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The T-ball umpire as stated clerk?

The Rev. Brian Ellison says his present work has its roots in umpiring

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Brian Ellison is executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians, among other positions he holds. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — While the Rev. Brian Ellison didn’t realize it at the time, umpiring T-ball games as a youth can be job training for work as a stated clerk, which Ellison does for both the Synod of Mid-America and Heartland Presbytery.

“There’s noting more depressing than calling a kid out on strikes,” Ellison, who’s also executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians, told the Rev. Dr. Lee-Hinson Hasty this week on the podcast Leading Theologically, which can be viewed here. “I think of that as good preparation for my work as stated clerk later on.”

“You get used to disappointing people,” he said. “’It’s right there in the Book of Order. Strike 1! Strike 2.’”

Ellison also works as a host and contributor at KCUR, the NPR affiliate in Kansas City, where he hosts talk shows, moderates community forums and anchors election night and breaking news coverage.

“I have several jobs, but a lot of people know me for the polity work I do on the presbytery and synod level,” Ellison said. “What I love about the stated clerk job is finding ways to use the tools of the church — the history and the theology of the way we live together — to bring about mission, evangelism and hospitality, using the tools of the church to really live into the gospel.”

Church polity “is so boring and bland for so many people,” he said. “But for me it’s an opportunity.”

“Our rules aren’t just rules,” Ellison told Hinson-Hasty, the senior director for Theological Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Foundation. “They’re about forming a covenant community. When we function in covenant, we do well, and when we depart from our covenant with one another, we mess it up.”

The conversation turned to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a national organization engaging, educating and equipping congregations and councils toward an equity not yet fully realized in church and society for LGBTQIA+ people. Ellison said he regularly receives phone calls from candidates for ministries “trying to understand their presbyteries.” He also hears from churches who want to be welcoming and inclusive as they ordain their first LGBTQIA+ elders or deacons or are hosting the church’s first same-sex marriage. Some, he said, “have been welcoming for 20 years and no gay people have walked through their door.”

Hinson-Hasty wondered about the comparison with the struggle to ordain women as pastors, which first occurred for Presbyterians in the northern church in 1954, as well as the “stained-glass ceiling” that many women clergy run up against in terms of salary and access to head-of-staff positions. “What can we learn from that?” he asked Ellison.

“As a dude, I want to be careful about saying I fully understand the struggle women in ministry have had,” Ellison replied. One parallel, he said, is, “just because the door got opened doesn’t mean the battle for equity was accomplished. … We are very conscious of the problem and not sure of the solution, except to keep working on it, and I think that is true for LGBTQIA+ people as well. Are there churches who will call them? Are churches willing to see them as heads of staff? … It can be exhausting ministry, and many are deciding to do something else. To churches I would say, equity is not about ignoring somebody’s orientation. It is about engaging the whole person as a whole person.”

For churches, it can be comforting, he said, to learn “you aren’t doing this alone. Other churches in the presbytery or around the country are engaged in the same thing.” Covenant Network of Presbyterians is re-engaging in its Covenant Conversations program to bring congregations and church leaders together to learn from one another, put resources together, “and engage rather than [seeing people] throw up their hands and say, ‘We don’t know what to do!’”

The simplest thing for Covenant Network of Presbyterians to do, he said, would have been producing a video with 10 steps on how to become a welcoming church. “But it doesn’t work that way,” Ellison said. Some churches might prefer offering welcome to be as simple as flying a rainbow flag or inserting a well-crafted welcome statement in the weekly worship bulletin, “but it’s not that simple,” Ellison said.

Many churches find they prove their welcome by engaging in social justice work, which Ellison said, “is a critical part of evangelism” and of the proclamation of God’s Word. “A lot of churches are quick to reject social justice work, but their ears perk up if you talk about welcoming people and evangelism. It’s the same work.”

He also said it’s increasingly important to note that transgender and non-binary people are very much a part of the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

“Thankfully, the General Assembly took that position in 2018,” Ellison said. “Churches often don’t know the right questions to ask or the right facilities to provide. These are vexing questions.”

As he normally does to conclude each Leading Theologically podcast, Hinson-Hasty asked his guest to provide a charge or benediction. In his, Ellison charged listeners to “go from this conversation to have your own conversations — conversations with yourself, conversations with God and each other — that shape and transform and advance the cause of Christ, which is the cause that includes all people, not in spite of who they are but because of who they are. May the grace that has embraced you and the love that God gives us as a gift among and with each other and the community that is our calling be yours this day and always. Amen.”

Leading Theologically will be on hiatus until August. Look for further announcements on the Facebook page of the Theological Education Fund here.

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