|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
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 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.
The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr.
He has co-founded organizations opposing legalized gambling and nuclear
weapons, as well as groups supporting HIV/AIDS ministries and
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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 email@example.com.
Audio: The Rev. Stephen Sidorak Jr.
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