Eric resigned from his staff role in early 2017, but by the fall, found himself back in a rotation of worship leaders we had gathered together in the absence of having someone in a paid role. He had also become a leader in our church’s Youth group, so he was quite embedded in the life of our community.
(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)
It was November 23, 2017—a Thursday afternoon—when Eric stopped by the church office after a day of teaching. He had emailed to ask if we could connect, but he didn’t say why. I didn’t know what we were going to be talking about, but Eric certainly did. After telling me a bit about how his teaching was going, he cut to the chase: “So, I wanted to let you know, before you hear it from anyone else, that I’m gay. It’s something I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve only very recently accepted that this is who I am, and I’m ready to come out.”
Some people talk about having ‘gaydar’—an ability to sense when someone is gay before there is any public acknowledgement. This is not something that I have in any measure, so to say that I was surprised by Eric’s revelation would be a serious understatement.
Over the course of the next hour, he shared his story with me—a story of his unfolding awareness in early adolescence that he was attracted to other boys, his understanding from the church he had grown up in that these feelings were sinful, and his struggle more recently to reconcile this attraction with the faith that mattered so much to him. The conclusion he had reached, after wrestling deeply with God over an extended period of time, was that this was the way God had created him, and that he was prepared to finally accept this and live out his sexual orientation. He was ready to ‘come out’.
My head was spinning the whole time he was telling his story, and there were two primary thoughts that were on a loop in my mind. The first was, Pay attention, you need to respect his courage in this moment and make sure he knows that you love him and will support him through whatever comes next. The second was, Holy crap, this is going to destroy our church; there is basically no way to avoid it now; we’re going to have to face this head on and pray that somehow we make it out alive on the other side.
By the time Eric was finished telling his story, I found a way to articulate these thoughts to him. After all, if he was willing to respect me with this level of honesty and vulnerability, it was only right for me to do the same for him in return. I told him that, as his church community, we would love and respect him through whatever came next, and that we would not try and sweep this under the rug, but would acknowledge the significance and complexity of this news and commit to walking through this with him in a healthy way.
I asked Eric if he would be willing to wait to make his news public, acknowledging that while he was obviously free to ‘come out’ in his own timing, I thought the best chance of us navigating this in a healthy way as a church would be to maintain some control over the narrative that would start to come together once the news broke. I wanted him to know that it was up to him, and that I could appreciate how frustrating it might be to hear someone ask him to be quiet for just a little while longer when he had already been quiet since the first moment he experienced same-sex attraction. But I also told him that I genuinely thought we could find a way forward if we gave ourselves some time to think things through.
I let him know about my sermon plan for the new year, which included spending the month of January on a series called, Listen Up! where we would explore what it meant for us to listen to God, listen to one another, listen to God as a community, and listen to our neighbours. Listening was our thematic goal for the year, but this series was also intentionally planned to launch us into a brief two-week series that I was calling, Sex-xes, where we would explore the overarching theme of human sexuality, and then the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith in particular.
It had been quite some time since I had tackled the theme of homosexuality in a sermon, and during the previous summer, I made a commitment to myself that I would do so again in 2018. But this time I didn’t want to preach a sermon that would tie everything up with a neat and tidy conclusion. Instead, I wanted to provide our community of faith with an opportunity to spend some dedicated time exploring our different perspectives and learning how to love and respect one another in the face of our differences.
I brought this idea up with our church Board a couple of weeks before my conversation with Eric, suggesting that we hold some form of midweek, town-hall style dialogue. The reaction around the table was less than enthusiastic, with legitimate concerns being raised about the fallout if it wasn’t done well. The primary question seemed to be, Why on earth would we choose to walk into such volatile territory unless it was forced on us?
At the end of the meeting, I said that while I would still plan on addressing the theme of same-sex attraction in February, I would hold off on the town-hall idea, at least for now. I asked the team to think and pray about my idea, though, suggesting that we should be able to come up with a creative approach that would work for our community.
Eric’s news changed all of this, of course. With his permission, I let the Board know what he had shared with me. We were meeting together to discuss some other items, and it was at this meeting that a member of the team referred to the situation as “an absolute hailstorm of disaster.” It certainly felt that way, but I told them that Eric had graciously offered to work with us on this, even if that meant that he would hold off on his ‘coming out’ for a couple of months longer. In that first conversation with Eric, I told him that I would be willing to consider having him share his story as part of my Sunday morning sermon, so I mentioned this to the Board and we agreed that this was something we could work toward.
I shared the news with our staff team as well, again with Eric’s permission. As it turned out, a couple of them already knew, but it was important for me to try and bring us together as we prepared to enter into what we all knew would be a challenging season for our church. I reiterated the two commitments that I had made to Eric: that we would love him, and that we would engage this topic head-on.
Even though members of both our Board and Staff held various positions on the issue, we all knew that we had to track together on the process and make sure we were communicating well with one another along the way. I assured our Staff that I would be as transparent as possible with them with respect to how our Board was processing things, and asked them to be as cautious as possible when talking to people in the church, as the news was bound to start leaking out. We agreed that we would try to limit our public commentary to the two commitments I had mentioned, and that we would ask people who had questions to be patient and trust that, in time, we would answer whatever questions arose.
Around this same time, Melissa and I decided to talk to our sixteen-year-old son about what was going on. We knew this was about to become all-consuming and we have an unwritten rule in our home that, since our kids are required to live with whatever is going on as a result of my role as a pastor, we will do our best to let them in on things in an appropriate manner. We were a bit nervous to speak the words out loud to him, not sure how he’d respond, and—to be honest—not even sure how we would explain it to him. To this point, we had been thinking of this from the vantage point of pastors and hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like to engage the conversation as parents of teenage kids.
Our son’s response to Eric’s news was short and to the point: “Of course he is.” We were shocked! How could he know? Was he being serious? According to our son, it was obvious that Eric was gay and he seemed somewhat amused that we were so surprised by it all. In time, we would talk to his siblings as well—our daughter guessed it straight away, while our youngest son had a harder time putting two and two together.
We tried our best to explain that this was a really big deal for our church and that we wanted to let them know because we were about to walk into a very difficult season. As pastors’ kids, they witness a lot of what goes on behind the scenes as their father tries to lead a church that has had its share of conflicts along the way, as every church has. But as we explained to them, this one was going to be different. It was going to be the most challenging thing we had ever faced, but we were going to find a way to do it well.