BURLINGTON, Iowa — With a nose ring and tattooed arms, Elizabeth Bell doesn't look like your typical pastor.
The tattoos on her forearms — one of the New Testament Greek word for rejoice, and the other a brightly colored communion cup — aren't the only ones she has, but they're the only ones she'll let people see, she told The Hawk Eye . She got the tattoos about a year ago, and they have served her well as a means of striking up a conversation about faith, something that comes in handy during a time when church pews are becoming more difficult to fill.
The nose ring isn't faith-related. She just has a good nose for it.
Bell, who has been the pastor at Asbury and West Burlington United Methodist churches since July, often turns to less conventional ideas, such as the "Gross and Scary Stories of the Bible" Sunday school curriculum for pre-teens and teens that delves into the darker side of Noah's Ark and other, less talked about Old Testament stories, when it comes time to sharing the faith.
"Some of the stories in the Old Testament, they are pretty gross," she laughed. "You want to intrigue them and get them right at the core of the things that they're fascinated by."
It's with that ability to approach things from a new perspective that Bell hopes to help rejuvenate her congregation and guide it forward.
"I'm really good at helping people walk together and think outside the box, and I think so many times, mainline denominations see a death of their churches and the diminishment of attendance and membership because they have failed to recognize the need to step outside the box and to think beyond what they've always been doing and what they've always known that's given them comfort," she said.
Recounting her own journey, Bell explained God is always working, and therefore people and congregations constantly evolve on a continuum.
Though she always felt a calling to answer to some higher power, it wasn't until later in life that it occurred to Bell exactly what it was she was being called to do, "but I've always had this desire to be answering something that God is calling me to, and I didn't know what it was, and I fought it for a long time," she said.
Bell didn't have a religious upbringing. Her mother had been Catholic all her life, but walked away for a multitude of reasons. But the lack of influence from organized religion early in life didn't hinder Bell's interest in God.
Not long ago, she came upon a catechism workbook she was given at the age of 13. Flipping through its pages, she saw she had filled in the book's answers.
"I had a hunger to know God and to know the history of the church in the world, so I think it was always there from the moment I took my first breath and maybe even before then," she said.
Despite that hunger, she wouldn't realize her true calling until after she had children of her own.
It wasn't until 1996, at the age of 28, that she was baptized. Her husband, David, is what she described as a "cradle Methodist" and the two wanted to be able to marry in his church.
They went on to have two children, and Bell would wear an eclectic assortment of hats before she decided to trade them in for a stole, which she'll be able to wear after she is fully ordained upon successful completion of her two years as a provisional elder.
She worked at a shoe store, was the business manager of the convention center in Fairfield, worked at a home health care agency, ran a home services business, did skip tracing and worked in other areas of credit and collections, among other things, before her daughter, now 19, said something that made her realize she'd been working for the wrong bosses.
"My daughter said, 'Mom, you always seem to work for people who aren't nice,' and I just had that moment," she recalled of that day in 2013. "We were sitting in the car — I had picked her up from school — and she said that to me and I'm like, 'Why am I not working for the boss I should be working for?'"
Things changed rapidly after that. On the last day of 2013, the district superintendent of the United Methodist Church assigned her to a halftime position at a church in Libertyville. In September 2014, she began driving back and forth to Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago. She would continue to make the drive each week for the next three years until she completed her Master's in Divinity, all while juggling having a family and being a half-time pastor at three churches in Van Buren County.
Asbury and West Burlington are her fifth and sixth churches. Bell still juggles her time between her pastoral duties and her family, who live in Fairfield, but now she has time to get to know the members of her congregation on a deeper level. She likely will remain there for at least the rest of her time as a provisional elder. She's uncertain about where future assignments will take her, but she feels equipped to handle whatever life may bring.
"God's been working on me this whole time," she said.
And he's not done yet.