The mainline Protestant denomination United Church of Christ has overwhelmingly elected its first woman president on Monday during its 34th UCC General Synod in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson was elected by a vote of 626 in favor, 43 opposed and seven abstentions to serve as president and general minister of the denomination.
She will take office on Aug. 1, succeeding the Rev. John Dorhauer, who served eight years at the helm of a denomination with over 4,700 autonomous congregations nationwide.
A native of Jamaica, Thompson is also the first black woman elected president and the third person of African descent to lead the denomination, according to a UCC statement.
“Today, United Church of Christ, we created a first together,” Thompson said shortly after the vote. “It won’t be the last first. … The enormity of this moment will be with me for many years to come.”
Thompson is the third woman to be nominated by the UCC. The Rev. Yvonne Delk was nominated in 1989, and the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund was nominated in 1999. However, neither was elected.
The United Church of Christ began in 1957 with the union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. Over the years, it has developed a progressive theological reputation. In 2005, the United Church of Christ became the first American mainline denomination to allow same-sex couples to get married at its churches.
Since 2019, Thompson has served as associate general minister for UCC’s Wider Church Ministries and co-executive for Global Ministries. UCC’s board will appoint someone to serve in the vacated associate general minister role until their next General Synod, which is scheduled for 2025.
Last Friday, Thompson gave her nomination speech before the General Synod, explaining that “hope springs forth” within the UCC, with the denomination being “the place where we have seen the Spirit of God poured forth among us in many ways.”
“Here is where we honor the resilience of those who came before us, took risk and oftentimes did more with less than we currently have. And here is the place we identify as now, as we ponder the call of God to be salt and light to the world,” she said.
Thompson also said she wanted to keep “opening wider the doors of the church” to better include people who identify as religiously unaffiliated, commonly called the “nones.”
“We are not the same church we were in 1957,” she added. “Sixty-six years beyond the moment of becoming a united and uniting church, there are yet possibilities to unfold among us as we create new firsts and new commitments to justice and to realizing God’s kin-dom here on earth.”
According to the UCC’s “2022 National Eleven Year Report,” which was released last month, the denomination has, as of last year, approximately 712,000 members, which represents a drop of over 280,000 compared to the approximately 998,000 members they had in 2012.
According to the report, the average weekly attendance in UCC congregations went from over 378,000 people in 2012 to just over 225,000 in 2022.