The Potential Within

Text by Ciana Bruce/
Photos by Charletta Cloud & Ciana Bruce

Church and education sustained her passion for serving others. But her potential paved the path for a new service — leadership. 

Jacquelyn Ponder, who received her doctorate in administration and policy studies from the Atlanta University Center Consortium, was an educator for the Atlanta Public Schools for over 30 years. She is also the founder and pastor of a nondenominational church, In Jesus Name Church Universal Inc. Though her vocational journey is long, she has stayed constant with two things in her life — education and church.

Pastor Ponder after church service, during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Ciana Bruce

Ponder was born in 1937 to Eula Brown and Jason Hillman. Through her younger years, people believed she would follow in the footsteps of her bright, older brother, who graduated valedictorian of his high school. However, she fell in love. She married at the age of 16 and put school on pause.

Not finishing high school took a toll on Ponder, her family and her friends. Her new roles were her priority, and she was unsure how to manage the responsibilities of being a wife and homemaker while continuing school. Her next-door neighbor was one of the people who was also disappointed in her decision of not finishing high school. To motivate her neighbor promised to give her something special if she just went back and finished. Ponder returned to night school and graduated from Booker T. Washington high school on June 6, 1958. Completing her secondary education paved the way to a bright and successful future.

Ponder started studying at Morris Brown College, the same semester she gave birth to her third child, and completed her bachelor’s degree in education in 1962. The Atlanta Board of Education hired her that same year as an elementary school teacher. She took over as principal of East Lake Elementary School before serving in the same role at Cohen Middle School and then Martin Luther King Middle School. 

Throughout her teaching career, she also held a position in the church. Whether teaching Sunday school or coordinating church activities, she always made time to help her community.

Women in Church Leadership Roles

Ponder wanted the church to encourage more women to take on leadership roles. She established a retreat for women, the In Jesus Name Conference and Retreat Center, to teach, mentor and empower women in the church.

Preaching Women Honoree 2013
Photo: Jacquelyn Ponder
©Jacquelyn Ponder

Ponder’s drive for serving others never dimmed, despite many attempts to dampen and discourage her.

“Church preachers had a hard time dealing with women. Women could not sit in certain seats; women could not speak from the pulpit. If you were to carry the children places, the women would be the ones to do it, ” she said. 

Ponder said there were times when she was asked to help in the church, but “when it came to things to show, they would use a man.” 

Ponder felt disheartened, discouraged and disrespected by the church, but she had a supportive husband who stood with her. Together she said they did not allow the people running the church to continue mistreating her. 

Ponder ran her own retreat, but never before thought about founding her own church. Life for a female in a Southern Baptist church was limited. Through the traditional patriarchal lens of religion, Ponder said women holding leadership positions in the church was seen as controversial and was generally not acceptable. Though she initially did not have in mind to start a church, she established In Jesus Name Church April 27, 2007.

Ponder stressed that opportunity follows every discouragement. 

“If there is a problem, there is a solution,” she said.  

Pastor Ponder being presented with an award at President Obama’s Volunteer Service Award (PVSA)/ Tribute to Preaching Women Celebration Dinner Ceremony Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo: Charletta Cloud

She said much of her success occurred because she saw a need and worked toward making it better while maintaining her humility.

There were times in her career where she was not the smartest or the most qualified for tasks, but she realized something more important. The people she saw fail, were usually the people who were hard-headed, difficult to work with or just too prideful. When opportunities arise, such people are usually not the ones chosen to lead. There is a saying that she is famously known for, and it is “be humble or you will stumble.” 

Potential illuminated a bright future, but the support from others helped her soar.

Moroccan -Kennesaw GA women's project: Ciana Bruce headshot of a young woman with long dark brown hair wearing a white dress.Student Biography: Ciana Bruce is a junior at Kennesaw State University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in African and African American diaspora studies. Her passion is supporting cross-cultural appreciation.

Women’s Leadership through Virtual Exchange: Youth Sharing Digital Stories (WLVE) is a project engaging 100 undergraduate and graduate students from Hassan II University Casablanca with 100 undergraduate students from Kennesaw State University in a unique cross-cultural virtual exchange experience focused on better understanding women’s leadership through research, analysis, and digital storytelling. This virtual classroom-based project will collect biographical stories of successful women leaders in both countries written by the students and publish them online on Bokeh Focus. 

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