The Rev. Jeremy McLeod knew in elementary school that he wanted to be involved in music and ministry. He eventually got his chance and has now brought his talents to Wellspring United Church of Christ.
He became its new pastor in August and, this Sunday, Oct. 26, at 3 p.m., he will be formally installed. The church meets at Centreville's Fire Station 17 on Old Centreville Road (Sunday services are 10 a.m.; call 703-830-0695).
"He's definitely gotten a very warm reception, and people are excited about the new chapter for Wellspring," said Alan Baylock, co-chair of the church's pastor-search committee. "He really wanted the job, and we wanted him."
The church's founding pastor, Jerry Foltz, is now a UCC conference minister, and Wellspring's interim pastor, Richard Thayer, left in August. McLeod was chosen after a long search.
"What impressed us the most was his creativity," said Baylock. "He is artistic and is a very good musician and writer, and he brings all that creativity — an eclectic mix of things — to the worship service. He's organized, but also flexible and willing to listen — which, in our congregation, is important. And he's open to many different viewpoints."
BORN IN SAN FRANCISCO, McLeod grew up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod — rich in its use of music and the arts. "Contrary to stereotypes of that church's conservatism, it also brought my first experiences of a radical biblical faith engaged in the social ministry of the church," he said. "It continues to give me a passion for ministry that's rooted in contemporary language and culture embodying the Good News to people where they live."
While in college (1969 bachelor of arts in music at Valparaiso University in Indiana), he recognized his gifts as a counselor and caregiver. Said McLeod: "I was one of the first people that others would turn to in times of crisis."
He then obtained a masters in sacred music in 1972 from Union Theological Seminary School of Sacred Music in New York City, followed in 1978 by a Master of Divinity degree from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif. He was also a teaching assistant there for liturgy, music, biblical studies, worship and pastoral counseling.
However, McLeod's personal life was in turmoil. He was married but unhappy and, in 1975, at age 29 — after years of denial — he came out to himself as a gay man. But when it came time to seek ordination and his first Lutheran Church job, in 1985, he learned what it would take to become ordained.
"There was an expectation of no sex outside marriage," he explained. "And since gay people couldn't get married, it was 'OK to be it, just don't do it.' He was a Lutheran pastor in Burbank, Calif., from May 1985-April 1989, but likened it to "doing ministry in a glass box."
At judiciary levels, McLeod was "out" but, with his congregation, he worked from a stance of "if you ask the right question, you'll get the right answer." And as an honest person, it bothered him to function that way. He resigned from his congregation in 1993, but remained connected to Christian faith and spirituality.
HE SERVED as a musician in a variety of churches, an interim pastor and a chaplain resident, from August 1998-August 1999, at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colo. He worked with the oncology, rehabilitation, skilled nursing and emergency departments and was part of the response team to the Colombine shooting victims.
McLeod's served as pastor/mission developer at a church in Boulder County, Colo., and since September, is the chaplain/spiritual care coordinator of Hospices of Northern Virginia, based in Manassas, ministering to the dying and their families. He came to Wellspring in August.
"He's compassionate and very spiritual," said Baylock. "We talked to people in congregations he previously served, and they said he was very effective in keeping the church growing and was very good with people."
Baylock and his family have belonged to Wellspring since it began in 1996, and they're delighted with their new pastor. "He's a good speaker, and his sermons are well thought-out and often challenge you to think about things differently," said Baylock. "And he has a great sense of humor. He also does a children's sermon every week, for ages 4-12, and he has them rolling on the floor, laughing."
McLeod, too, is pleased, describing Wellspring as "a progressively thoughtful, prayerful, justice-seeking, multi-racial, open and affirming, Christian congregation." He said it follows the principles of the Center for Progressive Christianity (www.tcpc.org).
"We take Scripture seriously enough not to take it literally, [but rather as] ancient literature interpreted for modern times," he explained. "It's about building inclusive communities that take seriously the idea that we're to relate to each other in church and society with extraordinary and mutual respect."
FRANKLY, SAID MCLEOD, "Much of what our popular culture defines as Christian has been defined very narrowly by representatives of the 'Religious Right.' We are engaged in this global battle against Fundamentalism outside of our country. But inside our country, we seem to embrace a Fundamentalist view of what it means to be Christian."
Since Wellspring's inception, he said, it has set out to be a progressively Christian alternative to the "otherwise conventional or conservative church climate in western Northern Virginia." Said McLeod: "We're noticing that, west of the Fairfax County Parkway, we really are the only United Church of Christ, and so we are attracting folks from western Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties. In a very real way, we are functioning as a church with a regional focus."
Calling Wellspring a "small and vital" church, he said, "This is one of those places that is — in the words of Martin Luther King — a 'beloved community' in which folks gather to be who they are, where they are. It values folks for their uniqueness and, at the same time, doesn't make a big thing about it."
And that's just fine with McLeod, who's in a long-term, committed relationship. He and his "husband and partner in life" live together with their two cats. That's why, he said, "One of the things I value [at Wellspring], as an openly gay man, is a context like that, where [my sexual orientation] is a matter of fact; it's not the only thing that defines me as a person."
HOWEVER, HE ADDED, Wellspring's beliefs aren't a condemnation of those who are conservative or conventional in their style of Christianity. Said McLeod: "I simply want folks to understand there is an alternative."
Describing his congregants as "an intentional and joyful" bunch of people, he said, "They go about life with a real sense of awareness of the choices they're making and the commitments out of which they live."
Noting that the United Church of Christ (UCC) resulted from the merger of four churches that experienced being the oppressed minority, McLeod said each historically stressed "the centrality of an individual's faith and conscience, while relating to one another in relationships of covenanted respect" — holding each other's opinions and actions in the highest regard.
"The spirit that blows through the UCC is an incredible gift to the world and is radically alive here at Wellspring," said McLeod. And he's pleased to help the congregants in their journeys, individually and as a community of faith.
He said Wellspring already is what it set out to be, and now that he's in ministry there, he hopes "that we keep that less of a well-kept secret and reach more of a wider community in western Northern Virginia."