Justice, Faith, and Inclusion: The Journey of Rev. Kimberly Vaughn, MDiv 2008
As an anti-racist institution, LSTC recognizes that there are moments in our history when we did not act according to our values. By elevating the experiences of alumni like Reverend Vaughn, we are taking the crucial first step in recognizing the harms of structural racism that permeate our institution. From this recognition, we are promoting a re-examination and re-evaluation of our institutional impact. Though we cannot reverse what has happened in the past, we can and will engage in the necessary work of recommitting to institutional justice to ensure an equitable experience for people of color within the LSTC community.
Rev. Kimberly Vaughn’s path to leadership in the ELCA began as a child when she was steeped in the rich cultural tapestry of Cleveland, Ohio. As the youngest child of a Baptist minister who later embraced Lutheranism, Rev, Vaughn was no stranger to open conversations about religion in her home context. Even after her father became Lutheran, Rev. Vaughn’s mother remained Baptist; the fusion of faith traditions shaped her formative years, nurturing deep questions about existence that would unknowingly lead her toward theological exploration. “I began to question the universe, seeking understanding, not realizing these were theological questions,” she remembers. But it wasn’t until her Lutheran church’s pastor began addressing these inquiries and members of her community started directly encouraging her towards pastoral work that she felt a pull toward ministry.
Her ecclesiastical journey carried her through youth and outdoor ministry before burnout prompted a shift to a corporate legal role. But divine intervention came calling when her friend persuaded her to visit a seminary in California. “God is funny,” Rev. Vaughn says today with a laugh. The trip proved to be formative; the fire ignited in her gut during that visit was unmistakable. As a result, Rev. Vaughn returned to Cleveland, completed her college degree in history, and embarked on a path of urban ministry, culminating in her enrollment at LSTC.
In her seminary years, Rev. Vaughn confronted the stark realities of institutional racism head-on, an experience that left an indelible mark on her journey. “I was surprised by that, and I didn’t expect that in a place like Chicago,” she admits. However, she also found some solace. First, Rev. Vaughn’s work as a leader in campus ministry settings, outdoor ministry, and student ministry was honored by the ELCA through the Fund for Leaders scholarship, a merit-based full-tuition scholarship for future pastors and rostered lay leaders studying at ELCA seminaries. She also found support in her mentor, Dr. Linda Thomas. Finally, by her second semester, she had the camaraderie of fellow Black students, whose friendship fortified her against the storm.
Rev. Vaughn’s experience during Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in a level 1 trauma unit at Advocate Christ Hospital proved to be a pivotal moment for Rev. Vaughn, one which she now identifies as her resolute call to ministry. This epiphany crystallized her path. “That’s when I felt called to the work,” she says today.
While the realities of institutional and direct racism during her time at LSTC proved to be challenging, Rev. Vaughn had the unwavering support of her home congregation, making the candidacy process relatively stress-free. Upon ordination, Rev. Vaughn was resolute in catalyzing change within the church. She recognized the pressing need to break down the barriers of white supremacy that hindered genuine inclusion. “We’ve got to get back to having things that are… built on a foundation that is fully inclusive and affirming and equitable for all people,” she emphasizes.
During a call to serve as an associate pastor in Texas, Rev. Vaughn observed the same institutional racism she had faced in Chicago. She felt she had to make a choice to commit to her values. “I couldn’t be there and be fully supportive and an ally to my queer friends and family members,” she says. “I couldn’t be there authentically.” Eager to influence change from a new vantage point, Rev. Vaughn transitioned into leadership roles, eventually joining the Churchwide organization. Her current role as the Senior Director of Discipleship and Inclusive Communities empowers her to instill the values of belonging and equality across various ministries.
Rev. Vaughn acknowledges that her current role has allowed her a uniquely valuable position when it comes to assessing some of the most significant contemporary challenges that the church faces today; namely, declining enrollment and engagement. Her work, as she says, is focused on “getting ministries within the ELCA and our domestic sphere to collaborate together and support each other.” With areas of focus including discipleship ministries, faith formation, deaf ministry, disability ministry, economic diversity, outdoor ministries, and community organizing, Rev. Vaughn is committed to meeting members of the community where they are at and challenging historicized ministries that exclude members on the basis of their race, identity, or ability.
Rev. Vaughn’s vision for the future of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a resounding call to confront white supremacy head-on. “We’ve got to stop making excuses… that allow that and condone it,” she says. Her unwavering commitment to building truly inclusive communities echoes her commitment to living out the values of the gospel in her daily life.
Rev. Kimberly Vaughn’s journey is a testament to the power of conviction, the strength of community, and the enduring potential of the church to be a beacon of radical love and acceptance. In a world rife with division, her story is a beacon of hope and a call to action for a more inclusive faith. As she continues to work passionately toward her vision, she reminds us that true faith can thrive, even when faced with the most challenging circumstances.