**UPDATE: In an earlier version of this post, I quoted the church’s Facebook posting policy. A member kindly contacted me and offered some insight, informing me that the policy dates to March (before the wedding). I am grateful for the clarification (and relieved), and have edited the post accordingly. Thanks, JC**
I started at my last church as a seminarian. I needed a job and a field ed. placement. They needed a music director. I had never directed a choir before, but I’d certainly sung in my fair share of them. And, much to my surprise and my delight, this church decided to take a chance on me. They hired me and I dove head-first into music ministry. For four years, this church was my home. The staff became some of my best friends. The congregants were (and continue to be) some of the kindest, most genuine church folk I’ve ever known. They allowed me to learn and grow and figure out just what being in ministry meant (and journey that I am, admittedly, still on).
While I was working there, I met a woman who would become one of my dearest friends. Melissa and I had a lot in common. We both loved music. We both loved the church. We both had parents who thought we were the next best thing (like parents do!). We were both single. And we were both looking.
Over many meals at the local Chili’s, we would discuss life, faith, dating, all sorts of things. I would dogsit for her. She would fill in on the piano during Sunday worship for me. So you can imagine my excitement (and hers) when she called to tell she had met Mike. He was a librarian like her. He was kind like her. He was cheerful like her. She had told me before that she had been on the dating scene long enough to know pretty soon into a date whether or not there was a future with that particular guy. “This one’s the real deal,” she told me.
Months later, he popped the question. She was so excited when she called. And then she had a question of her own to pop. “Jon,” she started, “I know you’re in Connecticut and everything, but you just know me so well, and Mike and I want to know if you’ll do the service.” I might’ve squealed a little. So did she. And that was that.
Soon, we were in the thick of planning their wedding. She had decided to get married at my previous church, so I called the pastor and asked if he would invite me to do the wedding. He gladly agreed (he’s always been so supportive of my ministry), and that was that.
Now in the middle of all this, I got engaged and found myself knee-deep in my own wedding planning. Greg and I had started our budget and designed our save-the-dates–a step in the process Greg and I were just elated about accomplishing. We compiled our addresses (y’all–there are A LOT of addresses) and printed our labels and sent those fancy, little postcards out in two batches: his list and mine. Both included college friends and seminary friends, colleagues, and family. And of course, our church connections.
Nearly a month to the day before Melissa and Mike’s wedding, I got a phone call from the senior pastor of the church where the wedding was to be held. “Hey Jon,” he started, “how’re you doing?” “Great,” I said and then proceeded to tell him about some the great stuff happening at Westfield. “Well, I’m afraid you might not be doing so well in a minute.” “Ok…” I replied, uncertain of where this was headed. “Well, Jon, I just got a call from the D.S. [that’s District Superintendent for all you non-United Methodists] and someone showed him y’all’s save-the-dates. Whoever did said that they proved you were in a same-sex relationship and asked if there would be any problems with that. The Bishop said you can’t do the wedding.”
Needless to say, I was floored. I had made it through four years of ministry with this congregation without my sexual orientation becoming an issue. I had faithfully served them, started new ministries, planned some kick-ass revivals, cooked Wednesday Night Suppers, and just loved folks. Not to mention the fact that I am duly ordained within the United Church of Christ and wasn’t asking to do anything that, in the eyes of the state, would be considered illegal. What was worse was that this was all happening behinds the scenes. So the people I knew and loved and cared for during those four years hadn’t the slightest clue that this was happening.
“I’ve already called Melissa’s parents,” he continued. “I offered to do the wedding for them if they needed me to.”
I hung up with him devastated. My heart was racing. It had been so long since this kind of discrimination had happened to me in such a real way that I didn’t know what to do. So I called Greg–who did know what to do. “I’ll call you back in a minute,” Greg said in a huff. Next, he dialed the District Superintendent who was, as it turns out, on our Save-the-date mailing list.
I called the church secretary in Georgia. “Hey, did you get the save-the-date I sent the choir?,” I asked her. “Yep, it’s here on my desk,” she replied. “Why don’t you hold off giving that to them for the time being,” I said, “Shit’s going down.” “Yeah, I heard,” she offered, “I can’t believe it.”
From this point, the details get a little fuzzy, and the story gets a little he-said, she-said. Greg talked to the D.S. who corrected the story I heard by clarifying that he had never said I couldn’t do the wedding. Rather, it was in the hands of the clergy-in-charge at the church. He said he would be in a meeting with the Bishop of the North Georgia Conference that evening and would ask him about it. The next morning, we got the call; the Bishop had said the choice was, indeed, in the pastor-in-charge’s hands. My former senior pastor called to tell me the Good News (and it is Good News not good news in my mind because it’s a Gospel act–welcoming those who have found themselves, in a way, on the fringe into the heart of Christ’s church). “The Bishop said it was up to me, and I choose you.” (Thanks, D., for choosing me…seriously. Thanks.)
A month later, I stood on the chancel of that charming, old church presiding over a wedding of two people so clearly meant to be together. And while I sensed a sneaky sense fear of my officiating, we witnessed God’s love that day. I had come home, and it was wonderful.
Later, I was flipping through pictures Greg had taken of my involvement of the wedding–pictures he had tagged the church in on Facebook. Soon it became clear that the sneaky fear of my officiating was alive and kicking. I clicked over to the Facebook page I used to manage to find one of Greg’s pictures there–the one featuring him and a longtime friend. Surprisingly (or maybe not) the one he posted of me presiding over the wedding rehearsal had been deleted. Obviously, a picture of a dashing young clergyman telling bridesmaids and groomsmen where to stand was over the line.
It seems someone was worried. Worried about what? It’s anybody’s guess. Maybe they’re worried that a gay man was called to be a minister. Or that that gay man sang for them and led them and loved them for four years. Or that that person is indebted to their generosity of spirit toward molding his understanding of ministry. Or maybe they’re concerned others will shun them for welcoming someone others don’t. Or maybe they’re worried that the United Methodist Church will punish them for doing what, as far as I can tell, God calls us to–welcome people.
It’s not my question to answer. What is mine to claim is that this discrimination, despite the advances we’ve made over the last year, still happens. And it happens in churches that aren’t “fundamentalist” or “evangelical” even. (Although reclaiming “evangelical” wouldn’t be an awful thing–that’s another post). And it happens to the people you love.
This is a story I’ve spent considerable time discerning whether or not to share. I don’t fault my former church. They’re all still invited to the wedding celebration in Atlanta. The few in the congregation who knew this had happened made their fury over this even being an issue clear. My former senior pastor is still one I count among those who’ve formed me deeply, and I truly think he was doing the best he could in what proved a difficult situation. The problem is this: it shouldn’t have been a difficult situation. Not even remotely. Not for him. Not for me. And certainly not for the couple who just wanted to get married.
In June, my congregation voted nearly unanimously, to become an Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation. ONA is an official, denominationally-sanctioned designation that proudly proclaims God’s welcome to all people, specifically including our LGBT sisters and brothers. Leading up to the vote, we had lots of conversations, and during one of those, a member asked, “Why do we even need to be ONA? I mean, we already are!” And it’s true…in action, we were–I wasn’t the first, but the second openly gay pastor that had led the church. Anyone who knew us knew that we welcomed all. But not everyone knows us. Over the phone, Greg told me, “you don’t put your welcome mat inside your front door.” A great way to reveal a deep truth: We know who we are, but other’s won’t, unless we tell them.
I’m proud to lead a church that has boldly chosen welcome over fear. That hasn’t stopped at flinging it’s doors open wide, but has decided instead to craft a statement of just what we mean when we say “you are welcome here.” There aren’t any lines in the sand; no “this is ours and that is yours;” no “buts.” Just a groups of Christians striving to follow the gospel call to welcome all into the life and ministry of the church, a community of the faithful searching for the marriage of church and the world.
Now’s that’s a wedding I could preside over.
Curious to know more about my coming out story: here’s a sermon I preached two weeks ago at Westfield–it’s got some more of the juicy details!