Few people in or out of Christian ministry can connect their current professions to their hopes and dreams as a young teenager – but Christine Chakoian is that rare example of someone who can.
With each passing year, Chakoian says her joy increases and she becomes closer to God. She is living the life she once dreamed of and counts among her greatest privileges “Coming alongside people in some of the most sacred moments of their lives. I love being a pastor,” she said.
For her most recent ministerial stint, Chakoian has spent the past five years concentrating on preaching and caring for the congregation as Pastor and Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest.
While she initially had some doubts about how well-received she would be as a woman in ministry, Chakoian has found her gender to actually be more of an asset that a liability – her self- assured but soft-spoken nature is disarming and minimizes conflict with those who might disagree with her.
Though she holds the distinction of being the female head pastor with the largest congregation in the entire Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Chakoian is not serving alone.
Her “stellar staff,” as Chakoian refers to them – of nearly 20 people includes McCormick alumni/ae Amy Pagliarella, Donna Birney and Corey Nelson.
Her love of education – refined though studies at the University of Illinois and Yale Divinity School – contributes to the joy she feels in crafting a sermon. The discipline of thinking, writing and applying Biblical scripture is a real treat for Chakoian and she sees it as a privilege to have a job which enables her to exercise skills she loves. In addition to her Sunday sermons, Chakoian is compiling a report on the rich history of her congregation, which was established 150 years ago.
Her history project has actually become the centerpiece of her work in McCormick’s Doctor of Ministry Program, in which she enrolled in 2005 just before being called to serve at Lake Forest. She said the program helped make her transition from her last parish at Clarendon Hills much smoother because it was an oasis of diverse perspectives.
Staying in the same Presbyterian circles with people who all think along similar lines can lead to narrow-mindedness, Chakoian said. She found discussing ideas and struggles with a more diverse group of peers in her cohort group extremely helpful as she moved from one congregation to another.
As she believes it will take her six or seven years to graduate, she is not a traditional D.Min. student. But when she is able to carve out a couple of weeks to focus on her thesis, she feels like a kid in a candy store. When she last tucked herself away at an apartment near McCormick, Chakoian completed three of the eleven total chapters in her book. She stayed up late during this time– sometimes until two in the morning – only to fall into bed and get up in the morning to write again.
“It’s good to get out of the context that you are in,” Chakoian said. “It helps you to ask questions that you wouldn’t think to ask otherwise.” Church History Professor Ken Sawyer helped her with professional critiques during this time.
In addition to enjoying her thesis project, one of the things Chakoian cherished the most about her time in the McCormick DMin program was the opportunity to interact with ministers from different theological backgrounds.
“After being out for a while, you become hungry for what seminary has to offer,” she said.
As a minister, Chakoian views her role as equipping those around her to see proper stewardship of relational, economic and political power as expressions of faith. Through preaching, she educates the congregation with spiritual truths as well as practical ways to bring their unique selves into the life of faith.
“Faith can be expressed in thousands of ways, but we are all part of the same body,” Chakoian said.
Chakoian thinks there is no such thing as a typical Presbyterian church and that every congregation has a unique flavor and special gifts to offer the universal body of Christ. Within her large congregation, theological, political and socio-economic diversity is the order of the day.
A believer in Barth’s idea that faith should be expressed with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, Chakoian challenges those in her congregation to engage the world that God loves.
Chakoian first knew she wanted to serve as a pastor in high school. Ministry runs in the family – her twin sister, Karen Chakoian, is also a head pastor in Granville, Ohio.
Though others in her family are not professional ministers, Chakoian said they share another important trait: “nerdiness,” she says.
Chakoian said her husband, who has his Ph.D. and her 19-year-old daughter, who is a student at Northwestern, spent their last family vacation at a conference for the American Psychological Association. “We’re all wired the same way,” she said.
Decades after assuming her first pastoral position, Christine Chakoian has deepened her personal theology. After several seasons in ministry, she is asking a whole new set of questions than the ones she had when she first entered the pastorate.
Today, she wants to know how to express individual faith in a manner conversant with today’s pluralistic world. Within the Christian faith, no believer can thrive in isolation. Chakoian makes it a priority to find ways to love those around her.
In addition to regular rhythms of scripture reading, prayer and walking the dog, Chakoian credits her colleagues with enabling her to retain her enthusiasm for the ministry.
“I could not do this by myself,” Chakoian said. “I have many friends in ministry and I know how to pick up the phone and ask for help.”
Chakoian met her husband, John, when she was working as an associate pastor at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago on Michigan Avenue. She later moved to Oregon for another pastoral position. Due to family responsibilities for herself and her husband, Chakoian gladly returned to live near the city she loves in Lake Forest.
In addition to enjoying the distinctive skyline and expansive Lake Michigan, Chakoian said she treasures the diversity of the city and never-ending stream of new things to do.
“I have a sense of belonging here,” Chakoian said. “It feels like home.”