Sunday, December 20, 2015
Are LGBTQ clergy fit to serve in the church?
Before you stop reading because I am asking in this question, first know that I identify as a member of the LGBTQ community and as a member of the clergy of the ELCA, so for me, the answer is an absolute YES.
But I am asking this question to try to get to some sort of understanding for myself about why the in the world we are still even having this conversation.
This post was inspired by some ongoing conversation in the social media world by other Lutheran clergy who note that it is still extremely difficult for LGBTQ folks to find congregational calls to live out their vocation to serve God and neighbor through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It is clear that the system is broken and undoubtedly favors heterosexual white men, just like nearly every other institution.
I am absolutely enraged that this is still up for debate. But in conversing with others online, I am beginning to realize that we are often not communicating about the same thing using language that both sides can understand.
First, I think it is important to begin with looking at what sexual orientation means. For me, it is an immutable, unchanging, part of who I am and who I was created to be. It is "against nature" (my nature) to attempt to be heterosexual. I know this because I tried it and I was downright miserable for many years. Sexual orientation is not a choice. However, much of this debate begins with a misunderstanding of this very critical point. In order to have a productive conversation, we need to begin with this mutual understanding. With this understanding, it is just as offensive to ask if an LGBTQ person is fit to serve the church as it is to ask if a person of color or a woman is fit to serve. This is atrocious.
Next, is the sexual orientation of one's pastor a hindrance to completing the essential functions of the role of pastor? Does the gender expression of the pastor's partner have anything whatsoever to do with the pastor's ability to preside, hold the office of the keys, and tend to one's congregation in a pastoral way? It seems really quite ridiculous to me to ask this question. My wife is an engineer. She has received extensive education, passed several licensing examinations, and received training in the workplace to do her work. The fact that she is married to me has no bearing whatsoever on her ability to be an engineer. I have received extensive education, completed the candidacy process, and completed an internship in a congregation. I have answered God's call to ministry and that call has been affirmed externally by a number of stakeholders including my congregation, my synod, my candidacy committee and faculty of my seminary. The fact that I am married to a woman has no bearing on my ability to serve God and God's people.
Also, is this a moral/theological/ethical issue? Of course not. But there are people out there who believe that I am living an immoral life, that I am living in such a place of sin that they cannot possibly hear the Gospel from me. I am living in sin, just as any one else is living in sin. I sometimes hurt the people I love through my own stupidity or my sharp tongue. I tend to think that I can fix everything on my own and I don't need help from anyone else. It is hard for me to admit when I am wrong. But what is not sinful is that I am in a loving, respectful, publicly accountable relationship with another woman.
So where does this leave the debate? I find that most of the discomfort with a gay pastor can be reduced to what I will call the "ick factor." For many people, it's icky to think about sex. This is a problem in our churches. And because of deeply entrenched heteronormativity, we don't automatically think about sex when we see a straight couple. But same gender relationships are far too often just reduced to sex and this is beside the point. What consenting adults do behind closed doors is no business of anyone else. How they live out their commitment to one another by being part of a congregation, by serving their neighbor, and how they live into the vocation of family is what is important.
Finally, the question of whether or not LGBTQ clergy are fit to serve the church is often based in fear of the unknown. Public acceptance of same-gender relationships is still evolving, and same-gender couples are still working on feeling safe enough to be public about their relationships. Some people simply do not know any LGBTQ people (or perhaps more appropriately, do not THINK they know any LGBTQ people, but statistically they do). There is fear that the gay pastor will shove some sort of gay agenda onto them. That by calling a gay pastor, they get a one-person gay pride parade. That a gay pastor will be primarily GAY, and only after that, then a pastor. This could not be more false.
LGBTQ people are everywhere. We aren't scary. We aren't going to corrupt the children. We just want to live our lives in the way that we have been created to be. We want meaningful work. We want to live and love and be part of our communities. Some of us have been called to be clergy.
Of course LGBTQ clergy are fit to serve in the church. And God has called us to serve one another and love one another, and we have work to do to care for our neighbors in need.