May 20, 1998

New senior pastor at embattled Omaha church will focus on healing

By United Methodist News Service


Contact: Linda Green (615)742-5470; Nashville, Tenn.

Developing plans to heal the divided First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb., is the first challenge facing the Rev. Donald Bredthauer when he becomes the new senior pastor on July 1.

Bredthauer, 60, associate pastor of the congregation for the past 10 years, has been appointed as senior pastor to replace the Rev. Jimmy Creech, who drew nationwide attention after performing a same-sex union ceremony last September. Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez announced May 5 that Creech was not being reappointed to the 1,900-member First United Methodist Church.

Bredthauer said he will work for reconciliation and healing to build on the church's vision for itself as a community that includes all people without regard to race, ethnicity, economic status, age or sexual orientation.

First United Methodist Church has been plagued by financial, membership and morale problems since 1997, when the lesbian covenant ceremony caused members to attend other churches or join other denominations.

Creech was acquitted in a March 13 church trial on the charge of disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church. Afterward, at least 300 First Church members began meeting in exile for worship at a nearby school.

"Even though there have been members to separate from the congregation, not many have withdrawn their membership," Bredthauer said.

Creech said he was told that he was not reappointed because of the perception that division within the church had made him unable to lead the congregation. Creech said Bishop Martinez was not certain that he could bring about reconciliation among the membership and was uncomfortable with his commitment to perform another covenant service if asked. Martinez would not comment on the decision to remove Creech from First Church.

In addition to Bredthauer's appointment, the Rev. Charlotte Abram, an African-American clergywoman from Omaha, has been named to the associate position.

"Both of us desire to be in ministry with and minister to every member of the congregation," Bredthauer said. "Our hope is to find our way to be together in the community and in the spirit of Christ, even though we have disagreement among us. I believe that, together, we can continue to move toward the vision to which we believe God is calling us as a congregation."

Bredthauer also said that he and Abram will visit with the church's lay leadership over the steps to take toward reconciliation.

A staunch Creech supporter, Bredthauer said he would not perform same-sex wedding ceremonies until the issue was settled by the denomination. However, he said, he disagrees with the United Methodist Church's proscriptions against homosexuality. The denomination's stand on the issue is spelled out in the Social Principles, a section of the church's law book, the Book of Discipline.

"I continue to be in disagreement with the portions of the Discipline and Social Principles that deny gays and lesbians free access to the full ministry of the church, and I will advocate for change," he said.

Bredthauer also was a signer of the "In All Things Charity" document, whereby many United Methodist clergy have declared their dissent from the church's official position that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Martinez has advised Nebraska United Methodist clergy not to perform same-sex ceremonies.

The estranged church members, who've been conducting worship services at a nearby school, had hoped Martinez would appoint a senior pastor who adhered firmly to church tradition, the Scriptures and the 1996 Book of Discipline.

"Don Bredthauer's appointment will not bring me back to First Church's worship services," said Diane West, a member of the breakaway group. "I am very disappointed about this appointment because Bredthauer has stated that the church's position on homosexuality is wrong, and that places his belief in line with Jimmy Creech's."

Bredthauer has publicly stated that he would like to minister to all, West said, and "I would like to see how he proposes to do that."

Fred Shultz, another member of the group, agrees. "I am waiting to see what leadership Don would bring. His responsibility as senior pastor is to minister to all members of the congregation regardless of his personal views."

After learning about Bredthauer's appointment, Shultz said, "I was initially confused." Because all three of First Church's pastors said they would perform a same-sex covenant ceremony, he said, "I was confused by the bishop's actions to appoint Don and remove Jimmy."

"My guess is that the bishop was thinking to appease the exiled group by removing Jimmy and to appease the remaining members by appointing Don," Shultz said.

Before issues at First Church surfaced, the clergy there consisted of a senior pastor and two associates. Budget concerns have forced leadership to be reduced to a senior pastor and one associate pastor. "We hope that this will change in the future if financial considerations make it feasible," Bredthauer said.

The Rev. Susan Mullins, who was the other associate pastor, said she is taking a leave of absence effective July 1. She has been on a four-month sabbatical that ends May 21.

The Rev. Glenn Loy, the pastor who brought the charges against Creech that led to the church trial, has been appointed a superintendent of Nebraska's Southwest District.

The Rev. Susan Davies, the district superintendent who supported Creech and played a major role in bringing him from North Carolina to Omaha, has taken a sabbatical.

Because the issue of homosexuality has placed First Church in the spotlight for over a year, Bredthauer said, "people think the church's ministries have stalled, which is not true."

"We are moving forward in every way," he said. "There is a rich variety of ministries in this congregation, and those have been sustained and enhanced throughout this time."

Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.


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