2013-11-29 / Front Page

Pastor breaks new ground at church

By Ann Fisher
Copy editor/contributing writer

The Rev. Cindy Maddox The Rev. Cindy Maddox SOUTH PORTLAND – The new senior pastor at First Congregational Church United Church of Christ is setting down roots as she breaks new ground.

The Rev. Cindy Maddox is not only the first woman to head the church in its 180- year history; she is also the first openly gay woman.

Maddox officially began serving the church Nov. 11 after a year-long search to replace the Rev. John McCall, who retired in July.

“It already feels like home,” said Maddox as she relaxed in her new, book-lined office.

The space is decorated with a mix of the personal, the inspirational and the humorous. A photo of the 11-year-old daughter she parents with her spouse, Jackie, has a prominent place on a side table.

“That’s our girl; that’s my daughter,” Maddox said with a fond glance.

Conversely, a plaque proclaiming, “And God said DUH!” is displayed on a wall behind Maddox’s desk.

Maddox said she had no ties to Maine until accepting the position, and has lived almost everywhere but the Pine Tree State. She grew up in the south and midwest, but as the daughter of a pastor who moved frequently to minister to troubled congregations, Maddox lived in Ohio, Florida, Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, North Carolina and Georgia.

“The first time I’d been to Maine was my first interview with the church (search committee),” Maddox said.

“What attracted me was the church, the people that I met on the search committee,” she said. “Who this church is and what we stand for … and it being in a beautiful place is a nice bonus.”

Her father’s ministry was with “a different denomination, but my dad was really good at going into churches that were hurting and bringing healing and then he would move on after four or five years. So I got used to moving around. I’m glad to be settling here, though, so that I can be here for awhile and put down my roots.”

Maddox and her family now live in South Portland after moving from Danbury, Conn., where Maddox led King Street UCC for 8 ½ years. She has been with Jackie for 5 ½ years and married for four. Jackie continues to teach history at the college level and commutes to Connecticut. Their daughter attends Memorial Middle School and is adjusting to her new home, Maddox said. In her leisure time, Maddox likes to go freshwater fishing; the whole family enjoys being near the water.

Despite a childhood spent in the church, Maddox did not feel the call to ministry until later in life. She first earned an undergraduate degree in English/business from Anderson University in Indiana. She worked in publishing for 10 years as a freelance book editor before going to seminary.

“I had left the church for few years … How do I put this?” Maddox said before pausing for several seconds. “I thought there was no place for me in the church because I’m a lesbian.”

“When I discovered there were different ways of interpreting scripture I came back to the church and then felt a call to ministry.”

Maddox went on to earn her master of divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta in 2002. Before serving in Connecticut, Maddox was an associate pastor in North Carolina.

When asked why she had a change of heart, Maddox replied, “You can take the Bible seriously without taking it literally. For me, that’s key. The whole issue starts with our understanding of Biblical authority and interpreting and whether the Bible is written by God or inspired by God. It’s a question of how much influence humans had on the Bible. But a lot of it is also misinterpretation. Some of the passages in the Old Testament have been used to condemn homosexuality. That’s not actually what those scriptures are about when you study them in depth.”

For example, Maddox siad, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not about the condemnation of same sex relations, “it’s a ban against rape and violence ...”

Maddox said overall, the UCC is the most progressive of all denominations and ordained the first openly gay person in the 1970s. Other denominations “are still having painful fights over it.”

“We’d been open and affirming since 2000. We voted as a congregation to be welcoming to everybody,” Maddox said.

“It was new for this congregation to have a senior pastor who’s a lesbian,” Maddox said, “but it’s new for this congregation to have a senior pastor who’s a woman.”

Betsy Keiter, who was chairman of the church’s 10-person search committee, agreed, saying, “We hired her because she was the best candidate. Being a woman is almost a bigger change,” and some congregants had concerns with both, she said.

“From the first point we realized (Maddox’s sexual orientation) wasn’t a factor,” Keiter said. However, search committee members asked themselves, “Is our church ready for this?”

Keiter said McCall gave the church his notice well before he officially retired, and pointed out to the search committee, “‘No matter who comes in, it’s going to be different than me. Any new minister would bring change.’”

The committee surveyed the membership and also held two question-and-answer sessions that were well attended. As the second-largest United Church of Christ in the state by membership, the leaders had very specific traits and talents in mind – and Maddox more than met their expectations.

The successful candidate had to have exceptional pastoral care skills, be able to attract new members, supervise, and, above all, be a superior preacher “and a fellow traveler on the journey,” Keiter said.

Another woman and a man were also finalists from the 30 or so who applied, but what clinched Maddox’s appointment, said Keiter, was her performance at a “neutral pulpit.” Maddox’s sermon given at a church not familiar to either the candidate or the interviewing church garnered unsolicited praise from listeners.

“Her preaching is stellar,” said Keiter. “She has a deep calling.”

Said Maddox, “So far it’s wonderful. The congregation has been very welcoming of me and my family. It’s a wonderful loving community doing their best to make us feel at home.”

“All churches face challenges,” Maddox added, because they are no longer the center of cultural life. “We have to see the church more broadly than the people who sit in the pews.”

“The key is … not viewing the church as the people who walk through the doors, but the people we can influence.”

First Congregational is ministering through Maddox’s blog, its website and Facebook page – as well as traditional outreach programs.

“We’re alive and vibrant and there’s a lot going on,” Maddox said. “I’m just thrilled to be here. It’s an exciting church.”

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