Weldon Nisly has received great praise and sharp criticism in recent years. A long-time Mennonite pastor (currently at Seattle Mennonite Church, where he has been since 1995), biblical storyteller, peace activist, and ecumenist, Weldon made international news when in the Winter of 2003, just prior to the United States invasion of Iraq, he visited that beleaguered nation with a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) hoping to “get in the way of war.”
He was on the CPT delegation in Baghdad during the first weeks of the US bombing. Several CPTers were sent out of Iraq by a Foreign Ministry official for going to the site of a bombing without permission. As they raced across the desert toward Jordan, their car blew a tire on the highway and crashed. Weldon suffered broken ribs, sternum, thumb, and shoulder. He received careful, and perhaps life-saving attention from an Iraqi doctor and other medical personnel, whose hospitality toward this foreigner impressed all who learned about it.
Upon Weldon’s return to North America and his recovery from his injuries, he spoke widely about his experiences and articulated a strong voice against the war. For his efforts, the Pacific Northwest Conference of Mennonite Church USA, of which Seattle Mennonite Church is a member, honored Weldon with a special peace award and many invitations to share in various Mennonite settings.
Two years later, the Conference leadership decided to suspend Weldon’s ministerial credentials as a way to no longer recognize Weldon’s ministry as a Mennonite pastor. What accounted for this sudden and drastic change? In July, 2004, Weldon performed a wedding ceremony for two lesbian members of his congregation.
Weldon had spoken at length with leaders in his congregation and with Conference and denominational leaders in his discernment concerning the couple’s request for his involvement in their ceremony. In the light of the counsel he received from these leaders, and many others throughout North America with whom he consulted, Weldon decided that his most faithful action as a minister of Jesus Christ was to perform this pastoral act for these two people hoping to unite their lives in Christian covenantal union.
Initially, as a consequence of further conversations between Weldon and Conference, an agreement was made wherein Weldon would retain his ministerial standing, but would be designated as having “credentials at variance” with Mennonite Church USA policies (which state that pastors should not officiate at same-sex weddings and if they did so their ministerial credentials would be “reviewed” without specifying what consequences would follow from such an act).
However, in late April, 2005, the Pastoral Leadership Committee of the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference decided to take the action of suspending Weldon’s ministerial credentials for up to two years, with the expectation that his credentials will be terminated at the end of those two years if Weldon does not give evidence of repentance for and repudiation of his action. According to the Mennonite Church USA regulations, “suspended credentials are not valid for performing ministerial functions.”
The actual implications of such a suspension of credentials are somewhat unclear. The Seattle congregation has expressed strong support for Weldon and intends to continue with him as their lead pastor even though not everyone agreed with his pastoral action for officiating a same-sex marriage. As a result Weldon continues to offer leadership to the congregation and exercise all pastoral functions.
At this point, many of the ramifications of the Conference Pastoral Leadership Committee have yet to be worked out. It would appear that the action the Committee took is more symbolic than substantive, but without a doubt it has caused great stress and distress for Weldon, the Seattle congregation, the Conference leadership, and many others.
Some people wonder how a person can act, on the one hand, in such a way as to receive a high honor from the church body and then, a short time later, act in such a way as to receive from that same church body severe censure. The Mennonite Church strongly endorses the kind of active peacemaking Weldon engaged in with his trip to Iraq and subsequent witness to his opposition to war. At the same time, as Weldon’s case has shown, the Mennonite Church strongly condemns pastoral participation in covenanting ceremonies uniting two people of the same sex.
Weldon himself deeply believes that his two actions are cut from the same cloth. He believes his calling and commitment is to “get in the way of war” – including the war of our country against the people of Iraq and the war of our churches and culture against sexual minorities.
Ted Grimsrud, a member of the Welcome to the Dialogue Booklet Series editorial committee, sat down with Weldon, on July 20, 2005, to discuss the relationship between Weldon’s witness against war and his willingness to officiate the wedding of two women for whom he is their pastor.
The Call to Peace
TED GRIMSRUD: Just in a nutshell, let’s begin by having you give your own personal testimony: Weldon Nisly, the Christian pacifist, or maybe you don’t like the term “pacifist.”
WELDON NISLY: Oh, I do. I would certainly claim it. Not in a purist way, but it’s what I aspire to. I start, first of all, with Jesus. I simply couldn’t take Christianity or Jesus seriously, or take the gospels seriously, or scripture seriously, without its location in the way of nonviolent love and peace and all that that involves. To be pacifist is simply to live nonviolent love as fully as I am able.
Then, in terms of the New Testament, I think of II Corinthians 5 and its call to a ministry of reconciliation. God has given us this task; our ministry is a ministry of reconciliation. In Christ, all things are being reconciled to God. I talk about that often, not only on the human level; the whole cosmos is being reconciled to God. And we’re simply to join God’s reconciling work in Christ, live that out.
I come to the justice question and say, justice is certainly as central as is peace to biblical theology. However, it is not our central burden to create a peace theology. The main point about pacifism is simply that it is the only way we can live faithfully in this ministry of reconciliation. The main point is our being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in all that we are and do, and our being part of God’s reconciling work in the universe, so we’re all being reconciled. This reconciling is a dynamic way of life and faith, more than it is a boundary-making set of doctrines.
So pacifism is simply part of your definition of believing in God or being a Christian?
As I see it, if pacifism were not part of Christianity, I’d not only quit pastoring, I’d leave the church. I wouldn’t bother with it. Why would there be any meaning in the church’s existence if pacifism weren’t true? I have lots of other things I could be doing, including getting in the way of more wars.
This point about pacifism and the church brings up an interesting experience for me. A significant amount of my speaking and action have been in peace groups outside the church. I have worked among people who, in this country, have enormous suspicion and resentment about the church and all things Christian – especially now, seeing what has been happening in our nation and how it is supported and mirrored in the church.
For example, I spoke in a philosophy class at the University of Washington and later to a peace group north of Seattle. Most of those present in both groups were decidedly not Christian, precisely because what they hear and see as Christian in this country is so violent, so antithetical to their convictions. They were surprised by and fascinated with my message of a Christian faith that is prayerfully pacifist and “gets in the way of war” with one’s life. Whether I talked about either the war in Iraq or homosexuality, what they want to know is what sustains me. It gives me an amazing opportunity to share how God, Jesus, prayer, and the community of faith sustain me. This is what I am called to do and be.
I have had more confirmation, tears and gratitude from people who are not Christian than from many Christians.
Ironically and sadly, the only vitriolic hostility I have encountered in the past two years on either homosexuality or the war has been entirely “Christian” whether on Christian radio talk shows or in the church. In one congregation where I spoke about the war a man became very angry. In the Sunday School class, he got up and said, “You are not saying that our president is wrong and that this war is wrong. You are not!” I knew that not everyone would like what I was saying and I was trying to be careful. But they had invited me to be their missions speaker to share stories about “getting in the way of war” in Iraq. So they were also open to hearing it. He became sort of the lighting rod and declared “I have nothing but contempt for you,” making others uncomfortable. Other members were uncomfortable and may have listened with more sympathetic ears in response to his hostility.
When I have spoken in some settings, I have heard people say, “You ought to be taken out and shot” and other hostile responses. Every person who said anything like this to me was a devout Christian. I’ve been on Christian radio talk shows with Christians calling in who are livid with contempt. When I try to ask them about Jesus they are not interested in “what did Jesus do” but in what can our president and country do.
Sometimes it seems that the net effect of Christianity, perhaps over the course of the past 2,000 years but certainly in present-day America, has been to make the world more violent, not less.
It certainly is a tragic part of the Christian story. The support for violence in the church underscores the importance of those of us who believe in Jesus’ peace message to be faithful in living another way – The Way of Jesus as The Way of the cross. I see a close connection between resisting violence such as the war in Iraq and the violence against our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters. Resistance to both kinds of violence, for me, flows out of my pacifist commitment to Jesus Christ. I do not see how it is possible to take Jesus seriously and then to victimize others in Jesus’ name.
TED GRIMSRUD: Could you now talk a little bit about the development of your convictions concerning gay and lesbian people in the church. I assume, growing up a good conservative Iowan Mennonite, you didn’t always think the way you think now.
WELDON NISLY: No, definitely I didn’t start out being welcoming and inclusive. I don’t think anybody in our generation “started out there.” Most of us start out with whatever struggle we have when we’re first exposed to homosexuality. Somewhere along the line we have to face being honest about that.
Unless you’re exposed to it at a really young age.
Exactly. With our kids it seems entirely different. It’s a non-issue it’s so different, for the most part.
For 32 years of ministry, I have listened to lives in pain over sexual identity. I believe that it is essential to trust in God’s presence in our lives and listen to that presence. As we seek to be open to God, we need to do two things. One is that we turn inward and listen to our own voices and fears, and face ourselves rather than project our fears onto the “other.” Two, is that we listen and relate to real people and their stories. Then we can do all the other studying, and engage in all the other conversation that we need and want to do with others. But we have to start with these two steps.
We have to ask honestly. What is it in myself that’s responding here, and how do I see the other person? We take this approach very specifically in relation to these issues of sexuality. However, this approach also points the way we are to be in all our relationships and in all things. It is about being Christ, it is about seeing Christ in the other, being Christ to the other. And so that’s very important.
For me specifically, my thinking began to change in 1973, when I first worked in the church. I left political organizing in Des Moines, Iowa, work that I loved, when God called me to ministry in the General Conference Mennonite Church in Kansas. At that time and numerous times in more than three decades of ministry, I encountered friends in the church and colleagues in ministry who were gay or lesbian. Real lives and personal stories of faith and struggle broke through the façade of my reality and opened my eyes to God’s mercy and love. I spent countless hours with one particular friend who was gay and in ministry in the church. Both his friendship and his pain had a profound affect on me.
Your friendship with him preceded any kind of awareness of him being gay?
Yes, our personal friendship and our bond as families was established before he confided his sexual identity with me.
What was your initial reaction?
Well, shock and surprise! Then I also looked back, and I saw the signs, the things that happened, that he was giving me clues, and letting me know. I realized this is my dearest friend and a pastor in the church. This is a real life. So that I couldn’t deny it. It was hard. It got hard in a variety of ways, but the hardest thing was that there was so much risk at that time. This was in 1970s. I held this secret of our dearest friend for almost ten years before he was ready to reveal it to my wife.
I believed that there was something terribly wrong with the church when my friend felt the need for such secrecy. I do not want to add to such secrecy, fear and pain on people in the church as a pastor. I will not make people’s lives that hard.
Then in 1979, I attended what I believe to be the first public Mennonite conversation on homosexuality. The Mennonite Church General Assembly met in Kitchener/Waterloo that summer. There was a workshop/seminar on homosexuality where we began to talk out loud about “homosexuality in the church.” In a way, it was impossible to talk about it then and has continued to be impossible to talk about in the church. The next summer, in 1980, the General Conference Mennonite Church Assembly in Estes Park, Colorado, also had a workshop on “homosexuality in the church.” If I remember correctly, Willard Krabill and David Augsburger were the two people in those two conference workshops who spoke. They really opened my eyes to the possibility that sisters and brothers who are homosexual are also created by God.
I think actually, maybe in 1977, the Medical Health Association had some kind of meeting on this issue. John Howard Yoder did a paper. Willard Krabill did a paper.
Yes, and there were other consultations. But none were “open” church wide meetings that I know of. Denominationally, there had been no open discussions before 1979. The 1979 General Assembly session was the first institutional event where open discussion of homosexuality occurred followed by a similar session in 1980 at Estes Park. I was part of both of those seminars. Then through the 1980s, my thinking continued with the study document on human sexuality that an appointed committee from both denominations wrote and sent to congregations. We studied this document in my congregation in Cincinnati.
Was the impact of these sessions and discussions basically a matter for you of just fleshing out what you had come to sense?
Well, my thinking was evolving. But yes, these discussions were giving me the language and the grounding in what I was sensing. There is so much to learn and so much we don’t know about sexuality. Sex and sexuality is a beautiful and terrifying part of what it means to be human and for each one of our lives created in God’s image. And, yes, there are aspects of homosexuality that make me uncomfortable.
Yes, and there are things I don’t want my gay friends to tell me about.
Yes, I agree. But we can relate everything we are uncomfortable with in homosexuality to heterosexuality as well. There are things that straight people do and think that I am uncomfortable with too. So, we need to keep it all in perspective. Our most important task is to keep making human connections and seeing real life and real struggles and real faith in God’s people whether we are homosexual or heterosexual beings. All human beings are sexual and have sexuality issues, not just those attracted to people of the same sex.
Both the stuff we’re uneasy with and the stuff we think is wrong have nothing to do with whether it’s homosexuality or heterosexuality per se.
Yes. In fact, some of the hardest conversations I have had over the years have been with gay and lesbian people about what’s faithful in intimate relationships. I believe in faithful, nonviolent love in all relationships, and I believe there are some things that are wrong – that are not consistent with faithful, nonviolent love. But the problem is not that these things happen between two people of the same sex. The problem is that people might be coercive or unfaithful or exploitative, whether straight or gay.
We are all called to greater faithfulness in Jesus Christ in the church. This call includes sexual faithfulness, a commitment to fidelity and nonviolent love. And our task is to help hold each other to this calling, to the covenant of whole relationships. We have high standards to encourage each other to live up to. It is a problem when we turn away gay and lesbian Christians from the nurture of the faith community that encourages us in our quest for fidelity in our relationships (heterosexuals need this encouragement just as much as homosexuals). We make it more difficult for gay and lesbian Christians to express their sexuality in ways that are loving, faithful, and healthy.
TED GRIMSRUD: So, let’s turn our attention to your ceremony with the couple from your congregation. You seem to say that part of what is going on is that we in the church need to be a resource for people of faith who want to live faithfully, to commit themselves to relationships of permanent covenant love.
WELDON NISLY: We are the Church and we need to be the church with each other. The question nobody has answered yet (and that especially has not been dealt with helpfully in any of the process and contention concerning my ministerial credentials) is this: How is it possible that we believe we will be a more faithful church if we establish a rule that asserts that “the church has spoken,” and then live in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation? This is what we have been doing. The message is that the official church will live with two gay or lesbian church members living together as long as nobody acknowledges it and nobody outside the congregation knows about it. The conference will let us do that as long as we don’t tell anybody about it. It’s irrational and unjust.
So it seems that the church punishes the people who have integrity and honesty and openness and are asking for support.
Yes, that is what is happening. It is so important that we find a way for the church to be in solidarity with people who are asking for such support. If there’s ever going to be any honesty, seriousness, or hope here, we have to be supportive in the church. Then, the church and gay and lesbian people of faith will work together, committed to supporting covenanted, loving, permanent, nonviolent relationships.****
Could you reflect on the relationship between, on the one hand, your concern about the church, and especially the Mennonite church that we’re part of, being inclusive of gay and lesbian Christians or seekers and, on the other hand, your concern for our peace tradition, the Mennonite peace position, our concern about peace and justice in the world, our pacifist convictions. You are somebody with a very rich background as a peacemaker, somebody with a passion about that. I’ve known you now for about 17 years; I think your peace convictions go back a lot, lot longer than that. I also know you as somebody for a long time now has been deeply concerned about the reception of gay/lesbian people in the Mennonite church. How would you articulate how you see these two things being interrelated?
The first thing I would say is two specific recent parts of my pastoral peacemaking experience relate to this question. I see my going to Iraq with Christian Peacemaking Teams and “getting in the way of war” as very consistent with what I call the pastoral task of “getting in the way of the war” on gays and lesbians in the church. So my effort to support the couple in our church in their desire to be married is very much a pastoral and peacemaking act.
The church’s mistreatment of gay and lesbian people is a tragic battleground. It is inherently wrong and unjust. Let’s look at the longer historical dynamics. I have a strong sense that this time of action around gay and lesbian sisters and brothers in the church is actually as nearly equivalent as we are going to come in our lifetime to a century and a half ago with slavery. Back then, every institution in this society justified slavery. Every institution. It wasn’t until people – spiritual leaders, in particular – simply stepped out and said they couldn’t go along with slavery. They said with their lives that slavery is wrong! They finally said slavery simply is not right, it is not just; we cannot go along with the way this is being done. I hope if I had been alive a century and a half ago I would have been one of those that said that slavery is wrong. I hope I would have said “I cannot continue to be part of institutional support of doing this. It is wrong.”
Or, I think of the silence of Christians in Nazi Germany. Where was the church? When my grandchildren ask me, where were you? I do not want to have to say that I was silent or that I decided it was safer to uphold the law of the church than it was to risk “getting in the way of war” on the victims we are making in the church just as we are in the country and world. And I certainly don’t want to say that I couldn’t do otherwise. I have the capacity and the responsibility to act as a pastor in the church.
Could you say more about the linking of the treatment of gays and lesbians with slavery?
Now, I don’t think I have a really well honed way of articulating my sense of this connection yet. Where I would go is that in both cases we have stereotyped people, forcing them into a rigid category that we can condemn and victimize. It is saying that by the very nature of who they are, something about who they are born to be has been identified as a basis for discrimination and exclusion, a basis for saying that you are not recognized as being fully human. To deny sexuality or sexual identity is to deny something about our humanity.
So, are you then assuming that there is something innate about sexual orientation? That it’s not simply a choice?
Sexual orientation is very complicated. There’s a lot about why we are attracted to whom we’re attracted to that we don’t know about yet. Whether we speak biologically, psychologically, theologically, or biblically in terms of how we understand what it means to be human and created in God’s image, there’s still a lot we don’t understand. In the reality of gays and lesbians lives, how they live with their attractions, there is enormous complexity. The elements of choice and biology and so on are very interwoven and very complex. However, even to the extent in which there may be an element of “choice” in discerning how one lives or where one is on a continuum on sexual orientation – all of that is lived out in a highly oppressive culture. One is always living it out as an oppressed being. No matter how you choose. So, the talk about it’s “all biology” or “all choice” I think is not a particularly helpful discussion. In reality our lives are a mixture of all that.
Still, you are putting the emphasis more on how the culture responds to people. Here the real big problem is the way the culture treats this kind of vulnerable person more than specific things that person might do.
Gays and lesbians are clearly highly oppressed groups of people. That oppression is the starting point. That’s where you have to deal with gay/lesbian inclusion as a justice issue.
Maybe that concern with justice links with the pastoral dimension. Your particular act that put you into the news lately was officiating at a union ceremony that two women in your congregation had. Would you talk a little bit about the pastoral dimension of your action. Speak to this step you took not as a political act, though that’s part of it and interesting, but more as an act of a pastor ministering to people who fit in the dynamic of the oppression we just spoke of. Maybe you can bring in here, as well, what you also said concerning our churches not supporting even healthy expressions of intimacy and sexuality.
My pastoral approach in general is that I have one desire and commitment in life – faithfulness to Jesus Christ in all that I am and do, faithfulness to what I believe God is setting before me. I hope that there is no consequence, no threat, and no risk including death, that would keep me from doing what I believe I am called to do, what I believe God has set before me. That’s the first and most important factor.
My pastoral task in the congregation is to welcome and include everybody that God sends to us. And it’s an awesome and amazing gift that happens almost every week in some new way and is confirmed every day. One of the greatest gifts I know as a pastor is to be present with whomever God sends to us. I could tell you dozens of stories of people God sends to us that we are able to minister to; it happens very frequently and is one of my greatest joys and challenges in ministry.
Of the two women in our congregation, one of the partners has been with us longer than I have been there as a pastor, which is more than ten years now. Her partner joined us about six years ago. During these years we have in effect given them our implicit blessing as a congregation. I say this because we knew who they were and how they’re together. The couple is included as a couple – as long as we don’t talk about it and make an issue of it. So when they came to me and said, we are committing our lives to each other in faithfulness and fidelity and want to be married. You’re our pastor and would you walk this journey with us? My answer was, of course. I would quit being a pastor before I would say, no, I can’t do that because the church says no I can’t do it. I could not in good faith be a pastor were I to violate what I deeply believe Jesus would be and do for these two women in the church.
Why would you say, “of course”?
Saying “of course” is a pastoral act of saying I will be present with anyone in the congregation for any reason. I’ve been with people through other painful situations.
In saying “of course” to this couple, I sought simply to be present, listening to God with them in faithfulness, to see what it is they were committing themselves to, and to help them follow their commitments in faithfulness to God and each other. I want to support them, in love, in faithfulness, in fidelity, to help them however I can to live out their shared life. I want to support them so that they can enter into this covenant that God is calling them into and providing them. It’s a sacramental covenant on their part and a sacramental pastoral act on mine.
So you see God in their relationship?
I certainly do! God’s presence is so profoundly evident in their life and love together. That’s why I would say to them, I would quit being a pastor before I would say I couldn’t be part of your covenant love. To do that would deny what God is doing.
Reflections on ministry
TED GRIMSRUD: *You seem to be saying that your ability to pastor with integrity, to be empowered to pastor, flows from your sense that you are serving God or God is part of what you do. If you were forbidden, as a pastor, from doing something you are convinced in line with God…*
WELDON NISLY: Then I’d have lost the integrity to pastor or even the desire to pastor. I simply can’t function as a pastor without that sense of integrity and wholeness. I know very, very well the consequences of marrying this couple. I understand the ruling of the church on this issue. I worked through all that with these two women in saying, yes, I’ll be with you in this. Here’s what we have to work at, and here’s how we will proceed.
I decided that I would not take my decision to officiate at the wedding to the congregation, asking for congregational consensus before proceeding. Partly, I decided this because I’ve never done that on any other marriage. Also, I do not believe that the congregation would have reached a consensus on this pastoral act. And we would have held the two women hostage to an arduous, even impossible congregational process. I am in the congregation as pastor. That’s my role and responsibility. So in this “impossible” circumstance, I had to take sole responsibility for this pastoral action.
I did proceed, though, with an extensive discernment process that included people in the congregation, in the conference, in the denomination, and in the larger church beyond Mennonites. I first took it to our leadership counsel and our pastoral care team. The process continued for a year and a half. I consulted with eighteen leaders in our two congregational groups that have the primary responsibility for the spiritual care and leadership of the church. As I presented it to them, I said, here’s what I’m doing pastorally, here’s what I believe God is calling me to do. What I need is for you to be part of what I call my spiritual discernment community. I’m not asking for your approval or agreement. I’m asking you personally to respond to me and to respond from your role and responsibility in the church. What does this mean in the church? What does it mean for you personally? I did this because I took it that seriously.
I spent a lot of time with many church leaders at all levels of the church over a year and a half. I consulted with my spiritual director who I have seen for almost ten years and who knows me better than almost anyone else. I also conferred with various other trusted church leaders who are important to me as ministry colleagues and a discerning community in the Church beyond the Mennonite Church.
I have spent hundreds of hours with over a hundred people on this issue over the last three years now in this process. One and a half years leading up to the marriage which was July 2004 and then in the year and a half since that time. Every one of them has become a very important part of the spiritual discernment of my pastoral action while I still take sole responsibility for the act.
The way I approach ministry includes three elements, what I call the pastoral, the priestly, and the prophetic. The pastoral task in this one was the pre-marriage preparation with the two women in the congregation, the process leading up to their wedding. The priestly act is the sacramental act of officiating the wedding. I’m a sacramental person. God is doing this work with two people who are entering into a covenant with God and each other. And my task is a priestly one of officiating, mediating – a very specific priestly act. After that, the third element, the role with the church, this whole process, is the prophetic one. The past year since the wedding attention has centered on the prophetic element of ministry. What I’ve been doing this past year, the prophetic task, is the most difficult and troublesome element of pastoral ministry. I don’t think we should ever set out to be prophets or even claim to be prophets. That’s why I talk about this element as the prophetic act and not as being a prophet. The call to the prophetic act is something God gives you in a given time and place. You don’t seek it out, but you also dare not reject it. That’s the way I see it as a pastor. This call to the prophetic act also comes back to the justice dimension of ministry, standing against oppression by “getting in the way of war” on those who are suffering among us.
Another schema, kind of using some of the same terms, which is kind of what I have seen in Mennonite contexts, would be what is called “priestly” in the sense that your job is to do what the congregation wants you to do. In this scenario, your discernment process as a pastor is basically to figure out what the congregation or the broader church wants. Your “priestly” task, then, is basically figuring out what is wanted and moving ahead in that direction.
It seems like what your process has been, Weldon, is that you are willing to take responsibility yourself for the decision that’s made. It seems to me that you’re saying, “my understanding of myself as a pastor and as part of the community that I’m accountable to, is, I need truly to listen but ultimately I need to also listen to God and act.” You didn’t see yourself as saying I’m repudiating the community, but you’re also saying that there is a deeper sense of discernment here that in some sense transcends the community, too.
I would say the discernment may transcend part of the community, but not the whole church.
This issue of the shape of ministry is very important. In this case, any pastoral action or inaction I would have taken would have hurt and confused someone and would have been criticized. The need for discernment was acute. Let me try to say how I come at this need, because this actually gets at where I think we are most often confused and have unnecessary conflicts in the church.
In a sense, the pastoral discernment process I go through transcends the community. However, it always, with everything else I do as a pastor, is deeply located in the community. Such discernment is much, much, more than just listening to the accumulation of voices and opinions and seeing where it’s weighted. It’s much more than focusing on who reacts the most and deciding if you dare defy those who resist most. I refuse to take that approach in the church. The whole is more than the sum of the parts – that is the whole church is more than the sum of the voices or even the consensus of the people.
So, discernment grows out of a history and community of faith’s ongoing story as part of God’s Story in Jesus Christ. For me it grows out of 31 years in ministry and 21 years as a pastor and now almost 11 years in Seattle Mennonite Church, in this specific community. Discernment involves how I sense what God is doing in the community and knowing the voices. I couldn’t remove myself from the congregation. I’m immersed in the congregation. Everything I am and do grows out of how I sense God working in this community of faith, in this congregation.
You seem to be describing a dialectic. It’s your own personal sense of discernment and listening and then it is the voices and opinions being listened to. Ultimately, the decision is more a process of discernment than a decision confined to the rules of just taking a vote.
Exactly. You can’t take a vote on most things. And the more difficult the issue and the more potential conflict there is the less it’s possible to take a vote and act. If you rely on an up-or-down vote, what you do is either act according to the lowest common denominator of what will ruffle the fewest feathers, or according to your fear of the greatest resistance. Any of these is deadly for pastoral and congregational life. However, to be clear, I am not saying that I am simply relying on “personal conscience” over against community rules. It is a discernment process completely engaged with the community living in the center of the communal story.
So, what makes your approach work in the congregation?
Three words. Love, trust, and faith. One of the greatest gifts in this struggle these past months has been the responses of the handful of people in the congregation who have had the greatest difficulty with homosexuality in general or same-gender marriage in particular. The amazing grace and gift is in how someone is able to separate what I call “unresolvedness” about homosexuality or same-gender marriage (a few members still have real concerns) from my being their pastor. They have continued to show their love and care for the two women and for me and their trust that I am doing what God is calling me to do in the congregation – even when they don’t understand it or agree with it. That’s an amazing gift of grace.
And it’s really the fruit of over ten years of relationship building and authenticity and trust-building.
That’s been confirmed over and over and over again. Every day I receive the gift of blessing and confirmation for my ministry here at Seattle Mennonite Church.
I would think that one of the things that’s most discouraging to you in the broader church’s response to you is that it doesn’t seem like that the outside people really take these relationships within the congregation into account. They don’t seem willing to give the benefit of the doubt to your pastoral discernment processes in the context of your community of faith and the mutual trust and respect you have there.
Well, there is a failure to respect paradox in this. Paradox, I might add, along with mystery, is central to Christian faith. What is expressed by conference leadership is their affirmation for who I am as a pastor.
The problem to them is this: I broke the rule! And nothing else matters. That is the paradox most leaders cannot wrap their heart and mind around. One reality, which they affirm, is that I am a faithful pastor. The second reality, which determines their response now, is that I broke the rule. So, once I break the rule it no longer makes a difference that they have said that they trust who I am as a pastor. The breaking of a “rule” leads them to dismiss, in practice anyhow, their respect for my ministry. That’s my frustration. Many of us simply cannot see or hold the paradox of faith when we have disagreements we cannot resolve.
Isn’t there a sense, then, that part of the issue does come down to polity. They are saying, in effect, “actually, Weldon, you are acting with genuine integrity in terms of what your congregation stands for, but there really isn’t room for that in our conference.”
There are many, many other issues that arise here. One of the greatest dilemmas in this is that homosexuality is not the real issue. And in some sense, at this point, the suspension of my credentials is not the real issue. I believe that my task at this point is to help reframe the issues and the questions in a way that we don’t quite yet understand. That’s why I keep searching and struggling. That’s why I need to go to the monastery for a while to listen and pray, to try to find the language for reframing the issue so that we can truly deal with the right issues in the church. In the simplest sense, the heart of it is very simple for me. It is a matter of obedience - not rebellion. I am not first of all making a political statement. I am doing a pastoral act. That’s where it comes back to the prophetic task.
Obedience to what?
Obedience to what God is calling me to do in a given situation, growing out of my communal history with the congregation and the wider church. I hope I will always live with faithful integrity as a pastor in the church. As a matter of justice it is entirely consistent to “get in the way of war” in Iraq and to “get in the way of war” on homosexuals in the church. I have become deeply interested in “faithful dissent” in the history of the church. Let us honestly ask ourselves, who are the people who have made the most difference in giving spiritual leadership in the church and in the world through the ages. Are they the “rule-keepers” or are they the “faithful dissenters”?
One argument some who have gotten into trouble for struggling to make the Mennonite Church to be more inclusive have made is that they are not fighting against the church; they are not rebelling against the church; their acts are not against the church. They are seeking to serve the church; their struggle is for the church, to help the church to be faithful..
Yes! Amen! I certainly hope so!
They say they are operating as church members, as people who care about the church, for the sake of the church, in taking this stand. It sounds like that’s similar to what you are saying when you say your stance is about obedience, not rebellion.
I sincerely hope that it is. All changes in difficult issues like this in the church have only happened when somebody has taken the step of faithful dissent out of obedience to what they believe God is doing. And they take this step of dissent in the context of living with integrity across their life and ministry in the church. That’s when things change. We can see that in our own generation and history in the church in our lifetime around women in ministry. We did not begin calling women into ministry in the church by enforcing the rules. It began when two women in particular situations in the church were recognized and ordained in their particular pastoral contexts. We still can’t force people to align with that change. We still have disagreements in the church on women in ministry, some places where it is supported and other places where it is not. But we have mostly managed to stay together in one denomination. We see the same dynamic concerning divorce and remarriage.
But it seems like, for whatever reason, the church is able to live with diversity of views concerning women pastors and divorce and remarriage in a way it’s not with homosexuality.
Yes, I’ve thought about that a lot, and raise it often in this process. I think it has to do with, first of all, sexuality is a most difficult and frightening reality for so many people in the church. There’s so incredibly much fear around sexuality in general. And most of all around homosexuality. There are such enormous emotions and fears that the issue of homosexuality touches. The church at large hasn’t even begun to address all these fears and emotions.
One of my pastoral tasks is to separate the issue of homosexuality, or same-gender marriage, or my officiating at a same-gender wedding, from people’s own emotions and fears. I try, carefully, to ask those who express strong emotions about these issues to be attentive to what’s going on within themselves. I have observed over the years that often some of those who argue against inclusion with the most intensity have their own sexuality issues that they are reluctant to face – and they tend to project their own ambivalence and fears onto the issue of homosexuality and onto others. This is one of the most destructive things happening in our church today.
With your notion of reframing, what are you grappling for in terms of a new frame; what’s the genuine issue here?
The basic issues are around authority in the church, discipline in the church, and the meaning and role of rules. The issue of rules is the one I want to get hold of most clearly. I’m thinking of rules and their application that are unhealthy and destructive. Specifically, Part III in the Membership Guidelines that were approved at the formation of the Mennonite Church USA on these issues is an utter disaster in every ecclesiological and theological way.
Part III singles out homosexuality, including same-gender marriage, as the one to establish binding rules about. In approving the Guidelines with this as part of them, we set ourselves up for having just the kinds of problems we are now beginning to face. Establishing homosexuality as the single defining litmus test of the church creates an unjust and impossible conflict in the church.
Part of what would make the problems with the Guidelines more clear would be to look at the history of how they came about; they came out of fear.
I was with a church leader last summer who was part of the formulating process for the Guidelines. This person wept with me and hugged me and said, “this is what I most feared would happen.” I’ve said it this way, partly to be provocative: anybody in the church at any level of the church, who thought that Part III of the Guidelines resolved the issue of gay/lesbian inclusion for Mennonite Church USA should not be in leadership in any place in the church, in denominational, conference, or pastor leadership.
I want to say a little more about rules. It is in relation to understanding rules where my monastic life is so important. Mennonites can learn so much from monasticism and the Rule of St. Benedict. I want to go to the monastery and test my thinking with the monks who are my mentors, and also live with this and pray about it and listen to God, because I think this issue of rules is so crucial.
Rules are essential to the life of the church. However, rules are guideposts to help us be faithful. There are always exceptions to rules. Exception to the rules must flow out of faithful integrity and discernment in the life of the church. When there is a variation from the rules, a deviation, it should come out of that kind of faithfulness and integrity and discernment. Any monastery knows that.
I’ve been going to a monastery now for 26 or 27 years. I became a Benedictine Oblate four years ago. I’ve been to probably at least a dozen monasteries over the years. These Benedictine, Trappist, and Cistercian monasteries all live by the Rule of St. Benedict which at its heart is the rule of Jesus of the Gospels. With every new monastery I’ve gone to, it becomes evident very quickly that this community lives by the Rule of St. Benedict. This rule is entirely devoted to Jesus Christ and the life of discipleship in a monastic communal way. The second thing I learn, that’s so enlightening, is that every monastery lives it differently. Each monastery is unique in how it interprets and embodies the rule of St. Benedict.
Each monastery must live its communal life faithfully according to the Rule and it must do so with integrity and faith in its own communal setting across the years. Probably the most significant insight I can offer from the monastery to our context draws on what a rabbi from Nazareth once said in response to a religious critic, that human beings were not made for the Sabbath but that the Sabbath was made for human beings.
So, the rules aren’t ahistorical or timeless or contextless?
Absolutely not. They couldn’t be, because that would kill the monastic life. Without a living life-giving Rule of St. Benedict, monasticism would die. The Rule is timeless but interpretation of the rules that grow out of the Rule is time-specific. Without faithful discernment in monastic context in time and place monasticism would also die.
The rules serve the life.
The rules serve not only the life but the rule must be life-giving.
In the monastery, the process of following the Rule has to have integrity. The monks have their own discussion and decision-making within the monastery. And there are discussions among what are called congregations of monasteries about how to grapple with implementing the rules. So on any given point of conflict and contention about the interpretation of the Rule, the discerning process must have integrity.
Because of these ways of processing the embodiment of the rules, there are monasteries that not only look different from each other but at the same time are in relationships with each other. They may differ, even in intense ways, but they must trust each other.
The monastery system among those who follow the Rule of St. Benedict is very congregational. The monasteries have a large measure of independence, but everyone respects that the others live faithfully and seriously by the rule. They couldn’t survive if they didn’t.
I believe that we as Mennonites can learn much from the monasteries about how to live with a high level of trusting each other in the life of the community. Monasteries live by the Rule and interpret it, know that they’re interpreting it and looking at it differently than other monasteries do. But they trust the others amidst the differences. They respect the rules greatly, but also respect the differences they all have about how to interpret and apply the Rule.
It strikes me as you’re talking about rules that there is a sense for those in the monasteries that they are all in this together. The rules, in some sense, then, are secondary to that sense of solidarity. So they can’t say, okay, your being part of us is always conditional on whether you follow this rule or that rule. It’s a given that you are part of us. If we take our common membership for granted then we are forced to find a way to make the rules work within the givenness of our common identity.
Yes. We face a dilemma when we take rules as rigid boundaries that you dare not violate. The sin of the church, and I would put it that strongly, emerges when we begin to deny that one rule conflicts with another one, that one value conflicts with another one, that we have competing values. That is to say, we assume that we can live without conflicting rules. So in order to do that, we end up simply ignoring some of the rules. For instance, what we set up in the 1980s, in the human sexuality documents (Saskatoon and Purdue), is a commitment to “loving dialogue.” That was a “rule,” too. But one we’ve never lived! Whoever has the strongest reaction and the majority vote gets to set and enforce the rules as they see fit!
The commitment to “loving dialogue” was reiterated in the Membership Guidelines in 2001.
Of course it is. It’s all there. But how do you commit yourselves to loving dialogue and then say that those who have minority views must be silent and can’t act in ways that go against the one rule that matters? Loving dialogue conflicts with the one rule we establish and now this rule is the only one we hold. That’s the most egregious sin – to say we just have one rule and no dissent will be tolerated.
Many people seem to have the assumption that all our rules have to harmonize, which in practice leads to the assumption that in fact all valid rules in fact do harmonize. We assume that rules harmonize because that’s the way rules work in our mind, that’s the way communities work in our mind.
We don’t know the meaning of rules. See, if we lived by the Rule of Benedict, we could never have those assumptions. Yes, there are people in the monasteries who do make those kinds of assumptions. But the life of the monastery isn’t dependent on them.
Somehow the monastics, well, they have this whole long tradition.
I could tell you stories, real stories, about their tradition of working creatively with a diversity of rules, somehow holding together both unity and diversity. Pretty amazing. The mark of a true abbot is the ability to hold all that together. It’s a profound pastoral task. I’ve learned as much from the monastery as I have from Mennonites about being a pastor. How you hold all the differences together and live with them is always about obedience and listening to God while listening to scripture, to the community and to the church. One of the ways I say this, is that the church is always more than the sum of the people or the voices, and especially more than the opinions of the majority or the vocal minority.
So you are saying that in the Mennonite churches we need to work hard to grow in our ability to live creatively with our differences and not continue to resort to exclusion and pushing people out?
Yes, we have so much to learn from communities that manage to find creative ways to disagree and stay together. One way I want to try to help Mennonites learn better to do this is to be in it for the long haul. Some people may want to silence people like me or try to make me go away, but I will not go away.
I want Mennonite Church USA, my beloved church that I give my life to in ministry, to have to be honest. That’s what I from the church. I said this in our congregational meeting with conference leaders who were there with us. I said I am willing to be sacrificed but I want you to be honest about it. I am asking church leaders to be honest. If you believe that, for the good of the church, you need to sacrifice me, you can do that. But I am going to call you to integrity and honesty about what you are doing.
God has given us a beloved Mennonite Church so that we can truly be the Church as the Body of Christ calling all people to faithful nonviolent love in all that we are and do. Jesus Christ gives us a new way forward. Let us heed the call together in Christ.
At this point, then, overall how are you feeling about what has happened?
In all that has transpired over the past three years of this pastoral action and the process challenging my pastoral standing in the Mennonite Church, I have been amazed and gratified by the overwhelming encouragement and prayers that I have received from Mennonites across the church. I have heard from several thousand Mennonites who also long for a new and loving way forward in Mennonite Church USA. As a result, I began to identify the Mennonite leaders at all levels of the church who have been my most significant mentors, teachers, friends, and ministry colleagues over the three decades of my ministry. In doing so I found that over 95% of these Mennonites in ministry share my desire to find a new more inclusive and faithful way forward in MC USA. Equally inspiring and gratifying for me has been the encouragement I have received from others across MC USA, especially the parents and grandparents of sisters and brothers in the church who have suffered because they are LGBT.
During these past three years of this pastoral action, I have been greatly inspired by the wisdom of medieval mystic Meister Eckhart,
“True followers of Jesus
are absurdly happy,
and almost always in trouble.”
In more than three decades of ministry that says as well as I know how to say how I strive to live my life and to be a pastor in the Church.