Jessica Harris Babcock was enjoying a fulfilling work and family life when at age 45 she found herself unable to ignore the nagging certainty that a major life change was in order.
So she made a difficult decision and exchanged a successful career in the corporate world for one of a spiritual nature by becoming an ordained Episcopal priest. It’s a journey that’s included seven years of seminary and further training, stops at three Florida churches and ultimately Marco Island and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, where she became the rector in January.
“I call it a Holy Spirit nudge,” Rev. Babcock said of the calling. “When God wants you to do something, He keeps after you and it’s always on your mind and in your heart. Even if it’s not something you want to do, you just know that you need to do it.”
The Anniston, Al. native and life-long Episcopalian earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2013 from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn. She also holds a B.A. in English from The Centre College of Kentucky and an M.S. in Adult Education from Georgia State University.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she joined the Peace Corps and spent just over two years working in the Marshall Islands, a chain of 1,156 islands and islets in the north Pacific.
It was during this time that Rev. Babcock met her husband, Dwight. The couple has two daughters, Emory, 21, who attends Tulane University, and Adelaide, 19, who attends the University of the South.
Before heeding the call, Rev. Babcock was a corporate technology trainer in Jacksonville, after previously working as a broker and agent trainer for a real estate firm in the city.
Rev. Babcock had a hard time accepting the idea of shifting gears, mid-career. After all, she was enjoying her job, making good money and also raising small children. But that little voice inside her head would not be denied.
“It seemed crazy, but I listened to it,” she said.
The decisive moment occurred during a mission trip by the Episcopalian church she attended in Jacksonville, also named St. Mark’s, to a Cuban village to join residents in rebuilding a church left uncared for after the Cuban Revolution. She said she’d taken the mission trips for several years.
“I was on one of those trips and I remember feeling a very overwhelming sense that I’ve really got to take action on this because obviously God’s not leaving me alone about it,” Rev. Babcock explained.
Rev. Babcock has found that her professional background has proven useful in the ministry.
“I’ve always done the same thing, which is to educate and train on sometimes very technical topics and the Bible is like that,” she explained. “It’s very technical. You have to know what you’re reading and be very, very careful with it like it’s a newborn baby to make sure that you aren’t not misinterpreting the Bible through your own lens to suit your own needs. So I’m using all the same skills and that was a shock to me.”
Her approach to ministry emphasizes love and welcoming those who may have somehow been hurt by religion, felt excluded from Christianity’s embrace or perhaps been misinformed about the religion, in general.
“That’s because the Bible’s been misused or the Bible was used to tell them that they’re sinners or they’ve done wrong,” said Rev. Babcock. “Original Sin is a bad doctrine. It should be Original Goodness. We’re created good and we are absolutely meant for joy in this life. Yet religion has hurt people over and over and over again. So if I have an approach, it’s to heal and to show people a different way.”
Several factors made the position of rector at St. Marks – Marco Island attractive to Rev. Babcock.
“It’s a perfect-size church, in terms of the population, and when I walked in, I could feel the love and that’s not true of all churches,” she said. “They so want to grow in something better than what they already are and what a great location. But really, I came to for the church. You can tell by listening to God when you come to visit that it’s the right place to be and thankfully, they called me. I got very, very lucky or pushed by the Holy Spirit. She pushes sometimes.”
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is located at 1101 N. Collier Boulevard. For more information visit stmarksmarco.org or call 239-394-7242.