As a gay student and staff member at an evangelical Christian college, Marcus Mason-Vivit needed a friend, mentor and trusted colleague. He found all of that in the Rev. Judy Peterson, the campus pastor at North Park University on Chicago’s North Side.
He and his husband-to-be could not imagine anyone else officiating at their wedding last April, and she readily agreed when he asked. But when a picture from the ceremony surfaced on social media, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Chicago-based denomination that oversees North Park and ordained Peterson, suspended her credentials and the university placed her on a paid sabbatical after students left for winter break.
Now she faces a church disciplinary hearing Friday and could lose her job permanently.
“Knowing someone so beloved by thousands of people had something taken away from her because of who I married and who I love and who loves me — we’re deeply saddened,” said Mason-Vivit, 31, who now lives in Berkeley, Calif. “We have a bit of hope that this is not the end for Judy and that this is not where the conversation ends for the Evangelical Covenant Church.”
The suspension of Peterson, a well-known figure on campus for the past 11 years, has sparked outcry among students and alumni. More than 4,400 have signed a petition that calls for a deeper discussion on participating in same-sex weddings and a moratorium on disciplinary measures for clergy who play a role in those weddings. The church, they point out, has a long tradition of discussion, debate and tolerance when it comes to doctrine.
But leaders of the denomination say there are limits to that tradition when it comes to its clergy.
Peterson said she knew there could be consequences when she agreed to officiate last year’s ceremony. In an email to her chapel team that has been widely circulated, she explained that she met and prayed with a church executive charged with the care and discipline of pastors before the wedding. She also weighed the pros and cons with the couple in the months leading up to the ceremony, Mason-Vivit said, and told the couple “she felt it was right.”
“Over my tenure at NPU I have sat with countless LBGTQ young people who wrestle with whether or not they are worthy of love, who feel crushed under the weight of the shame they feel because of their inability to ‘overcome’ their attractions and who fear they will never be able to truly be themselves in the churches in which they were raised,” she wrote. “And I have done my best to be their pastor.”
“This was not a flippant decision done with disregard for religious rules, but rather a discerned decision to stand with my brothers in the same way Jesus has stood with me; in everything and at all times, no matter what,” she said.
But because of the denomination’s history of supporting theological dissent and the steps Peterson took before the wedding, she didn’t expect church and university leaders to immediately demand her resignation. After some conversation, denomination officials temporarily suspended her credentials while conducting a review. The university placed her on a paid sabbatical.
With more than 850 churches in the U.S. and Canada and 225,000 in the pews every Sunday, the Evangelical Covenant Church is based on a tradition of pietism, or conviction that the religious feuds of the 17th-century Reformation did harm to the Christian people and the Christian faith.
“Our tradition has always been one where we’ve given people a certain amount of space to think deeply about key issues,” said the Rev. John Phelan, a retired professor of New Testament studies and former president of North Park Theological Seminary.
The principle called “Freedom in Christ” has applied to differences of opinion on a wide range of theological issues, including the appropriate age for baptism, whether women should serve in ministry, atonement and the end times.
But a denomination spokesman said that freedom to disagree applies primarily to congregants, not clergy.
“Freedom for laity is a gracious posture, welcoming all wherever they are in their faith journey,” spokesman Ed Gilbreath said in a statement. “Freedom for clergy has boundaries. A Covenant pastor’s credential is given by the Church, which both authorizes and limits aspects of its use.”
But students and alumni say North Park, because of its diversity, has a history of encouraging rigorous debate and dissent. Like many higher education institutions with religious ties, the university requires theology courses. But unlike some evangelical institutions, North Park does not require students to sign and abide by a faith statement that echoes the denomination’s teachings.
“We support them as they grow, but students get to choose how they want to grow,” said Jodi Koslow Martin, the school’s vice president of student engagement. “That said, the needs of the students are paramount. As I often say to the staff, we love everyone who walks through the door.”
Still, Maddix Vickers, an alumnus, worries that LGBTQ students on campus will feel marooned by Peterson’s removal. As a student at North Park, Vickers struggled with issues of sexuality, gender identity and depression but always knew the campus pastor’s office offered a haven from any judgments. Now 32, Vickers recalls returning to Peterson’s office after graduating and coming out in 2011.
“At the time I wasn’t talking to my family, so I didn’t really know where to run with it,” said Vickers, 32, who also began transitioning 10 months ago. “She was with me then and I knew she would be with me through this other process.”
Since students returned to campus this week, university administrators and student leaders have hosted a town hall meeting and chapel chat to answer questions and hear concerns. The university also has added a mental health counselor with experience in sexuality and gender identity issues.
“The denomination’s positions are not part of those conversations unless the student is looking for faith-based counseling,” Koslow Martin said. “That’s putting the students’ needs first.”