Wendy then read this passionate letter from Emily Swan in Michigan:
I grew up in the Vineyard movement in the state of Indiana. My family was really involved in the church, so Vineyard imprinted on my spiritual formation at a critical development point in my life. That community cultivated a space where I felt like I belonged.
I loved everything about church—the music, the friendships, and the deep connection with Jesus that community nurtured in me. I loved church so much that I remember sitting in the back row with my friends one Sunday thinking, “If I could serve God the rest of my life in some kind of vocational capacity, that would make me happy.”
But I couldn’t imagine being a pastor, because I’m female. My naïve response to that thought was, “I should become a pastor’s wife.” It perplexes me now that the thought, “I should become a pastor’s wife,” didn’t cause me to question my religious framework. But, by repressing my desire to lead, I still had a way to fit in with my church group. It meant diminishing the fullness of my personal gifts and desires, but the pull of group acceptance was so strong—the good I felt I received from those bonds so powerful—that I let it dictate my life choices. In essence, I accepted a limited form of belonging because it allowed me to stay fully connected to my faith community.
At the age of 30 I let myself say I’m gay out loud for the first time. I’d had loads of practice repressing feelings for the sake of social belonging, but this one finally bubbled up in a way I couldn’t deny. And I was scared. Here, once again, a part of my being threatened my group standing—potentially in my family (though it turned out they were great), in my social circles, in my faith community, and vocationally. By that time I was living overseas, serving as a missionary and was the “international pastor” for a Vineyard church in Michigan. I knew coming out would potentially cost me everything. So I did nothing. For several years, I did nothing—until that became impossible.
During those years of knowing I was gay but feeling too afraid to come out, I searched for theological voices who might understand my predicament. I started tracking down writers who were not part of the elite white straight male Western academy, who might understand the dynamic of having an essential part of yourself be seen as problematic. In my quest I found the company of the marginalized—people crying out for justice, demanding dignity for their full humanity, and imagining a world where we accept and love others unconditionally. Among those voices I found a couple of books written by LGBTQ+ Christians, which gave me strength to own my story in the same way they’d learned to own theirs. (There were very few books available then. My wife, Rachel Murr, wrote the first memoir by a queer woman in an evangelical setting in the U.S. She presented an early version of that book to the Society of Vineyard Scholars.)
I’ve never felt Jesus so near as I did in those years. I’ve never heard God’s voice so clearly as I did in the time between coming out to myself and being fired. It was the voice of the comforter—the voice of the Advocate. Jesus assured me of God’s presence as my (now) co-pastor Ken Wilson and I walked our path of suffering, placing our hope in the vindicating power of a resurrection God.
In the end, I was the community sacrifice—the scapegoat onto which the entire denomination projected its anxieties about gender, sex, sexuality, biblicism, feminism, etc. Looking back, that system groomed me to be abused from childhood. Vineyard prepared me to be the sacrificial scapegoat by systematically telling me I had to repress parts of myself in order to truly belong. When I hear people refer to the Vineyard as a “tribe,” I cringe. I’m now more careful when I talk about church groups—I talk about being “part of” a church rather than “belonging to” a church—because when you belong to others they feel entitled to harm you.
I don’t like feeling like I need to find positive meaning in my Vineyard experience because, in the end, I carried the shame and sin of that group. It was a burden no “child of the Vineyard” should ever have been asked to carry. It was worse than you know, and worse than you can imagine. Faith leaders like to gloss over the gory details culminating in a bloody slaughter. No national leaders ever even asked to hear my story. I was publicly outed. Literally thousands of people knew about my relationship with Rachel before I’d had a chance to talk with extended family. I endured months of public deliberations over my body and my relationship. If I hadn’t had Rachel by my side, I likely would have taken my own life. It’s taken me five years of trauma therapy and the healing power of a truly safe church that Ken and I planted together for me to say, “I’m healed.” I am. I’m happier than I’ve ever been and I would never, ever go back to being in the closet.
That said, I so often to say to LGBTQ+ people that the healthy response for them when faced with a church “in transition” is to leave. They should leave. Make no mistake, you’re still not fully safe for LGBTQ+ people, even with your new affirming stance. You might think you are, but you’re not.
Even with me being an out, married, queer pastor, I can’t tell you the number of queer people who find it difficult to come through the doors of our church for the first time. One man showed up three Sundays in a row and sat, crying, in his car and couldn’t come in. Another woman came in and had a panic attack. Rachel and I are pretty affectionate naturally, but we try to be deliberate to sit in the front row and show affection—hug, hold hands, put an arm around each other—every week … to show queer people they really are safe to drop their guard. Literally every week I meet new queer people who are scared to be at church. But since you don’t have a queer pastor, don’t expect to have a lot of queer visitors. The damage is so deep that no matter who you are and what you say, it won’t be safe enough.
Your next steps?
- Hire a queer pastor.
- Listen to queer voice—REALLY listen and learn and implement changes. I was talking with a bisexual woman just this morning who said her company (the YMCA) claims it values diverse voices, but when she said she didn’t think they should be partnering with non-affirming churches because it was unsafe for her and others like her (not to mention the kids in the program), they minimized her words and forged ahead. A lot of churches and organizations say they want to hear queer people, but may not want to respond when things are uncomfortable or costly.
- Fully cut your ties to the Vineyard and other non-affirming spaces. For the sake of your queer congregants. Don’t sing their music. Don’t recommend their conferences. Don’t reference their books. Do not join another denomination or network that is not fully affirming—and by fully, I mean across the board, not on a church-by-church basis. I’m personally affiliating with The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM) in the United States. I wholeheartedly recommend Generous Space in Canada!
- Train your straight allies to advocate in places that are not safe for your queer congregants. Train them to call out the “let’s just agree to disagree and bless each other” B.S. For there to ever be justice and reconciliation, you have to name the harm done and the person doing the harm needs to own it, repent, and change their ways. It does no good for the Good Realm of God when we gloss over naming the harm done and demanding an apology, reparations, and etc. You need to protect your queer congregants from spaces where their gender and/or sexuality is up for debate. God knows they’ve endured enough of that already with your long exit from the Vineyard movement.
- Read the book Ken and I wrote, Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance. I don’t usually tout my own work, but you’re Vineyard, and you will particularly understand the theology. I talk about the danger of not naming the harm in part 2.
Finally, I don’t mean this letter to sound harsh. Only firm. It’s still far too difficult for me to spend much time thinking about how I’m writing this or the tone I use. Marginalized people will often sound (rightly) angry and sad and heartbroken. I’m actually immensely proud of your congregation. I know it’s difficult to break from the hold of a denomination. I know there are relationships lost, assets forfeited, and there’s dissipated influence. But we empty ourselves of our privilege—counting it all as loss—when we take up our cross and share the burden of the oppressed. It is our very gospel calling—following Jesus faithfully is what is at stake. And our reward is knowing we serve a risen Savior who will bless our path and vindicate our Good News.
My church, Blue Ocean Church Ann Arbor, sends you warm greetings. Many of our congregants “joined” your church online. We are your friends and we’ll pray for your church in our “prayers of the people” each week. Feel free to use us as a resource.
And thank you.
Thank you for standing with people like me.
You’re creating a truly safe space, and it is the kind of witness that will stand.
May the Spirit be with you.
Rev. Emily Swan