On July 1st, 2013, the Rev. Ianther M. Mills was installed as the senior pastor of historic Asbury United Methodist Church in the District. Despite being in a bustling business corridor filled with new high-rise office buildings, Mills says her congregation has no plans to leave the corner of 11th and K streets NW. Mills has been married for 23 years and lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., with her husband, Hilton Mills, who owns an engineering firm. In a conversation with The Post’s Hamil R. Harris, she talked about her first two years and the congregation’s plans for the future.
Talk about your vision for this 178–year-old congregation and what it means to lead the congregation at this time in the church’s history.
Asbury United Methodist Church has from its beginnings had a rich history of social justice advocacy and progressive ministry, from the Underground Railroad to the civil rights movement. It has been a leading church in seeking racial and economic justice for those most marginalized. And, Asbury has been a congregation that affirms and celebrates the rich diversity of God’s people. One may say that it is part of our DNA. As such, at this time in the church’s history, our vision is to be “a radically inclusive community empowered to spread God’s love throughout the world.” This means while Asbury is a traditionally African American church, we believe God has called us at such a time as this to be a bridge builder across racial, socioeconomic, and cultural divides. We believe God has called us not just to be a church in downtown Washington, D.C., but to be a church for our community even as that community has changed and is changing. We are a place of welcome for all people.
Were you surprised at your appointment as pastor?
The United Methodist Church has a long-standing history of ordaining women for pastoral ministry and affirming the gifts of women for ministry. In 1956, 22 women became the first women to be granted full clergy rights in the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1980, Marjorie Matthews became the first woman elected bishop in the United Methodist Church. In 1984, Leontine T. Kelly became the first African American woman elected bishop. In 2004, Minerva Carcano became the first Hispanic woman elected bishop. In 2008, Joaquina Nhanala became the first African woman elected bishop. Asbury UMC, too, has a long history of affirming women in pastoral ministry. A number of women have served on Asbury’s ministerial staff as assistant or associate pastors, beginning with Emma Burrell in 1956.
I have been on this journey nearly 25 years, having answered the call in 1990. I was ordained in 1997 and have had the privilege of serving in a cross-racial appointment, as a lead pastor in a suburban setting, as a district superintendent overseeing 72 churches, and as dean of the cabinet. I am not an anomaly but rather join the ranks of many women who have gone before me. I have had three bishops, including my current bishop, Marcus Matthews, who have been progressive thinkers in appointing women in some uncharted territory. While I am the first woman appointed as senior pastor at Asbury, in light of the United Methodist Church openness to and affirmation of women in ministry, I am not surprised by my appointment but rather honored to be so called. Not because I am deserving of such a calling but because it was and is in God’s time.
You have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Georgetown and an MBA from the University of Oklahoma. Then after working in your field, you shifted to ministry, earning a M.Div. and then doctorate of ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary. Why did you shift your career path?
I am in ministry out of a sense of calling to this vocation. This was not an alternative. This was not a career change. This is a calling, for which I have no regrets. As much as a part of me loves mathematics and the sciences, I equally love serving God and God’s people and that is where I ultimately found fulfillment of purpose and life. I could do no other.
The stained-glass ceiling has been splintering for a long time. For United Methodists, many holes have been poked, passageways have been made, and windows have been opened in that ceiling, some long before my birth. When one talks with the women who were ordained in the 1970s or 1980s, there are many stories of painful firsts. These women laid a foundation and paved a way. Those of us who were ordained in the last 20 years have not experienced the same barriers. And, while the ceiling is not yet fully open, there are certainly many windows that have raised. I see in my appointment as senior pastor of Asbury just that, another passageway or window for those who will come after me.
Talk about your goals for the congregation in terms of keeping it vibrant, growing and at its current location.
We seek to transform lives! We are committed to ministry at 11th & K. We therefore seek to be relevant to our immediate community and those who worship and serve with us as we share the empowering gospel of Jesus Christ. Without such an understanding, we fail to be the church. This year we are particularly focused on launching a new contemporary worship service (InspireDC@Asbury) targeted to a new segment of seekers and believers in recognition of the changing demographics of our community, which is now largely young adult professionals. InspireDC@Asbury will be the first of part of a larger districtwide effort of the United Methodist Church to engage and serve with the growing number of young adults in the city. Our associate pastor, the Rev. Adam Briddell will lead this worship service, which will be complemented by the many opportunities Asbury offers for engagement in missions and outreach, and small group experiences.
Talk about the church’s programs and what is on your to do list in the near future.
Asbury has been and continues to be a very missions- and social-justice-focused church. We believe that resonates with our current membership as well as our immediate community. We have significant ministries that reach our unhoused neighbors including our Neighbor-to-Neighbor Breakfast, Mobile Medical Outreach Unit Ministry, Food Pantry, and Toiletry and Clothing Ministry. Through the Neighbor-to-Neighbor Breakfast, we serve approximately 300 persons every 4th Sunday of the month – over 3000 annually. The Mobile Medical Outreach Unit Ministry, a partnership with Unity Health Care, is part of our 4th Sunday outreach and reached 180 clients this past year. We distribute 825 bags of groceries and 6,000 bagged lunches annually. We distribute over 1900 bags of toiletry or clothing every year. We serve 120 families between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We are engaged in advocacy efforts around the issues of homelessness, human trafficking, and mass incarceration and inequities in the criminal justice system. We partner with and actively support Angel Tree, Courtney’s House and DC Stop Modern Slavery. We are involved in and support the Washington Interfaith Network. These are some but not all of our missions and outreach ministries.
My near-term to-do list includes developing ministries in partnership with other organizations to address the “systemic issues” around homelessness, moving people from the streets to permanent affordable housing and self-sufficiency. [Also] growing a holistic ministry that encompasses the body, mind and spirit and includes ministries addressing wellness, stewardship of the Earth (e.g. urban gardening), integrating faith and life, the arts, and personal development.
What keeps you up at night in terms of your ministry?
My heart breaks for those on the margins of society, particularly our unhoused neighbors, young people living in poverty, and persons victimized by sex trafficking. My heart breaks for all those who have found the traditional church to be unwelcoming and irrelevant. My heart breaks for all those who “have everything” but still feel empty. My heart breaks for those who do not have a community of support and spiritual nurture. My heart breaks for all those who have not come to know the radically inclusive and extravagant love of Christ. These things are at the forefront of my prayerful reflection and ministry at this moment in time.