For Nearly 25 Years , the Rev. Deborah Jackson Did Marketing Research for the Insurance Industry. Then She Made a Big Change, Which Provided Her with a Different Opportunity for ... Guiding People's Lives

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Byline: TONYAA WEATHERSBEE

For 25 years, the Rev. Deborah Jackson guided insurers in competing for the hearts and minds of people looking to protect the financial security of their loved ones.

Then she decided that she wanted to guide people toward assuring themselves more fruitful lives.

"I enjoyed doing marketing research," said Jackson, who spent more than two decades at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida. "But for years, when I was still in the insurance industry, I felt that still, small voice from God saying, 'Do more to make a difference.' "

In 2007, Jackson got a chance to heed that voice - in a big way.

She earned a master of divinity degree from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and began her ministry at St. John's Cathedral in downtown Jacksonville - the cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of Northeast Florida.

Jackson, 52, didn't set out to blaze trails by becoming a canon in the Episcopal Church at an age when many corporate types are eyeing retirement - although in a way, she is. The Episcopal Church began admitting women as priests in 1976, with Barbara C. Harris becoming the first woman ordained as a bishop in 1989. Black female priests are still a rarity, numbering less than 200 in the Episcopal Church.

But Jackson didn't hear all that in the voice that called her to serve. She just heard the part about serving.

"After a while, the still, small voice never went away," she said. "I think the time came [for her to serve] when my younger son was approaching high school graduation.

"That's when I decided that I could do this."

So far, that decision seems to be working out not just for Jackson, but also for the church, said Kate Moorehead, Dean of St. John's Cathedral.

"I think the most impressive part about Deborah Jackson is that she came straight out of seminary to be at this church," said Moorehead, herself a trailblazer in that she's the only female Episcopal dean in Florida.

"Not long after she [Jackson] got here, the dean left, and she had to take on more responsibilities. That's not easy when you first come out of seminary for the dean to leave. But she's been a consistent presence here."

Jackson, however, had been placed on the path to priesthood early in life.

When she was in junior high school at James Weldon Johnson, her homeroom teacher had a roommate who worked at Episcopal High School and was recruiting black students to attend the school.

This was when the public school system was just beginning to integrate, said Jackson, who was reared as a United Methodist.

"The first day going there, it felt strange, because before that time I had only gone to all-black schools. At the time, I was the only African-American in my graduating class ... but I felt especially welcomed by the teachers and the faculty. I was active in a variety of activities ... I was in the choir, and I was on the dance team for a while. I was on the editorial staff of the magazine."

It was also her first exposure to the Episcopal Church.

"I fell in love with it."

For many years after that, said Jackson, who received her undergraduate degree from Rollins College in behavioral science before earning an MBA in marketing and management from Jacksonville University, she remained a United Methodist, but frequently visited Episcopal churches. …