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New Voices…Big Dreams…

By Mary Domb Mikkelson,
Elena & Mark Pettis 2Meet The Reverends Elena Larssen and Mark Pettis, two of three [1]  young pastors called to serve Southern California Nevada Conference churches on the same day – April 21, 2013.  Elena will serve First Congregational Church of Long Beach; husband Mark, Manhattan Beach Community Church. 
Both were born into strong UCC families and cherish the vibrancy of their churches and the active community involvement they fostered.
For her the road to ministry was a logical extension of her early life.
For him?  Not so much.  But then, both of his parents were ministers – and he had no intention of following in their footsteps.  His road was convoluted, with more than a few detours.
Come, walk with them, share their journeys.
* * *
For Elena, California means returning home.  She was born in Sebastopol (Sonoma County).  Her parents, Tom, a retired science teacher, and Beth, a lawyer, still live in the house of her childhood. She remembers fondly the apple orchard next door.  It’s now a vineyard, like most of the orchards in this fertile valley, where Luther Burbank once gardened.
She recalls, too, the “huge blessings” of camp at Cazedero, national youth events, community theater, travel, working in inner city San Francisco and in Louisiana… “I had the chance to see that the world was bigger than my agricultural home town, experiencing it in positive, well-rounded ways.” 
Her theater experience, she reports, was both fun and important, teaching skills – self-expression and the ability to relate to others among them – vital to her career.
College – at Occidental in Los Angeles, UC Santa Cruz and the Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in Berkeley – opened more doors.  Elena, seeking church experience, volunteered at First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz.  In the small setting of PSR she met people – all kinds of people – who “let it all hang out” and enjoyed the creative pluses of dance and art classes and programs.
Fresh out of seminary, with plans of becoming a missionary, she decided to take a break before starting to work.  Conversations with a good friend led both to the realization that she was meant to follow a different path and to her acceptance of her first call, that of Campus Minister at United Campus Christian Ministry at Stanford University where she “sensed that something good was about to happen.”  It was “a great learning environment,” she says.  Centering the campus is what Stanford’s website describes as “the University’s architectural crown jewel…Stanford Memorial Church, one of the earliest and still among the most prominent interdenominational churches in the West.”  During her years at Stanford, Elena performed over fifty weddings there.  Those years also raised her consciousness of how church is different for different people and of “the need to be entrepreneurial in the ways we do ministry.” 
Other calls – as Minister for Outreach at the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, UCC and as Acting Associate Minister at the First Congregational Church of La Grange (Minnesota), UCC – followed, leading to service as Associate Conference Minister at United Church of Christ, Minnesota Conference and to meeting Mark, Pastor of First Congregational UCC in Moorhead, Minnesota.  The lion’s share of Elena’s work during her Conference Minister days involved congregational vitality and new church starts.  The conference had added not a single new church in twenty-five years but, after working to build a viable infrastructure, progress came.  Three new – and unconventional – churches are now “on the books.”  Among the lessons learned during this period was the isolation of being a young adult in church, a single woman in a family town.  Participation in a “20-30 Network” gave her confidence and encouraged her “to take risks.”
* * *
Mark was born in Keene, New Hampshire in 1971, the son of the Reverends Edward and Joan Pettis. Subsequent moves – and pulpits – brought the family first to Seymour, Connecticut in 1973 then to Lemon Grove, California in 1980, where Edward and Joan served as co-pastors of Lemon Grove Congregational, UCC until her death in 1995.  Edward stayed on until 1999, when he accepted a call to Valley of the Flowers UCC in Lompoc, California.
Being a preacher’s kid times two was, Mark declares, “wonderful.”  Having moved across country from his extended family in Maine, New York and Florida, he was quickly adopted by a plethora of aunts, uncles and grandparents in the Lemon Grove congregation.  “Of course,” he adds, “having my mother as my confirmation teacher and as the youth group leader did have a few drawbacks.  When I messed up it went home with me.  I couldn’t get away with anything!”  He adds that while his parents were careful not to bring church business home, that home was for Mark and older brother Jon definitely an extension of their faith lives.
Given the opportunity when in high school to decide whether to continue to “be in church,” Mark took a break – a short one.  The church youth group, Youth Round Table, Pilgrim Pines and FebCamp lured him back into the fold, interests so strong he served on the Conference Board of Directors during his first two years of college. 
He reports that at no point in his high school or university days (at Pomona College) did he ever consider the ministry as a career.  That was his parents’ work, not his.  He entered the political arena instead, working for California State Assembly members, among them Susan Davis.    Public affairs and media relations positions followed, then for two years he worked as a consultant in the field.
Detour after detour…
A number of factors combined to start Mark down the road to ministry, among them nineteen months of long conversations with his father who was dying of pancreatic cancer; participation as a Round Table counselor; attendance at Irvine UCC and a seminarian girlfriend.  In 2006 he enrolled in Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, intending to go into advocacy work and “not my parents’ job.”  Three years later he realized he was called to congregational ministry.  Service as Intern Associate Pastor at Union Church in Berea, Kentucky preceded his position in Moorhead.
First Congregational is an Open & Affirming church and Mark quickly saw potential for embracing ONA further and in often dramatic ways – heavy involvement in the Fargo (North Dakota) – Moorhead Pride Festival, educational programs and, making the news in a big way, hosting the Shower of Stoles.  The Shower of Stoles project, which has “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses” as its motto, is “a collection of over a thousand liturgical stoles and other sacred items representing the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of faith.  These religious leaders have served in thirty-two denominations and faith traditions, in six countries, and on three continents.  Each stole contains the story of a GLBT person who is active in the life and leadership of their faith community in some way: minister, elder, deacon, teacher, missionary, musician, administrator, or active layperson.”  First Congregational displayed 75 of the stoles, a marvelous opportunity to invite both community and media to visit and to engage in conversation.  Lots of press coverage followed, encouraging the church to make plans to host interfaith services and to work toward equal marriage rights in Minnesota (a law just recently passed there).  Reaction was positive (only two negative letters) and many people came to “check us out.”  A growing congregation resulted, a response, Mark notes, to “having boldly embraced our identity, being not only an Open and Affirming congregation, but also one that is dedicated to justice work in the community and is committed to faith formation for all ages.  We ‘walk the walk.’”
* * *
Elena and Mark were married in her childhood church in Sebastapol on August 4, 2012 – with “eight clergy on the chancel and five Conference Ministers in attendance,” a statistic which inspired officiator Kent Gilbert to observe, “Someone could step in were I to go down.”  Beginning their life together and with “Clyde, the wonder dog,” a basset hound puppy with which Elena declares herself “head over heels in love,” they soon found themselves looking westward, “California dreaming.”
Elena, who “grew up rural but loves cities,” is excited by the center city location and sensibilities of First Congregational, Long Beach, by the shifting demographics of the area (“lots of new housing”) and by the church’s ONA numbers (40% LBGT identified).   She plans, also, to continue active involvement with the UCC Board for Ministerial Assistance, a program dear to her heart.  Mark looks forward to sharing “a church which welcomes political diversity” and to modeling successful conversations on issues even when we disagree” and determining “What is God calling us to be in Manhattan Beach and the world.”  Both look forward to exploring and sharing with their new congregations what it means to have called a couple and how to work with each other and support each other’s ministries.  And, of course, to the opportunity to build a new life together.
A bit of serendipity.  Thanks to General Synod 29 being held in Long Beach this year, both Mark and Elena had the opportunity to spend valuable time with the leaders of their new churches before reporting to work – and to say goodbye to their Minnesota friends, many of whom also participated.  While at Synod Elena will participate in a 20-30 Clergy retreat, provide the opening prayer at the Women’s Leadership luncheon and read the scripture at one of the worship services.  Mark is a part of the “Next Generation Leadership Initiative,” a member of the inaugural class of this ten year program. 
Asked what they would do if money were no object, Elena described her longtime dream of opening a progressive Christian high school while Mark explored possibilities for ecumenical interfaith programs in which progressive and conservative voices could discuss a wide range of issues with each acknowledging the other’s faith as valid.
Another question – “Your favorite and least favorite words?” – brought interesting responses.  Elena favored “perpendicular” – “such a pretty, musical word!” and Mark, “hope” – “hope will get you out of bed!” – and “joy.”  As for “least favorite,” they agreed on “slurs,” the “stomach churning dehumanizing of others.” 
Big dreams…lots of hope and joy…and a love of their calling…that’s Elena Larssen and Mark Pettis.  Welcome to Long Beach, Manhattan Beach and the Southern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ!
 [1] The third is The Rev. Kaji Spellman, called to serve the United Church of Christ of La Mesa, CA.  An article about her will be carried in Connecting Voices soon.

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