Just a couple of weeks after I returned home from the mission trip that changed everything, I packed up my stuff and started college at a conservative Evangelical college in the midwest. The school rules were simple: no smoking, no drinking, no sex, and absolutely no dancing. Oh, and no gay people either. I still didn’t have language for my gender identity but I knew I felt completely out of place living in the girls’ dorm. I didn’t feel like I fit in with other people on my hall and I was worried that they would be weird with me if they found out I “struggled with homosexual tendencies” (as I was calling it).
As difficult as the summer was, I still felt called to ministry. I knew God wanted me to be working in the church. I declared a double major: Youth Ministry and Communications (with a theatre emphasis). I was going to learn how to reach people and make good art that would change things.
In college I made new friends who made space for my changing identity and beliefs. I made art that I was really proud of for the first time, art that asked questions instead of simply providing all of the answers. But I also grappled with mental health stemming directly from my struggles with my sexuality and from my shifting faith. It was a challenge and I didn’t feel like there was anyone I could talk to. I tried on campus therapy but quit as soon as the counselor brought up the way I dressed. It didn’t feel like a safe space.
I felt isolated and alone. I still wanted to please God. I wanted to serve. But I had no idea what that even looked like anymore. In every youth ministry class we would be told about how women couldn’t be youth pastors. When I talked to my advisor they told me to work with kids. I wasn’t sure if there was space for me in the church anymore.
The summer before my junior year of college I fell into a job as an interim youth pastor at an American Baptist church and when I went back to college that fall I got a job as an intern at a United Methodist church. For the first time my call was being affirmed. I was being told that there was a place for me in leadership in the church. It was life changing. I began to see a world in which I could actually do the things I felt God calling me toward.
I just wasn’t sure what to do about the gay thing. It was clear my prayers for deliverance weren’t working. No matter how I tried to ignore it, deny it, make it go away, my feelings for women were still there. I thought I could maybe at least be celibate; that that would be enough. But mostly I knew I had to keep it a secret. Problem was, it was getting harder and harder to do that. I felt like if people didn’t know this piece of me, this thing that I was struggling with, then they couldn’t actually know me. There was always a wall between us. So I started to come out, very slowly and very quietly at first, and always with the “but I’m going to be celibate forever” caveat. People took it okay, mostly because I hadn’t done anything. I was referred to some ex-gay ministries but thankfully I had the self-awareness to look at the link and then delete it.
I graduated from college, started a full time job as a youth pastor back at the American Baptist church, and the deconstruction that started in college ramped up speed. The pastor at the church gave me all sorts of books to read, told me about Christian anarchism, introduced me to gay pastors in the denomination and pushed me to consider wider horizons. At the time we didn’t have any conversations about my sexuality, but it was obvious to him what I was struggling with. He tried to make space for me to be myself.
During this time I started to try to figure out what I believed. Not what I had been taught, or had handed down to me, but what I actually, truly believed. I read a ton of books and talked to pastors and other leaders. I let go of some things I had grown up believing were pillars of the faith when I realized there wasn’t much proof for them (like the Rapture). I learned more about how to read Scripture so that I could figure out for myself what I believed about “the clobber passages”. During this time I held everything with a loose hand, willing to let it go if I needed to.
This was painful and scary. Growing up I was taught that right belief meant everything and now here I was questioning all of the things. Could I still call myself a Christian if I didn’t believe everything I had once been taught? Were there other, faithful ways to believe and to read the Bible?
What if I was wrong?
That was the question that kept me up at night. It’s the question that people threw at me when they wanted to challenge me on something. What if you’re wrong? Everything was about keeping me in my place and using fear to do it. Just keep believing so God won’t send you to Hell.
I started to think, “I’m not sure I want to believe in this kind of God.” I started to wonder, “Maybe a God who would punish me forever for being wrong isn’t a God who is worthy of worship.”
I tried to stay open. To stay curious. To keep “turning the gem” (as Rob Bell says in “What About The Bible?”). I kept repeating to myself, God is big enough to handle my questions. And I realized that whatever would remain of my faith at the end of this deconstruction would be hard won. Would it be worth it? Only time would tell.
After the pastor, my mentor, left the church, I remained for another year until, once again, keeping the secret of my sexuality became too much to bear.
Through a friend, I met a woman and unexpectedly fell in love. All of my assertions about remaining celibate forever couldn’t stand up to these feelings and to my desperate desire to not be lonely anymore.
Things came to a head. I was still living at home, closeted. Still working at the church, closeted. And trying to date for the first time. It was untenable. I was outed at the church through my MySpace page, outed to my mom by a bumper sticker on my then-partner’s car, and all of the secrets I had so closely held came tumbling out.
I started to lean in to my new identity. I gave myself a year off from church work as I tried to decide if God was still calling me. I took at job at TGI Friday’s. I took a break from many of my Christian friends. I mostly stopped going to church or reading the Bible. I rested. Sometimes the best thing we can do to heal from spiritual trauma is to let ourselves rest. Stop trying to make it make sense, stop trying to figure out what you believe. Just rest and trust God will meet you where you are.
Yet, at the end of the year off, I still felt this pull toward something bigger than me. This pull toward Christianity, toward the church, but I knew it couldn’t look the same as it had.
I got married to my partner in Canada (because it was legal there) and two weeks later I started seminary.
Would I stay in ministry? Was there a way to be fully myself and still be in the church? At the end of the deconstruction, we finally have space for the reconstruction. That story is next.
Where are you in your spiritual journey? Are you in the deconstruction? The reconstruction? Are you stuck somewhere in the in-between? Let us know, we’d love to see if we can help you get unstuck.