Op-ed: In and Out of the Closet as a Pastor
Or at least I thought I had...
The letter I’d written to the bishop explained, in no uncertain terms, that I no longer wanted to continue as a pastor in a denomination that didn’t welcome all people and was keeping the closet door locked on its LGBT pastors.
It had been a long time coming, of course. I’d never been one to jump off a cliff without thinking about it first. Throughout my seminary training. I followed the rules. Through psychological evaluations and committee reviews. I followed the rules. In conversations, at conventions, in interviews and interrogations. I followed the rules. And in my service to three Orange County, Calif., congregations, I followed all the rules: Gay is OK ... just remain celibate ... and for God’s sake, don’t tell us — we really don’t want to know. It was a life sentence of isolated, closeted misery. Yes, sir. No, ma’am. Got it, thanks.
The funny thing is, it didn’t feel much like a sentence. It felt like a calling. Arriving at the pastor’s desk felt like the culmination of some kind of plan — an almost magical intersection of gift and talent and joy and sorrow and, most of all, need. Standing in that pulpit, wearing that collar, loving those people, it just felt right — a kind of “right” I’d never really known.
And it was not a massive sacrifice for me, anyway. I think that to sacrifice something, you must have had it to begin with. I never really did. Being gay had always been a fleeting idea that churned in my gut like sour milk, spreading its poison, working its destruction. Sexuality and identity each had their own closet in my soul, their doors opening in dark isolation only out of necessity — and without a model (or an opportunity) in sight, that celibacy thing was nothing new to me. It was my status quo.
Ah, but then lately things had been changing. Sometimes those closet doors were left ajar, and I was beginning to see ... to experience a more unified “me.” And there was that “right” feeling again.
Hell, I was leaving anyway. What did it matter? The application to advance my education in social work was a done deal, and the going-away party platter was already ordered. “Thanks for your service.” Only the bishop would be the wiser. There would be no division, no argument, no battle, no sides.
So when the response to my letter was “Let’s have breakfast,” I wondered.
“You know...” he said.
I did know. Under the rug was not foreign geography to me. I could go back to school, play it from the margins, work under the radar, and maybe ... maybe. After all, “things were changing.” I doubted that they would, frankly. But why burn the bridge? There was still hope, wasn’t there? It was an argument compelling enough to allow myself to be swept one more time.
And then it happened. Things changed. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in its 2009 churchwide assembly, changed the rules. I could be me, whoever that was, and so could scores of others.
I wonder, sometimes, though. Did I do it right? Could I have chosen another path? Could I have been bolder, more aggressive, more courageous? Of course. But as Ronny Cammareri exclaims in his classic Moonstruck line, “I ain’t no frickin’ monument to justice.”
I’m just me.
STEVE FIECHTER is an ordained pastor on the roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is currently working with PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) in a support program for homeless veterans. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband, Ben-Andy Hein.