His outspoken passion for justice made the Rev. John Dorhauer mostly “tolerated” when he worked in leadership for the United Church of Christ in St. Louis. But now that he serves as conference minister for the 43 churches of the Southwest Conference in Arizona, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, the 47-year-old pastor believes he has come to a region and a position where he can be more authentic.
“The work of justice has always been at the center of whatever ministry I do,” he said.
“Twenty years in Missouri was in some ways exasperated because I was tolerated in spite of the justice work that was important to me.” Because Dorhauer did “the other things well,” they put up with his zeal for justice.
Dorhauer is the co-author of “Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion,” which challenges the Institute on Religion and Democracy and its network of 33 conservative Christian renewal organizations for purportedly fomenting dissent and intimidating pastors to back off from speaking out on justice and social issues. His doctoral dissertation focused on “white privilege” in the United Church of Christ, including a tendency for leaders and staff to fail to make ethnic inclusion part of their actions, such as what “clip art” (always white people) is used for newsletters.
Raised in a “very strict” and devout Catholic household of seven children in St. Louis, Dorhauer considered the priesthood, but on earning his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, he decided against it. During those eight years of Catholic high school and college, he asked “very deep questions that attempted to help me understand the teachings of the church.”
“It was simply a matter of my saying to myself to accept the mantle of ordained leadership in the church would require me to require others to believe what I had not yet come, on my own, to believe,” he said. Though he had felt pastoral calling at a very young age, Dorhauer dropped out of seminary. He met and married Mimi, an active Lutheran, and joined her church. Later, at a family dinner, her brother looked Dorhauer in the eye and said that just because he was no longer Catholic didn’t mean he wasn’t still called to ministry. “If it weren’t for that moment, my life would have taken a very different path,” Dorhauer said. “But as soon as he said that, I knew what I would be doing.”
Not wanting to leave St. Louis or uproot family, he enrolled in the fall of 1984 at Eden Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ school, “simply because it was the only seminary in St. Louis that would be open to our more progressive views.”
He graduated in 1988 and vowed, during his ordination, never to accept an assignment to start a new church or go into conference leadership. “I had this identity as a rebel outcast, and I never wanted to be identified with the bureaucracy,” he said. “I always thought that I would find myself at odds with the institutional side of the church.”
He began ministry in Mayview, Mo. (“250 people 10 miles from a gallon of gas and a loaf of bread”), and moved on to Lebanon, Mo. Dorhauer then took the associate conference minister job in St. Louis, despite previous vows against such roles. St. Louis proved to have the vital resources needed, at the time, for his daughter, who was recovering from a car accident. Dorhauer reluctantly said yes to the conference post. To his surprise, he found the work fulfilling. During a situation of resolving a conflict, he said, “I felt the spirit coming over me saying, 'You have been called to this ministry, and the church needs you here.’ ” He oversaw about 60 churches in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
In the Southwest Conference, Dorhauer follows the 11-year tenure of the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, who now leads the denomination’s Wider Church Ministries. The Rev. Lark Hopkes was interim conference minister for two years. Dorhauer began June 9 at the United Church of Christ office in Phoenix.
During his candidacy, Dorhauer said he was heartened that the conference was searching for someone to build stronger relationships between the conference and the churches spread across some 236,000 square miles.
He said he started and ended his interviews with the search committee with his “passion for justice,” and, in the end, they confirmed they wanted a progressive leader able to address the “justice issues of our time.”
In “Steeplejacking,” co-written with another Church of Christ pastor, Sheldon Culver, the writers assert that the Institute on Religion and Democracy and its related groups have been driving a wedge between congregations and their pastors and mainline denominations to silence “prophetic voices” on such issues as global warming, war and gender rights. It came from five years of research. The two “began working with churches that were going through turmoil because of these ideologues and these bullies attacking them internally,” Dorhauer said. It proved to be more than a “United Church of Christ phenomenon.” (For example, the UCC is the only member of the National Council of Churches, which openly ordains gays and lesbians and supports same-gender marriage.)
On its Web site (www.theird.org), the Institute on Religion and Democracy dismisses Dorhauer’s and Culver’s assertions: “What promises to be a fantastic tale of money, intrigue, and covert scheming by IRD and its minions ultimately disappoints — primarily because it fails to even remotely prove any of its far-reaching claims.” The IRD has singled out such denominations as Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans for scrutiny, as well as para-church groups like Sojourners. For example, the institute states, “it is especially important for church leaders to have the humility to recognize their limited expertise in the minutiae of complex public policy matters and not to claim God’s endorsement for specific government policies or programs on which he has not clearly spoken.”
But Dorhauer says the institute “has no ideological or religious interests whatsoever” but is “funded by political ideologues whose sole purpose is to occupy the leaders of our churches and denominations and make their first reaction one that compels them to turn away from the fight” and shelve certain ideas for controversial sermons.