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New pastor strives to open doors to all

Community United Church of Christ's new minister, Obadiah Ballinger, is shown with his two spiritual mentors, his grandmother Patricia Bueling (left) and the Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe. Monroe spoke at his ordination in St. Paul Park on Jan. 23. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Pastor Oby Ballinger is shown above at work. During the first months of his new ministry, he's visiting parishioners and putting a "lot of energy into worship and special services." (Bulletin photo by Toni Lambert)2 / 2

Obadiah Ballinger may have been destined to be a pastor from the moment his parents picked his name out of the Bible, a name that means "servant of God."

Pastor Oby, as he prefers to be called, is the new minister at Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul Park. He started on Dec. 1.

"It was trial by fire," he said in a recent interview, "beginning with all the events for Advent and Christmas and the funerals of two well-known and beloved members of the congregation."

He hasn't stopped moving since.

In December, Ballinger had a new Web site created for the church. He set up a series of "cottage meetings" with parishioners in their homes. He began to visit members of the congregation who couldn't attend Sunday morning worship services and traveled to Glencoe for a visit with longtime church member Arnie Moen. He also started conversations among parishioners to formulate a vision of the church's future.

If we have a theme this year, it's "Welcoming One Another," he said. "One thing that has come from the cottage meetings is the desire of the congregation to find one or two places where we have the gifts to serve, and to find ways to be more hospitable."

"Churches that are growing and making a difference are looking outward, finding where people are suffering, where God is leading," he said.

Ballinger said he wants church to relate directly to everyday life.

"Many churches haven't figured out how to speak God's word of love at a suffering level," he said. "Churches teach on one level, people live on another level. Unless we bring them together, people won't come to church.

"Some people also presume they won't be welcome if they are single, a young adult, disabled or gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender," he said.

Ballinger, who is gay, said he and his husband were graciously welcomed by the Community United congregation.

"No one was hostile, but a few did have questions," he said. "I engage those questions as they come up. It doesn't surprise me they have questions. It's one thing to understand this in the abstract and another to see it up close and personally.

"I didn't have an overnight understanding about what it meant to be gay, so I don't expect the congregation to understand all facets of it either."

He said he has seen a change of attitude in some members. As he progressed through the candidate interview, sermon and lunch in November, he said he faced several challengers. Some said they didn't agree with his lifestyle, others hinted they might leave the church.

He told them he respected their positions but said, "let's walk together and get to know each other."

"The congregation didn't call a gay pastor," he continued. "They called a man who tries to be a faithful preacher, a careful teacher and a loving caretaker -- a man who happens to be gay.

"The question of being gay doesn't come up in everyday ministry," he said. "I don't hide the fact that I'm gay, but I don't wear a label on my sleeve."

"As a congregation, we want to let people know they are welcome here -- no matter who or where you are, you are welcome," he said. "God doesn't turn anyone away. Everyone has a place at the table."

Ballinger grew up with five siblings on a farm near Rochester. When he was 14, he went to live with his grandparents in Great Falls, Mont.

"My grandmother, Patricia Bueling, modeled faithful Christian living for me," he said. "Her faith was thoughtful and heartfelt. She encouraged me from the very beginning to consider the ministry."

He joined the United Church of Christ shortly after the Twin Towers tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001. "The Sunday following 9/11, I was late for an Episcopal service so I ducked into the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moorhead," he recalled. "The pastor was praying for Muslims and all faiths; she was not moved to violence."

That pastor, the Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe, became his second spiritual mentor and encouraged him through his studies at Yale Divinity School, and his first call to service at Community United Church of Christ and was the speaker for his ordination and installation in late January.

Welcoming a gay pastor

It took the congregation at Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul Park nearly a year to officially adopt an Open and Affirming policy toward gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender members and clergy.

The move to become Open and Affirming began when the church offered a fulltime, permanent pastoral position to a lesbian, in fall 2008.

"She wouldn't accept the call because we weren't officially ONA," said search committee member Edie Seefeldt at that time.

After formal meetings and events, the congregation voted to adopt the Open and Affirming policy in 2009.

"We can't help smiling," Seefeldt said last week. "Pastor Oby is very welcoming, warm and understanding. You can tell he cares. He could be the answer for a lot of people who don't know where to turn."

In January, at the request of a church member, Ballinger led a special healing service that happened to coincide with the earthquake in Haiti.

"The whole aisle was filled with people during the service," Seefeldt recalled.

He preached on suffering and why bad things happen to good people. People were invited to come forward for prayers, anointing of oil, a healing touch and assurances they were not alone in suffering.

"There were two or three opposed to hiring a pastor who is gay," Seefeldt said.

"But those who were standing back are now smiling."