Obituary: Jeanne Audrey Powers

The Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers, an activist resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont the last 15 years, died peacefully on September 29, 2017 while traveling in Switzerland. She was 85.

“Jeanne Audrey was a true pioneer of the church,” said Rev. Kathy Black, a professor at Claremont School of Theology. “Her decades of denominational leadership in ecumenical and interreligious concerns paved the way for current attitudes and practices that influence the church today. On the forefront of the LGBTQIA movement, Jeanne Audrey funded students and centers to support the church in wrestling with issues of human sexuality and equal rights for gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons.”

Rev. Powers represented The United Methodist Church as a respected teacher and leader, writer, preacher, spokesperson, campus minister and missions executive. Her best-known role was staffing the United Methodist General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and holding major leadership roles in the World and National Councils of Churches. She was a global-level advocate for a more progressive, inclusive faith, focused on inclusive language, relevant liturgies, and opening leadership opportunities to women, young people and people of many cultures.

Rev. Powers grew up in Mankato, Minnesota. After graduation from the local state university in 1954 she was chosen to be a Danforth Graduate Fellow, a prestigious honor that encouraged her to pursue theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. She also studied theology at The University of St. Andrews in Scotland, as well as in England, Switzerland, and at Boston University School of Theology.

She had an enormous and gracious capacity to befriend and mentor many future church leaders, her friends shared, including those whose ideas and experiences were different from hers. In 1958, she was ordained in Minnesota as a deacon in the Methodist Church. When ordained an elder in 1961, she was among the first women in the Methodist Church granted full clergy rights.

For a decade, Rev. Powers was the state director of the Minnesota Methodist Student Movement as well as the Wesley Foundation Campus Minister of the University of Minnesota, creating gathering spaces where students lived and worked together as she challenged them to risk unfamiliar territory and broaden their horizons. Starting in 1968, she staffed the Methodist Board of Missions where she gave leadership to an ongoing exciting way for young adults to serve in missions for a shorter formative period of their lives.

Rev. Powers was a key representative to the World Council of Churches. She had a role in three general assemblies and was a guiding force in the creation of “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” a document that has prompted reform and convergence among Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians since its 1982 approval in Lima, Peru. She also guided development of the Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988-1998. Women in many denominations and countries were empowered because of her work, her friends said.

In the United States, Rev. Powers worked tirelessly as a vice president of the National Council of Churches, chairing its Faith and Order Commission for six years and then chairing its Commission on Regional and Local Ecumenism. She was a member of teams leading to establishing the NCCC’s major Middle East policy and critique of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. 

Rev. Powers was the first woman to be nominated for the office of a bishop in The United Methodist Church, an honor she declined in 1972 and 1976. She was also a volunteer with The United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, organized in 1973. Until her death, she was a driving force in the Reconciling Ministries Movement. She came out as a lesbian during her sermon at its national gathering in 1995.

Most recently, Rev. Powers worked tirelessly for election of the first openly gay UMC bishop, Bishop Karen Oliveto.

“Jeanne Audrey was a fierce ‘she-roe’ who paved the way for so many of us in the church,” said Bishop Oliveto. “She taught me to make room for others, always, as well as the importance of mentoring. I loved laughing and debating with her. It was all done with great love and passion and I always learned so much.”

“Rev. Powers exercised bold and courageous leadership throughout her life,” said Dr. Grace Yia-Hei Kao, a professor at Claremont School of Theology and Co-Director of the school’s Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion. “She made CSGR possible by a generous founding gift to the school to foster intellectual inquiry, open dialogue, and spiritual care within religious communities grappling with the complex issues of gender and sexuality.”

In 2013, CSGR founded the Jeanne Audrey Powers Award for students.

“Jeanne Audrey had a love of people and their stories,” said Rev. A.J. Bush, one of many protégés of Rev. Powers. “She had an uncanny knack for making you into a better person. As a seminary student (graduating from CST in 2015) and new pastor, I developed as both a person and a pastor through my friendship with Jeanne Audrey. She was always pushing me to be better than I was, and at the same time recognizing and appreciating what was going well. She knew what was good from good food to good people to good ministry, it brought her deep joy.”

Boston University School of Theology, named Jeanne Audrey a “Pioneer Woman” in 1995 with the highly esteemed Anna Howard Shaw Award. Rev. Powers said, “I have chosen to swim against the stream in many areas of controversy because I truly believe that the church is the body of Christ, called to share its message of healing, reconciliation, and yes, salvation. I do not choose the church simply because I want to belong, but because I believe in its transforming spirit.”

No relatives from Ms. Power’s biological family are alive, but her many friends at Pilgrim Place, Claremont United Methodist Church and worldwide have been a widespread extended family.

A memorial service celebrating Rev. Powers’ life will be held at 3:30 p.m. on  Monday, October 23 in Decker Hall at Pilgrim Place, 625 Mayflower Rd., Claremont. A second service will take place at 11 a.m. November 11 at Centenary United Methodist Church in Mankato, Minnesota.

Her tombstone in Mankato reads  “Subversive to the end.”


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