Ten years ago, Covenant's Assistant for Congregational Care and Mission Kay Austin reached her typical tenure at a job. She'd been at Covenant for three years and, in all of her previous jobs as a legal assistant, that was about the amount of time she would spend before departing for what seemed like a better opportunity.
But Covenant was different. "At this job, I found a new definition of what a servant heart really is," Kay said. "I loved that in my job, I got to care for people; I got to problem-solve. I got to know people in a way that I felt I was kind of shaping them, especially the Deacons. It was a way that I had never ever been used in my career."
She paused and then added, “I have a real heart for Congregational Care. If anything, that’s why I stayed as long as I did.”
What is Congregational Care?
Kay explained. “Congregational Care is being available in times of need for prayer and support. It’s connecting the congregation with Deacons in times of great loss and times of concern. Several times through the years, people have called me in tears because they have had to put a dog down, wanted to know if we could help with an issue, or just needed someone to pray with them. Congregational Care is like a vessel for people who have needs that they can’t express or they need somebody else to hear. Congregational Care is a lot of listening and a lot of understanding.”
Associate Pastor for Congregational Care and Missions Jill Williams has been Kay’s boss for 13 years. She offered her definition: “Congregational Care involves everyone in the Covenant community, empowered to care for one another. Covenant’s Congregational Care team is comprised of Kay and me, and a large group of volunteers who lead the congregation in the work of helping and bearing with one another in times of struggle and transition, so we can all journey with Jesus with faith and support.”
Congregational Care encompasses a lot of church territory, and Kay serves as the first point of contact for those in need. Kay said, “Jill describes my job as being the air traffic controller for the congregation and the Deacons.”
Jill explained the analogy: “Kay just manages a lot of flow in and out of the busy airspace that is Covenant. She guides people to resources, and mobilizes teams and folks to get the resources they need. She pays attention to a lot of movement.”
The job can be tricky, according to Kay. “It’s challenging to communicate with people at a time of great loss. What kind of words can you use to tell the pastors, the Deacons, the prayer team that somebody’s child is in the hospital or that somebody has died? In all the emails I send out, I ask them to pray for God’s care and protection for people suffering losses, who are in the hospital, or to give thanks for a new baby.”
After 13 years, a full decade beyond her usual duration at a job, Kay is retiring. And while Kay has seen many changes at Covenant, the biggest change she’s experienced may be a surprise. “I think the thing that has changed the most is me. When I came into this job, I hadn’t given much thought to what working for a church would be like. I knew I wanted to help people and do something compassionate.”
She almost didn’t get the job. “I knew God was calling me to Covenant. When I saw the ad, I knew that it was my job and I didn’t get a call. And I thought, ‘Well, God, you’re telling me this is my job and they’re not calling me.’
“My husband, Michael, said, ‘Did you tell them you’re a Stephen Minister? Did you tell them that you’ve taught Godly Play? Did you tell them you’re an active parenting coach?’”
Kay hadn’t done any of that. She sent an email detailing this information and based on that, she was called for an interview. Kay learned later that they had been ready to offer the job to someone else. “I just knew that’s where I was supposed to be,” Kay reflected. "I just came in the back door rather than the front door.”
Jill recalled the hiring process. “We were about to wrap up interviews and felt we knew the candidate to pursue when one last resume arrived from a long-time Austinite named Kay, who had years of experience not working in churches but in legal offices. A few things on her resume piqued our curiosity, including the fact that Kay was a trained Stephen Minister, so we invited her in for a conversation. By the end of that first interview, we knew Kay was to fill this role.”
Mary Helen Mitchell was helping with the search. “We had been looking for what felt like forever. We were about to settle on another candidate before Kay’s resume came in, Then we got Kay’s cover letter. She was perfect. She had every single thing needed. She had the resume for the job!”
Kay’s behavior before getting the job set the tone for her time at Covenant. “Because I was listening to God’s call, I feel like that defined a lot of the things I would encounter there. It changed my spiritual life and really made me feel that God is closer to me and I’m closer to God.”
She felt so strongly about her call to Covenant that she did a “spiritual fast” prior to starting the job. “It wasn’t about fasting food or drink, I just felt like I needed to get my heart right about how different this job would be. I tried to do everything to please God before I came to Covenant.”
The Early Years
Once hired, Kay shared an office with Mary Helen, who was the assistant to the senior pastor and was also helping Jill. “Mary Helen was my mentor. She really taught me so much about serving the Lord, working in the church, using church language. She was such a great voice to me, and we worked in that same little spot for seven years.
“Mary Helen did some training with me, but she mostly listened. If I was stewing around, she would notice and ask if I needed help.”
Mary Helen had a front-row seat as Kay became engaged in her job. “The best part of Kay was how she interacted with the congregation. She led with compassion and grace, and is a fabulous listener. She just really allowed the people that came to talk to her to just talk.”
Jill explained the way Kay’s job has evolved. “Kay companions me, so her job has grown as mine has grown.”
Over the past decade-plus, Jill made many changes to Congregational Care, and Missions was added to her job. The all-church picnic, silent retreats and formation cohort forming were added to her plate, as well as supporting the nominating committee. “All this meant Kay’s job was growing as well,” Jill said. “She has navigated this dynamic feature of her job with great grace, always willing to serve in a way that benefits the Body of Christ and those both within and beyond the walls of Covenant receiving love and mercy.”
The Power of Prayer
Kay said her best days at Covenant were when she was pulled in many directions. “One of my most memorable days was when someone came in with a kitten stuck under the hood of her car. I think I went from that situation to a problem in the Sanctuary. I was ping-ponging all over the campus helping people. That was so rewarding to me.”
Some days, the challenges were more serious. “Someone came in one day and said ‘I was just driving by and need somebody to pray with me right now.’ Kay said the woman let her pray over her. “After about 10 minutes, I saw her walk out more able to navigate than when she walked in.
“I consider my job a ministry, but I don’t try to preach to people; I just pray with them the way I pray myself, the way I talk to myself. ‘Okay God, we’re a mess – we need protection and rescue. We need stress and anxiety relief. This is big.’ That’s how I talk to God.”
At times, Kay struggles to find the words. For that, her mom – a great spiritual force in her life – told her “when your heart and your words are all locked up, just ask the Holy Spirit pray for you until you have the words yourself.”
Fun Kay Facts
Kay is serious in her job and spiritual in her life, and she’s also very interesting. She’s lived all over the world because, as she describes it, she is a “military brat.”
Jill elaborated on what surprised her about Kay. “Kay is incredibly interesting! She went to high school in Turkey due to her dad’s job, loves art and beautiful jewelry, is quite knowledgeable about gardening and horticulture, enjoys beading and craftwork, and delights in watching Major League Baseball."
What’s more, Jill added, “Kay loves words and uses them well. She’s interested in others, laughs well and often casually surprises you with some unknown experience or insight during group conversation.”
Coworker and friend Darleen Kleinhenz agreed. “Kay is up to any challenge. Ask her to take a class to learn how to fuse glass, she is in! We share a love of vintage shopping, and her knowledge of antiques is amazing. She can tell me what country a bowl was made in before I even pick it up.”
Darleen continued, “She treats her friends like family and listens to you with her heart.”
“Kay is one of the dearest people I’ve ever known in my life,” Mary Helen said, adding, “Because I’m 71 years old, I’ve known a lot of people. She deeply loves the congregation.”
Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant
Darleen described Kay’s work ethic. “Of course she is professional and dedicated to her work, but the care she takes with everyone she works with is what stands out to me,” Darleen said. “She takes the time to really listen to what you have to say and makes you feel cared for and cared about. She may have a million things to do, but she makes you feel like what you need or have to say is all that matters. She has cared for everyone at Covenant, members and staff alike, with such kindness."
Covenant member Tom Hutchinson has worked closely with Kay throughout her time at the church in several different capacities – the Diaconate, the grief ministry, prayer vigils and hospital visitation. “I can honestly be very effusive in my praise of Kay in all areas of her ministry at Covenant,” Tom said. “She is quite literally the nerve center of congregational care. Kay is a conduit of information and for all areas of congregational care. Her weekly updates to Deacons and prayer teams are integral to the ministry.”
Tom continued, “She is a good friend and a sister in Christ.”
“Like all of the people most precious to you, I think I will miss most the day-to-day,” Jill said. “I trust Kay implicitly and value her friendship and wisdom. We’ve shared the gift of a long journey together as colleagues, which has benefited Covenant, enhanced my ministry and sure has blessed me. It’s been a wonderful partnership that I will forever treasure.”
Soon, Kay will be spending more time with the people most precious to her. She will travel to Kingwood in mid-December to help her daughter with her new baby, due Dec. 31, and to spend time with her three-year-old grandson, Gavin. “I am so excited. There’s so much joy in the idea of a new grandson.
“I’m leaving knowing that I left my job well,” Kay said. “I gave it everything I had for a long, long time.”
Kay added, emphatically, “I will miss my co-workers and friends, but I live close enough to pop in from time-to-time to say hello.”