Brenda Moulton was born in Portland, Maine in 1946 to Mary Elizabeth (Beth) Stevens and Craig Simpson Moulton. The couple had moved to Cape Elizabeth, a Portland suburb, during World War II when Craig was stationed there. Beth was a teacher and Craig worked in a planing mill. A sister was born four years after Brenda. Brenda’s mom was Baptist and her father had a nominal Unitarian religious affiliation, so they compromised and went to a Congregational Church. Brenda was not baptized as an infant since her mother was Baptist.
When Brenda was around 12, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and died six months later. This was a traumatic experience in Brenda’s developing years. Brenda had difficulty with the family transition as her father remarried a year later, but over time she grew to love her stepmother.
During this time Brenda came of age for confirmation in the Congregational Church. Brenda was the only member of the class who had not been baptized previously, so she was baptized while the others were confirmed. This experience of “believer’s baptism” became a valuable aspect of Brenda’s faith journey.
Brenda was active in Girl Scouts and enjoyed nature and outdoor activities. She was also involved in church choir and music.
In her high school years she moved into fundamentalist circles, becoming active in an Evangelical Free Church. She notes that in the 1960s when many of her peers were doing drugs she was on street corners passing out tracts. In hindsight, Brenda perceives that she was seeking more personal connection with Jesus and God to help fill the void left by the death of her mother.
After high school, Brenda enrolled in the University of Maine at Orono. She was interested in premed and started studying zoology. During her second year she met and developed a close relationship with another woman who lived on her floor. Not having any name or model for this relationship, they found that they loved each other and were very good buddies. Both were active with the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. The wife of one of the leaders of the group called them into a meeting where she informed them that their relationship was too close and they could not participate in Intervarsity activities together. The label “lesbian” was used in this conversation. All of this was very confusing and painful for Brenda and her friend. The relationship with the other woman ended and Brenda ended up dating—and later marrying—the other woman’s former boyfriend.
Brenda graduated in 1968 with a B.S. degree in education. She moved with her husband to Massachusetts where she taught in Dedham for one year and then in Attleboro, where she taught seventh grade science for 14 years. Brenda joined First Baptist Church Attleboro and gradually found her theology moving away from fundamentalism and becoming more liberal. She came to recognize that her college relationship was lesbian but did not consider herself a lesbian.
Brenda (right) with Pat at AWAM
20th anniversary celebration
in October 2013.Brenda’s marriage was disintegrating as her husband fell increasingly into alcoholism. Their efforts to adopt a girl whom they had fostered from age 5 to 12 were stymied when the girl was returned to her mother. Brenda was also becoming more and more frustrated with teaching as class sizes increased, making individualized instruction more difficult. Brenda was pouring more and more of her time and energy into church leadership. This was the context for the transformative year in her life.
A new organist was hired at the Attleboro church, a woman who had graduated from Andover Newton Theological Seminary. Brenda found herself immediately and deeply attracted to Patricia. Their friendship deepened, they began a relationship in 1981 and Brenda finalized her divorce from her husband. The relationship had to be under cover because Pat was on the church staff. Nonetheless Brenda felt that after many years of trying to lead a life “the way it was supposed to be” and seeing her life collapse around her, it had finally all come together the right way.
Pat encouraged Brenda to consider seminary training. She started taking classes in Christian Education at Andover Newton Theological School while still teaching public school but soon took a leave from her position and enrolled in seminary full-time. After graduating with an M.Div. degree in 1986, Brenda was called to a Christian Education position at First Baptist Church Needham, Massachusetts, and ordained in the ABC/USA. She served there for five years, preaching monthly and received much affirmation for her ministry. She was still closeted, but as some members of the congregation came out to her she came out privately to selected members.
Brenda and Pat found support together with the UCC Coalition group in Massachusetts. Through the UCC Coalition Brenda learned about American Baptists Concerned, the gay support and advocacy group within the ABC/USA. She participated in a retreat at Kirkridge Retreat Center where she got connected with other members of American Baptists Concerned. Within a short time, Brenda was appointed to the National Steering Committee of the organization.
In 1991 Brenda was called to a part-time pastorate of Chestnut Hill Baptist Church, a small American Baptist congregation in Exeter, Rhode Island. She quickly developed a successful ministry there. In preparation for worship on the 1994 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, she found a prophetic liturgy that named different groups of oppressed persons. She vacillated about whether or not to delete the words “gay and lesbian,” but decided to use the litany as it was. Rumors began circulating in the congregation; many members had observed Brenda’s close relationship with Pat. In a regularly- scheduled meeting with the Pastoral Relations Committee the next evening, one of the deacons asked Brenda if she was a lesbian. Following a constructive conversation about what this would mean and whether it was important to ministry, Brenda did acknowledge that she was in a relationship with Pat.
The committee immediately called the Baptist Executive Minister for guidance. He was supportive of Brenda and suggested a process of meetings and discussions in which she would come out to the whole congregation. The PRC agreed to wait for that process to disclose Brenda’s sexual identity. Therefore, on the next Sunday, only a few members of the congregation knew that Brenda had “come out.” During that week the disastrous Northridge earthquake had struck northern California leading Brenda to preach a sermon about what to hold onto when the world is crumbling around you, a sermon that was heard by the PRC in a profound way. A series of conversations and meetings followed in the ensuing weeks. Eventually the deacons asked Brenda to resign, purporting that if she stayed it would divide the congregation. Brenda responded that she had been hired as their pastor, nothing had changed except that they knew more about her, and therefor she would not resign unless it appeared that it would divide the congregation. After several emotional meetings at which many perspectives were shared, a congregational meeting was held in which the members voted overwhelmingly to overturn the deacon’s resignation request. Brenda notes that no one left the congregation as a result of this action. She remained as their pastor for many years and the church continued to grow and flourish.
As a member of the Steering Committee of American Baptists Concerned, Brenda participated in the founding of a national network of Gay/Lesbian affirming churches, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB). Brenda became the National Coordinator of AWAB while continuing to serve part-time as the pastor of Chestnut Hill Baptist Church. In her position as National Coordinator, Brenda provided a constant voice of hope and affirmation as an alternative to the negative voices within the denomination. This meant working within the system—providing a strong LGBT affirming presence within the ABC/USA.
Eventually Brenda left the parish ministry to become full-time coordinator of AWAB, a position she held for ten years from volunteer to full-time Coordinator. During her tenure Brenda met with many ABC congregations throughout the country, assisting them in a discernment process regarding their willingness to go on record as being Welcoming & Affirming. The network of W&A Congregations grew and had a powerful witness within the denomination. Under Brenda’s leadership AWAB produced a national newsletter, held workshops and retreats, and supported churches and pastors under fire for being Welcoming & Affirming. This national ministry also provided many opportunities for Brenda to provide support and solace to persons in crisis. She also worked with other Welcoming Program leaders, advocating for LGBT issues at the National Council of Churches, and producing affirming materials for individuals and congregations.
Since leaving her position as the National Coordinator of AWAB in 2003, Brenda has served openly in several churches in Rhode Island and Massachusetts as interim or long-term pulpit supply. She also served on the Interim Ministry Task Force of the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts. Although they had considered themselves “married” for over 20 years, Brenda and Pat were legally married in Massachusetts in 2004. They are in the process of renovating Brenda’s childhood home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where they plan to retire. Brenda currently works part-time at Home Depot and Pat is a part-time organist at St. Ansgar Lutheran Church in Portland.
A few years ago Brenda was most gratified to receive a letter from a college student who had been a young girl in the Chestnut Hill congregation during Brenda’s ministry there. Now a young woman, she was completing a class assignment to write a letter to someone who had been a strong influence in her development. In her letter, she “came out” to her former pastor, affirming the power of Brenda’s witness as a both a Christian and a lesbian.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with Brenda Moulton and edited by Moulton.)
Biography Date: February, 2015