When I was a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist church there are a lot of things that just didn’t click with me. Since coming out as bisexual and finding myself in a more progressive space, a lot has become clear.

They say no one can be convinced of something that will cost them their job. It’s tempting to think that when I was a pastor I believed what I believed for the sake of my career. That’s probably not true, though. Becoming a pastor is a huge sacrifice for most people. We don’t go into ministry because it’s easy or lucrative, but because we are true believers. That slowly gets muddied along the way.

I often hear people say that pastors should be more open and authentic. I believe that’s true. However, in conservative churches especially, there are factors associated with the role itself that make it almost impossible to be open and authentic. Your role as a pastor places much higher scrutiny no you and your life. Many of us do little things like hide books (Harry Potter anyone?) because it isn’t worth the potential hassle. We might dress differently or avoid wearing jewelry in an Adventist church especially. There might be some more progressive opinions we tend to keep to ourselves if we are in conservative churches.

That’s because conservative church members generally prefer that the pastor be a bit more conservative than they are. And you never know when someone is going to call your boss (whether it’s a conference official or board members depending on your church structure). Even if your boss totally backs you up, you’ve still caused a hassle. Then there are the expectations of your board or your conference. When you are a pastor, the expectations can hit you from every direction, and the criticism.

I know a lot of people who have had little disagreements turn into big deals, with churches determined to kick them out. When that happens the family usually has to move, sell the house, take the kids out of school, spouse needs to find a new job. There are a lot of pastors walking around with genuine trauma because of the way they’ve been treated by their churches.

All that leads to pressure to present yourself just a little more conservative than you are, to take a few less risks, to be a bit more conventional. That adds up over a period of years. You can’t present yourself as different than you are without it having a real impact on your life. You can’t do it without eroding your ability to earnestly and wholeheartedly seek the truth.

All those little changes in how your present yourself add up in the end to prioritizing image over authenticity. Courage and vulnerability are both needed to seek the truth. It’s not so easy to wake up one day and manufacture these qualities. They are more like a muscle. If you don’t use them, they may not be strong enough when you need them.

When I was a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist church there are a lot of things that just didn’t click with me. Since coming out as bisexual and finding myself in a more progressive space, a lot has become clear.

A lot of people aren’t just leaving churches because they were hurt or offended. A lot of people have been deeply rejected to the point of being traumatized. They have been told they are unworthy, broken, inconvenient, going to hell, unholy, rebellious, and the list goes on and on. These words have been the reward for sincere questions and difficulties in many cases.

When I was a pastor, it was easy to rely on the idea that people hurt people, the church doesn’t. Since I’ve left I’ve realized that there are structural reasons in churches why certain people get ostracized and others are protected. There are gatekeepers who decide which sins are disqualifies. Those gatekeepers are judging the severity of the sin on no other qualification than how much of a threat the sin is to the protection of the status quo in churches.

That’s why public sin is more severe than private. That’s why doubt is worse than judgementalism. That’s why stealing money from the church bring more immediate action than anything else. That’s why questioning doctrine is more severe than treating people with disdain.

All this amounts to treating human being as objects. Members are resources to the goals and objectives of the organizations. Those people who contribute most to the organization are most valued. Those who detract are shamed or even expelled.

People aren’t resources. When you treat them as such you end up deeply wounding them. People walk away from churches with lingering fear that they will burn in hell. They walk away angry and cut to the core. They often walk away forever.

The greatest form of healing is ultimately found in new spiritual communities that are people focused instead of institutional focused. Communities that prioritize healing can bandage the open wounds and calm the lingering fears.

When I was a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist church there are a lot of things that just didn’t click with me. Since coming out as bisexual and finding myself in a more progressive space, a lot has become clear.

The cold reality is that most people just don’t care about church that much. When I was a pastor, there was a subtle influence to think of people as invested in the church but maybe lacking some degree of inspiration.

Pastors might talk about pew warmers with a casual hint of disdain and be frustrated that people aren’t more dedicated. There was always for me a sense that these people feel that perhaps they know they should be more dedicated. Now I realize most people don’t even think they should be involved more. Most people don’t care about evangelism or church rules. They get something out of a loose affiliation, but not that much.

The biggest eye opener on this for me was how dramatically different people talked to me once I was no longer a pastor. When I was a pastor, in all my conversations people would pretend to care. When I stopped being a pastor they suddenly spoke very differently. I realized there were huge portions of the teachings of the church that a lot of people just plain ignore because they don’t believe them at all.

I should have known this before. Research has been indicating for years that larger and larger percentages of church members don’t believe basic Christian doctrine like the divinity of Christ, abstinence until marriage, and anti-LGBT+ theology. Those numbers are only going up. In the Adventist church you can add Sabbath keeping, abstaining from alcohol, and prophetic interpretation to the list.

This is the biggest problem of the church. Even though many people stay in the pews for one reason or another, their hearts really aren’t in it. Churches are losing the allegiance of its own members, but because many of them attend, and many of them give lip service to the pastors, the pastors don’t realize it.

People don’t need a revival, because the problem isn’t that they are lacking energy or Spirit. They need a church they can believe in.

I want to point you to this important Atlantic article, “The Scandal Tearing Apart America’s Largest Protestant Denomination.” There are a few crucial connections I want to make to point out why this matters for anyone who doesn’t want to demonize LGBT+ people.

Last June I joined a group of LGBT+ advocates at the Southern Baptist Convention. We started conversations and engaged people around the topic of the harm their theology was doing to SBC children. During that event I was often told that my “temptation” to homosexuality was no different than their pornography problems, temptations to be unfaithful, addictions, etc. I was told that we are all sinners and this is just my sin. I remember one pastor telling me that he has a terrible sin of food addiction and is just as much a sinner as I was. I asked him if he would ever lose his position. He said maybe that could happen. I asked him if it had ever happened in the history of the SBC. I hope he saw my point.

Last July I heard that one of my favorite Christian authors, Eugene Peterson, had come out fully supportive of same-sex marriage. He said he doesn’t believe it’s even an issue anymore, citing a gay man who is employed at the church he is retired from. Immediately the entire Evangelical Christian Network turned on him. LifeWay Christian Resources said they were trying to get in touch with Peterson to clarify his statement, and they would pull every one of his books from their shelves if he was supportive of LGBT+ inclusion. He is the author of the message translation of the Bible and dozens of popular books. Within 24 hours he had retracted his statement.

Now it has come to light that a man in a very powerful position in the Southern Baptist Convention is a sinner, too. Paige Patterson is both seminary president and a well-connected member of the old-boys network. He believes that women who are physically abused should pray until their husbands are converted. In the mean time, they should submit as best they can. When challenged on his statements, he’s only become belligerent. He said in defense of himself that he believes wives who suffer “non-injurious physical abuse which happens in so many marriages” should just pray their husbands through it. He has also objectified a 16 year old girl in a sermon. And worst of all, he covered for a friend of his who was molesting children. He is scheduled to speak at the next Southern Baptist convention. Some people are criticizing him, many are protecting him. The same LifeWay Christian Resources put out a statement denouncing Patterson’s words, but they haven’t said anything about pulling any of him many books from the shelves. The reaction of the Evangelical community over spousal abuse, objectification of teenage girls from the pulpit, and covering for child molesters is nothing compared to their rage at someone who would dare support sacrifice and fidelity in a marriage between people of the same gender.

So what happened to all those pastors who insisted that my “sin” was like their sin? The truth is that all along they have seen my sin as the worst of all.

And in case you are Adventist and you are reading this thinking that we are better, let me share with you a quote from the SDA Theological Seminary’s book, “Homosexuality, Marriage, and the Church,” page 198. “Robert Gagnon makes a strong case that, according to God’s Word, ‘homosexual practice is a more serious violation of Scripture’s sexual norms than even incest, adultery, plural marriage, and divorce.’ Only bestiality is presented as a worse sexual offense.”

The immorality here is deep. The arrogance of looking down at people in loving and committed relationships while encouraging spousal abuse and objectification of women is something I don’t even know how to break through. All I can do is try to shine a light, and hope that people who are involved in or support these systems will refuse to do so any longer. Men like Paige Patterson will never change. But he stands on the shoulders of tens of thousands of people who complacently support him. If that’s you, I hope you resolved today that you will no longer support institutions that bring shame to the name of Jesus.

One year ago today I sent this letter to my employers and my local church. It was a bit longer before my employment was officially terminated, but for all intents and purposes, this was my last day as an Adventist pastor. After today, I will no longer be able to say “I was an Adventist pastor a year ago.” That part of my life and identity will slip further in the past.

That’s inevitable for all of us when we come out. For better or for worse, we lose a part of who we were when the world thought (or was able to assume) that we were straight and cisgender. Most of that is for the best, but as I read this I can’t help but remember who I was then, and the dreams that died forever that day. Perhaps it’s fitting that today I also turned in the last tax return I will ever file with an Adventist employer on it. I have now joined the ranks of those unemployable in the Adventist church.

So today seems like a good day to share something I haven’t shared before, the letter I sent to inform my church and conference of the changes I was making. In a later conversation they asked and I clarified that I hadn’t violated any of the teaching of the church, but that I would now be living by new convictions moving forward in both my teaching and in dating.

I chose an email because even though I wanted to be disruptive and start a larger conversation on a big scale, I didn’t want to be disruptive to the local church that I cared about then and still care about today. I’ve heard rumors that I came out in a sermon, or that the church marched me out when I did. It’s funny how those ideas make their rounds. Instead it was a quiet, uneventful email. That was best. I’m happy that things seem to have worked out for them.

As for me, I remember hitting the send button on this letter, and what most struck me that day is how right and good it felt. There was no wavering, no regret, and no indecision. Instead I felt relief, purpose, and freedom. It was simply the right thing to do, and that is something I have always known. I’m so grateful I sent this. I’m so grateful I allowed myself to become the person I am today, despite all the pain and difficulty I still experience. I thank God for what I’ve been lead to do, and for the crazy wonderful life I’m living.

So without further ado, here is the letter that changed me and my life forever:

******

04/17/2017

Elder [redacted] and Elder [redacted],

This is a difficult letter to write, because it will likely end my employment at the Arizona Conference. Working for this conference, my home conference, for the short time I have been here has been the fulfillment of my greatest wishes and dreams. It saddens me that it has come to this, but I don’t see any other way.

In short, what I have to tell you is this: I have come to a place of complete disagreement with the Adventist church’s teachings on same-sex relationships and transgender people. After much time spent in prayer, study, and openness to God on this topic, I am fully convinced that fidelity to the Bible means defense of LGBT people, their relationships, and their gender identities. It seems to me that a handful of tertiary verses with ambiguous application have been allowed to hijack the entire gospel on this topic.

Further, I have become acutely aware of the damage caused by our theology and find myself unable ethically to continue in silence while people are suffering, in some cases to the point of taking their lives. I cannot with the Adventist church stand quietly by, ignoring the pain, and steadily causing the reputation of Christ to lose the respect of those who care deeply for LGBT people.

Finally, only after coming to all these conclusions, and after spending hours in prayer seeking God’s will on this matter, I realized that this topic is more personal for me than most. I have come to affirm myself and my own sexuality. This is not only about my beliefs and teachings, but also about how I live my life. The truth about me is that I am bisexual, which means that I am attracted to both men and women. I believe I could be happily married to someone from either gender. It doesn’t mean that my sexual ethics have changed except in the one point of being open to dating women, but I still believe in fidelity, monogamy, and marriage.

I am tempted at this point to write a theological treatise explaining how I arrived at this point, so that you can see my heart and my reasons. But none of that would change anything. Its seems daily more clear that there is no room for disagreement on this matter in the Adventist church.

If you would humor me to write a moment about my connection to our church. My father, who recently passed away, was the first in my family to become Adventist. He was baptized at Enterprise Academy in Kansas. He convinced my mom to join the church when he gave her Bible studies on their dates. They raised me on Arthur Maxwell’s Bible Story books. I attended Adventist schools for almost my entire time as a student. Becoming an Adventist pastor was a fulfillment of my most cherished dream and a response to a sense of calling far too powerful in my life to safely be ignored.

Pastoring [local] Church has been the greatest honor of my life. It is the best church I’ve ever known, and they have loved me better than any pastor I know has been loved by a church. I am grateful to have been raised in the Adventist church and community. I certainly never planned to leave nor had any desire to. I expected to serve this church for the rest of my life.

That’s why coming to this conclusion and writing this letter has been nothing short of excruciating. It has been the greatest loss of my life. I believe that the Adventist church has let me down, caused me harm, and that I am sadly not unique in this. Many of us who are LGBT and our families have heartbreaking stories from our experience in Adventist churches and with SDA theology.

But I am forever grateful that in other ways this church has also done immeasurable good for me. I have been nurtured, loved, and most importantly I’ve been introduced to Jesus. For that I am forever grateful. I hope my connection to this denomination will not be severed entirely, though I know that for the sake of [local] church, it will be better if I make a clean break.

I thank you for the opportunity to serve in this conference these last couple of years, though I imagined myself spending many more here. I await your response.

Sincerely,

Alicia Johnston

Often people who cause me the most pain are those who are genuinely and sincerely being as kind to me as they can. I find this confusing.

Most of the pain we cause each other happens in the gap between our own heart and mind and the heart and mind of the other. Rarely have I experienced a gap so large as the one between what I experience as a bisexual person when people who don’t accept my sexuality say things they believe to be kind.

Often traditionalists indicate that their words are kind, concilatory, and understanding. These same exact words fall on my skin like a slap and not the hand of mercy I know they were intended to be.

In fact, most of the people I know personally and who don’t accept my sexuality have been nice. Sometimes I’m even hurt by someone who doesn’t say a single word about my sexuality, even by those who reach out in concern, but who I know disagree with my decisions. I haven’t understood why.

This hurt I’m speaking about is not a mild aggitation. I heard one time that sometimes in prison someone marked for punishment will not be attacked outright. Instead one person after another will deliver a sharp and precise punch to their liver again and again, eventually causing serious injury.

That’s what it feels like. It’s taking another blow in the same bruised and battered organ, an organ I need to stay alive.

This analogy breaks down because in my case the injury is unintended, as hard as it is for me to remember that sometimes. But I should remember, because it wasn’t long ago that I probably did the same thing and was equally unaware and full of good intentions.

Still the hurt remains, and the anger that comes with it. I’ve had a hard time even understanding why it hurts so much. Why am I hurt by people who are trying to be kind to me? Am I just sensitive? Am I becoming the charicacture of the angry gay rights activist that I was so often warned about?

Managing my anger has been a big part of the last ten months since coming out. But managing is not enough. I also need to learn to deal with it. Dealing with my anger means forgiving those who have hurt me.

But how do I go about forgiving people who are trying to be caring? How do I forgive them when I don’t even understand the hurt or why it’s so deep and painful?

Often I find myself starting on a blog I’m unable to finish, despite knowing exactly what I want to say. I struggle to call people and having conversations that are important. It’s difficult to even keep up the ties with people I used to be close to when I don’t know how they feel about my life now.

It’s so hard to keep writing, keep working, keep trying to create change around this topic and advocate for LGBT+ Christians. Every act of advocacy meets internal resistance until I feel like I’m trudging through mud.

Why was I so bothered? Why couldn’t I just toughen up? Occasionally someone would even indicate that I needed to do just that.

Then one day it came to me, a thought I’d had a hundred times, but suddenly sharper and clearer: Trauma. I’m dealing with trauma.

Trauma is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot. It’s kind of like OCD in that people say it a lot without awareness of what actual Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is. “I have OCD” they say while they straighen out their bookshelf or pick the lint off their friend’s jacket. But that’s not what OCD is.

It’s similar with trauma. We throw the word around without knowing what it means. Real trauma, the type that is related to Acute or Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, means more than being hurt by something. Trauma is related to a real or perceived threat to one’s life.

I knew coming out was a legitimate struggle. Loss of place I experienced in the denomonination with which my life was inexorably entwined is no small matter. But in my mind it didn’t rise to the level of an actual trauma, not like the real threats that other people survive. I wasn’t assaulted. I didn’t think I was going to die.

But my search to understand my own pain has finally revealed what was perhaps obvious. This is real trauma. It’s serious. Whether I have an actual clinical disorder or not, I have experienced a legitimate traumatic event. Perhaps everyone does who comes out in an environment where their sexuality is not embraced and affirmed.

Being rejected by my community, as I have been and as many queer Christians are, is about more than hurt feelings. It’s a threat to my existance.

There are certain things we require to survive, literally to stay alive. We need water. We need food. We need shelter. And just as surely as we need these things, we also need community. None of us can make it in this world alone.

When I think of what my Seventh-day Adventist church community was to me, it’s evident that most of the meaning and joy I’ve experienced in life has been through them. Most of my resiliency and willingness to press forward and have hope for my future has come from this community as well.

Living my life without this support is something I never imagined. I was Adventist for life. But now, I must admit, I’m an illegitimate Adventist. My name only remains on the church books because church policy can’t always be enforced. I can never be employed in ministry by the church again, I can never be married to a woman in an Adventist church or by an Adventist minister unless that minister is willing to risk losing their job, and even volunteering at a church or getting involved in leadership would be fraught with difficulty and unease.

There are a couple Adventist churches that are exceptionally accepting and welcoming. Other than these churches, second-class is the best an LGBT+ person who is out can hope for in an Adventist church. I’d argue that this is true whether that person follows Adventist doctrine or not. The church doesn’t know how to treat out queer Adventists as equal.

I know queer Adventists who have found churches that are relatively accepting of them, but who know that they are always to a certain degree vulnerable to a new pastor coming in and changing everything. About the only thing I know for sure I can do unopposed is sit in the pew and give money, and even that is sometimes controversial (the sitting in the pew part, every church will take my money).

All of this amounts to a stark choice, participate as a second-class Adventist or don’t participate in the local church at all. So far returning to church has been impossible for me.

This loss may not come with the physical violence that we often associate with trauma, but this apparent innocence doesn’t make it any less potent.

If you know LGBT+ people, especially Christians from nonaffirming communities, they will often speak to you of the constant stress of remaining in relationships with people who don’t accept their marriages, way of dressing, or way of identifying.That can be threatening because community and family support are what we need to get us through times of transition, emergencies, and sometimes to help us get jobs or take care of children.

Too often this stress of not belonging goes unacknowleged or even unknown by those who are causing it. Perhaps speaking of being traumatized brings up defensiveness in those who are part of this rejection, yet who don’t intend to cause trauma, and who believe themselves to be loving and accepting. Many people take it for granted that if they are friendly, care for queer people, and state their beliefs as kindly as possible they are showing love and not causing harm at all.

If this is you, I see your heart, and I see that you are doing the best you can. What would be good for the LGBT+ people in your life is if you would explore this tension between what you believe is happening and what queer people are experiencing. I don’t think the church has adequately dealt with that tension.

Few LGBT+ Christians see this the same way as most nonaffirming Christians do. I think the reason why is that no matter how it is handled, rejection from one’s community is a legitimate threat to anyone’s survival in this world. We feel it. I’ve felt it since long before I could articulate it.

The way forward for me is in finding new ways to survive. I can’t simply grow tougher skin. What I can do is root myself firmly in my identity as a child of God. No matter how I’m treated, no matter where I do or do not belong, I have a place with God. And of course I’m also finding a new tribe who does appreciate me for all of who I am.

Even with all this progress, it’s harder still to learn not to turn to the Adventist community for the help I’ve always sought there. Like an amputee I keep feeling the phantom limb. It’s proving difficult for every part of me to accept the new reality of my outsider status. Yet just as it’s happening slowly, this healing also has an inevitability to it.

The less often I reach instinctively for the help that simply is not there and the more I seek sources of life that are open to me, the more progress I make. I’m gaining a sense of safety and a holistic kind of confidence that I will survive this. I’m starting to care less that I’m not accepted. I’m doing better than surviving. Life gets more beautiful every day.

Not all churches that are inhospitable to LGBT+ people want to stay that way. Sometimes they recognize the problem and ask me how they can do better.

Ask and honest question. Get an honest answer.

This is especially difficult for churches that do not believe in marriage between people of the same gender or who don’t affirm the gender of trans people. Yet sometimes these churches still want to learn to minister well to the LGBT+ community. They believe that their stance doesn’t mean they can’t help and be there for queer people.

In one sense, it’s always refreshing to me to hear this. I have hope that if they keep asking these kinds of questions, things can get better.

But I am also concerned if there is the assumptions that this is a matter of packaging or programming. Such simplistic approaches can come from an underlying assumption that LGBT+ people are the spiritual needy ones and the church has nothing to learn.

Most non-affirming churches need way more than a tune-up. First, they need to acknowledge that they are causing harm to LGBT+ people. Then they need to learn to stop causing harm. Only then can they hope to minister to queer people.

The transformation needed to make this switch is not superficial at all. To stop causing harm to become a positive influence in the lives of queer people, even the closeted people in their own congregations who don’t feel safe enough to come out, is frankly monumental.

But I’m here to help point you in the right direction with these suggestions:

1. Take Advantage of Existing Resources

It would be helpful to begin by learning some basics. I wrote about what pastors should consider when preaching on LGBT+ related topics and those blogs would be helpful for non-ministers as well. The glossary is something anyone who is not familiar with the terminology should read through. I’ve also written other pieces on topics such as why the phrases “homosexual lifestyle” and “love the sinner hate the sin” are not helpful.

Those are some places you can look for information. There are so many others a google search away. A lot of people have worked hard to create easily accessible information on how to show respect to LGBT+ people. Anyone who is interested can find this information quickly.

Unfortunately, it’s more than an information gap that prevents non-affirming churches from effectively ministering to LGBT+ people. The real problem is the relationship gap.

Traditionalists often don’t know how to be in relationship with LGBT+ people. Don’t believe me? According to Barna, 87% of Evangelicals believe it would be difficult for them to have a normal conversation with an LGBT+ person.

No matter how much information you have, if LGBT+ people make you uncomfortable, we will know.

What happens if you do close that gap? How ready are you to be in relationships with LGBT+ people in a way that is genuine, unforced, and mutually respectful?

This is why updating your vocabulary is not enough. If you want to do better, you need to understand what the problem is an close the relationship gap.

2. Ask Why You Currently Aren’t Effective

Why doesn’t your church or ministry already reach LGBT+ people? Are there people currently in your congregation who are out LGBT+ people? It’s inevitable that you have at least a few queer people in your congregation, why aren’t they out? What about parents of LGBT+ people? Are they open? Why not?

If you know someone who is closeted or someone who is a parent and keeps that a secret from the general congregation, have a private conversation about why.

Then flip the question around so you can better understand it. Are you spending any time in predominately LGBT+ spaces? Are you in close and mutually respectful relationships with LGBT+ people? How might life as a non-affirming Christian prevent people from having these kinds of relationships? How might Christian leaders be especially impacted?

3. Foster Relationships of Mutual Respect with LGBT+ People

The next logical step is to cross that divide. Don’t start with trying to convince us to come to your church. Go to us.

There are conferences you can go to such as Q Christian Fellowship (formerly the Gay Christian Network) or The Reformation Project. There also might be some local events through these organizations you can attend.

Another suggestions is to show up at churches that welcome and affirm LGBT+ people. You can find them on this website. Before you go, call the pastor and tell them what you want to do and ask them if they can make some introductions to LGBT+ Christians for you.

If all this makes you feel nervous, know that LGBT+ people feel at least as nervous about attending your church.

4. Try to See Your Church as We Would

Once you have LGBT+ people in your life, ask them about what it might be like going to non-affirming churches.

You might get some surprising stories. You might also hear about common problems like the bait-and-switch: Churches that try to hide their non-affirming theology until LGBT+ people have dedicated time and energy into forming relationships there. Then they ask why that can’t serve or can’t attend a marriage seminar and are told only then that it’s because of their sexual orientation.

You might hear about being involved for years but never fully being apart.

You might here about people hiding their orientation for fear of rejection, or pretending like their partners are just friends.

You might here horrible experiences of insults and rejection.

You might hear about LGBT+ people who chose to abide by the church’s requirements and still didn’t believe they were seen as equal to straight Christians, even after their sacrifices.

If you get to know the LGBT+ community, you will be surprised at how common these experiences are.

Don’t stop with asking. Use your imagination to understand as much as possible what it would be like to be an LGBT+ person in your church.

Take some time envisioning yourself walking into a church with the person you love and having that church believe your relationship is a sin. Or imagine what it would be like to tell your friends at church that you are attracted to the same sex, or that you’ve always felt you were a different gender.

When anyone walks into any church they are not part of, they enter someone else’s home. How will things be here? Will I be acceptable here?

If a queer person walks into your church, you have all the power to make us feel at home or uncomfortable. Be aware of what that’s like for someone who has likely had terrible experiences with religion because of their sexual orientation.

Be ready for questions. Can the lesbian mom can serve in the children’s department. Can the gay man can help out in the youth program? Would you baptize an out LGBT+ person and under what circumstances? What happens when the kid in your youth group comes out as transgender? Do you require divorce of people in same-sex marriages?

More importantly, what must it be like for the people on the other end of these questions? Are you ready to see this through their eyes? Are you ready to face not only the difficulties this poses for yourself, but the difficulties it poses for those in the LGBT+ community?

In my experience, it’s difficult for non-affirming people do to this kind of emotional work. The reality of what church life is like in non-affirming churches for queer folks is hard to face even if you’re only imagining it. How much more difficult is it for LGBT+ people?

But ignoring reality was never part of being a Christian. Ministry without empathy is empty. There is no power without compassion.

If non-affirming theology is your conviction, you do no favors by not being understanding the full implications of your theology. You will come off to LGBT+ people as glib, even non-affirming LGBT+ people.

5. Look at the Log in Your Own Eye

I often hear non-affirming Christians talk about how they believe themselves to be sinful and in need of God’s grace just as much as LGBT+ people are. It’s easier to say this is a general sense then it is to get honest about the specifics, isn’t it?

In my experience, many Christians who do not affirm same-sex relationships or transgender identities are tragically unwilling to consider that they might have stigma and bigotry towards queer people.

Jesus said that before you can see clearly to take the speck from another’s eye, you need to deal with the log in your own (Matthew 7:5).

Following the teachings of Jesus means the first step towards ministering to queer people is to examine yourself. It’s a requirement to effective ministry.

The other suggestions I’ve made will get you ready for this step, but it won’t complete the process. If you are unwilling to confess your own sin, you will be jamming your fingers into other people’s eyes because you can’t see clearly.

This post may not give you the answers you were expecting when you say you want to minister to LGBT+ people. It’s not a how-to. I’m suggesting you should approach this as a more ingrained challenge. I’m suggesting you grow into the type of person who could do that work.

And neither am I done addressing this, because point number five needs further explanation. You can look for Part 2 next week.

One year ago I desperately wanted to attend the Gay Christian Network’s annual conference. I recall trying to think of cover stories for leaving for a few days so that my church and people close to me wouldn’t know where I was going. People finding out could result in questions I didn’t want anyone asking, questions that could lead to me losing my job as pastor.

It wa s all too easy for me to let the date come and go without ever registering or making plans to attend. I was afraid, not only of being discovered but of being seen for who I am at that conference.

Spend all your time hiding and authenticity feels foreign and dangerous. Fear won that day, but fear did not win in the end.

Today, I am waiting for my flight to leave from Denver, having just attended the very conference I was so afraid of one year ago.

Waiting for my flight to leave, I’m reflecting on my first Gay Christian Network conference. This turned out to be the last the last conference by that name when the name was changed to Q Christian Fellowship. It’s the ending of an era that I was glad to be present for, and the beginning of a new era that I’m thrilled to be part of.

This seems like a good time to reflect on what it’s been like to go from conservative church community to queer Christian community.

This very conference that I was so afraid to attend one year ago already feels like home, maybe as much like home as Adventist meetings and conferences ever did. Having attended several progressive and LGBT+ friendly events over the last 9 months since coming out as bisexual, I’m amazed at how many people I know as I wander around the convention center.

These are people I love and who inspire me, people who see all of me and call me good and blessed, people who understand and appreciate my ministry, and people to whom I can gush about my girlfriend and they’ll simply be happy for me. Here I am known and loved. I can drop my guard because no defense is needed. They fulfill my innate need for community in a way I’m not so sure the church I grew up in is capable of anymore, if it ever was.

These conferences bring tremendous healing to all of us. I would even say they save people.

Three months ago at a conservative and LGBT+ affirming conference called The Reformation Project in Chicago, I met a young lesbian woman. She was emotionally wrecked. Constantly on the verge of tears, she seemed fragile and vulnerable because of the criticism she’d taken.

As I talked with her I realized that she was in big trouble. She was at a Christian school that made her believe her desire for intimate love and connection with a woman was a sin. Her friends only reinforced this, telling her she could never experience the love she longed for.

TRP was good for her. She was encouraged, loved, accepted, and was able to see how many queer Christians are affirming themselves and thriving because of it. She was also exposed to solid theology that shifted her thinking and gave her hope.

Still, when I left I was afraid for her. I was afraid she wouldn’t know how to deal with the stress of rejection and loneliness.

A few days ago, at the QCF conference, I saw her again. Instantly I knew that things had changed for her. She stood taller, looked people directly in the eye, and most of all she smiled easily. Clearly she was on a totally new trajectory.

We talked for a few minutes, and she simply glowed when I told her how apparent the change was. I found out she’s doing very well and made the decision to change to a different school. She’s decided to leave behind those religious systems that brought her only death and condemnation. She is finding a better way.

I wonder what would have happened to her without QCF. I wonder what would have happened to me without this beautiful world of queer Christians. I don’t know how people made it before.

I suspect they usually abandoned their faith completely or lived lives of loneliness and judgement in church. But I know there is one more outcome that was and still is all too common. The specter of LGBT+ suicide for those in non-affirming Christian spaces is ever on my mind.

Instead, for those who are in churches and organizations that affirm them, there is hope there never was before. We get to experience Christianity with no strings attached. Love is given without qualification here. Community is unconditional.

We’re here not because we all signed a belief statement or are part of the same denomination. We don’t all behave the same way. There are a variety of different approaches to ethical questions. It’s not our uniformity that unites us. We are united because we all want to help each other through this life as followers of Jesus.

This is not Christendom where discipleship means following your pastor or the tradition and teachings that have been handed down, but where discipleship means following Jesus.

I’m here to report that it’s possible, it’s real, and it’s beautiful. Breath free, beloved, and experience the body of Christ in the fullness of authenticity, messiness, and grace.

Queer Christians are not the only ones who long for this experience of faith. The hunger is universal. From the pulpit to the pew to the classroom, Christians are tired of the judgement, but don’t know the way out.

There is a way out, a way to the gospel that is good news. This is not the gospel of conformity, but the gospel of Jesus Christ, freely given, full of Grace, Peace, and Love.

To get there we need to stop being afraid, stop covering up our authentic selves with masks and lies, and be willing to seek Jesus with our full hearts.

This is the secret that is well known to queer Christians. This is the gift we offer the church of Christ.

I’ve started and failed to finish blog after blog, even though they were great topics and important, meaningful, things I believe in. It seems I’ve had writers block because of my last post about Losing My Religion, a kind of dear John letter to the Adventist church, the conservative Christian denomination in which I used to pastor before coming out.

The day after posting it, even though every word came from a very deep and honest place, something felt off. It was only a half truth. One stop on the way to wherever I’m going. Neither a final destination nor the last word on my relationships with the church I grew up in.

Every sermon is a heresy. It’s something I’ve often said. Maybe every blog post is also a heresy, guilty of the same crime for the same reason, only able to contain a small portion of the truth.

So here’s another side: Most of the best, most loving, kindest, and most generous people I know are Adventists. Many of those people are also totally unaffirming of the way I experience love and family. This is a complex truth. It’s hard for me to handle.

I’ve been looking forward to the day my anger and hurt would abate enough for me to engage more directly with individuals from my church, maybe even attend a service again. That is beginning to happen, and it’s bringing with it unexpected emotions.

During my time as an Adventist in good standing, many people invested in me. Faces flash into my mind as I write these words, faces of people whose kindness got me through difficult times, whose faith in me gave me hope as I pursued the difficult path of becoming a pastor in the Adventist church as a woman.

When I was about the graduate from my Adventist High School, I was gifted a precious book that still sits on my shelf. A book about grace signed by my teachers, one after another affirming their confidence in me and my bright future. This is a beautiful gift for an 18-year-old. I recall professors who spent endless hours guiding me through difficult questions and struggles. I can think of Administrators who offered me jobs, and more importantly whose confidence in me was so crucial for my success.

Adventists were there for me in moments of need. Offering me a room in their home when I needed it, showing up in the hospital to pray with my father who had been diagnosed with cancer when I was on the other side of the country, letting me know that he was being loved when I couldn’t be there yet. Adventist administrators gave me ridiculous amounts of time off so I could be with my father even though they knew I may well be quitting my job to be with my family. My Adventist church family put together my father’s memorial service, making all the arrangements and showing up with food for the reception, after only one phone call from me asking for help.

Adventists are the colleges who supported me through ups and downs and difficult seasons of ministry. They are people who encouraged me, mentored me, gave me opportunities I wasn’t even sure I was ready for, and helped me succeed.

Adventists, many of them anyways, are people who will be there for you if you need them, no questions asked, no thanks required, because they know how to love well.

I wounded these kind and loving people when I came out as bisexual and opposed the church’s treatment of LGBT+ people.

People I worked with side by side, building up the church, now watch me tear down our work. The energy they poured into me I now use to accomplish the opposite of their intentions. I know for certain that my coming out caused people to leave the Adventist church for good. More than that, they are afraid for me because of the choices I am making, and they are afraid of the harm they believe I am causing to others.

The word betrayal is not too strong. I betrayed them. I betrayed the church that nurtured, raised, and loved me. Over the months since coming out, I’ve only twisted that knife. I feel my betrayal, even though I believe I’m doing the right thing.

How must it be for them? Adventists who love me now struggle with my announcement and struggle with the new me. Some are cruel to me in their struggle. Some want to dialogue. Some are even cheering me on. But most seem at a loss and want mostly to care for me but don’t know how.

I know my betrayal is necessary. I’m intentionally causing those good people to struggle, and I hope by God’s good grace to continue. LGBT+ people struggle unseen and unacknowledged in the Adventist church. Straight Adventists need to feel this hidden struggle. Nor is the pain I’ve caused in any way comparable to the extreme stress and resulting mental health challenges LGBT+ people face as a result of unaffirming theology. Yet I know that for some it has felt like I punched them in the stomach. I’ve been told as much.

If I have betrayed my church, my betrayal is the best way I know of being faithful. It’s a holy betrayal.

So why does part of me want to say sorry? I guess for the simple reason that I hurt people I love and who love me. ‘Sorry’ is not the right word and apology is not what is owed. I need to be clear about that. I have no shame and no regret but know I am in the center of God’s calling in the ministry I am doing now. I do want to acknowledge something I haven’t before. Here’s what I would like to say, if it’s not too late, if anyone I’ve hurt is listening:

“I now see past my own pain enough to acknowledge yours. I know you are not malicious but well-intentioned. I see that I’ve undermined the work we were doing together and how hard that could be. I can accept that you are hurt too. I know things are forever changed between us, but I hope they aren’t over.”

If you think I owe the church an apology, I guess this is the best I can do. There is healing in these words for me; I hope there is for others as well.

And this is important because I know my story is not unique. So many of us LGBT+ Christians who are in traditional denominations or coming out of them are in this struggle, and so many of the people we left behind are struggling as well. Perhaps my words can be of some help. If I’ve missed the mark, remember, every blog post is a heresy.

What now? What hope remains for people who have so hurt each other? What reconciliation can there be after such gut-wrenching mutual betrayal?

I don’t know. But for some reason I feel hopeful.

Maybe my hope comes from this: we are all trying to follow Jesus, and even if we don’t know how to manage this mess, Jesus does.

Today I’m finally going to talk about something that has been conspicuously missing from my blog: the crazy journey I have been on in my faith since coming out publicly as bi. Perhaps I’m ready to talk about it today because I’m beginning to recover some sense of spiritual grounding again.

Before coming out, affirming theology seemed like the missing element to my faith. Things seemed to fit in a way that didn’t before. Affirming theology reconciled elements of the Bible and God that hadn’t made sense. Those things are probably still true, though for a time they seemed like they weren’t.

I realize now that the real change since coming out isn’t about the Bible or God, it’s about the church. So much of it has been about the way people and institutions responded to me coming out. As expected, there was praise from some and attacks from others. What did surprise me is the reactions I haven’t heard, reactions I fully expected to encounter from Bible-believing Christians.

Losing the Beautiful Vision

My whole life I’ve been taught that the Adventist church has no creed but the Bible, that our doctrines are based on scripture more than any other denomination.

When others reverted to tradition, Adventist theology progressed, embracing the Sabbath, new understandings of death and the nature of the soul, new prophets, and new prophecies. We were a faith unafraid to go back to the Bible. We were people of the book.

I was a true believer in this visions of the Adventist church.

Because of this, I had a framework for why it was okay to open myself up to new understandings of scripture. When I studied and changed my mind about LGBT+ affirmation, that wasn’t a big threat to me. It made sense. It’s how Christianity is supposed to work.

Since coming out, I’m unable to believe that this vision of Adventism is true in the present, even if it was in the past. Coming out has decimated my faith in the church.

The response I expected and rarely received was thoughtful, careful engagement with me in study of the text. If Adventist understandings of truth are based on scripture and not on tradition, the first response to my work should be curiosity fostered by a desire to understand the Bible better.

Instead, I found people insisting that this matter has already been decided, that it’s part of settled theology in the Adventist church. In fact, many times I’ve been asked what more an Adventist pastor could do given the limitations of our theology. But why would our theology be excluded from change? This isn’t Adventism at all.

Defaulting to the doctrines of the church rather than the study of scripture isn’t supposed to be what it means to be an Adventist. As one of our most important founders put it:

“There is no excuse for anyone taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed and that our expositions of Scripture are without error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close examination.” -Ellen White

In stark contrast to this attitude of the early founders of our church, the Adventist church has taken a settled position against same-gender marriage and against transgender people. They’ve done so despite the fact that the Adventist church has never undertaken to study this issue, but instead has assumed itself to be right with zero self-examination.

As one example, when they met at the Andrews University seminary for a conference on the subject of “homosexuality” a few years ago, they began the conference clarifying that the churches doctrine was not up for re-examination. Everything they said would be within those bounds.

This approach is not the approach our church was founded on. It’s not what we are telling people about ourselves and our values. We are telling people the Adventist church is all about being true to the text, over and above any other denomination, even when it sets us at odds with other Christians.

Where Have the Faithful Gone?

I get it. I expected the official church to take this stance. The church is becoming more creedal, theologically calcifying for decades. What I didn’t expect was the lack of curiosity and open engagement from individuals in the church.

I have seen people casually write me off, saying my hermeneutic is wrong without ever expounding. I’ve studied hermeneutics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. I know how it works. The hermeneutic I’ve used in my work is conservative.

No, I don’t use a literalistic approach, but that’s not a conservative hermeneutic, it’s an uneducated one. My hermeneutic has attempted to get at the original intent of the author and to illuminate the work that God is doing in his people through all of scripture and over time. That’s conservative hermeneutics. That’s what I’ve used every time. In every post. In every discussion.

I can understand how someone could see this matter differently than I do, and I would really love to engage in conversation around this, but I can’t see how someone who truly wants to understand scripture would be so lacking in curiosity or a willingness to learn more about scripture through someone who sees it differently than they do.

This has been the source of my frustration. It seems that this unwillingness to return to the text with humility and curiosity has met me at every turn. Nothing seems like a good enough reason to even seriously ask these questions. It doesn’t matter that there has been new and credible scholarship. It doesn’t matter that the current doctrine is doing immense harm. It doesn’t even matter that there are many Adventist pastors who privately believe the church to be wrong.

I’ve spent my time mostly fending off hateful comments rather than thoughtfully engaging and growing from serious dialogue, that in itself is revealing.

Losing My Religion

This failure of self-reflection and scriptural curiosity has been ground zero for the dissolution of my trust in the church, though it’s far from the only one. It hurts.

Before coming out, I expected the pain of the church’s rejection of me, but I’m finding more and more that I’m also rejecting the church, and it’s just as painful.

What happens when you lose faith in the church that introduced you to Jesus, nurtured you, believed in you, gave you a place, gave you a spiritual home, and helped you know God? This is what I’m discovering.

These are the types of questions I’m going to be asking and reflecting on more and more in my blog. Today I want to share with you a bit of hope that’s come my way.

Losing God

Often, in the midst of this disintegrating faith in the church, I was also caught off guard by feeling incredibly distant from God. It was like God was gone. I was trying to seek spiritual solace, but couldn’t find it.

Many times it’s seemed to me that faith, God, and religion bring nothing but pain to the world. I understand why people reject religion altogether. There are many times and many ways in which religious systems are the reason why people are xenophobic, fearing and attacking anyone different than themselves.

In other words, religion often makes people worse instead of better. I’ve struggled with this reality over the last few months. It’s hard to accept it. It’s hard to know what to do with this information when religion has been such an important part of my life.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve begun to see the appeal in being an atheist. I’ve also seen the appeal in rejecting entirely all things conservative. I’ve begun to see conservatives as selfish, afraid, and hateful. I’ve wondered if maybe the one and only thing we need is to stop hurting each other. Can it all be boiled down to that?

The reason I didn’t talk about any of this publicly is because I knew I was still sorting it out. I knew I was reacting, confused, hurting, and looking for some way to safety. Though I’m still in that process, I’ve tentatively figured some things out.

The Fuller Story

I’ve realized that religion is often a tool for oppression, but God (and even religion) are also a source for strength, hope, and the most important movements for liberation in the history of the world. People who are the most despised and feared in society find strength in God. Maybe that’s why so many atheists are straight, white men while those against whom religion has been wielded as a weapon paradoxically tend to believe in God.

As one of those who has been often targeted by religious people and institutions, I’ve found that God can be a source of strength for withstanding assault from God’s own supposed followers. After all, wasn’t Jesus crucified by religious leaders using the power of the state for violence?

Maybe God and Jesus look more like the victims of religion than the most powerful proponents of it. Maybe becoming a victim of religion has made me closer to God and not further away.

Besides, if we give up on religion, it isn’t going to go away. If we give up on conservative values, that doesn’t mean conservatism disappears, it just means it will lack our influence. We need better religion, better conservative values, and better institutions. Without this effort, we lose our influence in these spaces and abandon LGBT+ kids growing up in them as so many of us did.

In other words, I realize that I don’t want to give up on God, and surprisingly I don’t even want to give up on religion. My soul still longs for God. The divine still soothes, fills, and inspires me.

Freedom comes from loss, growth comes from pain, and God has always brought beauty from ashes. When the roof caves in you can see the stars for the first time. Destruction clears the way for growth. Losing my religion doesn’t have to mean losing religion. It could be an unimagined and desperately needed new beginning.

Renewing Faith in God

So I started to do something important. I’m separating myself from the church in my mind, and I’m doing so with great intentionality. I’m accepting the reality of who I am now in the eyes of so many Adventist leaders. I’m not included anymore. I’m a member of the LGBT+ community who affirms and celebrates the way I love. That makes me other.

What really surprises me is that the more I do so, the more aware I am that God is with me.

I am saying the following out loud, “I no longer have a place in the Adventist church, but I have a place in the Kingdom of God, and I have a place with Jesus.”

The more I repeated this phrase, the more healing I experienced. Peace flowed from these painful words, peace between myself and God. It would seem that my concept of God was more wrapped up in the church than I knew. Probably still is.

It’s necessary for me to be intentional about this loss so I can be intentional about rebuilding my life and my faith apart from the Adventist church. It’s something I never wanted to do, but something I find I must do. I can’t make an idol of the Adventist church. I must be willing to let it go.

I suppose losing a church family is like losing a spouse. You don’t realize how many pieces of yourself are wrapped up in the other person until the other person is gone. Also like the lose of a spouse, the more you are able to accept the reality of the loss, the more you are able to heal and become whole. By the grace of God, I’m becoming whole again.