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Kelly Ryan: Casting Visions

By Mary Domb Mikkelson

Kelly with husband Jason Guy

“All ages sharing their gifts to make something beautiful…

“Music that speaks to the truth of our human experience or our life together with God…

“Service as worship…

“It’s exciting  and life-filled to listen and build relationships, to discern what the Church could become,  To dream and scheme, cast visions about what it will one day bloom into.”

The Rev. Kelly Ryan is speaking of Church on the threshold, Church in transition, teetering between the fabled glory days of Christendom and an uncertain future.  “We all feel it,” she continues,  we recognize that some things are falling away, some might say dying.  It’s an awkward time, a time of painful transition.  But we are people of resurrection, and death is but the gateway to new life.  I believe with everything I have that the transition will be into something ever more vital, vibrant, open, gracious, inclusive, just and beautiful  Moving toward and into it means taking risks.  But it is a future all are beckoned to get in on, a joyful and exciting place to minister from.”

It is that dream, that vision, that hope Kelly brings with her as she takes on a new role – Senior Minister at The Table:  United Church of Christ of La Mesa (CA).

Born in Washington D.C., the only child of Tom and Liz, a realtor and a psychotherapist, Kelly grew up in Colorado Springs, where a United Church of Christ (UCC) senior high camp started her on the road to ministry.

“I was 14 and didn’t really believe in God.  Then I went to camp and was struck by how quickly I felt deep love and connection to teens I had just met.  I realized that if God is love, then I knew God.”  That realization, that call, lead to the decision to be a religious studies major and go to seminary, the same one her maternal grandfather attended.  “I had never seen a woman minister but never questioned whether I could and would become one.”

Iowa’s Grinnell College, where “Grinnellians ask hard questions and question easy answers,” was a good match for Kelly.  “I was never one to accept easy answers,” she says.  “I like to dig deeper, past the surface, to explore new paths, to challenge others and myself.”

One “new path” was drama.  “I became a ‘closet drama major,’ taking many theater classes and appearing in college productions while continuing my religious studies education.  The two melded well:  I loved considering and playing into the connections of spirituality and the creativity of theatre, an avenue I also enjoy exploring as a minister.”

Pacific School of Religion (PSC), where Kelly met her hospice chaplain husband, Jason Guy, followed.  Known for its “Tradition of Boldness,” it was, again, a good fit.  “I value bringing the rich resources of tradition into bold new ministry, “go big” ministry.  The Church today is in a time of experimentation, a wonderful opportunity to infuse our worship and faith formation with new flavor, new vitality, while treasuring the richness of the past.  Imagine, for example, a setting in which the Kyrie Eleison pairs with the “progressive worship music” of Rob Leveridge or the soulful bent of Noah Gundersen.

Kelly teaching at annual meeting

That “new flavor” found its way into Kelly’s work after seminary.  As Young Adult Coordinator at First Church Berkeley, CA she developed a young adult music engagement program, hosted concerts that drew intergenerational audiences from within and without the church and started the church’s tradition of contemplative Holy Saturday services that used old space in new ways.

As pastor of Bethel Congregational Church in White Salmon, Washington she was proudest of the church’s passing their Immigrant Welcoming Declaration and of the many ways people, young and old alike, brought their particular gifts to bear on this commitment:  writing stories of immigrants for the local paper, for example, and doing a play about employees at an immigration detention facility – and their moral qualms about the work.

Starting in August, 2018, Kelly will share these gifts, this new flavor with the people of The Table:  United Church of Christ of La Mesa.  “The table,” she notes, is a place where everyone is welcome.  You share food and drink, tell stories, craft and draft and create at the table.  It is, in the words of Shauna Niequist, ‘…the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for…(it) is a place of safety and rest and humanity, where we are allowed to be as fragile as we feel.’*

“Communion,” Kelly adds, “is one of my favorite moments in worship;  I love that perhaps the most enduring practice of Christian life together, since people first started gathering as followers of Jesus thousands of years ago, is to come share a meal at the Table.”

Music is another favorite.  “I have a whole Spotify playlist of “Church Music” that I am always adding to:  collecting not only songs that are explicitly religious, but also songs that speak about the sacred or God without using the word God.  I also love to bring songs from more secular genres that might be unexpected in the church setting – blurring the lines between what is sacred and what is secular.  I also wonder what it would be like to celebrate the particularities of different genres of music on different Sundays as occasions annually:  Folk Sunday, Jazz Sunday, Gospel Sunday, etc.”

Kelly picking cherries

Asked about other favorites, Kelly listed:

Hymns:  “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”

Bible verses:  Romans 8: 38-39 (“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”)

Holidays:  “Advent!  I love the songs and stories and rich darkness and anticipation of Advent.  Outside of the church-nerd world, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.”

Movies:  “The Lion King, hands down!”

Books:  “I’m really into Octavia Butler’s works right now.”

Personal interests include hiking, yoga, singing, learning more about local food and drink and reading fiction that “makes me curious about a time and place and people I don’t know about yet.”

An exciting new era awaits the people of The Table:  getting to know Kelly and Jason, listening with them and building relationships, casting visions about what their church and The Church can become.  May we live into a headline she would like to see in our near future, “The Table:  United Church of Christ of La Mesa Supports (insert name of a new community initiative): All Ages Sharing Their Gifts to Make Something Beautiful.”

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*Shauna Niequist, Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes

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