With its combination name, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a mainline Protestant denomination that seeks to keep a balance between strong adherence to Bible teachings and affording broad freedoms to people to discern theological truth for themselves.
The Rev. Sharon Watkins calls it a “coming together and a clasping of hands of reasons and faith.”
“We have really encouraged everyone to be on their own journey of faith, to study deeply in the Scriptures, to engage others,” said the denomination’s highest elected leader, as president and general minister. “It is a deeply spiritual journey, not a ‘head thing’ only, but we really see it as an integrated approach of spirit and intellect.”
“Disciples,” as they are most commonly known, total about 723,000 in the U.S. and Canada in 3,777 congregations. They adhere to adult baptism and weekly Holy Communion, open to any Christian, and a strong striving for Christendom’s unity, Watkins said in an interview just before last weekend’s Arizona Regional Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), held at First Christian Church of Mesa. More than 300 people from Arizona’s 29 Disciple congregations took part.
Watkins is in her second year of a six-year term of the denomination whose headquarters is in Indianapolis. Most of its churches are concentrated in a wide belt across the middle of the country from Virginia to Texas. The church evolved from an early 19th-century Christian restoration movement founded by Thomas Campbell and Alexander Campbell, both of West Virginia, and Barton Stone of Kentucky, who left the Presbyterian church over differences of doctrine. Central themes of their fl edging faith were that the Bible was sole authority, that there was the right of private judgment and an appeal for Christian unity through restoring of biblical institutions and practices.
“Whenever Christians gather, we expect to be there,” Watkins said about the denomination’s emphasis on unity. Divisions within Christianity, she said, “is not what we understand that God had in mind in creating humanity.” Rich diversity, she said, can be appreciated, “but pitting groups against each other we just think is sinful, and that kind of division is not right.”
The denomination gives latitude to its regions in such areas as ordinations of openly gay clergy, though “most are still in discernment” on this. “Most have said they won’t,” she said. “And it doesn’t happen all that often.”
Watkins, 52, was serving as senior pastor of Disciples Christian Church in Bartlesville, Okla., when she was elected the sixth president of the denomination, formed in 1968 through a restructuring. She is the first woman leader and came directly from a parish to the top post. She was associate vice president of Phillips University, now Phillips Theological Seminary, in Tulsa, Okla., where her husband, the Rev. Rick Lowery, is an Old Testament professor.
When she took the helm in July 2005, Watkins thought her main work was to be an encourager, given that mainline Christianity has been in a slump in membership and as a force in the American church. “I thought my biggest job was to go around and help pump everybody up,” she said.
Instead, she has found churches already on the move in their communities. Watkins said the current denomination has too much structure and needs reorganization, and she calls on congregations to “help us become the church we want to be for the 21st century.” She wants to develop a denomination that can say it is effective and faithful.
“We think that God loves everyone, and it’s Christ’s table, so we have an open table that represents our quest and passion for Christian unity,” she said. Disciples “cherish the ministry of all believers,” she continued. “We really understand that at baptism, each one is called to ministry and service, so, for us, the leadership of the laity is very important.” To underscore that, elders from the laity preside, with ordained clergy, at the communion table. “It’s how we understand the wholeness of the church,” she said.
Watkins is heartened that her church has seen about 450 new congregations form in the past five years — many with greater ethnic diversity. Seminaries seem to be attracting more younger, first-career students, breaking with a trend of recent decades of older seminarians changing careers. Straight-out-of-college seminarians portend a clergy that brings new energy. “We are really trying to lift up ministry as an honorable way to spend one’s life,” she said.
Watkins’ visit to Arizona helped Disciples here gain a better picture of the church’s work, said the Rev. Bill Jacobs, pastor of First Christian Church of Mesa. “She offered great clarity about our church and its mission, and her presence here helped up to clarify who we are and where we are going,” he said. He lauded her pastoral experience and “a broad knowledge of different ways the church must function to be effective.”
Jacobs said Watkins has the gift to bridge the church’s history and traditions with future direction. “I was surprised that she was as strong as she is in the local church,” demonstrating an ease in talking intimately to small groups yet inspiring a large audience with the big picture of the denomination.
Watkins insists, “We really are trying to understand it as a discernment of what God is saying to us — and through us — at this particular time.”