Meet Chesna Riley

By LORETTA FULTON

Growing up in a Southern Baptist household, Chesna Riley struggled with the persistent call to the ministry that she began feeling as a young teenager.

The Southern Baptist Convention prohibits women from serving as pulpit ministers, although some other Baptist churches do ordain women.

“I had for a long time assumed I was not called and pursued other vocational paths,” Riley said.

But eventually, the calling was so strong that she couldn’t ignore it, and she eventually joined the Disciples of Christ denomination that does welcome women ministers. For several years, Riley and Penny Biddy have been serving as co-pastors of Brook Hollow Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Originally, both women were commissioned by the Disciples of Christ to serve only Brook Hollow Christian.

In early November, Biddy was ordained as a Disciples of Christ minister, with the authority to serve the entire church. On Dec. 18, it was Riley’s turn. And, she gave much praise to Biddy.

“I would not have made it this far in seminary or ministry,” Riley said, “without my best friend and co-pastor, Penny Biddy.”

Riley’s ordination was filled with the same spirit and ceremony as Biddy’s, which was held on Nov. 6. Among the participants and guests were Riley’s parents, Edward and Karen, a brother, Chris Riley and his family, and a sister, Charity Rose and her family.

Guest preacher was Dr. Lisa Davison, the Johnnie Eargle Cadieux Professor of Hebrew Bible at Phillips Theological Seminary, where Riley recently earned a master of divinity degree. Dr. Lisa Barnett also represented the seminary and Rev. Heather Reed represented the Southwest region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

Riley expressed gratitude to family, friends, and the church she serves for helping her through the arduous seminary process.

“I am deeply grateful to the support of my family, and my friends who took on the role of editors,” she said. “Brook Hollow has been beyond amazing through this process and I simply don’t have words for how much I appreciate their support and love.”

Family members were among the guests for the ordination of Chesna Riley, standing in back. Seated left to right are her brother, Chris Riley, brother-in-law Trey Rose, sister Charity Rose, Bear Rose, and T.J. Rose. Photo by Loretta Fulton

BIO
Name: Chesna Riley
Occupation: Co-Pastor, Brook Hollow Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Family: Parents Edward and Karen Riley, Siblings Chris and Amber Riley, Charity and Trey Rose, nephews Bryson, TJ, Bennet Bear and Brandon, nieces Dawson and Tobie.
Education: Colorado High School 2002, BBS in Theatre Arts Hardin-Simmons University, 2018, Master of Divinity Phillips Theological Seminary, 2022
Community involvement: Precinct Chair for the Taylor County Democrats, serves on the Board for Lake Brownwood Christian Retreat, plays in the Abilene chapter of the American Pool-Players Association

Q Did you grow up in a Disciples of Christ family?

A I did not.  My dad is a retired Southern Baptist minister and prison chaplain, so I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church.  I still have my badges and regalia from Girls in Action and Acteens.

Q When did you first feel the call to ministry?

A I first felt called to ministry as a young teenager. 

Q Was it a gradual awakening? Did you struggle with your response?

A I did struggle with my call as I grew up in a denomination that, at the time, did not support women in the pulpit or pastoral positions.  I had for a long time assumed I was not called and pursued other vocational paths.  Each one led to a dead end career wise and back into church work.  In my early to mid 20s, I finally just gave into a temporary youth pastor position and have not looked back.

Chesna Riley with her parents, Edward and Karen Riley. Photo by Loretta Fulton

Q What will ordination allow you to do that you couldn’t do before? 

A Ordination in the Disciples church is a different form of standing from Commissioning, which I already have.  Commissioning is granted when a single congregation recognizes and affirms an individual’s call to ministry.  Ordination is a process through which the full denomination recognizes and affirms that call.  My daily role does not change very much in recognizable ways.  However, as a committee made up of representations from many congregations has tested and affirmed my calling, I do have an obligation to serve the greater church alongside the local church.  That is being reflected in joining the board of Lake Brownwood Christian Retreat and I hope to find other ways to serve in the Southwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.)

Q Who will preside over the ordination rite?

A Dr. Lisa Davison, the Johnnie Eargle Cadieux Professor of Hebrew Bible and Disciples Director of Denominational Formation at Phillips Theological Seminary will be preaching.  Rev. Heather Reed will represent the Southwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for the Act of Ordination.

Q Do you have plans for more academic pursuits?

A Sure! Someday I want another masters degree that focuses on theology and the Hebrew Bible followed by a doctorate. However, I’m leaning heavily on the word “someday” in that sentence.

Chesna Riley, right, prepares for her ordination on Dec. 18 at Brook Hollow Christian Church. Representing the Southwest Region of the Disciples of Christ was Heather Reed, left. Dr. Lisa Davison, center, was guest preacher. She teaches Hebrew Bible at Phillips Theological Seminary, where Riley earned a master of divinity degree. Photo by Loretta Fulton

Q You frequently participate in local marches and protests. Is that response to societal ills a part of your calling to ministry? 

A Absolutely.  Much of the prophetic call to repentance in the Hebrew Bible is focused on protecting and uplifting the poor and marginalized of society. My faith teaches that each person is made in the image of the Holy and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. The gospels, especially Matthew, emphasize that God sides with the marginalized and not with powerful. I think I am called to do the same and to do so publicly, with a full voice.

Q What does the near future hold for you?

A Honestly, naps.  Seminary and the Ordination Process have been transformational and exhausting.  I’m not really ready to make any big plans until I can rest and take stock of the change.  I’m also very excited to do some reading that is not assigned.  I’m especially looking forward to On Repentance and Repair by Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg and All the Prospect Around Us by C.S. Humble.  I do intend to continue studying Biblical Hebrew and continuing translation work.

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