By Cara Lewis
Jennifer Copeland is in her fourth year as Executive Director for the NC Council of Churches. Previously a United Methodist Chaplain at Duke University, she taught undergraduate and divinity school classes, served on committees and task forces, and attended lots of basketball games. A native of South Carolina, Copeland managed to spend all but ten years of her adult life in North Carolina during which time she pastored United Methodist churches across the state. These days, Copeland pastors on a much larger scale.
The NC Council of Churches is a statewide ecumenical organization comprised of 26 distinct judicatories from 18 denominations. For those that didn’t go to divinity school, this means the Council is ecumenical, or all-inclusive, and it works with 26 governing bodies representing 18 branches of the Christian faith. Simply stated, the Council works with more than 6,000 congregations and about 1.5 members of those congregations. Its constituents are many and its work is large in scope.
“We dig in on the issues of the day,” says Copeland, “and this means we often enter the fray. We show up. We speak out. We help people understand the difference they can make in their communities and we do this in a prophetic way.”
Gaining a contemporary understanding of “prophetic” is not easy. Walter Brueggemann, one of the most influential Old Testament scholars posits in The Prophetic Imagination that a prophet’s job is to criticize, to point out the areas where a religious community is acting in opposition to God’s principles, and energize, to encourage the community to return to God’s love. Copeland agrees.
So would the late Shelton Smith. Known as the founder of the North Carolina Council of Churches, Smith was a religion scholar who spent most of his career as a professor at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. He received his B.A. from Elon College (now Elon University), his graduate degree from Yale University, was ordained as a minister by the United Church of Christ, and served in 1918–1919 as first lieutenant and chaplain with the American Expeditionary Force in France.
Upon returning to the South in 1931, Smith initiated conversations with other religious leaders about the possibility of a state council of churches. His vision was to form an “interdenominational agency to deal with problems of social justice, racial relations, or problems that confront the churches.” In 1935, he convened about 40 religious leaders from 13 denominations for what became the first meeting of Council. Smith served as its first president and unpaid executive secretary and then moved quietly to the sidelines. The humble leader is well known for his advocacy for civil rights for African-Americans.
“The NC Council of Churches was founded in 1935 because there was a race problem in this state,” says Copeland. “In the decades since, we have faithfully called for accountability in race relations, and we continue to advocate for positive change.”
In 2019, the Council has three primary programs: Immigrant Rights, NC Interfaith Power & Light, and Partners in Health & Wholeness. Their work for Immigrant Rights focuses on advocating for the rights of the immigrant community with a spirit of hospitality in welcoming all neighbors to our state and nation; Interfaith Power & Light program is the only statewide organization that works on addressing ecological and justice issues of climate change as a faith-based initiative; and Partners in Health & Wholeness seeks to provide people of faith in North Carolina with the tools necessary to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives.
The Council also has a number of Priorities: Christian Unity, Farmworkers, Gun Violence Prevention, Interfaith Collaboration, Legislative Advocacy, NC No Torture, Peace, Public Education, and The NC Sanctuary Coalition.
Christian unity is a key focus for the Council. While the Council itself is overtly Christian, many of the committees and task groups are interfaith and include members from non-Christian faith communities. The Council provides information and resources to any and every one interested in being an advocate or take action on a variety of issues impacting North Carolina. Currently, the Council is focused on several campaigns: Closing the gap for Medicaid, raising minimum wage to $15 an hour, gun violence prevention, and public education.
Public education is one of many contentious issues in North Carolina today. Copeland remembers when the state was considered a national leader in education. A native of South Carolina, she was drawn to NC and its reputation for outstanding public education. The NC Council of Churches supports public schools by responding to stated needs and advocating on behalf of public education. Recently, Copeland delivered A Prayer for Teachers at the opening invocation of the North Carolina Association of Educators State Convention.
“We are actually following the mission of Jesus Christ,” says Copeland. “We enable denominations, congregations, and people of faith to impact our state on important issues, and we pay attention to the issues.”
“The issue of race relations drove Shelton Smith to create the Council,” she says. “Later in the 1960s, we saw that women were not being treated fairly. In the 1980s, we saw that tobacco was clearly killing people. Today, we see gun violence, climate change, and rampant discrimination. These issues derive from the Old Testament prophetic witness and the New Testament Gospel message, and then set our priorities and determine our programs.”
Jennifer is the Executive Director of the NC Council of Churches, a native of South Carolina, and an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church. She loves South Carolina, but has managed to spend all but ten years of her adult life in North Carolina. Those ten years were spent pastoring United Methodist churches across the Upstate. She attended Duke University several times and in the process earned a BA, double majoring in English and Religion, a Master of Divinity, a PhD in religion, and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies. Prior to coming to the Council, she spent 16 years as the United Methodist Chaplain at Duke University, where she also taught undergraduate and divinity school classes, served on committees and task forces, and attended lots of basketball games. Jennifer has two children, Nathan, a software developer who lives in Durham, and Hannah, a student at the University of Tampa.