Life at the Edge of Schism

A reflection by Lindsey

I’m blessed to know a large number of Christians passionate about loving LGBT people. While most of my friends in this category would feel comfortable describing themselves as LGBT, I also know many straight Christians who care about having thoughtful conversations as well as Christians who would rather say that they have struggled or currently struggle with same-sex attraction. Over the years, it’s been interesting to see what kind of topics tend to ignite spirited conversations. My Facebook feed is a great place for every sort of news item on the intersection between LGBT people and Evangelical churches. As it stands, I was well-positioned to see the opening of a new church called Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor.

Normally I wouldn’t be writing a reflection about the opening of a new church, but the story of Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor connects with a surprising number of places on my own spiritual journey. Ann Arbor first bleeped across my radar when I noticed then-Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson talking about a new approach to discussing LGBT people in the church. The blurb caught my attention, and I immediately reached out to Ken because I was so impressed to see a Vineyard pastor making a public declaration that LGBT people should be “welcomed and wanted” by local churches. We reviewed A Letter to My Congregation a few months later while I held my breath wondering what would happen in the Vineyard Church as a whole. The response of most Vineyard churches to questions of homosexuality has been to offer Living Waters programs, arguably one of the best known “healing” programs for people “struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.” When I saw the announcement for Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, I realized that something had happened. Indeed, Ken’s position on pastoral care for LGBT people had lead to another schism in the church.

As far as I can tell, the Ann Arbor story goes something like this: Ken Wilson had been talking and writing about responding to the shifting pastoral care needs of LGBT people in his congregation. Vineyard USA had tended towards silence on the issue. But then Ken published A Letter to My Congregation. Vineyard USA responded to the book with an 90-page position paper entitled “Pastoring LGBT Persons” that does, to its credit, use LGBT language and refers to LGBT people as persons. The Executive Team of Vineyard USA wrote a letter to the Ann Arbor Vineyard basically asking the church to agree publicly with the position paper in order to remain affiliated with the organization. What seems to have happened is that the Ann Arbor Vineyard now has 1 pastor and the newly established Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor has 2 pastors, ostensibly dividing the existing community. Additionally, there are other churches that have jettisoned their affiliation with the Vineyard movement in the wake of the position paper.

The Ann Arbor story hits closer to home than our readers might realize. While I’ve never lived in Michigan, I was a member of the Cambridge Vineyard Church when I attended university in Boston from 2001 to 2005. It’s safe to say that a lot has happened in the intervening decade, both in my life and in Evangelical Christianity. I learned so much about following Jesus and trying to do church with other people while at the Cambridge Vineyard. It was difficult to leave Boston after graduation, but God had other plans. I remember choosing the Cambridge Vineyard halfway through my freshman year because it looked like it was a place willing to have some honest conversations about homosexuality. (The other church I had been attending at that time viewed almost any problem as an opportunity to exorcise demons, which totally freaked me out.) I hadn’t even started coming out to myself, so I had a metric ton of questions. Being at the Cambridge Vineyard gave me reassurance that I could build my faith on the idea of trying to give my life fully to following Jesus. It certainly wasn’t a perfect church community. Needless to say, I was rather pleasantly surprised when I learned that Dave Schmelzer (who was the lead pastor of the Cambridge Vineyard during my time there) is actively working to help Blue Ocean Faith churches.

I’ve spent the last few days reading deeper into what happened at the Ann Arbor Vineyard. In many ways, it feels like a story that might have happened at any church I’ve attended. It’s way too easy to see myself in the story. Coming to faith in Evangelical communities, I’ve always wondered if my life had the potential to cause a scandal that would rock any group I was a part of. In college, I got involved in ex-gay ministries because I viewed my questions about sexual orientation and gender identity as a kind of ticking time-bomb that would eventually explode and destroy my faith community. It’s been an uphill battle to figure out how to think about my own queer experience as anything other than a liability.

So much of the challenge has been encountering church leaders who always felt the need to warn me about impropriety. Truth be told, I couldn’t imagine a person with lower risk factors than myself for living a “scandalous” lifestyle marked by partying and free-wheeling sexuality. When I was in high school, I was the kid who always buttoned the top button and tucked in my shirt. I had no interest in showing skin and still experience regular frustration with shopping for clothes that fit right. I don’t know what would have happened if I had been in an Evangelical church where the leaders committed to helping me follow Christ in an atmosphere of generous spaciousness around questions of who I loved and how to love these people best.

Much of my journey has involved carving out a sense of generous spaciousness for myself. I’ve made the argument time and time again, “Human beings have meaningful relationships with other human beings because that is a part of what it means to be created in the image of a triune God.” When I started to say that all humans have meaningful relationships with other people, I discovered ways to live in rich friendships where the word friend failed to capture the mystery of those relationships. Meeting Sarah showed me how things look and feel different when two people fall into an organic pattern of relating with one another. I’ve been blessed to have some wonderful spiritual directors who have been able to walk with me on my journey. When it comes to the particulars of my relationship with Sarah, we take joy in the fact that we’re figuring things out as we go along.

I don’t know how a compassionate Evangelical pastor would respond to my life with Sarah. I could see this hypothetical pastor asking himself or herself whether it made sense for me to marry Sarah even with our commitment to celibacy. After all, many Evangelical pastors I’ve met over the years would say that in marriage two people seek God’s blessing upon their relationship and formalize their promises to one another in the presence of witnesses. I could see this pastor asking Sarah and me a ton of questions about how we’ve struggled to navigate different facets of health care access. I wonder how this pastor would encourage the two of us to share our commonly held prayer requests with our faith community. I really have no idea how I would handle talking with a pastor who had these sorts of questions, but I do know that it’s an amazing surprise whenever a person decides to let me know that he or she cares about walking with me along my journey. But I wonder if this hypothetical pastor would feel like he or she was teetering at the edge of a schism for even asking thoughtful questions about our relationship and any pastoral needs that might arise when two people are in such a relationship.

Many Evangelical churches do not have any tradition of celibacy lived in community. I wonder if a compassionate Evangelical pastor would investigate different ways Christians have shared life together over the years. Would he or she stumble upon skete monasticism? If so, would this hypothetical pastor feel like he or she could help us discern our vocation as a community of two? Would this pastor perceive that his or her only option would be to pray with us on the condition that all three of us never said a word to anyone else?

Living in community creates some interesting tension points. I’m rather used to feeling like I live at the edge of schism. I’ve been counseled more times than I can imagine to live in silence, to keep quiet, and to stay out of sight lest the issue erupt. That’s part of what it means to be closeted. But I wonder how much longer people can fit into the closet when trying to provide faithful pastoral care to LGBT Christians. I’ve seen families who have gone into hiding with their loved ones. I’m sure there are many pastors who have taken the route of “I will pray with you, but please don’t tell anyone else that I’m journeying alongside of you.” The whole situation reminds me of playing “Sardines” as a youth group kid. After a while, the game turns comical because all of the youth are trying to hide in exactly the same spot. There’s no hiding anymore.

How is it that any, and seemingly all, conversations about providing pastoral care for LGBT people happen at the edge of schism? Lord have mercy.

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