The reality is this: we are all needy. If we believe in the notion of being made in the image of God, and if we truly believe that at God's core, God is a relational being whose existence is rooted in God's relationship between God, Son, and Spirit (at least in a Christian, Trinitarian sense), then it only makes sense that we as humans have an inherent, intrinsic need for others—this hunger to love and be loved, to care and feel cared for, to give and receive. Healthy relationships are comprised of balance.
Nothing can prepare you for the chill, the smell, the fluorescent lighting. There is no way to get yourself psyched up for stepping into a cooler that serves as a temporary stopping point for the recently deceased. Yet sometimes you have to open the door and step inside. You have to unzip the bag and stare into the abyss of mortality...
Did I just say that? Yes, yes I did.
We live in a world that is constantly changing, and not always for good. But the reality, the inevitability of change, gives me hope that someday, our world can be transformed into what it can be, what it should be, and what it needs to be for us to see God's kindom fulfilled and made wholly manifest. I want to be a part of change, not just sit by and watch it walk past me unnoticed. I want to facilitate it, and I recognize my inability to do this alone. We need change. Our world needs change. We need each other to make it happen.
Because my sexual orientation places me in a minority while my race, gender, and class afford me a certain level of power and privilege, I often find myself teetering between the world of the powerful and the world of the marginalized. That being said, I strongly agree with much of what Flunder has to say. "I preach faith-based sermons to build self-worth and self-value in the lives of people who have often been stripped of all that is right and good. I strive to see peace and a sense of security present in the lives of those I paster, preach to, and serve... This is a peace born from the assurance that God will come through for us; God is on our side. This is what I believe; this is what I preach"
My hope is that Benedict's decision becomes a precedent for future popes — that they allow themselves to surrender the papacy to someone else in cases where they may no longer be able to live into the role and its responsibilities. My hope is they take care of themselves rather than trying to be someone they can no longer be, fill a role they can no longer fill. My hope is that Benedict's decision causes a shift in how we perceive and treat clergy. I hope we place stronger emphasis on self-care and wellness, that the health and well-being of any clergy person is given proper attention and valued over bureaucracy, politics, and most importantly, tradition. Times change. Life changes. It's natural.
However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them?
This is one of those quotes that, for someone like me who does his best to be intentional about everything, shakes your world to its core. When you sit and think about it, and I mean really think about it, you cannot help but be changed by the meaning of these simple words.
I did not come back from Phoenix feeling like my old self. As a person whose introvert/extrovert is fairly evenly split, events where I'm surrounded by nearly 500 people drain me. Although enjoyable, they require significant energy on my part. This year was no different. In fact, it was even more intense. It felt like starting over, and anyone who knows me well knows that I struggle with starting over. Many of us do. Needless to say, right now, I feel spent. I feel weary. I feel like a nomad wandering through uncharted territory, uncertain of my final destination.
One of the most important topics for anyone in ministry is self-care...
When working in areas of tension and even conflict, it's difficult to not become burned out, cynical, disheartened, frustrated, and hurt. It's challenging to know when to take a break, to give yourself a sabbath from being in the trenches, as well as to know how to spend that time. But as my time in ministry progresses, I'm realizing more and more just how precious and necessary those sabbaths are to me and my personal well-being.
One of my goals for my time with the Marin Foundation this year is learning how to further develop healthy emotional and physical boundaries for my ministry context. Inherently, I'm extremely physically affectionate and emotionally sponge-like. I always prefer a hug over a handshake, and I often find myself taking on and soaking up the emotions of those around me. Not only could such relaxed physical boundaries cause issues for me professionally, but such consistent emotional vulnerability could be detrimental to my psychological wellness.
The past couple of months have involved both sharing my story with some and hearing the stories of others, either over the phone or in person. When a person's story resonates deeply with my own, it's hard to not let my emotions of my experiences surface, which in turn makes me a less effective listener, makes me less objective in times when I need to be just that. I've heard stories from other LGBTQ individuals about their experiences of coming out to their parents, of being a part of non-affirming denominations while feeling called to ministry, of coming to terms with their identity and having to wrestle with extremely difficult questions. I've listened to the stories of parents about their child's coming out, about feeling alone, about fearing for their child's future and holistic well-being.
Self-care and sabbath are challenging to me individually because I have a difficult time "shutting my brain off."
I am always thinking, feeling, wondering, and questioning. Even in my times of solitude, the voices and words of others run through my head. This makes hearing the voice and feeling the embrace of the Divine hard to do. It means being inundated with perspectives and opinions from all across the spectrum of human experience. It means not always knowing how I feel or what I think. Self-care for me necessitates knowing myself, which is challenging to do when I often don't truly feel alone.
Working with the Marin Foundation, I often encounter people who might look at me and my life and deem it unholy, sinful, or dishonoring to God, who share perspectives and presuppositions with many around whom I was raised. As such, my emotions and thoughts have a tendency to cycle back and forth between what I "know" now to what I "knew" then. My own thoughts and voice get lost in the mix. I lose my sense of self, my sense of identity, and I feel confused, disoriented, and fragmented, all of which make it difficult for me to do effective and holistic ministry. How can I help people become whole when I don't feel that I myself am whole? How can I share my understanding of the "good news" when I have such a hard time hearing and assimilating it into my own life? These are the questions that make me aware of just how much I need to take care of myself so that I can better provide care for others.
So what does my self care look like given everything I've shared thus far?
- First, I have a therapist. I think anyone in ministry, especially ministry that has the propensity for emotional drainage should have a counselor of some sort. This should be different from the person one turns to for spiritual direction. Pastors and counselors are trained in two different manners and should therefore be seen for different reasons and with different goals in mind—at least that's my perspective.
- Second, I have a close network of ministry colleagues with whom I can share my challenges and struggles and have them share theirs in return. We take time to support each other, to listen, and to encourage one another, especially in difficult times. I also feel it's important that there is a network in place, primarily so I don't end up venting to one person or being the sole person to whom someone else vents. We are to bear one another's burdens, and I believe it needs to happen communally.
- Third, I set limits based on what I know about myself. This means taking breaks (when possible) every 20-30 minutes when I'm doing draining work. This means letting my commutes and train rides be filled not with emails or school work but with music or simply being silent, with the occasional fiction novel thrown in. This means stopping work at a particular time of day so that I can rest, process, listen to music, watch some TV, read a book, play guitar, or spend time with my non-ministry friends.
- Fourth, I do my best to have a life outside of ministry, outside of my office, outside of the classroom, and outside of my apartment. This means saying yes to spending time with good friends even if there's something else work-related that I could (and sometimes should) be doing. This is a matter of awareness and choice. Being such a social person, I try to have a balance here. I go out with friends for dinner or drinks, but I make sure to be home earlier than I might have if I were still in my early 20s. I keep an actual schedule, and I plan accordingly. Most of the time, I stop work after 7pm and spend the rest of the night doing things to feed and nourish my soul. Put simply, I make space for me.
Are any of these ideas new or groundbreaking? I doubt it. Do all of these precepts get put into place all the time? Of course not, but they are good basic tools for helping me live a healthy life while engaged in ministry. Will these ideas work for every person all the time in every kind of ministry context? I would imagine not. Self-care is just that... self. I have to know myself, my passions, and my limits and live and work accordingly. I hope these ideas spark some for you wherever you are. Know yourself, know your limits, and know your heart. Even when you're in the grey space, living in the tension between worlds, take a sabbath, take rest, and take heart.
Little did I know that a private message I received from a fellow member of the Gay Christian Network nearly four years ago would drastically change the entire course of my life.
I'd been a part of the online community for a short while, and at the time, was not involved in any sort of faith community. My previous home church, a Baptist church in west-central Indiana had asked me to step down from all ministry activities and suggested I stop attending services because of my identity as a gay man. These events led to a spiritual drought and a six-year hiatus from any church.
In winter of 2008, I received the aforementioned private message from a GCN member who lived in one of Chicago's many suburbs and whose son lived in the city. He'd read many of my posts, and felt led to tell me of a church community on the edge of the Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, Holy Covenant United Methodist Church. It would take a few more months before I could muster up the courage to take his advice and attend a worship service at Holy Covenant, but finally, two weeks before Easter of 2009, I woke up and made the trek down to the red-bricked, mural-emblazened building that would become my home, my refuge, my safe haven away from a world that told me it didn't want me, not as I was at least.
From there, the rest seems like history. Immediately, I was made to feel welcomed, loved, and valued. The people of Holy Covenant made it a priority to get to know me and to be a part of the healing work God was doing in my life and on my severely broken heart. I experienced my first ever Maundy Thursday service, which coincidentally was the first time I'd been offered communion since leaving my former denomination. I was welcomed to the table as a broken but whole person, never asked to leave a part of myself at the door. Even to this day, I cannot put into words how significant this was for me.
That summer, I marched in Chicago's Pride Parade for the first time with my new community. Along the route, I had a conversation with a few other church members. The question was asked whether or not I'd ever considered going to seminary and pursuing a vocation in ministry. I had, in fact, but had been led to believe that my sexual orientation made me unfit for answering that call. These new friends told me otherwise. They affirmed that my orientation was part of who God made me to be. I'd never really heard any of this before. And so I visited the seminary suggested to me (Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, Illinois) and applied for admission soon thereafter. While my acceptance letter came quickly, I postponed going for another year for the sake of discernment. More changes were to come.
I met my now-husband and life partner, Frankie, who was also welcomed into the Holy Covenant community, regardless of his difference of faith beliefs as a practicing neo-pagan. Holy Covenant loved me, and I loved him, and so they grew to love him as well. I was given various opportunities to serve, including serving communion, reading scripture, singing, praying during worship, leading a small group, serving on a committee, and so much more. As time progressed, all of the brokenness I'd experienced as man coping with depression and the effects of being raised in a physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive household started to mend, albeit slowly. I was learning to love myself through the love with which I was being covered by this amazing family of faith. I decided to pursue ordination within the denomination in which I'd found a new home.
Herein lies the struggle. Although churches like Holy Covenant exist where all people are welcomed regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, the United Methodist Church's written polity refers to the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching" and therefore individuals such as myself are believed to be unfit for ordained ministry. It didn't make sense. I'd known gay clergy, gay partnered clergy, in our denomination. What did it all mean? As I began seminary and developed relationships with people serving elsewhere in the district and conference, I learned the answer to my questions, and they were disheartening.
In order for me to be ordained in the UMC, I would quintessentially have to go into a professional, vocational closet. In meetings and on paper, I would be "single," making no reference to my sexual identity or my relationship status. I would have to leave a part of me outside of the ordination process. I'd known others going through the same thing who seemed to be okay with it all, who seemed sane and mentally/emotionally healthy, and so I pressed forward. I continued in my seminary education, served another church in the city for my second-year internship, and proceeded to have my local church declare me as a candidate for ordination.
The time came for me to meet with my district committee on ordained ministry for their approval and certification of my candidacy process. I met with mentors and fellow clergy for advice on how to best express myself on paper and in speech. I found myself using the term "significant other" for Frankie instead of "husband" or "partner." It hurt, deeply. In the meeting itself, I shared my excitement for getting to work with The Marin Foundation this year—a non-profit whose mission is to bridge the relational gap between the evangelical church and the LGBT community. I spoke of my passion for full inclusion of all people. I have no doubt that anyone in the room had any misgivings over my sexual orientation or relationship status. I was partnered, and it was easy to tell that my partner was not of the opposite sex.
And so we sat there with this invisible rainbow elephant in the room. One committee member asked me why I'd felt it important to mention my relationship in my paperwork, especially using such red-flag language as "significant other." He continued, "You're not going to have a problem here. We simply want to make you conscious of what is and is not going to make it possible and easy for you to make it through the whole ordination process. There are people at the board level who will rip you apart if there's even a hint of you being, well, you know." Another person asked why I, with my passion for inclusion and with my knowledge and awareness of the state of our denomination not being inclusive, would stay here. Why not go elsewhere? By the time they were ready to deliberate and vote on my certification, I was nearly in tears and ready to leave the room as quickly as I possibly could.
The committee certified me, and I felt no joy. It had been made clear what I would have to do and how I would have to portray myself in order to receive clerical credentials in the UMC. While it was never articulated so directly, the message was clear: You cannot be ordained here as a whole person. You have to split yourself. We don't want all of you. Only part of you is truly worthy of this calling. You have to hide. You have to lie. You have to be someone other than you.
In the weeks since, I've prayed and fought and yelled and screamed and cried and talked and sat in silence. I've wrestled with what to do. Slowly, the recognition of what was being asked of me came, and I could not foresee myself complying. My family at Holy Covenant taught me how to be a whole person and gave me the strength to start loving myself, truly for the first time. It would be a grievous sin for me to undo all their hard work, and all of my own. My identity and relationship are something God loves and finds joy in and takes pleasure in. I am God's beloved in the entirety of who I am, and God has not asked or called me to change. I am worthy because my Creator has called me worthy, and to lie or be inauthentic would be to make unclean what God has called clean, to make bad what God has called good. I cannot do that... I will not.
Two weeks ago, I submitted my letter stepping out of the ordination process for the United Methodist Church. I've met with a pastor of a United Church of Christ / Disciples of Christ congregation who is supportive of my decision and willing to help me get involved with his congregation and begin the ordination process in his denomination. This morning, I stood before some of the people I love most in my life and told them I was leaving. Even now, the pain feels unbearable. I've felt like I was giving up, but I realized that to stay and to hide would be to do just that. In leaving and pursuing my call to ordained ministry in a setting where I can be a whole person, I'm honoring the work that my friends and family at Holy Covenant have put into getting me to this point. With my partner, friends, and church family gathered around me this morning, their hands laid on me and on each other, I felt surrounded by and covered with more love than I feel I could ever deserve or be given. I listened and cried as friends came up, sharing my pain and expressing their pride in my strength, courage, and apparent bravery. I spent time holding one of the young boys I've grown to love, and got the chance to hug another. I know I'm always welcome there, and I leave knowing just how much I've loved, supported, and valued.
Change will come. There will be a day when all God's children are welcome at the table, both receiving God's blessing and presiding over God's gifts of meal and water, regardless of who they love. I desperately long for that day, and I pray for the strength to be a part of the work God's Spirit is doing to get us there. I know much of that strength will come from my Holy Covenant family.
I will come back... someday soon. We will still have conversations, exchange emails, share meals and drinks, offer each other love, prayer, support, and encouragement. I cannot tell you how much you've changed me, how much your love has given me new life and restored my joy. Thank you for taking me in, helping me answer my call, affirming and celebrating my relationship, sitting with me in times of grief, depression, sorrow and joy. I love you all so much. Know that as you've given me a piece of yourselves, I have left a part of myself with each and every one of you. Though we may feel divided, we are one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.