by Billy Kluttz
Amidst great progress for LGBTQ people in The United Methodist Church, many friends and family members have asked me why I would leave a denomination that is showing great hope for the future inclusion of queer people. In truth, it is difficult for me to delineate whether I have been forced out or have freely chosen to leave The UMC. Personally, I feel that I have been forced to “freely choose” to leave a church that does not want my full self. Perhaps, however, I am simply tired of running.
This isn’t the first time I have been forced to freely choose to leave the church. When I was 16, my pastor in Concord, NC told me that if I was to continue to practice my deviant lifestyle that I could no longer serve at our church; for me, this meant volunteering with the food ministry and on the trustees committee. So, at 16, I freely chose to leave my church—leaving behind the members of my immediate family and many of my childhood friends.
But I didn’t leave the denomination altogether. Instead, I joined another UM church in my hometown. And there, I flourished—until I began the ordination discernment process. During my discernment, I was told that my status as an out queer man would make my progress through ordination all but impossible; so, once again, I freely chose to leave the Western North Carolina Conference.
I transferred to what I was told would be a slightly more progressive conference, The North Carolina Annual Conference. There, I was, once again, welcomed—until I formally began the ordination process. During my candidacy, I was told by progressive friends and clergy that closeting myself was the only way forward; so, I did. I lied through omission and played their sinful games of systemic silence. Unable to see myself continuing in that climate, however, I freely chose, once again, to flee.
I began seminary at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. I served a church in New Windsor, Maryland and attempted transfer my membership, once again, to the more progressive Baltimore-Washington Conference. There, I was told that I would finally be welcomed…. if I would continue to closet myself, refuse to perform weddings for all people, and keep a low profile at the seminary. Again, progressive clergy friends and colleagues, and even LGBTQ friends, told me to closet myself, not be too outspoken in seminary classes, and refuse full ministry to LGBTQ couples.
But then, Sharon and Bonnie called. Sharon and Bonnie had been part of the church that took me in as a high school student. They had welcomed me and nurtured me after my first escape from the church’s homophobia. They had also been a couple for many years and had finally decided to be legally married in Maryland. They were living close by my parish and I knew what I had to do.
In the middle of their wedding any fear that had held me in the closet of the church was finally stripped away. I knew simply by signing their marriage license I had put my entire ordination and career in jeopardy, but I was tired of running. A few weeks later, I came out to my District Superintendent. I was met with kind words of welcome—until I informed him of my desire to eventually marry and raise a family. And, once again, I was told in very kind words that there was not a place for me in the denomination.
Today, I have freely chosen to leave The UMC for the last time. I have been a refugee of The United Methodist Church’s homophobia for the past 8 years. I have fled the church’s hatred for the past three years in the candidacy and ordination process—running from conference to conference to conference. And, now, I am simply tired of running. 8 years of semi-closeting and self-hatred have born too great of a scar. The spiritual wounds have robbed me of the inner strength that sustained me when I first came out to family and friends.
As I prepare to leave one last time, my prayer is that we might have greater sympathy for other spiritual refugees. Within the context of the church’s continued homophobic and transphobic violence, some have decided to stay and some have decided to leave. Regardless of anyone’s choice, agency is never simple. As long as queer people are denied their full humanity by The UMC, no queer person can freely choose to stay or leave; rather, all must navigate the muddy waters of conscripted choices, as I have done.
As I prepare to finish seminary and pursue ordination in a different denomination, I hope that, for me, the violence might lessen. Although all denominations must confront their reinforcement of systemic oppression, I pray that I might find peace in the midst of a warring land. And that is my prayer for all queer people in The UMC—that peace might be found either within or outside of our denominational borders. As progressive people of faith, I pray that we might avoid blaming the victims of our denomination’s sin; I pray that we might better understand and support those who continue to make conscripted choices in our church communities—and recommit ourselves to welcoming the strangers and refugees in our midst.
. . .
A native of North Carolina, Billy is a student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He holds a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.P.A. from Syracuse University's Maxwell School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing; country, folk, and bluegrass music; and watching UNC/SU basketball.