Every day in news and social media there are new stories regarding what is happening inside faith communities, and every day it raises the question for many, “Why bother staying in this thing called ‘church’?” Truthfully, I ask myself that question with embarrassing frequency, and yet, here I am. This month alone, I’ve read these accounts:
- A United Methodist bishop fired a young and successful minister who had led his congregation out of debt and greatly increased membership against the wishes of the membership simply because the minister had a same-sex life partner.
- Church members of a congregation in South Carolina brought Confederate flags to worship to protest having the divisive Confederate flag removed from the state capitol building.
- A church in Kentucky reaffirmed its decision to allow and even encourage members to bring their guns to church.
- Conservative Christian legislators in Oklahoma equated food stamp recipients with “animals we should not feed.”
- A young woman told of being disowned by her fundamentalist family and relegated to hell by her minister for deciding to terminate her pregnancy.
- And in my own family, one sibling posted on her Facebook page a virulent ranting that equated the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same gender marriage with a foretelling of the End Times popularized by a well-known evangelist.
This abbreviated list could be expanded to fill page after page of examples of experiences that raise deep concerns about what is happening in the faith communities today. Public opinion among large sections of society paints those of us inside the church is such dark tones that there is no wonder thousands of people are turning away from religion and church, choosing to distance themselves from established churches, synagogues and mosques.
I get it. Looking at communities of faith in all too frequent negative reports often causes me to throw up my hands and utter, “Why bother?” Perhaps it might be true as a friends says, that religion IS the major cause of most of the world’s conflicts and problems. You would certainly think that when Ireland still experiences fights between the Protestants and Catholics, or when Sunni and Shia Muslims battle over much of the Middle East, or when the Jewish State of Israel cannot find peace with its Arab Muslim neighbors, or when fundamentalist Christians fight tooth and nail against anything they deem liberal. There is no escape here. Conflict on top of conflict permeates our world, and it appears to be growing, not declining.
So why stay? Why not just bail and be rid of that whole ugly mess? Good question. I’ll try to give my own rationale for sticking it out. It’s just my own personal justification for staying on the path of my own spiritual journey that has led me inside the Church and kept me there. Not to complicate the situation, but I should disclose that I am a gay man, an ordained Baptist minister of more than 50 years, and identify myself as a progressive, liberal Evangelical Christian.
Growing up on the margins of the Catholic Church, I had thought I might be a priest, so when I became a Baptist in my middle teen years, it just seemed logical that I would transfer that desire of ministry into a different church. From my earliest memories, I found my greatest join as a part of a faith community. I loved church. And I still do. Coupled with those memories is my awareness from childhood that I was ‘different’ (I didn’t learn that ‘different’ meant ‘gay’ until much later in my life). When I felt a deep sense of calling to ministry as a 17-year-old, God’s desire to use me in the church seemed to ignore my sexual orientation. Reading that verse in the prophet Isaiah’s book, “Whom shall I send and who will go for me? Then said I, ‘Here am I, send me’,” there was no doubt about the direction my life would take. When I was licensed and ordained as a young adult, I knew two things for sure: the church ordained me, but God called me. I have never wavered from that truth.
Over the years, the broad circle of ministry has led me to a variety of places in which I could invest both my gifts and my training. My own spiritual journey has taken me literally half way around the world and across the U.S, but always that journey has been inside the church. That has not always been easy, and often has been very painful. When my former wife and I confronted my coming out as gay, we made a mutual decision to separate as we worked through a very difficult time. When the church I was serving as the time learned only that we would separate and not the reason for it, I was terminated as its minister because “it would look bad for the church if people knew.” My keys were taken from me, and I was never allowed back. Someone packed my office and delivered my furniture, boxes of books and personal belongings, and deposited them in my driveway on a snowy February day in Kansas.
Seeking to find a new space for worship, my new church home welcomed me as a youth teacher and interpreter for the deaf until they learned that I had divorced because I was gay. Called into a deacon’s meeting, I was stripped of my responsibilities and my dignity and physically escorted to the parking lot with instructions never to come back. Strange as it seems, it never dawned on me that I could or should abandon my ties to the church. I simply began a home church which grew into a congregation of more than 150 and took what I had learned from my painful experiences to form a church that was open and affirming.
In truth, it would be so easy to surrender and leave the church behind. But where would I go to continue my calling? Certainly there is an abundance of embarrassment, disgust, and anger about the actions of some who claim to be doing God’s work, even when that is the antithesis of my own idea about living a faithful life. So I stay. And when I need it, I pull from my memory data bank wise words from an old seminary professor. “If you want to throw stones at stained glass windows, do it from the inside.” And can I confess a small secret? It gives me a lot of pleasure to be a contrary voice inside the church because I know that I annoy some folks who consider me a pain in their backside. After all, you have to find some joy even in the darkest of days. If my staying causes them irritation or discomfort, then that’s reason enough to stay.
- One White Man in an African-American World - March 13, 2018
- The need to ‘get real’ with curriculum - November 5, 2017
- “Rapping preachers” photo shows how times are changing - April 29, 2017
- Unlikely Feminist: A Male Perspective on Women in the Church - April 12, 2017
- Churches and False Advertising: Is everyone really welcome? - September 6, 2016
- Who Is Answering the Call to Ministry? - March 8, 2016
- The Planned Parenthood Shooting: Yet Another Act of Violence - December 4, 2015
- Planned Parenthood and Finding the Truth in the Midst of Confusion - July 27, 2015
- Why Stay: Searching for Reasons to Remain in the Church - July 20, 2015
- Keeping the Past in Perspective - May 26, 2015