The Rev. Nancy Hutchison Enderle served the Covenant Network of Presbyterians as Interim Executive Director in 2011-12. As she prepared to conclude her service, Nancy shared her reflections at the Commissioners Convocation Dinner the night before the 220th General Assembly (2012) convened in Pittsburgh:
I’d like to start these comments with the tale of two ordinations.
The first story is about Ben (his name has been changed).
I met Ben at the first new members’ class I taught at Fourth Presbyterian Church – he was there with his partner, David. And they were obviously and proudly a couple. I had indicated in the call process that LGBT inclusion and welcome were important to me, so I thought it was fitting that this loving couple would be present in my very first class. The next Sunday evening was HIV/AIDS Awareness Sunday, and I preached at the evening Vesper Service. As Ben exited, he said, “Pastor, you need to know that those of us who have AIDS would rather that you refer to us as ‘people who are living with AIDS,’ than ‘people who are dying from AIDS.’” Point taken. I called him at home the next day and said, “You can’t tell a pastor as you leave a service that you have AIDS and not expect a phone call.” And we met for coffee and launched a long, intense, sometimes challenging connection both during my time while on staff at Fourth, and after my family moved to Madison, Wisconsin.
I don’t have the time to describe all the places knowing Ben took me over the next 20 years; there were lots of hospitals, an AIDS support group, a prayer group for ex-convicts who had contracted AIDS in prison, many dinner parties. One of my favorite memories was when Ben and David threw me the best baby shower ever thrown in the history of baby showers for my first pregnancy – at which I was the only woman – and the only straight person!
There were two major concerns that drove Ben (that would be drove with a capital “D”) – one was his devotion and commitment to his beloved David. And the other was his desire to be an ordained pastor. When we first met in the early 90’s, he had returned to do undergraduate work in religious studies at Loyola University in Chicago with the hope of attending seminary. He loved scripture and found in his relationship to God a life-giving purpose, a healing presence, and a profound call to serve. Out of respect for his passionate love of study and sense of call, I took him to visit McCormick Seminary, frankly thinking all the while that his advanced AIDS would take his life before he got the chance to graduate. In the same vein, I didn’t think he would live long enough to face the prohibition against his ordination in the PC(USA). Well, not only did he finish his M.Div., but he went on to work in many parish settings as part of his preparation for ministry, which he later pursued in the UCC. With such severe health restrictions, he didn’t want to wait for the Presbyterian Church to make the way open for his ordination.
Sadly, Ben’s liver had been so ravaged by the many medications and attacks on his immune system over the years, that in 2010 his only hope was to receive a liver transplant. When a donor became available, he called me from the hospital to pray before the surgery. He prayed that God would send comfort to the family whose loss meant that he could have this new chance at life, and he thanked God for the promise of new energy and restored health so that he could (1) be more present for David, and (2) finally have the stamina to work and pursue ordination. It would be the last time we talked. Ben never regained consciousness – something happened to his heart during the procedure, and after a long struggle to determine the extent of damage to his brain, David decided to release Ben from the life-support services that were sustaining his body.
As David and I discussed the prospect of how to celebrate the last moments of Ben’s physical life, I offered to write up a liturgy of ordination so that David and his closest friends, and their pastor in Chicago, could lay hands on Ben and honor his years of service to Jesus Christ. Ben was sent off with that liturgy surrounded by love, honored by an act of ordination that was delayed and unofficial, but meaningful nonetheless. It was a moment that brought much comfort and closure to his life.
The second ordination story ends much differently.
I was honored to chair the Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) that oversaw the inquiry and candidacy of Scott Anderson in the John Knox Presbytery (JKP). The great irony was that we were working with Scott to evaluate his readiness for ministry when in fact, just about every meeting and interaction we had with Scott made me question my readiness for ministry – certainly ministry with the integrity he demonstrated through each aspect of the process.
As many of you know, Scott participated in the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force, and we followed the process that Task Force put forward for scrupling his conscientious objection to the language and theology behind the former G-6.0106b. He did so with an incredibly thoughtful and theologically sound presentation. And the JKP approved his inquiry and candidacy, and ultimately approved him as ready to receive a call to serve as an ordained Teaching Elder. After having charges raised against the Presbytery, Covenant Network director Doug Nave successfully (and might I add, generously and brilliantly) defended JKP at the Synod trial. Next, Scott’s ordination was put on hold due to an appeal filed to have the complaint reviewed by the GA Permanent Judicial Commission. That GAPJC ruling was successful in large part due to the fact that Scott’s scruple was formulated around his objection to a part of the Book of Order that was no longer in the Book of Order, because Amendment 10-A had officially received the majority vote necessary to change the ordination standard.
Many of you in the room this evening worked diligently to create the changes that paved the way for Scott’s ordination on October 8, 2011. Since the passage of 10-A, in addition to Ruling Elders and Deacons across the country, we have also celebrated the ordinations of Teaching Elders Katie Ricks, Paul Mowry, and Scott Clark. They have been wonderful celebrations of gifted leaders now able to pursue God’s call. I was unable to attend all of them, but I can tell you that Scott Anderson’s ordination was one of the more meaningful services of worship that I have ever attended.
Knowing firsthand what a gifted pastor Scott Anderson is made it all the more thrilling. The importance of this was made evident just two weeks ago, when I turned on Wisconsin Public Radio and heard Scott speaking in his role as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches about a program they were sponsoring that challenges and encourages state and U.S. political leaders to engage in a “Season of Civility.” As caller after caller phoned in to the radio show and spoke to Scott, I noted they would begin their comments by thanking “The Reverend” or “The Pastor” for this initiative. I was moved to tears at the poignancy of his ministry and the importance of his work as an ordained clergyperson.
Two ordinations: One not quite official. The other, complete and full, and yielding profound blessings. Friends, let us not forget that the policies and procedures that brought about this new day in the PC(USA) touch lives and signal a new and promising day to so many who watch us. I give thanks for the lives of all those faithful people who, like Ben, didn’t live to see this day, but always longed for it and worked for it. And I rejoice in knowing that men and women who love the Lord, have a passion for Scripture and scholarship, and seek to serve Christ’s church, are no longer bound by arbitrary barriers based on their sexual orientation and their desire to live in a faithful partnership with someone of the same gender.
It is a good day indeed. When I started working as the Interim Executive Director in June of 2011, I liked to joke that I was so good at my job that the denomination changed the Book of Order within six weeks of my starting date. It got a bit of a chuckle, but what I didn’t realize is that while it was incredibly good news for the Covenant Network, it would also present our biggest challenge. Very soon into last summer, I started to hear: “Isn’t your work done, now?” “I thought you were finished.” “What will you do now that you accomplished your goal?”
They were good questions, faithful questions. They were questions we asked of ourselves as we dedicated Board meetings and special sessions with a consultant to brainstorm our future. And the Board came up with the resounding sense that, yes, there was more to do. You see, change doesn’t just happen because votes were counted in our favor. Change, we realize, happens slowly – relationship-by-relationship, story-by-story. We recognized the importance of building on the sound foundation that served our organization so effectively, and that is that we are a national network – network is our middle name – one which we can engage to help usher in the changes needed on the local level and across the country.
We heard about the importance of this deliberate approach to changing the culture of the church as we listened to accounts from some of the first women to be ordained when that ordination policy changed decades ago. Their stories reiterated the importance of helping to create an environment that supports the work of nominating committees and presbyteries and helps usher in the positive aspects we encounter as we live into God’s inclusive welcome. I remember in the summer of 1982, over 20 years after the ordination of women was approved, serving my home presbytery as their “woman in ministry intern.” I lived in rural Wisconsin for the summer and was charged with preaching to congregations around the presbytery who had not yet heard a woman preach. Have I got some stories from that summer! Change takes time. It takes a commitment on the part of supportive people and organizations, like the Covenant Network, to educate, network, advocate and resource groups who can influence the nominating process and practices of churches and presbyteries.
In response to this work, the Board initiated a website called A Season of Welcome. The website collects stories of LGBT Presbyterians who are responding to the opportunity to serve post 10-A, and in some cases stories of those who have been serving and can now live more openly and serve more fully. We believe these stories shed a light on the blessings of this new day for the church we love.
Another factor informed our conversations about the future of the Covenant Network that also involved building upon our established foundation – and that was a commitment on the part of the Board to reaffirm and underscore our founding goal to work in a manner that upholds the unity of the church we love. Each statement, each position since those first conversations in 1997, was always filtered through that critical lens: “Are we serving the church of Jesus Christ in a way that honors the diversity of perspectives and the variety of issues people bring to this conversation?” I have been humbled and challenged by the integrity of that position. I, who so easily fly off on the winds of passionate outrage, albeit justified, have settled down to consider that effective lasting change, change that best serves the church, will be achieved as we respectfully engage the whole Body of Christ.
Going forward the Covenant Network lives into this new day as we build on these two important commitments: working for unity and building a network engaged in helping the culture of the church change.
The interim pastor who serves the church where my family worships, Deb Lind, recently returned from an interim ministry ecumenical conference. She said that one of the speakers lifted up three imperatives to helping a congregation move through change. They are that you find within the context of the congregation the presence of:
1. Generous hospitality 2. Respectful community 3. Joyful collaboration
I thought that was a challenge that we could put before this General Assembly. That we might show something of generous hospitality to all we encounter. That we might build, even in the face of disagreement, a respectful sense of community. And perhaps most challenging of all, that we might not just collaborate, but that we might engage in joyful collaboration. I’m sure all those ideals will be challenged and tested in the coming week. But God blesses us as we live toward that life-giving possibility; as we humbly open ourselves to the presence of the living Christ who dwells not only in the rightness of our commitments, but in the heart of all the believers gathering as His body in this place. May God bless us as we seek to do that.