A Queer Sort of Candidacy Problem

I haven't been writing about this because I wasn't there. But we're all very clearly still in the fallout of the resolve of this church to ordain LGBTIQ clergy without mandating celibacy. Which somehow has become a fight, from the historically dominant side, about ordaining LGBTIQ folk at all -- as though we'd never done it before! We've had quietly gay pastors for a long time, generations back into our predecessor churches. But these generations of out, proud, and faithful folk today are getting a mixed message, at best.

What happened? (Oh, I don't mean in the big sense -- I'm not qualified to write about that. I just mean last Wednesday.) I've been to quite a few bishop-visitation luncheons here at LSTC, and every year there are some gripes about the candidacy process, and especially placements -- or the lack thereof. And I've heard any number of bishops complain about the model, that they can't just put you where they want to and be done with it. And two years ago, after the rules were changed by the Churchwide Assembly, quite a few of our graduates got shafted simply for being students from the school whose faculty signed their names to arguments in favor of -- I hate the language -- "ordaining practicing homosexuals." Not our language, but certainly the dominant terms of the debate. Some simply got delayed, put on the back burner; some were actually told that this is what was going on; and others simply got raked over the coals of artificial confessional litmus tests that were little more than heresy hunts. "Just give us an excuse." A very good friend of mine got bounced from her process, attributed to a 90 on a school paper, a grade I gave her -- on a paper they had no right to see, let alone use that way, constructive work that was really quite good and a grade that was supposed to reflect that.

That's calmed down, of course -- our straight candidates are much easier to place, now. Not that the system works -- we keep telling students to "trust the process," but at its best, that only ever meant, "don't try to work the system for yourself -- trust us to work the system for you, because we're expected to be manipulating the system to get you placed, but they might smack you down for trying to get your own call." And before 2008-09, maybe that mostly worked (he said generously) -- but with the economic crash and practically nobody retiring, and on top of that the added strain of church-wide synodical conflicts exacerbated by the sexuality resolutions, with congregations leaving, and various synods pushing and pulling in different directions, the church has mostly gone into "putting out fires" mode, and invested heavily in conflict-avoidance. It's like we fought so hard to get the pill swallowed -- and now the body is fighting the medicine, and the doctors are waiting to see what happens. And that seems to be what happened at this bishop-visitation luncheon. The bishops, whose jobs here are always "sell, sell, sell," trying to get candidates to come to their synods, are deep in the numbers game of decline, and the pessimism that goes with it. And with five bishops from conservative synods this time around, it's little surprise that the message wasn't positive. "Wait" -- indefinitely. "Go out and be creative -- figure out how to work while you wait for a call to come through." "Think in terms of dual-vocation -- be a part-time pastor, and a part-time barista."

Now this is general, too -- but the best remarks of all apparently came in response to a question about two of our seniors, out and single, who have been approved, but whose placements are being delayed. (There's a term for that in the process, and I'm missing it, off the top of my head.) The classic "the church moves slowly" line came out. Think how long it took the church to accept women -- and you want calls now? If you want ministry opportunities, you're going to have to get out there and make them -- the "mission developer" answer, basically.

I realize how necessary the congregational and synodical acceptance is -- this church doesn't so much place pastors, as distribute pools of candidates for regions and synods and churches to work from. Congregations call pastors. Or reject them for any reason. I belong to a congregation that just voted, by better than 2/3 on both, to accept LGBTIQ candidates for future pastoral openings, and to perform liturgical blessings of same-gender unions. And it was a very nervous time, and I think it still is, waiting for "the other shoe to drop" in terms of reactions from members who disagree. But we saw that it had to be done -- that either we kept offending against our brothers and sisters by asserting that they weren't in fact full and welcome participants in the body of Christ, or we offended against our brothers and sisters who aren't ready for this sort of decision, or who believe that it is morally wrong in some way. We went for the vote knowing that people were already losing by our inaction, that it was a real ethical choice with consequences on all sides, and that we couldn't escape it, and that waiting wasn't a good enough answer. I'm not sure that grasp of the issue is shared widely enough.

There's a mechanistic fallacy at work under this whole problem. There's a fallacy of continuous gradual progress, of slow and steady evolution according to a model by which traits emerge only when the ground has been prepared for them. Very Niebuhrian. The pragmatics of waiting until the time is right to act, and acting in measured ways. Letting the foundation cure before you start building the first story of the building. But this isn't actually how either history or evolution work. And it's intolerable to those who don't sit in the seats of power and privilege, who aren't invested in the way things are because the deck is stacked against them and they know it. No; instead, traits emerge whether they're desirable or not. Historical events happen when they shouldn't, and succeed when they shouldn't, and fail when they shouldn't. Life and history are not progressive. They consist of discontinuous moments, of changes and conflicts. They do not wait. It is intolerable that we should tell our brothers and sisters any differently -- that we should pretend that we want anything but not to lose, when we say that this group, or that, should wait politely as long as it takes to be acknowledged.

If the systems don't work -- if they can only be made to work for some and not for others; if the threat of opening the process to an outgroup makes the process suddenly smoother for the ingroup; if no matter what, or who, the guarantees we used to make prove simply false -- we must change the system. Or at the very least, to start, teach its participants what they're really in for. It isn't right -- it isn't just -- to uphold the pretense any longer. When you come for your M.Div., you aren't guaranteed to come out with a parish at the other end, any more than a Ph.D. guarantees a professorship. And that's fine -- it is what it is. But if it's not going to work for everyone, it had damned well better distribute what successes there are impartially. The problem isn't going away -- and the system isn't going to get better by pretending that the candidates, even if only some of them, are the problem.

We have a church that is moving, in all sorts of directions at all sorts of levels. And we know that you can't guarantee calls in congregations that aren't willing to call. That's a problem we're stuck with because of our polity. But God help you, if you're a bishop it is your job, no matter how liberal or conservative your synod seems, to work with your congregations. Don't drown in the numbers game. Don't pigeonhole. Place pastors where they can do the ministry they've been trained to do, in places that need ministry. Be the pastor of your pastors, and support them. If you honestly can't, free them -- don't shunt a candidate off to the side and leave them there. Our candidates shouldn't have to fight you to do the work for which we have trained them. You should be fighting for them. And if you're in a congregation, think about the messages you're sending. Both to your own people, one way or the other, and to the larger church, to your bishops and leaders who hear the negative very loudly, but don't hear your willingness, your acceptance, your ability to work with any pastor who is willing to work with you. If that's true for you, and it's true in your congregation, make some noise about it so that your bishops hear you.