This is it—my final entry. One day last week, I took a look at the calendar and had a thought that it was probably around this same time last year when I gave up trying to sleep, stumbled down the stairs to the dining room table, and typed the first words into this Google Doc. As it turns out, my first entry was on December 8, which is only a few days from now, so I hatched a plan to set aside some time on that same date to write one final chapter on the precise anniversary of when I began. It was a Saturday, so I figured I would have time, and truthfully I did have time—but as it turns out, I didn’t write anything that day, and then I didn’t write anything for the next couple of days either, so here I am on December 12, four days late.
(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.)
The fact that I’m late speaks volumes to where I’ve come over the course of the past year. On December 8, 2017, I was so rattled by the prospect of entering into this conversation about same-sex attraction with our church community that I couldn’t sleep, and now, a year and four days later, even when I want to have a restless night so I can carve out the time needed to finish this well, all I seem to do is sleep until the alarm on my phone goes off at 7:10 in the morning. There’s something satisfying about this, knowing that I’ve made it through what I used to refer to as “an absolute hailstorm of disaster.”
Just a half hour ago, I was sitting in the sanctuary of our church, listening to a group of junior youth practicing a song they’ll be singing as part of the service this coming Sunday morning. Not all of the youth attend our church, so off the top, our worship leader asked for a show of hands of those who thought they would be able to come on Sunday. Most of the hands went up, even some of those who didn't attend the church, but a handful said they wouldn’t likely be there. One of these was a girl whose family left our church in the summer, and so her response was certainly not lost on me. In that moment, I wondered whether our worship leader, who has only been with us for the past three months, even knows that this girl is the daughter of a Board member who stepped down in the summer, and part of a family with deep roots in our community who chose to leave because of the posture we chose to adopt with respect to people in same-sex relationships. I doubt she knows, but even if she did, I realized in that moment that the number of people in our community who weren’t here for the “hailstorm” of 2018 will only grow, and the memories of this season of our church’s life will be like many of the other memories we reminisce about: Remember the early days meeting at Humanities Theatre? Remember packing the sound equipment into the trailer every week? Remember when there were only three kids in our entire Sunday School? Yes, the events of this year will one day become something for us to reflect back on, and in fact, it’s already starting to feel a little bit that way.
Over the course of the past month, I’ve started having some conversations that are giving me a sense of what the next leg of my journey might look like: that it will involve taking our story out beyond our walls and walking with others who have either walked a similar path in the past or who are about to do so. At a small pastors’ gathering I attended, a colleague gave me the name of someone I should talk to, a pastor of a church in a city a few hours away. “You need to hear his story,” he said. “I think there are a lot of similarities with your own.”
He didn’t have to say it twice. I was so hungry to find someone—anyone—who could truly and honestly identify with our experience of the past year. When he mentioned the pastor’s name, it sounded vaguely familiar to me, and a little while later I put the pieces together and realized that when Melissa and I had travelled to Calgary in the year before we planted our student church, we had met this same person and his wife, as they were just getting started themselves working on the university campus there. Our paths never crossed again, but when I tossed his name into the search bar, sure enough, there he was. I fired off a note through the contact page on his website and heard back from him the next day. After a brief laugh about the crazy coincidence of our introduction two decades earlier, we set up a time to chat on a video call.
Steve (not his real name) told me his story, which in many ways was similar to my own, but was also markedly different in other ways. After wrestling for several years with gradually shifting convictions about the exclusion of LGBTQ people from the church, he stood up one Sunday morning without notice and informed his congregation that he was fully affirming and that he was not willing to lead under any other pretenses moving forward. He told me that his entire Board resigned that day, and within a span of three weeks, 100 of the 225 people who attended his church were gone. Just like that! I could identify with so many of the emotions and interactions he told me about as he unpacked his story, but I also couldn’t help but notice the profound differences, particularly in the way he unloaded his own journey on his unsuspecting congregation. My convictions are not the same as his, nor do I feel as strongly about taking our church in a given direction, but it was a reminder to me of just how alone pastors can feel when they begin to experience cognitive dissonance around this issue. What am I supposed to do? Who am I supposed to talk to? Left to process his questions and changing perspectives on his own, Steve ended up responding in a way that not only led to a significant fallout with his congregation, but nine months later, when the stress of having put his beliefs out in the open became too much for him to carry, he resigned from his pastoral post.
The fact that Steve felt a need to process things in private, without his congregation knowing, is problematic. At the same time, I believe this is the experience of many pastors in many congregations, and Steve is far from alone in deciding to keep things quiet at risk of rocking the boat. But while it’s true that a pastor is the leader of a local congregation, the pastor is also a member of the congregation. I need my congregation every bit as much as they need me: to look out for me, care for me, and even help me find my way if I occasionally feel lost or afraid or even just uncertain. If a pastor can’t see any other way forward than wrestling with his or her questions in secret, then springing them on an unsuspecting congregation is really the only result we should expect. When the internal tension becomes too strong, something has to give, and it’s either going to be the pastor’s integrity (“I’ll just have to suck it up and lead this way, while personally believing something else”) or the church’s stability (“It doesn’t matter what happens, I can’t go on leading this double life.”)
We need to find ways for pastors to have genuinely safe spaces to think and talk through complex pastoral issues, and the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith is certainly the complex pastoral issue of our day. There are other important and divisive issues to be sure, and one day this may not be quite the hot button topic it is today, but at this point in the Church’s long history, there is nothing that so easily divides people into categories as where they stand on the inclusion of people in same-sex relationships in the life of the church. But when people hear stories like my own, where a church’s decision to allow space for diverse interpretations results in an exit from its denomination, or like Steve’s, where the fallout from a pastor putting his cards on the table splits a church in two and results in someone stepping out of pastoral ministry entirely, how on earth are they going to muster up the courage required to make this journey? Who is going to be willing to take the risks associated with tackling this issue head on?
The other day, I attended a city-wide lunch for pastors and ministry leaders where I serve as part of the leadership team. Following the event, I found myself standing in a small circle talking with some colleagues about our church’s journey. It wasn’t the kind of place I wanted to get into this conversation, as I’m almost certain that ours would be the only church represented that wouldn’t have a straightforward traditional stance on the issue. At the same time, though, I knew that if I was going to continue to journey with these people as part of the broader Christian community in our city, I would have to find a way to be who I am and to let our church be what it is.
Someone slid into the circle while I was explaining our upcoming departure from our denominational family. She had missed some of the back story, so she asked a question to make sure she was understanding me correctly: “But they wouldn’t be allowed to be a leader in the church, right?” She meant someone in a same-sex relationship, of course, and despite my awareness of how awkward this was about to get, I let her know that, yes, they would be allowed to serve as a leader in our church. It was the classic line in the sand, I’d seen it a hundred times before, and I knew that regardless of whatever I had said and however carefully I had said it to the pastors standing around me to this point, this was going too far. All we could do now was find a way to quickly change the topic of conversation and head out into the crisp winter afternoon, driving off in different directions to our respective communities of faith, which is exactly what we did.
(As it turns out, this was not my final entry after all. Just one more post, though, and this journey we’ve been on together will come to a close. I’d like my final post in this series to end the way I wrote it, without commentary on my part, so while I have your attention here in this penultimate chapter, let me extend many thanks for taking the time to read along with me. As I’ve been ‘gently editing’ my entries over the past few months, I’ve been reliving what will certainly go down as one of the most challenging seasons of my life. But far from dragging me back into some of the dark places I found myself in back in 2018 as I feared it might, this process has given me reason to be thankful for the faithfulness of God and for the support of many good people in my life—Melissa, first and foremost!—during an incredibly stretching year leading our church community.
I gave this series the title, The View From Here, as a nod in the direction of a dream I had where I was being invited to lead our church community from an expansive plateau back down a steep and treacherous path in hopes of traveling together to another, even higher summit. We’re still on our way, with much of the journey still ahead of us; my prayer is that God will continue to be with me as I lead, and with our community as we walk the path together.
The intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith will continue to be a point of significant conversation for pastors, churches, denominations, and just about every follower of Jesus who is committed to living out a vitalized faith and to helping the people around them do the same. Knowing this, we need to find healthy and generative ways to engage in these conversations, refusing to minimize their significance or vilify those whose opinions don’t line up with ours. I hope that what I’ve shared about our story will help my readers do just that.
If you would like to continue the conversation beyond the end of these posts, please don’t hesitate to reach out. You can post a comment below or look for my contact information on my profile in the menu above. I would be more than happy to be a conversation partner for anyone who needs one, and in fact, I'd love to hear from anyone who has read through from start to finish to get a sense of how my story has resonated with you and what kinds of questions and thoughts it has raised in your own life.
Finally, I’d just like to say that I will continue to blog on this site, albeit on a broader variety of themes as they emerge. It would be an honour to have you continue to follow along, which you can do by subscribing at the top of this page. But for now, I've got one last post to share...)