PROVO -- The Rev. Kurt Howard believes his church congregation made a "bold" and "courageous" decision selecting him as their new pastor.

Perhaps the first openly gay minister in Utah County, the Rev. Howard says he feels accepted in an area known for its conservative political and theological views."I'm here because the congregation discerned God's future for the congregation and decided to include me," said the newly appointed pastor of the Provo Community United Church of Christ, 175 N. University Ave.

Clark Swenson, a member of the church council responsible for the decision to hire a new reverend, said the Rev. Howard's sexual orientation "was incidental."

"He possesses great leadership abilities, is warm and genuine, and the bottom line is that he is a good Christian."

Swenson said some church members may have been hesitant accepting the minister. But upon meeting him, they were won over because they could accept him "for who he is rather than what he is."

A native of San Diego, Calif., the Rev. Howard had never been to Utah before his appointment earlier this year. He said he is impressed with what he sees here: beautiful mountains and friendly and diverse people.

The reverend feels the United Church of Christ encompasses the most liberal mainstream congregation in America. Thus, the church attracts people of all persuasions, those who are open to new ideas.

"Each person is responsible for discerning their own beliefs," he said. He doesn't consider his congregation liberal or conservative, but "searching." Here, he said "diversity is not tolerated but celebrated."

"Coming out to himself," as the Rev. Howard describes confronting his sexual orientation, was for him "a crisis and a painful decision." He had never considered himself gay. He married, had children and was content with "the American dream."

It wasn't until after a divorce four years ago he began to experience different feelings. His biggest concern was how to tell his family members, but even that had a positive outcome. They were supportive and loving, he said.

During his 12 years in the U.S. Navy, the reverend served as a chaplain, a capacity he enjoyed. Still, he wasn't exactly sure what God wanted him to do with his life. He said he just knew he wanted to serve God in some way.

After leaving the Navy, he enrolled as a theology student at Claremont School of Divinity in Claremont, Calif., and graduated three years later with a master's in theology. He began searching for an area where he could be of greatest worth.

He served as an assistant pastor in California and Pennsylvania but wanted a congregation of his own.

In his interview for the Provo church position, he talked with the five--member council about his lifestyle, about his desire to serve and what he would hope to accomplish while here. The interview, he said, was positive, and he was anxious to get to work. After the council chose him, the church congregation gave its final approval.

As the new pastor, he wants everyone to know they will be accepted "just the way they are."

Toni Billings, another member of the search committee, said when they considered hiring the Rev. Howard, they did some in-depth thinking, studying, and with much prayer, received the confirmation that he was the one to serve here.

"We did have a lot to consider," she said, adding that the Rev. Howard has a "high degree of integrity and was completely upfront with the issues. He's a good person, so we had to side with that."

While the Rev. Howard said he has heard rumors that some people are upset about the decision to hire him, no one has said anything to him personally.

"Those who are believing would be delighted" to have a gay pastor, said Doug Wortham, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community of Utah. He said that while many communities nationwide have gay pastors, he is not aware that there have been any in Utah County.

In past pastoral callings, the Rev. Howard has focused mainly on "the church side of the call" but feels there is so much more that needs to be done. He doesn't want just a "Sunday church" but a community center where people are involved with others each day of the week in various activities.

An HIV-AIDS group meets each Thursday with church members to discuss problems and give encouragement to each other. The Rev. Howard wants this meeting to be helpful for those with the virus, as well as families and friends. He plans to invite guest speakers to provide the latest information.

Children and youths are taught in special classes and involved in service projects. In 1986, the Community Church began the Food and Care Coalition, which continues to serve needy people. This is a good project, the Rev. Howard said, and as an added goal, he would like his congregation to "pay more attention to the homeless in our midst and look for opportunities to love them."

For more information about the Provo Community United Church of Christ, call 375-9115. Services are held Sundays at 11 a.m.