“Looking across the desk at the three—a symbolically weighty number when applied to biblical visitors—something didn’t feel right to the young pastor. She struggled to keep from nervously swiveling in the big chair. Fred spoke first. ‘We have information that you are a lesbian and are having sex with both men and women in the community,’ he said. The words landed violently; the young pastor literally saw stars.”—Rev. Robin White
Wing + Prayer
By The Reverend Robin White
CINCINNATI Ohio—(Hubris)—1 June 2023—It was 1990. More years have passed since then—more years than her age at the time. She was newly ordained and newly installed as pastor of a 250-member congregation in the capital city. The Governor attended Sunday morning services there. It had been less than a year since she’d taken up her post, and she was flourishing as the first woman pastor of the historic downtown church.
Then, Sunday morning, at the back door, where she was greeting her flock after worship, Fred (not his real name), a short, middle-aged congregant with a military-style haircut asked to meet with her—preferably that afternoon. Readily, she agreed, telling him to come to her church office later that day.
At about 3:30, when she opened the door to a knock, there stood Fred, accompanied by his wife and another woman, Velma (not her real name), who was also a member of the congregation. The young pastor invited them in and seated them in three chairs across the desk from her. Small and slight, she felt a little like Laugh In’s Edith Ann in their presence.
Her desk chair, which had belonged to the previous pastor, was far too big for her; her feet barely touched the floor. The previous man in her post had spent 30 years as the congregation’s beloved minister. His desk chair wasn’t a good fit for her; much less his shoes—although she had recently learned something unexpected from that minister’s daughter—still a member of the congregation and part of the committee that had “called” her to be the new pastor. The minister’s daughter had confided to her that her father, now retired, had spent his entire career as a closeted gay man. With a wife, four kids, a dog, and a station wagon.
No one in the congregation had suspected, and the pastor emeritus remained in his closet.
Looking across the desk at the three—a symbolically weighty number when applied to biblical visitors—something didn’t feel right to the young pastor. She struggled to keep from nervously swiveling in the big chair. Fred spoke first.
“We have information that you are a lesbian and are having sex with both men and women in the community,” he said.
The words landed violently; the young pastor literally saw stars. Fred’s wife blurted out an addendum: “If your father sexually abused you, you need to forgive him and heal from your own sexual perversion.”
This second bombshell sent her reeling. The accusations were so absurd, on their face, that they might have been laughable, but she could see this was no joke.
Not knowing how she was keeping her wits about her, the pastor stood, not giving the third woman a chance to speak. She went to the door, opened it, and in a voice that she didn’t recognize, announced, levelly, “This conversation is over and you three need to leave my office—now.”
The three were clearly stunned as they hurriedly gathered themselves up and rushed into the hallway. Before leaving, however, Fred turned back and said, “We demand that you stand in the pulpit next Sunday and confess your sins to the congregation.”
Closing the door behind them, the pastor whispered, “Yeah right, like hell I will . . . .”
The young pastor was not having sex with men and women in the community, her father had not sexually abused her, and she was not a sexual pervert. She was, however, a lesbian and, somehow, her three visitors had got that part right. At that time in the Church, being in a same-sex relationship was forbidden. If “outed,” the pastor could lose both her job and her credentials as an ordained minister.
Shaking, sweating, and in tears, she drove the three blocks to her home, where her partner met her at the door, somehow sensing there was trouble. This is what they had been fearing. This is why, in that small capital city, they were always looking over their shoulders, wondering if and when they would be exposed.
The next day, the young pastor scheduled a meeting of the church board for the end of the week, giving herself time to muster the courage to tell them what had happened and allow them an opportunity to discuss how to move forward. She would not come out to them, and she hoped and prayed that none of them would have the audacity to ask her about her love life, much less her sex life.
The meeting went well. The board members were shocked, angered, and bewildered by the behavior of their fellow congregants. It was decided that a small group of them would meet with and admonish the three challengers and counsel them to drop their allegations or face charges from the church governing body.
The problem did not go away, but the young minister firmly planted her feet and stayed in that church for eight years. The third accuser, Velma, left the church, taking with her two adult daughters and four grandchildren. But Sunday after Sunday, the pastor was forced to face Fred and his wife, sitting beneath her in a pew. She refused, however, to be intimidated by their scowling faces. She preached about LGBTQ+ acceptance in the church and worked in the denomination as part of the “church upheaval gang.”
And . . . every single morning of those eight years, she got up wondering, “Will this be the day I am outed?”
Thirty-three years later, much of the Church at large still bans same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as clergy.
The Methodist Church, after more than 50 years of conflict, is finally fracturing as local congregations cut ties with the larger church body.
Christian and pop singer Amy Grant has been an LGBTQ+ ally for years but has recently been verbally attacked by conservative evangelicals for revealing her plans to host her niece’s lesbian wedding at her farm in Tennessee.
Southern Baptists have expelled LGBTQ+-affirming churches, while the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists is the only organization committed to welcoming and affirming LGBTQ+ members within the Baptist traditions.
I have recently learned of a Baptist church nearby where the Youth Pastor is questioning his sexuality, though he has never been in a same-sex relationship. Because of this, members are leaving his congregation and some of them, in departing, have felt the need to approach a mutual friend who is a member there and has an out lesbian daughter. “No offense,” they’ve said to my friend. “Of course, this has nothing to do with your daughter.”
Those who are dissatisfied with how the church has handled the conflict claim that the Youth Pastor is “splitting the church.”
Are we still here? Still scapegoating pastors—most specifically LGBTQ+ pastors?
Ten years after those three visitors made their accusations in the office of that closeted lesbian clergywoman, she was called to a new church. She believed that this time, she may have found a safe place where she could do what she felt called to do, without fear, without rejection.
It was a church where the minister of music was an out gay man and his partner was an ordained elder in the congregation. The ordination ban in her denomination was still in effect, but some progressive churches were ordaining LGBTQ+ lay people and, if no one made issue of it or “filed charges” with the higher governing assembly, they could “get away” with it. The clergywoman was drawn to this particular congregation because of this action and its progressive stance on many issues. She was enthusiastic about the diversity of the membership—not only were there LGBTQ+ members and African-American congregants, but also immigrants from Africa. She was thrilled to be part of a place that celebrated such diversity.
Two weeks after her installation as pastor, however, all hell broke loose. Rumors began circulating and folks started questioning her about her sexuality. She refused to answer the inquiries, offering her pat answer: “I stand in solidarity with all my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who cannot come out for fear of losing their jobs and pensions.”
This response was not satisfactory to many, and congregants began leaving the membership. Every single African family took leave of the church, labeling the pastor as an abomination.
Some of the old white male leadership called for a vote of no confidence.
All of this occurred within the first six months of her ministry. Normally, new pastors get at least a year-long “honeymoon” period, but she got none. Instead, it was “baptism by fire” and, instead of doing the work she felt called to do there, she spent most of her time putting out fires started by those who were suspicious of her sexual orientation. Having learned how to persevere in stressful and uncertain circumstances, she propelled herself forward and defiantly continued her work, but not without its taking a tremendous toll on her emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
I can tell you all of this because I am that young pastor, a half-century on.
I spent over 20 years as a closeted lesbian Presbyterian Minister. After being “outed” to the congregation by someone who claimed to love me, I made the choice to retire early rather than risk having charges filed against me and lose my standing in the church along with my pension. This was seven years before the ban on the ordination and installation of LGBTQ+ candidates for ministry was lifted.
I have never before written my story nor described the damage these and other such experiences inflicted on me and, as I write, the old wounds I thought were healed crack open again.
Several years after “retiring,” I took up a post as a part-time pastor at the only “More Light Presbyterian Church” in South Carolina. Finally, and for the first time in my vocation as a Presbyterian Minister, I was able to pastor a church as an “out lesbian.” How wonderfully freeing and life-giving this was, however briefly it lasted.
But then, again, homophobia and misogyny reared their ugly, patriarchal heads. A church that had searched for and hired the pastor they thought and said they “wanted” found her, in reality, too threatening, too controversial, too expansive for them. In being severed from this little church, which so prided itself on its diversity, but which, in the final analysis, could not live up to its mandate, I began to lose hope and faith in . . . The Church.
The harm which the “institutional church” inflicted upon me, and the harm it continues, in all its iterations, continues to inflict on LGBTQ+ people, the world over, is something from which I am not sure I can recover.
But . . . here I go again. When the Spirit calls . . . when She grabs me by my shirt collar, I pay attention. At the end of May, I will, again, step into the pulpit as a Bridge Pastor (a three-month term) for Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. Mount Auburn has a long history of welcoming, supporting, accepting, advocating for LGBTQ+ people. In the early 1990s, the congregation had charges filed against them for ordaining and installing as a ruling elder, someone who was gay. He was and continues to be a friend of mine and when he called me and asked me to consider helping the congregation, preparing them for a new pastor, how could I say no.
How could I say no when Michael, Judy, and Anne called me from Mount Auburn, and asked me to come?
I am honored and so excited to work with this particular congregation—even as they are experiencing turmoil. They know what it is to be harassed by the institutional church (PCUSA). They are certainly not the same congregation they were in the early 1990s and I am not the same pastor I was in the early 1990s, as well, so we shall see how it goes. I will try not to expect too much from them and hope they will not require perfection from me. What I know today, though, is that we are all wounded, broken, and flawed people. What I hope for is grace as we reflect together on our blemishes, along with our gifts, and strive to be the people Jesus has called us to be.