Celebrating Heroes: A Reflection on the Indiana and Kentucky Resolutions on Ordination

Vote on the Indiana Resolution

Vote on the Indiana Resolution

By Derek Penwell

Ruining a Hero’s Day

On NPR’s Storycorps one time, I heard an interview with the first African-American, A.P. Tureaud, to integrate LSU in 1953. He recalled the difficult times he encountered being the only black man on a southern campus in the 1950s.

He said, “The students wouldn’t speak to me. I think someone had decided that if they totally isolated me, I would leave.”

He didn’t have a roommate, but the guys in the rooms on either side of him would take turns trying to keep him awake with radios and banging on the walls. If he walked into the showers, everyone would leave. The professors wouldn’t physically touch his papers.

Understandably, he felt like he was all alone in the world … except for the mascot, a bengal tiger named, Mike, who lived in a cage across from Tureaud’s dorm room. So, Tureaud used to spend time talking to Mike the tiger, figuring that they both lived in jails.

One day, while he was talking to Mike, a pick-up truck pulled up. Tureaud said as he saw it approaching that he hoped it didn’t have a gun rack hanging on the back.

But a black man in worker’s overalls got out. He said, “Are you A.P. Tureaud?”

“Yes.”

So, he got back into the truck and came back out with his seven year-old son. And the man said, “I want him to meet you, because I want him to know this is possible for him to come to this school—thanks to you.”

Tureaud said, “After I composed myself, I said, ‘You just ruined my day. I want to get out. I want to get out, but now I can’t.’”

On Saturday, September 29, 2012 the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indiana voted on a resolution to remove any obstacles to ordination that include reference to a candidate’s sexual orientation or gender identity. On Saturday, October 6, 2012 the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Kentucky will vote on a similar resolution. Should Kentucky pass this resolution, it will join Indiana, the Northeastern region, the Northwest, Central Rocky Mountain, and Northern California-Nevada as the only regions in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that have taken the explicit step of not excluding candidates for ordination, based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  (Georgia also leaves "fitness" for ministry up to congregations.)

Without being triumphalist, the decision in Indiana is worth celebrating on many levels, not least because it marks a growing sense in our denomination that the gifts and talents of our brothers and sisters who happen to be LGBTIQ are themselves worth celebrating. I was glad to hear of the pastoral and evenhanded way the vote was handled. I pray it will be so handled in Louisville in a few days. Anyone who relishes the conflict that this issue has historically engendered is a psychopath. We gather around a table that seeks to save a place for everyone, wanting none to walk away.

On the other hand, we can’t forestall justice in the name of “keeping the peace”—because any peace that lacks justice is merely a provisional cease-fire. It can never endure, because justice in the unfolding reign of God is inexorable. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “The time is always the right to do the right thing.”

What the Resolutions Do

In principle what the Indiana and Kentucky resolutions do is to return the responsibility for endorsing a candidate’s moral fitness back to local congregations. Instead of having a general directive at the regional level that prohibits certain categories of people, and which must be enforced by committees on ministry, these resolutions recognize that the people best situated to understand a candidate’s fitness for ministry reside within the communities from which the candidate’s come.

Determining moral fitness, under these resolutions, belongs in the hands of the people who know the candidate best, while discerning theological and professional readiness lies in the hands of the body responsible for determining whether a candidate demonstrates the gifts necessary for the task of ministry—that is, the regional committee on ministry, which acts as the professional credentialing body.

This move to return some responsibility for identifying qualified candidates for ministry to the congregations strikes me as an immanently Disciples’ thing to do. For the better part of Disciples’ history, ordination was reserved to the local congregation (and still is among the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ).

After 150 years of this arrangement, however, Disciples, rightly, I think, recognized that congregations didn’t have the resources to oversee the whole process of ordination. Leaving the oversight of professional guild credentialing to congregations was in many ways the same as leaving the licensing for physicians in the hands of the patients—there are some things about a trade that only a panel containing one’s peers is in a position to know.

On the other hand, these committees on ministry were placed in the dubious position of having to issue an endorsement of a candidate’s moral fitness without having much real life knowledge of the candidate’s moral makeup. They were being asked to vouch for a candidates integrity, often absent the necessary information to make such a judgment.

Moreover, after the General Assembly in Indianapolis in 2009 passed the Theological Foundations and Policies and Criteria for the Ordering of Ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), another complication was introduced to committees on ministry. In part, the new policy read: “God calls all persons to receive the good news of the Gospel and accept their call to be God’s people. The ministry of Christ is entrusted to all the people of God … and they are called to servant ministry lived out in covenant community” [emphasis mine].

What didn’t get stated in the new policy were clauses of exception; which is to say, the policy didn’t read: “The ministry of Christ is entrusted to all the people of God … except those disqualified for ministry because of their status as LGBTIQ people.” This new policy of the General Church, naming ministry as entrusted to all people wouldn’t be a problem, except that many regions had passed guidelines for regional committees on ministry back in the 1970s explicitly excluding LGBTIQ people.

Consequently, regional committees on ministry have been put in the morally untenable position of having to uphold two competing mandates for their work—general and regional. I say untenable because, morally many committees feel bound to uphold both. The only way to affirm all people as potential candidates for ministry, on one hand, while excluding a certain class of people, on the other, is to retain a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the issue of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is morally problematic for the committees, as well as the candidates. In the first instance, many committees shy away from ever taking responsibility for inquiring into the moral character of an otherwise suitable candidate, for fear that they will stumble across disqualifying information about a candidate’s orientation. In the second instance, candidates are prevented from the kind of self-revelation the ordination process ought ideally to foster, for fear of disqualifying themselves out of hand.

At the Heart of the Problem

Much of ministry, in my experience, centers on modeling the Christian life, on embodying for others what it looks like to follow Jesus. One of the problems that I think gets overlooked in all this talk about whether or not LGBTIQ people should be included in the ministry of the church is this: We already have many ministers who are LGBTIQ in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The problem is that we’re asking them to live dishonestly, to live as less then God created them.

Now, someone might respond by saying, “Well, if they’re LGBTIQ, they shouldn’t be serving at all.”

But they are, and they will. And many of them are some of the finest ministers we have. Unfortunately, we’re crippling them by not allowing them to share with us the breadth of their gifts and talents—a big part of which is their orientation and identity.

Again, someone might ask, “But how is their orientation or identity a gift?”

Though statistics on the percentage of LGBTIQ people are notoriously difficult to pin down, it is clear that they comprise a statistically significant portion of the population. That means that there are kids growing up LGBTIQ in our culture without benefit of what it might look like to be LGBTIQ and Christian.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15–24 year-olds. Those 15–24 year-olds who are LGBTIQ are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Part of the problem these young people face is the isolation, the belief that they have no supportive adults in their lives.

What if we had heroic ministers of integrity to whom we could bring our troubled youth and say, “I want them to meet you, because I want them to know this is possible for them to grow up to be good Christians—thanks to people like you?”

How many lives might we save if we celebrated the lives of integrity lived by ministers willing to share with us their various selves in all their fullness?

My prayer is that we ruin the days of enough LGBTIQ ministers that they can’t get out. We need them too badly.