Edgerton church welcomes atypical pastor
“I wish that we could see Jesus laugh more often,” she said. “Because even though there’s not a narrative in the Bible that specifically talks about him having a really good laugh, I can just picture that happening.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that, when asked how she ended up in Edgerton, she responded by laughing.
“I really wasn’t expecting a rural community to hire me,” she said. “It was a nice surprise.”
Whitten isn’t your typical small-town, rural pastor. Not only is she a woman, she also is a lesbian in a committed relationship.
But that doesn’t matter to the congregation of Edgerton Congregational United Church of Christ, said Julie Norland, head of the search committee that brought Whitten to the church.
Instead, church members focus on her abilities, her warmth and, as one member put it, her “zany” spirit.
“Our congregation really looks at the heart of the person and doesn’t get hung up on things like race or gender or someone’s sexual orientation,” Norland said.
Whitten, 41, never expected her life to lead her to Edgerton, she said. She grew up in a conservative church in Alton, Ill., just across the river from St. Louis.
She realized she was “different” as a young child but never knew her difference had a name until high school. Even then, she hid who she was, she said.
“With the theology I grew up in, being gay was not OK, and so I did what I knew I was supposed to do as a good Christian and got married,” she said.
As Whitten studied theology and the Bible, her opinions changed, she said. She joined the United Church of Christ, a self-described progressive denomination, and came out as a lesbian in 1998.
She described it as the best and worst experience of her life.
“Coming out was a huge positive in that I was free to live life as the person I knew I was,” she said. “The huge negative was, of course, that it ruined my marriage. All of my family stopped talking to me except for my father, and out of all the friends I had, only three remained my friends.”
Soon after, Whitten met her partner, Becky. She followed a calling to the ministry and enrolled at Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri, graduating in 2008.
The Edgerton church hired her later that year after a thorough search process.
“She really fit what our church members were looking for in our new leadership,” said Eric, a member of the search committee who preferred not to give his last name. “We were looking for someone who was good with kids, someone who has good leadership skills.”
They also were looking for someone who is musical. Whitten plays guitar and piano and leads the church choir.
Whitten, who lives in Janesville with Becky and her 15-year-old son Daniel, said she has been welcomed by church members young and old.
“The congregation is just amazing,” she said. “My partner and I have had nothing but respect and love bestowed upon us from this congregation.”
Her sexual orientation makes no difference to Barbara Pierce, who grew up in the church and returned there after retiring to Edgerton 20 years ago.
“That’s her prerogative, and if that’s how she is, that’s how she is,” Pierce said. “I’m not going to hold that against her or anybody.”
Whitten has received support in the community, too, though she’s mostly flown under the radar until now, she said.
She knows many Christians believe homosexuality is wrong and women can’t be pastors, and they’re entitled to those beliefs, she said. She’s not going to argue with anyone just as she’s not going to be bothered by people’s criticism.
“I respect that everyone has an opinion, but I don’t need to live by other people’s opinions,” she said.
Norland thinks people sell small towns such as Edgerton short by assuming they can’t be open-minded. She hopes Edgerton sees Whitten for whom she is as the community gets to know her.
“I wouldn’t want people to focus on the fact that she’s a lesbian,” Norland said. “I think she has good leadership skills, she’s high-energy, she’s a good teacher.
“So while, yes, I’m aware that she’s not a typical minister or not what you think of as a typical minister, in many, many ways she is a typical minister.”