- reprinted from the Chicago Tribune By Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune reporter -
As soon as Michael Overman announced that he was gay, the Southern Baptist church that raised him, led him to attend an evangelical Christian college and inspired him to pursue ministry left him feeling abandoned.
He stayed estranged from Christianity for about six years before eventually finding his way to Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, a congregation in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood that welcomes gays and lesbians.
Reinvigorated by the church's acceptance, he enrolled at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston and sought ordination in his new denomination.
But the United Methodist Church does not ordain gay clergy in committed relationships. That created a predicament for Overman, who joined his partner in a civil union last spring. He knew he could try keeping his relationship private as some partnered gay clergy opt to do. But that approach made him uncomfortable.
"If I'm going to be in ministry, I'm going to be in ministry as my whole self," said Overman, 28, who lives in the city's Uptown neighborhood. "When I look at Christian faith, it was always Christ's mission to restore people in the community and restore people to wholeness. It didn't make sense to me to go into ministry as a closeted person. That felt inauthentic."
Following a number of gay and lesbian former Methodists who find themselves unable to serve in the church that cultivated their calling, Overman withdrew from the denomination last month to seek ordination instead in the Disciples of Christ Church, which accepts openly gay clergy in committed relationships. The departure of Overman and others spotlights the internal drama in one of the last mainline Protestant denominations that require gay clergy to stay celibate. Methodist teaching states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
But many Methodist clergy and congregations don't share that point of view, especially Holy Covenant, one of the first Methodist churches to have a female pastor in the 1970s when women were first ordained. The Rev. Matthew Johnson, pastor of Holy Covenant now, said the congregation's acceptance can perplex people like Overman who don't fully grasp that the Lakeview congregation is an anomaly.
Last year, Johnson joined more than 200 elders, deacons and pastors in the church's Northern Illinois Conference who pledged to defy national church policy and bless same-sex unions.
"Holy Covenant is this little pocket of resistance," Johnson said. "Because of the work we're doing to bring about justice in our denomination, we have to be honest with everybody. The way that we are is not the way the rest of the church is."
Johnson said he and Overman discussed two options. Overman could wait until the church changed its teachings or he could forge ahead in trying to become a minister and see how far he got in the process before his civil union became an obstacle. Overman chose the latter, knowing it would take a miracle to be as transparent as he wanted to be and continue in the process, Johnson said.
Still, Overman wasn't entirely transparent. Instead of naming his partner or referring to his husband, he spoke of "a significant other" on his application. When a local committee charged with certifying him for ordination warned him about the ambiguous language, he instantly felt uneasy. But the panel never asked if his significant other was a man or a woman, and it encouraged him to move forward in the process.
Nevertheless, "it felt more like an attack than an affirmation," he said. "I left that meeting feeling really broken and uncertain and really hurt. I had compromised myself, and I had not been my whole self. If that's how the process was going to continue, then I couldn't do it."
"Practicing 'don't ask, don't tell' in a ministry context is pushing people to sin," Overman added. "Thou shalt not lie." A blog item he wrote about his experience for Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist gay rights advocacy group, has since gone viral.
Bishop Sally Dyck, recently installed as head of the church's Northern Illinois Conference, met face to face with Overman regarding his decision to leave. She insisted that the church does not take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach.
"We are saddened to lose a gifted person going toward ministry," she said. "'Don't ask, don't tell' is not the approach taken when referring to the church law, which bars the ordination or appointment of 'self-avowed practicing homosexuals.' The district committee appreciated and respected Michael's honesty about his personal relationship and in turn had to be honest with Michael about the reality that the Board of Ordained Ministry is bound by the current laws in the Book of Discipline.
"This is the tension our denomination continues to struggle with and discerns as the United Methodist Church also acknowledges in the Book of Discipline that all persons are of sacred worth," she added.
The Rev. Scott Field, pastor of Wheatland Salem Church, a Methodist congregation in Naperville, supports the Methodists' celibacy requirement for gay clergy, which has been on the books since 1972. He doesn't question the vocation of aspiring clergy who happen to be gay and in committed relationships. But he believes they should, like Overman, seek ordination in North American churches that don't have the same requirement. Methodists must honor a global consensus on the issue, he said.
"I want to help them fulfill their calling, but it might not be among us," Field said. "I agree with him that we shouldn't be having to keep secrets."
The Rev. Gregory Gross, a Methodist deacon who also pledged to bless same-sex unions last year, said many of his gay classmates at Garrett sought ordination in other churches.
"Sadly, the UMC has lost too many excellent clergy and clergy candidates, and my heart aches for my denomination," Gross said. "It should not be this way."
He said the "don't ask, don't tell" avenue has become the church's unofficial yet de facto approach that many gay clergy have found ways to navigate. But he empathizes with Overman's decision, calling the "don't ask, don't tell" approach "hypocritical" and "sinful."
"While there are supportive persons throughout the denomination, this policy of 'looking the other way' can lead clergy to feeling used," he said.
Overman said he understands that some clergy have chosen to hide their relationships and does not judge that decision negatively. It's simply not a route he can take.
"What I might feel would be deceitful or inauthentic on my part, someone else may have wrestled with and come to terms with," he said. "I trust they've gone through that discernment process. ... I'm not called to hide."