Ever since she first stepped behind the pulpit of a small, north Texas church in the early 1980s, the Rev. Jane Youtz Riecke has been breaking one ‘stained glass ceiling’ after another in the United Methodist Church.
Riecke broke one in Baton Rouge when she became the 11th senior pastor of University United Methodist Church, located near the LSU campus, in early July.
“I have been breaking what we call ‘the stained glass ceiling’ everywhere I’ve been,” Riecke, 57, said with a smile. “I’ve been the first woman pastor at every church I’ve ever gone into.
“In Texas, I was the first woman in the district,” Riecke said. “I’ve preached in churches where I was the first woman to preach there.”
University Methodist, with an enrollment of about 1,200 and average attendance of around 360, is the third largest Methodist church in the Baton Rouge area. First UMC downtown is the largest followed by Broadmoor UMC, according to Louisiana Conference records.
Riecke’s 32-year career began as a circuit pastor, serving small churches in Bellevue, Vashti and Joy, Texas, a two-year stint at Lewisville, Texas, then to the rural Wiley and Mcclave UMC churches out on the eastern plains of southeastern Colorado, where “it is so flat you can watch your dog run away — for three days,” she said with a laugh.
Riecke and her husband Brian, who is a retired Methodist pastor, moved to Baton Rouge from Colorado’s Front Range, where she previously served as senior pastor of First UMC, in Loveland, for eight years and senior pastor of Northglenn UMC, in Northglenn, a Denver suburb, from 2000-2007. Prior to that she served in other Denver suburb churches in Thornton and Wheatridge, and at Warren UMC, a downtown Denver church from 1995-96.
“What a beautiful gem of a church this is. I feel like I’m at the pinnacle of my ministry,” Riecke said. “God has given me a true blessing to call me here.”
Deep spiritual family roots
Riecke is the only child of a World War II veteran who experienced a foxhole conversion and the sweetheart he met and married in Texas. She grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with the maiden name of Youtz. Her paternal grandmother’s ancestry goes back six generations in the Evangelical United Brethren church and her parents were very active in their Methodist church, she said.
Church camp was important, she said, and she found salvation the summer of her third grade.
“In that experience of being around the campfire with other young people, the wonderful role models of college students sharing their faith, that I really felt that I encountered God in that time and gave my commitment to Christ,” she said.
Her call to the ministry also came at church camp, although she didn’t realize it at the time. She wanted to be an actor.
“When I was 13, the last time I went to camp, I definitely heard God say to me in that intense prayer time you have at camp, ‘I have something planned for you,’” she said. “At the age of 13, I thought theater was what was planned for me.”
Started out acting
Her junior and high school years were filled with acting, including summer theaters where she won awards and college credits. After graduation from Donegal High in 1976, she attended Clarion University for two years then, “my mother said if I wanted to make a go at acting I had to go to a larger school so I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin.”
That change cost her credits, however, and without a technical course in backstage craft, “they blacklisted me,” she said. “I could not perform my junior year — it crushed me.”
She did, however, meet her husband, an acting student from New Orleans, and “we were so much in love.” They married, and after graduating from Texas Christian University in 1981, they established the Palo Pinto Community Playhouse in Mineral Wells, Texas. For five years they had a successful run but things began to change.
Called to the ministry
“I had all of this theater background and performance in my life but at the same time I had this really strong current of spiritual life with my parents and this amazing spiritual heritage but I could never seem to make peace with them,” she said. “A theater career is not conducive to Sunday morning and worship.”
They returned to church where she felt another call to the ministry.
“I was sitting in worship at a candlelight Christmas Eve Communion service when I heard — clear as day — God speak into my heart saying, “You are supposed to be up there. I want you to be a minister for me,’” she said.
That was such an alien idea, she said, because at that time, women weren’t supposed to be clergy. For three months she pondered it.
“When I finally told my husband, God bless him, he said, ‘if that is what God is telling you what to do then we better get you into seminary,’” Riecke said.
“For our fifth wedding anniversary he took me on a date to Perkins School of Theology (at Southern Methodist University), and I picked up my application.”
Her first commitment, however, was to her husband and their two sons, John, who is now 36, married and living in Denver, and Brian Paul, now 34, single and attending Baton Rouge Community College.
“Many of the women going to seminary were divorced — their life was totally different than what they were called to do and their spouse could not make peace with that,” she said. “I determined that if God was really calling me that God also didn’t want me to let go of the commitment I’d made to my husband.”
That decision led to four years of seminary, then decades of ministry performing more than 300 weddings and at least 500 funerals. She earned a doctorate in preaching and leadership from Asbury Seminary in 2012.
Her favorite Bible passage is Psalms 139, especially verses 7-11, where no matter where the Psalmist finds himself, “your right hand shall hold me,” she quotes.
Stretching the church
While many of University Methodist’s programs serve the immediate community, Riecke wants to expand their horizons to Africa.
“My big vision is taking adults out from Louisiana to the world — let’s challenge ourselves to the next level,” she said.
She plans to propose working with “Global Hope,” an international ministry that helps Third World children and wants to take a church team to Nairobi, Kenya, to help HIV/AIDS orphans.
“Often the children themselves have HIV,” she said. “The slums of Nairobi are immense — more than two million people live in extreme conditions.”
Vital local ministry
“We have a vision of serving God in the heart of the LSU community — those are not just words, we really, really see our purposes as working with the college students and the young adults,” Riecke said. “They are searching for meaning in their life — they want community — they want something substantial to hold onto — there is a deep hunger for meaning and we want to be there to feed them.”