St. Anthony Park UCC welcomes new pastor

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Pastor Victoria Wilgocki of the St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ thinks the selection committee that hired her was taking a chance.

Although she has a résumé stuffed with experience in both the sacred and the secular realms, the 40-year-old minister had never held a pastoral post before taking up her present position in February.

“There were many other applicants with more years of experience,” she says. “It showed courage and openness and faithfulness to call me to my first pastorate.”

Wilgocki served for many years as director of music and office administrator at the Lyndale United Church of Christ in Minneapolis while she was completing her studies for the ministry at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton.

She says her sense of vocation evolved gradually over the years after she earned her bachelor’s degree in music from St. Olaf College in 1989.

“For me it’s been a steady, gradual unfolding of living into the profession,” she says. “I felt I needed other life experience and a sense of personal maturation before becoming a pastor.”

Over the years Wilgocki worked as an academic administrator at area colleges, as well as a journalist at the Minnesota Women’s Press. It all adds up to what she calls a “big compost pile of experience to draw on.”

Wilgocki calls herself a moderate, but there are those who might not describe her church in the same way. Perhaps best known these days as Barack Obama’s denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC) was founded in 1959 through the union of three older churches.

The UCC has been in the forefront of the Christian progressive movement ever since. Its spiritual ancestors were the abolitionists and female suffragists of the 19th century. In our own era, the UCC was first to ordain women and openly gay men.

Wilgocki notes, “The UCC has an independent streak. We don’t have a hierarchy, and the emphasis is on the autonomy of the local church. There’s much freedom of critical thinking and exploration of faith.”

If there is controversy in the modern church, it relates to what the UCC calls an “open and affirming” faith. St. Anthony Park UCC voted in 1998 to welcome gay and lesbian members in a move that Wilgocki characterizes as “somewhat divisive” for the congregation at the time.

Although only a small percentage of the local congregation is gay, Wilgocki says, “If a gay couple walks into our church, they know they will be welcome.”

A decade after the “open and affirming” vote, Wilgocki says she considers this stance “moderately progressive” but far from radical.

“There are other churches way, way out there,” she notes, explaining that her previous congregation at Lyndale UCC voted not to allow their minister to sign the legal paperwork for marriage, as a protest against the state of Minnesota’s refusal to recognize gay marriage.

She regards it as part of her pastoral mission to keep “in front of people’s consciousness our commitment to an open and affirming role for the church.”

Wilgocki calls herself “the new kid on the block” when it comes to outlining her goals for her ministry. Her personal goal at this early stage is to get to know her congregation.

“There are about 180 people in this church,” she says. “I want to meet with people individually and let St. Anthony Park know that we’re here and we have a lot to offer.”

Although Wilgocki does not envision sweeping changes, she is beginning to get a sense of where she might offer some innovations to her congregation.

“This church is very well educated,” she notes. “The approach is very intellectual. I love the braininess of this place, but I think people are yearning for a more experiential faith that taps into their emotional lives.”

One new tradition she plans to establish is an occasional service of prayer and anointing where individual prayer requests will take the place of her sermon, and the general congregation will enjoy “a reflective time to sit instead of to do.”

Wilgocki is no radical, but she is quick to point out that no church stands still. One thing that has definitely changed is the old assumption that when the church hires a pastor, it gets a “two-for-one” package of the minister-plus-spouse.

“When a modern church calls a pastor, they call only the pastor,” is the way she puts it. And a good thing, too, in Wilgocki’s case because her husband, a Presbyterian, is the director of music at his church in Minneapolis.

“We go our separate ways on Sunday morning,” she says, and that doesn’t even begin to address the modern dilemma of what to do with the minister’s toddler son on Sundays, when his parents are involved in the busiest time of their work week. Two-and-a-half-year-old Noah usually has to settle for a babysitter while his parents are in church. In August, he will be joined by the family’s second child.

Female pastors excite no special concern in a denomination where about 60 percent of Wilgocki’s fellow seminarians were women. But even so, a pregnant minister is somewhat unusual, says Wilgocki. Still, she reports that the congregation has been supportive.

“The church is committed to children,” she says, “and to have one more is really great.”

Wilgocki hopes her congre-gation will grow in numbers, although she declines to provide any specifics of the sort of person who is drawn to the UCC. Instead, she offers a message of inclusion from the church’s Web site (www.sapucc.org): “No matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you are welcome here.”

She adds, “It’s a kind of a gut feeling, when someone says, ‘This is the right place for me.’ I can’t quantify that.”