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Maverick N.C. Church Welcomes Lesbian as a Co-Pastor

Controversy: It may be the only Baptist congregation in the South to have a gay co-leader.

May 11, 2002|YONAT SHIMRON | RELIGION NEWS SERVICE

RALEIGH, N.C. — A maverick church, known far beyond here for its willingness to take a stand on controversial issues, has called a lesbian as its co-pastor--possibly the only Baptist church in the South to do so.

The Rev. Nancy Petty, formerly associate pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, was elected co-pastor in April.

The 192-59 vote, however, was memorable for its lack of discussion about Petty's sexual orientation. Congregants at the 850-member downtown church next to North Carolina State University were more concerned with the model of dual leadership and whether it would be a good way to run their church.

Petty will share duties with the Rev. Jack McKinney, the congregation's senior pastor for the last two years.

"This day is only one piece of our journey together," said the visibly moved Petty, 38, after the vote was called. "Our journey is much longer, and it's about much more than this. The most important thing to me going into this is my relationship with you. I hope we'll continue to nurture our relationships with each other."

Pullen's venture into what has become one of the most divisive issue in the religious world today--the status of gays and lesbians--is not new. Ten years ago, the church was expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention for agreeing to hold a gay union ceremony. Today, dozens of its members are gays and lesbians.

But the church is not a single-issue congregation. It has been at the forefront of fights for desegregation, for women's rights and for the end to the Vietnam War. Its tradition of strong preaching--by the likes of Edwin McNeill Poteat, William W. Finlator and Mahan Siler--have earned it a reputation far and wide as the South's premier liberal church.

It is also the church that launched the Alliance of Baptists, a coalition of congregations that abandoned the Southern Baptist Convention after conservatives reasserted control over the 16 million-member denomination.

Still, members who took five months to deliberate knew the vote to elevate Petty to co-pastor would be a momentous one, and they fully expected the glare of the media and other Christian churches.

A Baptist church led by two pastors is uncommon, and where it does happen it usually involves a husband and wife. A Baptist church led by a lesbian pastor and a heterosexual pastor is "extremely rare, with the emphasis on 'extremely,'" said Bill Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I don't know of another such situation."

Most Christian groups either forbid the ordination of homosexuals or require that they live in chastity. But Pullen--as a fiercely independent Baptist church--has enjoyed the freedom to go its own way.

Petty arrived at Pullen in 1992 as a minister of Christian education. A month later, she called Siler, the senior minister, and asked him to meet her for breakfast at the Brownstone Hotel next door to the church.

"I need to tell you," Petty said. "I'm a lesbian. If I need to step down, I will."

Siler reached across the table, patted her hand and said, "We've decided that question at Pullen. You're OK."

"She's been with people through times of crisis and she's done a lot of work with people one on one," said Pat Long, a member.

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