The bishops and other church leaders -- some in black clerical garb, some in business suits, most of them graying and male -- gathered behind closed doors around a long conference table for more than an hour before one of them emerged.
"There is white smoke," said a smiling Lutheran Bishop Kurt F. Kusserow.
And with that, he ushered the Rev. Liddy Barlow in to the board room as the newly elected executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, a coalition of more than two dozen Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominations that issues policy statements, oversees jail chaplaincies and promotes church unity.
"We voted unanimously and enthusiastically," the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, the board chair and a Presbyterian executive, told Rev. Barlow as she entered. "We believe this is something that is good for all of us."
Rev. Barlow, as a young mother, graduate of the all-women Mount Holyoke College and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, brings a background that contrasts with that of most of the people she'll be working for, including bishops in denominations that don't ordain woman.
But she also brings an enthusiasm to the role, an experience in ministry and a stomach for the tedious board meetings that do the painstaking work of building ties across denominational lines. "Being able to call out what the Spirit is doing in the middle of that, that's exciting," she said.
It's a work that she traces to her days working at the interfaith chapel at Mount Holyoke College, trying to figure out how to structure services that accommodate everyone from Ethiopian Orthodox to New England Congregationalists such as herself.
"I've always had this sense even though the churches are divided we're all working toward the same goals," said Rev. Barlow, 33, who lives in East Liberty with her husband and two young children.
Rev. Barlow, who starts work in April, will succeed the group's longtime director, the Rev. Don Green, a Lutheran pastor who will retire. She will be the first woman permanently to direct the group, although it previously had a female interim director.
"She's an exceptional choice," said Bishop David Zubik of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. "She brings a very mature sense of ecumenical efforts but she also brings a youthfulness."
While her appointment may break some new ground, the very existence of a robust interchurch group is itself striking. Councils of churches from the global to the local levels proliferated in the mid-20th century, with a profusion of committees and activities, but many have sharply cut back their work, staff and budgets if not gone entirely out of business. Many of the denominations that were most committed to such work have been focused inward on managing their own declines.
To have bishops, presbytery executives and others meeting regularly across the region and building up personal ties, in spite of often vast doctrinal differences, is rare. The group even includes local Anglican and Episcopal bishops following a schism of their churches.
"We do have significant differences between us that sometimes are personally painful," said Bishop Kusserow. But "I'm continually, deeply moved by the commitment of the people around this table."
And part of that success is the fact that they do sit around the same table, both for meetings and for meals.
"I think Christian Associates' success has a great deal to do with its collegiality," Rev. Barlow said. "Not only getting together to do business but because they're friends and enjoy each others' company."
The organization speaks out on public policy issues -- recent examples include calls for a truce in Pittsburgh's high-profile hospital wars, for religious-freedom protections involved in the Affordable Care Act and for greater efforts to combat hunger and poverty. It also coordinates Allegheny County Jail chaplaincies and holds events to promote Christian unity.
Rev. Barlow grew up in New Hampshire and taught sixth grade in North Carolina for two years for Teach for America. She earned a master's of divinity from Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, where she was particularly influenced by learning interfaith cooperation with the adjacent Hebrew College. She later became Christian education minister at Smithfield United Church of Christ, a Downtown Pittsburgh congregation with active social outreaches, and most recently has been interim minister at St. John United Church of Christ in Larimer, Westmoreland County.
Her goals include expanding the involvement with Christian Associates beyond its current core of Catholic, Orthodox and several Protestant denominations. She'd like to increase participation by historically black churches that are members and to find ways to include evangelical churches, many of which are more decentralized than the associates' member denominations.
She said her role model as a woman church administrator is Hilda of Whitby, a seventh-century abbess who worked for peace in the English church as it struggled to unify the churches formed by the separate missionary efforts of Roman and Celtic missionaries.
"I hold Hilda up as my patron saint," she said.
Rev. Michael Kinnamon, a former director of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical body that itself has downsized significantly in recent years, said the vibrant Pittsburgh-area council is an exception to the prevailing trend.
Over the last generation, many state and local councils "have lost vitality or shut down," he said.
"Many of them have struggled to obtain funding," said Rev. Kinnamon, now visiting professor of ecumenical collaboration in interreligious dialogue at Seattle University. "So in my experience, that means that concern for survival takes precedence over innovative thinking."
Councils that remain strong, he said, have the commitment of the region's faith leaders -- including key influential personalities -- and of their denominations.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.