I have many interpersonal conversations these days with my justice-seeking cohorts debating whether or not they should stay or go from the United Methodist Church in light of the overt institutional discrimination that is policy and practice of the denomination. Recently, the church “convicted” (under church law) a pastor for officiating his own gay son’s wedding. His sentence was one of the most severe of recent years for such an infraction – he was suspended for a period of time after which, if he did not choose to agree to *all* of the church laws (called the “Book of Discipline”, which includes mandates against pastors performing same-sex wedding ceremonies), he would be defrocked.
Among those who support the full inclusion of LGBT persons into the life of the church, this is egregious and represents an entrenchment on the part of the Counsel of Bishops (the highest ruling body in the UMC) who, a week earlier, released a statement condemning the practice of performing same-sex marriages.
So, here is the distillation of my thoughts and advice regarding this conundrum of, “should I stay or should I go?” Certainly this is not the final word on this conversation, and I invite you to lovingly offer your support, critique, or alternative suggestions. And, of course, this applies to those who care about the direction that the institution takes (which I understand is not for everyone – I get that this just seems like trivial infighting to some, and I don’t blame those who wish to dismiss internal church values struggles as a remnant of religious autocracy that should be tossed out wholesale rather than patronized with such conversations as this – but I digress).
What comes to mind first for me is the social value of having an internal presence in an organization or group. When you are inside an organization you have access that is simply not afforded to people who are on the outside. To offer a metaphor, if you are relegated to shouting at the outside wall of a huge fortress, the wall is not going to hear you. The wall, obviously, is not a person and the fact that you are a person shouting at a wall makes it easy for those on the wall to jeer at you for your futility. The fact that you are shouting at an object makes it easy for those observing to conflate you with the object itself – thus (in their mind) treating you like an object. To those inside the wall you look like a “them” and you’re likely to be treated as one of “them” rather than one of “us.” Generally when you are outside the fortress, your biggest influence will be in solidarity the others who are outside the fortress with you. You must go raise/join an alternate campaign in order to be heard by those inside the wall.
However, when you are inside the fortress you can speak into the ears of people. Ultimately it is the parliament inside the fortress who must hear your complaint and be changed so that the fortress *may* be opened and the welcome banners unfurled (assuming that is your goal).
At present in the UMC we like to unfurl the welcome banners yet keep the fortress locked. By that I mean that many churches claim to offer welcome to “all” but the welcome is a shallow one. It is a welcome into the courtyard to only be denied access to the full privileges of citizenship. You can come to “our” church, you can sit in the pews, you can sing “our” songs, but you cannot be married here. Oh no. You cannot have your whole personhood affirmed here. Oh no. That just won’t do. While this varies at the local church level (some are wide open where none of these accusations apply), the system still speaks with one autocratic voice. The Book of Discipline, for now, remains unchanged. We cannot call our local church a truly inclusive one if the LGBT persons in the pews must still hear their own denomination hand down messages of hate and justifications of systemic bigotry veiled in the holy name of church unity and polity.
So, for people who stay, your voice in the institution will be stronger than if you go. That is, if you have the strength to stay, try. However, the opposite of strength is not weakness. No, it is often exhaustion.
If you are exhausted, and you can’t find space to recuperate while staying, then go. Know that your exhaustion does not take away your power nor your sacred worth.
The church needs people to go because it sends a message. In today’s times a vote with your feet is especially powerful. The church is hemorrhaging members and doing everything that it can to figure out how to stave off that loss (insert sarcastic comment here). Leaving is powerful.
So, if you are exhausted and you decide to leave, try to muster the energy to leave in a manner that, while filled with grace, verbalizes righteous anger that can be heard resonating within the halls of the church. Don’t let “grace” be an excuse to give up your voice. If you don’t define your story, someone else will. The church is notoriously skilled at fabricating explanations in the presence of mystery. Tell your story and give your reasons. To those who leave, I say, “leave loudly.” Make sure that it is not just your local church that knows your reasons for leaving. Tell the district superintendent. Tell the bishop. Tell the Council of Bishops.
Some of your cohorts may consider your leaving a betrayal. They’ll wonder how you can “leave them behind.” You can stay connected to whatever degree suits your level of comfort in the face of the marginalization that you’ve experienced. You must define yourself and the level of relationship you’re willing to sustain.
My fellow justice seekers, be merciful to those who cannot stay. There is work to be done in all places – not just this venue. Send people out with love, and support each other along the way. Their work is no less important if it is continued elsewhere. If they are as passionate as you or me, they won’t be idle nor fruitless.
Whether you’re among those marginalized by the church, or an ally, know that your choices – stay, go, or in-between – will make a difference. Your voice will be heard and change will happen. Whatever your path, know that you have the support of this justice seeker and many like me to stand in solidarity as we make our journeys. Be well, and stay thirsty my friends.