Those were the first words in an email of the Rev. Matt Gough when I reached out to him to see if he would be comfortable having his sermon shared in my blog this week. I was checking to make sure that he was comfortable with his vulnerability being shared beyond his local congregation. He thanked me for checking, but assured me “I’m out” as a recognition that he wouldn’t be able to control the narrative now.
Matt shared a deeply touching and vulnerable sermon (link here) about being diagnosed with autism and social anxiety while serving as a minister where being a “social butterfly,” as he put it, is often considered a prerequisite. I promised not to make him the subject of my blog this week, but to share his story as another example of a blog topic I had already planned for the week.
Last week I taped a sermon (link here) for the whole presbytery titled, “Just As I Am,” as I reflected on the hymn of the same title and my own experience of learning to love myself “just as I am.” Quite honestly, the church does not make it easy to love ourselves just as we are. We preach a good sermon on it. We have a deep and wonderful theology that affirms it. But, in practice, the church has an unconscious way of reinforcing a more narrow narrative that doesn’t easily allow for the diversity of our human experience.
Matt’s “coming out” was especially important for First, Corvallis as they are going through a process to make a declarative statement to be an “open and affirming church.” But in a brilliant flash of wisdom and courage he told the congregation this last Sunday, “I was asking the church to do something that I have not allowed it to do for me.” He was referring, of course, to the years of masking and hiding his social anxiety afraid that if people knew the real him he wouldn’t be accepted or respected as a pastor.
Matt’s experience is not uncommon. The sermon that I preached this week is part of my long process of coming out to myself and to the church. I came out to myself over two decades ago, but coming out to the church has taken much longer as I constantly assess what is safe and what is helpful for the church to know.
More of the information is in my sermon, but I have been slow to let the church get to know the real me because it often feels that my narrative doesn’t fit, or it makes people uncomfortable, or people just don’t know what to do with it. I am a child of a teenage mother who left our family. My parents have been married eleven times between them. I am divorced and living the life of “discreet dating” that unmarried ministers feel obligated to uphold.
This week I had a monumental event in my family, but you would have never known it—because like Matt I haven’t allowed you into my personal world. After many years of my second child working through gender identity issues, Jules and I had a conversation where he (formally she/them) informed me that he was ready to be called my son. This is monumental for me and our family. This has been years in the making.
Why haven’t I shared it?
Because what I need is for people to celebrate with me and my fear is that I will spend more time educating you and defending my child and I don’t want to do that. I just want to celebrate this moment and enjoy it. So I don’t take the risk to allow the church to accept me as I am. I hide my real self and my real story and, in the process, give you no opportunity to love the diversity that is right in front of you.
Over the years, this issue of people hiding their real selves has become scarily apparent to me.
- I have heard members tell me the week after missing a Sunday, “Sorry, pastor, I just didn’t have the energy last week to put my church face on.”
- I have spoken with dozens of people who have said, “I like the people of this church, but I would never share my real beliefs with them.”
- Members have shared with me, “I enjoy this church, but my real spiritual community is my AA group where I can be honest and authentic.”
- After sharing parts of my story from the pulpit individual members have confided in me, “I too have a gay or lesbian child. I wished I felt safe to tell my friends in church.”
Why do I share this now? Because in recent years the presbytery has been focusing more efforts on mirroring the diversity of our communities in our churches and leadership. Our presbytery is 97% white. When I came up for election for this position one of our commissioners half seriously and half in-jest said, “I was hoping for a black lesbian woman for this position, but seeing that we didn’t get that candidate, you will do.” It wasn’t a jab. It was a way of affirming my call to the position while also making a statement about our “diversity deficit.”
My point today is this. We want more diversity, but first we must learn to acknowledge, accept and celebrate the diversity that already exists within us. We all have to quit hiding from ourselves, from each other and from God. It’s time to get real with each other. It’s time to act more like AA and less like a country club.
Matt, thank you for giving us that chance.
And thank you to all of you who are willing to take the risk to say, “God loves me just as I am. I want you to love me that way too.”
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades