By Rev. Dr. Joanne Carlson-Brown
Ministry demands that we have authenticity and integrity, honesty, and transparency, all while maintaining appropriate boundaries. This is hard enough for anyone, but for queer clergy, this has been, and in many cases still is, impossible. We have to be quiet or hide or dissemble about our true God-given, God-blessed identities as queer folk.
Our denomination has officially legislated us out of the Church since 1972, but it was going on long before that. So many of our clergy have come of age in a Church that only knew fear, rejection, persecution, and hate. We have had to sit in meetings at Annual and General Conferences, hearing our very being and worth as human beings. Our right to exist, never mind to serve as clergy, has been debated for many, many years.
I am part of the old guard. It was my ordination in the Rocky Mountain Conference in 1982 as the first openly gay person to be ordained an elder in The United Methodist Church that caused the words in the Discipline that no “self-identified, practicing homosexual can be ordained, appointed, or reappointed” to be added. I have never not been “out.” Though I have been able, for the most part, to do my ministry unhindered, that has not been the case for many of my fellow queer clergy. The question is, how do we maintain wellness in this atmosphere of distrust, pain, anger, frustration, and exclusion?
For me, the answer is community. Love. The only way. It is essential to have people with whom you can talk and be honest about who you. People you can share your call to ministry with who will receive, support, challenge, and yes, love you. We need to find ways to love God, love God’s people, and, most importantly, in this situation, to love ourselves as Beloved of God.
Some of us have been at this a very long time. We have consistently gathered as queer clergy every Annual Conference for dinner at a restaurant a decent way from the bar of the Conference. News of our gathering spread by word of mouth, but we always checked with the group to see if it was okay to invite someone new. We needed to know people would feel safe with the newcomer. Fortunately, we are now able to be much more open than in the beginning.
Many queer clergy, especially the younger ones, are working for change in the Church in their local ministry settings, at the Conference level, and nationally. This is the other way we survive—working against injustice in whatever forms we find it as openly queer clergy. But no matter the support, love, community, and justice work, it is often hard to answer the question, “How is it with your soul?” in a positive manner.
Those of us who have been here for the long haul, being educational tools for the Church, trying to help them understand that we have been called by our radically transforming, loving God, are becoming weary of the fight. Frankly, some of us survive, and even well, but others do not. Folks have been driven out of the Church. Others have committed suicide at not being accepted for ordination simply because of their sexual identity. Still, others have turned their back on religion because of the pain they have experienced.
I was asked to write about how queer clergy maintain their wellness. That has to be answered by each individual as they seek the strength they need to keep fighting, keep doing ministry, keep loving God and God’s people. As a historian, when I am searching for inspiration, my first instinct is to turn to those who have gone before. For spiritual sustenance, I am very Wesleyan, so I turn first to Scripture. The passage that soothes my soul is Isaiah 43. I have it printed out and hung on the wall in my office.
“Because you are precious in my sight and honored and I love you.”
No one can take that affirmation away from me.
I also find that the example of Jesus gives me strength. He refused to stop preaching against injustice, nor would he abandon those marginalized in society. He continued to disrupt and upset the established order to the point that they executed him for it. It gives me the strength to continue doing what I am called to do—live The Way that stands for justice and liberation and radical transforming love in the face of opposition.
I also turn to the history of struggles, especially the stories of women queer folks in society and the Church. It is important to know you have a history of your own—your own people to guide, inform, and strengthen you. There are also many sources that have been developed over time to lift up different interpretations of people, events, attitudes, and beliefs.
And finally, I have my experience that no one can take away of being unconditionally loved by a liberating God who has called me to follow the Way and to minister to God’s people in all the ways I can, at all the times I can. Working my way through Wesley’s theology and how that is experienced and lived in my life is my spiritual practice. It gives me a solid foundation from which to withstand the waves of hate, oppression, and soul-destroying actions coming from the Church and society.
The pain of the 2019 General Conference is very present. With the Traditional Plan set to take effect on January 1, 2020, many fear what will happen, and General Conference 2020 promises no miraculous resolution to the turmoil and harm happening in the Church. There is no easy answer to how to maintain clergy wellness amid our struggle. But we do so for the most part by various means that are all rooted in love—the Way.
We are not alone. We have each other, and we have our Beloved God. With that affirmation, we can overcome anything.
Rev. Dr. Joanne Carlson Brown serves as pastor to Des Moines United Methodist Church in Des Moines, Washington. She earned an M.Div. degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and her Ph.D. from Boston University in historical theology and church history.