Rev. Jessica Brendler Naulty of the UMC of Red Bank was raised in the United Methodist Church. It has always been “a second home” to her and the church family was always her “second family.” She experienced her first call to ministry at a young age while she was attending Aldersgate Summer Camp in New York after seventh grade. And after this revelation to her mother, Rev. Dr. Vicki Miller Brendler, she was provided with some inspiring but serious advice.
“My mother encouraged me to explore all of my options and my gifts because ministry is not something that should be entered into lightly. It’s a challenging road to travel and should only be taken on if you are ‘absolutely called,’“ she said. “Great advice! So I followed my love of science and after graduating college as a Biology major and completing my master’s degree in Secondary Life Science Education, I taught Environmental Science at Westfield High School for one year. It was a whirlwind of a year, but I learned that while I love teaching, God was calling me to use my gifts to teach a different topic – the love of God.”
The following year, she started working as a youth director and began the process of ordination as a Certified Candidate. Brendler Naulty enrolled at Drew Theological Seminary the following year, graduating with a M.Div. in 2010, the same year she was commissioned as a Provisional Elder in GNJ; then was ordained in 2012.
Since her ordination, she has served as an associate pastor at Trinity UMC in Spotswood and Monroe Community Church, part time for one year while finishing seminary at Drew. In addition, Brendler Naulty served as an associate pastor at Haddonfield UMC for four years and is currently in her seventh year at UMC of Red Bank, starting there in July 2014.
“Red Bank is a progressive, reconciling, Green Faith congregation that strives to transform our church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love. We are a place where all are welcomed as they are and where we grow together in our knowledge, love and service of God and our neighbors,” she said.
“We are passionate about the environment and do our part to be good stewards of God’s creation, whether through our solar panels, our various recycling efforts, participation in annual beach sweeps and more. We also strive to serve our neighbors where they are. We have a very active Backpack Crew finding ministry, and in the past two years we have expanded to include a food pantry that is open weekly, distributing packed bags of food where it’s needed through our ‘mobile pantry.’”
In addition, UMC of Red Bank has vibrant children and youth ministries, serving 40 to 50 children each week at youth gatherings (pre-COVID) and a youth-led VBS program involving 135 children and youth volunteers in total.
“We are also home to two preschool programs in our own Learning Tree Preschool and Red Bank Borough Pre-K program, which enables us to stay connected with and better serve the young families of the community through partnerships within our school system,” she added.
Currently, UMC of Red Bank has a membership of 284 people and an average worship attendance of 130 congregants. But the start of the pandemic last March has caused the church to now have strictly remote worship.
“The pandemic has been challenging on our church attendance because there are people who are not comfortable worshipping remotely and our congregation has not returned to in-person worship since March 2020,” she said. “We have been intentional to stay connected with our membership during this time of remote worship as our financial standing has remained solid, but our worship attendance has decreased. We are in the process of installing a technology upgrade in our sanctuary, which will allow us to shift to simultaneous ‘limited capacity’ in person and livestream worship services in the near future.”
Brendler Naulty added that over the past year, the pandemic has put a strain on all pastors and congregations alike.
“Pastors have tried desperately to remain connected with their congregants and help them navigate the emotions and struggles we are all facing. I have relied heavily on the amazing leadership team here and always felt like we are in this together. Not only have we been struggling through the COVID pandemic, but the pandemic of racism as well and the divisiveness that has plagued our nation,” she said.
“We have not backed away from these challenging conversations, even as we worship remotely, but engaged them through the lens of our faith, wrestling with our social principles and the intersection of religion and race. It has been a year that has challenged us in many ways, but we always looked for where God was at work, wherever we saw the Holy Spirit in action and where God was calling us to step up and speak out.”
Despite the difficulties that the past year has brought, Brendler Naulty considers herself blessed with a beautiful family including her six-and-a-half year-old daughters, Alyssa and Kristie as well as her family clergy members who offer her continued support.
“My mother is Rev. Dr. Vicki Miller Brendler and while she is retired now, she was an active clergy member in our conference for many years. She was ordained a deacon in 1976 and an elder in 1978 in the Northern New Jersey Annual Conference and served as a local pastor for a year prior to that. She served for nearly 40 years, taking a few years out to care for my sisters and I when we were little,” she continued.
Her grandfather is the late Rev. Dr. Charles Miller Jr. He was also an Elder in their conference for most of his career starting in the 1950s. And, her great grandfather, Charles W. Miller Sr. became a local pastor in the UMC after her grandfather became ordained.
“My mother’s cousin, Rev. Lisanne Finston is an ordained elder in our conference serving in the extension ministry as the executive director of Gould Farm in Massachusetts. My mother’s brother, Mark Miller, is a church musician and composer. He serves as assistant professor of church music at Drew Theological School and is a lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University,” she added.
Brendler Naulty said that the church has always been an integral part of their lives with her mother being a role model and mentor for her as a pastor.
“I feel like God created me to do this work. My greatest joy as a pastor is witnessing people embracing and embodying their authentic faith,” she continued. “I get to journey alongside people as their faith develops and help them explore deeper dimensions of who God is, and who God is calling them to be. It’s a gift that I do not take for granted.”