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Former Brainerd pastor dies in Mankato

Members of First Congregational Church United Church of Christ (UCC) in Brainerd on Monday remembered the Rev. Deborah Griffin Celley, who died Friday at her home in Mankato.

Celley, 50, who had been lead pastor at First Congregational Church UCC in Mankato since 2012, served 14 years as pastor of the Brainerd church. She also served churches in Nebraska and Iowa.

She was stricken with a rare form of lymphoma in the spring of 2013. She had left Brainerd in January of 2013.

Deb Griffith, moderator of the Brainerd First Congregational Church UCC, said news of their former pastor’s death was heart-breaking. She said Celley spearheaded the church’s “open and affirming effort” in which members encouraged a no vote against efforts to ban gay marriage in the Minnesota Constitution.

Griffith said Celley’s sermons were provocative and uplifting and made Scripture relevant to today. Celley was a huge proponent for justice work, Griffith said, and was involved in New Pathways and the Soup Kitchen.

Bonnie Crum, who was moderator during Celley’s last year in Brainerd, said the church’s friendly atmosphere owed much to Celley’s spirit.

“She was very open and caring and encouraged people to be who they were,” Crum said. “She was a very loving person. She didn’t see herself as a colorful leader. She encouraged other people to come up with ideas for the church ... She was also just an extremely fine preacher. She gave just phenomenal sermons.”

Nancy Gould, a congregation member, emailed this statement on Celley.

“Pastor Deb Celley left us, all too soon, a brilliant mind and gentle being whose legacy was love for all humanity, without discrimination, in her belief that the highest of teachings was that God is Love. She lived it, put her words into action at her church, First Congregational UCC, our community, her family, for children, the environment, arts and education. She didn’t hesitate to speak and live for peace and justice and what was right ‘by heart.’ May we have the courage to carry on. Thank you, Deb.”

Chuck Watson, a parish member, said Celley had a tremendous and deep love of God.

“She had a very deep smile that registered with everybody and she was very open to all concerns of parishioners,” Watson said.

Celley was born in Moline, Ill. She attended Elmhurst College and earned a master of divinity degree from Eden Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.

A full obituary is listed on Page 5A of the Tuesday paper.

MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at 855-5860 or Follow on Twitter at

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860