will begin another chapter in her life. She has been appointed to the Cheviot United Methodist Church on the west side of Cincinnati. The church hopes to start a program similar to the Gathering, and it thought Jena was the woman for the job.

Cincinnati’s gain is Middletown’s loss.

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Those outside the church community probably have never heard of Jena. She’s best known as the wife of Jeff Jena, a well-traveled clean comedian, and mother to Miles Jena, a 2017 Fenwick High School graduate and freshman golfer at Ball State University.

But for those who live at Hope House, the city’s homeless shelter, or in the downtown high-rise apartments, Jena has been a life-saver ever since she planted roots in Middletown. She filled a need in the city. She opened the doors of a welcoming church to those who probably appreciated her message the most.

Then 10 years passed.

“We thought it was all going to get fixed pretty quickly,” she said of serving the needs of the homeless. “Boy, that was a learning curve. You have to be able to see the little successes.”

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She often asks her congregation to raise their hands and answer this complex question: Where did you see evidence of God this week?

Their answers range from receiving food stamps to getting a ride to the grocery store. As they leave church after listening to Jena’s sermon, she enjoys looking at their expressions.

“You can tell the wheels are turning,” she said. “That is exciting for me that we have made a difference in what we have taught. That’s a win.”

Being raised in a middle-class church, Jena was surrounded by those who owned cars and homes and never worried about where they’d eat after service.

“What about the people who are mentally ill or the addicts or the homeless,” she said. “Is God still with them too? What does it look like when He starts to work in that community? I wanted to see evidence that God was here also and that He worked below the poverty line.”

So Jena landed in the perfect place: downtown Middletown. Her church serves the homeless population and two years ago, started Jobs Plus, a program that finds employment opportunities for convicted felons, those hardest to hire. She said more than 80 people have found above minimum wage jobs.

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It’s time for Gathering 2.0, she said. She wants to make the Gathering “a church of the community.” Take its message outside the church on South Clinton Street, to those who live within a one-mile radius and introduce them to the Gathering to see if they like the casual atmosphere and the meaningful message.

Her goal is to make the Gathering feel like “a place where Jesus would hang out.”

Jena said accepting the appointment is for the “good of the Gathering.” She said the congregation can’t financially support the church so Jena serves a dual role: senior pastor and fundraiser. She prepares sermons, but also contacts donors and writes grants, what she called “not my wheelhouse.”

The church began the Gathering Life Development Center, which isn’t faith based in hopes of attracting additional funding. She said a Columbus church, Church For All People, started a similar program and is accomplishing “wonderful things.”

The future of the church after she leaves isn’t a concern, she said. The Gathering will be supported by the United Methodist council and has a strong group of board members and leadership staff, about 50 percent who were homeless when they were introduced to the church.

She described working there as “the most amazing experience” and added: “Nobody ever will be able to take away the Gathering from me.”

Then she was asked if she considers the Gathering her church. She laughed and called it “her baby” that’s grown into an adolescent.

“We talk about it as ‘God’s Church,’” she said. “He used us in this period of time, in this place, to establish this thing.”

Through talks with other Middletown ministers, they told her they prayed for the Gathering — or a similar church — 20 years ago, back when Jena was chasing a little white ball.

“God is here and He will continue working here,” she said. “Maybe there is someone above me who orchestrated this whole thing.”

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