Michael Overman is called by God to the ministry. In his ordination process in the United Methodist Church, he was told by his District Committee on Ministry to go back into the closet. They passed him, but Michael has chosen to leave the UMC and serve as God created him to be. First is a video of a prayer offered by his church community, Holy Covenant UMC in Chicago, Illinois this past Sunday as a response to the Eucharist. The video is followed by Michael's story from his blog.
Embracing wholeness, answering call…
by Michael Overman, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary senior
Little did I know that a private message I received from a fellow member of the Gay Christian Network nearly four years ago would drastically change the entire course of my life. I’d been a part of the online community for a short while, and at the time, was not involved in any sort of faith community. My previous home church, a Baptist church in west-central Indiana had asked me to step down from all ministry activities and suggested I stop attending services because of my identity as a gay man. These events led to a spiritual drought and a six-year hiatus from any church.
In winter of 2008, I received the aforementioned private message from a GCN member who lived in one of Chicago’s many suburbs and whose son lived in the city. He’d read many of my posts, and felt led to tell me of a church community on the edge of the Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, Holy Covenant United Methodist Church. It would take a few more months before I could muster up the courage to take his advice and attend a worship service at Holy Covenant, but finally, two weeks before Easter of 2009, I woke up and made the trek down to the red-bricked, mural-emblazened building that would become my home, my refuge, my safe haven away from a world that told me it didn’t want me, not as I was at least.
From there, the rest seems like history. Immediately, I was made to feel welcomed, loved, and valued. The people of Holy Covenant made it a priority to get to know me and to be a part of the healing work God was doing in my life and on my severely broken heart. I experienced my first ever Maundy Thursday service, which coincidentally was the first time I’d been offered communion since leaving my former denomination. I was welcomed to the table as a broken but whole person, never asked to leave a part of myself at the door. Even to this day, I cannot put into words how significant this was for me.
That summer, I marched in Chicago’s Pride Parade for the first time with my new community. Along the route, I had a conversation with a few other church members. The question was asked whether or not I’d ever considered going to seminary and pursuing a vocation in ministry. I had, in fact, but had been led to believe that my sexual orientation made me unfit for answering that call. These new friends told me otherwise. They affirmed that my orientation was part of who God made me to be. I’d never really heard any of this before. And so I visited the seminary suggested to me (Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, Illinois) and applied for admission soon thereafter. While my acceptance letter came quickly, I postponed going for another year for the sake of discernment. More changes were to come.
I met my now-husband and life partner, Frankie, who was also welcomed into the Holy Covenant community, regardless of his difference of faith beliefs as a practicing neo-pagan. Holy Covenant loved me, and I loved him, and so they grew to love him as well. I was given various opportunities to serve, including serving communion, reading scripture, singing, praying during worship, leading a small group, serving on a committee, and so much more. As time progressed, all of the brokenness I’d experienced as man coping with depression and the effects of being raised in a physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive household started to mend, albeit slowly. I was learning to love myself through the love with which I was being covered by this amazing family of faith. I decided to pursue ordination within the denomination in which I’d found a new home.
Herein lies the struggle. Although churches like Holy Covenant exist where all people are welcomed regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, the United Methodist Church’s written polity refers to the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and therefore individuals such as myself are believed to be unfit for ordained ministry. It didn’t make sense. I’d known gay clergy, gay partnered clergy, in our denomination. What did it all mean? As I began seminary and developed relationships with people serving elsewhere in the district and conference, I learned the answer to my questions, and they were disheartening.
In order for me to be ordained in the UMC, I would quintessentially have to go into a professional, vocational closet. In meetings and on paper, I would be “single,” making no reference to my sexual identity or my relationship status. I would have to leave a part of me outside of the ordination process. I’d known others going through the same thing who seemed to be okay with it all, who seemed sane and mentally/emotionally healthy, and so I pressed forward. I continued in my seminary education, served another church in the city for my second-year internship, and proceeded to have my local church declare me as a candidate for ordination.
The time came for me to meet with my district committee on ordained ministry for their approval and certification of my candidacy process. I met with mentors and fellow clergy for advice on how to best express myself on paper and in speech. I found myself using the term “significant other” for Frankie instead of “husband” or “partner.” It hurt, deeply. In the meeting itself, I shared my excitement for getting to work with The Marin Foundation this year—a non-profit whose mission is to bridge the relational gap between the evangelical church and the LGBT community. I spoke of my passion for full inclusion of all people. I have no doubt that anyone in the room had any misgivings over my sexual orientation or relationship status. I was partnered, and it was easy to tell that my partner was not of the opposite sex.
And so we sat there with this invisible rainbow elephant in the room. One committee member asked me why I’d felt it important to mention my relationship in my paperwork, especially using such red-flag language as “significant other.” He continued, “You’re not going to have a problem here. We simply want to make you conscious of what is and is not going to make it possible and easy for you to make it through the whole ordination process. There are people at the board level who will rip you apart if there’s even a hint of you being, well, you know.” Another person asked why I, with my passion for inclusion and with my knowledge and awareness of the state of our denomination not being inclusive, would stay here. Why not go elsewhere? By the time they were ready to deliberate and vote on my certification, I was nearly in tears and ready to leave the room as quickly as I possibly could.
The committee certified me, and I felt no joy. It had been made clear what I would have to do and how I would have to portray myself in order to receive clerical credentials in the UMC. While it was never articulated so directly, the message was clear: You cannot be ordained here as a whole person. You have to split yourself. We don’t want all of you. Only part of you is truly worthy of this calling. You have to hide. You have to lie. You have to be someone other than you.
In the weeks since, I’ve prayed and fought and yelled and screamed and cried and talked and sat in silence. I’ve wrestled with what to do. Slowly, the recognition of what was being asked of me came, and I could not foresee myself complying. My family at Holy Covenant taught me how to be a whole person and gave me the strength to start loving myself, truly for the first time. It would be a grievous sin for me to undo all their hard work, and all of my own. My identity and relationship are something God loves and finds joy in and takes pleasure in. I am God’s beloved in the entirety of who I am, and God has not asked or called me to change. I am worthy because my Creator has called me worthy, and to lie or be inauthentic would be to make unclean what God has called clean, to make bad what God has called good. I cannot do that… I will not.
Two weeks ago, I submitted my letter stepping out of the ordination process for the United Methodist Church. I’ve met with a pastor of a United Church of Christ / Disciples of Christ congregation who is supportive of my decision and willing to help me get involved with his congregation and begin the ordination process in his denomination. This morning, I stood before some of the people I love most in my life and told them I was leaving. Even now, the pain feels unbearable. I’ve felt like I was giving up, but I realized that to stay and to hide would be to do just that. In leaving and pursuing my call to ordained ministry in a setting where I can be a whole person, I’m honoring the work that my friends and family at Holy Covenant have put into getting me to this point. With my partner, friends, and church family gathered around me this morning, their hands laid on me and on each other, I felt surrounded by and covered with more love than I feel I could ever deserve or be given. I listened and cried as friends came up, sharing my pain and expressing their pride in my strength, courage, and apparent bravery. I spent time holding one of the young boys I’ve grown to love, and got the chance to hug another. I know I’m always welcome there, and I leave knowing just how much I’ve loved, supported, and valued.
Change will come. There will be a day when all God’s children are welcome at the table, both receiving God’s blessing and presiding over God’s gifts of meal and water, regardless of who they love. I desperately long for that day, and I pray for the strength to be a part of the work God’s Spirit is doing to get us there. I know much of that strength will come from my Holy Covenant family.
I will come back… someday soon. We will still have conversations, exchange emails, share meals and drinks, offer each other love, prayer, support, and encouragement. I cannot tell you how much you’ve changed me, how much your love has given me new life and restored my joy. Thank you for taking me in, helping me answer my call, affirming and celebrating my relationship, sitting with me in times of grief, depression, sorrow and joy. I love you all so much. Know that as you’ve given me a piece of yourselves, I have left a part of myself with each and every one of you. Though we may feel divided, we are one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.
Michael Overman is in his last year at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and is now entering the ordination process in the United Church of Christ / Disciples of Christ denomination. To read more of Michael's writing, go to his blog.