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Rhode Island Council of Churches director takes leave for gender transition

In this June 29, 2017, photo, the Rev. Donald Anderson gives an opening prayer for a service in Providence, R.I. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches says Anderson, its executive minister, shared with the board she is transgender and is transitioning. The organization granted Anderson a three-month sabbatical and notes she'll change her name from Donald to Donnie. (Kris Craig/Providence Journal via AP)

(RNS) — The Rev. Donald Anderson, 70, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, will take a three-month leave beginning June 1 to complete the transition to becoming a woman.

“Right now, at this point, this is still a very personal thing,” Anderson told Religion News Service by phone Tuesday (May 15). “We’re working this through as a family. When the fall comes, I’ll be happy to talk to people in depth.”

Anderson has been executive minister, the day-to-day head of the state council, for 11 years. She has been noted for her political positions, including opposing numerous actions of the Trump administration.

During the sabbatical, Anderson will also change her name from Don to Donnie, according to a statement by RISCC governing board president Chontell Washington, a United Church of Christ pastor.

While a membership roster for the council wasn’t available, a listing of the group’s board shows a majority of its seats are held by clergy from groups noted for a progressive stance on many issues, including the Unitarian-Universalist Association, the American Baptist Church and the Episcopal Church. Anderson is an American Baptist.

“The council is appreciative of Dr. Anderson’s ministry and totally supportive of her transition,” Washington wrote. “We look forward to welcoming the Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson back from her sabbatical in September.”

Speaking with RNS, Anderson affirmed that the response of council members has been positive. “The response has been overwhelmingly supportive,” Anderson said. “That’s not to say some people have (not) had some negative response, but (it’s been) over 98 percent supportive.”

The issue of transgender clergy has divided some communities, most notably evangelical Christianity. The Rev. Paula Stone Williams, a board member of the Q Christian Fellowship, said she had lost several positions, including a pastorate in an evangelical megachurch and an editorial position, when she transitioned five years ago.

“There’s a massive difference between evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism” on the issue of transgenderism, said Williams, who now pastors Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colo. “I don’t know of any evangelical person who did not lose their (ministry) position for transitioning.”

Williams said it was important for clergy and church leaders to be honest in their self-expression.

“I think it’s marvelous that we’re seeing more and more religious leaders come out and be true to who they are,” Williams said. “When you’re fighting against your basic identity, it’s hard to bring your whole self to the table. When you can, it’s better for everyone.”

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Mark A. Kellner

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