Clergy couples’ shared interest in technology brings them together
By Lindsay Peyton
Media ministry and using technology to share the message of the church, initially brought Revs. Johnnie and Lataya Simpson together. Little did they know that what started as a friendship over a shared interest in audio-visual communications would become an enduring love. They also became each other’s support system, as they pursued a new ministry on the pulpit. Now, Johnnie and Lataya are both pastors serving in the Texas Annual Conference. “Johnnie is truly my partner in ministry and life,” Lataya said. “I’m really glad we get to do this journey together.”
They met while attending the same church, Windsor Village UMC, and both working in media ministry. “I was on the audio end, and she was on the video end,” Johnnie said. “We were both making a career in media.”
The Simpsons were also both passionate about their work. Johnnie earned a bachelor’s in business management at Prairie View A&M, then an MBA from the University of Phoenix. Prior to becoming a pastor, he worked as an AV/IT field service engineer assisting with designing, installing and supporting technology systems.
Lataya earned her degree in journalism at Texas Southern University and began her career working at a local news station in Houston, covering significant stories from behind the scenes. She also worked in publishing sales and owned her own freelance business. In 2006, she also launched a networking agency, Christian Networking Group.
When Lataya met Johnnie, she was glad to have someone at church who shared her interests. They kept bumping into each other at outside events too. She especially was impressed with his community service and volunteerism. “I thought, he’s such a great guy, I should fix him up with someone,” Lataya recalled with a laugh.
Johnnie noticed that Lataya was never one to be pessimistic. “There are some people who are negative, who try to bring people down,” he said. “She is edifying. She’s always trying to build people up.”
One day, Lataya saw Johnnie in a whole different light. They were talking, and she thought, “I’m going to marry this guy.” Within a couple of weeks, they began dating. Two years later, they married in 2009.
Called to ministry at a young age
Both were called to become pastors at a young age. Lataya was about 15-years old at the time, but unsure what she would do. She grew up in the Baptist church, where women are not often found on the pulpit. During summer camp, Lataya was with a group of students, when organizers asked if anyone felt called to ministry. At that moment, her heart warmed. “It was like light poured out over me,” she recalled. Lataya raised her hand. They told her, “Do life first. Do ministry wherever you are.”
She left feeling uncertain. While she realized that she had been called, she did not see a path ahead. Instead, she focused on sharing scripture with others, teaching Bible studies in high school, and then working in media ministry as an adult. “I took it seriously,” she said. “Media ministry is as important as preaching the gospel. If no one can hear it, what’s the point?”
Still, becoming a pastor was her destiny, a fact that was obvious to others even when Lataya was uncertain. “When I was talking to people about it, not a single one was surprised,” Johnnie recalled. “The only comment I heard was, ‘We knew that was coming.’” “I’ve had Johnnie to help guide me,” Lataya said. “He was a step ahead.”
Johnnie also grew up in a different denomination. “I always knew that my last job would be in ministry, but I didn’t share that often,” he said. “I was always drawn to the church. I love the people. The people I looked up to in life are active in the church and many are pastors. The more I worked in the church, the more I wanted to be there.”
After they were married, they both headed to Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology to earn their master’s degrees in divinity. Now, they have back-to-back graduation photos. In the first, in 2017, Johnnie is graduating from Perkins, in his cap and gown, with Lataya by his side and their first two children, Johnnie Simpson III. and Elle Bea Simpson. Lataya was expecting their third child at the time. In the second photo, it’s Lataya’s turn to graduate, and this time, their new baby, Layla Grace Simpson, is in her father’s arms. Now, Johnnie is 9-years old, Elle, 8, and Layla, 3.
Before earning his master’s degree, Johnnie was appointed to his first church Haven Chapel UMC in 2012 in West Columbia, Texas, where he served for three and a half years. Then, he became Senior Pastor at St. Paul’s UMC in Galveston for another year and a half. During both appointments, he continued to work as an audio-visual engineer as well.
After graduation, he became a full-time minister and was appointed Senior Pastor at Faith UMC in Dickinson, where he continues to serve.
Lataya was first appointed to Wesley Tabernacle UMC in Galveston, while Johnnie was about 13-blocks away at St. Paul’s. Then, she became a chaplain at Houston Methodist Clear Lake Hospital. Last summer, she was appointed Associate Pastor at Bellaire UMC in Houston. The couple resides in Dickinson Johnnie’s church parsonage.
Opportunities to make church inclusive
The Simpsons have endless conversations about being clergy, as well as their continued interest in media. Their understanding of technology has been especially helpful during the coronavirus pandemic as they transferred services online.
They also continue to learn more ways to offer church online. Lataya sees opportunities to make church more inclusive. For instance, closed captioning can be added to YouTube videos to reach a deaf or hard of hearing audience. In addition, technology can reach homebound church members or busy families, who struggle to worship in-person. “Even though the pandemic has been awful, we have gained a lot of blessings,” she said. “I have learned so much about how to do church better – and how to live in faith better.”
In addition, the Simpsons are both active in social justice and support their local Black Lives Matter chapter. Johnnie is a member of the NAACP. He also serves on the board of directors for the M. I. Lewis Foundation, an emergency assistance program in Dickinson, as treasurer of the Galveston County Long-Term Recovery Group and secretary of the Dickinson Management District.
“Johnnie is very engaged in the community,” Lataya said. “He’s out there in the world where God has called us to be.” Johnnie has been at work on a series of racial conversations, “We Wear the Mask,” with the title based on poet’s Paul Laurence Dunbar work. These Zoom meetings were spearheaded by the South District Missional Discernment Team.
Sharing stories to open up conversations about anti-racism
Lataya speaks often about the journey into race relations for adults and children. As a Black woman pastoring a predominately white church, she often shares her own story to open up conversation.
The Simpsons have learned how to balance work and life as a clergy couple. Sometimes, that requires turning the phone off, which can be easier said than done, they admit.
“We don’t clock in and clock out, but boundaries are important,” Johnnie said. “It’s important to know when to close the shop down and not open it back up when I get home.” They take time apart, spend time with friends and pursue their own hobbies. “We both have what we enjoy outside of church and we give each other space,” Lataya said.
She recommends that other couples approach their relationships with intentionality. “Be intentional about showing love and giving grace,” she said. “Don’t keep a scorecard. Make sure that you are building each other up. Let them know how much you love them. Life is too short to assume they know.” Lataya also said that self-awareness and spending time on your own pursuits often leads to stronger partnerships, especially when couples support each other along the way.
Johnnie advises couples to spend time working on communication. “Don’t let things go unsaid – but also learn how to say them,” he explained. “When things go unsaid, that causes resentment. But don’t blurt things out either. You can create more problems than you solve.”
Lataya said that Johnnie excels at listening. “Everyone needs someone they can confide in, and for me, Johnnie is that person,” she added. “I don’t have to be perfect when I’m with Johnnie. He’s my confidant. You have to have someone in your life that you can talk to about the hard things, where grace can reside.”
Johnnie said that Lataya fills the same role for him. “She is also a realistic mirror,” he said. “She’s really good at saying, ‘Let’s take a look at this from a different angle.’”
During this challenging period of a pandemic, civil unrest and institutional racism, the couple said there are some thought-provoking conversations around the dinner table and difficult questions raised by their children.
“We help each other as much as we can to navigate things,” Lataya said. “I couldn’t do this without him. We can always talk to each other. We get it, and that’s a gift. Together, we can walk through it.”