As a clergyperson, I have been privileged to be invited into the lives of many during the most important times of life and death. At births and baptisms, I’ve cried tears of joy and held the baby close as if it were my own. At weddings I’ve rejoiced as two publicly declared their love and pledged their lives to one another before God and community. During confirmation and graduation I’ve been proud to celebrate milestones with the young people I’ve been honored to teach and nurture.
But, the real privileges have occurred when I’ve been called upon to walk alongside you during the more fragile times of life.
Counseling couples and families through conflict and break up. The hospital calls in the wee hours of the morning. Singing & praying at bedside while holding the hands of dear ones as they transitioned from this life to the next. Officiating at funerals and recalling those beloved, distinctive stories of each individual.
Yet, through it all, I could not share with you, the church, who I truly was.
And so on Monday, I and 110 of my clergy colleagues extended the same honor that you’ve extended to us. We are sharing ourselves with you in love, and in doing so, I invite you into fuller relationship with me as you have invited me into relationship with you.
In my previous 13 years of service under appointment, I could not fully invite you into my life. When I was excited about the possibility of a new love, when my beloved was hospitalized for a sudden illness, when our relationship of several years ended, I could not acknowledge any of it to you.
How does one ask for personal time to care for a loved one when one can’t even acknowledge the relationship in the first place?
Growing up as a shy young boy in Coldwater, Ohio, a rural town of less than 5000 people, everyone in town looked the same. The only diversity was whether residents were Catholic or United Methodist, the two churches in town. And yet, while everyone looked like me, I knew I wasn’t like everyone else. I didn’t understand what that meant, but there were not so subtle messages that these differences were to be suppressed. “Man, up!” “When you play with your friends, can’t you be He-Man for once instead of the Sorceress or Scooby-Doo instead of Daphne?” “Why don’t you play ball at recess instead of sitting and talking with the girls?”
As a shy, geeky youth, I was nurtured by my small but vital local congregation which helped me find my place as a beloved child of God. It was in the Coldwater United Methodist Church that Marilyn and Louanna, Miss Betty and Dewey, all friends of my grandparents, took genuine interest in this awkward, introverted boy and began to call me into myself. The church which formed me then called me into leadership. It was as a high school student when I was first asked to teach Vacation Bible School, and to join the Pastor-Parish Committee and the Administrative Council. As a senior in High School, I received a call from Gail asking me to speak on Laity Sunday. Me?! The timid one with social anxiety and a fear of public speaking: the lasting effect of his childhood speech impediment? But yes, me.
For it was as a part of this experience that I experienced a call from God to ordained ministry in The UMC.
I completed my undergraduate studies at Ohio Northern University, a private liberal arts school affiliated with the United Methodist Church. I was active in ONU’s religious life program. I joined the Chapel staff. I changed majors so I could take more classes in the Department of Religion where I was (thankfully) introduced to Biblical historical criticism by Dr. Person and Christian Social Ethics by Dr. Morrison. I was a delegate to the United Methodist Student Movement from the West Ohio Conference (where I voted against the UMSM affiliating with Reconciling Ministries Network, which would have officially stated that the organization openly welcomed LGBTQ students). I dated women.
Yes, I still knew I was different than my other male peers. But what did that mean?
In order to respond to my call to ministry, I applied to three United Methodist seminaries and was offered the top scholarship at all three schools. I was continually affirmed by each level of the denomination as I proceeded through the candidacy process for ordained ministry. Yet, it wasn’t until I was a student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, that I allowed myself to truly question my sexual orientation. I later learned that my best friends at the seminary were placing bets about my sexuality as I never dated nor expressed no romantic interest in anyone. I was the shy, awkward student who immersed himself in his studies but found his place with a core group of classmates who remain some of his best friends and ministry colleagues.
It was in this community of fellow United Methodist spiritual seekers where I again began to find myself.
That core group of Tyler, Jenny, Jen, Jackie and Eleanor encouraged me to be myself and accepted me so unconditionally that enabled me to live into my identity as a gay man. It was freeing. It was liberating. It was terrifying.
While church doctrine states that openly gay people cannot be ordained, my clergy mentors continued to affirm me and helped me find my way through the process. They introduced me to other LGBTQ clergy who counseled me. Those who have been struggling to lift the restrictions in church polity for decades.
Upon graduation from seminary, I was awarded the prize for “most promise in parish ministry” in my graduating class. I met my first boyfriend. My bishop appointed me pastor of my first local church. I loved serving the church. I loved Mark. But I lived in fear that I might be found out, and the closet suffocated us and our relationship. The end of my first real romantic relationship, and I was heartbroken.
A few months later, I received my second church appointment. This time to a larger suburban church closer to Chicago with a supportive senior pastor who had requested me to be her associate pastor and who had previously had a gay associate. I was thrilled to be joining a more welcoming, growing and thriving congregation. The ministry was vital; I was continuing to grow as a pastor.
Then it happened. Rev. Beth Stroud was brought up on charges by the denomination in Philadelphia for being a lesbian. I was shaken.
This is still happening? Gifted pastors are brought up on charges? Could this happen to me?
It was during this time that my senior pastor decided to tell me that one of the families, who had been worshipping with us for the previous few months and had just joined the church, had approached her to ask if I were gay. She told me how she’d deflected the question and told them to ask me. So this was it. I was going to see a complaint, too. I’d given my all to the congregation, working 50 to 60 hours a week. I kept my head down and never brought up LGBTQ concerns in sermons or conversations; and yet, here I was with the possibility of a complaint. What more could I do? I don’t make an issue of it.
“Well,” she said, “sometimes, the way you hold your head in worship….it just reads gay.”
My safe space to serve God and God’s people turned out to be a glass house. The way I held my head? It was at this point that I finally realized that I could keep relationships and views from public view, but being gay isn’t about actions or viewpoints – it’s just who I am. My very being. And this was one thing I could not hide. I could not hide my very essence. I’d bought into the false dichotomy of “homosexual acts” versus “being gay.” The Book of Discipline says all people are of “sacred worth” but “homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching.” These can’t both be true.
Being gay isn’t an action. Who I am cannot be reduced to a sex act.
This betrayal of trust by my senior pastor shook my foundation; and at the same time, pushed me to find my voice. Not just as a gay man, but as a Christian and a United Methodist clergyperson. The shy, awkward boy grew into and claimed his identity as a justice-seeking, advocate speaking up for the oppressed and marginalized. Yes, I am gay, but I am also privileged in that I am a white, middle class, cisgender male. As such I must use my privilege to speaking out for justice in immigration, race, gender identity, economics, housing, and healthcare. Albeit, still awkwardly.
In time, my clergy colleagues and supervisors were sending LGBTQ youth and seminary students to me to provide counsel and advice as they navigated life and the church. I received phone calls from clergy colleagues across the country who were experiencing a crisis of faith and contemplating suicide as they had discerned in mid-life or late in life that were in faith LGBTQ themselves. My Northern IL colleagues elected me Chair of the Order of Deacons and have twice elected me to be a delegate to the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Being in ministry is not about me. But ministry IS about being in relationship with each other and with our God. And relationship requires each person being vulnerable through the sharing of themselves with the other.
Church, you’ve welcomed me into your lives and now I seek to respond in kind more fully by sharing myself with you. Although General Conference has responded out of the fear of growing in relationship with each other by voting down Rule 44 which would allow us to engage each other in new ways, I still long for opportunities to engage in deeper conversation – beyond Roberts Rules and parliamentary procedures. And so, this is me: a justice-seeking, peace-loving, ordained, gay man; flawed and awkward, redeemed and going onto perfection in Christ.
As a United Methodist, I believe in the liberating Gospel of Jesus who calls us to authenticity and wholeness of self. For you. For me. For us all.