“Religion without humanity is very poor human stuff.” – Sojourner Truth
In the Spring of 2012, an initiative began to revitalize an urban church community in Chattanooga, TN known as St. Marks. In what many thought to be a miracle, a team of persons from Christ United Methodist Church (Chattanooga, TN) as well as other local United Methodists, began a revitalization process that would bring St. Marks back to life. It was one of the greatest gifts of my life to be part of that leadership team.
Under the direction of folks such as Carl Greene, the pastor of St. Marks for the first four years of revitalization, the congregation was one of intentional and radical welcoming–specifically for the LGBTQ persons of Chattanooga. St. Marks identified as a Reconciling Congregation, it published statements of inclusion, it had a presence in the Pride community at events, and it refused to limit any person from serving, leading, teaching, or worshiping because of their identity or their family structure.
Our congregation was not without controversy, to be sure. Leaders were forbidden from pursuing their calls to ordination because of their identity. A radical and creative art exhibit on the spirituality of tattoos, Faithmarks, launched concern from fellow district and conference leaders. It was no secret that St. Marks was doing big things and dreaming big dreams.
As a cradle United Methodist from the Virginia Conference, I have a lineage in this denomination, including my great aunt, Mattye Kirby Bowman, who was the first white female United Methodist pastor in what was then Holston County (soon to be Holston Conference). I was born and raised in Stephens City United Methodist Church (Stephens City, VA) where I was one of only a few 3+ generation families. I am Wesleyan to my core–agreeing with John Wesley when he states, among other things, “Passion and prejudice govern the world; only under the name of reason. It is our part, by religion and reason joined, to counteract them all we can.”
I began my official appointment with St. Marks Church in July of 2016. The Holston Conference linked St. Marks and St. Elmo United Methodist Church the following year and in July of 2017, myself and co-pastor Gary Ihfe assumed the roles of leading both–Reconciling Congregations that are very different in makeup to most others in the Holston Conference. These congregations are almost exclusively LGBTQ persons and straight allies.
On Monday, February 26, 2018, the District Committee on Ministry of the Scenic South District voted to remove my credentials because I performed a wedding between two women. On Wednesday, February 28, 2018, I was notified of the decision. It was that concise. The breaking of hearts, the rendering of a prejudicial decision, a demanded separation and another example of The United Methodist Church having the ability to be better…and still choosing the cowardly response.
I take my covenant with God and with the people of St. Marks and St. Elmo very seriously. As a pastor, I’m called to be in full and connected ministry with the members and neighbors in my congregations. I’m asked to introduce the wonder that is Jesus to those who know not of him. I’m asked to walk alongside them as they navigate their relationship with God and seek to live more fully into the call that Jesus has placed upon them.
I’m called to pastor them.
I’m also expected to adhere to a set of metrics. I’m expected to be an advocate for evangelism, to grow my congregations. I’m expected to report as many new professions of faiths, baptisms, membership transfers as possible. These numbers are closely scrutinized. I’m expected to facilitate a financial relationship with my members, so that they might give in a way that supports both St. Marks and St. Elmo as well as supporting the Holston Conference. These numbers are also closely scrutinized.
I’m expected to be alongside my members as they birth children, are baptized, affirm their belief in Christ, engage in congregational activities, join the church, and baptize their children. I’m expected to serve them Communion, counsel them in marriage, encourage them in missional work, evangelism, small group engagement, and then, should the time come, preside over their funerals or those of their family members.
Yet, according to the Book of Discipline, I’m only called to stand before them as they join in marriage if they are heterosexual. My call and my metrics expect much of me…but not the weddings of all people?
The two women I married are members of one of the congregations. One of them has been alongside the congregation for many years–giving her whole self to ensure the success of the community. I have pastored her for the last five years, even before I was formally appointed.
I am expected to care for her, to be in covenant with she and her family 365 days a year and for their entire lives. The United Methodist Church would agree with that…except on one day and in one scenario.
[Because of the public profession of one of these women, and out of respect for their family, their identity is remaining private. Please join me in respecting this request.]
When I took my vows as a licensed pastor, I was asked if “I (was) moved by the Holy Spirit to serve.” I said, “yes.” I was also asked if “I (would) strive to live a life in keeping with what I preach.” And I do. I preach the message of Jesus and his love and care for all. I preach the message of Jesus and his inability to exclude, discriminate, or minimize. I preach the message of Jesus and his unbounding love for all–but especially those on the margins. And I preach the message of Jesus–one of sacrificial giving of my life for others. Am I moved by the Holy Spirit to serve? Without question. Will I strive to live a life in keeping with what I preach? I will. However, I also pray in living of that life I am not forbidden to serve as I’m moved by the Spirit.
The pain doled out by The United Methodist Church must stop. The continued minimization of our queer friends is not acceptable and should boil up in us a level of outrage that we can no longer control. My congregations have been irreparably harmed by a decision from the Bishop, the District Committee on Ministry, and the District Superintendent that could have been handled in a multitude of ways.
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