“Surviving the Care of the Church” : Jack Woodin

woodinfamI grew up in the Catholic Church, and discovered the Evangelical Covenant Church 29 years ago when I met a wonderful young woman who would eventually become my wife.  Amazed by the Christian love and fellowship that I had not had in my life of faith, I embraced the ECC whole-heartedly.  I joined the church and in 1986, I was married at Bethany Covenant Church in New Britain, CT.  I had dreamed of this ideal life for all of my growing up years, and the icing on the cake was that it came with the incredible bonus of a new journey of faith.  In that church which eventually relocated to Berlin, CT, I learned about what it meant to follow Jesus.  A whole world of faith and family was opened up to me! Over the years of our marriage, through many struggles, the constant that kept us afloat was that abiding love of God and the gift of a loving, caring church family that walked with us down every road. I have worshipped, laughed and cried in that place and served in numerous leadership roles including a few years as church chairman. I have been heavily involved in the music programs and the eventual evolution of contemporary worship for the church.  As our church motto states, for me Bethany Covenant Church was truly a place where “people come to life!”

After 20 years of marriage, I found myself growing increasingly unhappy.  I had everything I had wanted, and still something was wrong.  My joy was leaving and I could not get it back.  I sought counseling and spent a lot of time praying and working through childhood issues and emotional challenges but not really getting to the root of my pain. I took a break from that counseling and in my alone time and prayer time I began to realize what was so terribly wrong.  I returned to counseling and in that first meeting with a new therapist I sat down and said, “this is what I’m here for”; “I have been married for 24 years and have a great life and family but I am terribly unhappy because I have realized that I am gay!” Just saying those words aloud was both one of the most frightening moments of my life and one of the most liberating ones.  This was not in my plan for my life and yet everything within me told me that this was the missing puzzle piece. That summer while vacationing at Pilgrim Pines in New Hampshire, a Covenant Camp and Retreat Center, our pastors Adam Phillips and Aaron Johnson talked about rewriting your story through the prism of your faith; looking at your past life, mistakes, patterns and trials and prayerfully setting out on a new path.   “The rewrite happens when you realize that the program for the first act of your life does not work for the second half”, they said, and I realized that this was true of my story!  I could not keep silently fighting the battle. My story was flawed.  I spent 2 years in that therapist chair exploring this new reality.  I worked through the question “how in the world can I change my life and somehow not lose all that I relied on?”  I struggled to know “ what the “right” thing to do was for both  me and my family? “ Not only did I fear the loss of my family, I feared that I would have to give up my church and that worst of all, that Jesus would not love this new me.

With the help of a great Christian therapist, I knew what I needed to do to make sense of my life.  I made a plan to have the “coming out” conversation with my wife. In January of 2013, we sat down and I dropped the bomb. There was no explosion!  She listened intently, quietly cried and then told me that she really knew or suspected for some time and told me it was okay and gave me the most gentle and affirming hug.  What a gift.  The conversation I had dreaded for so long was behind me and I could share with the person with whom I discussed and confided everything for so long the one thing I had kept  secret from her.  Together we talked and solicited help from our counselors to prepare for the eventual separation, and to make a plan for how and when we would include our kids then 17 and 12 in the story.  In June of 2013, we told them the reality about Dad and that ultimately we would divorce.  My kids have been a marvel.  They love and support me and are ready to take on anybody who does not.  They know that the same man who loved and cared for them and taught them about the love of Jesus is still with them. It is just that life at home will look different.

I had spent many years singing with the praise team at Bethany and I continued in that role.   My wife and I kept our reality very close to the vest and inside our family for many months. At the end of the summer of 2013, I decided that out of love and respect it was time to let the church know what was happening in our home.  After all, I had shared with the people I loved the most, my wife and my kids and the world had not stopped turning, rather I received love and support.  I felt empowered to have the same conversation with my pastor and include my other love, the church, in the loop.  My conversation with the senior pastor was very kind and I was greatly relieved.  At that point, suddenly the dam began to crack and the mood changed.  The pastor met with church officers to discuss our situation, and they made the decision that I could no longer lead worship and sing with the praise team.  Church leadership asked me to step out of my role in the music ministry. The message was that this “break” was only about the dissolution of our marriage and a breach of our marriage vows not about the fact that I was gay.  At the same time leaders and church staff learned of our situation, we found that questions about our marriage and our problems were a topic of discussion both inside and outside the walls of the church. Because of this, I chose to tell my story and sent messages to people within the church that I valued and told them what was happening with us. This proved to be very painful for our family. A private matter that we had been handling with great care and gentleness was now under a spotlight.  Forced to explain my absence from the worship team, we had to endure the watchful eyes of many in the congregation. I received hateful communications from a member whom I hardly knew.  Dear friends who once lovingly engaged with me now completely turned away and ceased all communication.  A letter stating the “decision” of the church was hand-delivered to us.  It felt like our innermost concerns were now “posted” at the church for all to see. The letter referred to a period of reflection and “care” from the church, but it felt like punishment and rejection. I had heard that term “under care” used before when clergy members were involved in personal struggles, but the difference was that I am not a pastor and not even on church staff.  My only public role was singing worship songs on Sunday mornings. How could this church, where I had learned about Christian love, and  faithfully following the teachings of Jesus, now push me away? I was blindsided.

Where we are now is complicated.  I have moved out of the home and we are finalizing the legal separation that is inevitable for our family.  We are a family forever and our love and care for each other has not diminished. Initially in our pain and surprise during this period of “care”, we avoided being present at the church, but we realized that our kids loved it and wanted to be there. We wanted to support them as well as teach them about how you face adversity particularly within a family and what we do when the going gets tough.  “No running away.”  We also knew that the majority of our social connections and extended “family” were there. Being absent from there was a tremendous loss for us all.  Last fall, I attended a men’s retreat at Pilgrim Pines lead by Pastor Judy Peterson from North Park Seminary.  Judy and her preaching has had a tremendous impact in my life.  My thought going into that weekend was that I needed to find some private time with Judy to ask “what do you do when you know that Jesus loves you and the church doesn’t?” I never asked the question because in her message she gave me the answer.  The message was that Jesus loves me and wants care for me in a gentle and loving way.  I do not always have to be strong and just as Jesus told the disciples in the boat when they were afraid of sinking “do not be afraid.”  Judy said Jesus is telling us, “don’t focus on the storm, don’t look at the wind; don’t look at the waves… look at me and you won’t be afraid.  I wept as Judy prayed and I knew we were going to be okay.  This message was so simple and yet so profound.  Jesus is my strength; the church and all the politics and awkwardness are the storm and I can endure if I keep my eyes on Him.

We continue to attend and wait for God to show us if this remains our home.  So many dear friends in the congregation have stood with us and loved us, and for them I am eternally grateful.  Will I ever return to full “citizenship”?  The answer is unclear. In January 2014, I again met with the pastor and church chair.  I posed the question, “when my divorce is behind me, when and how will I be fully welcomed back?”  The reality is that I am a gay man.  “When the day comes that God blesses me with a new partner, will it be okay for me to worship with that man in my church?” The State of Connecticut says I can be married to that man if I choose, but the church does not.  “Would I be asked to take another break?” The response was that this is something that the church will need to work through before I will have my answer.

I know in the depths of my heart and soul that when God created me he did not make a mistake – I just did not understand or see the beauty in his creation for a very long time.  In my early years, I neither saw nor wanted to see it, and then later when I did see it, I fought so hard to live the life to which I thought I had been called.  Doing so nearly destroyed me.  I am a child of God and a follower of Jesus.  I am a sinner saved by grace that can now live life to its fullest and trust that God is pleased with me. The Covenant church has been my teacher, my pastor and my friend for 29 years, so I would like to stay and help the denomination evolve in their position on homosexuality, but I also know that I need to be somewhere that I can be my true self.  I believe in the value of the Covenant Church, and my prayer is that time and good communication will shed a positive light on the subject and lead to change.  I believe the people in leadership in my church are truly people who desire to do what is right and do not harbor ill feelings toward me but they are people with their own preconceived notions, fears and baggage.  The challenge will be for leadership within the local church and the denomination to discern when it is time to lead the people through this difficult discussion and to take a stand from a place of love. Then, the “care of the church” will look much more like love and acceptance rather than punishment and judgment. I would like to think I would be there when it happens but time will tell.  At the moment I am standing tall under the “care” of the church and resting in the knowledge that I am a child of God… fully loved and fully accepted.  This church struggle is only the storm, the wind and the waves, because when I lift up my head, I see Jesus and I am not afraid!

  • Cathy Doty Jeffers

    Jack, once again I am in awe of your strength, courage, honesty, and faithfulness (and that of Donna and the kids) in the way that you have handled this situation. I was and still am heartbroken to learn that our church leadership responded to you with judgment and rejection rather than support and acceptance, given that such a response is ostensibly done in “our” name, as members of the congregation. We do not agree with the decision church leadership made on our behalf, and that decision was the proverbial straw that made us decide to take a break from Bethany Covenant Church ourselves. It is my hope that your witness can be the impetus for change in the way that church leadership treats the LGBT community, and that it leads to Bethany being a “place where ALL people come to life,” not just those who fit someone’s arbitrary definition of who a “Christian” is. Love to you all.

  • Janet Muller

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks so much for sharing your story!

    I just re-read one of Andrew’s posts and he shared this about ordination within the Covenant…

    “I chose to disclose my sexual orientation to leaders in the church after deciding that the closet was not a healthy or sustainable place for me to live. In response, I have been told two things: 1 – sexual orientation alone does not disqualify a candidate from ordination in the Covenant Church, and 2 – there are gay and lesbian Covenant pastors who, living in accordance with the ethical guidelines for ministers, have been ordained. So, in essence, I am not alone and I can technically still seek ordination.”

    I’m just wondering if you have the option to escalate this “under care” removal from ministry up through denominational leadership. Not sure that is something you want to use your energy on. But it seems that if you can be gay and be ordained you should be able to friggin lead a choir. (That said, we all know leading a choir is more demanding than being the pastor!, lol lol. Just kidding, Phil….or am I? lol)

    Also, perhaps the church council should have a weigh in for all those serving in ministry and put people like me “under care” for the sin of gluttony! What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    Best,
    Janet

  • Susan Carr

    Thank you for sharing this. It must have been difficult and yet hopefully a relief. I’m sorry for any difficulties you’ve had at Bethany. I for one appreciate your service at church. Only God can be the judge. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

  • Eva Sullivan-Knoff

    Jack, I am moved by your courage, integrity, and inner strength, and sorry for your heartbreak and the judgment you have received. I am grateful that you know you are the beloved child of God. May God’s love and presence continue to envelop you and your family.

    • comingoutcovenant

      ApprovePhilip K. Brockett
      860-543-0605

  • Bob Chase

    Jack you are well spoken and you make these issues so much more clear, especially the process of sensitive, planned communication about “coming out.” Furthermore, you are brave to hang in there patiently while the world changes so slowly. A passage of scripture came to mind–from Acts chapter 11 and pasted below my comment. The early church rejected gentiles, and then God challenged Peter’s mindset by showing him a vision and telling him to accept without judgment those whom God has cleansed. Your life and faithfulness will be like Peter, demonstrating that as God has done great work in your life, Christians should not second guess God’s intentions. Bless you. Bless your precious family. :: The scripture :: 4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
    8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
    9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’

  • Judy Peterson

    Jack, you are indeed loved unconditionally! And I feel so honored to be part of this unfolding journey as you and your family walk through this new terrain with Jesus. I am grateful for your committed to the Body of Christ as it would truly be incomplete without you. Hope to see you this summer at Pilgrim Pines

  • DeAnza Spaulding

    Jack, I’m not sure I have anything helpful to say or suggest other than thank you for your courage to share your story. The coming out process is such a painful and difficult process. It’s never a one-time decision, but something that is assessed and painstakingly considered every time one chooses to ‘come out’ or share their identity in this way. It saddens and grieves me to know that the church doesn’t understand this process, doesn’t support people and come alongside in this process and often rejects God’s beloved people in this process. Your story inspired me in that you have remained open hearted to God, to the church and to yourself. You and your family have handled all of this so graciously and lovingly– I wish you comfort and peace throughout this process.

  • Lorian Dunlop

    Jack, I’m sorry I missed this when it went up. Your story is both beautiful and deeply saddening (the way that your congregation has treated you). Blessings and love to you as you continue becoming the person God made you to be.

  • Beth Anderson

    I know this story is nearly a year old, and I would love to hear how things have worked out.

    I’ve also been under the “care” of a church that felt more like punishment than kindness, and so your story resonates with me.

    I hope things are looking up, and I’ll try to remember you in my prayers, Jack. <3