United Methodists will gather in St. Louis next month to decide whether the global denomination will split over full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. As the bishop overseeing 450 churches in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska, I am deeply committed to working for unity in the church and opening the church to full inclusion. Let me share how I began my personal walk with Jesus and his LGBTQ followers.
It was 1971 and I was a senior at Bellevue High School (go Wolverines!). It was two years after the Stonewall Uprising which protested a police raid at a gay bar in Greenwich Village and marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement in America. But I didn’t know anything about that. It was a year before the United Methodist Church’s highest legislative body would adopt language stating that it considers the “practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.”
I was just an awkwardly tall, unusually curious teenager. I served the church in a number of ways as a youth leader. As I got to know other youth from many backgrounds, life experiences, races and cultures, my horizons expanded quickly, and my faith was tested and stretched in a thousand ways. I never felt far from God during these years. I never felt I was being pulled away from faith.
One day I was on the phone talking to a 16-year-old boy from a neighboring church on youth council business. We were both sexually inexperienced, but through youth ministry, had become aware of the emerging struggle of lesbian, gay and transgender people to be understood and accepted. Somewhere in the conversation, Michael said, “I think I might be gay. And I don’t know if there is a place for me in the church.”
Michael didn’t find his gay identity outside the church. He didn’t come to the church as an invader or a reformer, trying to change the church. He grew up in the church. He was baptized in the church. And as he began to understand himself as a sexual person – before he had been in a sexual relationship – it was within the church that he searched to find his place in God’s good creation.
What I knew was that Christians embrace one another, stay in relationship, and walk together. So, I found Michael some gay Christians to help him find his way, and we remained friends.
I knew from that moment I would work in the church to understand and to welcome and learn from my brothers and sisters who did not fit the sexual norms I had grown up with; but who loved and desired to serve God in the same way I did and were meant to fully be part of the church family.
I hear people claim that the movement for full inclusion of LGBTQ people is a secular movement, driven by outsiders who want to control the church. I don’t know many secular people who care very much about what the church thinks or teaches.
But I know many LGBTQ people of Christian and other faiths, like Michael, whose sexual identity unfolded right alongside their faith as they grew into adulthood.
Michael taught me that the church’s struggle to understand God’s will regarding human sexuality is not a struggle of us versus them. It is a struggle of us with us. It is a family struggle – baptized children of God talking to other baptized children of God, with Jesus as mediator.
My prayer for the upcoming General Conference is that United Methodists from Africa, Europe, the Philippines and North America will find a way to stay together as we continue to learn from one another and seek to understand God’s unfolding intention for the whole human family.
Elaine Stanovsky is bishop for the Greater NW Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church. Stanovsky has served this area since 2016. Previously, she served as bishop of the Mountain Sky Area (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah) of the UMC from 2008-2016. She was born in Vancouver, Washington, and was baptized at First United Methodist Church.
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