New pastor eager to make her mark in Huntingdon Valley

Here from California, the Rev. Sharon R. Graff (right) has become lead pastor at Gloria Dei Church in Huntingdon Valley. She speaks with associate pastor the Rev. Stina Schaeffer and the Rev. Jim Goodyear.
Here from California, the Rev. Sharon R. Graff (right) has become lead pastor at Gloria Dei Church in Huntingdon Valley. She speaks with associate pastor the Rev. Stina Schaeffer and the Rev. Jim Goodyear. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 26, 2014

The Rev. Sharon R. Graff, who had a trailblazing career in ministry on the West Coast, is leading a Montgomery County church, Gloria Dei in Huntingdon Valley, with the same liberal flair.

As the lead pastor of a California congregation, Graff welcomed gay members into the church and officiated at several same-sex marriages as she advocated for social justice.

She also opposed an initiative to keep a Christian cross on a city seal, and refused to perform any weddings during the time that California disallowed same-sex marriages.

"God is love, and all are welcome," said Graff, 57.

Graff is facing similar challenges now. Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast in which same-sex nuptials are not recognized, and at least seven lawsuits are pending that challenge the state's 1996 law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman and does not recognize same-sex unions performed in other states.

"If we take seriously that God is love all the way through scripture, we have a lot of foundation to build on," Graff said last week in her pastor's office at Gloria Dei. "I sort of feel like a big sister on the journey here."

Gloria Dei, which had been looking for a permanent senior pastor since the Rev. Jerrett L. Hansen retired in April 2012, hired Graff last summer.

"It was very difficult to find someone who fit with our church," said youth minister Scott Thornton, 59, who chaired the hiring committee. "We aspire to be radically inclusive. . . . It's good to have new blood, so to speak, to take us in different directions."

Gloria Dei, 570 Welsh Rd., Huntingdon Valley, is an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation that has a ministry partnership agreement with the United Church of Christ.

The church has scheduled a service of blessing for 3 p.m. Sunday to celebrate Graff's commissioning as lead pastor.

"It's going to be a party," said church member Jim Goodyear, 56, of Willow Grove. "Her presence with us gives me a new energy to explore faith more deeply."

Graff was the lead pastor of Redlands (Calif.) United Church of Christ for 11 years, and she presided over same-sex marriages as California wrangled with the issue.

Montgomery County became a focal point of the same fight in Pennsylvania when Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples last summer in defiance of state law.

That arrangement "made it easy for me to be called here," said Graff, who began serving as lead pastor of the 1,300-member congregation on Nov. 1.

Graff and her husband of 25 years, John Sweeney, live in the church's adjacent parsonage.

"It's been fun out here so far," said Sweeney, 63, a retired teacher of progressive theology. "This gave me a chance to retire and have a new adventure."

The couple's arrival was inspired in part by a billboard advertisement, Graff said.

On March 19, 2013, as Graff and her husband drove through a California desert , they noticed a billboard that read: "Looking for a sign? Take the job in Philly."

Graff was shocked. As it turned out, the billboard was part of a self-promotional series of ads that Lamar Advertising Co. ran on available space nationwide, and its copy writer randomly chose to reference "Philly" in that ad.

According to a company spokesman, the ad was placed randomly in California.

Graff isn't so sure it was all that random. It was only a few days earlier that Sweeney had received an e-mail informing him that the Lower Moreland Township church was looking to hire a top pastor.

"We believe God speaks out in a variety of ways," Graff said. "We happened to get lucky that day. We were paying attention."

Graff visited the 58-year-old church four times between March and July 2013. She moved to Huntingdon Valley in October.

"I am a native Californian, so this is all new to me," Graff said of her Pennsylvania experience. "But we are really liking immersing ourselves in this side of the country."



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