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‘IT CAN’T BE ABOUT ME.’  —Bethany Jenkins, in Central Park
Yoon Kim
‘IT CAN’T BE ABOUT ME.’ —Bethany Jenkins, in Central Park

The Word on the street

Religion | New Yorker Bethany Jenkins jumped the corporate ship to write an email devotional that is catching on with the professional class

Issue: "Rejecting religious liberty," June 15, 2013

NEW YORK—Bethany Jenkins, an effervescent 32-year-old with a face for television, in 2009 was finishing at Columbia Law School, one of the top law schools in the country, and preparing to take the bar. She had three job offers. A prestigious New York law firm wanted her. A federal judge offered her a clerkship. And MSNBC’s Morning Joe, a top-rated cable news show, offered her a job as chief of staff. The recession was acute at the time, so one job offer was a luxury, let alone three. After a sleepless night, she turned all three down. Jenkins had decided instead to write a daily devotional. She passed the bar, but she prepared herself to work at a coffee shop.

“Am I crazy?” she asked a group of friends over lunch in Union Square the day after she turned down the jobs.

Jenkins, a Floridian who grew up a Southern Baptist but now attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, has never been to seminary. She didn’t have experience writing devotionals. She knew she had some skill at writing or she wouldn’t have been offered the judge’s clerkship. But her past in the political and corporate world has been key to what has become a successful ministry to urban professionals: She understands the way they think, and she has the brains to keep up with the best of them. Prior to law school, Jenkins worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, and then most recently at the New York Stock Exchange, a background she describes as “street cred” for her work now. After turning down the three jobs, she created the Park Forum, an organization whose motto is, “As the park is to the city, so the Word is to life.” Today she has a role few women can claim: She writes a daily devotional that Wall Streeters read. Called 843 Acres (the area of Central Park), it has about 1,800 subscribers, mainly in New York, and its reach is growing.

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Though Jenkins’ journey wasn’t simple, from the top of the New York world to an unemployed aspiring writer to an author with a daily readership, she never had to take that coffee shop job to support herself. At the lunch where she asked her friends if she was crazy for turning down three prestigious jobs, one of those friends on the spot said if Jenkins could get 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, the friend and her husband would give Jenkins enough seed money to get her started for a few months. Jenkins started crying, and the friend told her, “We’re doing this.” Jenkins got 501(c)3 status two months later (startlingly fast), and the friend now serves as the chairman of the Park Forum’s board. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, though it has no official relationship to the Park Forum, has provided Jenkins with logistical support, and the pastors serve as Jenkins’ theological mentors.

When I met with Jenkins at a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, she was in the middle of working on her Lent series and reading Puritan theologian John Owen and Catholic writer Henri Nouwen to glean material. Every day when she wakes up, she’ll often lie in bed and listen to a recording of a reading of the Bible passage for that day’s devotional. She works from home and writes in the morning, then fills the rest of the day with everything else: She’s the Park Forum’s only full-time staff. “You’re the mailman, you’re the fundraiser, you’re the writer. I’m the trash taker outer. I go to Staples. I’m in-house counsel,” she said. She wants it to stay a small operation because she likes the simplicity of Park Forum’s mission. The organization’s 2013 budget is a modest $80,000, which covers her salary, a part-time staffer’s salary, and invitation-only Bible-reading events the organization hosts in New York.

Working in the corporate world, Jenkins learned that executives wanted to read snappy summaries of information, so the devotionals never exceed 400 words. In the past when she traveled to Davos, Switzerland, with a chief executive, she had to read sheaves of information and write up “one-sheeters” for him. The desire for a quick read is even more pronounced and widespread now as attention spans shrink. Jenkins said she has had to study what gets men reading devotionals. “I think they’re a harder market,” she said.

From 1984 until his retirement in 2007, Mark Campisano was the top tax lawyer for McKinsey & Company, one of the biggest consulting firms in the world, based in New York. Jenkins’ devotional goes out daily to interested Christians at McKinsey, and Campisano writes a short introduction to the email that relates the devotional to business life at the company.

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