In the wee hours of the morning on March 11, 2014, I lay awake in my bedroom in Columbus, Ohio with a big question on my mind. At a quarter to 11, I was scheduled for a recertification interview with my District Committee on Ordained Ministry.
Was I, or was I not, going to withdraw from The United Methodist ordination process?
Until that moment, afraid of having my candidacy terminated under church law banning the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” I had avoided sharing anything about my life that related to my identity as a gay man. But three years of closeting myself within the church had come at a cost. The burgeoning sense of call that led me into the process was withering away. I could no longer speak of God’s redeeming love without being forthcoming about how I experienced that love through my primary relationship and my place within the queer community.
Withdrawing from the candidacy process felt just as dishonest as remaining within the closet. I still felt called to be an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church. The denomination itself nurtured this call. I was baptized as an infant in the church. I attended weekly Sunday School and learned to sing in the church. When I was unsure of my vocation, United Methodist campus ministry saw in me gifts for ministry and sent me to seminary. While attending a United Methodist seminary, I confirmed my desire to be in ordained ministry through my three-year internship at a United Methodist congregation.
Tired of making choices that compromised core parts of who I was, I decided to do what I thought I had the right to do: to ask for support in the candidacy process as an openly gay man.
I typed a letter in which I came out not just as gay but also as a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” While I would never use those words to describe myself in any other circumstance, I chose to identify that way before my interview to strip those words of the fear that they invoked in me. By claiming the label, I removed the power of the church to apply it to me without my consent. I also made my candidacy a direct challenge to Paragraph 304.3 of The United Methodist Book of Discipline, and I prepared myself for the likely possibility of being removed from the church that I loved.
I emailed the letter to my District Superintendent, caught a few hours of sleep, and headed to the district office to face the people who had the power to end my journey in The United Methodist Church. I felt that I was moving forward with integrity, and my sense of calling came back to life. The committee and I held what felt like our first real conversation since my process began. One member asked me what a self- avowed practicing homosexual was. I was surprised by this question, since I had owned the label, and I was tired of defining it. I replied, “I don’t know, but I think I’m guilty!” With a few laughs to break the tension, we moved on to questions about my ministry journey.
Eventually the committee decided to recertify me. Although the vote was split, and it was not the final say, I was thrilled with the outcome. I had shared my full, authentic self, and I had received what I thought was impossible – a blessing from the church. In May 2014, I graduated from seminary, and in late June, I relocated to San Francisco to be near my partner of three years. In September, I flew back to Ohio for another meeting with the district committee, where I was recommended for commissioning to the conference Board of Ordained Ministry.
In January 2015, I met with an interview team from the conference board. I answered questions about my gifts and graces for ordained ministry and talked freely of my same-gender partner as a source of support in my life. The board voted by more than 50% in favor of my request for commissioning as a deacon but short of the 2/3 majority that I needed to move forward, a shortfall they acknowledged was directly related to my coming out letter.
On Monday, January 25th, 2016, I am going to interview a second time with the Board of Ordained Ministry.
Regardless of the outcome, I want to keep my witness alive another year. And I wish to share my story more publicly this time in hopes that more may join me in challenging the church’s prohibition on ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” I know that there are many United Methodists who disagree with the church’s stated policy but believe that it should be enforced as long as it is church law.
I believe that another view, “Biblical Obedience,” is more faithful, and it addresses two misconceptions about injustice and social change in the church:
1. The primary issue LGBT people face in The United Methodist Church is exclusion.
Let us be real – there are queer people in the church. Some of the most conservative congregations welcome queer people as parishioners, and many queer clergy already serve faithfully in annual conferences across the connection.
What the Discipline does is more sinister than exclusion; it is coercion and oppression.
It has no way of knowing who is queer until we voluntarily identify ourselves. It takes our life-affirming power to produce language about who we are and turns that into a criminal act. It rewards our silence with tolerance and threatens our truth-telling with the loss of credentials, position, and employment. By keeping queer discourse out of the pulpit, the church allows heterosexism throughout the institution to go unchallenged. By silencing queer folk, the church breaks the baptismal covenant “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
2. Change in The United Methodist Church will come from General Conference Queer United Methodists and their allies have tried and failed to change the discourse about sexuality at General Conference for 44 years.
In the last decade our chances of changing the Book of Discipline have diminished. It should be clear by now that change is not going to come from General Conference. Regardless what the Discipline says about our lives, justice for queer people is not going to come from General Conference. The General Conference is a legislative body, not an administrative body. Justice must be dealt, not dictated, and the work of justice is the work of administration, not law. Administering the order and discipline of the church between General Conferences is the work of annual conferences, committees and boards, and local parishes. Justice for queer people in the church will come when church administrators use their discretion so that gender and sexual minorities are not harmed.
Speaking aloud my own aspirations as a gay ministry candidate, I challenge bishops, district superintendents, district committees, and boards of ordained ministry to refuse to discriminate against persons professed or perceived to be “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
Use the discretion afforded to you to drop all charges made against such persons. Do so not silently to avoid notice but through a public witness to what Jesus named as the greatest commandments of our faith: to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and to love your (queer) neighbors as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31).
On these commandments hang the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.
Latest posts by Ken Schoon (see all)
- Biblical obedience in the ordination process as an openly gay man - January 24, 2016