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Sidorak brings ecumenical expertise, justice concerns

The Rev. Stephen Sidorak Jr. is the new top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
UMNS photos by John C. Goodwin.

By Linda Bloom*
Sept. 23, 2008 | DAYTON, Ohio (UMNS)

The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr. knows ecumenism from the pew up.

The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr.

The 58-year-old United Methodist clergyman has organized Christians to pray and protest, developed guidelines to help them discuss issues and beliefs, and brought them together to worship and advocate for justice.

He has co-founded organizations opposing legalized gambling and nuclear weapons, as well as groups supporting HIV/AIDS ministries and interreligious understanding.

Now Sidorak, a member of the denomination’s Rocky Mountain Annual (regional) Conference, is the new chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the church's ecumenical agency.

After serving for more than 20 years as executive director of the Christian Conference of Connecticut, he was elected to his new post during the commission’s Sept. 17-21 meeting in suburban Dayton.

"I’ve come home," Sidorak told United Methodist News Service. "I’ve been welcomed very warmly back to my own communion."

Sidorak's years of state council experience have resulted in "a deep appreciation for the challenges of ecumenism at the grassroots level," according to the Rev. Jack Johnson, a fellow United Methodist in the Greater New Jersey Conference.

Johnson—whose own longtime engagement in interfaith and public policy activities led to his taking the top position with the Massachusetts Council of Churches this past year—said that Sidorak’s relationships with ecumenical council directors across the United States will be "a real plus" for The United Methodist Church.

Calling begins in Colorado

Sidorak’s calling as an ecumenist emerged when Bishop Melvin Wheatley Jr., who ordained him in 1978, suggested he apply to lead the Colorado Council of Churches.

He served there 1982-85 before becoming director of the peace center of the Christian Conference of Connecticut. "I realized that this (ecumenism) was for me," he said about that first state council experience. "It’s been that way ever since."

The move to Connecticut also changed his geographic focus to what he laughingly refers to as "serving in exile on the East Coast." But it was not his first journey to the Northeast. Sidorak’s study at Yale Divinity School earned him a Master of Divinity degree in 1975 and a Master of Sacred Theology degree in 1976 and began a lifelong connection to Yale.

Among his Yale friends is David Lamarre-Vincent, a Roman Catholic layperson and director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches for 18 years. Lamarre-Vincent calls state councils "an essential link in the interreligious and ecumenical work of the church both in the United States and internationally." At the state level, ecumenical executives often "serve as catalysts," not just on matters of Christian unity but on issues of justice, peace and reconciliation.

Lamarre-Vincent said Sidorak’s tenure as a senior ecumenical steward makes him a good leader for the commission. "As an outside observer, The United Methodist Church has been one of the strongest members of the state ecumenical councils," he said. "I think Rev. Sidorak’s preparation uniquely qualifies him to be a leader of The United Methodist Church worldwide."

Working toward peace

From the beginning, issues of peace and justice have been integrated into Sidorak’s ministry.

As pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City from 1978-80, he "became a scholar of nuclear weapons and policy" and successfully worked to prevent the MX missile system from being deployed in Utah.

During that period, he asked the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, another Yale friend, to come and help convince the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the missiles should not be there. "We got acquainted on a working relationship around a nuclear crisis," Sidorak recalled.

They became close friends and together established a new national interreligious organization on nuclear weapons. After Coffin’s death at age 81, Sidorak wrote a reflection for the May/June 2006 edition of Zion’s Herald magazine (now The Progressive Christian) "celebrating the wit and wisdom of a peerless prophet."

While lamenting the loss of the outspoken advocate for peace and justice, he reminded readers that Coffin "taught us very well how to bear public witness. So, in the name of God, let’s get going and demonstrate ecumenically and interreligiously our own commitment to what Bill called 'a politically engaged spirituality.'"

Sidorak continued his own public witness after assuming the leadership of the Connecticut conference in 1987. The organization sponsored an annual ecumenical forum and other public events; organized an annual peace and justice convocation; published a "Pastoral Statement on School Desegregation"; and established ecumenical guidelines for dialogue on "church-dividing issues" and on participation in interreligious worship.

In Defense of Creation

United Methodist Bishop C. Dale White asked Sidorak to become a consultant on the "In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace" document issued by the denomination’s Council of Bishops in 1986. Sidorak said he was thrilled "because I was so happy for the leadership he and others were providing at that time." In Sidorak’s opinion, interreligious efforts on the nuclear issue "restored some sanity to the world."

White affirms Sidorak’s passionate commitment to peace issues, as well as his global perspective and range of experience. He points to the need to look at theology and the early Scriptures to gain wisdom for living on this earth.

"From my perspective, Steve comes from that broader base of understanding and extensive missional outreach," White said. "That’s certainly going to be a foundation on which he’s going to base everything else."

In 1982, the Colorado Council of Churches was a co-sponsor of "An Evening for Peace: A Colorado Call for Nuclear Disarmament" on the State Capitol steps in Denver. Sidorak and singer John Denver were co-organizers and hosts of the demonstration, which drew more than 30,000 people and featured Jimmy Buffet, Judy Collins and The Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band.

Three days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Connecticut conference sponsored a service at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, drawing 3,000 people to the largest interreligious gathering in the state’s history. Sidorak said he was able to organize the service quickly because the connections already existed through the seven-year-old Connecticut Council for Interreligous Understanding.

The continuing reverberations of 9/11 have contributed to the demand to bring an interreligious component to the ecumenical table. "The key thing is not that United Methodists and Muslims work together, but that Christians in all their branches and Muslims in all their branches meet together," he said.

Horizontal integration of ecumenism

The Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, refers to the "silo" effect of the ecumenical movement—with its vertical components but no horizontal integration. Often, the handling of doctrinal differences and official relations among denominations are separated from the practical aspects of ecumenism at the congregational level.

What Sidorak brings to his new role "is an integration of the various forms of ecumenism that are out there being practiced," said Meyer, a clergy member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Meyer said Sidorak’s fellow council directors are pleased that his credentials and passion for justice "have been so publicly recognized by his church."

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, a clergy member of the United Church of Christ and executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said Sidorak has "an awareness of what sells and what doesn’t sell" at the local church level.

"I think his experience with the Christian Conference of Connecticut has given him a kind of bird’s eye view of church life across all denominations," she said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio: The Rev. Stephen Sidorak Jr.

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