On Being Notorious

A couple of years ago at a conference, a mutual friend introduced me to an editor of a denominational magazine. The editor promptly said, “Oh. You’re the notorious pastor.”

I did feel like a minor (very minor) celebrity at that conference in the wake of news stories about “the wedding” and “the review.”  That would be the wedding I officiated for two women who love each other and wanted to commit themselves to each other in the presence of God and their family and friends. That would be the review of my ministerial credentials to determine if I was still fit to be a pastor after said wedding.

Many people were deeply upset–not to mention scared and hurt–by the review board’s decision to allow me to remain a pastor in good standing. Some people (you may have heard this viewpoint before) believe that same-sex intimate relationships are explicitly condemned in the Bible. I have had–and will continue to have–this biblical/theological discussion. I’m not intimidated by this conversation because I know I’m right.

That probably sounds arrogant. Especially since I am a woman and am supposed to preface everything with “I think” and “It seems to me that.” But really, I deeply, passionately, unapologetically believe that God cares about the quality of our love, not the gender of the lovers. If I thought the Bible condemned same-sex intimate relationships, I would never have officiated “the wedding” in the first place.

Some people consider my willingness to disagree with the accepted theological position of the Mennonite church to be a sign that I am self-differentiated. Honestly, though, it’s just that I’m stubborn and opinionated. Plus, while I might disagree with the “party line,” I am in agreement with the majority of my closest colleagues, friends, and family members.

So in this situation, I don’t think my biblical interpretation is where self-differentiation comes into play.  I’ve never struggled with or questioned whether gay marriage is O.K. with God.

The struggle has been with my role and responsibility as a pastor ordained by a denomination that–officially at least–disagrees with me on this one particular issue.

Many people, I know, were upset not just because they disagreed with my theology. They were upset because I broke a rule. And got away with it.

I get that.

I am, at heart, a rule-follower. Ask anyone who was ever a classmate of mine in school. If I had ever gotten my name on the board, I’m sure I would have cried. The mere thought of getting in trouble ties my stomach in knots.

So while the biblical conversations about gay marriage won’t sway me, the accusations of rule-breaking and disrespect give me pause. In part because I know that people create rules for a reason. In part because I understand the need for accountability within communities.

Yes, my denomination has rules against pastors officiating weddings for same-sex couples. (Sort of. It’s complicated.) We also have rules against pastors engaging in public drunkenness and extramarital affairs.

Accountability is a good thing. That is the piece I had to struggle with as I made the decision to go ahead with the wedding in the face of pressure from conference leadership. In breaking an implicit rule of my ordaining body, was I being self-differentiated, or merely refusing to be accountable?

During the most difficult part of a conversation I had with conference leadership, I received what I consider to be a sign from God. Now I’m not one of those people who sees Jesus in my burnt toast. I don’t throw around the phrase “sign from God” lightly. My sign was a bird fluttering just outside the window I was facing. As the powers that be were telling me about my responsibility to uphold my ordination agreement all I could focus on was the bird bathed in light. Almost hovering right outside the window.

It was a holy moment that allowed me to shed my need to follow all the rules; my need to be acceptable and accepting and–most importantly–not in trouble.

Now that I am already in trouble–or, more technically speaking, “at variance” –my temptation runs in the opposite direction. I am no longer tempted to comply with authority. I am now tempted to ignore it altogether. To make light of my rebellion and dismiss any kind of accountability as oppressive.

To rebel for the sake of rebelling is just as unhealthy–possibly even more unhealthy–than to follow the rules just for the sake of following the rules.

And so we are on this journey together. And I thank God for my Christian brothers and sisters who pray with me and for me, who counsel me and comfort me, who hold me accountable to the true way of Jesus Christ.


–This post was written for my friend Marty Troyer’s blog series on self-differentiation and Christian community. I commend to you the other posts in this series as well.

Here’s the Thing

Lots of people disagree with my biblical interpretation regarding homosexuality (among other things). As a pastor who has officiated a wedding for two women, I’ve had the biblical conversation many times. I told my husband this morning that I could exegete those “gay” passages in my sleep.

But beyond the question of biblical interpretation, another interesting moral issue continually reemerges as I listen to conversations about my choice to officiate “the wedding.”

What about church unity? If you want to marry gay people, why not just be part of a denomination that will let you marry gay people? Why do you have to come around causing problems in the Mennonite church? Can’t you see we’re just trying to be peaceful and mind our own business?

Here’s the thing, though–I am not United Church of Christ or Presbyterian or Episcopalian. I am Mennonite. Anabaptist to the core. I will not baptize babies. I will not put a flag in a place of worship. I value simplicity and discipleship and community. And if I get to sing a few hymns in four-part harmony every week, that’s a bonus! I want my life to mirror the life of Christ, and I cannot find any other group of Christians that encourages me in this pursuit as well as the Mennonites.

And here’s the thing–there are so many GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) people who also want to follow Jesus in this way. They want–they need–a Mennonite community as much as I do. It breaks my heart to know of sexual minorities who cannot find a faith home because the churches that most resonate with their souls will not welcome them in the fullness of who they are.

And here’s the thing–the Mennonite church needs the graces and gifts of GLBT folks as well. It breaks my heart to think of the wonderful leadership, music, art, ministry that the church is missing out on because we do not fully include GLBT people. (I wish you all could know Randy Spaulding and Sarah Klaassen.) At a recent preaching conference I met a young woman pastor from United Church of Canada. When I told her I was Mennonite she said, “Oh, I have a lot of lesbian friends who used to be Mennonite.”

And here’s the thing–from my perspective, according to my reading of the Gospel, anything less than full inclusion for gays and lesbians in our churches is an injustice. More than that, our failure to embrace and support sexual minorities is a rejection of Jesus’ way of love.  It is to side with the religious powers that be–some of whom make good money off of their tirades against gay people–over and against the radical message of Jesus.

Here’s the thing–as a Mennonite, my faith legacy is littered with trouble makers–from Jesus, through the early Anabaptists, to the war resisters of the 20th century and the peace activists of today. Causing problems is in my spiritual DNA.

And here’s the thing–I do value the unity of the church, believe it or not. But it’s not true unity when a segment of God’s children are excluded. It’s easy to create unity when you only let in the people that agree with you.

Here’s the thing–I think most people in the Mennonite church are seeking to interpret scripture faithfully. I think most of us long for the fullness of God’s goodness in the church. I think most of us want unity, but not at the expense of integrity.

So here’s the thing–the real thing–according to Jesus:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind . . . Love your neighbor as yourself.

By God’s grace, may it be so.

Yes, I Officiated a Gay Wedding. Yes, I Would Do It Again.

This is not the wedding I’m in trouble for. But aren’t we cute?

Almost two years ago now, I received a tentative email from a young woman asking if she could have her upcoming wedding at our church. She and her fiance were Christian. They wanted a church wedding, and a friend had told her that she might be able to get married at Peace Mennonite in Lawrence.

And by the way, in case I hadn’t figured it out by the names, she was a woman. So was her fiance.

Our church publicly states that “we welcome into the full life of the church” a broad range of people, including people of diverse sexual orientations. Our church also has a building use policy, which I sent to the young woman. I said that I would want to be in touch with the minister who was officiating the ceremony.

Turns out that the couple did not have a minister to officiate the wedding. They couldn’t find a minister in their town who was willing to do it. Would I be willing?

I said what I say to couples who ask me to officiate weddings: This will be a Christian wedding. You will need to attend pre-marital counseling sessions. Let’s meet and talk and see if this will work.

The ensuing counseling sessions, which the couple faithfully drove into Lawrence to attend, looked pretty much like other premarital counseling sessions I’ve led. Except the part where I had to explain that this wedding would not be legally binding. Except the part where I asked what Christian community they planned to be part of as a married couple and they said, “We quit going to any of the churches in our town because we were tired of pretending to be roommates.”

I proceeded to officiate this wedding with the support of my congregation. It was an honor for me to bear witness to the love these women had for each other. (And it was probably the only wedding I will ever do where I was not noticeably shorter than either of the two people I was marrying!) I believe my ministry with these women was a faithful expression of my calling as a pastor. It was an opportunity to open the church doors wide, to practice hospitality, to encourage human love and faithfulness, to lift up the oppressed and promote justice.

Not everyone agrees with my assessment of the situation.

My credentials have been reviewed and upheld by the Leadership Commission of the Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA. There were dissenting opinions, but I am still an ordained Mennonite pastor. That decision came down over a year ago. I have since moved on with my ministry, fielding only the very occasional phone calls from concerned Mennonites who want to talk about “what I did.” Most days I just pray and study scripture and plan worship and write sermons and offer pastoral care and don’t get anywhere near a gay wedding.

Then, a couple of days before my sabbatical began, I received a phone call from our Conference Minister. He wanted to let me know about two resolutions that would be coming to the delegate floor at the Western District Conference Assembly this summer. The email containing the resolutions was going out later that day to all WDC pastors and churches.

He called me personally because these resolutions concern me, personally. One asks that the Leadership Commission suspend my ministerial credentials. Mine specifically. My name is in the resolution 5 or 6 times. (And never as “Rev. Harader.”) The other is much more general—pastors should act in accordance with the Mennonite Confession of Faith or resign. (And let me see the hands of every pastor who believes and follows every word in their denominational statement of faith. Anyone? Anyone? Last I checked, the Bible was still the holy text of the Christian church.)

When I wrote my Open Letter, I quickly learned that anything I say (or write) can and will be used against me. And I do not want to fan the flames of controversy or cause further disunity in the Body. So I tell my story here with a bit of fear and trepidation.

Still, I tell it. For a few reasons.

  • Some of you want to know what’s going on. Secrecy is not helpful. So now you know. Full texts of the resolutions are available from Western District Conference churches or the office in Newton.
  • Lots of people have been and will continue to be talking about me, and I want to have a voice in the conversation as well.
  • The sexual minorities who are still within the church (God bless them!) need to feel supported and to know that many of us long for the day when they are not an “issue” but beloved people within the faith family.
  • The sexual minorities who are not in the church (and who can blame them?) need to know that not all parts of the church are hostile.
  • The Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin do not deserve to be the loudest or the official or the unquestioned voice of biblical Christianity.

So here is my story. For what it is worth.

Some of you will think I am “Super Pastor Justice Crusader.” Which I am not.

Some of you will think I am out to destroy the world in general and the Mennonites in particular. Which I am not.

What I am is a wife and a mother and a pastor who is trying to follow Jesus the best I can. In word and in deed. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. In sickness and in health. Now and forever.

Prayers are appreciated—for me, for gay Christians, for Western District and Mennonite Church USA and . . . just prayers. Lots of prayers. And open hearts. And listening ears.