William R. Johnson (MDiv ’71)
The Rev. Dr. William R. Johnson (born June 12, 1946 in Houston, Texas) was the first openly gay person ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the first such person ordained in the Christian Church in modern times. The historic ordination took place on June 25, 1972, at the Community United Church of Christ in San Carlos, California. His ordination is the subject of the documentary film, A Position of Faith (1973; released on video in 2005). Throughout his career, Bill has provided counsel and support to hundreds of LGBT seminarians and clergypersons in the United Church of Christ and ecumenically. Bill was the primary author of the extensive body of social justice policies regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons adopted by UCC General Synods and UCC Executive Council dating back to 1973.
Prior to coming out as a gay seminarian on November 11, 1970, Bill served as student pastor of UCC congregations in Donnellson and Franklin, Iowa; Kent,Washington; and San Carlos, California. He also served an industrial chaplaincy internship in an electronics factory in Chicago and as a hospital chaplaincy intern at Highland General Hospital in Oakland, California. Upon graduation from seminary in May, 1971, he was called by the Southern California Conference of the UCC to a specialized ministry among unchurched individuals. Returning to the Bay Area in October 1972, he served as executive director of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual from 1973-76 and taught in the Women’s Studies Program at San Francisco State University during the 1976-77 academic year.
In 1972, Bill Johnson was founder of the UCC Gay Caucus (also known as the UCC Gay & Lesbian Caucus or UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns). The Coalition is now known as the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition. Bill served as national coordinator for The Coalition from 1972-77 and in the 1980s as editor of The Coalition newsletter, WAVES . He traveled widely as a community organizer advocating the full inclusion of LGBT people in the UCC. In the late 1970s, he proposed that The Coalition hold an annual “National Gathering” of Coalition members, the first of which was held in 1981.
In 1974, Bill co-edited/authored (with Sally Gearhart) Loving Women/Loving Men: Gay Liberation and the Church. In 1976, Bill and revered lesbian activist, Phyllis Lyon, organized and facilitated the first gatherings of parents of lesbians and gays in San Francisco. That group evolved into what is now P-FLAG/San Francisco.
In 1977, Bill moved to New York City to live with Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet. When their coupling ended in 1978, they became neighbors and remained close friends until Vito’s death in November 1990. At Vito’s request, Bill officiated at the funeral service. In NYC, Bill worked briefly for the Lutheran Church in America and the United Presbyterian Church before becoming the office secretary at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, a block away from the UCC national office, in September 1978.
In the Spring of 1978, Bill founded Maranatha: Riversiders for Lesbian/Gay Concerns at The Riverside Church in New York City, the first parish-based LGBT ministry in the United Church of Christ. Maranatha remains a vital presence in the life of Riverside Church. In 1979, he was a contributing author to Positively Gay: New Approaches to Gay and Lesbian Life, edited by Betty Berzon (revised and updated in 1992 and 2001).
In January 1981, the UCC Office for Church in Society created a job for Bill, making him a “staff associate” at $500/month with no benefits. By 1983, OCIS could no longer fund the position so Bill worked for a year as a temporary employee with a number of corporate offices in Manhattan. With his usual good humor, he referred to himself as a “duly ordained word processor.” In the fall of 1984, he joined the staff of the New York law firm of Stuart, Zavin, Sinnreich and Wasserman as a legal secretary. A liberal firm, the partners supported his continued justice activism by providing paid time off to attend UCC General Synod, Coalition and LGBT meetings.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic grew in NYC in the early 1980s, Bill became a caregiver for numerous friends. His friend and colleague, Michael Collins, was among the first people in New York to be stricken with what was then a mysterious, unnamed disease. As the epidemic grew, Bill offered his services as a pastoral counselor, sex educator, care partner and volunteer on the National AIDS Hotline. When, in 1988, he learned the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries was looking for a part-time consultant in HIV/AIDS ministry, he applied and got the job, which soon evolved into a full-time position. In 1989, UCC members organized as Christians for Justice Action gave Bill its annual Burning Bush Award in recognition of his activist leadership in church and society.
In 1990, Bill was elected to the UCC national staff as a Program Minister of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, Division of the American Missionary Association, and served as Minister for HIV/AIDS Ministries and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns for 11 years. In that position he helped establish the AIDS National Interfaith Network, which he served as Program Officer and as Interim Executive Director; established the United Church HIV/AIDS Network; and co-authored, with Cindy Bowman, the multi-generational UCC AIDS prevention curriculum, Affirming Persons-Saving Lives, the first such curriculum designed for use in Christian education settings (1993). In 1999, he hosted “Called Out for Good,” a consultation with openly gay, lesbian and bisexual UCC pastors focused on the special challenges and concerns of being out in parish ministry. With Loey Powell, he advocated for domestic partner benefits for LGBT employees of the UCC national setting, which were put into place by the UCC Pension Boards in 1996. He provided leadership for the UCC on numerous issues including ending discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America, equal marital rights for same gender couples, bullying and harassment in public schools, and ending hate-related violence. He created a variety of resources for UCC congregations including Open and Affirming: A Journey of Faith (a welcoming congregation video and resource book); Circle of Grace (nine Bible study lesson plans); and two volumes of Preach Out! (compilations of LGBT affirming sermons by UCC pastors).
Bill organized the first national consultation of UCC bisexual members in 1999, and the first national consultation with UCC transgender members in 2001. He served as executive producer of the documentary video, Bisex-u-al (2001). While on the UCC national staff, he supervised three UCC seminary interns: Sean Murray, Kate Huey and Darryl Kistler, now UCC clergy; and one UCC college student, Eric C. Smith.
In 1999, the Board of Directors of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries committed $500,000 to create the William R. Johnson Scholarship Fund for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender UCC seminarians studying to be parish ministers. Beginning in 2001, an average of 8 to 10 scholarships have been awarded annually from the endowment income, which has grown with additional contributions to more than $900,000.
In the reorganization of the United Church of Christ national setting in 2000, Bill Johnson became the Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy and Minister for HIV/AIDS and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Concerns in Wider Church Ministries (WCM) of the UCC.
In January 2002, Bill was called to the administrative position of Executive Associate to the Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries (WCM), leaving behind 30 years of work on behalf of LGBT people of faith and their loved ones. He served as Executive Associate to two WCM Executive Ministers, Dale Bishop and Olivia Masih White, overseeing a 28-person staff. During his tenure with WCM, Bill envisioned and initiated work on the feature-length documentary film, Call Me Malcolm , for which he served as an executive producer.
Bill served on the founding National Advisory Board of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (now the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion) at the Pacific School of Religion. He also served on the founding national Advisory Committee of the LGBT Religious Archives Network. He founded and serves as coordinator for Elmhurst College Gay and Lesbian Alumni. In 1992, he received the Elmhurst College Alumni Merit Award and was the subject of a profile in the Elmhurst College magazine, Prospect, in the summer of 2010. On National Coming Out Day in 2011, the college named its annual LGBT lecture in his honor, the William R. Johnson Intercultural Lecture.
In January 2005, Johnson was called to serve in the telecommuting position of Vice President for Member Relations with the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries. The Council consists of 80 UCC-related corporations that operate more than 360 facilities and programs that provide primary and acute health care services, services to persons with disabilities, services to children, youth and families, and services to the aging. In 2010, his title was changed to Vice President as he assumed new responsibilities. Bill served in that position until April 1, 2013.
In July 2012, the Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, TX presented Bill with its annual Hero of Hope Award, in recognition of a lifetime of service to the LGBT and ecumenical communities. In the fall of 2012 his ordination robe and stole were featured in an exhibit curated by Brian McNaught at the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His ordination robe and stole are in the museum’s permanent collection of LGBT artifacts.
Bill Johnson retied rom active ministry on July 1, 2013 at the 29th UCC General Synod in Long Beach, CA, ending 41 years of service. In retirement, Bill writes and accepts speaking engagements to share his experiences as a Christian gay activist minister.
Bill is a graduate of Elmhurst College (BA, 1968), the Pacific School of Religion (MDiv, 1971), and the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (EdD, 1977). In New York City he was a member of The Riverside Church. After moving to Cleveland in 1991, he was a founding member of Liberation UCC in 1993, where he sang in the church choir and served in a variety of roles over 19 years, including treasurer and moderator of the congregation. In October 2012, Bill moved to Pilgrim Place, a UCC-related continuing care retirement community in Claremont, California and joined the Claremont United Church of Christ. He participates in Another Voice, the LGBT community at Claremont UCC.
Biographical statement provided by William R. Johnson for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network
John Deckenback – posthumous award (MDiv ’72, DMin ’91)
The Rev. Dr. John R. Deckenback was the spiritual leader and chief executive of the Central Atlantic Conference, United Church of Christ with responsibilities similar to those of a bishop in other denominations. The Conference is made up of 180 churches located in portions of New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Washington, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington D.C.
The Central Atlantic Conference was created as a result of the 1957 merger of the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
Dr. Deckenback was a native of Cresskill, NJ., where his grandfather was pastor of his childhood church. When John was a teenager, his family moved to Santa Barbara, California. John graduated from Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, and earned Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. John was married to the Rev. Carolyn L. Roberts, pastor emerita of the United Church of Christ of Seneca Valley in Germantown, Maryland. They had two married sons, Jeffry (Emily) and Aaron (Kate), three grandsons, and a granddaughter.
Prior to serving Central Atlantic Conference, Dr. Deckenback was on the staff of the United Church of Christ’s Northern California Nevada Conference for 20 years. Shortly after graduating from seminary, he also served as an Associate Minister of the Orinda Community United Church of Christ in California.
In the 1980’s John was one of the co-founders of the Conferences of the United Church of Christ Insurance Board which provides property and liability insurance to UCC and Christian Church (Disciples) congregations. Twice in the 1990’s, he served as the Insurance Board’s Acting Executive Director during transitional periods. He was chair of the Board at the time of his death.
He also served on the Board of Directors of International Relief and Development (IRD), a non-profit international relief/development agency. He traveled globally and extensively on behalf of the church and IRD—particularly to conflicted areas sheltering substantial numbers of refugees.
John was a Trustee Emeritus of Lancaster Theological Seminary.
John’s hobbies included gardening, woodworking, jogging, restoring an old house, studying railroad history and incarceration practices, as well as African American, Native American, Latin American and Asian American histories. A long-term research project focused on early Christian missionary activity in the inland Pacific Northwest and its impact on indigenous people in the early 19th century.
Karen Oliveto (MDiv ’83)
Bishop Karen P. Oliveto was consecrated as a bishop of The United Methodist Church on July 16, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona, and assigned for the 2016-2020 quadrennium to the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, which includes the Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone annual (regional) conferences. It includes 400 congregations in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and a small section of Idaho.
Bishop Oliveto was elected to the episcopacy after serving as the first woman pastor of the 12,000-member Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, California. She is the first woman to serve as senior pastor of one of The United Methodist Church’s 100 largest congregations. She served Glide from 2008 until her election as bishop.
Born on Good Friday in 1958, in the aptly named community of Babylon, N.Y. Bishop Oliveto grew up in her local United Methodist Church, being active in Sunday School and the youth group, believing from an early age that God was calling her into ministry. She preached her first sermon as 16-year-old in 1974 at the invitation of the Rev. Jack Savage, pastor of Babylon United Methodist Church It was on “Warm Fuzzies and Cold Pricklies,” focusing on how love rooted in God warms people from the inside out. She is the oldest of three daughters of Richard and Nellie Oliveto. Mr. Oliveto died in January 2016.
Bishop Oliveto earned her B.A. in Psychology, cum laude, from Drew University, Madison, N.J., in 1980. She earned her Master in Divinity from Pacific School of Religion, Berkley, Calif., in 1983, a Master in Philosophy from Drew University in 1991, and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion from Drew University in 2002.
She was ordained as an Elder in the New York Conference of The United Methodist Church in 1985. She transferred her clergy membership to the California-Nevada Annual Conference in July 1997.
Bishop Oliveto was twice elected as a delegate, in 2004 and 2016 to The United Methodist Church’s General Conference, its top legislative body. She was elected as a delegate to the Western Jurisdictional Conference in 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. She has been a part of the denomination’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Lead Women Pastor Project, and has been a mentor to other clergywomen believing they are called to pastor large churches.
Bishop Oliveto has been the adjunct professor of United Methodist Studies at Pacific School of Religion from 2004 to 2016, and served as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at PSR from 2004-2008. She has also been an adjunct professor in Prophetic Leadership for the Doctor of Ministry program at Drew University and was adjunct professor in Evangelism and Mission at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas.
Bishop Oliveto has the distinction of being the first openly lesbian bishop in The United Methodist Church. She and her wife, Robin Ridenour, a nurse anesthetist and United Methodist deaconess, were married in 2014.
Patricia St. Onge (MDiv ’95)
Patricia St. Onge (MDiv ’95) is the founder of Seven Generations Consulting and brings over twenty years of experience leading and working with nonprofit and public sector agencies. She provides training, consulting and technical assistance in the areas of community organizing, social justice advocacy, organizational development, cross-cultural effectiveness, consensus building, spiritual & personal coaching.
Patricia serves on the board of directors for Common Counsel Foundation in Oakland. Prior to launching Seven Generations Consulting, Patricia was Executive Director of several nonprofit organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, where she also served as Western Regional Director. She also served as Director of Education and Training at National Community Development Institute (NCDI). These experiences have enabled Patricia to serve as interim Executive Director for 7 nonprofits and foundations, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the organization, assisting with the executive search, and coaching their board through the transition.
Patricia writes and speaks on an array of issues including executive coaching, executive transitions, board development and engagement, and cultural competency. She is the lead writer for Embracing Cultural Competency: A Roadmap for Nonprofit Capacity Builders published by the Fieldstone Alliance, one of the nation’s leading nonprofit publishers.
A trainer and coach for over 15 years, Patricia works with organizations to deepen their cultural competency skills as part of an ongoing journey that involves nonprofit leaders, their boards, and broad based communities, resulting in a more inclusive, connected, and effective organization. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services from Southern NH University and Master of Divinity from Pacific School of Religion. Between them, she and her life partner have six daughters and seven grandchildren. Patricia is of Six Nations (Mohawk) and Quebecois descent.