Local Methodists respond to new policies for LGBTQ+ people and pastors

“It’s a new day in our United Methodist Church,” said Barbara Revere — the Sunday morning liturgist on May 5 at First United Methodist Church of Germantown (known as FUMCOG, pronounced phonetically). Those gathered cheered knowingly. 

Rainbow banners hung around the historic sanctuary, and colorful fabric was draped atop the communion table. Attendees sang joyously. 

The denomination’s governing body recently voted to eliminate problematic language and stances regarding LGBTQ+ people that exist in the Book of Discipline — which outlines the denomination’s beliefs, laws, standards and doctrines.

New policies now offer LGBTQ+ people the ability to become pastors and officiate LGBTQ+ weddings. Among other changes that will benefit LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized groups, a ban on using United Methodist funds to “promote acceptance of homosexuality” has also been lifted. Because queerphobic language first entered the Discipline in the ’70s and ’80s, many have waited decades for this day to come.

Pennsylvania’s history in the national news
FUMCOG first made headlines 20 years ago during the church trial of Beth Stroud, who was then the associate pastor. Stroud, who is a lesbian, was ousted from leadership in 2004 despite strong support from her congregation — which has been a part of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, since 1990.

“I was offered opportunities to surrender my credentials,” Stroud told PGN. “And I just said, ‘You can take them but I’m not just going to give them to you.’”

“If you’re committed to this policy, you’ll have to pay the cost,” she underlined, noting that the trial — which gained national attention — was bad publicity and that the process was emotionally wrenching for all involved. 

Stroud didn’t enjoy being in the public eye but felt that she was making a positive impact for the cause.

Almost a decade later, Pennsylvania’s United Methodists returned to the spotlight during the trial of Rev. Frank Shaffer, who was defrocked after officiating his son’s wedding to a man. Thirty-six local pastors jointly officiated an LGBTQ+ wedding at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia as a way to celebrate queer love and protest the church’s stance.

The stress of a temporary fix
Within the last decade, local governing bodies — including those guiding New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania — announced that they would not pursue complaints against queer-affirming clergy. Some said they would ordain LGBTQ+ pastors.

But Rev. Jessica Campbell said breaking the rules — even in spaces where it was permitted — came with risk. For instance, her current bishop vowed not to charge clergy who perform LGBTQ+ weddings, but with a new bishop coming this year, she wouldn’t have been protected under previous church laws.

Before the new changes, an ordained minister who facilitated one LGBTQ+ wedding could be suspended for a year without pay and could be removed permanently for performing a second. Pastors and candidates in other jurisdictions awaited trial — some for years — as the topic was debated.

Additionally, the process to evaluate candidates for ordained ministry in Campbell’s region was clouded by a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mentality.

“I am a big believer in looking at the whole person and not compartmentalizing any part of their life,” she said. “Because I think in ministry, the whole person is needed and is what develops a strong ministry. I’m excited that now people don’t have to try to separate that part of who they are.”

Campbell, who was a delegate at a 2012 conference where these matters were debated, said she immediately went on antidepressants when she returned.

“I do believe that justice ultimately is found but I honestly questioned for the last 20 years of being a Methodist if I would ever see it in my lifetime,” she underlined.

A tale of two local cities
Sophy Gamber, who is now 28, attended First Methodist Church Moorestown (FMC) — where Campbell is now the associate pastor — as a teen. It’s the church where Gamber fell in love with quirky aspects of church life that make Methodism unique. But purity culture and queerphobic rhetoric at FMC made Gamber question whether or not they fit in while discerning a call to ministry.

“I found it. I discovered it. I loved it. It was beautiful,” they said. “And then it was like I didn’t belong to it.”

Their relationship to the church felt even more complicated following the denomination’s last major conference where the topic was debated again in 2019. They also witnessed a colleague experience transphobia in a different congregation.

“I was looking at a future that I didn’t think I could live in,” they said about participating in a system that both lacked space for queer leaders and didn’t align with their values in other ways.

Like many progressives, they left and sought faith community elsewhere. Meanwhile, thousands of conservative congregations separated from the denomination. Countless others chose the opposite approach and got more familiar with the LGBTQ+ community. FMC joined Reconciling Ministries Network in November 2018. 

“This church has gone through so much — and has had so many pains getting there, but I’m so proud of them for doing it,” said Campbell. Gamber wept when they heard the news.

Gamber eventually returned to the UMC — seeking to ease their homesickness and connect more deeply with their spirituality, but they made sure to join a congregation that was ready to welcome them. They said they found “rest” at FUMCOG — the last church Beth Stroud served before she was removed from leadership.

It was the first place Gamber could tell others had come to “make way” for LGBTQ+ people, the first church Gamber entered where they, at 28, weren’t one of the oldest queer people present.

“I really want to take care of people. I do that professionally all the time,” they said. “And I needed to know that my church could take care of me.”

Gamber, who said “home is never going to be perfect” is now pursuing ordination within the UMC again because it finally feels like it “isn’t an abusive home” anymore.

“Homophobia in the UMC is still so alive. It’s not disappeared overnight or even since 2019,” they added. “But now there’s a public set of values that we can point to and say, ‘This is what we believe and this is how we want to protect, empower and promote one another,’ and do so with the love of God.”

The change embraces neutrality — not affirmation
Some remain cautious. Multiple pastors in the tri-state area did not want to be quoted by name because they don’t feel that their local leaders or the denomination as a whole is safe yet.

“There was a real grieving I went through in seminary,” said another pastor who is bisexual and realized her life and ministry would be different if she’d fallen in love with a woman instead of a man.

This pastor never had to face what she called an “impossible choice” between a call to ministry and her partnership. She carries guilt for that lack of suffering — an experience shared by other less visibly queer Methodists.

She said her decision to share about who she is was mostly about her ministry. It helps people who otherwise don’t feel comfortable around religious leaders know that they’re safe.

Some pastors who aren’t as visibly queer plan to stay quiet — either because they don’t feel safe or for personal reasons. Pastors who will be leaving their current churches to serve new communities in July — a change that happens every few years for many UMC leaders — are considering how to approach their new communities.

Some have been directly asked by their superintendents not to talk about their LGBTQ+ identities from the pulpit or not to bring it up with new congregants. Others have chosen to take this approach on their own. They highlighted the dangers of coming out to new people and the uncertainty they feel about individual churches, which may or may be welcoming. Some noted that they already know the churches they’re entering or the pastors they’ll work alongside aren’t affirming.

Many of the LGBTQ+ women who spoke to PGN noted that their approach to ministry has required a slow and intentional process of building trust with parishioners who already question having a woman as a leader. Coming out would make their jobs even harder.

“I’m super excited about everything that happened at General Conference but not as happy as I thought I would be,” said one of the ministers.

New problems with new language
“I actually feel less safe since General Conference because I’m in a polyamorous relationship,” said one pastor.

“We changed the language to get rid of celibacy in singleness, but they replaced the language with fidelity and monogamy in intimate relationships,” they said. “So I actually feel less protected.”

Multiple pastors told PGN that they’re concerned that this language might not leave space for wider definitions of chosen family or allow for more casual but consensual practices among partners. It’s another morality clause that comes with potential consequences for those who are found out.

“We should be prioritizing the way we care for each other, not who we care for or how many people we care for,” said another pastor. “This oversimplifies what a healthy relationship could look like and is too narrow a definition — again.”

There’s more work to do
“We lived through the realities of the fear of disaffiliation and we’re on the other side of that,” said Lan Davis Wilson, a Black gay man who currently serves the denomination in a statewide function teaching antiracism and cultural competency.

Wilson, who left a more conservative tradition in search of a more inclusive church, served in multiple churches before finding a position in the UMC — where it took time for him to understand whether or not he’d be safe.

While serving a local church, he was blindsided by a senior leader’s homophobia, especially since multiple LGBTQ+ families were a part of the community. He urged the community to participate in a dialogue about if or how they wanted to include and affirm LGBTQ+ people.

Wilson decided not to come out at that church because he didn’t want the community’s conversation to focus on him. But the experience led him to ask, “How do we have these conversations in a healthy way?”

“It takes self-awareness [to move forward now],” he said. “And when I say self-awareness, I don’t just mean individually. I mean institutionally — because we’ve done so much harm for the sake of self-preservation.”

Another piece of legislation that was approved but didn’t gain so much attention was the denomination’s decision to require people in leadership to receive DEI training and build specific cultural competencies.

“As we become a more diverse church, we have to be culturally competent,” Wilson said. “And if people are going to be making decisions around our careers, where we’re appointed to, if we’re accepted for ministry, there has to be cultural competency — so I’m grateful there’s some legislation in place that’s going to start requiring that to happen.”

“Our brand is the church with open hearts, open minds and open doors,” said Wilson. “What does it mean for us to live in that?”

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