The Rev. Debra McKnight’s journey to the altar hasn’t been without obstacles. The freedom to live out her calling as a pastor came on the heels of immense testing, resistance to conformity, persistent theological reflection, and the pursuit of God’s will.
McKnight, a 42-year-old mother, is the founding pastor of Urban Abbey in the Old Market, which started as a satellite of the First United Methodist Church but became independent nearly four years ago. With the motto “coffee, cause, communion,” Urban Abbey will celebrate its eight-year anniversary in November.
McKnight describes Urban Abbey as a coffee shop, bookstore, and church. They sell fair-trade coffee, books, jewelry, and other gifts, and the shop area is cleared for Sunday church services. She says Urban Abbey’s uniqueness often creates atypical opportunities such as her own.
McKnight was reared in Plattsmouth by God-fearing Methodist parents who served in their community in a variety of ways, from Rotary Club to Plattsmouth Community Schools’ board of education. Debra was in seventh grade when she was struck with the idea of becoming a pastor. “Faith is more than just church,” she explains. “Church was a nurturing place for me.”
Ministering was an idea that came to her in stages. As a teenager, McKnight’s passion was the environment, and she started an ecology club at the Methodist church in Plattsmouth to encourage parishioners to think green. Environmentalism was such a passion, in fact, that she went to college with the idea of majoring in the subject.
She also took women’s studies and American history courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the late 1990s, which she says “opened her to seeing the larger fabric” of society and social inequality.
Her faith aligned with her blossoming ideals. The Methodist church has always been concerned with social justice—early Methodists expressed their opposition to societal ills such as slavery, smuggling, inhumane prison conditions, alcohol abuse, and child labor. The church gave her a platform to help others, and she tried to broaden conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and other non-normative lifestyles. Along the way, she developed a strong desire to participate in church leadership, but she was met with opposition when she expressed interest in becoming a female pastor.
“I don’t think I encountered a sense that women weren’t equal until I decided to pursue being a pastor,” McKnight says.
The Methodist church has seen women in the clergy since 1761, but to this day, 70 to 75 percent of clergy people are men. There is still a stigma being a female pastor, says the Rev. Jill Sander-Chali of College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas. McKnight met this longtime friend at Perkins School of Theology. “I went into the seminary not as aware of obstacles that women in the ministry faced,” Sander-Chali says.
Women experience rejection when they seek out a pulpit. Yet, McKnight realized the gravitational pull to pursue ministry service was something she could not ignore.
Before seminary, McKnight earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in English. She lived and worked in Germany as an education counselor for active-duty military personnel. In 2008, she graduated from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, a place where she discovered a love of liturgy, explored diverse theological perspectives, pushed boundaries on the church’s traditional structures, and experimented with preaching in a rigorous academic community.
“Debra is an amazing teacher,” Sander-Chali says. “She has an amazing, powerful presence in the most nonthreatening way to help people see things differently than they had before.”
Sander-Chali says McKnight has had that gift for a long time, explaining:
“She would debate things in class and challenge our classmates. She always had a way of reframing and renaming things to people. Sometimes people wouldn’t realize that she was challenging them. When in fact, Debra just took over that conversation. Doing it in a way that people would follow. She’s just so good with words.”
Sander-Chali says the two reverends are taught and trained in the art of loving people the way they are and helping them grow. But they need the opportunity to talk, as women and as pastors. “By your hospital bed and in your pulpit, we’re just showing up and being,” she says. “Physical presence communicates a lot. My gender, that becomes powerful and it leads to spiritual healing and awareness.”
In 2010, McKnight was ordained in the United Methodist Church, and she has thrived in her role as pastor. She has a wonderful ability to influence people in positive and healthy ways. McKnight owns a clergy collar for parades and protests because her work focuses on social justice, liturgics, and building community. While in Omaha, she has lead her faith community in starting a pub church, called Wesley Pub, though she doesn’t drink beer, and then a coffee shop (Urban Abbey), though she prefers tea.
“I admire her,” Sander-Chali says. “She indeed has a lot of resilience and tenacity to go into those [male-dominated] spaces and be who she is—herself. She created this amazing Urban Abbey and has an entrepreneurial mind to create a church from the ground up,” adding “It’s a doorway to a relationship with the sacred for those would not normally connect in a traditional church.”
Visit urbanabbeyomaha.com for more information.
Rev. Jill Sander-Chali was formerly at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church but is now at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas. The online version of this story has been changed to reflect that.
This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe