That the Rev. Lee Ann Bryce is being installed on Sunday as lead minister at First Congregational United Church of Christ is one of those indisputable “God things,” she says.
Bryce was visiting Colorado Springs from Fort Worth, Texas, last July, with her wife, Lisa. While attending a service at First Congregational Church, Bryce says she “had the strong sense that they needed me.”
“I had this really deep and compelling sense of call that this was the church that would be the next chapter in my ministry,” Bryce said.
The feelings were surprising, she said, but something she paid attention to.
“I’ve long admired and followed the church without expecting to serve as pastor,” Bryce said. “I was interested in the church personally, because it's a great church, but not professionally.”
God had a different plan.
The 600-member church at 20 E. St. Vrain St. in downtown Colorado Springs has been in a state of flux in recent years, with several interim and temporary leaders since 2019.
Bryce says she’s here to stay. Her wife has family in Colorado, the couple has a getaway cabin in Fairplay, and Bryce graduated from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver in 2002 with a Master’s of Divinity degree.
For now, she’s getting to know members before embarking on any goals the congregation might want to work on.
“It’s a very active church, and I want to listen and learn about all the things that have made it a wonderful church,” Bryce said.
First Congregational Church is known for social justice work and volunteerism in the community.
“It’s clear their faith means something about how they live in the world,” she said of congregants. “They walk the talk of their faith and actively engage in issues.”
Examples include helping resettle families from Afghanistan, supporting homeless people and offering sexuality curriculum and training for children and adults.
“It’s the kind of church that stands for things that sometimes churches don’t come right out and stand for,” Bryce said. “I appreciate that, particularly in a community like Colorado Springs that has the reputation as a more conservative place.”
Colorado Springs is similar to Fort Worth, she said, in being a historically conservative city.
As an openly gay minister and faith leader, Bryce aid she thinks it’s important that other views are presented.
“I have a strong sense of call to be a progressive voice in more conservative communities,” she said, “and I want that voice to always come from a place of love and not judgment.”
Bryce was raised in a conservative, evangelical Christian family in Texas, and in recognizing herself as a lesbian, she said she was pleased to find United Church of Christ. The progressive, mainline Protestant denomination in 1972 became the first church to ordain openly gay pastors.
“I didn’t know there was a church that would affirm me for the person God created me to be or didn’t expect me to change or as a lesbian wouldn’t consider me to be sinful,” she said. “United Church of Christ is an expansive, inclusive, always-wanting-to-learn justice-oriented tradition.”
Many candidates applied for the lead minister job, said Lois Benson, a member since 1995 who was on the nine-member selection committee.
Bryce’s background checked off all the boxes of desired qualifications, Benson said, including her experience working at two different United Church of Christ churches for 10 years apiece, having knowledge of the Bible and other religions’ beliefs, being a dynamic preacher and advocating for justice.
But her high-energy, authentic nature is what won most people over, Benson said. In a community vote, Bryce captured 98% approval.
Since arriving last month as the new leader, Bryce hasn’t disappointed, Benson said.
“The main thing is how she connects with people,” Benson said. “Congregants are very pleased and feel she’ll move us forward.”
Sunday’s installation is a tradition recognizing the covenant that exists between the congregation, its new pastor and the United Church of Christ conference, Bryce said.
“It’s the official start and recognition of ministry,” she said. “A way of saying in lay terms that you belong here in this place. It grants a sense of permanence.”