Erica Lea to Become First Openly LGBTQ Lead Pastor of Mennonite Church USA

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By Betsy Shirley 9-18-2017
Erica Lea. Image via Erica Lea.

Albuquerque Mennonite Church will announce today that they have called Erica Lea to be their pastor — the first openly LGBTQ person to serve as a lead pastor in the Mennonite Church USA, a denomination that claims more than 70,000 adult members in the U.S.

Lea joins several other openly LGBTQ pastors who serve in various associate roles throughout the denomination.

“We look forward to finding more ways of articulating and sharing an Anabaptist faith that can flourish in locally derived expressions of Jesus’s call to discipleship, peacemaking, and justice,” Andrew Clouse, a member of AMC who served on the search committee to find a new pastor, said. “We think Erica is well equipped to help us do this.”

Mennonites are part of the Anabaptist tradition, a movement that began in the 16th century and whose members were persecuted for their practice of re-baptizing believers as adults. Though Mennonites share this Anabaptist heritage with the Amish, with whom they are often confused, many Mennonite groups in the U.S. including the MCUSA do not prescribe that their members dress a certain way, avoid certain technologies, or live in self-enclosed communities.

Officially, the MCUSA does not condone same-sex relationships. The membership guidelines of the MCUSA define marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, categorize “homosexual...sexual activity as sin,” and forbid MCUSA pastors from performing same-sex marriages. The denomination does not plan to revisit these guidelines until 2019.

Yet disagreement with church’s official position on LGBTQ inclusion has become increasingly visible in recent years.

During the denomination’s 2015 general convention in Kansas City, Mo., delegates passed a resolution acknowledging “there is currently not consensus within Mennonite Church USA on whether it is appropriate to bless Christians who are in same-sex covenanted unions” and called on MCUSA churches to offer “grace, love, and forbearance” towards those whose perspectives differed from their own.

According to a list published by Pink Menno, a group that seeks to create greater LGBTQ inclusion in the MCUSA, there are now more than 70 MCUSA churches that have publicly expressed their welcome for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Albuquerque Mennonite Church officially joined those congregations in 2007. The church’s mission statement reads in part: “Open and affirming, we hold that every person is created in God’s image, valued without regard to origin, sexual identity, affiliation, or status.”

In fact, calling Lea to be their pastor is a way of “being inclusive when it came to leadership” and a “tangible” example of how the congregation is living out its mission, Albuquerque Mennonite Church member Jeffrey Newcomer Miller said in an email.

Lea, who will move to New Mexico with her partner shortly after their wedding in November, told Sojourners she looks forward to joining Albuquerque Mennonite Church, which she believes is “a community that celebrates families of all shapes and sizes, is an ally to immigrants and people of color, and is a community that truly lives out its Mennonite value of hospitality.”

She also admitted it felt a little “awkward” to be in the denominational spotlight.

“In Menno culture, we often don’t want this kind of attention,” said Lea.

Nevertheless, Lea believes this is a moment for the church to celebrate.

“It’s like the Grand Canyon distance between becoming open and affirming and actually calling an LGBTQ pastor who is out,” says Lea. “A lot of churches struggle to make that movement.”

Lea also hopes her own position as an openly LGBTQ pastor will encourage others to be leaders in the church.

“I think this is an opportunity to encourage others who have not seen someone like them in a pastoral role,” said Lea. “I want LGBTQ people and women to be celebrated and encouraged in pastoral and ministry leadership roles.”

At the same time, Lea emphasized “the Mennonite values of community and team work” and explained that the Mennonite tradition had a non-hierarchical view of ministry.

“In our denomination, we have ‘the priesthood of all believers,’” Lea said. “Everyone is called to minister.

Luke Miller, a leader of Pink Menno and a board member of the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interests, agreed.

He described Lea’s call as “a wonderful encouraging sign...of a growing sense in the Mennonite church that God created and blesses queer people and queer lives.”

Yet Miller cautioned against using denominational “firsts,” including Lea’s call to ministry, as a measure of progress in the church.

“When...I look into the eyes of a queer person (especially a queer youth) and see that they know themselves to be fully known and loved and embraced... that's how I truly measure progress in the church,” Miller said.

Editor’s note: After the publication of this article, we learned that Michael Schaadt served Alpha Mennonite Church, a MCUSA church in Alpha, N.J., from 2003 to 2011. Schaadt initially served the church as interim pastor, but came out to the congregation as gay when they invited him to be a permanent pastor. In 2009, the regional MCUSA conference to which the church belonged revoked Schaadt’s ministerial credentials.

Betsy Shirley (@betsyshirley) is associate editor at Sojourners.

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