When members of my family speak of their death, they refer to going up on the hill to rest in the cemetery of Berea Christian Church, the congregation our family founded in 1867. My roots in the Disciples run deep. I grew up a Disciple, attended a college and seminary historically-related to the Disciples, and was ordained by the Virginia Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2005. Despite these deep roots, other than a short three month internship in college, I have never served a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Why? That’s a good question. The long and short of it is that I’m gay and most congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) won’t hire an openly gay pastor. Like so many throughout Christian history, I’ve been forced to live in a foreign land, exiled from the community that nurtured me to faith, formed me for ministry, and ordained me for service. God has blessed my life in these years of exile, making the communities in which I’ve served home. I’ve discovered the riches of our larger family of faith in the Reformed tradition and come to understand why we do what we do as Disciples of Christ as I’ve served congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ.
I’m deeply grateful for the Presbyterian and UCC congregations that discerned good gifts for ministry in me and took the risk to call me to partner with them in mission. All three of these congregations have grown both in terms of size and mission during my time of service and I have grown in my skills as a pastor and teacher. Two of these congregations have been Open & Affirming communities, that is congregations that have decided and formally declared to the world that persons of all gender and sexual identities are welcome to participate in the full life and leadership of the community.
As we move toward consideration of the resolution to declare the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a people of grace and welcome, I feel it’s important to offer a few thoughts on what difference it has made for me to serve two congregations that are fully Open & Affirming of ALL of God’s children.
First, I don’t have to fear being “outed” to others. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons and our heterosexual allies who serve congregations that are not Open & Affirming often live in fear that their congregations and regions will discover their real identity, either as someone who is same gender loving, gender-nonconforming, or an ally of such persons. They fear losing their jobs, their homes, and their livelihoods and they are held captive by these fears. I am blessed to know something of the power of Jesus words, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8.32). I am able to live my life freely and openly because I serve an Open & Affirming congregation.
Second, I can be more authentically myself, which allows me to be a better pastor. LGBT persons and our heterosexual allies who serve congregations that are not Open & Affirming are often forced to erect walls between themselves and those they serve in order to protect themselves. Many would reject them simply for who they are or what they believe. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard allies tell me, “I’m personally very supportive, but I can’t let my church know because they’d fire me.” How can pastors carry on the ministry of a God who takes frail flesh and embraces vulnerability when the very church they seek to serve demands they hide who they are or what they believe for their own protection? I am blessed to know something of the power of Paul’s words when he said, “All this is from God who has reconciled us to [Godself] through Jesus Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5.18). I am able to openly draw from my deep reservoir of struggle and experience as a gay man as I seek to be in solidarity with God’s people.
Third, I can focus my energies on equipping the people of God to follow Jesus in the struggle for justice and reconciliation instead of trying to convince others that I’m a valid, competent minister. LGBT persons and our heterosexual allies who serve congregations that are not Open & Affirming are often forced to spend much of their time walking the tight rope of theological and linguistic acrobatics as they struggle to appear all things to all people. This continual exercise tears at the soul of pastors and often leaves them with little energy for the work of ministry: that of being a good pastor, priest, and prophet for the Body of Christ. Blessed by serving an Open & Affirming congregation, I am able to say that I know something of the truth written by Paul, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3.12).
Does it make a difference to serve an Open & Affirming church? Without a doubt, yes. It makes all the difference in the world. I give thanks for this opportunity even as I mourn the loss of the community that formed me for ministry.
When my life and ministry are finished, I know that I’ll go home to rest on that hill at Berea Christian Church with my ancestors. When that time comes, I pray the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will finally be ready to welcome me to the table.