Exit Interviews: What I Wish My Former Pastor Knew, Part 1

manwalkingawaywarm

Note from John:

I’m very fortunate that I have a venue for my voice to be heard, and realize that most people do not. As a pastor, I spend a great deal of my days listening to people’s stories and trying to speak and write in such a way that those stories are represented in the world—and particularly in the Church.

I asked my readers a simple question, and the responses have been overwhelming in number, and in the depth of faith and pain they reflect. I believe they deserve to heard be directly, and over the next couple of weeks I will share as many as I can. I hope they will minister to you, that they will bring some comfort and encouragement. I hope you’ll realize how very not-alone you are in your desire to pursue faith in the tension between God and organized religion.

And if you’re a faith leader in any capacity, I hope you’ll sift these words to find the ones that resonate and reveal to you the ways you might better do the important, life-giving work you are called to do. 

As you read, resist the temptation to refute or argue anyone’s response. Simply listen and allow each person’s experience to weigh the same.

The question was: If you’re no longer in a church or struggle with the one you’re a part of—what do you wish your pastor/priest/minister/leader knew?

I want your message from the pulpit to be the least important thing you do for the week. I want to know that you see me, not just as a body on Sunday morning. Not just as someone who has something to give. I want to know that you see me and know my story. Nothing you have to say on Sunday morning counts, If I do not feel know and supported on the journey I am on. And I want you to give me permission to be on a journey, to be seeking. I don’t want to have to follow your rule book or listen to the answers you pull out of your playbook. I want permission to find my way. I want you to listen. And maybe even be open to learning from me in the way that I want to learn from you.

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I wish my former pastor knew is that my sexuality didn’t deter my love for ministry. If anything, it made it much stronger.

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That instead of working so hard to save people’s souls for the next life, I would like to see them working just as hard to help people during this life.

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That their complete silence towards me since I’ve left had hurt more than anything they might have said while I was there.

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That mercy and grace are indispensable when building community…
That we have all sinned and fallen short….
That doubt can foster growth…
That it is not a zero-sum game…
That where ever one finds love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, the Holy Spirit is there…
That I still want lovely things for them…

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I want them to know that I can’t come back until their love feels like love; when it validates and heals rather than condemns, when they treat me like a person instead of a project.

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Eighty percent of every church’s beliefs come from the culture around it, whether they conform or define themselves by nonconformity. Their beliefs follow or fight against trends in politics, the economy, changing social norms. What we believe and how we act rarely has anything to do with God, so let’s stop acting like every bit of dogma is God’s honest truth—and make some room for people.

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I wish the pastor of my Catholic church could understand how hard it is for me to attend Mass with my Transgender son in light of Pope Francis’ recent remarks. I wish he knew how I sat there in bitterness, resentful of having to tithe to an organization so intent on rejecting people like my young child. I wish the pastor could be brave enough to outwardly love and support the LGBTQ community, and even start a group so that we didn’t have to feel so alone. I wish the pastor could preach about how although not all Catholics might agree, we still deserve the same love and respect, not condemnation

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I would like my former pastor to know how free I am. He said when our family left his church that we were headed to destruction, but in fact we have never experienced more joy and freedom than we do now. I would like him to know that he is the one in bondage. Not only is he in bondage, he is putting chains of bondage on each and every one of his members. The damage he has done (in the name of Jesus) is irreparable. I want to believe in Jesus still, but the Jesus I was taught of doesn’t look anything like the Jesus you speak of.  “I like your Jesus…”

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I wish they knew how hurtful it is to receive emails inviting me to conversion therapy classes.

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I wish he knew I am not ‘back sliding’ or lost the plot or lost my faith in Christ. I really wish after 10 years and starting a ministry that I was worth a phone call or coffee date to say, “Hey, you ok? I see you and your family have left and we miss you, and if you want to share I would love to know why you left and if you guys are okay.” I wish he knew the cost of losing my church family and I wish he knew that all those people who have left are not just the trash taking themselves out, but people worth something.

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I wish they knew how the church’s overt sexism and bi-phobia, and eventually its rape apologetics caused me to feel more pain and anguish in the community than away from the community. That after 20 years since leaving Christianity, I still do not feel safe or welcome as a human being in the church, let alone loved. I am happier keeping my distance.

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I wish my pastor knew about how vulnerable I was at the time (as a teen), and how much I needed him to be who I thought he was. I wish he knew that I had caught on to every attempt at manipulation, every subtle mention of the situation at the podium, and every condescending tone of voice he used with me. I wish he knew how damaging that behavior was to my ability to trust people in a critical age of my life. And I wish he knew that my refusal to go back to any church is due to his hunger for power, not because I was a “confused sheep” that was led astray.

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I wish you knew how hard it was for me to walk away from a ministry that I would have done for free. I wish you would remember who you are as a godly man, swallow your pride, and seek my forgiveness. I wish you knew that it was because of your ungodliness that I have a very hard time trusting male leaders. I wish you knew there are no titles in the kingdom of God that we are all equal. There is no brotherhood or sisterhood—only friendship.”

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That God works in ways beyond our own understanding.  Just because we don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have His hands on a life that desperately wants to love and worship. No one believed Paul when he first spoke of the grace that changed his heart.  We who are gay or transgender can indeed be used and used effectively. All they need to do is give us a damn chance.

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I wish my pastor knew how hurt I am by him not being the friend he advertised himself to be.

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That hate drives young people away. Fear (“You’re going to burn if you don’t do x,y, and z . . .”) is very off-putting. It may have worked in the past. Not now.

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I would like them to know that having questions, experiencing doubts and being uncertain about things the church is teaching, does not necessarily equal spiritual immaturity. No one comes right out and says that you are spiritually immature because you are struggling with things like the concepts of Heaven and Hell, or substitutionary atonement, or the inerrancy of the bible, or the sovereignty of God etc., but when they kindly offer to pray that God will make these things clear to you, what they are really saying is that they hope you settle down soon and get back to seeing things the way they do.

 I think it would help if pastors stopped saying everything from the pulpit with so much certainty, if Christians were taught fewer answers and trained more in the skill of asking good questions, if the local church would be a little more humble about what they know and hold to be true, if it would not be considered heresy to think or believe differently in their midst, and if more people in the church believed that right living is more important than right doctrine.

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Our Episcopal Church is full of former Catholics and many many gay former Catholics. I often wonder if my Catholic priests and bishops know this. Do they see the good that we do and the glory it brings? Do they realize that so many of us would have been the priests and sisters that they so sorely need? Do they see that we are living out our Catholic faith through the Episcopal church because that is where we can truly be ourselves. Do they miss us? And beyond wondering if they see or know this or miss us, I want to know if they care that we are gone? Do they wish it was different? Are they fighting to change things and make things right from the inside?

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Someone Mansplain To Me, What The Heck is Wrong With Men?)

Angry Man

Last week I read news stories about two different women, both sexually assaulted and murdered while jogging on consecutive days in different American cities.

Two radiant lives snuffed out in an instant.
Two grief-stricken families preparing to bury their daughters, sisters, and friends well before their time.
Two senseless wastes of beautiful humanity.

As I read the accounts of these seemingly random, violent attacks by apparent strangers, one question rose up and refused to be ignored. It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for most of my adult life:

What the heck is wrong with men, anyway?

The truth is, you can find stories like this every single day without even trying. If your eyes are at all open, it’s a fairly noticeable reality that there are vile, sickening things that as a general rule, women rarely if ever do:

They don’t lie in wait to sexually assault or kill strangers.
They don’t snap, and shoot up movie theaters and shopping malls and churches.
They don’t murder spouses and lovers when they try to leave a relationship.
They don’t commit random violence against LGBTQ people.
They don’t subject strangers who pass them on the street to disgusting catcalls.

Men do these things—with alarming regularity and proficiency.

Obviously we can find anecdotal incidents in each of these cases, but the fact remains that men have a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for violence and inflicting terror on others—one that women simply can’t touch. In fact we’d be hard pressed to find any examples of wide-scale or systematic malevolence to point to, on behalf of our sisters on this planet.

For the past twenty years as a pastor I’ve been trying to figure out why that is, and I don’t find testosterone and penises and a couple million years of caveman DNA to be compelling answers. I also don’t think that simply blaming Sin cuts it either, otherwise we’d share the load of such atrocities with women.

And oddly enough, even in the face of this clear disparity of decency, many in the Church still insist that women are the “weaker sex”.

Conservative strains of Christianity subscribe to a view known as Complementarianism, which assigns distinct roles and responsibilities in the world to both men and women. Proponents of this theory often use the Bible to justify denying women formal positions of leadership in the Church, as well as authority in the home.

Complementarianism tends to perpetuate many of the stereotypical, historical gender roles, that women should be submissive caretakers of the children and home, while men are to be the dominant, aggressive forces out there in the world. It has also formed the bedrock of the notoriously patriarchical Christian Church, used to excuse all manner of misogyny and sexism. It’s perpetuated the subjugation, abuse, and silencing of women for a few thousand years, all in the name of God. In the words of my wife, “In Complementarianism, a husband and wife are ‘equal’ until they have a disagreement—then the man is the tie-breaker. That’s not a tie-breaker!”

Not exactly equality.

Every day I see brilliant, passionate, faithful, gifted women leaders treated with such contempt and disregard by arrogant, intolerant men who claim to be Christian. I watch these guys dismiss their contributions and heap condescension upon them while using the Bible to do it. And the whole time I’m wondering why they can’t see the world that I see. I’m wondering why they don’t notice the mess we’ve made. I wonder what Jesus they’re taking a cue from.

Because ironically, the greatest argument against this elevated religious view of men—is men. We’ve created a historical body of work reprehensible enough to make Complementarianism laughable. If the abhorrent behavior of men is trying to make an argument for moral superiority, we ain’t looking’ that good, fellas. I think we need to make room at the table and the pulpit and the office, and realize that it’s been a long time coming and it’s a really good thing. 

I believe women should be pastors. (They in fact, already are).
I believe they should teach men in the Church.
I believe they should be Presidents.
I believe they should have greater influence on our political process.
I believe they should have equal pay for doing the work they do.
I believe women fully reflect the character of God.

I believe these things for many reasons, but primarily because there is a decency and compassion and goodness that they bring to the table that men have proven for whatever reason, we aren’t as capable of. We need the balance of their presence to temper the worst in us. In a way that transcends easy caricature, women seem less prone to violence, less vulnerable to ego, and more measured in the face of dispute—and this is sorely needed on the planet. 

I’m certainly not ashamed to be a man, but I can admit that we’ve really dropped the ball with this whole patriarchal civilization thing, that we’ve terribly imbalanced and could use a reboot. I want a less angry, less frightening, less violent world for my children.

Most of all, as a pastor, I want a Church that better reflects Jesus, and having more women stewarding its direction and shaping its future and guarding its heart is the only way there. 

Check out these amazing Christian pastors, speakers, and authors who happen to be women. They inspire, educate, challenge, and encourage me daily.

Listen to them. 

Nadia Bolz-Weber
Melissa Greene
Sarah Bessey
Phyllis Tickle
Anna Register
Glennon Doyle Melton 
Jory Micah
Kimberly Knight
Jennifer Dickenson
Sarabeth Caplin
Bec Cranford
Alicia Crosby
Cindy Brandt

Cynthia Andrews-Looper
Rachel Held Evans
Allyson Robinson
Charissa Grace

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Pastors, Stop Being a Barrier to Jesus

PersonAtWall

When people find out you’re a pastor, they have one of two responses. They either purposefully or unintentionally distance themselves, feeling they need to conceal the rough edges of their lives. Others move closer, trusting you with things they might not feel safe to share with even the people close to them. Emily is the latter.

I met Emily at a local restaurant here in Raleigh where she works and where I’m a devoted regular. Initially we exchanged the kind of surface level small talk many people share with acquaintances: the weather, vacation stories, stuff in the news. But slowly she began to mention struggles she was having, theological questions, even asking for specific prayer. Yesterday was different. In a pause in the conversation, she said “I do have something I want to talk to you about.”

I waited.

Emily had been raised in a Christian home, but as many people had done she’d slowly drifted from church attendance after leaving high school. She continued to have an active personal faith though; praying and reading on her own, but without meaningful spiritual community. This year she’d starting dating a guy named Ryan who’d grown up in the Catholic Church but had gradually discarded religion and had little interest in reconnecting to it when they met.

Their relationship over the past year has deepened and a few months ago Emily finally convinced Ryan to visit a large church nearby with her. They began attending services regularly, joined their young adult group, and have been meeting monthly with a pastor to talk about life and faith. The last couple of times we’d spoken I could see a different lightness in her. I noticed that lightness was gone as she shared her story with me.

This week Emily and her boyfriend told their pastor that they wanted to be baptized. They were excited to make a public declaration about their adult faith together.

“That’s going to be a problem.” he said “Our church won’t baptize you if you’re living together.”

They sat stunned. He continued on.

“I’m not saying you need to get married, and you’ll probably practically still be living together, but having Ryan move out will make a statement about your commitment to Jesus.”

Emily told the pastor of the financial hardships they’d both faced in recent years, and how sharing an apartment was something they each needed from a basic survival standpoint.

“Well, there are these residential hotels nearby where you can get a room for like, fifty dollars a week.” He was clearly not going to entertain their request without a change.

Emily and Ryan told the pastor they would talk about it and get back to him and quietly left the meeting.

Right now they’re devastated. Right now they feel judged. Right now they’re hurting.

Emily said to me, “This whole thing has changed how this all feels to me. Now I feel like a bad person. For Ryan, it’s kinda put the brakes on Church all over again.”

I imagine many of you out there believe this pastor did the right thing.

I disagree with you. I think Jesus does too.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ disciples scold a group of adults who bring their children to Jesus for blessing. Jesus reprimands them saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” He was reminding them that no one gets to give or deny access to Jesus.

Emily and Ryan are children trying to get to Jesus, and their pastor has become a hindrance.

Rather than celebrating their decision to publicly declare their faith together and to walk alongside them, he’s taken their cohabitation and made it a baptismal deal-breaker—and there’s absolutely no Biblical precedent for it.

This idea that people need to prove their commitment to Jesus to another human being is nonsense.

In the Book of Acts, the record of the early Church’s beginnings, the writer tells us of Peter speaking to the crowds, and of three thousand being baptized in a single day. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing these folks weren’t all screened for their living arrangements, sexual orientations, political affiliations, sexual activity, drug use, or any other qualifiers before getting consent.

Their belief and their desire to follow Jesus were the qualifiers.

Their faith gave them the consent of Jesus—which is the only one required.

No one was sitting in front of these folks giving them a list of conditions to meet in order to receive a love that was unconditional.

Emily and Ryan’s pastor told them they need to “make a statement about their commitment to Jesus”—yes, and it’s called Baptism. I imagine he feels quite justified in his stance. I’m sure I could find a hundred pastors in a five-mile radius who would agree with him, but I’m not interested in those pastors.

I see a different group of people. I see people like Emily and Ryan; imperfect people working and living and struggling, and trying to make it through the day and doing the very best they can.

I see them longing for spiritual community, moving toward Jesus, and needing someone to come alongside them and cheer them on. When a pastor, priest, church worker, or Christian peer decides that they can police another’s behavior or determine by their exterior lives whether or not they’re ready to be a Christian—they’ve made themselves God. They’ve made themselves gatekeepers of the Kingdom. They’ve compromised the whole system. 

Emily and Ryan don’t need to earn access to Jesus. They don’t need to deserve proximity to him.

You don’t either. 

Never believe that lie that your authenticity is anyone else’s business. 

Pastors, another person’s moral worth is not yours to determine. Your job isn’t to manage their behavior until you’re comfortable with it. It isn’t to make people jump through hoops in order to make your church feel righteous. It isn’t to sanitize the exterior of community until it looks pretty. Your job isn’t to screen people to determine their worthiness of Grace.

Your job is to set the table for people to meet with Jesus and to trust Jesus with the result.

Stop building walls and set the damn table.

Do not hinder the little children…

P.S. I told Emily and Ryan that I’d be honored to baptize them and that we could have a party at their apartment later to celebrate. I know Jesus will be there.

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The Church Beloved: A Manifesto of LGBTQ-Affirming Christians

lovesick

A new Church is coming, or rather with each passing day it is becoming; person by person being renovated.

Heart by heart it is waking up.

For a long time we have been shamed into silence, relegated to the periphery of the faith community, believing in quiet. But these days demand volume and today we raise our voices so that there can be no mistaking our intentions. 

We are unrepentantly, unwaveringly LGBTQ-affirming Christians.

We will continue to make the Church and this world a more open, loving, and safe place for the queer community and their families.

We believe the Church must be fully inclusive in both the pews and the pulpit or it is less in the image of God than it could and should be.

We believe that gender identity and sexual orientation have no bearing on a person’s moral worth or their standing in the eyes of God.

We believe we all are the beloved, as we are without alteration.

We believe that everyone is a reflection of the Divine, created good, made of what God is made of.

We believe Jesus calls us to love one another, not to tolerate one another; not to warmly embrace some and to hold others at a distance. 

We celebrate all life with equal ferocity. 

We’re not going to apologize for any of this and we’re not relenting.

We’re not stopping because our faith compels us, just as your faith compels you.

We too have read the Bible and gone to seminary and served in the Church and prayed fervently and listened intently for the voice of God, and all of these things have yielded our conclusions.

We will gladly tell you why we believe what we believe, but we’re not going to argue with you about the validity of our convictions because we don’t need to justify our path to you.

We’ve already walked our road.

We understand that because of what you believe, our position may cause fear and anger to rise up and boil over, and that you may feel the need to defend yourself. You may feel driven to attack us, sometimes violently, and we will try to respond not in kind, but in kindness.

We will do our best to reflect the Jesus we have come to know, by not questioning your humanity or your character or the legitimacy of your faith—but we also will continue to speak without censoring or softening, because that is how injustice is allowed to fester and reproduce.

You can say all manner of hateful, disparaging, insulting things, but that doesn’t matter because we believe in the inherent worth of all people and we believe that Scripture bears this out.

We no longer will tolerate a Church where any group of people are marginalized in the name of God and we will speak into that with sustained force.

To say it plainly: We’re here for the duration so shouting us down or shutting us off is not a viable option.

A Church without the LGBTQ community is simply no longer acceptable and we, Christians of all identities and orientations, stand together to speak in unison: 

Love is indeed winning and we are the loud and shimmering proof.

If this is bad news to you, we’re going to refer you to Jesus and let the two of you work it out. We don’t believe we can change you anyway. God does the changing.

In the meantime we’re going to keep living our faith convictions just as you live yours, and we’re going to love people as God personally calls us to.

This is how that “freedom in Christ” thing works.

We are the Church that is becoming what it was meant to be: fully, unapologetically inclusive.

We are the Church Beloved.