Jane Adams Spahr Reconciling Church Project is Launched

A project designed to bring more inclusion to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is being launched by the Center for Innovation in Ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS). Described as a program of evangelism and outreach to the church, the Jane Adams Spahr Reconciling Church Project will provide the opportunity for people across the denomination to meet and experience GLBTQ Presbyterians as pastors and educators.

“Experience teaches that change happens when real people meet and share their stories and their faith,” says Rev. Floyd Thompkins, director of the SFTS Center for Innovation in Ministry. Central to the effort, he explains, is “the work of repairing and rebuilding relationships.”

The project is named in honor of Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr, a 2015 Distinguished Alumna of SFTS and an activist on behalf of the LGBTQ community for four decades. After coming out as a lesbian in her early 30s, Spahr was forced to resign as executive director of the Oakland Council of Presbyterian Churches.

In the early 1990s, when the highest court of the PC(USA) said she could not serve as a co-pastor of Downtown Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, she became the evangelist for a new ministry, That All May Freely Serve. She began traveling the country advocating for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons called to church vocations. In 2010 she was tried by a judicial commission of the PC(USA) for performing marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples.

Spahr says she hopes the Reconciling Church Project will “change the myths and stereotypes that keep us from one another by providing opportunities for congregations and church members to meet, hear, and experience LGBTQ people of faith.”

Presbyterian minister Bear Ride, who worked for the Southern California program of SFTS in the 1990s, is the convener of a steering committee made up of advocacy groups that will oversee the project.  “What is new and exciting about this project is that one of our Presbyterian seminaries is officially aligning itself with the LGBTQ movement for inclusion,” says Ride. “That’s quite something, and I, for one, am absolutely thrilled.”

These advocacy groups emerged in response to the 1978 adoption of a denominational policy prohibiting the ordination of gays and lesbians as deacons, elders, and ministers. The PC(USA)’s 1996 General Assembly reinforced the prohibition in an amendment to the denomination’s Book of Order.

Efforts to overturn the policy failed until an action by the 219th General Assembly (2010), endorsed by a majority of the presbyteries, amended the Book of Order to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians. Four years later, the 221st General Assembly (2014) opened the door to same-gender marriage in the PC(USA). The changes in church policy, however, have not noticeably increased the hiring of LGBTQ pastors, Christian educators, and campus ministers, say developers of the Reconciling Church Project.

“Those who have been actively excluded must be enthusiastically welcomed,” Thompkins adds. “SFTS is blessed to join with the great company of people and ministries working toward the inclusion of all people in the church.”

For Spahr, the Reconciling Church Project is part of a larger effort to achieve justice for all people—no matter what their race, class, age, gender, or sexual orientation. She says the project addresses an urgent question: “How do we change systems of oppression into systems of liberation?”