(RNS) — The United Church of Christ elected its first female general minister and president on Monday (July 3) at its 34th General Synod in Indianapolis.
The election of the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson also makes her the first black woman to lead the mainline denomination.
“Today, United Church of Christ, we create a first together. It won’t be last first,” Thompson, dressed in white, told delegates afterwards.
RELATED: As United Church of Christ tackles racial and LGBTQ issues, consensus reigns
Those delegates overwhelmingly approved Thompson’s nomination for a four-year term as UCC general minister and president Monday morning, breaking into song and applause as the results of the vote were announced: 626 yes to 43 no.
Thompson is the third woman nominated to lead the UCC, which celebrated its 66th anniversary days before General Synod began.
Although neither the Rev. Yvonne Delk (1989 nominee) nor the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund (1999) were ultimately chosen to lead the denomination, Thompson said Friday during his nomination speech“Their ministries have individually and collectively shaped the UCC and paved the way for women to serve in ministry at the UCC, throwing the doors of this denomination wide open.”
That Thompson is the first woman to lead the denomination may surprise some given the denomination’s progressive stances on women’s rights and many other issues.
For example, those attending the General Synod participated in a prayer walk to the Indiana State Capitol on Saturday to protest legislative efforts to ban gender-affirming care and restrict abortion services. Delegates are also expected to vote on resolutions voicing support for reparations for African-Americans, calling on local churches to declare themselves “white supremacist-free” zones, and launching a study of the denomination’s relationships with boarding schools that separated generations of indigenous children from their families and cultures In the USA.
“I want to keep the value of the moment and what it has taken to get to this place because, as I said before, it’s not just me, there are others who came before me, and maybe this is the right time. for the denomination,” Thompson told Religion News Service before the vote of delegates to the biennial meeting.
He pointed to the Delk and Zikmund nominations throughout his candidacy and again in his acceptance speech Monday because, he said, “I think when we talk about being progressive, we need to remember our own history of this being tried and done, and unsuccessfully.”
Thompson is associate general minister for UCC’s broader church ministries and co-executive of its global ministries, and was recently elected to the executive committee of the World Council of Churches, according to the denomination. She has worked at the UCC for 14 years: previously as minister for racial justice and minister for ecumenical and interfaith relations.
Ahead of Monday’s vote, the Rev. Noah Brewer-Wallin, chair of the search committee that recommended Thompson, praised the “unique and intimate perspective” she brings to the role of general minister and president of those previous roles within the denomination.
After graduating from Brooklyn College, Thompson earned a Master of Public Administration from North Carolina Central University, a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Seattle University, according to the UCC. She wrote her dissertation on the “religious multiplicity” of African Caribbeans, which includes practices from both traditional African religions and Christianity.
Born in Jamaica, she said she brings “a global vision to the church.”
He also brings experience leading ecumenical organizations such as the National Council of Churches, the Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches of the Caribbean and North America and the Churches United in Christ, according to the UCC.
This is reflected in what the denomination described as the heart of Thompson’s work and his vision for the UCC: religious multiplicity and diversity, justice for marginalized communities around the world, and affirmation of spiritual practices beyond traditional Christianity.
“I think the United Church of Christ continues to live and honor a legacy of what we call progressive engagement in the public sphere, and I would like to see that happen, and I wonder what that means for our 21st century. existence. I think we are as progressive as the next thing we find,” Thompson told RNS.
He added: “I think when we talk about being progressive in the United Church of Christ, we talk about no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, everyone is welcome here. I want to prompt us to think about what it means for us to extend that welcome in terms of how we understand hospitality in the church, who is welcome, who is invited. How do we make sure not that when people come we are making adjustments for their participation, but what do we need to do to make sure that when people come we are already ready for their participation?”
Thompson will assume the position of general minister and president on August 1. She go on the Rev. John Dorhauer, who is serving eight years in office.
The UCC General Synod is part business meeting, part worship service, and part “family reunion,” as the Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister, put it before the last meeting in 2021.
That meeting was held online, making it the first time the UCC has met in person since 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted meetings around the world.
The theme of this year’s General Synod, to be held June 30-July 4, is “Make All Things New,” inspired by a passage in the biblical book of Isaiah: “Do not remember the past things nor consider the old things. I’m about to do something new; now it sprouts, don’t you perceive it? I will open a path in the desert and rivers in solitude”.
Some 2,000 people, including 733 voting delegates — attend the meeting, which began with a message from keynote speaker the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ordained pastor at America’s leading Evangelical Lutheran Church and best-selling author.
RELATED: Unitarian Universalists elect first woman of color, openly queer president