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Ecumenist engages effort to renew ecumenical spirit

Ecumenist Alice Woldt has been connecting with church leaders in Washington, laying the groundwork for a renewed statewide ecumenical spirit and organization.

Alice Woldt

She began in July as the transitional executive director for the Washington Association of Churches (WAC), following Darel Grothaus, who as interim executive director led the board and a Strategic Planning Working Group to develop a new board and plan.

“Building up the body of Christ through public expression of our unity based on gospel values of justice and peace, compassion and hope, reconciliation and equality is a calling to which I’ve devoted most of my professional life,” said Alice, who was public policy director for the WAC in 2006 and 2007, and recently was director of the Religious Coalition for the Common Good.

The plan she is implementing will expand the ecumenical organization’s membership to the broader Christian community, community ministries, seminaries, advocacy organizations, church-related groups, ministerial associations and individual congregations.

The board will be more geographically diverse than in the past, so more meetings will be held by conference calls.

The strategic plan envisions the WAC being more engaged in communities that are not necessarily theologically in sync, offering opportunities for dialogue, worship and prayer, Alice said.

One way to spread ecumenical involvement will be to encourage people in communities throughout the state to plan worship services for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity “to bring people together who do not normally come together,” she said.

The WAC will also continue to be involved in public policy education and action as a way to lift up the Gospel values, but the agenda may be less extensive than in the past, focusing on priorities that cut across the Christian community—including Evangelical, African American and other ethnic churches—particularly related to stewardship of the earth and poverty.

“The WAC fills a useful role, building relationships, bringing people together, bridging differences, educating on public policy, inspiring people to do things in their communities that promote the common good,” Alice said.

“There is growing recognition that Christians need to stand together and be witnesses to what Jesus’ life is about,” she said.  “In our culture, it’s too easy to be divisive.  Our culture lifts up differences and encourages people to identify with their differences rather than their commonalties.

“That thinking breeds competitiveness among churches,” she noted.

Alice served 17 years on the executive staff of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, involved in administration, social justice and public policy. For two years, she was its interim executive director before leaving in 2004.

She grew up Lutheran in a South Dakota farming community and earned a bachelor’s degree at South Dakota State University.

Alice, who has a master’s in public administration from Seattle University, was a teacher and organizer in Illinois before moving to Seattle in 1975.  She began working with the Seattle school district, studying the impact of school cultures on neighborhoods. 

In the 1980s, she became active in Plymouth Congregational UCC.  In 2004, she also started to attend Trinity United Methodist Church in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle where she lives.  She holds dual membership.

The WAC, Alice explained, is in place to help people address emerging needs in faith and life.

“There have been ups and downs in the ecumenical movement over the years.  The movement has depended on mainline churches to survive, but in recent years mainline churches have felt less need to work ecumenically, drawing into their silos to protect their denominational structures.

Mainline churches have also been aware that Christianity is one form of religion, and they can work with others in interfaith ventures,” she said.

In addition, issues around human sexuality have divided mainline churches internally and from each other, Alice pointed out. 

“Ecumenical organizations have been left in the breech,” she said.  “Some deal well with that breech.  Some find it hard to remain in integrity.

“Because some perceive that mainline ecumenism promotes liberal issues, some assume it also endorses liberal views on issues of sexuality, but that is not true for many churches,” she said.

The WAC has had no position on abortion, death with dignity or same-sex marriage.  Some churches wish we would have a position, but those issues are divisive,” Alice said.

In some communities, mainline and evangelical churches work together to serve the poorest of the poor and to advance other issues in which there is agreement.

“Most interfaith or ecumenical organizations focus on a community need such as housing or hunger, finding unity around issues or a community crisis,” she said. 

The WAC’s plan includes helping communities do ministries of compassion that cut across theological differences.

Some issues where she has had feedback of common concern are: on support for veterans, their families and victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; on restoration and rehabilitation of ex-offenders; on environmental issues, and on buying local products.

Over the years, Alice reminded, churches were the core groups developing food banks, low-income housing and many other ministries that have spun off.

“We plan to make the WAC relevant to the faith communities of Eastern Washington, meeting needs for ecumenical dialogue, worship and public policy action and education,” Alice said, noting that she will be in Spokane for an Oct. 18 Witness for Peace Luncheon, the Nov. 6 Fig Tree Dialogue and the Feb. 6 legislative event.

The WAC currently connects 10 Christian denominations and 11 ecumenical organizations for dialogue, reflection, worship and action on the needs of community and world.

For information, call (206)-625-9790 or visit the Faith Action Network which is the result of a merger between the Washington Association of Churches and the Lutheran Public Policy Office in 2012.

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