It’s important to make a good first impression on visitors, especially in church, where newcomers may make quick assumptions, rightly or wrongly, about the congregants they encounter on their way in.
Tara Jones, First Impressions coordinator at Southeast Christian Church’s Southwest Campus, has known what it’s like to feel like an outsider in church settings. It’s her mission to see that no one feels uneasy as they take their first steps into the Southeast community.
Born and raised in Louisville’s Shively area, Jones grew up spending most of her free time exploring the South End with her sister and their cousins. During her years at Butler High School, she hung out at Champs Skating Rink and the Kenwood Drive-In, and cruised “up and down Preston Highway in somebody’s cool car.”
Her mother grew up in a Catholic family, and by default, Jones and her siblings were Catholic, although they didn’t go to church very often.
“My family did, however, make a big deal about making our First Communion,” Jones said. “I was allowed to pick out my dress. I’m fairly certain that I’m the only girl who has worn a green dress to her First Communion, while everyone else wore white dresses, with veils and white gloves.”
In 2002, Jones married her husband, Jason, in a Methodist Church “based on how nice the pastor was—and the fact that my dad liked that he had a mullet similar to his own.”
A licensed cosmetologist, (“although the only hair I cut now is my grandma’s”), Jones has spent most of her adult life in the hospitality industry. For 14 years before beginning her work at Southeast, she was part of the management team at Hard Rock Café.
“Working in ministry never was part of the plan I had for my life,” she said, “but God certainly had other plans.”
When the couple’s son, Jett, was born in 2011, the challenges of raising a child led Jones to seek something that could help both new parents survive parenthood. She visited Southeast’s Blankenbaker Campus on a Thursday afternoon, with her crying baby in her arms. Shortly thereafter, the Jones family started attending church there.
The couple was baptized in 2012. When the Southwest Campus opened in October 2014, they made it their church home, and Jones began serving as a greeter in the First Impressions Ministry.
“I love greeting! I know so many people from this end of town, it just felt like being at home here on Sunday mornings,” she said. “It seemed that each week I saw more people I knew, and I made friends with folks I had just met. It’s been amazing to see so many connections at this campus.”
As First Impressions coordinator, Jones devotes most of her workday to coordinating the logistics of volunteers for the next weekend. She oversees volunteers from the parking lot, the greeting ministry, the Connection Center, the guest central desk, facilities and the medical team; she also oversees the café’s manager.
“I spend a lot of time coordinating events and calendars, as well as doing things such as ordering communion and facility supplies,” she said. “On Sundays, I need roller skates: I run from one end of the building to the other, partly because First Impressions is everywhere, and partly because I don’t want to miss a face! Sundays are busy, exhausting and awesome.”
Since so much of her work involves people and relationships, Jones sometimes finds it challenging to balance family life and ministry responsibilities. In addition to Jett, now 7, the Jones family includes a 14-year-old coonhound named Cleatus.
“We spend a lot of time at the trampoline park because Jett is wild, and it’s the best way to harness his energy,” she said. “We love to dance at our house—anywhere there’s music, we can make a dance party.”
To help keep her days running smoothly, Jones finds encouragement in two Bible verses that she often recites to herself. Hebrews 12:1-2 reminds her that people are cheering her on and encouraging her not to give up: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
In Matthew 26:39, Jesus prays, “‘My Father, if it is possible, take this cup from Me. Not My will, but Yours be done.’”
In moments of anxiety or despair, Jones reaches for that verse, which helps her accept her “cup” and carry it. She remembers what it was like to feel adrift, a bit like an outcast, before getting connected to the church family at Southeast.
“Because that connection was so huge in my own faith journey, I know how it can change lives,” she said. “The reason I came back to Southeast was because of how welcomed I felt when God led me there the first time, even when my life was a mess. I want that same thing for people who visit the Southwest Campus.
“I love the South End and the people here, and I know firsthand the impact this church can have on their lives,” she added. “I hope that people can look at me and say, ‘Well, if she belongs there, then I belong there, too.’”