As a local church pastor, a communicator and a leader in the United Church of Christ, the Rev. J. Bennett Guess has long been a prophetic witness to society for justice and equality. Those reasons inspired Chicago Theological Seminary to present Guess with the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award.
Guess, executive minister of the UCC Local Church Ministries, earned his D.Min. in preaching from Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) in 2001.
"I was both really surprised and deeply honored when I heard that I was being given this award, because I’m not quite sure I’ve lived long enough, or yet worked hard or smart enough, to be worthy of the title ‘distinguished,’" Guess said. "But I do know I’m committed to the radically important stuff that CTS teaches, embodies and advocates, so that’s what makes this recognition so extra special to me."
CTS, a UCC seminary, bestows the award to alumni who have done outstanding service to the institution and in their communities. The award was presented to Guess during CTS’s Spring Conference on Friday, March 28.
"Based on Bennett’s service to the United Church of Christ, and to the cause of justice and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, we wanted to honor that effort," said Joe Burt, CTS’s manager of alumni relations and special events.
Guess’s time at CTS was "one of the most inspiring and rewarding opportunities of my life," he said. "It’s been my ongoing experience of CTS, as an alum and supporter, that continues to deepen my great appreciation for this school’s significant contributions to the city of Chicago, its national and global impact for justice and social change, and of course, its historic and ongoing commitment to the United Church of Christ, a relationship that this ecumenical seminary takes so seriously."
Guess earned his bachelor's from the University of Kentucky and M. Div. degree from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. In a far-reaching career, he served as a local church pastor for 12 years; eight of those were as pastor of Zion UCC in Henderson, Ky., a congregation that grew from 12 elderly members to a thriving house of worship of more than 300 people. In 1992, Guess co-founded the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, which has become the state's largest and most visible LGBT rights organization. Guess received the UCC's Just Peace Award at General Synod 21 (1997) in Columbus, Ohio, for his commitment to justice advocacy.
Guess came to the UCC national setting in 2000 as the communications director for Justice and Witness Ministries, spent four years as the news director and editor of United Church News before serving as the director of the UCC's Publishing, Identity and Communication Ministry from 2007 to 2011.
In its citation at the Friday afternoon award luncheon, CTS wrote that Guess "writes critically, as well as creatively, about the opportunities and challenges the United Church of Christ faces, as well as how faith can move the larger society toward greater justice and mercy."