Dear brothers and sisters at Bethany,
Grace and peace to you through our Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to you to tell you about a long-awaited decision our Session has made regarding leadership selection at Bethany and my personal beliefs about this decision.
For the past two years Bethany has been actively and faithfully wrestling with the place of those in the LGBTQ community at Bethany. For centuries, this has been a “case closed” kind of issue in the church. But in the last decade, respected scholars and theologians, including evangelical ones, have wrestled with this and a healthy debate is underway. Asking questions about “what” the Scriptures say on this issue must always be coupled with asking “why” the Scriptures say what they do and what kind of same-sex activity is being addressed. As a result, scholars and leaders who have previously been united in their interpretations are coming to different conclusions, and churches everywhere have been working on what their posture should be, often with great anger and a spirit of divisiveness.
I am pleased to say, that although members of Bethany are not united on this issue, you have shown tremendous grace. Our conversations have been filled with care, mutual respect, and love – all indicative of the body we are in Jesus Christ, a church centered and united on Him and loving each other across our differences.
At its November 14th meeting, after a long season of prayer, study, discernment and congregational input, Session voted 16 – 2 (one abstention) in favor of adopting a new Statement on Ordained Leadership and Program Staff. The vote may not sound like there is a lot of diversity on session about this issue. There is. What this vote does communicate is session’s clear commitment to this new posture regarding leadership at Bethany. An attached Background Paper, outlines how God has led us to this new statement, rehearsing the two-year communal spiritual discernment process, giving a brief history of Bethany’s history on this issue over the past three decades, and reiterating all the places where we are united in our discipleship and theology. Please read the entire document. Our meeting was captured by a unity of spirit that desires to move ahead together as a worshiping community grounded in God’s love, centered on Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to be a blessing to our world, our city, and one another. I want to share with you a few things regarding this change from my perspective as your pastor.
What has changed? The new Statement on Ordained Leadership and Program Staff replaces theHoliness and Leadership Statement adopted in 2002. Two things are significant in this change. First, those in same-sex relationship will no longer be automatically precluded from consideration for leadership positions including ordained office. Second, Session is communicating that we are not all on the same page on this issue, that we continue to wrestle with a way to trust the Holy Spirit and our Presbyterian process even in our disagreement on this issue.
Did Session address its current policy of not allowing same-sex weddings on our property? No. We focused our attention on revisiting our leadership policy. As session moderator, I cannot begin to convey how heavy a lift this conversation already was for session without adding more dimensions to it. I’m looking forward to living into this leadership statement and the session hopes to continue equipping the congregation to love across our differences. The session does not have any immediate plans to address our wedding policy. As pastor, I would imagine this discussion will come onto the table sometime in the future.
Our core character and beliefs and mission have not changed. Bethany continues to be Christ centered, grounded in the Scriptures, and Holy Spirit led as we reach beyond our walls and remaining a family in the midst of it all. Coupled with our core beliefs prominently posted on our web site our convictions are unwavering.
Finally, if you disagree with session’s action, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for you at Bethany. I recognize there is great struggle and pain for some of us at Bethany around this issue. Some of you are convicted that being involved in a same-sex relationship cannot be congruent with faithful following of our Lord Jesus. Others of you, being convicted that following Jesus means not only accepting Christians in same-sex relationships into our fellowship but unanimously affirming every aspect of their life, are disappointed that session has not addressed and changed its wedding policy. Some of you who are same-sex attracted and choose a celibate life in faithfulness to Jesus may wonder if your church supports you in being true to your faith. Still others of you who are in a same-sex relationship may feel that you are unwelcome in a church that is not completely united in supporting your life choices.
The question I would ask is whether this issue is an essential one of Christian discipleship for you? I’ve had to wrestle with this in my one life and calling. I have, since seminary, been opposed to the ordination of those in same-sex relationships. I preached on this several times in my previous church. Over time, I could see that there were many in the congregation who did not agree with my position, and even that there were many elders who did not view the issue as I did. I remember imagining, “Doug what if this congregation elected some-one in a same sex relationship for Deacon or Elder?” It was a crisis of decision for me. I decided that I could not, if this happened, ordain this person. Another pastor would have to do it. I might even have to leave the congregation.
Fifteen years ago, however, I recognized that my conviction on this issue is not a core essential of my Christian faith. This is a second level issue where sisters and brothers of strong Christian conviction can disagree. I realized then that although I would communicate with the Nominating Committee that I disagreed with their choice to nominate someone in a same-sex relationship, that if they were elected by the membership, I would honor as pastor the decision of the congregation and in fact ordain this person.
I came to Bethany partly because it had developed the Holiness and Leadership Statement and was so clear about where it stood on this issue. Well, as I discovered very quickly upon my arrival, there was much less consensus at Bethany than I had imagined. The Pastor Nominating Committee tried to communicate to me that there were divergent views at Bethany, but I was not listening very well and with the Holiness and Leadership Statement in place, I thought the issue was pretty much settled. It was not. Nor is it now.
And, as it turns out, I find that it’s not settled for me. I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with my position. That discomfort grows out of a re-reading of key scripture passages, listening to personal narratives, and an increasing awareness on how the church historically has been so wrong in its discernment on key social issues. Could I be wrong? I’m learning some humility.
This is a moment of crisis for some of you and it’s not in just in your imagination. Is this an essential issue of the faith? I hope you’ll join me, not in my conviction, but in my discovery, and join session in its discernment that this is an issue where we are free to hold to different convictions but remain in fellowship with one another. This is our posture and I believe you can make it your posture too. We above all need to stick close to the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthian church locating our true unity, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The crucified and risen Lord holds us together – nothing else. Let’s live out this truth and testify to Jesus and his Kingdom!
After reading through the attached leadership statement and the background paper, you may have some questions. Session is hosting a Question and Answer gathering on December 3rd at 12:10 in the Parlor. I hope you’ll come. Feel free to contact any of our elders regarding our new statement and process. Feel free to contact me or simply come to my open office hours just about every Monday afternoon.
I am so honored to be your pastor, and I believe that God is faithful to his promises. May God bless us as we stumble forward in faith, hope and love.
In the peace of Christ,
Pastor, Bethany Presbyterian Church
You can read our Statement on Ordained Leadership and Program Staff here.