Pastor’s winding path leads to First United in Franklin Park
New pastor the Rev. Kelli Beard talks with parishioners Pamila and Harnand Singh of Berkeley before the start of Sunday service Sept. 9 at First United Methodist Church. | Steve Johnston~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 24, 2012 3:56PM
FRANKLIN PARK — From military brat to faith-based organizer to rural reverend, the new pastor at First United Methodist Church in Franklin Park has a varied background.
The Rev. Kelli Beard, appointed pastor of First United Methodist in July, was born on a naval base near San Diego. Her father was in the Marine Corps and Beard grew up on military bases. She lived at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina until age 10 and later attended high school in Minnesota.
“It was great,” Beard said. “There’s a very strong sense of community. All the moms are watching everybody else’s kids. You made friends really easily. Either you were moving or they were moving.”
She was raised a “pretty devout” Roman Catholic, going through the sacraments and serving as an altar girl. She went to the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and attended daily mass for years.
She briefly considered becoming a nun, but felt called to church leadership. In the late 1990s, she instead worked three years for a financial advisory firm doing customer service and compliance.
“I found it to be not very fulfilling,” Beard said. “I didn’t want to stay long enough to become dependent on the job.”
She switched to being a community organizer, focusing on affordable housing and immigration. In 2003, she was offered a job in Chicago as an organizer. She worked with the Gamaliel Foundation and the Service Employees International Union, connecting to pastors and congregations on social justice issues.
One day she was talking to her priest at the Hyde Park church she attended.
“He was struggling with some things in the parish ministry,” Beard said. “I remember thinking during the conversation, maybe I could do this. I started to think about becoming a pastor.”
Beard decided on further education, but debated whether to attend seminary or law school.
“The problem was that I was Catholic and they don’t ordain women,” Beard said. “Someone at the union said, have you ever thought about the United Methodist church before?”
Over Christmas break, she started reading about different Christian denominations. She discovered John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
“Their social creed talked about the support of women and labor and justice issues, things that were important to me and spoke to my values,” Beard said.
She began studying at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University in 2006 and became a Methodist after her first year. She graduated in 2008 and was appointed to both Northern Illinois University and Kingston, Ill. (population 500).
It was an adjustment. She was at NIU during the Valentine’s Day shooting in 2008. She still visits the student convicted of the shooting at Dixon prison. She also found herself leading Protestant funerals.
“I had never been to a Protestant funeral before I led one,” Beard said.
She also had to adjust to ministering in a rural area.
“I didn’t know what the speed limit was,” Beard said. “They don’t post it. People just know its 50 on a country road. I ended up needing to get a GPS. I would get directions like, go down to Joe’s bean farm on the left and turn toward the old cornfield. It was very different from anything I had experienced.”
In June of this year, Beard was ordained. In July, the bishop appointed her to First United Methodist Church, 9857 Schiller Blvd.
Like other mainstream denominations, the United Methodist Church has faced membership declines. Part of Beard’s responsibilities includes increasing a congregation that has an estimated 100 members and perhaps 30 worshipping on Sundays.
“It comes from buildings relationships,” Beard said, adding that she’s working with church leadership on a plan to increase membership.