Jeanne Audrey Powers was a pioneer ecumenist who represented The United Methodist Church as a teacher, writer, preacher, spokesperson, campus minister and missions’ executive. She was a long-time staff of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and, in that capacity, held leadership roles in the World and National Council of Churches.
Raised in Minnesota, Jeanne Audrey graduated from Mankato State University (1954) in Speech and English. She was selected to be a Danforth Graduate Fellow through which she studied theology at Princeton Theological Seminary for a year. This was a life-changing experience for her. She completed her M.Div. degree in 1958 at Boston University School of Theology. Thereafter she did a year of advanced study at St. Andrews in Scotland plus work at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey as well as Queens’ College in Birmingham.
She was ordained a deacon in the Minnesota Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1958 and as an elder in 1961. Women had just received full clergy rights in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1956, so Jeanne Audrey was among the first women clergy. For a decade she was the state director of the Methodist Student Movement and the Wesley Foundation campus minister at the University of Minnesota. She had a profound influence on hundreds of students as she created gathering places where students could work and live together as she challenged them to risk unfamiliar territory and broaden their horizons.
In 1968, Jeanne Audrey moved to New York City to take the position of Secretary of Missionary Personnel for the Methodist Board of Missions. In that role she provided leadership for the US-2 program which provided meaningful and creative opportunities for young adults to serve in mission for two years. In 1973, she began her career as an ecumenist with the Board of Global Ministries’ Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Concerns which, in 1981, became an independent General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. She worked there until her retirement in 1996.
She was a leader in three General Assemblies of the World Council of Churches and was a guiding force in creating the “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” document that has prompted reform and convergence among Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians after it was approved in Lima, Peru, on January 15, 1982. She provided leadership for the development of the Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988-1998. Empowering women was a core element of her lifelong ministry. She played a key role in the formation of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women in the United Methodist Church in 1973 and in the years following.
Jeanne Audrey served as a Vice President of the National Council of Churches and chaired its Faith and Order Commission for six years and then its Commission on Regional and Local Ecumenism. She was a member of teams leading to the National Council’s Middle Eastern Policy Statement and critique of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The church’s oppressive heterosexist policies led Jeanne Audrey to be closeted about her personal life and relationships for most of her career. As an early prominent clergywomen in Methodism, she was the first woman nominated for election to the office of bishop. She declined this nomination in 1972 and again in 1976, largely due to the intense scrutiny she thought this would bring to her personal life. However, shortly before her retirement, she came out publicly as a lesbian in a sermon to the national convocation of Reconciling Congregations in 1995. This drew extensive media coverage throughout the church and the nation. She subsequently served on the board of directors for the Reconciling Congregation Program (now Reconciling Ministries Network) and became a tireless advocate for LGBTQIA justice. She provided funding for scholarships and centers studying issues of human sexuality and equal rights at several seminaries: Claremont, Pacific School of Religion, Garrett-Evangelical, Duke and Boston University.
Jeanne Audrey had an enormous and gracious capacity to befriend and mentor many future church leaders, including those whose ideas and experiences were different from hers. Always on the leading edge of historical shifts in culture, she was a fierce advocate for a more progressive and inclusive faith, focusing on inclusive language, relevant liturgies, LGBTQIA struggles and opening leadership roles to women, young people and people of different cultures.
Jeanne Audrey was a strong critic of The United Methodist Church's plans to organize as a global denomination from the late 20th century on. She believed this to be neocolonialism guised as global expansion, accomplished primarily by acquisition of people whose theological “formation” was often not Wesleyan. She advocated that Methodist church bodies in other countries be autonomous and, therefore, not dependent on The United Methodist Church in the U.S. She foresaw that this would lead to conflicts that now threaten the unity of the denomination.
For years Jeanne Audrey maintained homes both in Minneapolis and in New York City which provided opportunities for her to practice gracious hospitality. In 2002, she moved to the Pilgrim Place community in Claremont, California where she maintained an active retirement. She was passionate about abstract art, great films, current events, classical music, traveling, story telling and maintaining family memories and histories. She struggled with various health issues in her later years and died on September 29, 2017 at the age of 85.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from information provided in the obituary at Jeanne Audrey’s memorial service and an obituary published by the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church.)
Biography Date: September 2019
Clergy Activist | Methodist (UMC, United Methodist Church) | Women and Religion | Reconciling Ministries Network (formerly Reconciling Congregation Program)