As a child, Rev. Maria Swearingen felt a connection to the sacraments of the church in a way that was, looking back, perhaps unusual.
Helping her grandfather fill communion trays with crackers and grape juice on Saturday afternoons and seeing the table set on Sunday mornings knowing she’d had a hand in it, made her feel “overcome with just this profound sense of joy, that I participated in the setting of the table,” she says.
Those are skills she and her wife, Rev. Sally Sarratt will put to good use as co-senior pastors of Calvary Baptist Church in Chinatown. Their first Sunday was Feb. 26, so they’re still getting used to their new roles, their first joint pastorate.
Sarratt was previously a hospital chaplain and was filling in for a minister on sabbatical at Greenville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Greenville, S.C. Swearingen was associate university chaplain at Furman University and spent the last year working with a cohort of clergy to develop a year-long training program for religious leaders focused on dismantling white supremacy and racism.
The couple, together since late 2009 (they’d met the previous year at church), weren’t necessarily looking for a co-pastorate but it was something they’d dreamed and talked about. Calvary’s last pastor, Rev. Amy Butler, left in 2014 to become senior pastor at New York’s famed Riverside Church, one of the few progressive non-denominational churches in the country. Rev. Allyson Robinson, who’s transgender, was interim minister. Sarratt and Swearingen say their sexual orientation (they both identify as lesbians) was a non-issue.
“The fact that we happened to be a same-sex couple wasn’t even part of their conversation,” Sarratt says. “Calvary had already kind of done the work to say, ‘Look, we’re welcoming and affirming,’ … so it really wasn’t an issue for the (search) committee.”
The job ad said the church was open to considering a co-pastorate. They both work at the church full time and say their gifts and strengths are different enough as to be complementary, although they share preaching duties. Mostly either one or the other will deliver the sermon, but they are experimenting with co-sermonizing, an idea they’re toying with for Easter Sunday.
“As we met and talked with Sally and Maria about their vision for pastoral leadership … we were struck by their deep faith and commitment to being part of a gospel community,” says Carol Blythe, chair of the search committee. “We were impressed by how their gifts, talents and experience matched our ministry priorities and we’re thrilled about their upcoming pastorate and the versatility the co-pastor model will provide our congregation.”
Sarratt says the compensation package the church offered them “is very fair.”
So is it unusual for a Baptist church to be so open-minded? Not really. Calvary is part of the American Baptist Churches USA movement, which has about 1.3 million members in about 5,000 congregations. There are 42 million Baptists around the world that trace their tradition to the early 17th century. Calvary has no ties to the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the United States with about 15 million members and a much more conservative, anti-gay agency.
Sarratt and Swearingen grew up in more conservative strains of the denomination and though they each attended Methodist seminaries, they have strong Baptist roots. Swearingen remembers some “fire and brimstone” preaching in her youth but says her theology has evolved.
Swearingen says to her, being Baptist means valuing separation of church and state, religious liberty and belief in the priesthood of all believers.
“That’s kind of the gift of what Baptist life can be, that’s what the word can hold,” she says. “For quite some time, it hasn’t looked that way in lots of spaces that call themselves Baptist, but I’m all about being invested in reclaiming that word.”
Looking back, though, she says she’s amazed that even in the theology of her youth, progressive beliefs managed to seep in.
“What I think is so uncanny and persnickety about the way the gospel can work is … the overturning and upturning of unjust, un-mutual systems of power, these things would still find their way into the cracks and crevices,” she says. “The goodness of faith life and practices was findings its way to me even amidst really problematic and damaging theology and it’s really what we, ministry wise, are invested in as much as anything. How do we unearth and let go of and heal from all kinds of theological language that really has just been a perpetuation of oppression and really find freedom and release from that so we can use and live inside language that actually invites wholeness?”
It’s a recurring theme in her ministerial philosophies and similar strains pop up when asked about the future of the mainline church, trends in church attendance among Millennials and even what lessons the Easter message has for today.
Sarratt says for her, getting to that place has been a process. She speaks of “digging and deconstructing and reconstructing” various theology over time.
“One of the things I worry about and feel sad about is the fact that in many ways, queer people still think, ‘I either choose my faith or I choose who I am,’” Sarratt says. “The integration and wedding of the two and either one being able to bless the fullness of who you are is still kind of a rare thing.”
Neither Sarratt nor Swearingen were out when they met in the summer of 2008. Both planning to pursue full-time ministry and didn’t see any way to be out, especially in the Bible Belt, while being pastors.
“Mariah was headed back to school in Durham and it was one of those things like, ‘Well, that was great, but I’m feeling called to ministry so this can’t happen, it can’t be,’” Sarratt says.
But their connection — Swearingen says, “You know, love — yada, yada” — was persistent.
“By the fall of 2009 we were kind of like, ‘Yeah, this is so real and profound, how do we choose both of these paths?’ We didn’t know but we started saying, maybe it’s time to start walking in that direction … of trying to do ministry and family and life together,” Sarratt says.
Coming out, she says, was a “long, slow, cautious, careful process.”
Swearingen says it came down to the decision all out LGBT people eventually make. “Am I choosing to live embodied in my real self or in some constructed reality of me,” she says. “Freedom always comes when we keep pressing more into our authentic selves. … and it’s deep, difficult work of … really claiming and choosing one’s self.”
Sarratt calls it “being able to see one’s self as a beloved child of God.”
Eventually there were three marriages of sorts. They privately shared vows in 2011, had a commitment ceremony with family and friends in 2014 and made it legal as soon as they could the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2014 at a Greenville courthouse.
They say early signs at Calvary are positive. They’re spending the first several months meeting individually with staff, board members and parishioners. About a hundred worshippers attend on an average Sunday. Several other congregations and outside groups use the massive downtown facility throughout the week. The couple guesses about 20 percent of the congregation are LGBT.
Sarratt says her strengths are in business, systems thinking and spiritual formation. She says Swearingen, who’s bilingual, is much better at creative worship planning.
“Even if I invested all my time and energy into being a creative worship planner, I’d still only have maybe as much as she has in her pinky,” Sarratt says. “It’s just one of those things where you get to use your gifts without having to shore up those parts of the job you’re not as good at naturally.”
They say they’re mindful of falling into potential trouble areas — not making time for a life outside of church together or the possibility of getting swept up in church politics. Or even, perhaps more innocuously, finding some factions of the congregation favoring one over the other.
So what will success look like? And with society slowly shifting toward progress on LGBT and all kinds of issues, why are the big, downtown, progressive churches often struggling while the anti-gay evangelical churches continue to thrive?
“It’s hard to kind of treat the litmus test if you will as large swaths of people who can afford big buildings,” Swearingen says. “But if you’re imagining the work of justice building and peace building, those are movements that don’t always create a success that can be pointed to, which, quite simply, wouldn’t be what I’d call a goal I’d get excited about. It’s the work itself, the outcomes and the goals are different.”
She says looking at the work through that alternate lens creates a much different perspective on effective ministry.
“For me, the questions would be are the people who have understood themselves to be marginalized, dispossessed and oppressed, finding space to be whole? If the answer to that is yes, then we’re being the church, but if the answer is, ‘I’m not so sure, but look at this really cool building we just built,’ I struggle to call those outcomes fruitful church work.”
New Calvary pastors share favorites
SWEARINGEN: “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” but especially Yvette Flunder’s version when she says, “Oh God my father and mother.” I love that.
SARRATT: Since we’re in Lent, I’m thinking more in those terms right now so I like some of the more reflecting ones like “Abide With Me” or “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”
SWEARINGEN: “Do not grow weary in doing good for at the proper time, you will reap a harvest if you do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)
SARRATT: The sermon on the mount, especially the Beatitudes.
Favorite biblical figure?
SWEARINGEN: Ruth and Naomi.
SARRATT: Job. We need to reclaim the fullness of emotion and lament and not just sanitize everything. The older I get, the more I’ve found a deep and profound honesty in those places.