On Presbyterians, Exiles, and Apologies

Behind my desk there are two framed certificates on the wall. One is from 2001. It is reads “Certificate of Ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament, Presbyterian Church (USA)”. The other is from 2010. This one reads “Certificate of Ordained Ministerial Standing, United Church of Christ”.

When I transferred my ordination to the UCC in 2010, I wasn’t sure what to do with that first certificate. The Presbyterian Church had trained me to be a pastor at one of its denominational seminaries. It had shaped me as a candidate for ministry. I had been a member of PCUSA churches, interned in a PCUSA congregation, and served honorably for over eight years as a PCUSA minister.

But, in 2010, I left.

I didn’t want to. I loved being Presbyterian. I can still tell you all about the Book of Confessions, and my favorite parts, from Heidelberg to Barmen. I love the Presbyterian commitment to education and loving God with our whole mind. I am deeply Reformed, down to the bone.

And I am also gay.

In 2010 I had to make a choice between the church I loved and my life. I knew, for my own mental health, that I could no longer be a part of a church that asked me to either abide by an unfair ordination standard applied only to same-sex relationships or to remain silent about it in certain settings if I chose not to abide.

I have been out since I was 18. I never hid that fact. But I lived within the strictures of the PCUSA’s ordination standard. I did this not out of shame, but out of a sense that I could not ask someone to partner with me and live in the shadows. As even my father told me when it became time for me to leave the PCUSA, it wouldn’t be fair to someone I loved.

When it became clear that change was not coming fast enough, I had to ask myself questions about staying. I came to understand that remaining in the PCUSA would be fundamentally damaging to me, and to my sense of integrity. And so, reluctantly, I left.

Within a year of leaving the PCUSA I met my now-wife. We dated openly, celebrated our engagement publicly, and married in a church of my new denomination. When DOMA was overturned, and when the Supreme Court later made equal marriage the law of the land, we rejoiced with the whole-hearted support of our denomination. I have come to understand what it means to be accepted and loved by my church, just as I am.

rainbow-sealYou might think that after all that I am angry at the PCUSA.

For a while I was. I think I had good reason. But then, I wasn’t. As much as my treatment, and the treatment of every other LGBTQ person in the church, was unfair, I still love the Presbyterian Church deeply. I hang my ordination certificate in my office so that every day I will see it and remember the gifts I received from the PCUSA. And I rejoiced when the PCUSA took steps to include LGBTQ people in leadership and marriage.

Over the past few weeks, though, I have felt some of those old feelings of frustration return.

There is an overture being considered in the PCUSA right now which calls on the denomination to apologize for its past treatment of LGBTQ individuals because “there will be no chance for healing and reconciliation until the PCUSA admits its mistakes and makes a statement of apology”.

The Covenant Network, which believes itself to be an ally to LGBTQ people, has come out against the statement. (For historical perspective the Covenant Network also urged past delays on votes which could have included LGBTQ people in the ministry sooner out of concerns for “unity”. As a PCUSA seminarian at the time I had a hard time with that stance as well.) Other PCUSA “allies” have also spoken against the apology saying it does not have consensus or that it will create further division.

Let me say first that division has already been created. The fact many LGBTQ Presbyterians are now exiles in other denominations should tell you that. Those of us who were forced to leave will not have a voice on Presbytery and General Assembly floors, and so I urge you to listen to what we have to say now. We are, literally, not in the room.

Beyond that I hear some say that the apology is “forced”. If a minority of GA made the majority apologize, it would indeed be forced. But this is an overture that will require a majority voice. If a majority of the delegates at GA find this is appropriate, then they will represent the majority will of this connectional church. The same thing happened when LGBTQ people were banned from ministry, and yet this same argument was not made.

I hear others say it won’t matter to LGBTQ people. Curiously, I have not heard this from LGBTQ people. (And particularly not from any of us who lived through the worst of the ’90’s and ’00’s as candidates or clergy.) As an LGBTQ person, I can tell you it would matter to me. I will personally be okay without an apology from the PCUSA. I’ve done my work. But, I would find the apology deeply meaningful and healing. I would also see it as the start to real reconciliation between those of us who have left and our former church, as well as a sign of healing for those who have stayed, and their partners.

I have also heard people ask “have we apologized to other groups” such as women and African-Americans, who also bore grave injustices at the hands of the Presbyterian Church. No. You haven’t. You should do that, by the way.

Mostly, though, I believe in this overture because I believe in the power of making amends. In the recovery community one of the major steps towards healing and wholeness is looking at the people you have hurt and saying “I’m sorry”. Until you do that, you can’t really heal. And I want health and healing for the PCUSA. There is so much good that the PCUSA does in this world, and so much more that it could do. The world needs a healthy Presbyterian Church.

As for me, I have made my peace with the Presbyterian Church. I have looked at my resentments and forgiven the PCUSA for the pain. I have found gratitude for the good gifts I received from the PCUSA; gifts that continue to inform my ministry every day. I have claimed my own “serenity to accept the things I cannot change and courage to change the things I can”.

Perhaps in writing now I am exhibiting that I still don’t have the “wisdom to know the difference”. I don’t know if these words will have any effect on anyone. And yet, as a product of the Presbyterian Church, and as one who still deeply loves the church, I offer them for the consideration of those who still dwell within its walls.

And I also say this, expecting no reciprocity but remaining hopeful that perhaps someday it will come: When I made my ordination vows I fully intended to remain a Presbyterian minister until the day I died. For my part in not remaining faithful, I am sorry. Having had to leave continues to grieve me more than you know.

Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

The Religious Right (Side of History)

For Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations, this has been an interesting summer. First, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected an amendment which would have opened the church up to blessing same-sex marriages. Then, less than a week later, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex unions and also affirmed the ministry of transgender clergy.

 

For the rest of us mainline folks (members of the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, and others) it has been both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch. Regardless of the outcome, the emotion has been clear. After the PCUSA vote, youth cried on the floor of the General Assembly. The day after the the Episcopal vote, one diocese walked out.

 

Many speculate that some mainline denominations may be headed for an ideological schism. The narrow margin of the Presbyterian decision, just 30 votes, is one indication of just how split that denomination is on major issues of inclusion and Biblical interpretation. Other denominations face similar quandaries. It’s clear that mainline Christians of all stripes are at a watershed.

 

It helps to remember that we have been here before, and more than once.

 

I was ordained in the PCUSA (before having my own departure over LGBT inclusion and becoming UCC). I was always struck by the fact that the denomination had split in two during the Civil War over slavery. The same happened in many of the other major churches of the day. For some, the split was temporary. Methodists rejoined one another in 1939. It took the Presbyterians until 1983. Some never reunited. (Which is one reason the North is filled with American Baptist congregations, while Southern Baptists prevail in the South.)

 

You would think American mainliners would have learned their lesson, but they didn’t. Further splits occurred over the ordination of women, desegregation, Biblical inerrancy, and more. And now, the splits are coming over LGBT inclusion.

 

We’ve known this for years. One of the reasons LGBT inclusion has not yet occurred is that we are so afraid of what a schism will mean. We want to preserve the body of Christ, because that is what we are called to do. But, if we are honest, we also want to remain relevant. Relevance is the catch-phrase in the shrinking church, and a denomination half its size is seen as even more irrelevant.

 

Except, here’s the rub: size does not determine relevance. Doing the right thing does.

 

When I was in the PCUSA I often heard straight allies decline to push harder for LGBT rights for fear it would “split the church”. No one wanted that, but the reality was that the church was already splitting. LGBT people, and their families and friends, were walking out the door. This was true of many churches, and the irony was that each time they failed to do the right thing, the prophetic thing, for fear of losing relevance, they lost it even more.

 

When Jesus told his disciples to go out two by two he gave them clear instructions: Preach a prophetic truth.  If you are rejected, if your message is not heard, move on. Shake the dust from your feet and keep moving.

 

I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples to not care about the people who rejected them. I don’t think he was saying “give up hope that they will change their minds”. I think he was saying this: sometimes you won’t get everyone one board, but the train has to keep moving forward. Otherwise it will derail.

 

We talk a lot about the power of the religious right to negatively influence the fate of LGBT civil rights, but we are talking about the wrong religious right there. What LGBT people need now is not more of the religious right. We need more religious and on the right side of history. We need more Christians ready to stand up for the right thing no matter what, even if it means some won’t follow them. We need religious folks ready to shake the dust of fear and rejection off their feet and follow Jesus anyway. People who are willing to take the big risks their faith demands no matter the cost.

 

This will not be the last issue to divide the church. Give it thirty or forty years and something else will come along. By that point the country as a whole will have evolved and moved on and non-inclusion of LGBT people will be an embarrassing chapter in our history, just like all the others through the years. My hope is the mainline church will be re-united by then, but history tells us it may well not be.

 

That’s okay. Because the mark of faithfulness is not found in our membership numbers. It’s not found in a commitment to an non-controversial faith that never makes anyone uncomfortable. It’s found in how well we follow Christ, who taught us to love one another and work for justice. The only fate worse than schism for the church is being lukewarm when it comes to issues of justice. Jesus never accepted us being lukewarm. For those of us who want to be standing on the religious right side of history, that’s a good reminder.

The Episcopal Church, Equal Marriage, and Religious (il)Literacy

Today the Episcopal Church voted to approve a liturgy which blesses same-sex unions. It’s a great step forward for equality, and a time for thanksgiving. It’s also another opportunity to watch the way that stories about mainline churches are often mis-reported by the media.

The headlines today say the Episcopal Church is the first maichurch denomination to approve same-sex marriage. That’s wrong on two counts. First, the Episcopal Church is explicitly avoiding the use of “marriage” in describing these same-sex rites. Second, the United Church of Christ, a denomination roughly the same size and with as deep a heritage as the Episcopal Church, affirmed marriage equality in 2005 and calls all unions (gay and straight) “marriages”.

This is just the latest example of reporters,including religion reporters, getting it wrong. Last year, for example, the ordination of the “first out LGBT Presbyterian minister” was heralded in religion sections everywhere. For the sizeable number of PCUSA clergy who had been ordained when they were also out, this was surprising news.

So why do journalists who often pride themselves on accuracy so often get it wrong?

I think it points to a greater issue: the lack of mainline voices in the public arena. Members of the religious right have co-opted the public square and professed to speak for all Christians. Whether it’s birth control, LGBT rights, or the role of women, they’ve somehow convinced the news industry, and those who rely on it, that they are the voice of Christians everywhere. In doing so, we in the mainline have become less relevant, less well-known, and less distinguishable.

So, mainliners, how do we change that?

The Summer of Mainline Dreams

An interesting movement is popping up on Twitter. Mainline Christians of several denominations have started “dream” movements in which they tweet about their hopes for the future church and how to get there. One tweeter called this the “mainline summer”.

The United Methodists came first and are already holding tweet-ups. Their hashtag is #dreamumc and they facilitate with @dreamumc

The Presbyterian Church (USA) followed in the aftermath of General Assembly 220. Their hash is #dreampcusa and they facilitate with @wedreampcusa

The United Church of Christ folks came next with #dreamucc and @dreamucc

UPDATE: An Episcopal conversation is taking place under the hashtag of #Acts8 (see comments below).

There is also a hash starting for Disciples under #dreamccdoc

I’m hopeful the ELCA, and others will join in soon.

There’s also another hashtag for ecumenical conversation at #mainlinedreams with an account at @mainlinedreams. Since our futures seem more and more likely to intersect, it makes sense that we should start talking now. My hope is we will share our thoughts, sermons, and writing with one another, and that we will start the next chapter in mainline Christian renewal.

This is an ever-changing list, so please be sure to share what you know in the comments.

What an alum to do when their alma mater is wrong?: Thoughts on Columbia Theological Seminary’s housing policy

What’s an alum to do when the alma mater they love does the wrong thing?

I’ve been asking myself that for the last few days, because I wholeheartedly believe that my seminary, a school I love and treasure, has sided against justice and God’s love, and for fear and inequality.

I am a two-time alum of Columbia Theological Seminary, one of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s ten seminaries which is located just outside of Atlanta. When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago the Presbyterian Church was still debating the role of gay and lesbian ministers. It hasn’t been until the last year that the door has been opened in some places (though not all) to openly gay and lesbian, non-celibate, clergy. The church is still debating the legitimacy of same-sex marriages, even as partnered clergy are now serving openly. The inclusion of LGBT people is far from full or perfect, but the Presbyterian Church has come a long way in the past decade.

As a student I remember our LGBT group being denied the use of the chapel for a National Coming Out Day Service. We were told that people just weren’t ready for it, and that there were fears that donations would be withheld. I was incredibly saddened by the administration’s decision. But when the service did take place, at a professor’s house instead, the room was packed with supportive students and faculty. (Eventually the annual service was allowed in the chapel.) That night, and with each passing year, we sensed that things were changing, and that justice would not be denied.

Which is why I was surprised to find that my seminary has just reaffirmed its denial of equal housing for same-sex couples. In a letter dated April 20th, Columbia’s president wrote that at the present time committed same-sex couples will not be allowed to live in “married housing” on campus.

The timing left me particularly dumbstruck. Earlier in the day I had received my latest issue of Columbia Seminary’s alumni magazine. I was pleasantly surprised to find an announcement of my engagement to my fiancee, Heidi. I then came home to this letter, posted by a classmate. I was struck by the irony of the fact that my engagement was recognized by alma mater, but that my marriage would not be deemed suitable enough to warrant my partner and I on-campus housing were I still a student.

It’s a bit of a mixed message, especially coming from a school whose faculty always taught me to err on the side of justice, compassion, and love. My professors at Columbia spoke out on behalf of their LGBT students, often at risk to themselves professionally. They taught that God’s love trumped human fear. They exhorted us to learn to read the Scripture with every tool available to us, and to understand the contexts of passages written two thousand years ago. They challenged us to stand up for what was right in the face of the easier wrong. They were, and they remain, among my strongest role models for ministry.

But the administration of Columbia has acted in a way that belies all I was taught by my professors. They have literally cast LGBT families off campus, and forced seminarians to make a choice between living with their classmates or their families. They have created an unequal community. They have reiterated, even in the face of a changing denomination, a policy that is reactionary and anything but visionary.

A little over ten years ago now I knelt on the floor of the chapel at Columbia. My friends and classmates put their hands on my head and blessed me as I was ordained as a minister. I chose that chapel for a reason. I wanted to carry what I had learned at Columbia with me all the days of my ministry. I wanted to remember what it was to live in a community that might not always agree, but that at least tried to make space for the other. And I wanted to remember what is was to live in a community that didn’t shy away from the hard discussions, and that admitted when it was wrong.

I’d like to think that place still exists. I think it does. But I know that right now I and my family could not live there. I think that there are a lot of other families like mine out there. And I think that Columbia is the less for excluding us. But more than that, I think we are the less for losing a place like Columbia. I hope this separation doesn’t last much longer, because God’s got real work for us to do and we need each other.

No sermon from me this week, but….

So, why no sermon from me? Because I didn’t preach this weekend. Instead Heidi Ward filled the pulpit at my church. Heidi is a second-year seminarian, a student pastor, and in the discernment process for ordination in the UCC. She also happens to be the woman I am marrying this fall. So, you know, I’m partial to her.

This was Heidi’s first time preaching at my church, and our first time leading worship together. It was something that came up casually. Heidi asked if she could preach, and my folks said “sure”. It wasn’t a “political act” for us. There was no “agenda”. It was just Heidi giving me a week off from peaching. But I didn’t realize what a holy act that would be for us. But as we vested together, I began to understand how meaningful it all was, both for us as partners but also as LGBTQ people of faith. It’s something not many LGBTQ clergy ever have the chance to do.

I was not ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC). I was originally ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I love the PCUSA, and they are making some movement on the inclusion of LGBTQ people, but two years ago I made the decision to leave and come to the UCC. I’ve known others who have left Methodist, Catholic, and Baptist churches to serve in the UCC. We haven’t come because the UCC is perfect (though I believe it’s pretty great). We’ve come in large part because it was the one place that would embrace us as who we are and embrace our families as well.

When I was single and a PCUSA minister considering leaving for the UCC I wavered a bit. I couldn’t decide whether to make the jump, or to stay and fight for full inclusion. My dad helped me to make my decision. He asked me, “You want a partner some day, right?” I said yes. He replied simply, “Well then it’s not fair to her to stay in a place where she won’t be respected.”

A year and a half after switching my ordination, I asked Heidi to marry me. Now we are planning a wedding and getting ready for a life together. A life that includes serving openly as a clergy couple. I’m acutely aware that had I stayed in the PCUSA I would now be navigating the still-uncertain rules about same-sex marriages in the Presbyterian Church. I’d be having to find a clergy member willing to marry us and a church willing to let us use the sanctuary. I’d be worried that my wedding could become a test case in a church judicial proceeding. The same would be true for a clergy member in many other denominations. Instead, Heidi and I have simply reserved her UCC church for our wedding date, and asked a UCC minister we both respect to officiate. We’ve invited many of our clergy friends. We are so thankful we can celebrate this day with our greater church community.

But as much as I’m looking forward to that day in November, I’m so aware that what happened last Sunday was even rarer. If you had asked me when I was ordained whether I’d ever be able to stand and lead worship in a church I pastored with my partner, I’d probably have told you no. But it turns out, in the end, that’s not as far-fetched as it seemed. For that I thank my congregation. And my denomination. And especially my partner. But most of all God, who is still speaking, and who is doing something new in the church. I pray more churches will listen to that still speaking voice, because I hope every LGBTQ couple, clergy or lay, gets to feel that kind of welcome at least once.