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September 6, 2013

Columbia Law School Alumna Founds E-Devotional

By Emily Belz, WORLD Magazine
The following story was reprinted with permission from WORLD Magazine (www.WorldMag.com).

Bethany Jenkins, an effervescent 32-year-old with a face for television, in 2009 was finishing at Columbia Law School 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.

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 e-mail that relates the devotional to business life at the company.

"You start the day thinking about some part of the Bible," Campisano said. "Which is valuable because you've got so many other thoughts and stresses and claims on your attention." He often reads the devotional on the subway. Campisano said the other Christians he knew at McKinsey had a hard time finding time to meet in person, so the virtual community through the Park Forum has been helpful.

From Campisano's perspective, executives at the top of the business world are hungry for the deep theology he finds in 843 Acres—seeing "firsthand how unsatisfying a successful career can be." Work pushes out all other aspects of life, he said, and divorce is common. "Bethany—one of the big things she's been discussing in recent months is idolatry ... career, money, beauty."

For the Advent season this past year, Jenkins brought in a slew of guest writers to take the wheel of 843 Acres: Sally Lloyd-Jones, the author of the Jesus Storybook Bible, author Eric Metaxas, Pacific Crossroads' Rankin Wilbourne, and Redeemer Presbyterian Church's Timothy Keller and his wife Kathy (Kathy Keller has been a close mentor to Jenkins). And the organization Jenkins created, the Park Forum, has expanded beyond an e-mail devotional: Her invitation-only evening readings of Scripture in New York are packed out. In her spare time,

Jenkins is working on a book on women's roles in the church that she hopes will be published in the next year or two. Jenkins isn't egalitarian on that topic, but she does have
challenges to the way theologically conservative Christians talk about women.

"Jesus says that in heaven there will be no marriage or giving in marriage, and He Himself will be our pastor. And yet all of the women who are writing right now about biblical femininity are writing in the context of family and church," she said. "I'm single, I'm not married, so the question is, does the Bible only have something to say to me for the four hours I go to church? ... I'm basically arguing, no that's not true, there's a view of gospel-centered femininity that's beyond church and family."

In her writing for 843 Acres, Jenkins works off of the Bible reading plan of 18th-century Scottish minister Robert Murray M'Cheyne and often incorporates in the devotional allusions to current events or snippets from Puritan theologians, which she sometimes rewrites to be simpler and clearer.

"I recognize most of our readers are on the subway or moving, so I don't want language to be an obstacle. ... I know SAT words ... but you don't use that," Jenkins said. "You have to think about who's the reader, instead of what do I want out of it. People who want to be writers, most of the time it's what they like to do. 'Oh, I want to write a book.' They're not really thinking about the recipient end of it, about would it be helpful, would it be encouraging, would it be identifiable. Because I do this every day, I've gotten into a practice—I'm not very good at it—but it can't be about me. The moment it's about me, is the moment that [readers] unsubscribe, unsubscribe."

Jenkins continued: "I never wanted the Park Forum to be bigger than the Word. There's no Isaiah 55:11 guarantee on the Park Forum. There is on the Word itself."

To subscribe to 843 Acres, visit www.theparkforum.org.