LGBT,  Progressive Christianity,  Religious Trauma

I Lost My Dream Job Because I’m Queer

I lost my dream job because I’m queer. Isn’t that illegal? Well, yes. Except I technically left voluntarily. Most former pastors and missionaries do. I left because I felt pushed out and I couldn’t be complicit in oppression any longer. Whether that’s voluntary or coercion, is up for debate.

That’s how churches get away with it – the discrimination. They corner you into a shrinking box until you can’t live like that anymore and you leave. Then they can say you left willingly. You resigned, it wasn’t a good fit, you pursued other opportunities, your passions changed, etc. That, or you hide your real self because you can’t afford to lose your livelihood. Perhaps after years of Christian service, your secular business skills are lacking and you aren’t sure what your options are.

It doesn’t matter whether or not its intentional, pushing “dissident” Christians out of their ministry jobs. Oppression is so deeply ingrained into church culture its entirely possible not everyone there realizes what they’re doing. But the impact is the same and responsibility is not absolved.

I didn’t want to quit my job. Leaving deeply broke my heart. I had worked with the ministry for seven years, employed full-time for three. That community was everything to me. It wasn’t just my job – it was my closest friendships, my fun weekends, my late nights, my meaningful conversations, my outlet for making a difference in the world and my opportunity for discovering my own gift and talents.

My college ministry was my safe place when I was excommunicated from my parents church for visiting a male friend. My college ministry empowered me as a woman – they allowed women pastors and showed me that as a woman I could be equally used by God. My college ministry believed in me as a shy, home-schooled 18 year old and enabled me to take on a vital role in the community. Because of my college ministry I learned I was gifted at facilitating discussions, planning largescale events, writing sermons and public speaking, mentoring and coaching to name only a few.

The acceptance and empowerment I experienced there healed me from a narcissistic church friendship I had had for the previous four years which left me feeling totally worthless and defective. My college ministry pushed me outside my comfort zone in all the best ways and provided me the first opportunities to build friendships with non-believers, to have in-depth spiritual conversations with people I didn’t know closely, and even to speak on a faith panel alongside atheists in front of several hundred people.

Because of this ministry, I became a central hub in a thriving and diverse community – feeling valued and important for the first time. This ministry provided me the opportunity to live in a community house and experience interdependent, sustainable living in ways I had only dreamed of before. This ministry showed me what it is like having a close, tight-knit fellowship of people that have nothing else in common other than a shared belonging and curiosity about Jesus.

My college ministry was the reason I learned how to be family with people I didn’t always naturally feel drawn to. They gave me the chance to complete a two-year internship usually only offered to Bachelor’s graduates after I had earned my Associates degree. The internship was the most meaningful thing I had ever done with my life. I was able to dedicate myself full-time to my passions – making a tangible difference in the lives of people who meant the world to me. Through raising financial support I was able to get paid for doing what I loved the most. Because of this ministry, I was able to help others experience Christianity as healing, transformational and empowering. They made it possible for me to facilitate an environment where people could have the same kinds of powerful spiritual experiences that changed my life.

This ministry gave me the chance to study theology and take seminary classes and achieve my dream of becoming a pastor. Me! A woman! A young woman in my early twenties at that. Earning my licensing credentials was so incredibly validating. After a lifetime of being told women, and especially young women, couldn’t be trusted – here was a ministry that affirmed me in doing pastoral work even as a student. They then went on to empower me to becoming officially recognized as a pastor within their denomination. This ministry was the best thing that happened to me. Leaving felt like the antithesis of everything I held dear.

However, as I moved higher and higher up in the organization, I had the chilling realization that the national and global levels of this denomination weren’t as family-like and accepting as the small chapter I had worked with since I was a teenager. The more I attended huge conferences and met national leaders, the more I experienced judgment and legalism.

The community houses connected with sister ministries where I spent a lot of time during my internship had strict separations between men and women. For instance, when myself and a few other female interns went downtown to get food with one of the male interns, we were warned to “be careful with him”. What did they expect us to do? Have an orgy in the car? These binary divisions and oversexualization were always very uncomfortable and confusing to me as a queer person. The community houses were also strictly no-alcohol, so when a friend of mine came over with some Amaretto-flavored ice cream to store in the freezer during their visit, we were almost told we couldn’t have it (even though it was non-alcoholic). They eventually said it was okay after a chaotic household debate. Rules like these became more and more consuming and nonsensical and ridiculous and I went from feeling safe and accepted to once again being always on edge, waiting for the day I would break an unexpected and unknown rule and my life would come crashing down all over again.

As a student I was aware that my beloved community had a “traditional view” on marriage and sexuality, but it wasn’t a topic that came up much. We didn’t encounter too many people who asked about those policies, so I never experienced it being a problem in a practical sense. However, now as an interned staff member the problematic nature of those policies became painfully clear. Once while running a promotional event in the campus center, a student approached me and asked if we were accepting to LGBT students and I didn’t know what to say. I knew the official answer was no. I mean, they could come to our events of course, but eventually if they wanted to be an active Christian in the community they would be asked to give up that part of themselves. What’s more, they would be asked that by straight married staff who would never have to make a similar sacrifice. Being put in this predicament opened my eyes to just how horrible our stance was – I just couldn’t see Jesus ever telling someone they weren’t accepted. The person standing in front of me was a real human being, not a topic, not an issue, not a doctrine. I ended up telling them “Jesus accepted everyone so we had better do it, too!” My answer satisfied the student, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that while what I had said was morally true, I had somehow just lied about our community. From then on, I often felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – acting accepting and loving on the outside, but on the inside I was following oppressive policies and being dishonest with people.

What made it even harder to accept the community’s “traditional stance” on sexuality, was that they were affirming to women in ministry even when most “traditional” churches weren’t. They were willing to do the hard work and theological gymnastics to come to that conclusion – pulling apart problematic Bible verses, studying the original culture at the time, imagining scenarios that might make a writer say what they did, even speculating that some verses had been added in later – but they were never willing to do the same thing with the verses about homosexuality. I knew if the same amount of effort was invested in resolving the LGBT “clobber” passages, a similar conclusion could be reached. In fact, I realized it would actually probably be easier to arrive at LGBT inclusion than inclusion for women pastors. A quick history study shows that the word “homosexual” wasn’t in any English translations until 1946, and the word had been understood as pedophilia before that. Changing the translation had been a topic of debate and not universally accepted as the correct decision.

It became so clear to me that because it was so easy to do the research and change their minds on LGBT inclusion, if it wasn’t happening it was simply because church leaders didn’t want to. It would shake things up too much to change an entire denomination’s stance, so they didn’t bother. They would lose things – things like, clout in certain circles, a percentage of affiliates, and large donors. Women had led the way in establishing the denomination from the very beginning, so female equality never required leadership to “change their minds” or make any sacrifices. Women were always involved in drawing up organizational policies and stances, but openly LGBT people were never represented on decision-making boards. Now generations later, real people were being hurt as a result. A lack of representation always leads to dehumanization and oppression of the underrepresented groups as decisions are made about them without their involvement.

As I completed my internship and went on to becoming a licensed pastor, I continued to wrestle with my growing understanding of my sexual orientation. I had never talked to anyone in the ministry about it, but I decided to tell my best friend who was an intern there at the time. She and I had been through everything together over the last 5 years or so, and if anyone would understand, it would be her. I trusted her. I told her what I knew about my queerness and excitedly declared that self-acceptance was so freeing – I finally felt authentic! She responded by telling me that my “most authentic self is full of sin and brokenness” and that for those reasons I should not strive for authenticity but rather holiness. I was devastated and deeply insulted. We had always been so bonded – we were very touchy best friends and our souls felt joined in a way I couldn’t explain, but after telling her I wasn’t straight, she became cold and distant and avoided touching me. I was completely shattered. This couldn’t be Christlike, could it?

As my theology became more and more inclusive, a divide grew between me and my beloved community. I wasn’t able to teach or preach freely anymore – there was now a limit to what I could say. For a while I taught what I was told to, not what I believed. But I couldn’t do that forever – I couldn’t in good conscious get up in front and say things that I believed were inherently wrong and harmful and untrue. I was also painfully aware that in order to be true to myself, I would lose everything I held dear. I wouldn’t be seen the same way again and I would give up all I had worked toward for almost a decade. I would lose my entire community all over again, seven years after it had happened the first time.

One of my students who identified as lesbian apparently didn’t know our official stance on LGBT inclusion. It wasn’t talked about much and I can understand why. Once she told me “I’m so glad I could find an accepting church community! I don’t think I would be a Christian if I hadn’t found this.” That cut me deep to the bone. What were we supposed to do now? A member of our community found her faith under false pretenses. I couldn’t deny it was a huge red flag if revealing our true beliefs would destroy someone’s faith and their ability to be part of our community.

As a queer, pansexual woman, I couldn’t even tell this student that I shared parts of her journey. I couldn’t share commonality with her as queer women. I couldn’t connect with her as a fellow queer Christian. I had to hide my identity or talk about “remaining celibate” and how Jesus supposedly changed me. As a queer person, I wasn’t allowed to work a job where I spiritually mentored other queer people. Straight people were supposed to do that. Or queer people who denied themselves. The epiphanies were suffocating.

I watched myself being slowly pushed further and further out of my window of tolerance. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t get paid money to oppress people who were just like me. I started to face my privilege as a straight-passing cis-gendered woman who was in a relationship with a man at the time. I contemplated the fact that I was allowed to exist in this community because my life on the surface fit closely enough in the box of their expectations – but not everyone had that privilege of conforming on the surface. I wasn’t comfortable continuing to use my privilege of acceptance to take it away from others. I couldn’t live secretly as a self-accepting queer person while asking someone else to deny their queerness.

It wasn’t just the doctrines on LGBT issues that pushed me away from this ministry. By this time, I had seen too much. I had seen judgmental attitudes, controlling policies and ridiculously strict rules designed at higher organizational levels – but ultimately it was reckoning with the humanity of queer people that pressed me to the point of knowing without a doubt what I had to do.

So I left. I left everything I wanted for my life and everything I saw for my future. I left what I had thought was my calling and what I seemed most gifted at doing.

I left my closest friends and my built-in support system. I left the only place I had truly felt I belonged. I left a job I loved so much, waking up in the morning felt like a fantasy. I left the community I had invested the entirety of my adult life into.

I left in faith that I would be able to find other ways of building community and practicing healthy spirituality. I left trusting that God would not reject me for honoring the way I was created.

I left knowing I had built my life over completely from scratch once before, and I believed I could do it again.

So I found a loophole in the 3-year contract I had signed and used that as an excuse for leaving and I did it. I left. People supported me because they thought I was leaving for “family reasons”, and while that was part of it, I wasn’t fully honest about my reasoning. I couldn’t deal with same the pain of rejection that we regularly asked our queer students and others to experience. I couldn’t bear simultaneously losing my community and knowing they would be looking down on me behind my back, too. I travelled a path all too familiar to many queer people and I hid – for my safety, my sanity, and my survival. In the process of leaving a place where I lived in hiding, I hid some more. It hurt.

I remained close friends with some of the students I had mentored, now with no limits. I was able to maintain relationships mostly only with those who hadn’t had authority over me and were more liberal in their theology. The young lesbian woman who unknowingly spurred on my journey of walking away would actually be the first person I officially came out to about a year later.

My faith in myself was not unfounded. I went on to join leadership at a progressive and affirming church and co-founded an intentional-living cooperative and unconventional church-like community at an apartment complex downtown my small city. I found ways to be a badass non-traditional pastor with no denomination telling me what I could or couldn’t hear from God or how I could or couldn’t love people.

Pastoring “unofficially” meant less recognition, lower status and limited credibility in the institutional church world, as well as no pay. It also meant giving up my treasured credentials with the denomination I had served unless I wanted to pay high annual fees and balance a tightrope between two worlds. I decided I didn’t need a prejudiced man-made organization validating my abilities or God-given calling and chose not to renew – closing that chapter of my life forever.

I will always miss the campus ministry that first loved me and healed me and made me who I am today in so many ways. It will always hurt knowing they didn’t fully know or accept me, and while I have moved forward, I will never “get over it”.

I lost my dream job because I’m queer. But I fulfilled my dream of starting a church and being true to myself and following the Spirit even when it costs me everything. And ironically… that’s something they taught me how to do.

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