Op-ed: Coming Out As An Evangelical Pastor
I tried to keep my head up as I held the hand of my 3-year-old son, walking into our evangelical church. I did not want him to think that this Sunday was different than another Sunday. But for me, this was the first time I had come back to church simply a member and not as a pastor. As we approached his Sunday school classroom, where I was looking forward to volunteering, I was met by the man who was hired to take over the job I had done for many years.
“It’s so good to see you,” he smiled. I wondered if he was sincere.
“You too,” I lied.
“Hey,” he continued, his demeanor changing from light small talk to a no-nonsense frankness, “I just want you to know that I spoke with Pastor John and everything’s cool.” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about and had long since given up being polite and keeping my mouth shut.
“Everything’s cool with what?” I questioned.
“You volunteering in your son’s classroom. We’re all good.”
We’re all good. Really? We’re all good? We’re all good that for almost nine years I was one of the most highly respected pastors and leaders of this large evangelical church in Southern California and now I had to get special permission to volunteer in my child’s classroom?
And the only reason for this change is because I am gay.
I’m not “all good” with that.
The truth is, I was gay when I started working for this megachurch. But I was also married with two beautiful children and had spent the majority of the last 12 years in full-time Christian ministry. During my time at this church, I saw numerous promotions, role expansions, pastoral ordination, and ultimately a spot on the executive team, which gives overall direction to this congregation of more than 6,000 members.
As I came to the end of my 30s, I began to really wrestle with my physical attraction to men — attractions that had been part of my life since as early as I can remember. Wanting a family, romance, and all of the blessings of a heterosexual marriage, I was extremely happy when I met and fell in love with an amazing woman in college. We got married shortly after graduation. Although I realized early on that getting married and having plenty of heterosexual sex did nothing to take away my same-sex attractions, I figured it would be something I could live with, and something that I would have to keep to myself.
At least, that was my plan.
Nothing particularly changed in my life when my attraction to men began to grow, both in intensity and in regularity. I never cheated on my wife, but I knew that my growing desire to be close to a man — emotionally, physically, and sexually — was becoming a much bigger desire of my heart than it had ever been.
I needed someone to talk to, but I couldn’t look inside the church. I had been there for long enough to know it wasn’t safe to wrestle with one’s sexual orientation. In my years as a leader there, I had been a part of turning away a volunteer in children’s ministry because he had a past gay relationship and the decision to keep a lesbian couple from becoming church members, and I personally had to inform an employee that he could no longer work at our church once it was discovered he was gay. I knew I could not trust anyone there with my secret and the anguish it caused.
The thing I find most ironic is how this “sin” has been singled out in the evangelical community. I could struggle with just about anything else, and there would be a place for me to turn. If I had cheated on my wife and wanted a divorce, I could attend our church’s “Divorce Recovery” ministry. If I was addicted to alcohol or drugs, I would be welcome at “Celebrate Recovery.” If I couldn’t stay off pornographic websites, I could find solace and empathy at the “Every Man’s Battle.” Unfortunately for me, and for thousands like me in churches across this nation, if you are drawn to give and receive love from someone of the same gender, you are on your own, and usually forbidden from membership, leadership, and volunteering.
Eventually my wife found out about my sexual orientation. It was the most difficult time in our lives. We talked, cried, and sat in silence for days on end. During that time we celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. Sitting in that restaurant, neither of us knew what would happen to our marriage. The future was completely unclear.
One thing was certain: We could not tell anyone associated with our church. We both knew it would put my job in jeopardy. For the next two years, my wife and I tried to figure out if a marriage like ours could work, keeping our secret the entire time. Ironically, it was during this time that I did some of my best work as leader of all the family ministries at the church. I saw my influence grow, my responsibilities expand, and the number of people reporting to me nearly double. I received stellar performance reviews and often words of commendation and affirmation from our church’s elders, pastors and members of the congregation.
When the issue of homosexuality would come up, it was clear that our church, like the majority of evangelical churches in America, simply had no idea how to respond to the increasingly common situation of Christians who want to worship, serve, raise children, and become members and who also happen to be gay. They did not know it, but my church leaders were about to have the opportunity to have a dialogue with me about how to respond to and love gay people in their church.
But they chose not to take the opportunity.
After a long, emotional journey, I made the difficult decision to end my marriage. I realized that because I love my wife and because I believe that faithfulness is essential to making a marriage work, I knew that I could not be the kind of husband that my wife deserved. The day came for me to tell my bosses, the senior pastor and the executive pastor, what had been going on with me for years. We had very good conversations. They were shocked to learn about my sexual orientation and were genuinely concerned for my family and me and all we were going through. “Even if I wanted to keep you,” my senior pastor said, “you know it would never be accepted by the congregation.”
I knew he was right. Our church is located in a very conservative, family-oriented enclave of Southern California, with very few openly gay people. However, I also knew that if there was an area in today’s church that is in desperate need of a leader speaking out and standing up to forge a new path, it was in this area of homosexuality in the Christian church. Although I had not by any means been perfect in my journey of self-discovery, I also had not brought any scandal on the church and had done my best to protect it as I went through this process. I allowed myself a little hope, that maybe things would go differently than the way things typically go when there is a “scandal” or “fallen leader” in the church.
Unfortunately, I was wrong to hope.
Things happened quite swiftly from there. I was told to take the rest of the day off. And that turned out to be my last day in the office. I had follow-up meetings with well-meaning, albeit uninformed, church elders who insisted that the reason they could not have me work at the church any longer was because of my separation from my wife and not “the other issue.” I didn’t believe this, of course, since there were a number of people on staff who had been through a divorce. Less than three weeks later, when I would not voluntarily resign, I was terminated from the church, after almost nine years of exemplary ministry and service to others.
I have decided not to be part of a church that does not allow me to serve in the ministry, become a member, or celebrate my love with whomever I choose. My children still attend this church, as does my ex-wife. In order to experience the faith journey with my children, I attend periodically and serve alongside other parents in their Sunday school classrooms now that I have been granted permission.
The anger I felt through this process has been replaced with sadness. Not only is the evangelical church neglecting to guide, instruct, and affirm the faith of the scores of LGBTQ people in their congregations, they are actually damaging them by their inability and unwillingness to honestly and compassionately find a way to walk together in love. I think most evangelicals would agree that our position in the kingdom of heaven is based not on anything we do or say, but on our belief and faith in God. That means that all followers of Jesus, whether gay or straight, will one day be side by side in heaven worshipping God together and enjoying him forever. I am so happy that I have now found a new, welcoming and affirming faith community that is practicing what we pray: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
KEVIN McCLOSKEY worked for over 20 years in full-time Christian ministry. He is the proud dad of three amazing kids and lives in Studio City, Calif. Currently he works as the operations manager for LifeWorks, the youth mentoring and leadership development program of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.