Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

by Jeff Finley

Jen Westervelt’s public ministry began during her high school years.

“I was always the one who was ready and willing to offer the sermon when we would have teen Sunday. I actually started doing pulpit supply at local churches when I was in high school and very consistently when I was in college,” said Westervelt — now the lead pastor of cvfree in Norwich, New York, and a field superintendent for the Genesis Conference — during a Light + Life interview. “But it didn’t feel to me at that time like it was something that was supposed to become my main career. It was just supposed to be a supplemental way of responding to the gifts that God had given me.”

Instead of pastoral ministry, she pursued a career in education.

“I actually taught middle school English for 14 years. That was what I went to college for, and my plan since fourth grade was to be an English teacher,” Westervelt said.

But God had another calling for her that became increasingly clear.

“I was really stepping up in our local church to lead children’s ministry and to — on a more regular basis — be a support for pulpit supply,” she said. “The responsiveness from people, who heard what God had given me to give to them, really caused me to start asking deeper questions about whether or not I was supposed to be limiting God’s capacity to work in my life as far as ministry as a career.”

Around the same time, cvfree’s longtime pastor moved away. Ronald Sawade became the congregation’s new pastor, and Westervelt was in the local ministerial candidate (LMC) stage of the ordination process.

Sawade “was the one that boldly said, ‘Why not dive right in and make this your full-time career?’” said Westervelt who added that she previously had been encouraged to pursue bi-vocational ministry, but she did not feel she could be both a full-time English teacher and a full-time pastor. “I had pushed that call aside, but this pastor was the one who really asked the probing questions and encouraged me to talk to God about taking a giant leap of faith and potentially leaving a really solid profession in order to dive into ministry.”

Sawade and several other church leaders told Westervelt that they sensed she would be the church’s next lead pastor.

“I was very strongly contemplating it at that point,” she said. “For me, the hesitation was that, at the time, my husband was a teacher; I was a teacher. We even taught in the same school district where our boys also attended, and life was very straightforward, predictable. … Everything was very comfortable for us.”

Pursuing full-time ministry meant that life might no longer be predictable or comfortable. She began to pray for God to reveal to her what she should do.


“OK, Lord am I supposed to leave teaching and become a full-time pastor?”


“When I finished my master’s degree to be a teacher, I said that was it. I did not have an interest in going back to school, taking more classes,” she recalled. “I knew that if I was going to continue on in the process beyond being an LMC, it meant a lot of classes, and it meant basically going back to school.”

Sawade ultimately met with her, shared the date that he planned to retire, and told her she needed to make a decision about whether she should become a full-time pastor.

“For me, it was just a long process of prayer over an extended period of time,” said Westervelt, who explained that she “really got serious in my prayer and asked God very directly, ‘OK, Lord am I supposed to leave teaching and become a full-time pastor?’”

She sensed that, yes, God wanted her to leave teaching English and “apply those teaching gifts full-time at the church.”

She ended her career as an English teacher and became cvfree’s lead pastor in 2016 while still a conference ministerial candidate (CMC). She became an ordained Free Methodist elder in 2018 — the culmination of a lot of hard work and study.

“For two years, I was teaching English and going through the ordination process really headlong. It was a huge commitment,” said Westervelt, who balanced her busy schedule with ministerial classes that were not readily available near her home in central New York. “The commute to attend anything in person was largely unrealistic for me, especially because I was a still a full-time teacher and a mom of two young children. Our boys are now 12 and 14, but, at the time, obviously they were much younger.”

Thankfully, many of the courses she needed were available through the Free Methodist Church USA’s office of ministerial credentialing now known as The Center for Pastoral Formation. She also took a few classes in Walton, New York, through the neighboring Acts 12:24 Churches because of Norwich’s proximity to the Acts 12:24-Genesis boundary.

Hometown Ministry

Westervelt was born in Norwich. She and her husband, Dave, have attended cvfree since their early married life in their hometown where they returned after college.

“I was blessed to be able to make the transition and to be appointed here at cvfree in my hometown,” she said. “To be called into ministry and even leadership at my home church has been really interesting in both challenging ways and affirming ways.”

Some people pointed her to Mark 6:4 in which Jesus says a prophet is honored everywhere except the prophet’s hometown. She considered, “Would I be able to be used by God in my own community?” Thankfully, she said, “He has answered that with a resounding yes.”

Norwich is a small city of approximately 6,500 residents — some of whom may make assumptions about cvfree’s pastor based on their past interactions with her extended family members.

“As with many families, my family history is not 100% clean, clear, God-honoring,” she said. “This is a small community so people knew that. I think they had a guarded perspective about what I would be able to do, and so my attitude on that has been and always will be that we just will wait and see the kind of fruit that God yields as the result of the ministry to which He’s called me.”

Although most cvfree members welcomed Westervelt as their lead pastor, she has faced the challenge of some Norwich residents not accepting her as a pastor solely because of her gender. Local residents have approached her father-in-law and her husband with questions about whether a woman should serve as a pastor.


“His feeling was that God would be celebrating me, that Jesus would embrace me, and praise the work that I was being obedient in doing.”


“Dave’s response to them was really solid. He would point out that he truly did not believe that when I die and meet Jesus that He is going to reprimand me for bringing people into a saving relationship with Him,” Westervelt said. “In fact, his feeling was that God would be celebrating me, that Jesus would embrace me, and praise the work that I was being obedient in doing.”

That response has helped some community members reconsider their views on women in ministry, but not everyone is open to a new perspective.

“I also have had other churches in our community who have said that they’re not comfortable to partner with us because I’m a female lead pastor,” she said. “I don’t push that issue with people. If they don’t feel they can hear a message that the Holy Spirit has given me because I’m a female lead pastor, I want them to go somewhere where they can receive the message that God has for them.”

She doesn’t try to force partnership with churches that question her ministry. She explained, “That’s not going to be God-honoring if there’s already contention going into it.”

Critics of female pastors, however, won’t stop Westervelt from living into her calling.

“This is how God made me, and He also happened to call me,” she said. “As long as people are learning the Word of the Lord and coming into a connection with Jesus Christ, then I’m going to continue in this ministry work. For me, that’s affirmation that God wants me to be doing it.”

Reaching the City’s Core

Cvfree’s full name is the Canasawacta Valley Free Methodist Church. The congregation’s longtime building is located near the outskirts of Norwich along the Canasawacta Creek, but some area residents aren’t familiar with the Canasawacta name or find it difficult to say. Residents of the city’s core also may be unfamiliar with the church, but that is changing as cvfree expands its ministries within the city.

“We are hopeful at cvfree that our new satellite location in downtown Norwich is going to offer inroad possibilities for us to have real conversations about our real faith with real people,”  Westervelt said. “The satellite location is in an area of our community that has had a bad reputation, and so the placement there is very intentional.”

The church’s ministry multiplication has attracted the attention of The Evening Sun newspaper, which last month described cvfree’s new downtown location as “not only a valuable faith-based resource for Norwich residents” but “also a powerful metaphor about positive personal change.” The cvfree Silver location is within a multi-unit house at the intersection of the city’s Silver and Mechanic streets.

“That house had a meth lab in it. It had lots of drugs; at one time, prostitution; just many negative things happening,” Westervelt said. “My husband and I were blessed to be able to purchase it personally because we also manage investment properties.”

The Westervelts rent out four of the building’s apartments while the church uses another part of the building for community outreach.

“Our main campus is just enough outside of the city limits that it’s a barrier for people to attend,” she said. “Our faith-based recovery ministry has really found a home in that satellite location as have some of our other growth groups. Community groups are using that location for various meetings, and the house basically stands as a literal representation of the transformation that God can do.”

Supporting Others’ Call

Westervelt supports other Genesis Conference pastors through her additional role as a field superintendent. The conference website describes field superintendents as “experienced, fruitful local pastors who oversee a handful of other churches (their ‘field’).”

“We are another layer of support for the pastors assigned to us,” Westervelt explained. “Sometimes that looks like the field superintendent resourcing a pastor. Other times, it looks like clarifying conversations. It can also look like prayer support for particular situations or maybe upcoming series or events that a church is doing.”

Each fall, the conference hosts the OneDay event for all elders and CMCs. Other church staff and lay leaders are also invited.

“All the churches come together. Field superintendents often lead breakout groups with their respective churches,” Westervelt said.


“Are you interested in just knowing about Jesus, or are you truly interested in knowing Jesus and following Him?”


Some congregations have seen their growth slow as COVID-19 has impacted in-person attendance. Westervelt said the pandemic has resulted in “a pruning in the church where people have been confronted with the hard questions of: ‘Are you interested in just knowing about Jesus, or are you truly interested in knowing Jesus and following Him?’ Now we’re in a season when people are really reflecting on a deeper level because prioritizing the Lord, prioritizing church, and serving in the church have become more difficult. The world has interfered with what had become very natural for people.”

While it may seem discouraging that church is no longer part of some people’s weekly routine, Westervelt said we can optimistically embrace “that God can work to bring people to a point of having a real faith.”

Discerning God’s Calling

When asked how people can discern God’s call for their lives, Westervelt said, “The role of prayer cannot be understated.” She prays, “Lord, show me — based on what You have brought me through, where You have me now, and where You wish to take me next — what needs to happen in my life to best accomplish those goals.”

She also said she “benefits from writing it all out — literally sitting down and tracking the things that have happened in my life and where I think God is taking me.” For example, she considers, “What is it that I want to be able to say that I did in accordance with God’s plan for me?” +

Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.