The Rev. Karen Frances Bunnell was named the recipient of the 2018 Society of John Wesley Award at Wesley’s 136th Commencement in May. The Society of John Wesley Award recognizes and honors the significant contributions of alumni through sacrificial leadership to God, the church and Wesley Theological Seminary. Any Wesley alum who graduated at least five years prior to the date of presentation is eligible for the award. Bunnell graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from Wesley in 1987.
An ordained elder of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference of The United Methodist Church, Bunnell was the first woman to serve as the Chair of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. She has also served the connectional church as a delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conference in 2000 and 2004, co-chaired the Philadelphia Area Episcopacy Committee and chaired the Wilmington District Superintendency Committee.
However, the heart of Bunnell’s 31 years in ministry has been focused on the local church, where she has served as pastor to two churches: Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Wilmington, Del., and Elkton United Methodist Church in Elkton, Md. Her current appointment is also her childhood church home, joined when her parents and five siblings moved from Johnson City, N.Y., to Elkton when she was in elementary school.
Bunnell grew up in the church with a choir director father and was always active in the life of her parish. This was particularly so following her graduation from Salisbury State College, joining Asbury United Methodist Church in New Castle, Del., where she led the hand bell choir and youth group, worked with Christian education, and served on numerous committees. Yet entering the ministry never entered her mind. She had never met a clergywoman, she said.
That all changed one day when her senior pastor took her to lunch to ask an important question.
“He asked me if I thought God might be calling me to ordained ministry,” Bunnell said. “He said everything you are doing in the church is fruitful. The more he talked, helping me to see how God was working in my life, and the more I prayed after our lunch, the more I realized he was right – and thus the journey began!”
Another conversation led her in yet another new direction – to Wesley.
“I had pretty much decided to attend Lancaster Seminary, since it was 45 minutes away from home, and I could still work and take classes at the same time,” Bunnell said. “That is, until I met with my District Superintendent – and Wesley graduate – the Rev. Dr. Edwin Lasbury, who led me straight to Wesley Seminary! My years at Wesley were three of the best years of my life and helped to make me who I am today, the experience just transformed my life.”
Part of that transformation included exposure to Wesley’s international community and new ideas.
“I met students from all over the world and all over the country, and all over the map theologically, which I wasn’t used to,” she said. “I could have discussions with people that weren’t just like me.”
Learning from Wesley’s leading scholars was critical to her formation. “I will never forget the day. I was looking in my Bible and realized that one of the editors of the Bible was one of my teachers. I was literally learning from people who wrote the book: Bruce Birch, Larry Stookey, you couldn’t get a better person to teach about worship and preaching. Those are the caliber of people that taught me and they taught the world.”
Living in Washington and having the opportunity to study with the Washington Theological Consortium were also key to Bunnell.
“Living in Washington was so exciting,” she said. “Spending a Saturday at the Smithsonian, doing research at the Library of Congress, being able to go to Capitol Hill, it is just an amazing place to study. I loved taking classes at other seminaries through the Consortium. And being able to protest with other Wesley students against Apartheid at the South African Embassy, it all just changed me. Living in Washington opened my eyes, and that is why I keep encouraging people to attend Wesley.”
Bunnell also feels Wesley prepared her well for her call to serve the local church, especially the teaching aspect of a local church pastor.
“While at Wesley, I served as Student Pastor at Forest Memorial UMC near Andrews Air Force Base,” she said. “They were a wonderful congregation who taught me so much about what to do and what not to do as a pastor. Also, Professor Diedra Kriewald gave me the love of teaching, and that is so important in ministry. As a pastor, teaching was going to be more than just teaching classes. There is teaching in your sermons, teaching in conversations, teaching about baptism. Most administration is teaching.”
Bunnell’s first appointment was as associate pastor at Aldersgate UMC in Wilmington, Del., one of three Wesley graduates serving as pastors on staff of a 2100-member church, including Senior Pastor Tom Short. In her 12.5 years there, Bunnell transformed the youth Christian education program, growing its Sunday School from 75 to over 200 children each Sunday.
“It was a good and fruitful ministry, and I was part of a strong pastoral leadership team, and I have no regrets staying in that position as long as I did,” Bunnell said. “And it also caused me to have immense respect for anyone in an associate position.”
Bunnell was appointed in 2000 to her current church as senior pastor at Elkton UMC.
“It’s the church of my childhood, and in the town where I grew up and know most everybody,” Bunnell said. That appointment has born much fruit: a major building project and overall renovation of the church and doubling the parish’s mission giving.
“Elkton is an incredibly mission-oriented church, taking part in mission trips to Congo, Appalachia, and Costa Rica, giving huge amounts to UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) every year on UMCOR Sunday (this year over $10,000), and partnering with our local elementary school, among other things,” she said. “I’m blessed to be their pastor.”
Bunnell has also created a culture of call at her churches, mentored numerous candidates for ministry including five persons who entered the ministry from Elkton UMC alone, three of whom are Wesley graduates. “I encourage candidates to go to Wesley,” she said. “For me, there’s no other choice in my opinion. If you’re United Methodist, Wesley is where you need to go.”
Bunnell admits to being “totally shocked” upon receiving the call from President McAllister-Wilson and learning she would be inducted into the Society of John Wesley. She knows the award well, as two of her colleagues and friends – Rev. Tom Short and Rev. Jonathan Baker – were previous inductees to the Society. However, she never expected she would be nominated and receive the honor.
“One of the things that makes me happiest is I’m just a plain church pastor,” Bunnell said. “I’ve done some other things, but I’ve served in the local church my whole life. I always felt like God is just calling me to be a local church pastor. I love to preach, preaching is my greatest passion. And seeing people grow in their faith, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, like it. I think that’s what John Wesley was all about: spreading the Word. I just feel like I’ve done what I’ve been called to do and I guess other people have seen something better. To be recognized like this, it’s a bit overwhelming.”
Editor’s Note: For more information on the Society of John Wesley Award, visit this page.