For the first time in 18 months Riverside Presbyterian Church has a full-time pastor.
On April 10, the Rev. C. Dale Jackson (he goes by Dale) began his tenure as pastor at the church, which had been without a full-time pastor since the church decided to part ways with the Rev. Scott Jansen in the fall of 2014.
Jackson, 47, comes to Riverside Presbyterian Church after serving for about five years as the pastor of College Avenue Presbyterian Church in downstate Alton. Last year, College Avenue Presbyterian decided to sell its historic church building and move to nearby Wood River.
Diane Chaney, who chaired the church’s pastor nominating committee, said that she and other committee members were very impressed by Jackson’s enthusiasm, his faith, and his sense of social justice when they interviewed him and read his materials.
“Ten minutes into the sit-down interview I’m thinking this is our guy,” Chaney said. Five of the seven members of the committee travelled to Wood River to see him preach and they left very impressed.
In February, the Session, which is something like the board of directors of Riverside Presbyterian Church, voted to offer Jackson a two-year contact. A couple days later Jackson led a service and preached at the church as all candidates for a Presbyterian pastor position do. Immediately after the service, the congregation voted unanimously by voice vote to ask him to take the job.
That Sunday was also the first time that most church members found out that Jackson was gay, although members of the nominating committee and the Session knew. A brief biographical piece about Jackson was placed in the church bulletin that Sunday that mentioned Jackson’s husband, Dennis.
Jackson’s sexuality has not appeared to be controversial at the church, although some church members felt like they should have been informed that Jackson was gay before the Sunday when the vote was taken.
“Some felt like the committee, like, sprung this on them,” Chaney said.
But Chaney said she didn’t think Jackson’s sexuality was a big deal.
“He’s the right person for this job and his sexuality has nothing to do with how well he will perform this job,” Chaney said. “I don’t have any problem at all with him being gay. I felt like our congregation would be OK with that. As a representative, I feel like I represent our congregation and I feel like if I’m OK with it I feel like they will be too. I hope they will be.”
The Presbyterian Church USA, of which Riverside Presbyterian is a member, has only allowed the ordination of gay ministers since 2011 when it changed its policy on the ordination of gay clergy.
Prior to that time, gays were not officially permitted to be Presbyterian ministers. Jackson was ordained about 20 years ago and even worked for a couple years at the Presbyterian Church USA headquarters in Louisville. He has only been openly out in the church for about five years.
“When I first became Presbyterian, it was very much like the military used to be: don’t ask, don’t tell,” Jackson said.
Even though the church now permits the ordination of gay clergy, Jackson says that he believes he wasn’t hired for some positions that he applied for in the last few years because of his homosexuality.
“As a white man I don’t think that we experience, historically, discrimination,” Jackson said. “It was an eye-opening experience to experience it. The discrimination I faced in the search process certainly opens my eyes to be more compassionate to other people who face discrimination,”
Jackson says that he is progressive theologically, and said social justice was “at the heart of my understanding at who we are called to be as God’s people.”
“I believe that God created humanity in such a way that we’re all equal, that we are charged with caring for one another,” Jackson said. “Caring for the outcast, the people who are pushed to margins of society, the people that are discriminated against. It’s the church’s job to reach to those people, to care for those people and I think that defines my theology, influences my preaching.”
Jackson grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and as a child attended a strict Pentecostal Church where his grandfather was the minister. After his grandfather retired, Jackson’s family drifted away from Pentecostalism, and in college he and his family began attending a Presbyterian church.
“For me it was a sense of rightness, a feeling of being at home, how they did worship, how they understood spirituality and God and all those things,” Jackson said.
Jackson does not preach from the pulpit and likes to use multimedia in his sermons. This summer he plans to do a series of sermons called the “Gospel According to Disney” focusing on a few Disney movies, probably beginning with Snow White.
“I think churches across the country are in a time of flux,” Jackson said. “The way that we have always done church historically does not work so we have to think of new ways to be churched, new ways to serve and to equip people for service. I challenge myself to be creative.”
Jackson seems to have made a very good impression in his first couple weeks on the job.
“I think people really like him,” said Lisa Marciniak, a member of the Session. “I have not heard anyone come out and say I have a problem with the fact that we called a gay pastor.”
Betsy Gardner has also been impressed.
“He seems warm and caring and smart — all good things in a pastor. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better,” Gardner said in an email.
Over the next few months Jackson will be having small groups of church members over to his home in North Riverside to get to know people informally.
Jackson is what Presbyterians call a “designated pastor,” which is like a trial period. He has a two-year contract that can be renewed for another two years. During that time both he and the congregation will decide whether to make the relationship permanent without a time-limited contract. The church was leery about hiring a permanent pastor right away after the church’s separation from Jansen’s, which was painful for many in the congregation.
“It’s like a long engagement instead of just getting married at first sight,” Chaney said.
Church members say that Emily Rosencrans, who served as the part-time pastor after Jansen left, did a great job of bringing the church back together and healing rifts.
“She did a lot to heal the church,” Marciniak said. “People really loved her and she did a lot to get us moving in the right direction again.”
Rosencrans was not a candidate for the permanent job because she has a full-time job as the head chaplain at Lake Forest Hospital.