The issue of sexual orientation has long divided many Christian denominations. Last month, a more conservative branch of the United Methodist Church, or UMC, officially launched. The separation was based primarily on the UMC’s ordination and marriage of people who are LGBTQ.
But those affiliated with the original denomination are also still struggling with those issues. Dallas’ Oak Lawn United Methodist Church is self-appointing two new LGBTQ-identifying pastors. It’s making that move after the bishop of North Texas rejected requests for their appointments.
The Rev. Rachel Baughman of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church and Associate Pastor Ryan Wager, who is one of the two pastors appointed by Oak Lawn, spoke with Texas Standard. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Reverend Baughman, did you get an explanation as to why your two associate pastors were denied appointments?
Rev. Rachel Baughman: We did not. They completed the full process required for licensing. So they’ve gone to a licensing school and been approved by the District Committee on Ministry and approved in the clergy session of the annual conference. However, we did get a call denying their appointment, and typically appointments are not guaranteed, of course, for licensed local pastors as they would be for elders. And so it’s not a requirement that they get an appointment. However, with an appointment available for them, a job ready and waiting for them, and a salary ready and waiting for them, I requested for them to be appointed at Oak Lawn. Doesn’t make sense to us for any reason other than the inability or unwillingness on the part of the bishop to appoint them there because they are gay and in long-term committed relationships.
Are you concerned that there might be some kind of disciplinary action from the mother church, as it were?
Baughman: There’s always that possibility that disciplinary actions can happen, and we have a process for that. That’s a formal complaint process. I’m not aware of any at the moment, but certainly appointments are acting outside of the agreement in the rubric of Discipline, of appointments being made only by the bishop. So I do not have the ecclesial authority to appoint these two individuals. And I will say that what we did was a recognition of their pastoral ministry at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church. It was my ability to take both what I’ve learned from the history of Wesleyanism and our Methodist tradition. As John Wesley himself, who was a founder of our denomination, seeing mission fields that needed a pastor and appointing them, even though he himself did not have the ecclesial authority to do so at the time.
We have places of ministry that need these two individuals as pastors. They’ve fully been approved by each step in the process, only then to be denied this appointment. And so, as an act of sacred resistance, this is an act of defying the direction of the bishop. And that’s where this could become something that I need to be concerned about in terms of punitive measures. But I truly hope that that’s not the case, because I do believe that we were acting on a moral authority, a responsibility that we have to be in ministry with God and God’s people in our own neighborhood.
Pastor Wager, as you were in the process of being appointed and the bishop denied your request and that of Isabel Marquez, can you tell us what you were going through, what your feelings were, your expectations were during that period?
Ryan Wager: Honestly, as Rachel mentioned, being affirmed throughout the whole process of going to school and being certified as a candidate for becoming a local pastor, I really didn’t equip myself well enough to not be appointed. And so there was some disappointment there, especially not hearing the real reason why. But I’m grateful that I was affirmed by the higher church throughout the process. But again, then not getting an appointment was a bit of a shock to us for pastor.
Tell me as much as you feel comfortable talking about, but I understand you’ve struggled for a while reconciling your faith and your identity. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Wager: I’ve been in this process for a long time and didn’t know until I was at Oak Lawn that there was going to be a place where I could do ministry and be openly gay at the same time. And so it’s been, as you mentioned, a long time coming. And I certainly feel affirmed by my church family and the church leaders here in Oak Lawn as a part of this process.
The UMC has been fighting a long battle over same-sex marriage issues. And recently some churches split into a new conservative denomination. How has that affected Oak Lawn?
Baughman: Well, the long-term process of going through this has affected Oak Lawn in a lot of ways over the course of their history. And it’s an interesting journey, largely to do with the time in history and what was going on around us in terms of, at times the AIDS epidemic and the ways that the gay community really grew in this area of Oak Lawn in Dallas and the church being situated really right there in the heart of that – a church that at times has been much more conservative. And so the transition and the evolution of where they’ve been over the course of history is a very interesting one.
I will say, though, however, as this new, more conservative denomination has formed, my hope, my expectation is that paves the way for people to make their way out of this denomination if they don’t feel this matches who they are. And to stay does not mean that you have to be progressive. To stay means that you’re open to all people being a part of this faith that we share together. I do believe that most of our conference, which is the North Texas annual conference, will continue to stay connected because our connectedness is what really makes us who we are as United Methodists, and that’s what we really value at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church is the ability to be a part of this connection with other churches, appreciating and loving the wholeness, the fullness of who God has created each of us to be while making room for everyone.
Pastor Wager, can you briefly tell us what made you want to become a pastor in the first place and what you’re looking forward to now that you’ve been appointed?
Wager: I want to become a pastor because I wanted folks to understand that if they are gay and they haven’t heard by church in the past, that they can find a church job and they can experience God in their life. They can have a place where they can come and worship and be in community with others that are like them. And that’s what I look forward to. That’s the thing that’s carrying me beyond this, is being excited about and being in ministry where folks like me that have experienced that and want to be a community. I want to get closer to God. So I’m really excited about that.
How has the congregation reacted to all this and to you?
Wager: With overwhelming love and unconditional support; it’s been truly fantastic.
Do you think that this experience that you and the church have been through informs your ministry in any way?
Wager: If anything, it’s fueled it. It’s created more passion. It’s created more desire to fulfill my call here in Oak Lawn – the ministry that I am so grateful to be in here at Oak Lawn, all the folks that that are in ministry with me and the love and affirmation that I felt from every single one of them has only fueled the passion of what I’m doing every day.