Saturday, June 20, 2015

What's Love Got to Do With It?

I'm leaving the ministry.  I'm going to be a beekeeper.  If  you haven't been following the last couple of posts, I've caught you up in two short sentences.  This post is going to be long and occupied with a specific subject - I hope you'll spend the time to read and understand it.  I'm going to try and explain some of the reasons I have felt a growing need to leave the ministry.  I'll be describing, in particular, one area that has generated a growing disconnect between my personal life and my professional life, and how that disconnect has fed this decision for change.  This will be something like a confession, and like all confessions is equal parts pain and relief.  And, as a reminder, this is my personal blog, a cataloging of my own journey - here I do not speak for the church I serve or the denomination that carries my credentials.  These are my own thoughts, relating to my own journey and my own convictions.

Not all of what follows will be entirely understandable, I fear, if you, dear reader, are not from the strange land of Christendom.  Understand that much of my own personal history has occurred in some relationship to the church, and that has had a profound effect on what I have perceived to be important, right, and true.  What follows will be an accounting of that history as it relates to a particular conversation within and outside of the church.  This conversation, and the controversies it embodies, are not, of course, the only pertinent or important factors in my decision to leave the ministry as I have so far known it - but it is a window through which you might come to understand the levels of fatigue, disillusionment and cynicism that contribute to such a decision.  Those things have their answers, in more than equal portion, in renewed energy, enthusiasm, and optimism for what I hope is ahead.

Over the past several years, I have been involved in some complex discussions related to changes facing the church.  Macro-scale happenings in our North American context that are being felt right down to the old, wooden pew in that church down the street that you probably haven't been to lately and that fewer and fewer people are going to at all.  As a bit of background, I was raised in the Presbyterian tradition, my grandfather was a minister, church life was also family life.  As I grew older I came to understand some additional nuances - we weren't just Christian, we were Presbyterian, we weren't just Presbyterian we were PC(USA), we weren't just PC(USA), we were West Coast PC(USA), which meant that we were part of a broadly evangelical-identifying tradition within mainline, protestant Christianity.  

Lost?  Don't worry, most of those nuances don't matter in the outside world, but those tribal identifiers informed me in very specific ways.  They shaped what I believed, what I felt was right, how I reasoned through things, what kinds of authority I accepted and where I was likely to be a skeptic.  The church has as one of its primary tasks the passing on of the faith, but it also effectively passes along a whole set of values, mindsets, judgments, biases and beliefs that sort of hitch a ride along with what one might call the core or essential aspects of faith.  For me, these combined in their own way to produce a young man who, when first entering the ministry, could pretty well be described using words like conservative, Reformed and Evangelical.  Those words not only described the sort of theology I tended to find plausible, but also my starting point for approaching social issues, politics, etc.

I take a moment to describe that because it may help you understand my starting point, my...what should I call it?...default understanding?....on a subject that has had an immense influence on the church and our culture at large in the past several decades: LGBTQ sexuality/identity.  Like so many in the evangelical world, I had been taught very little about the LBGTQ community, my worldview was formed by the kinds of playground humor that filters down from adults to kids, and, importantly, by the prevalent teaching of the church on LGBTQ matters which boils down to some variation of: God doesn't like it, it's not natural, it is sinful, etc., etc.  I didn't come up in communities that were putting out nonsense about the "Gay Agenda" or that kind of thing, though I certainly recognized and brushed up against those kinds of teachings within Christian circles.  Yet, though the rhetoric was less harsh, there was certainly a sort of uniformity in evangelical circles, a level of presumed agreement that left very little room for deviation.

At a certain level, this means that communities are able to achieve a pretty high level of homogeneity of opinion, which can shelter members from critical questions, arguments, and resources that would suggest any view counter to what has been traditionally held.  I received, almost through osmosis, the evangelical view of LGBTQ matters, and then, as I became older, reaching high school and college age, I was equipped, through teaching and bible study, to defend that viewpoint.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I was given answers to what were perceived to be "liberal" arguments against orthodoxy.

As I progressed along a career path in ministry, the "battle" over sexuality issues became more overt, and looking back I see that I was being equipped as a soldier in that battle.  When I was being examined for ordination, at the end of my seminary training, I met with a committee for final evaluation and found myself stepping into the battlefield in earnest.  I was a candidate from a "conservative" church, the language of my confession of faith contained all the right keywords that aligned me with "orthodoxy" in this matter, and others, and I met with genuine hostility in that committee from members that were in the "liberal" camp within the PC(USA).  It seemed to confirm everything I had ever been taught about the war over future of the church.  I was passed along into ministry, because, among other reasons, conservative churches still held great influence in various corners of the organization.

You may have noticed a lot of '' ''s in the last paragraph.  Read them as big airquotes, and you'll catch my tone.  All of that language, the binaries of liberal and conservative, orthodox vs progressive, even the language of battle, war - that language serves to perpetuate the mythology that fuels the conflict and these days I am much more careful in my diction.  But back then, it reflected, in some ways, how I thought, who I saw as "my people", and who I saw as operatives of the "other" side.  Becoming an ordained minister meant that I was now a voting member of my organization, and now had opportunity to work to protect the church.  And I did.  In sexuality issues I voted the conservative line, every time.  I rolled my eyes at the rainbow stoles of my colleagues, I shook my head at their arguments for a different understanding of human sexuality, one that would be inclusive, welcome things like same-sex marriage.

Things were changing in the culture that were complicating the picture.  Same sex marriage was becoming legal in state after state, and with those changes came better awareness of the kinds of arguments that were changing minds: refutations of the pseudo-science that gets passed around in the church; lucid and compelling arguments based upon civil rights for the gay community; increasing awareness of the pain and suffering endured by LGBTQ youth and adults as part of a minority population; and a growing celebration of "out" culture that meant everyone began to realize that they knew LGTBQ folks as friends or family.  We've seen a remarkable shift in public opinion and cultural acceptance of LGBTQ folk over the past two decades.  In the evangelical wing of the church, however, this created a sense of defensiveness, even panic, and one's theological convictions on LGBTQ issues became a litmus test for orthodoxy.  Lines were drawn in the sand.

Not surprisingly, churches have been splitting over these issues.  The Episcopal Church in America is remembered for taking the leap first, with the ordination of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in 2003.  Conflict erupted after that, and headlines were filled (for a short time) with stories of property disputes and political realignment of congregations.  The Presbyterians were laboring along in their own way.  With many shared organizational characteristics with the US Congress, the machinations of advocacy groups for and against inclusion were creating an increasingly polarized atmosphere in the General Assembly (the hive-mind of the Presbyterian Church(USA)).  There were rumblings of a split coming, as evangelicals increasingly saw themselves as a faithful remnant in an organization largely gone astray.

In early 2011, the rumblings of a split reached the surface, and a group of influential evangelical leaders in the PC(USA) began talking about a new denominational expression.  This would eventually become ECO, the new Presbyterian denomination with the unwieldy name (the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians).  I was a part of the early formation of this organization.  I was already becoming ill-at-ease with the teachings and conclusions I had held on the LGBTQ issues by this time.  My confidence in my previous beliefs were being undermined as I watched the narratives of the church spin up in defense of evangelical orthodoxy.  I listened to people link theological deviance on this issue with heterodoxy of every kind, from rejection of the Trinity to outright cultural idolatry.  Now, here I was working with leaders I had always respected, from churches within the evangelical family tree that I knew so well - and I found the discussions being had were ugly.  It was carefully concealed theological ugliness most of the time, language about authority of scripture, welcoming but not affirming, high calling of celibacy, etc - all of this lipstick put on what increasingly seemed to me to be the face of bigotry.

I attended and was even a visible leader in a meeting in September of 2011 that marked the beginning of the end for me as a part of my evangelical family of origin.  Attendance at that meeting, held in Minneapolis, swelled at the same time as the official stance on openly gay clergy was beginning to change within the PC(USA).  The increased interest in what was to be ECO was no accident - though the new denomination was talking a lot about new ministry practices, it was painfully clear that many people were there because they were fleeing the "gay" issue, seeking a safe port in the storm of cultural change.  I heard talk in those halls that deeply bothered me - a kind of easy self-assurance of rightness, narratives of self-justification that seemed so transparently self-serving, and even outright bigotry on occasion.  I left disillusioned and unsure of my place.

National events in the PC(USA) were having regional effect, and it was clear that the church I served would be forced to make a decision on their denominational future.  I helped lead them in that discernment process, including an in-depth study on matters related to the LGBTQ community and the church.  I am ashamed to say that the process was really the first time that I had done any such study myself, and I suppose I used it as an opportunity to hit the reset button, to apply critical thought to the entire subject, to start from scratch and examine everything that I had been taught, as well as give hearing to the whole wide range of theological thought on the matter.  My previously held convictions, what I had been taught as orthodox belief on matters of sexuality, were already tipping...but it was actual study of the scripture that toppled those convictions for good.  I was careful to let the leadership of the church and eventually, in later classes, members of the congregation, go through their own study and reach their own conclusions.  But my own mind was irrevocably changed during that process.

I am deeply sorry that I have, for so long, hindered the progress of understanding and hospitality in the church.  I have, for too long, contributed to an ancient bigotry, one that has been perpetuated and sustained through church doctrine and culture.  Heterosexual privilege and perspective has informed the dominant culture for so long, it has caused such harm for the LGBTQ community and the church.  Rather than being a community of good news, the evangelical community has institutionalized and theologically justified prejudice against the LGBTQ community, turning good news bad, transforming freedom in Christ into a millstone for those who have the misfortune to stand out as different from the majority population.  Majority populations are very good at writing totalizing narratives that justify their own beliefs, culture, practices, etc., and also excel at marginalizing and radicalizing populations that diverge from that majority.  I think that sociological truth goes a long way towards understanding the kinds of narratives of support of heterosexuality as an expression of theological orthodoxy.  Those narratives are the air one breathes as a bona fide member of the majority....it takes some effort to get enough perspective to begin to see outside that bubble.

So, I have, over the last several years, gone through a conversion of sorts.  My mind has been changed, my convictions radically altered on this matter - and that has put me out of step with much of the Christian world, especially the evangelical world.  Professionally, this has made my job as a pastor more complicated.  I serve a community that is full of mixed and strongly held opinion on these matters.  I serve in an organization that has traditions and policies that, by and large, align with historical orthodoxy on these matters.  For the past several years I have stood in a very strange middle ground, having to carefully weigh every word, be measured with every teaching, hold in tension a great many views.  This certainly is a trivial discomfort compared to the great pain endured by LGBTQ persons so often in the church, but it is a discomfort I have felt keenly at times.  While personally I have become more and more convinced that the church is part of a problem of perpetuating injustice, professionally I have often had to share space with people whose views I find increasingly problematic, if not outright bigoted, especially in circles of pastors.  I don't belong to the evangelical world any longer, and the disconnect personally and professionally has been part of the formula for my weariness and burnout. 

I don't think it is my place or role to enforce my personal views on a congregation, that is not my idea of what the calling of pastor is all about.  However, I have become more and more uncomfortable with my own association with teachings that I consider wrong...flat out wrong.  And as I've become more convinced of the wrongheadedness of much of church doctrine, tradition, and church culture on this matter, I have also become more discouraged by my own enabling of that tradition by my participation in the very system of which I am growing more and more suspicious.

I think there is nobility in working for change.  I have spent time and energy in the past year contributing to advocacy efforts within the Evangelical Covenant Church, the denomination that ended up being the new home for my congregation here in Yakima.  Within the Covenant there are people of incredible talent and possessing great stamina who are working to bring about changes in the church, like the brothers and sisters working through Mission Friends for Inclusion.  They wage an uphill battle and will always have my appreciation and admiration, for whatever those are worth.

The Covenant, generally, is a pretty good fit for this congregation.  It is certainly part of the evangelical world, but also embodies an ethos, polity and culture that has some promise of providing a decent context for conversations about inclusion to carry forward.  Change will not happen overnight.  Yet, at the same time, the ECC is part of an evangelical tradition that I now chafe under, a tradition that I can't, with any personal integrity, continue to identify with as a pastor.  Indeed, the process of my credentialing within the ECC (a travail, to say the least) revealed to me just how far out of step I have become with the majority culture and the leadership of the denomination.  The posturing and positioning of the denominational leadership as they seek to resist change of hearts and minds around these important matters is, on the one hand, entirely understandable to me as a command/control response to rapid change.  It is also entirely unacceptable to me personally, and I no longer possess the patience for it.

This all may not be easy for folks in the church to hear and understand.  I am not angry with those who hold to a traditional view, though I do earnestly hope that view will change.  Nor do I see myself as abandoning those who hold an inclusive view, though in some ways it feels something like that.  I just can't see myself standing in the middle of all of that in the role of pastor any more.
I can no longer stand in the pulpit as a voice speaking on behalf of "the church" while this debate slowly and painfully plays out.

There probably aren't enough words to express all of what I feel on this, and no doubt the ones I've chosen will prove to be inadequate in many ways.  I hope I've been able to shed some light onto some part of my own personal journey, and the ways in which this particular subject has had a profound effect upon my own sense of identity and purpose.  It does seem strange, ironic, that in order to live most honestly with my own convictions and to embrace love for all, I would feel the need to leave the church which, in many ways, taught me the value of both of those things.

That's enough for now.  Next post will be on the delicate subject of the birds and the bees.  Well, the bees, mostly.  Stay tuned!

16 comments:

  1. This is masterfully written, Duncan. Thank you so much. And peace to you in this sea change in your life and ministry. I have no doubt you will continue to be a pastor, just not in a congregational format.

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    1. Thank you, Diana, I appreciate the feedback!

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    2. The irony of being led to know Jesus but discouraged from fully following his teaching. . . I am with you. Fully enaged in the tension now myself and have found the dialog around wine and appetizers where All are welcome is church. The table has a seat for you anytime. The diversity is rich and the love is flowing. Santa Rosa, CA

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    3. The irony of being led to know Jesus but discouraged from fully following his teaching. . . I am with you. Fully enaged in the tension now myself and have found the dialog around wine and appetizers where All are welcome is church. The table has a seat for you anytime. The diversity is rich and the love is flowing. Santa Rosa, CA

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  2. This is such a good explanation of why pastors become frustrated with denominational politics. And how the LGBTQ issue is driving people away from Christianity. My question is: why don't you find a church that is reconciling/open affirming so that is NOT a concern? Or are you just "done" with the institutional church? So sad to lose talented, committed pastors, but perhaps that's how change will come about.

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    1. Thanks, Joy, for taking the time to read the whole thing. Yes, my burnout is more than just emerging theological incompatibility, of course. It runs deep, and I feel like it is time for me to try a new mode of life, for myself and for my family. Ministry has many strange burdens and costs, and both they and I are ready for a change. I remain committed to contributing to restorative and redemptive community, and will live into that from a different starting point, removed from that potent and sometimes obstructive role of "pastor." I am not sure what church will look like for us after the transition, to be honest. We will see. Can I ask how the post found its way to you, or you to it?

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  3. I am part of an informal network of progressive pastors and lay persons in Arizona and around the country. Some are still committed to reforming the church, some of us are hanging on by a thread and others have left the institution, but can't leave the community. One of the "dones" received your blog from a Presbyterian pastor and sent it on because it reflects the thoughts and feelings of many of us. We are the over 60 group who spent much of our lives supporting the church, often with rich rewards. We became more engaged in church as we learned about progressive Christianity, but then we realized that churches didn't often reflect the ideas and values we were learning. So the cognitive dissonance became too painful. I am not a pastor, but I've worked with many and know the "strange burdens". Thank you for your thoughtful response. May your journey bring new challenges and peace.

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  4. Wow, Duncan. So much richness here. So thoughtful. I'm so appreciative of your telling your story of how you came to change your mind. Do you think that you are leaving the ministry for good? Looking forward to reading more from you. I know you as a gifted thinker and scholar and a person with great integrity. It seems like a loss for the church to have you leave forever... Maybe a break? #wishfulthinking. Blessings to you.

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    1. Traci, so glad you came by to take this in! And thank you for the supportive words! I don't like to make unqualified statements about the future, to use words like "never" or "forever"....but certainly I think this is more than just a break. And it takes a certain amount of existential commitment to the new thing to make it work. A new venture is not likely to thrive with tepid and double-minded support! I may turn some attention to writing, that's a possibility, and there may be other opportunities for kinds of personal ministry in this community, just outside the forms and structures of the traditional church. Who knows?

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  5. Duncan: When you made the announcement you were leaving the ministry, I was heartbroken. I look forward to hearing your message every week. Then I read this blog and all I can say is BRAVO!!!! What an incredible way with words you have. I appreciate and admire your stand. Hoping you can provide a personal ministry in this community as you mentioned the a previous post. I wish you and your dear family all the best and Godspeed as you begin this new journey. Keeping you in my prayers.

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  6. I am far from the most interesting man in the world and I d always attend church services - but when I do I want to be challenged by gracious, thoughtful and articulate speakers like you.
    I love you brother.

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    1. Dale, I'm counting on you to tell me there is a future out there after all of this plays out. We need to meet for a pint soon!

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  7. Well said, Duncan...and it very much echoes with my decision to leave ministry. I wish you and your family well.

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