Religiously speaking, I’ve been an exile for the last 14 years. I grew up Baptist, went to a Baptist college, served as a Baptist missionary for two years in South Korea, and graduated from, as well as served as an administrator at, a Baptist seminary. Somewhere along the way, I started asking questions and the answers to those questions for me led me on a journey that made it harder and harder to identify as Baptist. I attribute that in part to my own theological shifts and changes, but the distance grew to a chasm by the changes that were taking place in Baptist life at the time as well. No doubt, the debates in the 80s and 90s about the Baptist Faith and Message and what one has to claim theologically in order to remain in the fold (odd reality for a group that, historically, claimed to be non-creedal) sped up my own theological transformation. Nothing creates a greater crisis of conscience than realizing one’s own livelihood depends on holding to ideas and claims that no longer work for her. For me, it was a matter of integrity that I leave, integrity as a woman called by God to serve the church in capacities Baptists would not support, integrity as a gay woman increasingly aware that the prayers I prayed for God to change me and take away my desires were prayers that could only be answered no if God were to remain true to God’s character.
I fear the path I’ve taken since then looks radical at best and wishy-washy at worst to those who consider stability and loyalty to institutions values worth upholding. There were a few years at a church affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship where I experienced Baptists who were open, but not enough, and who, at least at that time, were more committed to telling a story of how things used to be than they were in the kind of radical change I was going through in my own faith. I quit going to church for a while, though I was still working as a chaplain and completing coursework for a PhD in pastoral theology and pastoral counseling. Knowing that the day was coming when I would need to be ordained/endorsed for continued employment I finally got serious about finding a church I could join. I found myself in Presbyterian church and after a year entered the inquiry process, the first step toward ordination.
I was in a relationship with another woman at the time and conscious that while I felt some sense of “at-home-ness” with the PCUSA, being open about the relationship was not a possibility if I wished to successfully complete the ordination process. I’ve come to realize in the years since that there may have been a little sub-conscious self-sabotage in my choice. I really didn’t want to be ordained in the Presbyterian church. My grief from all that I’d left behind left me cynical and jaded and unwilling to trust churches enough to consider any kind of covenantal relationship with them. On the day that I went for my first interview with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry of my local presbytery, I had a full-blown panic attack, my first and only ever. That should have been a clue, but I didn’t heed it. I kept moving forward through the process until finally the relationship I was in exploded in a mess that threatened more than my future as a minister and I chose to drop out of the process before being out-ed to the committee on someone else’s terms. The day I mailed that letter was the first day I had felt free in years.
I found a job at a seminary doing admissions and recruiting, a job I have to this day. I made a conscious decision to choose a church that felt like home, where I could be person in the pew and not someone who was preparing for ordination for a while. I visited a lot of churches and spent a lot of Sundays sleeping in when I first moved to Tulsa. I finally found a home at All Souls Unitarian Church and joined. My attraction to All Souls and to UUs in general was based on the freedom of religious/theological expression. I wanted a place where I would be able to remain within the fold as my theology continued to grow and shift and change, something that I’d come to realize was a natural progression for a thinking spiritual person. After a while, I considered the possibility of ordination with the UUs. I ultimately dropped it but could never articulate what my resistance was. While I felt welcome with the UUs, I didn’t feel at home. I now realize there’s a big difference.
To be continued….