An LGBT advocacy organization within one of the nation's foremost Christian denominations announced its new executive director, Alex McNeill, who, in making history, becomes the first openly transgender leader of a mainline Protestant group.
"I'm honored to join More Light Presbyterians, which has always been on the forefront of the Christian tradition of fostering acceptance for the most vulnerable among us," said McNeil, 30, in a press statement announcing his appointment, which takes effect later this month.
"Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the church a true community of hospitality," the mission of More Light Presbyterians (MLP), based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, is "to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society."
"Our search committee unanimously chose Alex because he has a proven track record of leading and growing organizations," said Nathan Sobers, co-moderator of MLP. "We believe that he is uniquely qualified to lead More Light during this important moment in the church."
In the secular arena, McNeill has campaigned for ballot measures and legislation to promote LGBTQ rights. For example, he served as communications and development director and field director for Equality Maryland and was active last fall in the successful ballot measure that secured same-sex civil marriage in that state.
Within his denomination, moreover, McNeill worked to secure ordination equality for Presbyterians and celebrated that success by becoming the first openly transgender ministry candidate from his home presbytery in western North Carolina.
He holds a bachelor's degree in religious studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of divinity from the Harvard Divinity School.
McNeill came out as a lesbian at the age of 18 and to family and friends as transgender six years ago. At 22, he entered the ordination process and came out transgender to his ordination committee last year.
The feature-length documentary film Out of Order chronicles the lives of three queer Presbyterians, including McNeill, seeking to be ordained ministers in the church.
It was in July 2010 when Presbyterian activists succeeded in dismantling a gay ordination ban — dating back to 1978 — during a meeting of the 2.1 million-member's general assembly, a gathering held in Minneapolis. There, the denomination's highest governing body voted to approve Amendment 10-A, which deleted language in the denomination's Book of Order that in effect barred the ordination of non-celibate gay candidates by requiring them "to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman or chastity in singleness."
New language required that "the governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability."
But before the official change in church policy could be implemented, however, a majority of the 173 regional presbyteries were also required to approve the measure.
That happened just over two years ago when formal approval of Amendment 10-A came with a favorable vote for it by the Twin Cities presbytery, a regional governing district.
The new policy took effect in July 2011.
During a recent telephone conversation, McNeill spoke about his appointment and plans for future advocacy within the Presbyterian Church (USA).
"Changing our standards around same-sex marriage, allowing ministers to marry same-sex couples is a big priority," he said.
McNeill was referring to a 2012 Pittsburgh gathering, or general assembly, which failed to reformulate church understanding of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples.
Beyond securing marriage equality, he said, "More Light wants to deepen its welcome to LGBT people in our churches. We know a lot of education needs to be done, for example, to help people feel better equipped to welcome transgender people. We also want to help folks who are believers in More Light to take their welcome out of the their congregations and into their communities and advocate for good causes and practices that affirms LGBT people as full citizens in the communities where they live."
More Light Presbyterian's operating budget is approximately $300,000, and McNeill's salary is $78,000.
A North Carolina native and raised "deeply Presbyterian," McNeill said, in addition to the denomination's social justice ethic, "what my tradition has taught me and reinforced is a belief that everyone has the ability to be a minister or a change agent."
"Ministers are people who are called out a community but not above a community," explained McNeill. "The ability of people to be called, use their voices, and really make a difference," he added, "is one of my uniquely Presbyterian values."
McNeill sees opportunities with congregations and communities for more conversations and fuller discussions about "what transgender means" and "how we all have our identities and what can happen when we commonly acknowledge" that reality, he said.
"I like to encourage people to tell their gender stories and how they learned about their gender identity," said McNeill. "There are a lot of commonalities across the transgender and non-transgender spectrum."
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