Rev. Dr. Penny Nixon grew up in a conservative Baptist tradition in rural New Hampshire in a working class family, where there was a profound lack of space to talk about LGBT people. When they were mentioned, it inevitably involved some sort of condemnation to hell. However, her traditional Baptist upbringing also taught her some of the values that she would later bring to her ministry outside of the Baptist tradition; things like compassion, integrity, responsibility, and a focus on God's love. It was the larger themes, rather than doctrinal points, that would be formative for her as she entered the ministry. She was already feeling called to the ministry by the time she was 16, and attended Portland Baptist College in Maine, earning a degree in Religious Education.
It was during her time in college that she began to struggle with her sexual orientation. Although she had never been attracted to men and had generally been what people described as a “tomboy,” it was when she became involved in a relationship with another woman that she was confronted with how her orientation interacted with her faith. She took some time off from school, and it was a short time before she felt her calling still pushing her further towards ministry.
She then attended Alliance Theological Seminary, an evangelical Christian seminary that although not ordaining women, would grant them Masters of Divinity degrees. Penny showed herself to be an active student, and a skilled preacher, winning one of the annual preaching awards there. It was also in her last semester there that she started to expand her theological outlook. She was inspired by her readings in liberation theology, particularly upon its insistence of the preferential option for the poor. It was in reading these theologians that she began to understand the importance of reading the Bible through the lens of personal experience, in this case the experience of those who were oppressed along class lines. She soon became interested in theologies that stressed nonviolence, and later feminist theology. She attained her Masters in Divinity in 1983. Even though she was becoming more interested in theologies that addressed oppression, Penny herself was inwardly conflicted about her relationships with women. Throughout her studies, she tried to not be attracted to women. She continued to hide her sexuality from both herself and others while she was ordained a Presbyterian minister and worked as a campus minister at Columbia University after her graduation.
It was only upon moving to San Francisco in 1991 that Penny was able to come out to herself as a lesbian, although it was still a difficult process. Most of all, she worried that being identified as a lesbian would mean that she could not do any ministerial work. However, even with those anxieties, Penny felt that she needed to trust in the grace of God and trust that she would still be able to be a minister while also being an out lesbian. However, the Presbyterian Church did not want an out lesbian as a minister, so she felt herself pushed out even while working as an ecumenical campus minister at San Francisco State University in 1992. It was also at that time that she began attending MCC San Francisco and volunteering as as a clergy person by helping with the load of hospital visits as MCCSF was losing people weekly due to HIV/AIDS.
After guest preaching at MCC San Francisco, she was invited to become the associate pastor of the church in 1995. Then two years later she became co-pastor with Rev. Jim Mitulski. She worked extensively in the church to help the poor and homeless in the Castro area, along with ministering to those who had been afflicted with AIDS. She started a food program for people that served the needs of underprivileged people near the church, and she became a minister for the whole community. Upon Mitulski's departure from the church in 2000, Penny became the senior pastor. She also received her Doctor of Ministry degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 2001. She remained at MCC San Francisco for 11 years and went on sabbatical in 2006.
During her sabbatical, Penny felt called to work in a larger congregation. Although she wanted to remain in the MCC, there simply were no other MCC churches in the area that were available. She soon found The Congregational Church of San Mateo, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The guiding principles of the church appealed to her, and upon application she was accepted to become the senior minister in 2007. In the same year, she also began teaching homiletics as an adjunct professor at the Pacific School of Religion. Penny remained involved with the MCC, and also started to work in conjunction with Bishop Yvette Flunder. She was granted ministerial standing in The Fellowship in 2008. In 2010, she also became one of the members of the board for the Pacific School of Religion.
She remains committed to what brought her to work with LGBT religious peoples in the first place: wanting to create a Christianity that is liberating to the oppressed, finding love as a birthright of every person, and taking away the shame that has been impressed upon so many people. She lives with her partner of 20 years and her 8 year old daughter in Alameda.
(This biographical statement writen from an interview with Rev. Dr. Penny Nixon by Joel Layton.)
Biography Date: April 2012
Fellowship of Affirming Ministries | MCC | United Church of Christ/Congregational Church | Flunder, Yvette | Mitulski, Jim | Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA) | California
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