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Reflections on my Ordination

Liz Williams photographer

At 18 years old, on the cusp of leaving for college, I came out to my parents about two things: that I identified as a lesbian, and that I felt called to go to seminary. These declarative statements were the product of a season of wrestling with God and with the knowledge that in 2001, the year I came out, the PC(USA) had a law within the Book of Order that expressly prohibited me from living out both callings simultaneously. Backed by the love and support of my family and my home church of First Presbyterian in  Asheville, I marched off to college believing in my heart of hearts that if there wasn’t yet a way to be ordained as an openly lesbian person and a faithful Christian that I would just have to be the first. 

What I didn’t understand or appreciate then, was exactly how long faithful LGBTQIA+ Christians had been working within the Presbyterian Church and other denominations so that all LGBTQIA+ people might serve in ministry openly and authentically as their full selves. Thankfully, within the first few years of college I met Rev. Janie Spahr and Michael Adee, two of these faithful people, and I was fortunate to attend the church where Rev. Katie Ricks was called as an Associate Pastor a decade before she would be the first out lesbian ordained in the PC(USA) after the changes to the Book of Order. What I learned in those early years of my journey toward ministry was that I was not alone. In fact a whole movement had been birthed before I was born to pave the way for the church to be a place of love, affirmation, and celebration of God’s gift of sexuality and gender identity. 

I began my gender transition in 2012, a few months after the Book of Order was updated with Amendment 10A, which opened

 Photo credit: Liz Williams

the way for openly LGBTQIA+ people to be ordained. The question I received most from friends and family shifted from: “What are you going to do since you can’t get ordained?” to: “When will you finally be ordained?!” I had been under care of the Presbytery of Western NC at that point for 7 years. Once again, coming out as transgender was the product of much wrestling with God and God’s vision for what I was called to do as well as who I was called to be. Rev. Janie Spahr often talked about how some of us with LGBTQIA+ identities are called to be “curriculum for the church,” to teach empathy and respect while demonstrating possibility by living in the authenticity of our identities. I knew early on that I was called to that witness, and somewhere along the way understood that I was not called to be seen as a woman in that role. I realized I was called to teach an embodied sense of gender as a journey, starting with myself. 

As many of you know, while I was beginning the process of transitioning my gender medically, and furthering my ordination journey to fully claim that I was called to serve the PC(USA), I met the crew making the Out of Order documentary, which explores what happened in the early years after the denomination’s policies had changed. It is strange that 2012 now feels like history, but many of us were trepidatious in those first years after Amendment 10A became law. We didn’t know what would happen and whether LGBTQIA+ people really would be hired and ordained while being open about who they are. I left my full-time non-profit job in DC to pursue ordination as well as my calling to work at the intersection of faith, sexuality, and gender. I still didn’t know if I would ever get hired as a minister. I had no idea where God’s path would lead me on August 2012 as I said goodbye to my colleagues at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. However, it was a leap of faith God had been preparing me to take.

Queer Clergy, photo credit: Liz Williams

One year later to the day, I was beginning my role at More Light Presbyterians as the first openly transgender person to serve a mainline Protestant organization. When I received the phone call that the Board of Directors at MLP wanted to hire me for the role of Executive Director, suddenly the brush and bramble of the ministry path I had been on became a burning bush of clarity about where God intended me to go and how God intended me to serve. 

I still had some PC(USA) ordination requirements to finish before this ministry could be validated and I ordained to it. But for the first time since I was 18, I had deep faith that one day it would come to be so, and even if no other transgender people had been ordained after being out in their ordination process, that I would be the first to do it. 

In January 2017, I was at the Montreat College conference screening the Out of Order documentary to students who, I realized, were of the age where they almost couldn’t remember when the official policies of the PC(USA) prohibited openly LGBTQIA+ people from serving in ministry. At the screening, I met a young man who changed my perspective forever on my quest to be “the first.” He approached me after the film to share that he had grown up in a conservative non-Presbyterian church not too far from Montreat. In high school he discovered the Presbyterian Church and was now a youth advisor at that same congregation. In the years since he became Presbyterian he had come out to himself and was discerning going to seminary. Until seeing Out of Order, he had never seen or met an openly LGBTQIA+ minister. While watching the film, he understood for the first time the fullness of God’s calling to him. 

With tears in my eyes as we hugged to celebrate his recognition of his gifts for ministry, I realized, instead of wanting to be the first, I wanted to be the last person who ever took 14 years in the ordination process because of polity restrictions and their lingering impacts on the preparation for ministry. 

I was ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament on October 11 — otherwise known as National Coming Out Day. The service did feel like a coming out, not for the many LGBTQIA+ people and our allies who were worship leaders, but for the church. It was a coming out day for the church to claim and proclaim what our faith communities could look like, feel like, and be like if we truly embraced all of the brilliance, prophetic witness, and gifts LGBTQIA+ people bring to the life of our denominations. 

The first Coming Out Day was instituted as a day of defiance and liberation, like so many of our queer and trans celebrations. In a way, Coming Out Day is also an All Saints Day for the LGBTQIA+ community to recognize and honor the saints who have lived their lives as a witness and testimony to God’s love and creation, those saints who made it possible for me and other LGBTQIA+ people to answer the call to serve in the fullness of both our calls and our identities.

The main throughline of my ordination service was a remembrance of baptism. We began by celebrating and uplifting the names of those who lived as if nothing could separate them from the love of God, even when voices and policies in the church tried to do so. The truth is, in God’s eyes, none of us are the first or the last. By remembering our baptism, we remember that we are a community, a circle-cloud of witnesses who strengthen and embolden each other as we walk this road together. 

It is true that I am the first openly transgender man to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, USA. My prayer is that I am a part of opening the path wider for trans, nonbinary, and gender fabulous people to serve in ministry. My hope is that we may all remember that in our baptism, and in Christ, we are neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. God didn’t create or ordain a binary system because God is a Trinity — a holy mystery we are called to sit within. The Saints of the LGBTQIA+ movement dwell in this mystery as we work for a vision of God’s kindom on Earth — when all LGBTQIA+ people are celebrated and our gifts are used for the service of the world. I thought for a long time that this day would never come, but this one day has, and we will keep working for another, and for and with one another. 

All images by Liz Williams, artist in residence at the Campaign for Southern Equality

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