2008 Alumni Award Winners
Timothy Ahrens ’85 M.Div.Columbus, OH
Tim Ahrens met William Sloane Coffin while a student at Yale Divinity School, at about the same time he and his classmates were nurturing their activist sensibilities by doing things like protesting the launch of nuclear submarines and supporting clerical and technical workers in their strike against the University.
Now senior minister at the First Congregational Church (UCC) in Columbus, OH, Ahrens attributes his contact with Coffin as a student and in the years following as key to honing his sense of purpose, which is deeply rooted in what he describes as God’s call to justice.
For Ahrens, some of the important justice issues are articulated in the mission statement of the progressive faith-based organization he played a key role in founding—We Believe Ohio: “YES to justice for all, NO to prosperity for only a few; YES to diverse religious expression, NO to self-righteous certainty; YES to the common good, NO to discrimination against any of God’s people; YES to the voice of religious traditions informing public policy, NO to crossing lines that separate the institutions of religion and government.”
Two and one-half years after its founding, We Believe Ohio is a robust but loosely organized group that spans the state and includes over 400 pastors, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders. Ahrens has also played leadership roles in two other Ohio groups: Sanctorum, a ministry program for the GLBT community; and BREAD (Building Responsibility, Equality and Dignity), an interfaith group dedicated to building power to “do justice.”
Ahrens has served First Church since January 2000. Under his leadership the church has become “Open and Affirming,” and it has doubled membership, mission activities and stewardship.
Known as an outstanding parish minister who “speaks truth to power,” Ahrens’s voice is heard far beyond the pulpit, in many national print and electronic media venues. His specific social justice interests lie in the areas of improved education, fair housing, health care reform, equal rights, and abolition of the death penalty.
Prior to arriving at First Church, Ahrens was senior pastor of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus. He also was pastor of a Cleveland congregation and served urban ministries, before ordination, in St. Louis, New Haven, and Philadelphia. He is a 1980 graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.
Ahrens and his wife, Susan Sitler, are the parents of four children
Bradford E. Ableson ’85 M.Div.
Brad Ableson is considered by some of the highest-ranking members of the U.S. military as among the most gifted, visionary, and inspirational chaplains in the country.
Scheduled to retire from active duty in early 2009 after nearly 25 years in the Navy, Ableson was the primary architect behind one of the most significant shifts in the history of American military chaplaincy: transformation of the chaplaincy from an institution focused almost wholly on the pastoral needs of personnel to one that embraces senior chaplains as agents of reconciliation with religious leaders around the globe.
From early on in his career as a Navy chaplain, Ableson recognized the profound disconnect between Christians from the West and citizens in the Muslim world, and in the 1980s he emerged as an expert on preparing service members with knowledge and understanding that would make them respectful visitors in Muslim countries.
Ableson was the sole active-duty chaplain to publicly and forcefully rebut the United States’s decision against signing the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning antipersonnel mines. While serving as President Clinton’s chaplain at Camp David, Ableson wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject Fields of Blood: A Theological Critique of American Landmine Policy in Light of the 1997 Ottawa Process.
Ableson also receives high marks for his work toward equality issues in the military. He was the primary mover behind a series of Navy-wide heritage celebrations of ethnic, cultural and gender diversity that continue to be observed throughout the fleet. Additionally, he was the point person in defending the Navy against a religious discrimination lawsuit that critics viewed as aimed at giving litigants disproportionate influence in the Navy and Marine Corps.
He earned a B.A. in government from Oklahoma’s University of Science & Arts, followed by an MTS from the Boston University School of Theology. After earning his M.Div. from YDS, which awarded him the Mersick Prize for public speaking, he received a D.Min. from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.
Ableson and his wife, Julia, make their home in Bellevue, NE, not far from his current duty station at the U.S. Strategic Command, where for three years he was command chaplain. A priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky, since 2006 he has also been priest-in-residence at Trinity Cathedral in Omaha.
Cheryl Cornish ’83 M.Div.
In 1988 Cheryl Cornish arrived at the First Congregational Church (UCC) in Memphis, TN, which was averaging Sunday attendance of about 20. Two decades later, Cornish is still senior minister there, but the church transformed dramatically under her leadership—demonstrated by a ten-fold increase in average worship attendance and church giving that grows at about 24 percent annually.
Remarkably, this transformation occurred in conservative Memphis even as Cornish was leading her congregation to become open and affirming, adopt inclusive language in all phases of church life, and declare itself a “Just Peace” congregation. So effective has been Cornish’s leadership that, by 2000, the congregation had outgrown its historic sanctuary in one of Memphis’s affluent neighborhoods. The church left its comfortable surroundings to take up residence in a huge church in Memphis’s urban area, blossoming into a “home” for a long list of non-profits that help make the church a center of peace and justice in the community.
Untraditional approaches are a part of Cornish’s repertoire. Eager to educate the Memphis community about the mainly northern United Church of Christ, she organized “Pilgrim” services at the church, held annually on the day before Thanksgiving. Prior to the first Pilgrim service, she ran ads in the local papers and even showed up, dressed as a Pilgrim, at a 6:00 a.m. interview at the local television station.
Over time, many came to appreciate the church as one that unashamedly hews to its progressive Congregationalist heritage. As others churches fled midtown Memphis, First Congregational threw its support behind Lemoyne-Owen College, a struggling historically black college in the inner city; as other churches condemned gays, First Congregational declared itself open and affirming; while other churches lobbied to close Planned Parenthood, First Congregational held rallies for organizations that support reproductive rights for women.
Prior to her arrival at First Congregational, Cornish was pastor of Ebenezer United Church of Christ in Augusta, MO and ministerial consultant to the St. Charles Women’s Center in Augusta. After graduating from Williams College and then YDS, she was a lecturer/consultant at the Women’s Theological Institute in Lincoln, NE and served internships at churches in Lincoln and Waterbury, CT.
In Memphis, she has served on numerous boards, including those of Lemoyne-Owen College, the Memphis Interfaith Association, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and the Mid-South Interfaith Coalition for Economic Justice.
V. Bruce Rigdon, '62 B.D., '63 M.A., '68 Ph.D.
V. Bruce Rigdon—pastor, theological educator, ecumenical leader and social