Commission on Christian Unity chooses Pickens as leader
March 22, 2004
By Linda Bloom*
NEW YORK (UMNS) - An Illinois pastor and lawyer who sits on the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination's top court, has been named top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
The Rev. Larry Pickens, 45, who also was a commission member from 1988 to 1992, will begin his new position as general secretary July 1. His nomination, announced March 22, was approved by commission members; final approval will be needed from the denomination's General Council on Ministries this spring.
He succeeds the Rev. Bruce Robbins, who left the commission at the end of 2003 after 17 years of service - 13 as its top executive. Bishop Melvin Talbert has been serving as the interim executive.
Bishop Albert "Fritz" Mutti of Topeka, Kan., commission president, pointed to the "rich experience" Pickens has had in ecumenism.
"Larry Pickens has a deep commitment to the unity of Christ's church and a deep concern about furthering interfaith dialogue," he said.
Pickens believes unity is an issue that must be addressed both within and outside the denomination.
"In our church, we need a healing presence," he told United Methodist News Service. Because of discord around areas of disagreement, the church needs "a forum that can help us address those in a way that is affirming of community."
The Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns helped foster conversation in two areas during the last four years. The agency sponsored a series of dialogues on homosexuality and also encouraged church members to participate in the "Act of Repentance for Racism," which was adopted by the 2000 General Conference to address historic discrimination against African-Americans. General Conference is the church's top legislative assembly.
Pickens has had his own experience with unity issues. The African-American pastor currently serves in a cross-racial appointment at First United Methodist Church in Elgin, Ill., a predominantly white congregation in a community that includes a growing Hispanic population. "It really takes an effort to build community in a diverse setting," he noted.
On a broader level, Pickens wants to help the denomination sustain better relationships with other faith groups. "I believe in a post-9-11 world," he said. "The whole question of interfaith dialogue has changed. It has created the need for us to inform our people about Islam and other faiths."
He hopes to address relationships with the Orthodox - especially through the World Council of Churches, where he has experience as a former assembly delegate and holder of a certificate in ecumenical studies from its Bossey Institute - as well as with Roman Catholics and with denominations involved in Churches Uniting in Christ. Through Churches Uniting in Christ, nine denominations, including the United Methodist Church, are seeking ways to find more unity of purpose.
How the United Methodist central conferences - membership areas in Africa, Asia and Europe - deal with other faiths also is important. "There's a need for sensitivity around some of the wider ecumenical and political circumstances in which our central conferences live," he explained.
Pickens wants the commission to develop a closer relationship with the World Methodist Council, which represents Methodists and related denominations in 132 countries. He has served as a delegate to past World Methodist Conferences in Nairobi and Singapore.
A 1980 graduate of North Park University in Chicago, Pickens earned a master of theology degree in 1982 and a master of divinity degree in 1985, both from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. In 1988, he received a doctorate in ministry from Chicago Theological Seminary.
Before becoming senior pastor at First Church in Elgin in July 2001, he was pastor at Maple Park United Methodist Church from 1998 to 2001 and Gorham United Methodist Church from 1988 to 1998. He also was an associate pastor at St. Mark United Methodist Church from 1985 to 1988. All three churches are in Chicago.
He went to law school "with the intent of doing more in terms of community development and housing," earning his degree from DePaul University College of Law in January 1997. He was admitted to both the Illinois and South Carolina Bar that year and to the trial bar of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District in 1998.
Later, Pickens said, he became interested in European Union law, which he believes will be helpful regarding central conference issues. He also was a delegate to a "people-to-people" seminar on the legal system of South Africa and participated in an international conference on family law in Havana, Cuba.
Within the church, his best-known legal roles have included spending the last four years as a member of the Judicial Council and, in 1999, serving as counsel to the Rev. Greg Dell during a clergy trial, where Dell was charged with performing a same-sex union ceremony.
His role on the Judicial Council has given him a better understanding of church polity and how it works and the opportunity to be "actively involved in how our law is interpreted," he said.
Pickens and his wife, Debra, have a 10-year-old daughter, Jessica.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. News media can contact Linda Bloom at (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.