In their online listing seeking a new minister, the members of the congregation at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Clintonville described themselves a "socially conscious church."

In their online listing seeking a new minister, the members of the congregation at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Clintonville described themselves a "socially conscious church."

In her online listing seeking to move up from an associate pastor post in Texas, the Rev. June Wilkins stated that she was looking for a "socially conscious church."


"We're excited to announce that Pastor June Wilkins has joined us as our pastor," the church's website now states. "We're so happy to have her here and are looking forward to growing the Gethsemane community with her."

Wilkins and her husband, professional ventriloquist and puppeteer Bob Abdou, are also happy and excited.

"They are so incredibly dedicated to service in the community," Wilkins said last week of the 125 to 150 members of her new church. "I'm so impressed.

"I just feel really honored to be in their presence."

The road Wilkins took to arrive in Clintonville is probably one of the less-traveled for a Lutheran minister: She grew up as a Roman Catholic, studied creative writing at college in San Francisco and was involved in improvisational theater in New York City before chancing to stop in at a church near her apartment.

June Wilkins was born in Queens, N.Y., and lived there until she was 8 years old and the family moved to Houston. Her father was in an expediting company, one of the precursors to FedEx. The year was 1976 or so, and the family from Queens settled into the suburbs of Houston.

It was a completely different world," Wilkins recalled. "It wasn't New York. It was culture shock."

Wilkins and her parents and siblings stayed in Houston until 1988, when a recession hit and both her mother and father lost their jobs. They moved to California where one of her old sisters was already living.

Wilkins attended San Francisco State University, initially studying poetry but switching to playwriting toward the end. After college, she remained in San Francisco, finding work at a beauty supply business and a fancy liquor store, and becoming involved in improvisational theater.

Then, abruptly, she decided to move to New York City.

"I wanted to write," Wilkins said.

Instead, she got into improv work once again. She also performed as a party clown at children's birthday parties on the weekends.

"That was fascinating and torturous at the same time," Wilkins recalled.

Wilkins began attending services at a Lutheran Church just around the corner from her apartment.

"I just knew that I wanted to go to church," she said. "I didn't care where it was."

At the very first service she attended, Wilkins was amazed to hear the minister refer to himself as a gay man, this at a time when few, if any, gays openly served as church leaders. This is one accepting place, Wilkins thought. She had found a home.

"It was very open and just a wonderful place," Wilkins said.

The famed Union Theological Seminary, an independent and multi-denominational seminary, was close to the church Wilkins began attending, and many of the members were teachers at Union Theological. Some held small discussion groups, and Wilkins became intrigued by these.

"I just wanted to learn more," she said.

After having decided to become a high school teacher, and going so far as to register as a substitute with the New York City Schools, Wilkins complained one day to the wife of one of the professors that a theology class for lay members of the church that she was attending was too simplistic for her.

"Why not go to seminary?" the woman replied.

"Me?" Wilkins said. "Really? I can do that?"

She not only could, but also did, first taking classes at Union Theological and then enrolling at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, although it was more an intellectual and philosophical pursuit, and less a career move.

"When I first went into the seminary, I was not convinced about the whole pastor thing," Wilkins said. "As I went along in seminary, I was interested in not just the learning part but the whole people thing. I gravitated toward this really well."

Wilkins, who was class president and who received a scholarship while attending the seminary in Philadelphia, was sent to Austin, Texas, a state she had vowed not to return to, for her first posting as an associate pastor. The church had a lot of turnover in the top spot, so Wilkins said that she gained valuable experience during her time there, but it left her wanting to become the lead minister of a church.

"The difference here is that I was always the second banana," she said. "I was not the leader."

At Gethsemane Lutheran, Wilkins added, with the help of the congregation, that's the role she intends to fill.