Kelly Martin Rose knew after her first stint of doing summer missions work through the Baptist Student Union at the University of Tennessee that she was being called to ministry. It just took her a circuitous path to get there.
Now she’s been serving just over two months as Central Baptist Church of Bearden’s executive pastor, a rare position among churches and even more unusual for a woman. She stepped into the role on Sept. 1.
“They never thought twice about a woman being in the position,” says Rose of the search committee and mostly male ministerial staff. “That wasn’t an issue at all.”
Rose was called after serving six years as the church administrator at First Baptist Church of Augusta (Ga.), where she oversaw a 40-acre campus with seven buildings and developed and monitored an annual budget of $2.9 million.
“I was their first woman administrator at First Augusta,” she says.
Even in her first church job, she was a first. She had been a member of First Baptist Church of Maryville for several years when the senior pastor called her in early 2000 and said, “You know, Kelly, I think … we’re ready to have a church administrator, and I think you’d be really good at it.” Her response was, ‘Church administrator – what is that?’”
Rose learned on the job; through mentors; at Candler Seminary at Emory University in Atlanta, where she earned her certification as a church administrator; and through continuing education.
“In some ways I’ve blazed trails,” she says matter-of-factly.
Born Kelly Martin in Ohio, she moved to the Corryton community in Knox County with her family as a fourth-grader. After graduating from Gibbs High School, she attended the University of Tennessee, where she majored in business education. She planned to become a corporate trainer, but the field was changing, and she stayed on at UT in a department she’d worked in as a student.
Between 1983 and 2000 she worked at UT full-time – on and off – while she raised daughters Hannah and Sophia. She worked in the academic provost office, student affairs, orientation, an environmental research center and in human resources. She enjoyed some of her jobs more than others.
“I loved the students. The further away I got from students, the less appealing it was.”
She didn’t realize at the time that the skills and experiences she gained from her many jobs would play a big part in her eventual career.
“What I do now is a combination of everything,” she says. “I can look back and see how the various roles that I had were preparing me for a different path.”
She worked at the Maryville church for 11 years, until a conservative senior pastor who didn’t believe in having women in leadership roles was called to serve.
“Things that come out of those difficult times, you learn a lot about faith,” she says. “God continues to work through even the crappiest situations.”
She then spent almost two years at First Baptist Church of Knoxville as interim associate pastor and then interim community minister, and a few months as business manager at Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church before moving with her husband to Chattanooga, where their marriage fell apart. That’s when she moved to Augusta, on her own.
She enjoyed the experience of living in the city that hosts the Masters, not because she is an avid golf fan but because of the novelty. Plus, she met and conversed with a personal hero, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, there in 2019.
“I was on the 18th green waiting for Tiger (Woods),” she recalls. “Standing next to me was Condoleeza. She’s on my bucket list of people to have lunch with.
“That was one of the highlights of my time in Augusta.”
Packing up and leaving Augusta and moving to Knoxville in the middle of a housing frenzy could have been a low point, but her daughter Hannah’s husband, Lane Shuler, is a Realtor in Maryville and managed to find her a house in South Knoxville without her stepping foot in it.
“I was looking for an area that was a little quieter and calmer, say, than West (Knoxville) would be,” says Rose, who had lived in South Knox twice before early in her marriage. “I also wanted it to be kind of convenient between Maryville, where Hannah is, and East Knox, where my parents are, and work. So that was kind of a good general location.
“I do love living on that side of the river. There’s nothing better than coming down Chapman (Highway), and you get toward the bridge there and you look over and you see campus and you see downtown. There’s just something about that for me. It reminds me I’m home, having grown up here. This is home.”
Rose says Central Bearden has also made her feel welcome.
“Every church is different, but the difference here is the element of supervising the ministerial staff,” she says. “I’m technically in charge of everyone but the senior pastor.”
She doesn’t think her church work is all that unusual, even though she knows of only one other female executive pastor in Knoxville.
“As Christians, we’re called to serve,” she says. “But I also believe strongly in our spiritual gifts and our shape, our profile, who we are and who God has designed us to be.”
Betsy Pickle is a veteran reporter and editor.