Scholarship fund announced for gay, lesbian seminarians
Written by Ron Buford
The Rev. Bill Johnson, the Rev. Thomas E. Dipko and the Rev. John H. Thomas at the June 19 press conference announcing the scholarship. W. Evan Golder photo
The United Church of Christ has added to its list of higher-education scholarships with the first such fund in any church specifically for gay and lesbian seminarians.
Named for the first openly gay person ordained to the Christian ministry in modern times, the William R. Johnson Scholarship Fund will support openly gay and lesbian persons "in care" of UCC Associations and studying in Master of Divinity programs toward full-time ministry in the UCC.
The new fund joins dozens of scholarship funds already available through UCC-related ministries or seminaries. Among them are the Rooks Fellowships for Racial and Ethnic Theological Students, the Brown Pastoral Scholarships and the "Make a Difference" Seminarian Scholarships and Educational Support Awards. Like them, the Johnson Fund has specific academic and other requirements, which will be announced this fall for the 2001-2002 academic year.
"The vitality of the United Church of Christ depends on equipping our best and brightest for ministry in the 21st century," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ. "This scholarship fund is a powerful reminder that the response to God's call to ministry should not be limited by economics or sexual orientation."
The fund was created in October 1999 by the UCC members and ministers on the Board of Directors of the former United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. The UCBHM executive committee named the fund in May 2000 and announced it in June. It is seeded with $500,000 from the Homeland Board's unrestricted reserves, which are endowed funds resulting from gifts, bequests and investments dating back to the 19th century. No offering-plate (Our Church's Wider Mission) dollars were used to endow the fund. A campaign for gifts to double the endowment will be formally launched in August 2000. Interest income from the fund will be used to generate as many as 10 annual scholarships each year.
Since 1983 General Synod has encouraged Associations not to discriminate based on sexual orientation and since 1985 has encouraged local churches to be "Open and Affirming" to "persons of lesbian, gay and bisexual orientation within the community of faith." The new fund also reflects a 1991 General Synod vote that urged all parts of the church to "affirm" the ministries of such persons.
The Rev. Bill Johnson, now on the staff of Wider Church Ministries, one of the UCC's four new Covenanted Ministries, was ordained in 1972 by the UCC's Golden Gate Association in Northern California. Before that, he had experienced the discrimination the new fund hopes to counteract when he lost his seminary field job after disclosing his sexual orientation. Only a scholarship arranged by an elderly church member, Genevieve Macliver, allowed him to remain at the seminary.
"She knew God had called me to ministry, and she was determined that social prejudice would not stand in the way of my graduation and ordination," Johnson says.
The Johnson Fund was created in response to the discrimination gay and lesbian seminarians continue to face when seeking field education placements during seminary and opportunities for service in parish ministry after graduation.
Information on the Johnson Fund and other scholarship funds is available from Local Church Ministries, 216 736-3839. Contributions earmarked "W.R. Johnson Scholarship Fund" may be sent to Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115-1100.
Ron Buford is Public Relations and Marketing Manager for the Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry Team of the UCC Office of General Ministries.