The Wilderness of Church

The damage done to me by the religion of my upbringing only began to surface in my memory over the past year or two. By reading about the experiences of my other exvangelical peers, I realized that I, too, had been led on and manipulated by a church that I thought was my home. Until recently, I had never thought of myself as a part of the exvangelical community. I still wouldn’t describe the church I grew up in as evangelical, as it was mainline Methodist in many ways. However, many of the teachings, particularly in my youth group years, were full of evangelical beliefs.

Growing up, some of these beliefs were naturally repugnant to me. The church’s stance on LGBTQ people, for example, was something I’d always bristled at. The language was never violent, but it was definitely a “love the sinner, hate the sin” type of theology. It turns out I was a closeted baby bisexual the whole time (surprise!), which explains a lot of the inner conflict I felt around the teachings. Other aspects of the evangelical teachings of my home church, though, stuck with me, even through my college years. I read every book by John and Stacey Elderidge, a couple who notoriously writes about relationships that are sustained by strict gender norms. Really, all you need to know is that on the home page of their website, the scrolling information touts taglines like “Battle, Beauty, Adventure: What makes men come alive?” and “Beautiful, Pursued, Irreplaceable: What makes women come alive?” barf. As I entered my first romantic relationships, I thought I was meant to be pursued by men, and if I wasn’t being pursued, it was because I wasn’t offering enough of an allure. I specifically remember requiring my boyfriend during my freshman year of college to meet me at the top of the stairs in my dorm, literally making him go on a physical “adventure” just to say hello to me. I thought this would keep our relationship alive. Add to these relationship standards my belief in the teachings of purity culture, thinking for decades that my worth was proportional to my virginity, and you can imagine how all of this distorted my self worth.

I spent a lot of energy in seminary deconstructing these beliefs about myself and my place in the world. I was liberated from my concept of a privileged, male, white god and was introduced to the God of the oppressed. For once, this felt like a God who understood me – a queer woman. Religion finally felt like a thing that encompassed me and not a box I had to force myself into. But as I began life after seminary, the United Methodist Church was falling apart around me. Not even a month after graduating, I went to General Conference 2016 and witnessed my church’s inability to confirm my full humanity. Though I was still in the closet at the time, I knew I was bisexual and I had many queer friends from seminary who were doing incredible things in ministry. However, it was going to take more than one conference to disillusion me.

After being commissioned as a Provisionary Deacon, I started a job working with people experiencing homelessness. With each step toward ordination, though, I struggled time and time again to fit my creative, nontraditional ministry into the guidelines set by the church. After several years of this, I thought it best to go on leave from my ordination process and consider if and how I could best do the ministry to which I felt called. Then, at beginning of my second year of leave just a few months ago, I watched my church tighten restrictions even further on LGBTQ clergy and relationships. With one foot out the door already, I was angry and hurt by an institution that I had once been so determined to make better.

I am still angry. I am saddened as I watch all of my friends from my ordination class get approved for full ordination. If I had stayed on schedule, I would be getting ordained this summer with them. Instead though, I sit in the wilderness wondering if I wasted three years of my life getting a degree that I will never be allowed to officially use in the church of my childhood. I wonder if the grass is greener on the other side in another denomination and I wonder if all of this trouble is worth the pain anymore.

This wilderness is lonely but I’ve been here before. The deconstruction of faith is heartbreaking but necessary for the forming of a new and better thing. I am inspired while I watch many of my queer siblings and allies fight for change, but I know that I can’t do that work myself anymore. I am tired, disillusioned, and confused. It feels like so many things are broken, but the church has historically been broken many times. For now, I wait on God to see what she’s up to in the next promised land.

Being a Queer Methodist, February 2019

This photo is from my commissioning in 2016. I was living in the closet and unemployed. Despite my lack of direction and continual anxiety about my identity, I was overjoyed. As the bishop laid his hands on my shoulders, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Long years of reflection, study, and discernment came together. I felt empowered. I felt like my church believed in me. It felt like coming home.

However, as my three years as a provisional member wore on, I felt more and more conflicted. In fact, this photo might represent the most at home I’ve ever felt in the Methodist Church. I grew up Methodist and have never belonged to any other denomination. My commissioning was the pinnacle of all I had worked for, all I believed the church should be, and all I believed I should be. But it’s been downhill from there.

Some of the ways I’ve started to grow apart from the UMC are due to the structure doesn’t work well for the type of ministry I want to do. This is more of a logistical issue than a personal one. I am not personally hurt by the fact that Methodist polity doesn’t seem to line up well with my ministry vision. It’s akin to a romantic relationship that would be better as a friendship. I’m not angry about it, I just think I might fit better elsewhere. So, it is with one foot already out the door that I witness General Conference 2019.

When I came out as bisexual last July, I assumed I would receive backlash from the church. I’ve received none, which can be partially attributed to the fact that I’m in a relationship with a cis, straight man. I am “self avowed” but not “practicing,” so my aberrance is marginal. Despite the fact that I have received little official feedback about my coming out, I know that, depending on the results of this conference, I could readily be asked to leave. Technically, I’m not allowed to be commissioned, even before GC 2019. Technically, my collar should go back in the drawer and my certificate should come off the wall. But, in my opinion, God is not overly concerned with technicalities.

I’m spending the next few days watching a live stream of primarily cis, straight people deciding if I can continue to be a part of this church in the way I planned to be. Truthfully, I am exhausted by the constant avoidance of the UMC to actually make a decision about inclusion. We’ve been having the same argument for a decade and yet all we’ve managed to do so far is make another committee. Despite the fact that this is comically stereotypical, I wish we would just get it over with. Part of me is grateful for the grace and care with which the church leadership is attempting to make this decision, but part of me is frustrated by the kid gloves everyone is wearing. This decision is going to hurt whether or not we take two years to think about it. I am tired of “praying our way forward.” I don’t think prayer can fix this. We don’t need more time to sit in a room in pray. We need to get our own house in order so we can go back out into the world and send love into what are currently some really broken places.

I spend each day working with people experiencing homelessness, trying to get ID’s and birth certificates for them so they can go back to work and get housing, listening to their painful stories, and holding space for them. I will continue to do this whether or not the Methodist church wants me to do this in their name. I believe it is holy work and I believe God is in it whether or not I’m straight. I struggle often between my high church beliefs in the value of structure and my thoughts that God works far beyond our made-up systems. I don’t know how to hold my conflicting thoughts about the Church all at once, but I do know that all of us deserve a place in it.

So, what do we do with a church that has become just as injured, maybe even more so than the world around it? I don’t know. I think there’s value in an imperfect church because I spent so much of my early childhood thinking that church was a place where I had to be my most perfect self. But I also believe the church should be a place of safety, something I can rely on when my mental illness overwhelms me or when I feel burnt out by the pain I bear witness to in my work. I don’t want to be charged with doing the emotional work for an organization that supposed to be offering me healing and rest. I think there is far too little individual work being done. Before we can address racism, sexism, and homophobia as the UMC, we have to address our individual biases. This is hard work, harder than praying while secretly believing God thinks the same thing that you do.

I don’t know where we will be this time next week, and I am terrified. I’m worried I wasted 3 years and thousands of dollars getting a degree I won’t be allowed use. I’m afraid that I am going to watch my family fall apart and that it will be all my fault. I don’t feel safe in an organization that has been a giant part of my spiritual and personal formation, and I am tired of my personhood being debated. I don’t want to pray about it anymore. I just want to be allowed to come home.