Today I am going to take a break from my blogging sabbatical to tell a story. It is a story I have told few people because A) It is so painful and B) I was afraid of what people would say.
But now the courage of 111 people who recently spoke their truth is giving me the courage face my pain and fear to speak my own truth.
I grew up in the United Methodist Church. It was overall a wonderful experience. I was taught about Jesus by Sunday School teachers who loved me. I had a great cohort of friends in my youth group who helped me learn how to walk through adolescence as a person of faith. As I grew older and began to feel tugs towards ministry, the church provided opportunities for me to get my feet wet as a ministry leader. When I became certain of my call, the church cheered me on as I went through the steps that would lead me to become a fully ordained United Methodist Elder, a minster of Word and Sacrament.
If you are not familiar with the process of becoming a United Methodist minister, let me start by saying it is a long one. First your church gives you the thumbs up to become a candidate for ministry. Then larger denominational leaders and committees vet you and approve you. You go to seminary. You serve for a few years as a minister in a church. And then you write many essays about your theology, understanding of the Bible, and dozens of other things.
It was in the writing of these ordination papers that I got my first red flag about the UMC. Right between asking me about my theology and my understanding of the Bible, they asked me a different question. They asked (paraphrased) if I would live my life in such a manner that I would be a good example of what it means to follow Christ. You know, not cheating on my husband and living an all around upright life and all. I expected this question. I was only 24 and could only promise to do my best, but I wanted to be a good example of a Christ follower for others. Easiest question to answer out of all. Yes!
And then there was a part B to to question number seven that went something like this, “Are you a self-avowed, practicing homosexual?”
Wait, what? The Board of Ordained Ministry is asking me outright if I am gay? And the answer to this question determines whether I am living my life as a good Christian or not? The answer to this decides whether I will be ordained or not?
Now, I am not in fact gay. But this question troubled me deeply. My husband and I had several gay friends in school with us at seminary. We watched how that affected their lives and ministry.
One friend, who is one of the most talented, spirit-filled women I know, came out to us in our second year of seminary. You could tell she was scared to tell us, even though we were close friends. We cried with her after she told us she was gay. Not because we thought she was bad, but because we knew how hard life would be for her in the church. It was so hard in fact that after a couple of years of trying to find a way to minster and come out of the closet at the same time, she left the church altogether. She took her talents and spirit- filled self to the secular world. To this day I grieve for what a loss this was for the church.
Another friend came out to my husband about mid way through school. Though he had been deeply closeted he began to take tiny steps to share his identity with his teachers and church leaders (he was actually Baptist). These leaders shot down and shamed our friend. About a month later he attempted suicide. He felt so rejected, so hopeless, so wrong, he decided it was better to die than to live as he was. Thank God the attempt was unsuccessful. This friend also left the church. I grieve to this day for the pain and brokenness he has suffered at the hands of the church.
There were other friends. Friends who changed to more open denominations. Friends who buried themselves in the closet to live out their call. Friends who led almost two separate lives, hiding the truest part of themselves from their life’s work.
All these stories affected me deeply. So deeply that when it came time for me to answer question #7 part b, it was so hard that I almost couldn’t do it. I went to a friend and colleague who served on the board and asked what would happen if I left question 7b blank because I disagreed with it on principle. He told me outright, “Then you will not be ordained. You will be run out for siding with gay people.” (He said this not to be mean, or because he agreed with question 7b, but because it was true).
I finally answered question 7b, though it still felt wrong. Looking back now I almost wish I had had the courage to refuse to answer and let the chips fall where they may.
I served as a United Methodist Minister for six years. In some ways they were wonderful years, and yet they were so hard and painful. I served in a denomination and more specifically a conference that was anti-gay. Whenever resolutions would come up at Annual Conference or General Conference, I sat in scared silence as I heard people not just oppose non-heterosexuals in ministry, but spew hatred about gays. I was terrified to be an ally in this hostile environment. Things were hard enough as a theologically progressive young woman. How much harder would it be if I spoke up for my brothers and sisters who were LGBTQ?
So I closeted myself as an ally and prayed for those who listened to that language and felt it drive them deeper into the closet. I knew it was wrong. I tried to make up for it by speaking about welcoming gays in my relatively progressive congregation (Open Hearts, Open Doors right?) But it wasn’t enough.
Year after year I felt the gap widen between my own heart’s conviction for justice and what I saw happening around me in my denomination. After six years I finally got the courage to step out of parish ministry and become a stay-at-home mom to my kids.
After leaving a job that dictated where I went to church, I found myself visiting an Episcopalian congregation that is known for its openness to people of all sexual orientations. It was like a weight was lifted off of me. I could finally live and worship in accord with my beliefs. I could actually be who I was in church.
After five years of family leave, I withdrew my membership from my conference of the United Methodist Church.
It was an incredibly painful decision. A decision I still grieve over today. But it is not a decision I regret. The UMC had become a place where I no longer felt comfortable living out my call.
This week I heard that 111 brave ministers, active UM ministers who identify themselves as something other than heterosexual, wrote a letter to the church asking it to change its policy towards the ordination of non-heterosexuals. This letter was submitted during General Conference, a quadrennial meeting of the entire denomination to rule on polity and other matters.
I knew that if 111 people could be brave enough to come out of the closet to their denomination and ask for acceptance rather than rejection of their gifts and call, the least I could do was add my voice as a “yes, please” along with theirs.
If you want to add your voice as well, click on the link here
I don’t know if I will ever be a United Methodist minister again. But if the denomination of my childhood and early ministry were to choose justice over oppression and love over fear, I would be so grateful relieved. And maybe those years after answering 7B and which were lived in the midst of such hostility and oppression wouldn’t feel wasted after all.