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Called. And Gay.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Kathryn Johnston

On a bright, cold Saturday in early January, the deacons and the session gathered for a combined meeting. The tradition is that as we worship together, the incoming class of officers share the faith journeys that led them to say ‘yes’ to the nominating committee. This is the culmination of their officer training.

As you can imagine, these testimonies cover a wide array of experiences and delivery styles. Most people speak with notes or at least an outline. Some have a fairly cut and dry story: grew up Presbyterian, stopped going to church in college, came back, now want to serve, glad that they can.

I recognize that story. I am that story. But five years ago, I thought that story was coming to an end.

Since high school I have been saying out loud: “God has called me to ministry.”  

Over five years ago I finally said out loud: “I am gay.”

These were two things that I did not think could be true at the same time. And yet, there I was, torn between wanting to resign from my position as senior pastor/head of staff to spare everyone, including myself, the pain of a coming out process; and knowing that running away from God’s call to serve this particular community, without them being a part of the discernment process, would not be faithful.

The coming out process began small – the chair of the staff committee, the clerk of session, two long time members of the congregation, and another ruling elder. I had two questions:

  1. What is best for the congregation?
  2. Where do we go from here?

They encouraged me to stay and we prayerfully and cautiously moved forward; session meetings featuring Bible studies and special speakers, congregational Q&A’s, and conversations with church members. Some of the things we did went well. Some of things we did – and didn’t do – could have been done better. After a few months, the session informed the congregation that they supported my call as senior pastor/head of staff. Some people applauded the decision, some left, and some people stayed even though they weren’t quite sure how they felt about it. I think all of us wondered, “Where do we go from here?”

It was hard to know what would come next for the congregation. The area of the country where the church is located is fairly conservative, with a general approach to controversial topics of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I held up what I thought was my end of the bargain. I didn’t seek out publicity. We just continued to do what God had called us to do: proclaim the love of Jesus Christ through worship and mission.

Of course, word did get around which resulted in more people leaving, but other people started coming. Some of them joined. One of those new members was at that January meeting this year. She stood up to give her testimony. She told us about being called to serve as a deacon at her former church. She told us about meeting her now wife, and how that meant she had to resign from being a deacon. Her eyes welled with tears.

I looked around the room through my own blurry vision. Everyone was transfixed as she shared what it was like to now be in a community of faith where the way she was fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image did not stand directly opposed to the call she felt to be a deacon.

Her testimony ended with thankfulness to those whose courageous decisions led to her not just being welcomed into the congregation, but also being eligible to serve. “Thank you,” she said, tears now streaming. The elders and deacons rose as one to embrace her, just as they had done with me five years earlier.

  1. What is best for the congregation? Keeping our minds and hearts open to who God is calling us to be.
  1. Where do we go from here? Anywhere God calls us, proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ.

Kathryn Johnston is pastor of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. A graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kathryn earned her M.Div. at Princeton Seminary. She and her wife have four children (3 ‘adulting’ out in the world, 1 in middle school), 2 cats and a lively lab mix named Teddy.

Papers, Colleagues and Christian Fellowship

By Kathryn Johnston

“I’m just here for the papers.”

papersI said that to my cohort group at one of our early gatherings. We began in 2008 based on an existing  model. A group of pastors from around the country gather together once a year bringing with them two papers each. These papers are based on the Sunday lectionary readings for the upcoming year. A finely tuned schedule through the week guides the group as the papers are presented and discussed in 20 minute segments with the benefit of everyone going home with a huge stash of resources for the upcoming preaching year.

But that’s not all…

Our group began with the instigators inviting one person each and then having that person invite someone else. I was on the outer layer of invitees and so when I arrived at our first gathering I knew only one person. That was hard. Our first evening together was spent at someone’s home and folks naturally split into those who knew one another from one seminary in the south in one room and folks who knew one another from another seminary in the south in another room. I was the only one from the seminary in the northeast.

It was awkward.

I didn’t blame them. We all know how much we miss those seminary connections once we get out into the cold, cruel world of ministry. The cohort group is a great way to have your continuing education budget legitimately pay for a reunion. And this group was incredibly welcoming. I remember how surprised I was when I had slept through dinner and everyone had made sure there was food left for me.

But still… the main reason we were together was to work on the lectionary texts for the upcoming year. And so as we were having one of our logistics meetings about where we would meet the following year and whether we should create more free time and who else should be invited to join us I found the opportunity to say, “I’m just here for the papers.”

And it’s true. The papers – the work – are both the ticket in every year and the glue that holds us together. But we are so much more. We sustain each other through the year in both the sacred and the profane. We create safe space for frustrations with the greater church, our individual churches, our communities and we create safe space for celebrations, too. We challenge one another, we question one another, we pray for one another, we support one another.

As for me, this group has been there through numerous family transitions including a divorce and remarriage. They have heard stories about my Dad and respected my tears when he died. They embraced me when I came out as gay and prayed and supported me when I came out to the congregation I serve. They rallied around this Session and congregation as we all moved forward together in ministry.

So yes, it is still about the papers. But it is also about camaraderie and collegiality; it is about the deep, rich relationship that comes in the walking through valleys and over mountaintops together; it is about the yoke of trust when we put our relationships above the Calls we are trying to discern often to the same churches.

It is about Christian fellowship and friendship in its purest and most Holy of forms – and I am blessed and a better person for it.

But I still want the papers.

—–

head shotKathryn Johnston is the Senior Pastor at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania. She is a member of The Well cohort group and would write more, but she has to go write her papers.

photo credit: notashamed via photopin cc

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