BY REV. JEN STUART
Rev. Stuart is the Associate Pastor at First UMC, Austin. She recently wrote this letter to her congregation to explain why she is transferring from the Southwest Texas Conference to the Pacific Northwest Conference.
I joined this church on Valentine’s Day 1999. My husband and I came with a curly-haired two-year-old daughter and lots of questions about God, marriage, and life in general. We found a community that held us and cared for us during the most trying times of our lives and celebrated with us during the good times. I have learned about trust, speaking the truth in love, and the cost of discipleship. It is the lessons that God has taught me through this church that give me and my family the strength and courage to move across this great country in order to best follow God’s call.
When I started seminary six years ago, I was so excited about the ordination process. I knew I had finally found my calling and I loved my job here and could not wait to be ordained. I adored going to Annual Conference each June to sit and learn with my peers about the work of The United Methodist Church in the Southwest Texas Conference. But this last June my confidence in the direction of the Conference was shaken.
Last spring, the Austin District Committee on Ordained Ministry recommended my classmate, Mary Ann Barclay, who is on staff at University UMC, to be a certified candidate for ministry. But at the Annual Conference session, the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry voted to remove her name from the list of certified candidates without meeting with her. Why? Because Mary Ann was gay.
Make no mistake, we have GLBTQ clergy, but they know they must stay closeted. Mary Ann’s honesty disqualified her from being treated with dignity and respect and being judged on the merits of her abilities and the fruits of her ministry. So Mary Ann’s humanity, her intelligence, and her passion and love for God are dismissed and she is treated as if she is unworthy of the Board’s time and attention.
I walked into the clergy session at Annual Conference a little late on the first day to find the pastors voting on whether to sustain the Board of Ordained Ministry’s action regarding Mary Ann. Unbelievably, a very slim majority of the pastors in this Conference voted to sustain the Board’s action, because the Discipline still says that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” I was shocked and appalled that we would treat a child of God in this manner.
Now I have an amazing ability, it’s a gift really, to put aside unpleasant facts and situations that I don’t want to deal with. Some might call it avoidance. I like to think that I do not perseverate on things over which I have no control, but God would not let me ignore this.
I had been working on my commissioning papers for months, but as the deadline neared, I was finding it increasingly difficult to answer some of the questions, in particular the questions about polity and the Discipline, in the ways that I knew I needed to in order to be commissioned. It is understood that if you are theologically progressive you should keep your answers short and sweet and lie by omission about your feelings on the Discipline and homosexuality. I was also taking a class on ethics last fall. One of the questions was, what do you believe and what are you willing to sacrifice in order to stand behind that belief…and I started feeling sick. Literally.
Then the verdict came down in the Frank Schaefer trial and for some reason, probably again my ability to ignore unwelcome facts, I was stunned. I wondered if the United Methodist Church still had a place for people like me. I am called to pastor artistic people. I am called to encourage those with the gifts of song and poetry and painting, and for all of history a large part of that population has identified as gay. For perhaps the first time in recorded history, we are part of a country that is making it safe to be gay, and affirming their God-given rights to love each other, yet my beloved church refuses to see this, and I cannot help but mourn this deeply. How can I continue to ask people to join a church that does not afford them the same rights that it gives to so many others? What does it say to them that I can marry murderers and any other kind of sinners, but the sin of loving someone of the same sex is so evil that I would lose my credentials if I affirmed their love?
So I prayed and talked to my husband, and my children, my friends, and my bosses, and I prayed some more, and in the end I decided that I could not in good conscience be ordained in the Southwest Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. Not when they won’t even meet with gay people. This is not a decision that I make lightly. I’ve been United Methodist since my birth and I will not give up; this is my church too, but I must make vows with integrity. We have been fighting over the words that were inserted into the Discipline in 1972 my entire life. It seems apparent that the majority, as history has shown time and time again, will not afford the minority the same rights that they enjoy.
So I have found a place in the Western Jurisdiction where the Bishops are standing by the clergy who dissent from this policy and where district superintendents and many clergy are practicing what we call “biblical obedience.” I love Bishop Dorff and I cannot blame him for his stance when over half the clergy in this Conference clearly support what the United Methodist Discipline says in this matter. I do not wish to make sacred ordination vows in a place where I cannot clearly speak my mind about the equality of all people in the eyes of God. Thus my family is moving to the Pacific Northwest Conference where Bishop Hagiya has been vocal about his dissent from the Discipline in these matters. I honestly do not know if this will make one bit of difference to anyone other than my own family. I do not expect that all of you will agree with me and that is okay. I have to live with myself and right now I feel very strongly that God is calling me to make this stand. It may do absolutely nothing in the fight for full GLBT inclusion in the UMC, but it is what I am called to do. There are many others that will continue to work on the ground here in Texas.
I am very aware that there are many other issues that the church must deal with, but none of them involve excluding a wide swath of the population from ministry and marriage. I really never expected to be an activist. I have no wish to leave behind all of my family and friends. I am not gay.
I am so grateful to this church for your prayers and support, because I need them. I would not be the person I am today without all of you. This church has brought me face to face with Jesus more times than I can count. Being here has given me the courage to make the decision I have come to today, knowing that God is with me and that this church family will continue to love me even if you do not agree with this decision. First Church will always have a place in the hearts of the Stuart family.