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Alumni award honorees discuss ministry, contemporary issues

By Elizabeth Pinborough ’10 M.A.R.

Several Alumni Award honorees took time during Convocation and Reunions 2008 to share details of their ministries and talk about contemporary faith issues before an audience of alumni gathered in Latourette Hall.

HonoreesHonorees attending the gathering included Timothy Ahrens ’85 M.Div., senior minister at the First Congregational Church (UCC) in Columbus, OH, and prominent social justice activist (William Sloane Coffin ’56 Award for Peace and Justice); Cheryl Cornish ’83 M.Div., senior minister at First Congregational Church (UCC) in Memphis, TN, who grew her congregation tenfold in 20 years (Distinction in Congregational Ministry); and Bruce Rigdon, ’62 B.D., ’68 Ph.D., well-known pastor, theological educator, ecumenical leader and social activist who once headed the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit (Distinction in Theological Education). The fourth honoree, Bradford Ableson ’85 M.Div., was unable to participate in the discussion due to illness.   He is a career Navy chaplain who was instrumental in transforming 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 (the Alumni Award Lux et Veritas).

“Everything in my life has come as a result of the intersection of love and justice,” said Ahrens at the gathering, held on Oct. 14, the second day of Convocation.  Speaking of his friend and the Peace and Justice award’s namesake, William Sloan Coffin Jr., Ahrens observed, “He is in me in some places—especially his spirit, his fire, and his resolve.”

“I’ve been graced and blessed,” Ahrens said, “but I don’t take that blessing for granted.”

Rigdon recalled how ministry was transformed when he came to Detroit, MI, which he described as “one of the most troubled communities in America.” He said he felt the need to convey the “urgent message that God still loves it.” Now retired, Rigdon was president of the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit for nine years. An important part of Rigdon’s mission has been to create diverse learning communities for his students.

Following introductions, the panelists addressed questions on contemporary issues, such as gay marriage and the ecumenical spirit among churches today, from those in attendance. One attendee asked, “Do you have any wisdom for the individual with a prophetic vision but who lacks institutional control?”

Ahrens responded by suggesting that institutional control is not a prerequisite to carrying out a prophetic vision. The church has a responsibility to "nurture and raise up prophets," in Ahrens's view.  In considering that, he suggested, it should be recognized that one of the blessings of institutional church leadership is that leaders can empower by giving power away.

Cornish said, “Change starts happening [in the institution]...when people start living their commitment to the gospel as loudly as possible.” She noted that it is important to convey to church members that they, and not just those who wield power, ARE the church.

Rigdon noted,  “Institutions are in profound crisis and are having to redefine their relationship to the culture.”  In such times, he said, “I hope people like those at Yale Divinity School will be able to help us.”

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