A Letter to Fellow Affirming Clergy Serving Non-Affirming UMC Congregations
Dear LGBTQIA+ Affirming UMC Clergy Colleagues,
I am in prayer for you. You have been heavy on my heart lately. As the United Methodist Church works to find "a way forward," I know you are praying that it does not result in a way backward. While the denomination is debating, I know some of you feel isolated and alone. Not long ago, I too felt that way. I am writing this letter to encourage you, to let you know that you are not alone.
Last night, a treasured member of a former UMC congregation where I served texted me to say, "Nice knowing you."
It broke my heart.
This was an individual I had spent countless hours talking with about his faith journey. I had responded to his midnight texts as he questioned me about complicated theological topics like election, salvation, and the existence of heaven and hell. I visited him in the hospital multiple times during complicated surgeries. I stood with him when he lost a close family member. I always made myself available to him as he struggled to remain faithful to his wife. There were hours and hours we spent talking about the gospel and reading scripture together. Now, in a late-night text, he was wishing me well on my journey, declaring that we were now diverging on separate paths. He tried hard to be kind, and yet he explained that our differing opinions on human sexuality were irreconcilable.
Not long ago, situations like this would have felt like a threat to my call to ministry. Now, I simply felt sorry for my friend and his distorted view of God. Because of the comfort of my current situation as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, I spent the rest of the night praying for him rather than praying out of fear for my own future in ministry.
In light of what the United Methodist Church is going through, I know how difficult this must be for many of my clergy colleagues. For so many of you, to rock the boat means to risk alienation, to risk your careers, your livelihoods, your family relationships, and more. For those who are pastors in LGBTQIA+ affirming congregations, with affirming denominational leadership, this will be a much easier road to travel. But I pray for spiritual courage especially for you who do not have that kind of support. I pray that you will find the support and the divine inspiration not to be silent on the issue, but to speak out.
In every conservative congregation and community there are so many individuals and families that are wrestling with confusion, depression, anxiety, and fear because of their sexual orientations or gender identities. Too many of these individuals and their families do not know of a safe religious place for their family to go. They do not know where to find resources to help them along the way. They do not know any safe places to worship or safe spaces to pray, let alone how to find a safe clergy member to guide them.
According to the 2012 study by the Williams Institute, more than 1.6 million youth experience homelessness. More than 40% of them are LGBTQIA+ youth who were forced out of their home by their families: 46 % ran away because of family rejection, 43% were forced out by parents, and 32% faced physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home. The numbers are outrageous!
I am convinced that when religious communities exclude others, leaving them to believe that God has abandoned them, they have excluded God. These communities have abandoned their Creator to worship their religious institutions.
A few years back, I wrote an article about holiness and the Methodist history around LGBTQIA+ affirmation. It was shared in a number of places. It was titled To Dissent or be Silent.
Overwhelmingly, the response I received from my fellow Methodist clergy was "YOU ARE NOT ONE OF US. YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE."
They said I didn't belong because I didn't agree with their doctrine: "Can the candidate for ordination answer the 19 Wesley questions (particularly the ones about being in agreement with, and teaching the doctrines) honestly?"
People I had known and worked alongside for decades said I didn't belong, that I was "perpetuating a dangerous and flawed narrative that any person who disagrees with the LBGT agenda is oppressive, unjust, and evil."
When I left to join the United Church of Christ, they said, "I knew your theology pushed the boundaries of Methodism."
At every stage, all I could think of was the multitude of LGBTQIA+ teens who had been disowned by their families, run away from home, or abused physically, mentally, or emotionally by those God had put in their lives to care for them.
I still believe now, as I did then:
"Failing to speak against teachings and practices that encourage the demonizing and dehumanizing of others—rather than affirming their God-given dignity—is an utter disavowal of our baptism."
I am so grateful that I have found a home with the United Church of Christ.
Still, my heart continues to be burdened by the experience of those clergy in other denominations (or even within the UCC), especially the United Methodist Church, that do not feel safe speaking the truth that God has planted in their hearts. While I pray for your strength and courage during this time of discernment in the UMC, I pray you will hear the call of God to awaken the world, and that you will speak with a loud voice of dissent and refuse to be silent. There are hurting people longing to hear you affirm that they are the beloved children of God. I pray that you will offer your lives to the crucified Christ that affirms the dignity of queer bodies, that affirms the beauty of individuals who feel more at home in their bodies when they express their gender in ways that are unconventional, that affirms the tenderness and godliness of those who suffer from gender dysphoria, and that affirms the gift of love that God grants to those in same-gender relationships, or even calls them to no romantic or sexual relationships at all.
I am with you. God is with you. So, let us stand together with God.
"It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20).
In Justice, Peace, and Love,
Rev. Michael Anthony Howard
Brookside Community Church