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Sharon E. Watkins '84 M.Div. reflects on ministry, sermon at National Prayer Service

By Elizabeth Pinborough ’10 M.A.R.

On Jan. 21, Sharon E. Watkins ’84 M.Div. became the first woman to deliver the sermon at the National Prayer Service when she preached at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. to an audience that included newly elected President Barack Obama, the new vice president, Joseph Biden, and a host of other dignitaries.

WatkinsThat came a little more than three years after another big first for Watkins, when she became the only woman ever elected president and general minister of the 700,000-member Disciples of Christ, a mainstream denomination with over 3,700 congregations in the United States and Canada.

Recently, Watkins carved out some time in her busy schedule to give an interview about her ministry, the role YDS played in preparing her, and the honor of being invited to preach at the National Prayer Service.

When Watkins arrived at YDS as a student, she was not seriously considering the ministry.  Armed with a bachelor’s degree in French and economics, she was exploring the worlds of business, finance, and teaching.  She planned to pursue a joint degree in social work with the University of Connecticut along with her master of divinity degree at YDS.

But when Watkins found herself fulfilling her supervised ministry requirement, she recalled, “I knew that [the church] was where I was supposed to be... It finally felt right.” At the same time, said Watkins, imagining what it would be like to work in business or finance or teaching was not working or making sense. “But when I was in a local congregation it was a fit.”

Watkins believes that sense of a “fit” possibly “had to do with working with people, but also planning worship and participating in worship.” She noted, too, that it was wonderful to “be able to straightforwardly and unapologetically talk and think and imagine what it means to say that God is alive and well in our lives.”

When she landed at YDS, Watkins already had a sense of what the global church was like. She had spent two years with the Disciples of Christ in the Congo doing missionary work. And while at YDS, she recalled, she had “opportunities to get to know the ecumenical church.”

There were aspects of her training at YDS, Watkins feels, that prepared her for her current position of leadership in the Disciples of Christ. She points to “the real partnering and weaving together of academy and church” as something that helped her to be “well-educated and thoughtful, and to turn my education to the service of the church.”   And the worship life of the YDS community, Watkins noted, “helped to prepare me in all the roles I have been in.”

Reflecting on her experience at the National Prayer Service, Watkins said, “It was very amazing to be asked to do that and then to try to think about what kind of word would be appropriate to bring on such an occasion.”

As she prepared her sermon, Watkins asked herself, “What authority can I draw on that will resonate for all of these people? How would I say something that would ring true and resonate broadly?”  After discussing the sermon with fellow YDS graduate John H. Thomas ’75 M.Div, president of the United Church of Christ, Watkins decided to make a central point of the sermon “the love of God and love of neighbor.”

In the sermon, Watkins said, “Recently Muslim scholars from around the world released a document, known as A Common Word Between Us. It proposes a common basis for building a world at peace. That common basis? Love of God and love of neighbor!... So how do we go about loving God? Well, according to Isaiah, summed up by Jesus, affirmed by a worldwide community of Muslim scholars and many others, it is by facing hard times with a generous spirit: by reaching out toward each other rather than turning our backs on each other.”

Watkins views her ministry as moving “beyond the brokenness of humanity” and helping people live “as though God’s reign is already breaking out among us.” This “challenge of wholeness,” she acknowledges, is quite difficult in a world that is filled with various ills, including violence that she sees as “out of control” and “hoarding of resources.”

The mission of the Disciples of Christ, from the beginning according to Watkins, has been “Christian unity for the sake of the World.”  She explained, “Our job is to remember that God has already made us one. There has never been a Council of Churches we didn’t love. We are, generally speaking, ready to join hands.”

Sarah Woodford ’11 M.Div. discerns the sense of unified mission that Watkins represents: “Like many Disciples before her, Sharon is committed to connection: connection in community, connection in person, connection in Christ. She is a minister who has a gift for reminding people of their common ground.”

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