Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Power: Some Thoughts on #ga220

Beach tug of war at Southport, 1917
So I was going to try to write a sophisticated commentary on power in relationships, but I'm way way way tired tonight, and the next two months are packed. So what you get is whatever pours out in the next half hour as I drift closer to sleep. And you only get that if the weasels stay in bed.

Last week my church denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), in which I am ordained, held our biennial (every 2 years) business meeting, which we call General Assembly. The General Assembly is made up of delegates who are ordained as pastors and delegates who are not; delegates come from every presbytery (and presbyteries are groups of churches grouped geographically). GA is an exercise in representative democracy, with each delegate charged with keeping an open mind and voting as they are led by the Spirit.

The delegates are assigned to committees and consider overtures submitted to change the constitution and other such matters. Then the entire General Assembly gathers for two or three days to consider all the business at hand. This year they live streamed GA, so many of us could watch most of the plenary meetings. And a lot of us who watched it tweeted it too. You can find those tweets by searching #ga220.

This year on the docket there was an overture to alter our Book of Order so that the Directory for Worship would read that a marriage is between "two persons" instead of between "a man and a woman." This change would have allowed pastors to officiate same gender marriages, although it wouldn't have required them to do so. Although the amendment was recommended by committee, it did not pass the General Assembly. It was close, though, and we will likely see another amendment in 2014 at #ga221.

There was plenty of twitter snark to be found, although I doubt it was just on twitter. The delegates had a chance to debate the marriage amendment for several hours, and over the course of the afternoon we heard all our old favorites thrown out there: "I love you gay people so very very much, but because I love you I must affirm a traditional understanding of marriage." "If we affirm homosexuality, then how can we condemn bestiality, adultery, and inceest?" "If we allow same gender marriages, then our global partners will cut off ties with us and we will be forced to relocated missionaries and find different partnerships." One guy tweeted at me that if I didn't repent of my sin (of homosexuality) then I would burn in hell. I declined to continue our conversation. One person reminded us from the floor of GA that the penalty for sexual sin is death. That sort of collectively took our breath away.

A young woman took to the microphone and said she is a lesbian and a deacon and she didn't see what being a lesbian had to do with providing care for the families in her church. Another told the assembly that she has indeed performed same gender marriages and she will continue to do so, as a matter of pastoral care. There were other queer folk ready to out themselves at GA, but time was limited. I'm sure there were other conservative folk ready to bring their bestiality arguments to the microphone, but blessedly time was limited. 

We made progress: this year nobody said lgbtq folk cause HIV/AIDS. Nobody brought up the Nazis. And nobody from EITHER side quoted Bonhoeffer's work. Perhaps because we spent so much time discussing how to limit discussion (hours, no joke), there wasn't room for the full glory of our polarized positions to display.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I saw a tweet that made me wince. It was harsh, and it came from a colleague on the conservative side of things. But this particular pastor I know from interacting elsewhere in social media. In another space and time, where we didn't have power or authority over each other, when the denomination's faithfulness was not at stake (to either of us), where we couldn't get each other fired or disciplined, in THAT space we had been able to listen to one another kindly and gently. In a space where there wasn't a power discrepancy we could afford to listen to one another and accept the other as is. I told him I missed the gentleness of that. My tweet made him pause a minute.

This reminded me of other conservative friends who have hosted me in their homes, broken bread with me, and prayed with me. Prayed *with* me, not at me, or for me, or to me. In times when there is no threat, laughter and love is possible even through disagreement.

Once, at a conference for pastors, I ate dinner with a colleague who disagreed with me about almost everything regarding sexuality and Christianity. I wasn't uncomfortable until he said that he thought I should resign as a pastor. He felt that I was being unethical by being an out queer pastor, and that it would be more honorable for me to seek charity for my family from other people rather than pastor a church. He even offered support. His passion for this idea was so strong it made me question whether he had the power to make this happen. It took me a bit to shake off my fear from that conversation. It took me a while to not feel threatened by that conversation. And our friendly connection suffered for that. 

I tweeted during GA: "Some of my best friends are conservatives. I promise not to out you :P" This was tongue in cheek, but there is truth in it. Recently I was interacting with a PCA pastor on twitter. He said he disagreed with me but respected me. I said he could disagree with me all he wants to as long as he doesn't get between me and my paycheck. He asked me to please not become a PCA pastor because then he might have to intervene. He has nothing to worry about. I can't imagine the PCA church that would hire me (divorced, queer, female, single mother). And I have no desire to leave my own denomination. But what interests me is that our friendship is possible because we do not have power or authority over each other. 

I think there's something there we need to listen to, and that in mutual forebearance there lies the possibility of a new way. I don't think there's much danger that a conservative church would hire me, nor that a liberal church would hire many of my conservative colleagues. We naturally sort ourselves out that way. Every now and then there's drama, but these mismatches don't last long.

This afternoon, Bruce Reyes-Chow tweeted "Power/momentum are shifting, so few will leave. No how libs use that power is Q." Translated, that sentence reads: "Power and momentum are shifting, so few liberal churches will leave the denomination. Now how they will use that power is the question." And I do think this is the question. Will we liberal pinko commie queer folk turn around and set hard rules for our conservative brothers and sisters? Or will there be space for them to think and speak their thoughts, even though we think they are misguided? Do we need to police their use of bestiality comparisons, or do we just move on with the ministries we are now able to participate in fully?

Two years ago I came out as a queer woman in a blogpost. I was very afraid--and that fear was a big part of why I came out. Fear gives other people power over you, and I resented that. Power can ruin relationships and friendships like nothing else. I was tired of being afraid for something I considered to be beautiful. I was tired of not being known. I was frustrated that it always took me three days to find the queer folk anywhere. So I came out and now they find me.

A year ago the PC(USA) passed amendment 10A, which modified our constitution in such a way that openly queer folk who are partnered can now be ordained. I'm not partnered, but it took my stress level down a notch or two. I posted a blog about that called "Joyful Submission." Over the last two years, dozens of queer folk have contacted me privately to make connections. Several conservative folk have too. And since there was no longer any legitimate way to bring me up on charges for being queer, those friendships have been easier and more fruitful. We laugh more. I can mock myself. I can mock their homophobia. They can argue they aren't homophobic. They can make jokes about marrying my cat or my toaster. I tell them they are ridiculous. I challenge their sexual ethics. We drink. We break bread. We pray.

Such friendships are not possible across theological, philosophical, and political lines when we have the ability to end each other's careers or dictate each other's lovers. I think this is something we need to think about: power. Power has become an idol, and we get drunk on it. That's not a conservative or a liberal thing, that's a human thing. I hope I remember that.


  1. This reminds me of part of a verse from Sunday's Epistle reading: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." 2 Corinthians 12:9

    May each of us reframe any power we might have through the perfecting lens of weakness.

    Thanking God for you Katie.

  2. i don't know you - but i really, really love your thoughts on this matter. thank you for writing. - john

  3. Katie, we've never met, but I found your post to pretty much be dead on. So I'm curious as to what you think about the property issues? It seems like that's the last great bastion of authority and it appears that the Assembly took every action to be as ungracious as possible to those who feel compelled to leave.

    1. I doubt property issues are the last bastion of authority, especially as there is still plenty of authority in and around marriage issues. I was part of a liberal church a long time ago that could not leave because of property issues, so I have some sympathy and understanding of the frustration. I am not, however an expert on property issues. Given that I dislike holding power over others, its pretty easy to get me to say "Just take the property and go if you must." But I do think that churches thinking about leaving discount what they have often received from the PCUSA, from anger and frustration or lack of knowledge.

      My best response is probably this: each church has a unique and particular history of how they were formed. Some way for gracious separation ought to be possible. But we are also a connectional and not a congregational system, which seems to be a problem for folks only when they want to leave.

  4. While I know I will disagree with you on somethings I also respected your post here. I am also a PC(USA) pastor and never felt so sickened by a GA as I was last week. It was the worst week of my life as an ordained pastor because what I saw disgusted me. I tried to follow twitter, but couldn't stand it because of the hate being spewed by the left. I did see a couple of more conservative tweets but those were few and far between from what I saw in comparison (I emphasize what I saw, not saying they weren't there). I think Bruce Reyes-Chow asks a good question. Many of my more liberal pastor friends have lamented the hate coming from the "open-minded" side and have said they don't blame conservatives for leaving. They have said to me, "what was done to us, we are now doing to them." I think Ghandi said it right along time ago, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Thanks for the post.

    1. I was pretty disgusted by homosexuality being compared to bestiality and the reminder that sexual sin is punishable by death--from the floor of general assembly. I will grant that there are a good number of more liberal pastor types on twitter and that there was a fair amount of snark. When somebody got up to the microphone and said that heterosexuals were designed to fit together, I did tweet that queer folk fit together fine and that I could explain to folks how that works if needed. There were plenty of liberals and conservatives who held their peace on twitter as GA unfolded, but the comments were not one-sided.

      Conservative folk have not been forced out of jobs, publicly shamed, denied ordination and marriage, or interrogated about their sexual practices. As the pendulum begins to swing on lgbtq concerns, I am saying we should think about what kind of relationship we want to have with power. I am certainly not saying that conservatives have been hounded the way queer and trans folk have.

      And I think this is the danger and the ambivalence that I feel in posting these thoughts, is that in asking for forebearance, my words may be understood as convicting queer and trans folk and allies as misusing their power. But it wasn't the conservative member of the mod/vice mod team who stepped down last week. We have a long way to go, and I am simply suggesting that the path before us might be less thorny if we find a way to allow one another theological difference.

    2. I thought what the person you were referring to on the floor of GA did was read a scriptural passage? Not saying it was right at the time, but quoted Scripture directly. And the vice-moderator stepping down appears more and more to be a misplayed power play that didn't help in the end. All in all, I did appreciate your post today, not trying to fight.

  5. Related as we think about power and privilege and forebearance is this post from Bishop Gene Robinson

  6. An excellent reflection on a tough week at GA. I appreciate your thoughts, and the play by play on twitter on Friday. But I am struggling trying to figure out how the conservatives are the victims, and still in shock over some of the comments that were made on the floor of the GA, and have no clue why complete anarchy did not erupt in that last hour. Those in support of the overture talked about equality, while those in opposition played parliamentary games and talked about bestiality and death as punishment for sexual sin? :shakes-head:

    1. perhaps there's a way forward. I know that at least individually I've found ways to reconcile with others.

    2. I personally think it would be incredibly awesome if folks participating in GA first participated in an "Out To Dinner" like program ( with people that represent the opposite side of the theological spectrum. ( focuses on lgbtq issues, I think it ought not be left there)

  7. I support you, and I want to apologize for what my conservative colleagues and family say in regards to the issue. The fact is that even I cannot see how we can relate something like bestiality or incest to homosexuality and demand that it deserves death as that woman did. I was the one who stood and told the GA that I was a conservative and that I could not see how we were arguing over an issue of equality and inclusion. And yes I was wearing a pink shirt and pink bow tie while doing it. I will continue to support you and everyone else as well. I will go to every GA until this isn't a fight until we as a denomination finally treat the LGBTQ community as equals.

    My prayer is that God will continue to bless you and your ministry.


    1. !! Jeff, I think I thought you had a purple bowtie :-)

      If we find ourselves in the same state, let's share table. Would love to hear your story.

    2. The bowtie ruled. My twitter stream erupted with compliments :)

  8. Thank you for this post.
    A little mutual forbearance would be very welcome to this woman after sitting through some of those assaults on the floor of GA.
    Will be pondering this. I think you are on to something important here.

  9. I won't say much except that I dearly love you and that it is my proudest joy that the lgbtq community finds a place in our denomination without ecclesiastical danger. Oh that the day comes that is true for all of us ;-) You are important to the church and my faith.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.