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July 26, 2022

Working online from home is fraught for queer clergy

By Laura Everett

Laura Everett is the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Everett, an ordained UCC minister, previously served as associate director of the council. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Divinity School. She serves on the advisory council of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and is the author of the book, "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." Everett is a co-host of "Can These Bones," the Faith & Leadership podcast, and can be reached on Twitter @RevEverett

A wedding photo of the author and her wife. Composite photo illustration by Jessamyn Rubio | iStock / Prathan Chorruangsak

COVID burst into our homes without our consent, upending nearly every part of our lives. Very quickly, where we worked, how we moved and what was safe became unclear, especially for queer clergy, writes the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

On a video call during the pandemic, Gala, the family dog, emerged on screen, stole a tuna sandwich from my desk and ran away. It was charming, and everyone laughed.

Work-from-home video conference bloopers like this served to humanize some of us during the never-ending negotiation of where we labored. But for others, such unplanned glimpses of at-home life threatened to end careers and callings.

One horror story recounted to me by a colleague: During a Wednesday night Bible study, the closeted pastor was teaching in his dining room-turned-home office when his partner wandered on screen.

“David, get out!” He mouthed. The screen went blank and the audio cut out as my colleague scrambled to turn the camera away.

While nearly everyone has a story to tell about the stress of lockdowns, shifts in work patterns and unreasonable labor expectations, working online from home has put a particular strain on those of us who are queer church leaders.

For some LGBTQ clergy, the church’s forced entry into our homes has been a time of confusion, residual trauma — even a kind of violence.

Now, in the halting reopenings and the murky mix of in-person gatherings, I worry about a return to “normal.” I fear a reversion to a previous norm in which the church breached our boundaries without consent. It is an act of violence to take what you have not been given.

For a good long time, queer Christians in general and queer clergy in particular have been told in many parts of the church that our very existence is the cause of church division.

We have been told that we are the source of the split, the ax at the root that is causing the decline of Christianity, the destruction of marriage, the loss of influence, the perishing of souls, the fall of this nation — and, more recently, the war in Ukraine. This burden of unjust blame placed upon queer Christians is beyond painful.

Many parts of the church negotiated a compromise similar to the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The devil’s bargain worked like this: The church said to queer Christians, “We will take your labor in service of the Lord, but you must not acknowledge how you love. To be faithful to Christ, make your closet ever deeper. But be authentic! Love and serve the Lord.”

Many of us took that deal, because that was the only way we saw to serve the church. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the best we could get. At least there wasn’t open warfare any longer. At least we could serve, we thought. This was a long, slow violence.

Back in 2000, then-U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the first openly queer woman to be elected to both the House and the Senate, spoke at the Millennium March on Washington about how we get to a world where we are freer. She said, in part:

So if you dream of a world in which you can put your partner’s picture on your desk, then put his picture on your desk and you will live in such a world. …

Remember, there are two things that keep us oppressed: them and us. We are half of the equation. There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now OK to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly … until it’s simply the way things are done.

I never put my partner’s picture on my work desk.

Precisely because it was not safe, my future wife and I kept our relationship private for five anxious years as I began to lead the Massachusetts Council of Churches. When we decided to get married, the responses from parts of the church tragically confirmed our fears.

When we got married, one colleague warned me, “Don’t rub their noses in it.” That’s what you do to dogs to teach them not to poop in the house.

Even now, seven years after our wedding, some Christian institutions have refused to work with the council during the pandemic. They wouldn’t jointly raise funds and support for Black, immigrant and unhoused churches doing front-line COVID ministry — explicitly because I am in leadership.

It felt terrible. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but again, it felt as if I were the problem, as if our marriage were the stumbling block to Christian collaboration.

It is fine to say that your corner of the church welcomes gay folks, but the truth is that the whole church is pretty antagonistic to queer people. And let’s be clear, “welcomes” is different from “invites.” Almost no part of the church proactively invites queer Christian leadership.

Progressive Christianity is mighty proud about ordaining queer clergy and blessing same-sex marriages, but in truth, the welcome works only for some queer folks: most often, white, upper-class, educated, English-speaking, able-bodied, male, gender norm-conforming people.

Queer clergy outside these bounds are rarely hired into the senior-most positions, and for those who are, the margin of error is razor thin. Second, third and fourth chances afforded to others are not given to them with the same sort of grace.

And while the church has been vocal on ordination and marriage, this is not the whole of liberation; there are other issues, like being protected from job retaliation, housing insecurity and state laws threatening trans youth, on which the church is more often silent.

And most significantly, the intersecting lived experiences of race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, immigration status and ability mean that the most marginalized among us are still not free, despite all the rainbow flags. Until predominantly white denominations root out racist patterns and practices, our pride over being LGBTQ-accommodating is massively incomplete.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” required us to behave as if our sexuality did not exist — nor our partners, our families, our homes. The church conditioned us to believe that a whole section of our humanity needed to be quarantined if we were to faithfully serve.

Because my relationship was private for so long, and because my leadership is still considered contentious in so many parts of the church (and as a reminder, clergywomen are only 13.5% of senior leadership nationwide, so there’s that, too), our home has not been a shared space of my ministry.

But COVID and the demand to work from home burst without consent into queer clergy homes, mine included. We had no choice. The church told us again that to faithfully serve, we would just have to do as told.

The unspoken message: “Don’t ask how this is going, don’t tell how it hurts.”

But what I know from my Savior Jesus Christ is that when he cast out demons, he called them by name (see Mark 5:1-13). We need to name what harm has been done. For us to get well, church, we have to acknowledge the harm that has been done on both the progressive and the more conservative side of the body of Christ.

So I’ve decided to drop my side of the deal.

I’m telling how terrible it was to live with the residual fear of being outed and losing my vocation that working from my home wrought again in me.

I’m telling how harrowing it was to experience a Zoom bombing with queer slurs. It happened in a virtual space, yes; it also occurred in our home, with no safe place to retreat to.

I’m telling how anxious it is to pray online with a group of evangelical clergymen, hear them start to pray for my family because they’ve seen my wedding ring, and not know whether they’re going to pray for my nonexistent husband or whether they’ve Googled me and know.

I’m telling how painful it is to do crisis planning as these pastors are praying, trying to decide whether to tell them I’m married to a woman and potentially upend yet another relationship or whether, already tired from three funerals this week, to dodge the work of outing myself and risking rejection again.

I’m telling how wearying it all is to not have my home be safe from these worries. I’m tired of not being asked about my family when my straight colleagues are. And I’m tired of telling an unrepentant church to stop hurting its own body.

I’m bone-tired of denominational meetings where faithful followers of Jesus Christ who have risked everything to follow our Savior are still perceived as a source of division.

One of the sideways blessings for me of the lockdowns and the nationwide protests affirming the dignity and beauty of Black lives is that I’ve gotten clearer on what is nonnegotiable for me.

As the renowned Black writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

I’m not going back to “normal” without giving voice to the pain that the church has caused me and other queer clergy, pandemic or otherwise.

One surprise that happened after making my marriage public is that I’ve been invited to counsel other Christians on how to tell their churches that they are not straight. Given how often the church has told queer Christians that we are the problem, it hardly ever seems like a good time to come out. I’ve been blessed to pastor other pastors as they have that conversation with their communities.

But I know that we are only as sick as our secrets, and freedom is so much healthier than silence. And sometimes, the only space I can control is inside my own home — sometimes, by simply putting a picture of my beloved on my desk.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.