If there’s one thing you learn in seminary, it’s how to tell your story. I had to share my “call story” so many times during the process of earning my MDiv that I got absolutely sick of telling it. “I was born in Pensacola, studied communication, moved to Nigeria, blah, blah, blah.” The major talking points of my life have become somewhat rehearsed in my telling.
Since graduating from seminary, I’ve taken a position at a UMC church as Youth Director and Justice Associate. As a relatively new employee, I am occasionally asked to speak in Sunday School classes in order for the congregation to get to know me. This past week, I was honored to speak to a small class of senior women and share a bit about what brought me to the church. I ran through the usual stories which include the three years of high school wherein I left my home of the UMC for a “hip” nondenominational church. It was during those three years that I began to explore a call to ministry. It was also there that I learned, as a woman, I was not qualified to be a minister. I hadn’t realized! My youth director was kind enough to point me in the direction of 1 Corinthians 14, and there it was – “women should remain silent in church.” At the time, I didn’t know what to do but trust that this proclamation was true. I decided I’d marry a pastor (male, obviously) so I could sneak my way into leadership. This is funny now for numerous reasons.
So my story goes. The next chapter led me back to the UMC where a more open-minded theology and biblical interpretation invited me to reconsider what I had come to believe about my call. It took me about two years of struggling with all I had been taught about “a women’s role in the church,” to move past it, but thanks to a supportive home church, I managed to find my way to accepting the call I felt God placed on my life. The UMC was a means of liberation from the sexist views I had come to accept. As I share this piece of my story, it’s something I’m proud of and always eager to offer to fellow members of the UMC. Afterwards, I then move on to my year in Nigeria and following, seminary. Seminary was a continuation of the liberation I needed. I was introduced to Feminist, Liberation, and Queer Theology. The new theological frameworks these provided for me helped me to grow further into my identity as a capable woman but also as a lesbian. It was theology that helped me come out and understand myself as beloved in all aspects of my identity. In telling my story, it ends on a happy note: liberation, coming out, freedom! And then I wrap it up with a nice bow about being in my current church position.
There have been some serious bumps and bruises along the last few years, of course, but the way I share my story is authentic in my gratitude for what the UMC and theology have offered me. However, it didn’t hit me until I found myself in worship this Sunday reflecting on my story – in the same way I have a million times – that I leave out the part that suggests I have come full circle. Somehow, it dawned on me for the first time, that while it was the UMC that freed me from sexism to pursue my call to ministry, it’s the very same denomination that now proclaims, I am again, unfit for ministry. Like my youth minister of old, the UMC points me to a select number of scripture verses and says, “see…it’s clear and simple.” Fortunately, I have since learned a thing or two about how to handle such proclamations.
Nonetheless, it was for me, a sad realization. I like sharing my story with the UMC being a hero of sorts in my life. It makes me proud to be a part of it. But now the UMC is one of the few mainline protestant denominations that continue to deny LGBT women and men the call God has placed on our lives. Where our denomination was once a forerunner of social change, we are now the caboose.
Fortunately, my story is not yet finished, and either is the story of the UMC. I hope that where the UMC once freed me from living into a false understanding of God’s call on my life, I can now help, hand-in-hand with many others, to free the UMC of its current false understanding of God’s call on its own life. I eagerly await to turn, together, to a new page.