Hattie Alexander-Key, Karen Dillaman and Roland Smith, all longtime deacons at Metropolitan Community Church – Detroit, were ordained as local pastors by MCC-D senior pastor and teacher the Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow. The ordination took place at an in-person service Sunday, Sept. 20, the first in-person service the church has had since the beginning of the pandemic.
"The term 'local pastor' is another way of saying 'lay pastor,' meaning they are not being ordained as clergy into our denomination but they are being recognized by this local congregation as pastors,'' Stringfellow explained. "Each are taking on more responsibility than their role of deacon to respond to the new challenges we face providing pastoral care and launching a hybrid model — in person and online — of worship as we respond to COVID-19."
The newly ordained pastors we will not have the title of reverend, which is reserved for those who have met the MCC denomination's criteria and are not recognized outside the church as clergy. Stringfellow said he also started off his ministerial career in the Baptist church as a local/lay pastor.
"Hattie Alexander-Key, Karen Dillaman and Roland Smith have demonstrated within our church their leadership and spiritual maturity to be ordained as local pastors," Stringfellow said. "Each engaged in a pastoral formation process over the past six months with Bishop Yvette Flunder of the United Church of Christ who mentored all of us on becoming a pastoral team. This is the new model we will be embracing as we move forward — letting go of a 'top-down' hierarchy of leadership and replacing it with a team model. These three have the skill set to lead well in this church."
Meet the new pastors
Alexander-Key had attended MCC-D at various points throughout the years before becoming a member in 2015.
"I am a preacher's kid of a preacher's kid," she said. "My religious affiliation has been what I call Bapti-Costal, meaning that I was reared in the Baptist Church and in my late teens I became an active member of the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, where I began active work in the ministry."
Alexander-Key has served as a deacon at MCC-D since 2017. She has also served as lead for the Prayer Team and the Christian Education Department, as well as Children's Church and as a lay delegate to the Universal Federation of MCC churches.
"I believe that we have been and are continuously being equipped with the skill needed to help lead MCC-D on to a fuller responsibility and obligation to broaden our scope our service and outreach. The Lay Pastoral Triad is a team built to strengthen pastoral in-reach and outreach to the community. … I see MCC-D as a bridge from the marginalized communities everywhere to our new structure of 'Church Outside of the Box.' We are the Church Alive in service to all through the leading of the Divine."
Dillaman, of the three new pastors, has been with the church the longest.
"I started attending in 1985 and have been a member since February 1986," she said. "I was raised Presbyterian. I spent about a decade away from church before finding MCC-D."
In her almost 35 years with the church, Dillaman has served in most of the available volunteer positions, most recently as a senior deacon.
"I am excited about the idea of our church having a pastoral team — each bringing our unique skills and talents to the table," Dillaman said. "My recent retirement from GM gives me available time to take on this role."
The future of the church, said Dillaman, is sure to be exciting.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that there are possibilities for church ministry that we never even considered previously. I see that, ultimately, we will have a mix of online and local and in-person church worship, activities and ministries," Dillaman said. "We are working on our strategic planning currently with our goal to be a radically inclusive, welcoming, loving, justice-seeking community."
Finally, there is Smith, who grew up in the Baptist church but found out early he preferred a more non-traditional style of worship.
"Being a person who was rooted and steeped in the word of God, prayer, scripture and my faith has always been a major part of my life. Growing up, all I knew was going to school, doing homework and then whatever activities were going on at church. Then we were there all day on Sundays."
Smith said that for him, answering the call to ministry was a "no-brainer."
"I have always been a person to help and encourage people. I do this in my professional life. The difference is at my local church, so many are broken, confused and have a love-hate relationship with God because of the challenges and circumstances in their lives," Smith said. "Our people need hope and a restored faith that God loves them unconditionally.
"I love people and view [ministry] as an opportunity to lead guide and encourage God's people and people everywhere so that they may know there is a place for them to come and worship freely and unashamed of who they are," Smith continued. "Being a pastor of a church that is progressive, inclusive and teaches the love of Jesus is where I want to be."
Preparing for a departure?
Stringfellow has been the senior pastor of MCC-D since 2014, when he moved to Detroit with his then partner Jerry Peterson, who was taking on the position of executive director for the Ruth Ellis Center. The two were married the same year. But this summer, the couple announced they were separating, leading some to wonder whether the triple ordination was part of an exit strategy for Stringfellow, who maintains ties to the west coast and is on faculty with the Berkeley, California-based Pacific School of Religion.
But Stringfellow said there's no cause to worry.
"I have no plans for leaving this ministry and I am committed in developing this new ministry model," he said. "In the upcoming year of 2021, MCC-D will begin an active search for a permanent home for the church. It is our preference to no longer rent space but own our property. This is a part of our plans for growth. I have my eyes set on expanded outreach and a radical inclusion of our ministry."
One thing is changing, or at least evolving, and that's how the church meets the needs of its parishioners in the middle of a pandemic.
"As MCC-D continues to respond to the needs of our community during these challenging times, we strive to be a steady presence and a resource to help others with their physical and spiritual needs," Stringfellow said. "The ordinations took place on our 48th church anniversary. It was a great time for us to reflect upon our legacy of community service and look towards our future of being there for the people of Southeast Michigan. And now our outreach extends beyond our region as we have others who are tuning in to our services from a far away as California and Florida."