Day 7: Cardinals, Cacophony and Clarity

Pride month (and the ubiquitous Facebook Pride flag) ended yesterday. Today is my wedding anniversary, a wedding that had to be held in exile, a wedding that was both celebrated by my church community and yet defined the first step out.  A wedding for a marriage that is gift beyond imagining, true love, life shared. The confluence of emotions is pretty overwhelming this week.

As I consider what might be a helpful foci for our community this month, I’m struck that for St. Louis peeps there is very practical work to be done. Our beloved Cardinals have stepped into the culture wars suggested that one can be either Christian (which, based on their planned celebration, is anti-LGBTQIA) *or* one can have Pride (embracing LGBTQIA); not both and not together. In an attempt to appease the Cardinal’s have announced separate nights for each, exactly one month apart. Really.

To the most obvious point, neutrality: it doesn’t exist. Neutrality is passivity in the face of conflict with implied loyalty to the victor; it is silent acquiescence with the oppressor. If you’re struggling for breath, neutrality is never your ally.

The more troubling issue, for me, is the bifurcation. Sure, the liberals will come one night and the conservatives another (these labels are just so wrong on so many levels). But where does it leave any of us who are unabashedly queer but still dare to believe Jesus about god? Once more we assured that our only rightful place is outside of church.

I’ve read several folks, many hetero, celebrate the announced Pride night at the Cardinals. Please don’t. While a clear victory for the gay-hating Christians, this “pride” night is not a win for any of us who are queer. This is a bone thrown to keep us quiet and away from the precious Christian folk who will gather on July 30 and hear Lance Baker spew hate.

Make no mistake, the Cardinals version of Christianity leaves all of us who are LGBTQIA remembering why we are not in pews this weekend. Church folk who might be following (are there any hetero STL church peeps reading?),  I am hoping that you will respond. The Cardinal’s are defining Christianity as anti-queer. Is this what you believe? And if not, what are you doing to set the record straight? Your hetero silence or (worse) celebration of the bone (Pride night) only confirms our worst fears.

For today, drinking a second cup of coffee on this 7th day of being 55, I’m struck that there are things that I can let go. The Cardinals for one. The church for another; not my faith, but (with a few claw marks) the institution and (with a few more claw marks) even the ritual. But what I won’t relinquish is my right to marry the one whom I love; to share life, passion, and resources with the spouse of my choosing.  Profoundly grateful for the gift of my wife, our marriage, and the life we share together, I recognize the rest as dross.

In the midst of the cacophony, I hear the voice of my beloved.
And it is very good.


The Curse of Belonging (and the Invitation to Pride)

I miss the affirmation of belonging that I felt at church. A random Facebook post this morning with a church-familiar phrase evokes profound longing to sit again at the table. And little wonder for by the time it wasn’t, church was the one place in the whole world where I felt safest, most assured that my most authentic self was valued and valuable. Most being the key word for truly every relationship has limitations and one that is both voluntary and employment is necessarily fraught. Now far from the church with the early summer combination of family gatherings, anniversaries, and time to process, I find myself trying to make sense of tables and belonging.

For the weekend I was immersed again in church and family (the origin kind). Time and distance offer perspective and different this time is the view of the systems. In particular I find myself watching patriarchy play and (more importantly) consider the seat in which I used to sit. I begin to get more honest about my role in that place, my privilege but too my culpability. While considering my own loss and gain, I begin to see how my individual choices affected those not similarly privileged. We are individuals, we are also in community. And our choices have consequences that ripple.

Keenly I am aware that though I feel the loss of place, the sense of belonging was always tenuous and conditional. Unspoken were a host of expectations, silent rules being all the more binding. Nice is the one with which I most commonly tangle these days, but looking more closely I see and feel so much more.

To be clear, the benefits from having a place are extraordinary, perhaps most clearly assessed in their loss. But as I survey the ruthless political landscape upon which we find ourselves in this patriarchal season, I wonder at the cost. The pageantry of the church is unquestionable beautiful when done well, but I am keenly aware that simultaneous to the beauty is a concurrent gala in D.C.(Road to Majority) featuring law makers intent on legislating away what limited rights women and queer folk have managed to garner. More locally the Cardinal’s announced that this week that they will celebrate Christian night at the ballpark featuring a notoriously anti-gay (Christian) spokesperson
. The cost of the patriarchy is death to those who resist. All the while none of the hard won rights were ever fully extended beyond whiteness, whiteness the unspoken system dominating the scene. What if I dared to trouble the whiteness in my life?

Strangely I find myself drawn to the quirky teachings of the Apostle Paul in this season of my life, he who tried to make sense with and for those pesky Jesus followers who were not Jewish. These “gentiles” were Roman citizens who had a place at an albeit different table; a place of privilege and belonging in a cruelly divided world. Unlike the Jews already outcasts in the Roman patronage game, the gentiles faced a host of different choices in daring to believe Jesus about God. In a world not unlike our own, Paul challenged the gentiles to let go of their privilege in order to find new life. He talked about salvation, safety, as believers dared to step away from what was known and familiar and (yes) legal into a world which was visibly tenuous.

In this season of life, away from the familiar tables, I wonder anew about Paul’s message and the veracity of his promise. The truth will set us free, he promised in a sometimes shrill and often foibled voice. The previous divisions (jew and greek, male and female, slave and free) no longer have a place; the binaries are out, we are one in the body. An ultimate message of unity. Maybe so. The irony that invitation is made visible apart from the table doesn’t escape me on this quiet summer morning. And I wonder what Paul would have to say about all of that. I’ll add it to a list of my questions for the salty saint.

In the meantime, I hold the wheat as the chaff falls away. Worthy is embracing our truest selves seen most honestly in contrast with the systems that would define us. I consider the power of Stonewall and the early Pride celebrations with the daring displays of patriarchy-denying selfhood shared in community. At its inception, Pride was the creation of new table of belonging. The incorporation of Pride has domesticated the wonderment and brought the celebration into mainstream acceptance leaving many of us wistful for the true if limited rough edges before Pride was considered a profitable commodity.
From these ancestors too I find encouragement to step onto the road less traveled. Here, on this road with brambles and without fanfare, I can rediscover the self that is true and companions worthy of the work.


Rainbow Pride and the Power of Symbols

Rainbows were popular when I was a kid and, like every wanna be cool kid in the late ’70s, I had my very own pair of rainbow suspenders. Pushing back the curtains of memory, I’m pretty sure I had mine before Mork’s was famous. But truth be told, the memories get mushed. Clear is the memory of the rainbow again a few years later, when I was a young adult in Wisconsin campaigning for Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. Rainbows meant happy inclusion, promise of new life, good stuff.

Hard as I push through the memories, I can’t find a single one from that era that links rainbows and gay pride. In retrospect, I can make the connections and tell the stories. But in the late 1970s when I was a teen (and even into the early 80s as I was coming of age), gay and pride were never heard in the same sentence. Rainbows were still more about unicorns and Care Bears than calls to action for justice.

Unbeknownst to the youth in southern Michigan, Gilbert Baker was about to change all the rainbow symbolism for the coming generations. An impromptu sewing project for a San Francisco rally produced the now iconic rainbow flag, the symbol for LGBTQ pride. Baker died yesterday, just 65 years old. But his legacy, if not his name, is emblazoned in our cultural imagination. And his legacy lives.

I find myself wondering about the power of accessible symbols, how my own journey into and back out of the closet may have been shaped by the absence. I notice that, having watched Kaepernick first kneel and then remain kneeling even under immense pressure, many of my students made visible choices to opt out of the once-requisite Pledge of Allegiance. Role models, symbols, touch stones are life giving as we find the path that is ours in this world. Even more so the presence of symbols are invaluable when our path diverges from what is considered normative.

Admittedly the rainbow is kitsch. Proudly I remember the “Rainbow Fish Tree” that we designed at church in the aftermath of Matthew Sheppard’s murder.  The tree was simply an emptied Christmas tree, topped with a Rainbow Fish, and weekly filled with ribbons expressing the gathered community’s commitment to seeking justice. It was the same tree on which we later placed sponges when James Dobson went to President Bush’s second inauguration and attempt to gay-shame Sponge Bob. (This landed our two minutes of fame on (then) Olberman’s Count-Down show, another fun memory.) Every year we conversed about the Epiphany tradition with a mixture of humor and pride, ’cause it was definitely ugly-cute. As I think today about Gilbert Baker and the enduring legacy of the rainbow flag, I wonder how the presence of the Rainbow Fish Tree informed the hearts and minds of the children in our community. I have to believe that the quirky symbol was empowering as it stretched imaginations and engendered conversations.

The challenge with symbols, of course, is that we can’t control how the message lands in every heart. Nowhere is this truer than with the now familiar #BlackLivesMatter yard signs. When we lived in almost-all-white-Dogtown, we  proudly kept one in our yard. But I’ve had several Black friends and colleagues express displeasure with the sign. True is that every one of us encounters the symbol uniquely as we bring our biases and experiences. Also true is that the bearer of the #BLM sign has displayed a conscious intention to make public a commitment to justice. And that symbolic statement is substantive.

Growing up in southern Michigan in the 70s meant that there were few, if any, visible symbols to claim the not-mainstream path that is mine. But as I remember Gilbert Baker today and push back the curtains of memories, I remember raised fists. Remembering Black power fists and feminist fists, I realize the significance of the Ferguson fist print now hanging on our wall. Symbols matter.

Today I see rainbows and I feel empowered to live the life that is mine, married with a woman and together fighting for justice. Today I light a candle for Gilbert Baker and the saints who made this day possible.

Church Shopping Begins: Not White, Gay Friendly, Theologically Past Liberal

Today I find myself at a bend in the river that I didn’t see coming.

Our lives were blessed last week with two very precious daughters ages 9 and 10.  For the past year we’ve been planning, taking classes and filling out paper work to become foster parents. And then we waited. When we got the call that Niah and Nae would be coming to live with us, it happened so suddenly that we are still catching our breath.

For one thing, we assumed that our children would be boys. The initial false-start calls had been about boys, white boys. It is mostly boys that are in the system. When we got the call about girls, we were both surprised and delighted.

For another thing, as is often the case in foster care, the children were forced to move without time to gather their belongings. The move for children means a total loss of everything material, and a scramble for the new family to build a wardrobe and the rudimentary trappings of life.

The most surprising piece for me, however, is how protective I suddenly feel for two young African American girls pulled from a world of extended family and tossed into a sea of well intentioned white folk. Social worker, therapist, school principal, and moms – all white women. Everyone is working together and truly impressive in their intention and commitment, but at the end of the day, we bring what we have and I fear that we’re missing a major piece.

As I stood in line with the girls at one of our family’s favorite haunts, Ted Drewes, I experienced in a new way the almost total whiteness of the crowd.  Reminiscent of my coming out experience, I was nonetheless surprised by the experience of otherness. For me, this is an experience that I sought and for which I prepared, for our girls it is not. I looked into their faces expecting to see delight as we partook of the treasured frozen custard, instead I saw distress and heard, “Can we eat this in the car?”

Safely in the car with my dear one in charge of music, the car rocked with girl power dancing and I knew. We need to find at least one community where faces of color are dominant and strong black women are smiling back into the faces of these precious children. But where? I am theological past liberal, having dispensed with the trinity and holding my own with the Friends (Quakers) probably because there are so few words. I suspect my theological qualms are more problematic even than our two-mom family configuration. Nonetheless, I need to swallow my theological attitude and find a church where we can dance as the children (and spirit) lead us.

I posted my query in Facebook: Need to find: racially diverse (not-white), gay friendly, theologically *very* liberal church in St. Louis. Recommendations?

The answers were heartfelt and precious, but illuminating. Several folk recommended a number of really wonderful United Methodist communities.  I think in every case, the churches are pastored by white clergy and in no case are these clergy allowed to honor our family. UMC clergy who dare to preside at same-gender marriages are actually charged and even dismissed from the ranks. While it is heartening to hear of local communities who stand in welcome, I have no desire to participate in an institution that is struggling to see me as fully human.

One friend pointed out the prophetic nature of the query and I pause to consider. Maybe so.

Or maybe it is time to turn the prism. If what our family needs is a place of gathering not headed by white folk, this white woman needs to stop pushing against the current and flow with the river around this bend.

In fairness, the biblical narrative sounds different when preached from a place of oppression. The story was written by and for oppressed communities as a word of both of hope but also of resistance.  Though I had wearied of the story preached from within the affluence of the ‘burbs, I was moved by it’s power in response to the modern passion of Trayvon Martin. Quite frankly, who we are dramatically changes the words we share, regardless of our intent. And today we need to find a not-white preacher.

The girls told me what clothing they needed and I ran around yesterday to find it. This morning we’ll start the arduous but important journey that so many families have faced: church shopping. We’ll start with a United Church of Christ community led by an African American, there are (I think) three in our metro area.

And I’ll watch the girls feet to see if they dance as I learn to follow.

For International Women’s Day: I am here

Today I’ve had the delightful privilege of being the wife.  My beloved is presenting a paper at a conference and I’m in the cheering section.  As I sit in the rooms and listen to the banter, I realize that I’ve been here many times but never in this seat.

I’ve been the participant at many conferences.  Some of my favorite were the women-church events organized by a cadre of ecumenical women in Minneapolis before the turn of the millineum.  These were church conferences where the women were daring to step aside from the learned patriarchy and practice a different way of being church.  Called “Reimaging”, these conference actually re-embodied a way of spiritual encounter and were filled with lively of music and the words of Barbara Lundbald, Mary Daly, Rita Nakishima Brock, Thandeka, Rebecca Walker and so many more.

These were professional conferences more than academic, and as I was taking in this morning’s context I had a shard of memory from a more similar context that is still sharp.  The time is my middle 30’s, I am new in St. Louis and have had the heady experience of reimersion in academic study.  Infatuated with the feminist-womanist professor, I have written a worthy course paper and now been asked to present the work at a regional conference of religious academics.  My then-husband and children are in tow and at dissonance with the unexamined feelings that I have for my professor/mentor.  I remember little of the presentation, save that it was anti-climatic.  What I remember is the smile of my professor, the place that stirred within me as we shared passion around ideas.  It would be years before I could name the love that was in those days new and innocent; years and distance and broken relationships.

To be sitting beside my beloved as she prepares to present is a new and otherwise innocent enterprise. Today there is no anxiety, no unbidden and intentionally unexamined emotion, no professional angst.  This role of observer is a privileged one, to experience the challenge of academic conversation without expectation to perform or achieve is precious.

To be here on behalf of my beloved is an even more profound privilege that I could not have imagined in my earlier incarnations.  She, of course, has the full range of anxious emotions but mine today are simple.  Mine are pride and delight.  My beloved is a scholar, often self-effacing but always intentional with a razor’s edge for justice.  She has been using the master’s tool to dismantle the master’s house (see: Audre Lorde), this particular paper looking at the myth of ability.  While her field is not mine, I share her passions and value the importance of her work.  It is a delight to watch her shine.

I take a break in the lobby, reveling in the warmth of the early March sun, and ponder the emotions that are mine this day. In this moment I realize that I am here. I am in the place for which I’ve spent my life preparing.  This isn’t a place defined by  job or title or pedigree. This is a place of peace, of groundedness, of relatedness. I am in the moment and it is so very good. To be sure there are questions still before me, business that awaits. But it isn’t today’s.

International Women’s Day – Mango

At peace in the moment, I realize that today is International Women’s Day.  On this day I pause to note that it is in our being, as well as in our doing, we are rising.

Thin Places: Between Heaven and Hell

Expectant mothers take note: People may tell you that you will forget the pain of childbirth as soon as you behold the wonder of your newborn, they lie. The fruit of my womb are now both consenting adults and I love them dearly, but I have never forgotten the near-death place that I visited as they entered this world. While I am the first to note the benefits of natural childbirth’s spiritual odyssey, I am forever changed by the experience. Associated words, for example, have been completely redefined.

Last night a friend suggested that I write about transition, specifically, she noted, about transition from the perspective of mid-life women making substantive life changes. As I embody my 50th year and listen to the stories of those who sit beside me and those who go before me, I realize that my own (albeit distinct) transitions are hardly unique. We who are blessed to find ourselves in health and in the moment at midlife are mostly likely to be experiencing transition. Marriages or professional identities may be traded in or redefined as the work of raising children is now quiet and our focus returns to the callings that often lie deep within. Although the changes that have cavorted in my life seem monumental, I am humbled always to learn that when we share our stories we see ourselves in one another. The conversation was empowering and I was eager to sit at the keyboard this morning and ponder the implications of transition with gray hair and growing wisdom.

“TRANSITION” by Suzanne Cheryl Gardner

But as I sit with the word ‘transition’ this morning I feel primal fear more clearly than empowerment.  As I consider the action behind the event, I am once again 29 and terrified as my body begins to turn (quite literally) inside out in order to push a baby into life. Transition is that place of death that a laboring woman touches between the sustainable birth pangs of Hollywood fame and those that are not humanly endurable; it is that place where the internal organs that have not already moved aside are compressed and the body begins to convulse. If one is awake to take not of this place, it is only to wonder if one is still alive. Transition is hell.

As I consider the prolonged labor and final spasm of transition that brought me to this current place of new life, the parallels are uncanny and so too the promise.  A seed doesn’t emerge as new stalk without first dying, splitting open, and experiencing total (wrenching) transformation.  And perhaps we should expect no less.

For women, especially for women who turned to mind numbing substances in adolescence, there is a very real way in which our spirits were put on ice just prior to our emergence.  We were forced to make choices between authenticity and cultural norms, choices that pitted identity against itself.  Whether the wounds were inflicted with bodies or words or innuendos, the resulting loss of self was similar.  For far too many of us, the woman who emerged was only a partial self.  More like cryogenics than still birth, what we discover in midlife is that we can return to these forgotten bits of self and reclaim them.  As we reassemble the pieces of our soul that we’ve repressed along the way, the seed of self is nurtured into stunning new growth. But like the seed breaking open deep underground, the transitions in our lives will introduce searing pain before the stalk emerges.

The inside out promise, of course, is that if we allow ourselves to be broken open, new life will emerge from the deepest fissures.  This is the lesson of our bodies and the earth itself, it is true also of our spirits. As I sit at the keyboard this morning I realize that my shoulders are no longer hunched into my neck and I type with a smile from within meeting the sun on my face, I realize that (at least for today) I’ve passed through the place near death.  The birthing is not yet over, no doubt there is pushing still to come.  But I’ll save the challenge of that metaphor for another day.

unknown 2

On Friday at 5pm I received a phone call from a school principal asking if I would be available and willing to accept a long term sub position in a math classroom beginning on Monday. Explaining a prior commitment on Monday and offering to come on Tuesday, she asked if I could come after my Monday commitment and meet with a lead teacher and the area-related assistant principal. In agreement, we then talked a bit about the particular situation and I spent the weekend emotionally preparing to step into a difficult classroom. When I arrived on Monday afternoon, the plan had apparently changed. What transpired was a traditional interview with the assistant principal who was polite but not enthusiastic. No longer were they asking me to step into the classroom as a long term sub, in fact they are now interviewing “several” candidates and it’s unclear if they are hiring a sub or a contract teacher. What was clear was only that my questions were making an uncomfortable situation more so. Leaving, I heard the obligatory, “We’ll be in touch,” and knew that the job had evaporated.

What changed over the weekend?

Perhaps the teaching staff asked for a say in the hiring, perhaps the superintendent withdraw the principal’s authority, perhaps the principal simply changed her mind. Or perhaps someone googled my name or reviewed my Facebook entries (before I shut them down on Sunday afternoon) and discovered that I am a woman married to a woman with a very public past. And here’s the part that I will now learn to live with: I will never know.

pic from: Dyke Galore
If the game changer was the discovery of my identity, I can (at least intellectually) affirm that this outcome is for the best. While I have no intention of wearing a billboard and I do truly look forward to having privacy between my personal and professional life (hence the Facebook shift), I also have no intention of denying my identity. And while it is a bit startling to discover that one quick Google search pretty much shares my story, I’m mostly ok with it. Authenticity is a most precious place to stand, and I don’t intend to willingly stand elsewhere.

But I would like to know.

Because not knowing, I am left to assume. And given the ego-centric nature of our assumptions combined with the fault lines of our culture wars, I’m suspicious that my public persona has torpedoed this new attempt at private life. Of course the statement is hyperbole and worse, uncertain. Certainly it would be helpful to know if the reasons for the shifting job-sands were unrelated to me. Conversely I have to imagine that if this was a situation of discrimination, it would be helpful to know so. But of course I can’t know whether knowing would be advantageous.

Yesterday I wrote about not knowing the unknown which was perversely prescient.

new sounds

This morning my normally quiet home is filled with five college freshman on a weekend break. I’m listening as they share their morning coffee generously laden with laughter and possibility.  These are my youngest offspring’s friends and I am trying to do background preparations and step aside, allowing him to handle the hosting.  As they sit for breakfast, I hear them practicing adulthood and I smile.

The journey in recent years with this youngest offspring have been particularly difficult.  A mother coming out, moving out, and living out were all apparently difficult for a young male coming of age. Although I might do things differently today, I can honestly say that at each turn in the road I made the best choices I could with the information that was mine at the time. Gradually I come to see that my best was still at odds with his felt needs and respect that his anger is genuine and his own.  All the more it is good to see him happy with friends, even as I feel my own tentativeness in the circle.

Already this morning he and I had a difficult conversation about a past chapter. As we dance around the forbidden topics, I am aware that the pile is large.  Most of the discard topics have to do with issues related to my being a woman married to a woman and the (lack of) acceptance we have encountered.  His position is to suggest that offense taken isn’t necessarily given and perhaps he is correct.  My position is that it is not his place to pass judgement on my experience. At this point we agree to disagree.

What is also true is that he touches the Achilles heel of my pain, and I’m not really sure what it all means. A part of me genuinely wishes that I could have kept his family of origin in one house for at least a few more years or maybe a lifetime.  A bigger part of me is so incredibly relieved to be free of the charade that was literally killing me.  Another part of me realizes that had I found the courage sooner, the hurt to my children might have been less though other costs would have been greater.  At any point along the way I might have found voice and claimed the me that is true, and I wonder if it might have been easier for any of us.

Often I wonder about some of the early turns not taken.  As my offspring reached the end of their preschool years and the sleep deprived haze of motherhood lifted, I sought a counselor who “was knowledgable about same-gender orientation”.  (The one I was assigned, at the church supported agency, was unfortunately not experienced or knowledgeable.)  Had I found the courage in these early years of their lives to speak and act my truth, my career in the church would have ended quite abruptly.  My fears as a primary provider trumped my need for authenticity and I buried the call in my work.

Several years later I was confronted with my first unmistakable experience of same-gender attraction, an experience which was totally unwelcome and opened a floodgate of emotion.  Here I knew my identity, but again the timing was all wrong.  The children were in elementary in those years, I was still the primary source of their financial support, and the church in no way able to accept my truth.  Again I was faced with survival choices and again I opted to defect in place, to bury and deny, and (of course) drink more.

By the time that I finally made the leap out of the closet, survival required authenticity and finally trumped employability. And as is my custom, I convinced myself of a scenario that must might work for everyone. The children were now teens and the church was pretty much integrated around orientation, so I blithely assumed that everyone was finally stable enough for me to claim my truth. A lesbian pastor mom shouldn’t be a leap, at least this is what I told myself at the time.

But let’s face it.  Despite the dramatic shifts in acceptance of the LGBT community, we are still a legally oppressed minority.  In most municipalities in America, it is still perfectly legal (and in some places socially acceptable) to deny service to same-gender couples.  So when I expect to find the same respect with my wife as I had enjoyed with my husband, I am often disappointed.  Worse, those who would claim to be allies suggest that I am being overly sensitive.  Having walked hand in hand with spouses of both genders on the same sidewalks, I would simply point out that my personal experience, though limited, is clear.

More painful than my miscalculation about the acceptance of tertiary relationships was that of primary and secondary ones; my family and my church.  Although both are outwardly very accepting and want to be seen and known as embracing, the more difficult truth is that in both venues I make some people very uncomfortable.

My heartfelt hope is that in letting go of the church relationships, the familial relationships can have space and time to heal. Having my youngest home for the weekend brings it all to the fore.  They are delightful young adults and I’m enjoying their banter.  But my “hiding” at the computer isn’t totally accidental as I seek a safe space to process the complicated emotions that surface.  To be sure it is well worth the emotions to be able to watch him engaged with his friends.  Mostly I am amazed that the loss of my job means that I shopped at Aldi’s for supplies but have the gift of time to cook and host.  The tradeoff is worth it.

As I watch this new generation reach for their truth, I realize that they have access unimaginable in my day and yet at the same time new barriers.  For them, as for me, the ongoing challenge is to balance the external sounds with those that come for a quiet place deep within.

outside the circle

Like almost everyone I know I have a complicated relationship with my family of origin.  Some seasons are easier than others and sometimes blood thickens, but most often it is every bit as fluid as water.  Long before my coming out, family was complicated and at times I envied my out-lesbian friends for the ‘families of choice’ that seemed so appealing from afar.  As I moved through the gut wrenching process of naming my own truth and the messiness of a public outing and divorce, I too discovered an emerging family of choice, my church family.

To be sure my church family had been a family of choice for many years, but in the process of setting aside all that I had cherished, the precious nature of these relationships grew in powerful ways.  These were the women and men who knew and loved me through thick and thin, who loved the mirage of the straight me and dared to embrace the more authentic lesbian me.  I felt grateful that my church family had bucked expectations and stood beside me each step of the way.  Moved by my personal experience of embrace, my preaching and outreach had renewed passion.  All women and men need and deserve the kind of family that I experienced with my church family.

All of this is true, except that it is only a partial truth.

The harder part is that as a pastor I am not one among many but literally the hired help.  While the love and relationships are real and authentic, the relationship is also a professional and contractual one.  One immutable part of the contract is that if/when I cease to be the hired professional, I must immediately and absolutely relinquish all engagement with the community.  In other words, given the embrace of my church community as family, leaving the employment means losing my family.

On days that my frustration with the community is great, I take this bitter pill without even much of a chaser.  But I confess that on most days, I have trouble getting this one down.

As I sit with the grief of losing not only my employment and my social life but also deep friendships with people that I love, I find myself eye to eye with a fatal institutional flaw. The pastor who labors at the center of the community building is definitionally not a member of the community.  The health and growth of the community depends upon the pastor appearing to be at one with the community but in actuality the pastor must always remaining apart.

Clergy are advised, of course, to find friends (and families of choice) outside their local congregations, with colleagues or other community circles.  Good advice, to be sure, but difficult to juggle with a profession that taps one’s social energy in the effort of community building.  Except for the most extroverted of souls, there is scant social energy to be had outside of the demands of local church. As I’ve listened to colleagues, I don’t gather that I am any more or less attached to my church community than the average clergy person.  Given the length of my years in this one place (more than 15) and the tremendous life changes I’d weathered in the context, the bonds may be particularly strong but such is the nature of the occupation.

The pain of this departure for me is in part my hubris in believing that I was the exception.  I am not.

Facing this shadow of the clergy profession, I am loath to join another church even as a not-clergy person.  Although as a not-clergy person, I could (finally) have family of choice that is not employment dependent, my membership would be supporting an institution that asks for the hearts of its professional leaders while not accepting them as equal members at the table.  Recently I considered attending a local church whose mission I appreciate and for whose pastor I have deep respect.  But as I considered visiting this church, I realized that were the pastor to become family for me, when she retires I would lose yet another family member.  And worse, I would be asking her to stand alongside my family but by definition I can never do the same for her.  Our relative roles keep us apart.

As I grieve the loss of my church family, it is my heartfelt wish that they will continue to find new and vibrant life together.  But I am keenly aware that as they gather to sing, I move in a different direction.  Painful though this parting is proving to be, I am grateful, oh so very grateful, that one dear (former) member of this church is now my wife.  Together we begin our new family of choice.