Brett Webb-Mitchell: Out and Ordained

On July 10, 2011, the Presbyterian Church (USA) formally amended their constitution (The Book of Order), deleting the ordination requirement that ordained officers "live in chastity in singleness or fidelity in marriage." The new policy simply asserts "standards for ordained service reflect the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life." This simple phrase allows LGBTQ people to begin breaking out of our second-class captivity, no longer caught in a linguistic snare that denied us ordination, censure or being defrocked.

Like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the Episcopal Church, Disciples of Christ, Moravians and United Church of Christ (UCC), most Presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church USA now welcome out-LGBTQ people as ordained and installed leaders. While my heart is filled with joy, others in my Church enter a sober time of discernment, discouraged by the Spirit's forward movement. They are at odds with the majority who voted to be more inclusive of all God's people. In this time of a groundbreaking change in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I'm praying for these five changes as I begin to pastor as an out-gay Presbyterian pastor:

First, I pray for tearing down barriers between LGBTQ people and straight allies and those in power by LGBTQ people sharing our stories. Telling our life narrative makes us more real, more human, to those who only saw us as outsiders and the detested "others." We will need to relate stories of past actions of wrongdoing that alienated many of us from the body of Christ. Storytelling that is intimate, vulnerable and sincere will be welcomed for what it is: an act of courage, justice and grace.

My story as a religious leader in the Church began in my closet when I was ordained in 1983. While hiding, I was like a "mole" in the inner ring of influence in the Church. While I was silent, I witnessed the trials of other LGBTQ people and straight allies whose ordination as ministers, deacons or elders were either withheld or defrocked because someone was out of the closet or broke church law by marrying same-sex couples. Some biblical scholars and theologians I knew personally repeatedly referred to chapters of Leviticus and Romans to justify keeping LGBTQ people excluded from leadership in the Church.

I experienced the cold hand of oppression when I came out of my closet and lived as one created in the image of God, part of God's beloved community. There were a handful of Presbyterian pastors who were out LGBTQ people before we Presbyterians amended our constitution. The reason no formal complaint was brought against me was because I was part of a Presbytery where powerful people protected me as an out gay pastor. There was an informal "underground railroad," where those in authority shielded us from prosecution but could not assure us employment. After I came out, First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, N.C., called me as their interim senior pastor, and I served the church until they called their new pastor. In Henderson I met unbridled malevolence toward LGBTQ people in middle-class America. While most church members accepted my presence in the pulpit, some struggled with my sexual orientation. One church member wrote this on a survey near the end of my term: "Every biblical reference to homosexuality indicates it is not an 'alternate life style,' but gross sin." On the town blog, "Home in Henderson," someone wrote: "To blatantly live such a lifestyle that God terms an abomination and further adds insult to injury. And he calls himself a minister without admitting the sin in his life? Sick, sick, sick."

Second, I pray for healing through the timeless practice of confession and reconciliation as we move forward in being more inclusive. Confession may begin with those with authority in the Church acknowledging there are times the faithful were not being solely instructed by Scripture and tradition, but complicit with political powers and social conventions that surround the Church. Among those who are LGBTQ people and straight allies, we will need to do more than concede we were kept on the margins. Some LGBTQ people may confess failure to speak out for fear of being further marginalized. Others can empathize with Jesus who uttered, "I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me" (Matthew 25:43). Some LBTQ people felt like strangers in a church, and could not live with the stress of being discriminated against because we knew -- and know -- we are part of God's good creation. Some became addicted to drugs or alcohol, while others committed suicide. A few LGBTQ clergy lived with post-traumatic stress disorder, related to the abuse they felt in fighting the Church. Others experienced financial loss because churches and seminaries discriminated against LGBTQ people. I was not aware of what hatred, based upon who I am, felt like until I came out of the closet. I have a better appreciation for what others who have been disenfranchised feel like when being put down because of who one is rather than because of what one is doing.

Employing the practice of confession and acts of reconciliation communally, we come to learn what it means to be inclusive. In the history of the PCUSA, the model of confession composed in light of the Church's acknowledging its complicity with the systematic sin of racism was the "Confession of 1967." It affirmed our common belief in one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one birth. This churchly practice of confession and affirmation must be revived to heal the rift caused by generations of Church teaching concerning LGBTQ people, like, "love the sinner, and hate the sin."

Third, I pray for continued discussions between non-LGBTQ people uncomfortable around us, and LGBTQ people and allies. Full inclusion will involve re-imagining new ways of relating for LGBTQ people and allies with straight leaders and congregants as we move beyond one-dimensional stereotypes and adversarial positions. As a result of some people's discomfort with us, schisms are breaking out among many Protestant denominations. These break-off group claims that there's been a breach in how some interpret Scripture, or question the authoritative role of Scripture in our daily lives. For others, there is a sense that historic church traditions have ceased to matter. Yet, schism in the Church is nothing new. For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) was recently formed in 1983. It was a merger of the southern Presbyterian Church of the U.S. -- then called the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, breaking off from the main Presbyterian denomination in 1861 over the issue of slavery and secession -- and the northern United Presbyterian Church of the USA. With time, in dialogue with one another, history will no doubt repeat itself, and a re-unification will most likely occur in our collective future.

Fourth, I pray for wisdom and love as we move onward to new challenges before us as we live into the extraordinary diversity of the body of Christ. LGBTQ people and allies will reclaim relationships with others as children of the Creator God, led by Christ's example of self-giving love. In order to become more inclusive, there are many "next steps" to be taken in righting past wrongs. For example, as more states permit LGBTQ people to wed, churches will need to craft a theology of marriage that includes LGBTQ congregants. As ordained religious leaders, our health-care and retirement benefits will need to be inclusive of our families. In order that LGBTQ clergy will never be discriminated again in the Church, denominations will need to include LGBTQ people among those who are represented and protected as a minority group.

Fifth, I pray for wonder to replace fear as out LGBTQ clergy look forward to answering God's call to be ordained and installed, serving openly among God's people. LGBTQ will need to redirect the energy we expended in living closeted lives of dread to breaking down barriers of hate, walking a pilgrimage of hope in responding to the call of God. To live in our ministry with integrity and love is truly a gift of grace. Coming generations will talk of the closet as an anecdote, best left in history's rubbish bin. Out-LGBTQ clergy look forward to serving others as we preach, celebrate the sacraments, join in service projects, coordinate educational activities, participate in fellowship opportunities as we take our place and use our gifts as members of the holy, mysterious and inclusive body of Christ.

[Taken with author's permission from]