The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship nurtured me as a young minister. I was a CBF Leadership Scholar at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. I received a theological education scholarship from the CBF of South Carolina. A higher-up in the CBF national office graciously mentored me in my seminary year of contextual education. When I was invited to speak at the 2012 CBF/Mercer-sponsored “[Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant,” my talk evolved into my first book. This gay minister owes a lot of gratitude to the CBF.
For my LGBTQ siblings in faith who have held out hope that their denominational home would extend a welcoming embrace, the new hiring policy and implementation plan may come as a painful blow, continuing to restrict key ministerial positions to those “who practice a traditional Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage between a woman and a man.” For my straight and cisgender siblings in faith who have worked diligently and faithfully to cultivate a more expansive welcome in the Fellowship, the new policy and implementation may feel like failure.
In an email thread between more than 70 ministers and theologians, Suzii Paynter helpfully broke down the statistical implications of the new hiring policy and implementation plan, saying that 80 percent of CBF national office positions are now open to LGBTQ applicants (not including field personnel), and LGBTQ Christians are now eligible for positions at every level of the organization, “up to and including 5 of 11 positions on the leadership team.” Friends, this is progress from the days of complete LGBTQ exclusion from all positions. No doubt about it.
Of course, anyone who has experienced any form of exclusion knows that partial or qualified inclusion isn’t justice. An 80 percent welcome is decidedly not the welcome of Christ — let’s just be clear about that.
And for the organization, that means 20 percent of employees (and 100 percent of field personnel) won’t necessarily be the most qualified Christians for the job. And when the Spirit calls an LGBTQ person with a same-sex partner or spouse into service among the Fellowship, someone on a CBF hiring team will have to muster the theological commitment to this new policy that will allow them to say, “I’m sorry, that is one of the 20 percent of positions to which the Spirit cannot call you within this organization,” without simultaneously planting one’s face into one’s palm.
Yet, I’m thankful for the Illumination Project. Illumination makes things clearer for those willing to look where the light is shining. And these are a few lessons I’ve learned from the Project:
1. Congregations are still the most important location for prophetic change among Baptists. The Illumination Project wasn’t charged with changing the policy outright, but with listening to CBF congregations to construct “a snapshot of how Cooperative Baptists approach matters of sexuality” and to “reflect and respect the practices and convictions of CBF congregations.”
It wouldn’t have taken me 18 months to arrive at the realization that a majority of CBF congregations hold non-affirming attitudes towards LGBTQ people. (But I’m gay. Nobody asked me.) Nevertheless, that’s what a year and a half of careful listening revealed. And the tacit message in the report is this: If you want to change the CBF’s practices in relation to LGBTQ people, help change your congregation’s attitudes about sexuality. It’s far from a prophetic position for the CBF, but it’s what the Project revealed and the Governing Board acted upon.
But most importantly, the LGBTQ people in your community looking for a place of belonging, searching for a community of love and grace, seeking the warmth of unqualified Christian communion, won’t come to your church because it’s a CBF congregation. They’ll come through your doors because they know you. They’ve seen your pastor writing opinion pieces on trans rights in the local paper. They know LGBTQ friends who worship in your pews and serve in every capacity in your church’s leadership. They met your congregants at a PFLAG meeting or a Pride parade or a public demonstration.
Work hardest for LGBTQ inclusivity and justice within your congregation, friends. It’s the Baptist way.
2. Baptist relationships are “select all that apply,” not “either/or.” Congregations that are reevaluating their relationship to and support of the CBF in light of the new policy have a lot of options. But “staying” or “leaving” aren’t the only two.
There may be ways of engaging in the mission of God through partnership with the CBF that you don’t want to give up, despite disagreeing with this new policy and process. Maybe you feel called to stick around and work for a fuller inclusion within the Fellowship, engaging in dialogue through your differences. But if you or your congregation genuinely want to pursue justice in relation to LGBTQ lives, then, for God’s sake and ours, partner with a Baptist organization that whole-heartedly practices LGBTQ inclusion and justice.
Mid-way through seminary I began the ongoing process of coming out — to my family, at my seminary, within my congregation. And, though I maintained relationship to the CBF, I knew that my continued growth as a gay minister would require new communities of nurturance and support and accountability. The Alliance of Baptists, the BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz, and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists became vital, fully-inclusive, justice-seeking Baptist communities in my life and ministry. Even when I belonged to a CBF congregation, I was active in these other Baptists bodies and it provided the energy of Spirit and sustenance of community I needed.
This goes for congregations, too! Select all of the partnerships that apply to supporting your church’s ministry and mission in the world.
3. Leaving for the right reasons ain’t such a bad thing. In the last decades, I’ve heard more CBF personnel and pastors than I can count respond to some young seminarian’s incredulous query about the anti-gay hiring policy by saying, “Just be patient. Stick with us. Give us time. Things will change.” And now, things have changed — slowly, partially, incompletely. And some may have had about all the waiting they can handle.
I’m generally opposed to folks hastily leaving their churches or their denominations over disagreements without first making every effort to enter dialogue and work for change. But I only have one life — 40 years of vocational ministry if I’m lucky. No matter how much nurturing I received from CBF in my early years of ministerial formation, I had to cultivate Christian community with churches and denominations and Baptist organizations that wouldn’t qualify their embrace of my life or sense of call.
I don’t want to spend the entirety of my vocation fighting for a place at the table when there are other tables already set for me where the spread is just as sumptuous and I get to partake of the whole meal, not just three out of four courses. I still show up at CBF events from time to time and when a CBF church calls on my consultation around LGBTQ concerns I always show up. But I also need places where I can work on matters of racial justice and immigration justice and economic justice and environmental justice and cultivate a worshipping, serving community without first having to make a case for why a gay man should be a minister in the first place.
So for some — LGBTQ, straight, and cisgender alike — moving on is simply necessary, both for spiritual and mental health and for the living out of one’s vocation. It doesn’t mean cutting off all of your relationships with CBF churches and pastors and personnel. And the CBF should bless these departures of their fellow sojourners in faith. Undertaken as a call and not in spite, a Baptist migration can be a sacred journey.