This is going to be longish. At least longish for me, who writes more short poems than long essays. I will apologize ahead of time for it’s length. I trued to turn this into a poem, but could not. Maybe it’s too raw still.
It often surprises people who do not know me well that I have a love-hate relationship with the church.
After all, I am a pastor of two small churches in Southwestern Vermont. I grew up in the church. And I spent most of my adult life very active in churches – teaching Sunday School, being a Deacon, heading a pastor search committee, working with youth, all that stuff that millions of other American church-goers do every week.
For me, church has been a place of love. When I have stumbled, and I’ve done that on a sometimes spectacular scale, the churches offered me grace to heal. When I was hurting, the churches I was a part of put their arms around me and loved me back to health. When I was struggling, I was given a good mix of Gospel and love to guide me through my struggle. I’ve been either crazy blessed to find those kinds of churches, or just plain lucky.
Whichever it was, I have been grateful beyond words
But I am also aware, that for many people, church has not been that kind of place. It has been a place of judgment, hypocrisy, even hate. I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve even, despite my overall good experience in churches, felt some of it. Too often we shoot our wounded. Way too often.
It is often these kinds of churches, because they are loud and make good spiritual theater, make flashy headlines, that are eager to make a point at the cost of lives broken in their wake. Often, all too often, I just wince at what churches and church people do to the very people they are supposed to be loving.
My struggle is simple. I believe in the Christian God. And I believe that we are always better together than separated. Thus we need something to work, learn and grow together. The church. But that church, any church, is so flawed because people are flawed.
No church believes exactly what I believe. None. I grew up Methodist, spent most of my adult life in various forms of the Baptist Church, and have spent a couple of years in the Presbyterian Church. Each of them were loving, bible focused – good churches. And each of them had some things that I disagreed with. I loved their spirit. I also believe we are all required to seek and study scripture and prayerfully seek our truth. Somehow that second belief has never left me in a place where I fit perfectly anywhere.
When I joined my first Baptist Church, I had been going there for a while, and so one day the pastor came by my apartment for the obligatory “You’ve been coming a while and I think it’s time you think about becoming a member talk.” (I think every pastor is taught to do this.).
I greeted him at the door with a beer in my hand and did what any Southerner would do. I offered him one. He declined.
I loved that church. Colonial Avenue Baptist Church. Branan Thompson was the pastor. I loved the people. Loved his take on the gospel. Loved the spirit. But they had this church covenant thing with about, maybe 20 things I was supposed to agree with to be able to join the church.
Yep, you guessed it. I was good for 18.
I am not exactly a brash soul. But I took that covenant, scratched out the two I disagreed with and said “If you’ll take me like this, I’m in.” Branan looked at me and say “Nobody’s ever done that to me.” Then he paused a moment and said “But you are probably more honest than most of our members. I can accept that.” I was there for 22 years.
I’ve kind of followed that pattern ever since. If I found a good place where I could serve and grow spiritually that would take me as I was, I was in and all in. I even went to seminary in my forties, and after five years (I had a real job and family after all.) ended up with a D. Div. (Doctorate of Divinity). Most of the churches took me as I was.
There have been one or two that couldn’t. They weren’t bad churches and they never told me I was going to hell, but for those churches, I was not a good fit. I found other places, no hard feelings. I have friends still at those churches that were not a good fit.
My path to being a pastor was a long one. And it started with me being completely broken. Emotionally and spiritually. While I don’t recommend trying to become completely broken – it’s horrible, depressing and is hard, oh so hard to come back from, there is one thing that comes out of it.
You develop a whole new level of compassion.
You know what hurt is like. You understand brokenness at a whole different level. You know what it is like to be marginalized, ignored, even shunned. And you emerge far more soft hearted. More aware of people who are excluded, shunned, hurting.
Which is where I was as I moved to Vermont. A little healed spiritually. Mostly still broken. A serious work in progress.
I won’t go over how I came to the place where I started pastoring. I have written of it elsewhere on this blog. It is a call I fought for a long time. First because I didn’t think I had the patience. Later because I felt so broken. I know my flaws far better than anyone. But Grace and forgiveness is real. I began the process.
But I still had this love/hate thing going on, even with the Methodist Church, which I love. And this go around, the hate part it was over our treatment of the whole LGBTQ community. You see, in our book of discipline – the “guiding book” of Methodists, it says that homosexuality is “inconsistent with biblical teaching.”
With that one phrase, we exiled a huge chunk of people out of the church. Many of those people grew up in the church, loved their church and loved God. And when they discovered their sexuality, “Poof”, they went from being a beloved and fully integrated child of God to someone on the margins. Imagine the pain of that, if you can. This wasn’t about behavior. This was about who they are. Who and what they were made from the beginning of their lives.
This is such a tough subject. It’s divided our country and our churches for decades. Within the church, there are biblical arguments both ways, and often the people on both sides of the issues were devout, wanting only to follow the word of God. Of course (and I can’t deny this, part of the hate side of my equation), some were just homophobes, using the bible. Yep, the preacher in me admits this happens.
I hated this about the Methodist Church. But I am also kind of philosophic.
You see, I know that historically, the Methodist Church, like other denominations, is sometimes way too slow to change. Time was that churches used the bible to justify slavery, to make sure women had no rights and no place in church leadership, and to block civil rights for other races.
And each time, the church, and Methodists, have always come back to a central tenet – that we are all made in God’s image. And we are all blessed children, and we deserved to be loved, not excluded. And based on that, eventually the Methodist Church, and others came to condemn slavery, welcome women in to ministry and championed civil rights.
When I decided two years ago, to pursue my call to part time ministry, I took it on, fully believing that eventually, we’d get there. In fact, I felt were were closer to being there than other denominations. And here in New England, our particular conference (which includes Vermont, NH, MA, RI, Maine and a little bit of CT, we were kinda lax about the whole LGBTQ thing. We have a few gay pastors, which technically we’re not supposed to have. And a few gay marriages have been performed, which technically are illegal in our denomination.
That’s right, illegal. Like most denominations, we actually have a church court and if we don’t toe the line, we can be hauled up to it and get punished, even defrocked for not obeying that part of our discipline. Trust me, it’s happened.
But I took on the ministry anyway, because the Methodists, and particularly the ones up here in New England, were one of the most loving, open denominations I could fine, and it had a strong emphasis on bible study and theology.
But it was dang hard for me. Years ago I had begun studying this and had come to a completely different place than the denomination. And then a few years ago my own son came out to me as gay. This is one good kid, with a good heart, who was raised in a church. How could I say to him “You, what you are, with your wonderful spirit, is incompatible with church teaching?”
I couldn’t. Because I did not believe it. Not in my gut. And not in my mind. It’s not what I teach or preach, and I am blessed with a loving congregation that welcomes him and loves him as he is. But I did have to I explained why I was where I was, and what I hoped the church would become. But I wasn’t holding my breath.
My stance on this has brought some people to admire me. It’s also brought me hate mail, crude vilification and once, I got spit on at a McDonalds as I was called “That gay loving preacher.” I’ve heard every vile term and piece of sound byte theology you can imagine. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee I’ll get some hate mail from Christians on this little essay.
Anyone still reading? Bless you. OK, let’s get to the heart of this. I thank you for your patience.
This week, we had our New England Conference. Pastors and lay people from all over New England came to Manchester, NH. These conferences are generally a highly scripted kind of thing where we do the business of the church in a predictable (and sometimes contentious!) way. Business as usual.
Only of course, It wasn’t. The massacre in Orlando had jolted us. All of us. We’re still trying to make sense of that. Our hearts hurt.
And our bishop’s heart hurt. This was no longer an issue he was willing to just let linger out there. He threw out the careful script for our annual conference and invited us to simply talk to each other.
It was heart wrenching. Story after story of people who loved God, and were suddenly shunned from his church because of who they were and how they were made. Tales of hiding who they were so they could serve God. Tales of fear if anyone found out. Lots of church leaders, pastors, lay people. Story after story. An entire day of it. In large groups and small groups, from early morning into the night.
There were people talking about scripture and biblical interpretation too. And people who talked about the science, of how this is not a choice but a wiring digram. But what we heard in our heart were stories. People. LGBTQ folk were no longer a group. They were our brothers and sisters who loved God and only wanted to be part of the family. It was an incredible, emotional, prayerful, hard day.
But… it was not acrimonious. Yes, some people were mad. And some were hurt. But there was real listening. Deep, honest, hard, hearing.
I won’t go into the politics and the long convoluted path it took to get there, but in the end, the Northeastern Conference crafted and agreed on a Statement of Non-Compliance to the larger Methodist Church.
Basically. we ended the conference saying that in the Northeast, we rejected the idea that LGBTQ people, by their very existence, were “Incompatible with biblical teaching”. We refused to use that criteria in our choices of whether or not we ordain someone, and we would NOT prosecute, or support prosecution of pastors who chose to perform same sex marriages. We said we would back this by not supporting, in deed or by money, the larger church in persecution of either LGBTQ people, or those that married them. We had to even come up with a name for the document, because we were on new ground, standing against the larger church body and its rules. It is our declaration of Non-Compliance.
Welcome to the revolution.
We honestly don’t know how this will play out. It was an act of courage to take this stand. And an act of faith to make the challenge. We don’t know how, or if the larger church will come at us hard. We don’t know if our leaders will be rejected by the larger church. We just don’t know. But we took a stand, and we put teeth to it.
But here is what it means to me. I can be open about what I have come to believe (OK, I was pretty open about it all along.), without fear of being tossed out of the ministry I feel called to.
I am finally allowed to simply love, and to tell everyone, not just that you are welcome in my church, but that our larger church as well is ready to accept you as a fully invested member. If, in the future, I have the opportunity to perform the marriage ceremony for my own son, I won’t have to choose between performing that ceremony or being thrown out of my own church.
And suddenly, I don’ t have a love/hate thing going on with my church any longer.
I cried. I don’t think I had realized how deeply this had bothered me. I am after all philosophical about most things. It would come, I believed. But I thought it would be years and years off. It was not an easy struggle, this love/hate thing. And to have it lifted from me? It still brings tears.
I can just love. I can say to anyone, you are loved, not just by God, or by me, but by the wonderfully flawed church that tries to be a family to all. You are a child of God, and can be fully part of our faith family. Welcome home.
Cue tears. I don’t think they are going away any time soon.
Be well. Travel Wisely.