Leah Klug: “Let Us Work Together”

Leah Klug

Last Tuesday, I stood in front of a class full of seminarians and made a presentation about how we would be imaging God in our class.  While I read scripture, I showed slides of classic Bible scenes as depicted by cultures all over the world.  Jesus was Korean, African, Chinese, Indian, White, European American, Sioux, Cherokee, Italian, Saudi Arabian, and Palestinian.  In my language, I spoke of what it means to open our imaging of God so that those in the pews can see themselves as created in God’s image. In my language, I asked them also to imagine that the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members of their congregations were also created in God’s image. I teach in a liberal, inclusive Jesuit seminary that has found a way to make room for Protestants from many denominations to study alongside Catholic students, and train together for work in ministry.

A year ago, I was a churchplanter in the Evangelical Covenant Church.  Shortly after my ordination in June 2009, I left the ECC church I had worked at for eight years to start a new congregation in Seattle’s diverse University District.  As my husband and I made it known that we would be planting a new congregation, the question came up again and again: would I be welcome at your church? Would my parents be welcome at your church? When people start asking if they would be welcome, if they would be safe in church, something is wrong. I knew I needed to step into God’s call on my life as a minister, and preach openly that all of us, gay and straight, are welcomed and celebrated in the God’s kingdom. Soon thereafter, we officially announced that the churchplant would be open and affirming.

Here’s where the proverbial poo hit the fan.  In the ECC, ministers are allowed to believe privately in open and affirming theology. They are not allowed to share in any public capacity that they believe homosexuality is something to be celebrated.  In a denomination where we tend to be good at keeping the central affirmations as our key points, and living with differences on the rest, I had mistakenly thought there was room for our view in the ECC. After all, we affirm the reality of freedom in Christ and the resolution on Human Sexuality is just that, a resolution.  We also have resolutions on recycling, but we aren’t de-ordaining pastors for neglecting to separate paper and plastic.

Many pastors I have spoken with ask the question, “How can you think homosexuality is okay?”  Most seem to wonder if I’ve been reading a different Bible, or if I’ve just thrown the Bible out altogether.  On the contrary, I place a high value on scripture and affirm the centrality of the Word of God.  I also believe that scripture is not as clear as many of us would like to believe on the matter of homosexuality.  We can dig into the details another time, this is meant to be a forum for personal stories, but as the ECC, we should be asking more and more ‘where is it written’.  Paul states that those who are not called to celibacy should not be celibate.  Is it sensible to believe every gay or lesbian person is called to celibacy?

To share my personal journey, I was raised in a conservative home that did not believe homosexuality was an option. In high school and early college, a few close friends who were devout Christians came out. My rational mind couldn’t dismiss the fact that while these individuals were gay, they were also Christian.  I believe it is also important for me to confess that while I remained friends with the man who came out in my college fellowship, I didn’t speak up when the same fellowship told him he could not serve in a leadership role even though he was celibate. While I continued to be supportive, I was only beginning to question the beliefs I was raised with. I came to believe I could affirm homosexuality outside the church, and that social justice and church could only exist separately. I could be one person in church, but had to be another person outside church. I could fight for health care and housing for people without legal immigration status, care for the poor, advocate for racial equality, women’s rights, and gay rights outside the church, but I had to keep quiet about such matters inside the church. The problem was, the Jesus I kept reading about cared about all these things.

Somewhere along the way, I had adopted the belief that being a Christian and believing homosexuality was a sin were one and the same. Joining an ECC churchplant in Seattle in 2001, one of the first messages I heard included the pastor’s story about walking alongside marchers in the gay pride parade, to show solidarity as a Christian. Suddenly, a whole new world of possibility opened for me. Social justice, including advocating for equal rights, could be a Christian pursuit. Entering seminary, I intentionally chose an open and affirming school, wanting to work out for myself the theological basis for social justice work around race and sexuality. I needed words and theology to express how I felt about faith and justice as a Christian. I attended school alongside gifted ministers, gay and straight, who taught me much about what it means to be a follower of Christ. Seeing their conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, I again could not deny God’s blessing in the lives of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

For a few years I remained at a church that, while leaving room for the people in the pews to believe what they would, at the end of the day agreed with the Covenant view that homosexuality was a sin. I struggled to figure out my place as part of the pastoral team. As I continued to find peace in believing Christianity and homosexuality weren’t mutually exclusive, was being the ‘safe’ person for people to talk to about sexuality enough? Increasingly, it wasn’t. While the debate around homosexuality wasn’t the reason I left, I came to see my own silence from the pulpit as complicity in the heterosexual evangelical church privilege that actively oppresses our LGBTQ family members. When we started to plant our new congregation, Sinners and Saints, we were planting a church for everyone, and said intentionally and out loud that all of us are welcome to come through the front door.

That decision to ‘out’ ourselves as open and affirming had immediate consequences. The denominational funding we had been promised as a new churchplant was pulled and the ECC congregation I had worked at for over eight years of sacrificial ministry, paid and unpaid, pulled their support as well. I was (and still am) barred from attending any official Covenant functions, or speaking at any Covenant churches. We were alone in Seattle, and starting from scratch.  If I had been wiser, I would have stepped back and taken the time to reformulate planting a church and gathered more support. But I wasn’t. Instead we tried to make it work, with no small amount of personal pride involved. Sinners and Saints made it eight heartbreaking and sometimes glorious months. In the midst of this time my credential was also pulled and without informing me or allowing me to be present, there was a successful vote to place me on inactive status at the June 2010 annual meeting. I have been asked to resign, but I have not for one reason: I believe I am a faithful Covenant minister.

The Ethical Principles For Covenant Ministers call for all clergy to provide pastoral care “regardless of race, gender, creed, ethnic origin, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation.” Providing pastoral care means providing sound biblical teaching, support, guidance, prayer, and discipleship. Marginalizing members of our community based on sexual orientation and forbidding clergy to officiate marriage or union ceremonies, provide blessings for such ceremonies, or to even recognize the validity of such relationships does not allow equal access to either spiritual care or facilities usage. On the one hand, we are instructed to welcome and care for all people. On the other hand, we are told that such love and care comes with limitations that privilege the heterosexual members of our community.  As a minister, I am unwilling to buy into that system any longer.  As a denomination, will we make space for dissenting voices around the subject of human sexuality?

To be fair, the ECC has offered me the opportunity to go back on active status now that the church plant has closed. While conversations around the issue of homosexuality and Covenant policy have begun, we still have so far to go. If I am placed back on active status, I will not be silent, I will not try to work ‘behind the scenes,’ and thus require those LGBTQ Covenanters in ministry and in the pews to be silent and closeted. I will continue to preach from the pulpit our need as a denomination to repent of the heterosexual privilege that has cost our sons, daughters, parents, brothers and sisters so much—in some cases their very lives. We are told that this conversation must be avoided because it will bring division in the church. In truth, we are already divided. Those who disagree are required to transfer to other denominations, remain silent, or are asked to leave the church. I will continue to preach that we are all created in the very image of God. Some speak of anger toward the denomination, saying that the leadership is inflexible or behind the times.  In a denomination with congregational polity, it is not the task of the leadership to make change, it is the task of the pastors and laity to stand together and prayerfully request that room be made for each and every Covenanter to be openly welcomed into the fellowship. I do not naively believe everyone will agree, but I do believe we can now, as we have done in the past, make room to faithfully disagree and still remain in fellowship. We have models to follow in the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutherans in America, the American Baptists, and the Presbyterian Church – USA.  There is hope, if we can together be courageous enough to enter into dialogue.

I must also confess that at too many points in my story, I remained silent. I waited to find the right words, the right phrasing, the right theology. I played within the rules of the denomination, within the rules of my own fear. I could justify my silence for a number of reasons, but I know and confess that silence was complicity. While I was silent I was a minister of the church who chose personal comfort over speaking up on behalf of those who continue to be silenced or disregarded. If the church is to come to any real reconciliation with the LGBTQ community, we must first confess, then repent and begin to bring justice into how we practice worship. We must ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, forgiveness we do not deserve. We must listen and sit with the stories of those who are no longer with us, those who struggle, those who we have silenced. We must learn to weep with those who weep, as did Jesus. In this lamentation and repentance, perhaps we can begin to learn how to be together, how to be truly welcoming and inclusive in our congregations and our leadership. I realize that my journey starts with me, with repenting of my own silence, working for justice, and continuing to sit and listen. I stand among other ECC ministers as a sinner holding to the hope that Christ can resurrect even me.

For real change to be made in the ECC, I must wait for my fellow brothers and sisters to also say this is not okay. There will be cost, but you have heard it said, “what good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” For the sake of my own soul, I must stand. In response to mission workers who had come to reach out to her people, Australian Aboriginal woman Lila Watson said, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  Come, let us learn to work together.  

  • Knadean

    Amen! Keep up the good work.

  • Rev. Johnny Agurkis

    Wow. Your passion for inclusion and willingness to speak publicly about your own journey within our denomination is so very moving to me, and I am sure to many others. Thank you for both your courage and your faithfulness.
    And…”We also have resolutions on recycling, but we aren’t de-ordaining pastors for neglecting to separate paper and plastic.”…classic!

    Peace,
    Johnny

  • Charlotte Johnson

    Wow! I knew things were bad for LGBTs in the ECC, but as a lesbian who has stuck with it for 70 years, this is heartrending.

  • Charlotte Johnson

    This is devastating to read. Talk about being the opposite of what the Covenant is supposedly to stand for, an inclusiveness of all people. I hate being thought of as a “wrong kind of sinner”

  • Leah, this is beautiful. I’m moved to tears. Thank you so much for your many sacrifices on behalf of our community. I’m angered by the Covenant’s treatment of you and your poor congregation. Such shortsightedness, on their part, to lose this wonderful work that you and God began in Seattle is just shocking.

    Bless you in your ongoing efforts and thank you, thank you, thank you for your courage and energy and dedication.

  • Thank you for sharing your story Leah. This is an issue that will not go away…ever…and I applaud you for being brave enough to share your journey. I love that you “will not be silent.”
    julie

  • Leah is officiating my wedding this summer. How lucky am I?!

  • Leah, I loved this. I was indignant on your behalf and am so glad that you have not been silenced by the fears of others.

    Let me add another model to follow: the Episcopal Church. Our congregation in Menlo Park is open and affirming of LGBTQ relationships, as are many—even most?—even in the face of disapproval from the larger global Anglican Communion.

    It is important for Christians who are affirming to stand up and be recognized.

  • Alaina

    Leah, thank you for sharing your story. It was physically painful for me to read, especially the active/inactive credentials pieces. I wish I could say that I was shocked at how your situation was handled, but the truth is that I’m not. In my experience it sounds about on par because it appears that things like this are handled ‘quickly and quietly’ in ways that are not at all helpful or honoring. I am sorry that this happened to you. Thank you for sharing your story, for owning up to the pieces that were your own issue, and also for telling the truth about how you were treated. We need to know.

  • Brita Moon Gotberg

    Thank you for sharing. I have wondered lately when a Covenant church would make the move to become Open and Affirming and now I find out that one already tried! From the number of supportive comments on comingoutcovenant and the number of “likes” I get the sense that the denomination could start to move in that direction- even if it is a very small part. Would the denomination really vote to put pastors on inactive status- if everyone who felt this way spoke up? Am I being naive? I know core groups of people have tried in the past but maybe the timing is close to right, right now. I attend a UCC church at the moment- for a number of reasons- but the Covenant will always be close to my heart. Thank you for not being silent!

    • Anonymous Covenanter

      I have wondered the same thing.  I attend an open Covenant church.  What I have wondered in particular is what happens when an established Covenant church decides to be open and affirming?  If the pastoral staff that’s credentialed by the ECC tows the line by not publicly speaking on the matter, what are the implications.  Are they (the ECC credentialed staff) guilty by association?  The church is not controlled by the denomination.  Could they be withdrawn from fellowship within the denomination?

      I think the biggest barrier that Leah ran into is the fact that it was a church plant initiated from the denominational office rather than by other efforts such as a plant being started by an established church.  Even the denomination is constrained by the resolution.  Church plants receive funding from the denomination.  Leah was credentialed by the denomination.

      The sad bottom line is that the pastors (those who’s credentials are issued and maintained by the ECC) in the local churches and the leadership at the denominational level are constrained by the current policies.  There are plenty out there who disagree with the current resolutions and policies, but in order for there to be bigger change, it won’t be top down.  The control in the ECC lies in the churches, not the denomination.

      This issue poses unique challenges.  You have a denomination that traditionally has agreed on the traditional core tenets of the Christian faith suddenly adopting what is being called a resolution that has far greater impact than any other resolution ever has.  Church plants can lose their status and support.  Pastors can lose their credentials.  Combine this with more and more new and younger congregations that are less familiar with the process of change.  Church leadership may be aware, but they kind of have a gag order when it comes to being public about differing views.  How do you as a covenant pastor who has a congregation of people unfamiliar with the denomination that wants to change this speak out and tell your congregation about the process and guide them in the right direction?  It’s kind of convenient that those who’d essentially be the ambassadors to understanding of these processes reach you when you have to be so on guard because you can lose your license?  You can’t even really rally behind your congregation in such an effort even if every last member wants this.  Well, you can at your own expense, and there’s the rub.

  • Sam

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Leah, for advocating for those who have no voice. Many of us believe that God loves LGBTs and that they should have an equal place at the table.

  • Anonymous

    Leah,
    You are my hero!

    I am certain that the path you attempted is the only way for there to be change in the Covenant – and that is for a local congregation to decide to be “open and affirming.” Change can not come from the top down – it has to be from the grass roots up. When a local congregation makes this decision then the denomination will have decide if there is enough “Freedom in Christ” to accept differing views on sexuality. I believe there is.

    God Bless you for having the courage of your convictions!
    Phil Brockett

  • Jill kuhel

    Amen~I completly agree~”If the church is to come to any real reconciliation with the LGBTQ community, we must first confess, then repent and begin to bring justice into how we practice worship. We must ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, forgiveness we do not deserve.” I have seen the pain the church’s stance has caused and it is unforgivable. I left the Covenant decades ago for the United Church of Christ. I admire that you are staying to fight for what is right and just! God’s Blessings!

  • Karelia

    Great article. Thank you.

  • Leah Klug

    Thanks ECC’ers and friends. I hope we are able to move from discussion to action. Again, as a congregational denomination, if we want change, we have to be willing to speak and act for change. We also need open avenues for safe dialogue so pastors can ask questions and enter into discussion without fearing penalty. How can we create that space?

  • Liljegrens, John and Opal

    Thank you for sharing your journey, The treatment you received from ECC does not surprise us but gives us pain. We left ECC several years ago in part because of the way they reject LGBT people. We are now members of a UCC/DOC church were we walk with and worship with many people who have been rejected by conservative churches. We have found God’s love there in a new and deeper way than ever before in our lives.

    Your words are powerful and we hope that in the future people in the Covenant will see the wisdom of your stand and become a denomination that accepts and respects all people.

    John and Opal Liljegren

  • Gordon J. Schultz

    How very sad. I left the Covenant Church quite a few years ago– the hardest most painful decision in my life to that time–as I loved it, it’s college, and especially its seminary, and it’s where most of my dearest friends were. I had gotten the impression of late that the causes that forced me out were no longer present: arbitrary uses of power, cultural and political capitulation of the Gospel to “Americanism,” overt denominational support for Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam, enforced group-think, and cowardice of my dearest friends in the Ministerium to stand up to abuses. I was only on occasion the victim of those abuses, but I saw them regularly.

    The most common excuse for abuse of power and complicity in it was “for the sake of unity.” “The Covenant is a family– you don’t do things that cause dissension and split up a family.” I am very sad to hear that Leah has been the victim of those same forces and arguments.

    As I left on good terms, it has been my privelege to serve as interim and pulpit supply in Covenant churches, to teach in them and at Pilgrim Pines. But, it breaks my heart to learn of Leah’s story and to learn that while many things have changed for the good, the struggle for a truly Gospel-centered church has a long way to go.

  • Rwsturdy

    After my first reading of your prophetic blog I was too angry to write anything. Upon reflection I came to the conclusion that I was angry with myself for taking so long to be open to the fullness of the gospel of the love of Jesus for all. My great sadness results in the blindness of the Covenant Church to be open to all. We will have “Freedom In Christ” proclaimed in our Covenant Companion when and only when ALL are invited to the Table spread by Jesus himself. Until that time our beloved Evangelical Covenant will have to insert an “exception clause” in it openness to all. I find it interesting that I was ordained a Covenant Minister even though I did not “fit” the theological mode of the time. Now I find it difficult to understand that our denomination, congregational in form, can dictate that a church may not be “open and affirming”. It seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. Leah, I am an old man. I stand up to call you BLESSED! May your number increase.

  • Eva

    Leah, I moved by the way you open your heart and live by your convictions. Thank you for your courage, your faithfulness, and your witness.

  • Anonymous

    Holy Cow!  I’ve forgotten to check the website for a few weeks due to a job search, and I stumble into this amazingly well-written article.  Thank you for putting it all out there, in writing, with heart, with justice, and with courage.  I continue to learn in this process.  Well done!   How can that “resolution” continue to stand as if it is the final word for all decisions? Where do we go from here?

  • JHong

    Leah, I heard about your story about six months ago through a Presbyterian minister in the Seattle area. When I heard your story, I found myself discouraged and troubled by the Covenant decision to pull your credential. I recently graduated from an open and affirming seminary and currently serve as a chaplain. As a chaplain I need endorsement from a denomination and would like to pursue ordination, but while I have been attending Covenant churches for over ten years, I struggled with whether I should stay with the Covenant. I have kept myself from moving forward for a couple of years now. Your story (and this whole blog in general) encourages me that there may still be hope and a reason to indeed work together. Thank you!

  • Nicole Hickory

    Leah, thank you for this. You are gifted with words and your voice is heard. Thank you for your courage to speak out and your guidance in my life in so many ways.

    Nicole H.