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A Burton church begins a new chapter
Burton Community Church has welcomed a new minister, Rev. Bruce Chittick, marking the beginning of a new chapter for the historic Island Baptist chapel and a landmark moment in Vashon’s faith community.
Chittick was chosen after a six-month search to fill the position, which opened up after the church’s beloved pastor, Rev. Marcus Walker, died of cancer in March. Chittick, who lives in Seattle with his partner of 11 years and their 4-year-old son, will commute to his job.
What makes Chittick’s appointment especially notable is that the church’s congregation voted to offer him the job with the knowledge that he is an openly gay man.
Jeannette Smith, who is the moderator of the church, said she doesn’t define Chittick by his sexual orientation.
“The term I would like to use is that we’ve hired a really great minister, who happens to be gay,” said Smith. “We’ve found a person we hope will be with us for many years.”
It’s the second time in recent years that a Vashon congregation has grappled with the issue of whether a homosexual individual should lead their church.
In 2005, an openly gay pastor had a short tenure
at the Methodist Church, resulting in a period of conflict and transition within the church. The controversy was fueled in part by an official United Methodist Church edict that bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from the clergy, and the fact that Methodist ministers are appointed by bishops in a process that gives individual congregations limited say.
In contrast, the Burton Community Church was in charge of choosing its own pastor, because it belongs to the American Baptist denomination — a group with a long tradition of emphasizing local church autonomy and freedom. Moreover, the small chapel is also affiliated with the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches, a group that champions diversity within the denomination.
Because of all this, Smith said, the Burton Church was completely free to make its own choices in the hiring process.
“We are independent of any governing body,” Smith said, adding that the Burton Church has its own constitution, which doesn’t mention anything about race, gender or sexual orientation. “We’re all God’s people.”
Smith said that a committee of church members, headed by Bekah Townsend, worked with Rev. Marcia Patton, executive minister with the Evergreen Association, in the search for a new pastor. Part of the process, Smith said, was coming up with a document that defined the unique characteristics of the Burton church.
“We wrote that and felt that according to the vision of a Baptist church, we’re not even Baptist,” she said. “Then we sent it off to Marcia, who told us, ‘You don’t even know how Baptist you are.’”
Smith said the congregation was drawn to Chittick in part because of the sensitivity he displayed during the time he served as a guest preacher in the church both before and immediately after Walker’s death.
“He came to us when we were most vulnerable, and that was one thing that really made an impact on us as a congregation,” Smith said. “Marcus died on Friday, and Bruce came and was our pastor on Sunday. I think the way he handled that service was really special, and it stuck in a lot of people’s minds. He didn’t preach, he just allowed everyone to talk about their memories. It was like we had our own memorial service that day.”
For Chittick, 47, the job is his first stint as the head pastor of a church since receiving his Master of Divinity degree from the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University in 2009. Previously, he served as the interim family ministries coordinator at Seattle First Baptist Church. He is a lifelong Baptist and has been a member of Seattle First Baptist since 1998.
He also currently serves as vice chair of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, a network founded 10 years ago that is made up of churches, organizations and individuals who have gone on record as welcoming and affirming all people without regard to sexual orientation.
Chittick, reached by phone at his Beacon Hill home, took time from his holiday preparations to describe his long journey to the ministry and Burton Church.
“I originally started seminary in 1987, because I felt called to the ministry at a pretty young age,” he said. “I almost finished my degree all those years ago, but it was a very theologically conservative seminary, and I never finished because I realized I was gay and I knew that was never going to go away.”
Instead of becoming a minister, Chittick first found work helping disabled adults, and then became a bookseller for Barnes & Noble in the mid-1990s. He still holds a part-time job in Seattle as assistant to the district manager of that company.
But he began thinking about becoming a minister again in 2001, after a life-threatening reoccurrence of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a disease that first struck him in 1995.
“There were a lot of other theologies out there that were more inclusive by then, and the call resurged,” he said. “I started seminary again, this time with support from my congregation at Seattle First Baptist Church.”
Chittick said that while he doesn’t feel he should be defined entirely by his sexual orientation, it should be acknowledged.
“I think it is important to identify that, because I think it sends a message about the grace of God and the wideness of God’s mercy, as well as a theological view that Christianity and Jesus at their heart are radically inclusive,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t think it should matter. It is God’s call who God calls, and God called me.”
Chittick spoke warmly of his new congregation in Burton, a group he called an “incredibly close community of people,” and he said he would welcome seeing new faces in the pews.
“I’m not a fan of church growth for the purpose of church growth, but if people find a sense of belonging and family, and the church grows because of that, that’s good,” he said. “We’re concerned about people caring for each other and supporting each other. Theology comes second to that. We have people who are all over the theological spectrum, and even some people who don’t identify themselves as Christians. But they come because of the sense of belonging and family.”
Chittick acknowledged that his unique presence in Vashon’s faith community might attract new people to services at the church.
“If the fact that I was there caused people to come to church who might not otherwise come to church, that would be great,” he said.
Christmas services at Burton Community Church, led by Rev. Bruce Chittick, will take place at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 11 a.m. on Christmas Day. Chittick will be formally installed as the minister of Burton Community Church at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, at a service at the church. All Islanders and clergy in the community are invited. For more information about the church, visit www.burtonchurch.org.