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Rev. Bonnie Bell retires from Immanuel UMC

Rev. Bonnie Bell retires from Immanuel UMC

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On Christmas Eve, Rev. Bonnie Bell will give her last message to her congregation in Kenosha.

It follows Rev. Bonnie Bell’s last Sunday service at Immanuel United Methodist Church tomorrow. She is retiring after five years of serving the congregation.

Back in the early 1970s, when Bell first heard the call to serve the church, female pastors were pretty much nonexistent. That fact led to a long, winding road to and within the ministry and to her final posting here.

That position wasn’t even on her radar when she chose an education major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in her hometown. She graduated in 1974 and was working as a teacher’s aide for the Milwaukee Public School System in Elm Grove.

She has just restarted the youth group in her home church when she felt God calling her to something else.

“I started out thinking I would study to become a better youth worker/minster. The call expanded and changed over time,” Bell recalls. “I never set out to be a pastor, but there was a woman on staff in my home church, so I didn’t ever think that was too strange. The woman, Kathie Hanold is still living at nearly 100 years old.

“I went to seminary partly because they boasted a 99 percent placement rate. However, not so much for women. My first job after I graduated was on the maintenance staff at the school,” she said.

Following seminary, Bell worked part-time in ministry jobs as well as full-time in the public sector taking various jobs to earn money for rent and living expenses. Her first professional position in the ministry was as a home Mmssionary commissioned by the American Baptist Churches, from 1985-1992.

Pioneering female pastor

“After that job ran its course, I moved to Kansas City to become a new church planter/pastor,” she said. “For two years my goal was to bring in young, unchurched families to join with older folks who could no longer support their church.”

The Restart Effort was not successful in the allotted time, so the congregation closed. In 1992, Bell was the solo pastor out of 250 American Baptist Churches in Kansas.

Two years later, she moved to Dell Rapids, S.D., to serve as the first female pastor at a First Baptist Church and the only female pastor in either North or South Dakota. Bell served for three years and returned to Wisconsin where she served as a chaplain and trained for her Clinical Pastoral Education degeree.

“I served at Mendota Mental Health Institute, St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee and Marian Franciscan Center, also in Milwaukee,” she said.

Bell would go on to serve as interim pastor at the Chinese Community Baptist Church, pastor at North Prairie United Methodist Church, and pastor of United Methodist churches in Concord and Sullivan.

Prior to coming to Immanuel, she served as chaplain at Marquardt Manor Hospice in Watertown and Seasons Hospice in Milwaukee.

When Bell earned her Master of Divinity degree from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Ill., there were just three women in her class of 50 students. Many of the others with similar aspirations succumbed to pressure, gave up, took other jobs, married or changed their plans.

“My family, especially my mother, helped make it possible for me to continue on,” she said.

While Bell’s faith has never wavered, she admits that her biggest crises came about six years post-seminary graduation.

“I was still being denied ordination,” she said. “I decided to let go of that dream and desire, or at least put it on hold. However, during that time, a number of ministry opportunities, such as weddings, funerals and preaching, presented themselves to me, spurring me on. My strong sense of ‘call’ which I consider a gift, kept me going forward.”

Most to Immanuel UMC ‘right time and place’

Bell’s move to Immanuel was a positive one for her and the congregation. She explained that due to some unrest from a former Immanuel pastor coupled with feeling scarred by some deep critics in a previous charge, it took a while for her to settle in and feel comfortable.

“But we have flourished as pastor and people,” she said. “It was just the right time and place for me. I had extensive urban ministry experience in school and finally had a place to use some of it. The church’s relationship with Principe de Paz and Kenosha Korean Church were true ‘perks’ to me. The blending of cultures and language enrich us all. We have a lovely relationship with all three churches, pastors, leaders and musicians.”

While Bell said she hadn’t implemented many major changes during her tenure, she has encouraged and involved the members in helping to plan their own worship, ministrys and programs since her leadership is in a more “collaborative” style.

“The relationship we have enjoyed here as pastor and people is very special. A number in the congregation are around my age and we share other interests in common. The small church is where I have always felt most comfortable, being intimately connected with most everyone who comes to our doors,” she said. “I have also enjoyed being part of the CUSH Religious Leaders Caucus, planning activities outside of our local church, interfaith events like the Holocaust Survivors Remembrance and Kindness Week events.”

Retirement plans

While she looks forward to moving back to Milwaukee to be closer to some family members and longtime friends, the 68-year-old Bell will miss many aspects of serving Immanuel UMC.

“I like to plan worship and music in the church and will miss coming in each week and looking at the texts and dreaming how they will come to life in worship,” Bell said. “I have enjoyed sharing at touchpoints in people’s lives, such as baptisms, funerals and special occasions, including weddings.”

A musician, Bell plans to pursue more of her guitar and banjo playing, as well as attending concerts where her favorite musicians from around the country perform, especially at folk festivals and other small venues, such as house concerts.

“I have registered for a Songwriting Camp in May at The Highlander Folk Center in Eastern Tennessee, a center for cultural and community training since before the Civil Rights era,” she said. “I hope to write about some of my ministry experiences and possibly, devotional materials. I would also like to write songs and maybe worship materials. I may also renew my interest in figure skating and hope to attend Brewers baseball games.”

Sunday’s service at Immanuel will be a celebration of Bell’s time in ministry and the culmination of Advent. The three congregations will worship together, followed by a potluck and an Acoustic Folk Jam, led by Mark Dvorak from Chicago.

“Family and friends are invited, including friends from the Old Town School of Folk Music community I have known for a little over five years,” said Bell. “There is a special event planned by the Wisconsin Annual Conference in June as well. Christmas Eve at 4 pm is my final official worship service consisting of candlelight Lessons and a Carol’s Service.

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