Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Leaving the Church

I had conversations this week with another friend who has left the church. Jason grew up in the United Methodist Church. He spent years in youth ministry at a large United Methodist Church in Alabama, building a program that attracted countless kids every weekend - young people growing as disciples because of his leadership. He went to seminary with me at Duke Divinity School. He spent time as a hospital chaplain in Durham and in New England. He faithfully followed his call, responding to the affirmation of others in the church who named his gifts, giving him the courage to claim his gifts, and now he wants nothing to do with the church. He has left the church.

It's not the first time this has happened to one of my friends.

I was talking this week with a colleague from seminary about another incredible person pushed out by the church. I talked about this person in May of 2007 when I preached a sermon on "Marriage, Divorce and Homosexuality." "Mark" is one of the most gifted young men I have ever met. "Mark" has so many incredible gifts for ministry, and when I first met him, he was on his way to becoming a bishop, at least in the eyes of most of his friends.

But he is no longer a United Methodist. He left our church. He left our church because he is gay, and our church does not believe that people who are gay - no matter how gifted they might be - can be pastors. Our church has locked the door on these individuals - even when they are incredibly faithful and possess remarkable gifts for ministry.

When I talked with my colleague last week about our friend who was on his way to becoming a bishop but is no longer a United Methodist, my friend said something that really struck me, "When did the church get into such a good position that a person like 'Mark' is expendable? Think about his gifts. A whole trajectory of people could have been impacted by him because of his incredible discipleship."

My colleague went on to talk about "Mark's" commitment to our church when he was in seminary - how he kept going to a United Methodist Church at that time even though he could never be ordained in the United Methodist Church. My colleague told him once, "'Mark' you love your church more than your church loves you!"

I remember well what happened in the Baltimore Washington Conference when one of my transgendered colleagues told his story on the floor of Conference. It was the holiest conference I have ever been to. It is one of the more limited times in which I have truly felt the presence of God at Annual Conference. When Rev. Drew Phoenix stood and told his story, I knew God was at work. When he stood and told us how he had struggled with his sexual identity his entire life and finally felt free to be who he is, now that his body is that of a man and not a woman, I saw and heard liberation. It was not easy to hear everything, and I still don't understand it all. It is all quite complex and perplexing to me. But, I listened to how Drew told us about his church in downtown Baltimore - how families with children are coming back for the first time, how the giving has doubled, how the church is growing in significant ways - I celebrated the diversity of our church. I celebrated the ways in which God uses all kinds of people to build the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ. I was taught in real ways how God needs a diversity of pastors to reach a diversity of people. Lives have been changed by Rev. Phoenix's ministry. Rev. Phoenix was an incredible pastor. But, sadly, Rev. Phoenix has also left the church.

Three incredible people - just in my own circle - have left the church. Three incredible people with remarkable gifts given to them by God - have been pushed out - told that their gifts, their commitment, their discipleship, their willingness to serve, and their willingness to be part of changing lives in the name of Jesus are not welcome.

When did the church - this body that is losing far more members than it is gaining each year in most places around our country - get into such a good position that people like this are expendable?

1 comment:

Jason said...

Thanks for your words Donna and for hearing and honoring my story and the story of others.

I've shared with you that I am not sure that it is as simple as "I left the church". For the church, I believe, has also left me and others like me. It leaves us in the shadows when we're finally willing to speak and live into our truths. Whatever they may be.

The church could be such a powerful institution and yet it seems content to hide in the shadows and encourage and even force it's constituents and it's leadership to do the same.

The issue to me is not simply around homosexuality or sexuality in general. It seems to me the more fundamental challenge is that the church is not willing to see, name, embrace and move forward in the light of love and justice, honoring the breadth and depth of the human condition in all of it's uniqueness and creativity.

In short, the sin of the church is that it is scared to death of it's own humanity, that which God created and called Good.

But creativity and life can never be constrained or institutionalized. We know from biology that life will always seek and find more hospitable eco-systems.

So yes it is the organized church's loss when young creatives and truth tellers find another way. But I think Wesley was onto something when he claimed or recognized that the World is our parish. For what the church seems unable or rather unwilling to contain the world is large enough to embrace and the truth will find a way and set us free.