On October 9, 2011, when I became the first openly gay man to be ordained to the ministry by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Madison, I witnessed the best and the worst of what the religious community offers gay people.
Six members of Fred Phelps’s congregation, Westboro Baptist Church, came to town to picket my ordination service that day with their “God Hates Fags” placards and offensive chants.
In response, more than 70 folks showed up from Madison’s religious community to offer a loving and peaceful counter-witness on the sidewalk adjacent to Covenant Presbyterian Church, where the ordination service was taking place. Rainbow flags were abundant. The crowd took up an offering for a local food pantry. They signed cards, delivered to me after the service, congratulating me.
The visual outside the church captured the full spectrum of Christian witness to the LGBTQ community: hatred, homophobia, and outright bigotry at one end, and unconditional love and welcome at the other.
I know firsthand about both ends of this continuum.
Serving in the Closet
The ordination service last October was not my first. In 1987, I began serving as pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church, a 400-member congregation in suburban Sacramento, California.
Since I had arrived at Bethany, a couple in the church and I had been in conflict over a particular set of social issues. They wrote to me and told me just after New Year’s in 1990 that they had heard from a colleague in town—another Presbyterian pastor who had been a trusted friend for almost 20 years—that I was a gay man. They surmised that my need to hide my sexual orientation as a closeted Presbyterian minister was the reason that I was so timid about supporting their issues, which had nothing to do with being a gay man and serving as a Presbyterian minister. Now, if only I would do what they wanted me to do for their cause, they would keep my secret.
Ironically, a year earlier I had already made the decision to leave the Presbyterian ministry. What drove me to that decision was initially the departure of my partner after eight and a half years of a committed relationship. He was simply fed up with having to lie about our relationship with our closest friends in the church, with deceiving and pretending on a daily basis, and with all of the unhealthy emotional energy we invested in being in the closet.
The trauma and pain of his leaving heightened my own growing dissatisfaction with having to live a lie about who I was. I, too, was emotionally weary of living under the pretense that I was someone I was not, and that generated an enormous amount of despair and self-hatred. If I were to live with the kind of honesty, integrity, and wholeness that God intended for my life, I realized I could not do so as a Presbyterian minister living in the closet.
Six weeks later, my worst nightmare came true. This couple sent a letter to Presbyterian leaders throughout Sacramento informing them that I was gay. What had, up to that point, been private and confidential, was now a matter of public discussion.
After several sleepless nights I finally did what I had preached about to others so many times. I turned to God and prayed: I am putting this situation—my life—in your hands. I have no control over what will happen next.
My fear and anxiety began to dissipate. I let go of my worry about what other people were going to think of me when they learned that their pastor was a gay man. As I stopped wondering what tomorrow would hold for my life, I realized that I could not leave the ministry in silence and shame. There was more going on here than a living nightmare. The fearful, anxious, closeted Scott Anderson was dying, and somebody new was being born.
With my anxiety gone and filled with strength I had never before possessed, I decided it was time to be open and honest. I called a special meeting of the governing board of our church, and through a teary and emotional discussion, I told them the truth of who I was, what this couple had done, and why I felt I needed to resign.
The following Sunday, I lived through what I always felt would be my worst moment: at a congregational meeting after our Sunday morning worship service, I told the congregation that I am a gay man, the circumstances of the last several months, and the reasons why I could not stay as their pastor.
Two days later, I stood before the Presbytery of Sacramento, the regional body of the Presbyterian Church in our area, and told my story a third time. Each time I spoke, to the governing board, the congregation, and then to the Presbytery, I gained power to face the next situation, filled not only with anger, grief, and pain, but also with a new and overwhelming sense of dignity, grace, and gratitude.
The biggest surprise for me through this whole experience was the response of people at Bethany Church to my revelation. I expected anger, hostility, fear, and rejection. Instead I encountered love, affirmation, support, and care beyond my wildest imagination. Several weeks after I left the pulpit, the congregation hosted a good-bye gathering for me. They knew I planned to return to graduate school in the fall, and presented me with a check to fully cover the cost of tuition and expenses for two years.
God has surprised me in many ways on this 22-year journey since I left the parish ministry.
After finishing graduate school in public policy and administration, I assumed I would get lost in the bowels of California state bureaucracy as a mid-level manager, never darkening the doors of any church again. But while in graduate school I was hired for a part-time job with the California Council of Churches, where I stayed for 12 years and eventually became its executive director.
My ecumenical work in California and now here in Wisconsin as executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches has given me a different kind of ministry than parish work; a place to serve and grow and heal that I never expected when I left the pastorate in 1990.
Another surprise came soon after leaving ministry in 1990. I met my current partner, Ian MacAllister, through a newspaper ad in 1991; last year we celebrated our 20th anniversary.
Presbyterian Church Policy Change
In the summer of 2011, God surprised me once again when the Presbyterian Church made a change in church policy that now allows people like me to be ordained. Back in 1990, I never thought this day would come in my lifetime. And I never dreamed I would be the first such candidate, or that it would happen in Madison, a city I had never visited at the time.
There have been other unexpected surprises. Three years after I left the ministry in 1990, I became involved in the denominational struggle over sexuality and ordination in the Presbyterian Church, joining the voices of other LGBTQ Presbyterians who had been wounded by the denomination’s longstanding policy of denying ordination to those of us in committed relationships.
For much of that decade, I spoke out regularly at national church meetings and in congregations around the country, challenging conservative Christian orthodoxy regarding gay people and sharing my story of leaving the ministry.
National Church Politics
Over time, I grew deeply disenchanted with the denominational merry-go-round of mean-spirited debates and national votes that didn’t lead to progress but created a perpetual set of winners and losers, friends who are with us and enemies who oppose us.
In fact, Presbyterian national meetings—like many mainline Protestant groups—looked increasingly like the religious version of the Wisconsin state legislature, with its cadre of professional lobbyists, partisan vitriol, and warring factions exercising power to gain strategic advantage—all of which had little to do with being a community of faith, in my view.
After half a dozen years of national church politics, I grew emotionally and spiritually exhausted. I had to confess that I had become part of the problem, and that I could no longer participate in or support a system that creates enemies out of people who happen to hold a different Biblical and theological perspective than mine.
Presbyterian Task Force on Hot-Button Issues
In 2001, the Presbyterian Church created a 20-member task force and charged it with finding a new way forward on a variety of hot-button issues over five years, including the ordination of openly gay, partnered LGBTQ people who were called to serve as ministers. As soon as I saw the announcement about the formation of this group, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Eventually I was appointed as its only openly gay member. The group also included some theologically conservative and outspoken critics of gay ordination.
All of us on the task force started our work with a great deal of fear and trepidation. This was the most diverse group of people I have ever sat with in the Presbyterian Church, a group that under ordinary circumstances would never consider being in the same room with one other.
In the first few years of our work, we spent an enormous amount of time getting to know one another and growing to care for and appreciate the people who were behind the labels the church had placed on us, or that we placed on each other. Enemies slowly became friends.
Gay people in our culture have developed a kind of “sixth sense” about who is safe to talk to, and who is not safe; which groups of people are trustworthy, and which are not.
My experience of this task force—in all of its diversity—is that it evolved into a thoroughly trustworthy community. And as one who has not always felt welcome in the Christian Church, this gift of hospitality was particularly healing for me, and in and of itself embodied a sign of hope for a new way forward.
As a result of this hospitable community, I began an inward journey of change and spiritual maturation. This community of trust increased my capacity to listen, especially to those with whom I disagreed theologically. It also enabled me over time to begin to speak the truth in love to others in our group, deepening my level of transparency and honesty.
We began our work as a task force by focusing on what we share in common, which, we discovered, was much larger and more important than the differences that separated us.
This was not rushed conversation. We took the first three years to talk about what unites us. Only in the fourth year did we start to look at divisive issues such as the ordination of LGBTQ individuals called to ministry.
Even with the deep differences around the table, we chose not to debate with one another. We began with the proposition that we have not come together to change anybody’s mind on any issue before us, but rather to learn from each other and to be attentive to God’s presence in our midst.
When I walked into the meeting room at the first gathering of our task force 2001, I felt pretty confident about who was right and who was wrong. By our last meeting in 2006, after five years of deep conversation in an atmosphere of hospitality, I realized that I could no longer make those judgments.
In many ways this experience of community is the Christian Church at its best, rooted in relationships that transcend our differences, able to engender a level of trust where each of us can speak the truth of our lives with respect for others.
The Rev. Scott D. Anderson is Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. He was ordained at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Madison.