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After serving as pastor since 2008, the Rev. Jennifer Yocum will move to Missoula, Mont., for a new job.

STAFF PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The Rev. Jennifer Yocum will step down this spring as pastor of the Forest Grove United Church of Christ after 10 years.The Rev. Jennifer Yocum will be departing the Forest Grove United Church of Christ at the end of May, after a 10-year tenure as its pastor.

In the longtime Forest Grove church's monthly newsletter for March, Yocum announced she will be leaving for a position at the UCC of Missoula in Montana. She has been serving as the pastor for the Forest Grove UCC since 2008.

Yocum is the first woman to lead the Forest Grove congregation as senior pastor, as well as the Forest Grove church's first openly gay senior pastor.

"I felt like I had a lot to prove when I first arrived," Yocum admitted, sitting in her modest office adorned with bottles of holy water and a couple of rainbow LGBTQ flags.

But Yocum considers her decade spent in Forest Grove to have been an "excellent" one. One of the accomplishments she is proudest of is the church's partnership with neighboring Pacific University and a fellow church, Sonrise Forest Grove, to offer what has become a temporary emergency shelter for people in need during the winter months.

"That partnership has included several student organizations, community organizations, other churches, and it's been really profound," Yocum said.

She's also proud of some additions to the church grounds at 2032 College Way in Forest Grove, including a "blessing box" installed as a free pantry for the hungry and a "welcome garden" designed to give people of all ages and abilities an opportunity to stop and smell the flowers, or even do some gardening of their own if they would like.

Providing care and outreach to marginalized groups is key to both the United Church of Christ's doctrine and Yocum's ethos. The pastor's own path to ministry did not follow a direct line.

Yocum was raised Roman Catholic. She was doing missionary work in South Korea when she came out as gay. Her superiors reacted by sending her home immediately, she said, and she ended up "spiritually homeless," as she describes it.

"I would go to churches and just try to find that connection that had been so vital to me, so valuable to me," Yocum said.

After a stint working in the public sector, including at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Yocum decided to enroll in an applied theology program at Marylhurst University. Although as an out lesbian, she had no expectation of ever being allowed into the clergy, she said, all that changed when she discovered the United Church of Christ. One of the most progressive mainline Christian churches in the country, the UCC has ordained women since 1957, and it ordained its first openly gay minister in 1972.

"That started a journey that became my opportunity to live into my calling," said Yocum, who officially joined the denomination in 2003. "So I am incredibly grateful to United Church of Christ for this opportunity to serve."

She added, "I said to this church when I was candidating, I didn't want to be the gay pastor, I wanted to be a good pastor who happened to be gay. But for a lot of us in the LGBT community who are called to ministry, it is a profound experience of having been broken by our churches, where we have to rediscover our love of Christ. We get really excited about Jesus' message of inclusion of everyone, no matter what."

One of the Forest Grove United Church of Christ's most recognizable features is its sign at the corner of 21st Avenue and Main Street, which spells out the church's name in rainbow lettering. A banner further down along Main Street proclaims what the church considers a mission statement, one that is close to Yocum's heart: "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."

"Worship here has always been just a profound experience of the movement of the Holy Spirit, as present in music and prayer and scripture and the vibrancy of coming together as a community of faith who's really focused on putting feet to the gospel," Yocum said.

Forest Grove has many churches of different denominations, but none is intertwined so closely with the city's history and civic identity as the United Church of Christ. Congregationalists founded both what is now Pacific University in the center of town and the Forest Grove United Church of Christ that stands across College Way from its wooded campus. Rebuilt in 1919 after burning to the ground, the Congregationalist church formally became affiliated with the United Church of Christ in 1964 and stepped up its involvement in social welfare programs over the following decades, as detailed in its 1995 published history, "A Changing Mission: The Story of a Pioneer Church" by Carolyn M. Buan.

The UCC is "a church that matters a great deal in this community," Yocum said.

That's something Yocum said she will miss.

"Just to know how much our church matters is a great point of pride for me and for our community," she said.

The church has not yet selected Yocum's successor. Yocum said she will be replaced by an interim pastor until a permanent successor is found.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Jennifer Yocum is the first woman and openly gay person to serve as senior pastor at the Forest Grove United Church of Christ.

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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