The Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops offers a short video message for Epiphany. In it, they reflect on the season of change underway in The United Methodist Church and the promise reflected in the generosity and grace of ministries across the region as faithful disciples “respond to God’s call to be nurturing communities, ministries and churches where love lives.” Churches are encouraged to share this message and can download it for use in their local settings.
The video features Bishops Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky Conference, Interim Bishop Sally Dyck of the California-Nevada Conference, Dottie Escobedo-Frank of the California-Pacific Conference, Carlo Rapanut of the Desert Southwest Conference, and Cedrick Bridgeforth of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area.
Epiphany falls on Friday, January 6, 2023. Please share this message with your congregation as you see fit on Epiphany, the Sunday following Epiphany, or at another time that works best for your ministry.
Click here to view the video. Click here to download the video.
Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ on this day of Epiphany from the bishops of the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.
Today, we recall the story of three Magi who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, followed a star to visit the baby Jesus. They came to honor the one who was born king of the Jews. When they found him, they were overwhelmed with great joy, and offered their gifts to him.
After they had paid their respects to the Christ Child, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who wanted to know where the baby was. He wanted to harm this One who was seen as a threat to his power. The Magi heeded the angelic message and returned home by another road.
We are a people who have lived in darkness, who have seen a great light. It is this light that leads us home through roads we haven’t intended to travel, journeying with people we never intended to be in relationship with, listening to voices that are both strange yet life-giving.
In this season of great change in The United Methodist Church, as some choose disaffiliation, we are walking an unfamiliar and uncomfortable road. It is hard to have some churches divided on whether to stay United Methodist and other churches already heading out the door.
We also know that it is in moments like this–of uncertainty and fear–that God breaks into our lives and offers us a way forward.
As new and continuing bishops, serving the Western Jurisdiction, we are excited by what God is doing in communities across our connection. We give thanks for congregations committed to extending God’s generous grace and wide welcome to all people. We rejoice in ministries that share the love of God to those beyond the walls of the church. We celebrate lives touched and changed by an encounter with Christ.
We believe that the best days for United Methodism could still be before us. To live into the promise, we must respond to God’s call to be nurturing communities, ministries and churches where love lives. As we enter 2023, may we, like the Magi, follow the star so that we may be bearers of the Christ light to a weary world. May the ways we share this light be a beacon of hope to those who are struggling. May this light be so compelling that people will want to know more. May this light illumine a new and unfamiliar yet life-giving path that leads us all home to the Body of Christ.
Growing up in rural Alabama, it was Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth’s grandparents who made sure he got to church – even on the days he didn’t want to be there.
But it was in the church, Lakeview United Methodist and Oakville Baptist churches that he found purpose – even on the hard days. After serving in the U.S. Air Force and earning a bachelor’s degree in religion from Samford University and a master of divinity degree from Claremont School of Theology, he has found the joy, purpose and calling that led him to become a newly-elected bishop in The United Methodist Church.
“Hopefully, people can see that the degrees, the titles, and the experiences are not where I began. That’s just where I’m on the journey right now,” Bridgeforth said. “I do that in a way to connect with people. My leadership style is about connecting with people.”
On Jan. 1, 2023, Bridgeforth will begin serving as bishop of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area of The UMC. The GNW Area comprises the Alaska Conference, Oregon-Idaho Conference and Pacific Northwest Conference. He currently serves as the director of communication and innovation for the California-Pacific Conference.
When he was elected on the 18th ballot at the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Nov. 4, he became the first openly gay African American male to hold the title of bishop within The UMC. His husband, Christopher Hucks-Ortiz, stood by his side as he was welcomed. It’s history he’s proud to make, but it is only part of his story and ministry.
Raised on a farm in rural Alabama, Bridgeforth has served churches in the California-Pacific Conference since 1999. He became an ordained elder in full connection with the church in 2006. He has served at Bowen Memorial United Methodist Church and Crenshaw United Methodist Church, before supervising many churches as a district superintendent in Cal-Pac Conference. He also has been a clergy coach and nonprofit consultant, has served on the board of the Black Methodists for Church Renewal, worked as the director of academic programs and outreach at the University of LaVerne and is a published author, to name a few things.
“I want my story to be open and available to people. There are parts of it people will connect with immediately. There are parts that people will hear and say, ‘I don’t get it.’ And that’s fine. All of us have that in our lives,” he said. “My leadership style is very personal. I try to be accessible to people. I like to hear people’s story because it helps me connect with them.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, he met his good friend – who later became his colleague – Dr. Larry Hygh, Jr., when Hygh and others attending the Strengthening the Black Church conference were stranded in Los Angeles due to the terrorist attacks on this country. Hygh said then-District Superintendent (now Bishop) Grant Hagiya sent church leaders out to check on those who were grounded in Los Angeles. Bridgeforth was one of those pastors.
Hygh recalls a caring presence in that moment. The two became better acquainted when, less than a year later, Hygh became the communications director for the Cal-Pac Conference and got to see what Bridgeforth’s ministry was like up close.
“I think he brings a gift of strategic leadership. I also believe he’s a person who can work with folks from various theological perspectives,” Hygh said. “Even when he might not agree, he can find commonality for the sake of the gospel. Folks like him are what we need.”
Hygh said he’s always appreciated his friend’s ability to meet people – all people – wherever they’re at in life. Hygh watched Bridgeforth work, as a district superintendent in the Los Angeles area, with some of the most diverse churches, communities and neighborhoods in the country.
“He makes connections that sometimes other folks do not see,” Hygh said.
This past summer, Bridgeforth, an avid cyclist and supporter of HIV/AIDS research, encouraged Hygh to train for and participate in a 545-mile AIDS/LifeCycle bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for the San Francisco Aids Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
“He is a much faster cyclist than I am,” Hygh said. “I’m the caboose in the back.”
Nevertheless, Hygh said his friend rode with him in the back one day on the seven-day course and saw a different perspective.
“He’s a servant leader who walks the talk,” Hygh said.
Bridgeforth calls himself collaborative by nature and hopes to bring that work to his role as bishop. He describes it as “a necessity” at this time in the church’s life.
“For us to innovate at the rate we need to, we have to collaborate,” Bridgeforth said.
As he steps into the episcopal role in the Greater Northwest Area, he knows the church is at a critical point. Membership is in decline, and the church may be splintering as some churches seek to disaffiliate before the 2024 General Conference. He knows it’s something that the church will grapple with, and to do that, people must first maintain their hope in Jesus Christ.
“I’m not a person who believes divorce is a bad thing,” Bridgeforth said. “Sometimes divorce is necessary, and it is the only thing that will bring about healing.”
He said it’s a good thing for people to be clear about their values and to bless each other as they depart. But the faithful disciples who remain within the denomination need to be clear about why they have decided to stay – not just because some people they disagree with left.
“Did we remain United Methodists because we believe in the strength of Wesleyan grace? Do we believe in the strength of being connected? Do we believe that serving together is better than just serving on our own? Do we believe that there is truly hope in Jesus Christ? Do we believe we have a message of salvation and resurrection that can resonate in this season and in coming seasons? I’ll preach that; I’ll teach that,” Bridgeforth said. “I want to organize us so that we are delivering that message in every way possible. So that we examine our structures, we examine our policies, and our behaviors so that they align with this understanding of resurrection – of hope on the other side of division.”
When it comes to the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the life and ministry of our United Methodist Churches, is ordination fair and equal yet or is it still something to which we aspire?
As the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church continues its “Where Love Lives” campaign this month, the Greater Northwest Area of The UMC will explore our LGBTQ+ siblings’ call to ministry in a denomination where, by and large, they are still not welcome. Here, Rev. Amanda Gayle Reed shares her perspective on being a queer clergyperson in rural, more conservative communities and calls on her allies in more inclusive communities to understand the challenges.
“It’s not about you, Pastor,” they said.
It was all I could do not to throw my phone across the room and watch it shatter against the wall of the hotel room.
As I write this, I am currently serving two churches two hundred miles apart. I am doing this because when a pastor left to move cross country after her spouse’s job was transferred, conference leadership could not find someone to take the appointment. This is not an unusual circumstance for southern Idaho. It is a rural community that is a lot more conservative and very culturally different than their fellow Methodists on the other side of the conference in Oregon.
I was spending a week at the second church, which is an interim appointment to give them some leadership and help them find ways to worship during a pandemic, when I began getting frantic phone calls from members of my primary appointment.
A couple in the church was withdrawing their membership and as word traveled across the phonelines and over the fences, people wanted to know why. I was at a loss. I could not figure out what could have caused this couple, part of the core of our church who is involved in everything from teaching Sunday School to overseeing the installation of new carpet to sever their relationship with a church they had been active in for so long.
I called and learned that they did not like the “politics” of the conference leadership and didn’t like the “direction” they saw the United Methodist Church traveling… so they were leaving. But they assured me it was not about me.
Except it was.
They just did not know it.
I first began to realize I was being called into ministry when I was sixteen years old. I had been raised in church, as had been my parents, so my faith was deeply rooted. I expected my friends to be shocked by the news, but they just shrugged and said, “You were always the spiritual one.”
At that time, I did not know how to talk about my sexuality.
My mother said I was a late bloomer because I was not pre-occupied with sex.
Tommy, whose locker was next to me, called me a “lesbo”—something he often scrawled on my locker. When I would not reveal the culprit, believing it would just make things worse, the principal ordered me wash the slur off my locker door.
But I did not have the words back then to explain what I was or how I felt.
“Asexual” was not in our lexicon about human sexuality in the mid-nineties. And being a lesbian was not an acceptable answer. I was born and raised in West Virginia. I held very conservative and traditional Appalachian values. Heterosexuality was the only acceptable expression of a person’s innermost feelings and I could not be anything else without sacrificing my family, my place in the community, and my church.
I watched other girls and learned how to act by mimicking them. Every crush I had on television heartthrobs and rock stars was a farce. I was always going with the flow, trying to convince myself and everyone around me that I was just as attracted to Uncle Jesse (from “Full House”) as every other female in my sphere of influence.
It would take years, two suicide attempts, and one failed opposite-sex marriage for me to finally acknowledge what I was. And even then, finding the right label, the correct words, was difficult and a reality I kept well hidden.
Now, I can call myself an “asexual lesbian” and feel wonderfully comfortable with it. I am someone who does not experience any sexual attraction toward anyone but has always felt romantic attractions to other women. But it took a lifetime to get to this place.
When I went before my District Committee on Ordination in my mid-twenties, I was still pretending to be something I was not. I do not know if I would have lied had I been asked about my sexuality, but no one ever raised the question.
I did not really experience discrimination during the ordination process itself. I was fortunate that no one asked, and I was not yet ready to say it publicly. I was also content with singleness at that point in my life and assumed that would protect me from the worst of the anti-gay vitriol.
It was after the ordination process was complete and I was becoming more comfortable in my skin with my clergy identity as well as my sexuality that the problems began.
I stopped pretending. I stopped trying to look like the women around me. I started expressing myself as I saw myself, which has always been perceived as masculine (butch). People began to have suspicions.
I began struggling with the inner debate about coming out publicly because I was serving a church that was making sexuality a major component of their identity. They wanted to be opposed to same-sex marriage and LGBTQIA peoples in the ministry. They kept pushing me to acknowledge that part of me they had began to suspect. Also, the question of full LGBTQIA inclusion in the church was reaching a fever-pitch and I kept hearing my colleagues who opposed inclusion say things like, “We’ll ordain gays as long as they are single and celibate.”
I knew they were lying.
Because if they were being honest, I should not have had to live in hiding and fear. I was single. I was celibate. While I watched straight colleagues have inappropriate sexual relationships and receive little more than a slap on the wrist, I knew that acknowledging my sexuality, even though I was celibate, would end my ministry.
After coming out to some colleagues, my bishop, and my family (in that order—I was terrified of my family’s reaction), I came out publicly.
And it became clear I would not have a future in the ministry in West Virginia.
I was that “single, celibate” gay pastor of conservative Christian mythology, but I was discarded like yesterday’s rubbish. It turns out there is an unspoken aspect of the “single, celibate” minster rule that no one acknowledges, but we all know is there: Do not even think about acknowledging what you are. Be single. Be celibate. And pretend to be straight.
I never thought I would leave Appalachia, but I had to. I applied to transfer to a more progressive, accepting conference. When I was presented with an opportunity to serve a church, it turned out to be on the conservative side of the conference. The District Superintendent called me and asked that I take down the blog articles I had written about coming out. She had loved them, but she did not think the church she was about to present me to would be ready for the “sexuality conversation.”
After years of fear and struggling, after summoning a courage I never knew I had to kick open the door I was hiding behind, and after weathering slings and arrows to come out on the other side somehow still standing, I was asked to go back in the closet.
As I watch churches in southern Idaho struggle to find pastors to serve them, largely since my straight male colleagues (who claim the “ally” label) refuse to itinerate here, I am left to fend for myself.
Single women are carrying the burden of keeping rural churches in southern Idaho open and alive. And in my case, it comes at the price of sacrificing any chance that I might have at living in the fullness of who I am. As long as I am here there will be no dating, no possibility of marriage, no coming home to a partner who can hold me after a hard day. It means getting bad news about parishioners alone in a hotel room and having no shoulder to cry on.
The allies who would have an easier road to walk in these places have simply refused to come and prepare the way. They have left it to those of us who are unwanted to come and make the road smooth and to lay the foundations for a more inclusive church.
Gradually, over the past three years, I have built relationships that have reached the point where we can talk about my sexuality. Some parishioners have figured it out on their own, some I have talked to about it. And some, I am not ready to have that conversation with.
The couple that left fell into the latter category.
I knew a revelation about my sexuality would be difficult for them to accept. I was still praying about how to approach the subject and when to talk to them about it, knowing that if things went sideways, I would be dealing with it alone – and then they announced they were leaving because our conference leadership supports full inclusion of LGBTQIA persons.
What good does it do me that leadership is in support of full inclusion of LGBTQIA persons when that same leadership asked me to go back into the closet and close the door behind me? What good does a public rhetoric of ally-ship do me when those same allies refuse to come to the harder places to be an ally and make the road a little easier for us to walk? What good are messages of solidarity when we are abandoned and alone in these places?
“It’s not about you, Pastor”, they said.
Except it is, whether they know it or not.
Rev. Amanda Gayle Reed, an elder in full connection, joined the Oregon-Idaho Conference in 2017 and currently serves two churches in southern Idaho.
As the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church continues its “Where Love Lives” campaign this month, the Greater Northwest Area of The UMC will explore our LGBTQ+ siblings’ call to ministry in a denomination where, by and large, they are still not welcome.
This is the unfiltered story of Rev. Katie Ladd, an ordained elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference who identifies herself as queer. Listen to her story of being called to ministry as an outsider, going through her ordination service without her beloved standing beside her, and her hopes for the denomination’s future.
Being Methodist is a core part of my personal identity. My family counts two circuit riders in it – Jeptha Hughes and Ashley Hewitt. While history does not indicate calling, the stories of circuit riding down the Natchez Trace and into Louisiana fueled my imagination as a child. I preached to my stuffed animals on the Sundays we did not go to church. This imagination would become part of my dreaming for a church rooted in the past, oriented to the context in which it is found, and nimble and responsive to a future yet to be charted.
The first real voice that invited me to think about ordained ministry was my associate pastor, a woman, who approached me after youth Sunday and remarked that I might give the idea some thought. I brushed it off with a laugh. After my first year in college (a United Methodist liberal arts college), I began the candidacy process; it languished for years. While working for an environmental chemistry firm in Houston, my spirit cried out for more. My college advisor from the religion department encouraged me to return to graduate school with eyes toward a master’s degree of divinity (MDiv). I wanted to enroll in a master’s degree in art program en route to a doctorate degree. This adviser persuaded me against the latter, seeing in me something I couldn’t see in myself. This has been true throughout my call.
Some are called from deep within; some of us have the call articulated by others and are guided toward a life that we otherwise would not have chosen – think Jonah or Moses. Even in divinity school, I did not see myself working in a church setting. Medical ethics was my focus. Yet, throughout a gradual but transformative time, the work of sowing community and participating in the healing of the world through community led me back to what my ancestors did so long ago – pastoral work in a rapidly changing social landscape.
Being Queer is as much a part of me as my gender, nationality, ethnicity, or Methodist roots, and it clearly has influenced my call to and work in ministry. Throughout my life, I have been an outsider. I have never fit in. Some of that is due to sexual orientation, but not all. This outsider status has opened me to empathy in a way that transcends the particularities of my own experience and in ways that bring me into deep spiritual community with people very unlike me. That said, when I began the long and circuitous route to ordination, sexual orientation was not part of the conscious discernment process – not until divinity school. It was there that the dean of Methodist studies discouraged me from taking Methodist classes. He deemed them a “waste of time” because I refused to live in a closet. I insisted on living out as God created me to be. Therefore, I would either never be ordained or would not remain ordained. He told me to save my money and spend it elsewhere in school.
In the 1990s there was no place for an out bisexual clergy person in any denomination, including ours. While I didn’t take his classes, that discouragement achieved the opposite of his goals; it made me more determined than ever to stake my claim in the church that had been my home – and my family’s home – for generations. I belonged here and no prejudice would drive me out. Most of my early ministry was centered on people living with addiction, as I have done. I worked with abused and neglected children. I worked with unhoused youth and young adults. While I have never experienced this kind of trauma, I did know what it felt like not to belong and to know what it means to have one’s core self-excluded, ignored, derided, and despised.
But the privilege of growing up loved and secure gave me a strength to stand in the breach with those not afforded the same. Knowing a God who always embraced me in times of duress put holy ground under my feet. I understood the experience of exile and the joy of homecoming. These have circumscribed my ministry – exile and homecoming. This is fueled by the slights and struggles I experienced as a young Queer person, but my ministry is with and to all who have experienced exile and who yearn for sacred homecoming.
My ordination process began in what was once called the North Arkansas Annual Conference. I grew up around Memphis, TN, just south in Mississippi and just north in Arkansas. My family is from the Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana corner of our nation. I’m deeply Southern. It won’t surprise anyone that neither my theology nor my person found home in the church that formed me. The church that baptized me ultimately did not want me to serve any of its congregations. My process was largely unremarkable until I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry where things went decidedly and horribly wrong. Evidently my psychological evaluation was returned with a handwritten note that said that I “don’t conform to traditional female roles,” which was, evidently, code for suspicion that I might be “gay.” Not wanting to deal with this in a direct manner in the mid-90s, another tack was taken – to tear apart answers to theological questions. At first the conversation with the board was confusing, then heated, and eventually it turned acrimonious. During a break, the same pastor who had first approached me regarding ministry filled me on the assumptions. I simply challenged them to ask if I was gay and I left. That ended the process in Arkansas. Much like being dissuaded from taking Methodist classes in divinity school, this did not stop the pursuit of ministry. Rather, I searched for a place where my exile could become homecoming. That led to the Pacific Northwest Conference. One might think the challenges ended here.
While my time here has been much different from Arkansas, there were challenges in my process and there remain challenges in ministry. Leading up to annual conference where I was to be ordained an elder, I was cautioned not to bring my partner up with me during the laying on of hands as is the tradition. I couldn’t in good conscience leave my spouse sitting with my church and bring my parents. I was ordained alone. That is a more dramatic moment, but life is filled with such moments. For years, or so I’ve been told, there were people who asked for me not to receive an appointment. That exile experience made its way into my heart, too. For years I needed a new robe or alb, but I wouldn’t buy one because I was certain that I wouldn’t make it through the next year as a pastor of a church. I have lived with that for 23 years of ordained ministry. That low level anxiety continues to be part of me even though I am unaware of it most of the time: I still don’t have business cards….
Even here in the PNW Conference, and the Western Jurisdiction, we have work to do today.
Even in congregations that become part of the Reconciling Ministries Network movement, much work is needed to re-sculpt them into places of homecoming for LGBTQIA+ people, including clergy. Beyond that, even in those congregations that have created strong ecosystems of welcome for and leadership from LGBTQIA+ people, much is needed to align this work for justice and dream for homecoming with other struggles, such as dismantling white supremacy.
Struggles do not exist in a vacuum. Injustice does not exist in a silo. Each is related to the other. As part of our Gospel call, there is much to do, and it cannot, or should not, be left to individual clergy and congregations to sort out alone. For example, I was going to be appointed to a congregation that was not yet reconciling. In conversation with the then bishop about my concerns, I was told that no preparation would be done because sexual orientation shouldn’t be an issue. There was a distinct “if we don’t talk about it, it’s not a problem” naïveté with this attitude. This kind of naiveté creates harm, and, as Wesleyans, our first rule is to “do no harm.” Harm ensued. Over the years there have been acts of vandalism, protests, and even threats of violence directed toward the churches I’ve served and to me. Largely I have been left to sort through these on my own using pre-existing relationships to seek wisdom and to my own devices to find the resources required. This is not connectionism at work. We can, and must, do better.
As we look to what Methodism might be in the future, I hope that our new incarnation will not simply be the same old church but one that will fully embrace LGBTQIA+ people. I hope we let the Holy Spirit blow through this institution with holy life that ties us each to another – struggle to struggle, hope to hope, congregation to congregation such that no person feels abandonment, despair, injustice or oppression. The Gospel is a proclamation of life in the midst of death. To affirm Queer folks is to break open the staid and dead systems that hold us down so that life erupts in unexpected ways. This requires truth telling, life sharing, discomfort, and hard and courageous conversations – absolutely about sexual orientation and gender identity, but also about so much more – sexual ethics, white supremacy, wealth and money, missional priorities, colonialism, prophetic nerve, bold action, empowered laity, willingness to fail, nimble systems, accountability for the privileged, and courageous leadership.
God is at work in our world and in our people. The prophets tell us that God calls from the margins and demands that we center the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – those who are most despised and vulnerable. The community that does this is on the side of God’s Gospel of life. We need to center the voices of those who have been pushed aside, dismissed, and discounted. Then we will find ourselves moving toward the beloved community – God’s holy reign.
As we continue our “Where Love Lives: Fair and Equal Ordination for All” storytelling project as part of the Western Jurisdiction campaign for a fully inclusive church, we hear from Amory Peck, a lay member of the Pacific Northwest Conference and former Conference Lay Leader and lay delegate to General Conference. In addition to that, she spent time serving on the PNW Board of Ordained Ministry, helping to evaluate provisional candidates for ministry.
For more than 20 years, Peck has been advocating for an LGBTQ+ inclusive United Methodist Church. But as you’ll read her perspective, it’s been a long, arduous journey:
In 2004, as a group of PNW Reconciling Ministries activists were getting ready for a demonstration, a young woman, quite new to our band of advocates, said to us, “How do you people do it? I’ve been doing this work for three months already, and nothing has changed.” While her passion was admirable, her impatience was naïve. At that point, I was eight years “out” in The United Methodist Church, and still a relative newbie to the struggle for full LGBTQ+ inclusion in our denomination.
At the 1996 Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, then Rev. Elaine JW Stanovsky, one of our clergy delegates to the just-concluded General Conference in Denver, was giving her report. Her comments raised questions, and people kept asking for clarification about “the issue.” That phrase propelled me out of my seat to explain that, as a lesbian, it was not “an issue.” It was my life. Most of my memories of that day are a mishmash, but I do remember one response. A man I’d worked beside for years said, “I’ve never liked homosexuals … but I like Amory.” He shook his head and repeated, “I’ve never liked homosexuals, but I really like Amory.” That afternoon I learned, first-hand, the power of letting my life speak.
By the time General Conference 2000 came about, I had run for and been elected as a reserve delegate. In all I’ve attended four General Conferences as a member of the delegation, then two more as a visitor. When I stepped into the fray in 2000, I was joining a conversation on homosexuality that had been going on since 1972.
General Conference 1972 amended the Social Principles by adding, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”. Since the definition of incompatible is “two things so opposed in character as to be incapable of existing together,” the effect of the incompatibility clause was chilling. From that premise hung the rest of the prohibitions that followed. Over the next years, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church was changed to prohibit gay clergy, same-sex marriage, clergy performing same-sex marriages, or allowing those marriages to be held in UM churches. Defying those regulations became a chargeable offense.
I entered into the discord in the 28th year of the struggle. Once I was able to see and participate in the rule making process of our denomination, I saw firsthand the bravery of people letting their life speak. I joined the ranks of those protesting: singing, standing, and performing acts of disruption. We were rainbow bedecked, forcing everyone to acknowledge we were there. We were rejected by some, tolerated by a large number, and gratefully appreciated by a growing number.
Over the years, I observed a stunning progression in the witness of gay clergy. In 2000, they were represented by The Shower of Stoles, a collection of stoles donated by LGTBQ+ clergy unable to serve because the unjust policies of the denomination. We, as demonstrators, wore the stoles while standing before the session. Sixteen years later, one hundred LGBTQ+ clergy published their names in a statement to the General Conference, and many of them attended General Conference in Portland to make themselves known as they stood in solidarity for all to see.
I have been blessed by the Conference experiences I’ve had. I have met, worked with, cried, shouted, prayed and protested with marvelous people I would never have met otherwise – people who became my friends as well as my heroes.
But each session was a wrenching experience—a life-draining, emotionally violent battering. It hurts to be rejected, year after year. It causes deep pain to be found “less than” over and over. By 2016, when the delegates called on the bishops for an intercession, it had become frightening, as well. The sight and sound of hundreds of delegates from the opposition winding themselves through the plenary floor singing “ … marching as to war … “ was unnerving. The bishops intervened, ended all discussion of the LGBTQ+ legislation, and pledged to form a Commission on the Way Forward which would report at a special session. That session ended up being held in 2019, in St. Louis.
I was bolstered during those years by the warmth of the church in the West. As the global church became more and more entrenched in exclusionary ways, our Western Jurisdiction became more and more welcoming. The Jurisdiction became reconciling, my Annual Conference did as well, and then, my local church. My personal life flourished. My wife and I had a Holy Union ceremony in 1998, with a retired pastor officiating and seven pastors attending. We married legally in 2013, in our home church, with our pastor officiating, two bishops attending, and, as was said, “enough clergy in attendance to hold an annual conference.”
But, as the special 2019 session ended, I realized my energy for attending General Conference had been exhausted. I am no longer healthy or resilient enough to be a physical witness to the process. Then, COVID-19 arrived, we settled ourselves for what became a long haul, and my resolve became even more clear.
As a high-risk, over seventy-five-year-old, I took the directive to stay home seriously. As a result, I had time to indulge my CNN/MSNBC watching. Glued to the screen, the wrenching politics of 2020 became intermixed in my mind with the politics of General Conference. The machinations of both were so distasteful. The scope and fervor of the opposition was startling. I’d known that, but seen up-close, it was daunting.
Through all the dismay, what became so clear to me was the distinction between living, loving, serving God and the rigid following of rules and regulations to control the people of God.
The query “How do you people do it?” came back to me. This time, seventeen years after that question was raised, I respond, “I don’t, not any longer.”
But, praise the Lord, many still do. I give thanks for the WJ College of bishops and their bold stands, including, particularly, this Where Love Lives emphasis. I give thanks for allies throughout the country, and throughout the world. For RMN and its continuing justice work. And, in particular, with special admiration, I thank God for the new clergy entering into this frayed system
I served on the PNW Board of Ordained Ministry from 2012-2020, tumultuous years in the UMC. The issue of homosexuality, bubbling for almost fifty years, was to spill over in 2016. The very future of the UMC was on the line. However, each year, for those eight years, the provisional committee, of which I was a member, learned to know the gifts and graces of eager, passionate candidates, placing their lives into service to the church. I was filled with awe at the strength of their call despite—or, perhaps, because of—the turmoil in the denomination.
What moved me most deeply was knowing that a number of the candidates we were interviewing were, quite likely, LGBTQ+ candidates. As a committee, we wanted to provide the most safe, confidential, supportive environment we could. There was one small thing I could do. The first evening of our multi-day gatherings together, the interviewers and the candidates would meet for a get-acquainted time. I always made a point to mention something about “my wife and I,” signaling an ally in the room. The PNW was known for its inclusive stand, yet every clergy candidate coming before us knew there were risks. Every LGBTQ+ clergy candidate knew of the turmoil and eruptions ahead. How could they put themselves forward into such a toxic atmosphere? I was in awe of their commitment to letting their life speak.
Because of The Book of Discipline’s policy denying LGBTQ persons into membership, the PNW had traditionally followed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the interviews. During the years I was involved, that approach evolved into a more inclusive atmosphere Our questions spoke of our commitment to diversity, and queried the candidates on how they would, themselves, work towards such an end. We were delighted when one candidate, when asked whether he would follow the rules of The Book of Discipline said, “I will follow it, until I can’t.” Just days before General Conference 2016, to be held in Portland, we released our video statement “making explicit what we had been doing implicitly.”
I lifted the title for this piece from Parker Palmer’s book, “Let Your Life Speak”. In it, Palmer describes the beauty we offer to the world when we live out our authentic selves. In talking about social justice heroes, he says: “… the people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live ‘divided no more.’ They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside.” And, even when there are negative consequences, they understand that, “no punishment anyone might inflict on them could possibly be worse than the punishment they inflict on themselves by conspiring in their own diminishment.”
When General Conference meets in 2022, it will mark fifty years of ecclesiastical turmoil. It will, most likely, also mark the time when the denomination officially splits. I pray that all my LGBTQ+ siblings find a spiritual home where they can let their lives speak.
Amory Peck lives in Bellingham, Wash., with her wife. You can read more of her writing and reflections at www.amorypeck.com.
As we continue our “Where Love Lives: Fair and Equal Ordination for All” storytelling project as part of the Western Jurisdiction campaign for a fully inclusive church, we hear from Rev. Karen Dammann, who this week 17 years ago was put on trial for “practices incompatible with Christian teaching” three years after disclosing to then-Pacific Northwest Conference Bishop Elias Galvan that she was a lesbian.
Her trial drew national media attention to a Sunday school classroom at Bothell UMC. She was acquitted by a 13-member board of her peers. But as you’ll read in her first-person account, Dammann still wonders if the scrutiny, the fear, the isolation and more were all worth it.
It was 17 years ago this week that my family and a team of supporters arrived at a church north of Seattle for the trial that was to determine whether I was guilty of “practices incompatible with Christian teaching”.
This trial came at the end of a three-year legal process that began in 2001 when I came out to my Bishop. Our child was two-and-a-half years old at that time and had just started to call me “Mama.” This normally exciting development was the point that required me to face the fact that the closet was no place to raise a child. We would not teach this innocent being – our child – to lie, and we could not expect our child to keep his family a secret.
I thought about surrendering my credentials when we decided to leave the closet, but the person who had become our pastor, Rev. John Auer, asked me if I was still called to the ministry. The answer was “yes.” With John’s support, and the help of his congregation, I was able to come out to my Bishop.
I knew there would be consequences for my choice, the main one being the loss of my vocation. We hoped that coming out of the closet, rather than quietly quitting, might help our denomination move toward full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons. What we were not prepared for was the media scrutiny, estrangement from colleagues, and threats to our safety.
The Rev. Bob Ward and our legal team built a defense that included a broad slate of church experts who offered to testify for full inclusion in our denominational polity. For three days, we heard testimony that shined a light on our denomination’s unjust exclusive stance. This testimony made possible a “not guilty” verdict.
Bishop William Boyd Grove, presiding bishop, ended the trial by sealing the trial record, which effectively ended the possibility of sharing the expert testimony with the rest of the denomination.
In the years since I have asked several times to have the transcript released, not just for the Church, but for our child, who was the catalyst for being us being truthful about who his family is.
In 2018 I met Stephen Drachler (formerly of UM Communications, now a consultant) at a Reconciling Ministry Gathering. We spoke about the trial and he offered to approach Bishop Grove about releasing the transcript.
As a result of Stephen’s action, I received a letter from Bishop Grove in January of 2019 telling me that he and Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky had agreed to release the transcript to me and to the public. (Thank you, Stephen!) Thank you also to Bishop Grove on behalf of the two-and-a-half year old, the 5-year-old and the now 22-year-old person I had hoped would have the transcript to read one day.
Last February (2020) Bishop Elaine told me the transcript had not been found in the PNW Office, even though, according to the provisions of the Book of Discipline, the transcript and all records of a trial shall be held in a special secure file by the Secretary of the Annual Conference.
That brings us to the present moment. I have been asked if it was worth it.
In many ways it was not worth it. When the transcript and the information that it contained was sealed, the hope that the cost of my coming out would help our denomination to see a way to include everyone slipped away. The danger and threats that our family experienced was never worth it. Sadly, our denomination continues to officially exclude from full participation LBGTQIA+ people. We are now in limbo waiting for the church to split over the issue. What difference did it make after all?
On the other hand, was it worth it? In some ways it was. The Greater Northwest has become a place of full inclusion for LGBTQIA+ persons. Maybe the trial did make a difference, even just a little bit, in the GNW becoming safer than many other places in the denomination.
A not-guilty verdict, and remaining in good standing, was an unexpected outcome for me. It was worth it personally for that determination.
Even though the threats we received convinced us to disappear for a while to keep our family safe after the trial, I longed for the day I could come back to work. In 2012 I was appointed by Bishop Grant Hagiya to serve a church in Alaska. I am in my ninth year of ministry here.
Seventeen years later some things have changed for the better. Many things have not. I still want to be able to hand a copy of the trial transcript to my son. Maybe someone reading this knows where it is.
This week, I will do what I always do on the anniversary of my trial. I will light a candle in prayer for the full inclusion of my LGBTQIA+ siblings in our church. I have hope that whatever emerges in the year ahead, there will be a denomination that is fully inclusive of everyone.
Rev. Karen Dammann is an ordained elder in the PNW Conference, currently serving United Methodist churches in the Alaska Conference.
Editor’s note: When it comes to the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the life and ministry of our United Methodist Churches, is ordination fair and equal yet or is it still something to which we aspire? Throughout the month of March, we’ll hear stories from LGBTQ+ clergy and laity. Each of these stories is unique to the individual who was invited to share their perspective.
In a journey of faith there are a lot of questions: “Who or what is God? Who was or is Jesus? My mom believes in God and Jesus, but my dad is agnostic. What do I believe? What should I believe? Does God have a plan for my life? Is it wrong to question whether or not God even exists?”
For each of us, even if we don’t recognize it, those questions of faith and belief lead us to a place of calling: “Well, I believe all life is sacred and worth saving. So… should I be a doctor, a lawyer, or a therapist? Or should I follow a passion for health and fitness and be really active in my faith on the side? Food pantries and volunteering and mission trips and what not?”
Some of us receive the epiphany that we are called to ministry. It could be a single event, or phrase, or answered prayer, or a thought we knew was not our own (or all four). Our reactions are all different, too. Some of us get uber excited and can’t wait to delve into conversations about what comes next with our pastors. Some of us just sit there in stunned silence when the revelation hits, quietly asking, “Who? Me?” And some of us plead to be called to something else… until the burning of God’s compassion in our own hearts convicts us.
The thing is, not one of us, when we receive that call to be ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to preach the word of God’s love to the people, to lead God’s people in loving neighbor, stranger, and even enemy alike, have ever heard God say, “I’m calling you into professional ministry. First, though, I need you to stand still and pray hard while I burn away the gay in you.”
When God calls us, our orientation, sexuality, gender identity, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t come in to play. God already knows who we are. God already knows because that is how God created us. God loves us as we are for who we are… God’s own.
The questions of my sexuality didn’t come into play until I began to understand what I would have to admit to myself and the world around me: I would have to be honest. I would have to be vulnerable. I would have to be out.
This was the scary part. I knew I was accepted for who I was in my church community. If I could stay there, ever in their embrace I would have. Instead, as I worked through the process, the 2019 special General Conference loomed over my fate. New questions of faith formed. “Will the denomination I grew up in decide to accept me and the LGBTQIA+ community I belong to, or will the denomination reject us? Will I have a place? How will I answer God’s call if the church abandons me?”
Then the ball dropped. The denomination failed to act in the love of God. They voted, narrowly, to remain blinded by archaic and misrepresented passages in scripture. They voted to retain the patronizing language in The United Methodist Book of Discipline claiming we who identify as other than straight have sacred worth while denying that God could ever call us to a life of ordained service. They voted to cut us out entirely from the ordained leadership of the church, telling those of us already ordained to resign.
I had a choice to make. Would I live a lie, trying to hide my fiancé (now husband), ultimately losing him completely along with pieces of myself as time ever moved onward? Or do I stand firm in who I am in the love of God, as God made me, answering the call in a denomination that had just summarily rejected my freedom to be me and teach and preach the love of God.
Thankfully, the Oregon-Idaho Conference made that choice easy. I am lucky. So far, in this conference I have never felt the scrutiny or the second guessing, the inappropriate questioning, or pressure from a superintendent or bishop to hide the fact I am gay. On the contrary, I have felt supported and affirmed in my call to ministry. Additionally, I’ve had very little resistance from the congregation I’ve been appointed to pastor. Aside from one family who left the church before my appointment began, they’ve fully accepted my husband, Romulo, and myself from the get-go.
Sadly, I know this is not everyone’s experience. I also know there are challenges ahead I have yet to face. While I feel supported by this conference, we are far from perfect. We are not all on the same page as a conference, let alone a denomination. Our churches do not stand united on LGBTQIA+ acceptance. Our congregations live in mixed realities. They lean either toward God’s full embrace of all persons, or God’s “righteous” practice of exclusionary inclusion – saying God’s love is for everyone, but only everyone we approve of.
In this time of conflicting perceptions of truth, there needs to a push for transformation and awareness, awake-ness even. There needs to be open dialogue between persons on both sides of the issue. There needs to be conference wide training of LGBTQIA+ issues and how to support us. There needs to be unwavering support for advocacy and initiatives toward programs that support LGBTQIA+ youth. There needs to be bold action and leadership from the conference on the denominational stance. There needs to be congregational education on LGBTQIA+ issues balanced between faith, historical context, and the biological/psychological science around being queer.
While this goes beyond the scope of the ordination of queer pastors it is necessary when talking about ordination. You see, the process, at least from my experience, is inclusive and accepting (in this conference). It’s after the ordination where support needs to continue. Out in the congregations of our conference, the theology becomes diverse and the environment can very quickly become toxic and abusive. We are willing to teach and preach in ways that educate and inspire the transformation we seek. Being surrounded in conference support makes that a whole lot easier.
Rev Thomas Orquiza-Renardo is a provisional elder serving in the Oregon- Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Should there be a question mark, or an exclamation point at the end this statement about being a fully inclusive United Methodist Church Where Love Lives.
When it comes to the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the life and ministry of our United Methodist Churches, is ordination fair and equal yet or is it still something to which we aspire?
As the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church continues its “Where Love Lives” campaign this month, the Greater Northwest Area of The UMC will explore our LGBTQ+ siblings’ call to ministry in a denomination where, by and large, they are still not welcome.
The Western Jurisdiction has made many strides when it come to ordaining and appointing LGBTQ+ individuals to serve in our local churches. After the 2019 special called General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan, which created great harm to our LGBTQ+ siblings as well as our churches, leaders from the Western Jurisdiction quickly declared we would be a “Home for All God’s People.”
We have made many bold statements and acted with nobility in the Western Jurisdiction. But as you will read in the unfiltered, unedited stories being shared this month, we are not finished yet.
You’ll hear from our LGBTQ+ clergy how they react to the statement “Fair and Equal Ordination for All,” based on their own call story, experiences in local church settings, our communities and our respective conferences. Each of these stories is unique to the individual who was invited to share their perspective.
We ask that you honor and respect the courage it takes for some people to publicly tell their stories and offer their honest feedback so that we might – one day soon – be able to say, “fair and equal ordination for all is here.” No questions asked.