A former Southern Baptist pastor kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for changing his mind about homosexuality is stepping down from the church he helped start 20 years ago.
Danny Cortez, founding pastor of New Heart Community Church in Whittier, Calif., announced March 25 that he is leaving the pastorate near the end of May.
Cortez, a self-described conservative, preached a sermon in 2014 posted on YouTube titled “Why I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality.” When his church voted not to make homosexuality a test of fellowship, the Southern Baptist Convention expelled it.
Cortez said in his Easter Sunday sermon that when he left the staff of a Southern Baptist congregation two decades ago to launch “a new kind of church,” he recognized it might be nothing more than an “experiment” that would last a year, five years or longer. He said he has “no regrets” about his time at New Heart Community Church but believes God is leading in a different direction.
About three years ago, Cortez said, he attended an event at a Christian college where the speaker said all such schools are led by white men of privilege and why that needs to change. Seated on the stage, the president joked that he hoped she wasn’t talking about him.
In the awkward moment, Cortez said it dawned on him the president was in fact not an exception, and he began to ask himself “would I be willing to step away?” from the perks that come with being a pastor. “I came to realize that part of what it means to carry the cross is to recognize my privilege,” he said.
Earlier this year, he said, he approached his female co-pastor, who works part time, and asked if she would consider swapping positions. Even though she declined, Cortez said, “There was something powerful in that moment.”
“It was like for the first time in the history of New Heart that I felt like I was relinquishing control,” he said. “I was setting aside my privilege. I was really giving up this power. It wasn’t just power, it was my financial ability to pay my mortgage.”
“It was all wrapped up in that, and there was something really freeing in that for me that it allowed me to get to this place that I discern what God’s will might be for my own sense of calling … couldn’t be about trying to hold on to the power,” he said.
Preaching from the Bible story of Jesus driving moneychangers from the Temple, Cortez said people on the margins tend to get “pushed out” when a religious movement becomes institutionalized.
“It’s all about making a living,” he said. “It’s all about survival. It’s about keeping the outsiders out who are rocking the boat and who are a threat to the power sources that are there.
“When the church becomes institutionalized, the church uses people,” Cortez said. “It becomes about its survival, and power uses people.”
In “the psychology of pastors,” Cortez said, lies a “disturbing secret.”
“Success is often measured in how many people attend,” he continued. “The growth of the church is what develops the pastor’s self-image and self-worth. Growth becomes what is most important. The decision making that is motivated by love all of a sudden becomes diminished.”
“I meet with pastors at least once a month, whether it’s online or local pastors who have been reaching out to me,” Cortez said. “I can’t tell you how many times pastors will say to me: ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think now is the right time for our church, because our church will lose too many members. If our church starts to lose too many members, then we’re going to start laying off staff. After the staff, we might not have enough money to pay the mortgage. That’s just too costly.’”
“A lot of these pastors aren’t willing to engage in these conversations on race or sexual identity or about women in leadership, because there’s this base that they have to keep trying to protect,” he said.
Leading up to Easter, Cortez posted on Twitter March 26, “We need Jesus to come back and take a whip to cleanse out the church.” In his sermon Sunday morning, Cortez said that means him, too.
“We are not immune to the desire to protect ourselves when it is costly to make loving decisions,” he said. “As long as you have paid staff and rent, it’s easy to remain silent, when you are afraid of offending the rich who give to you.”
“The structure of the church has been set up, so long, for people like me,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the benefits of it, honestly.”
“For 20 years I’ve had the privilege of being called pastor, but I think, for many of us, evangelicalism and what church means has to change.”
Cortez introduced himself in a 2014 blog describing how his experience of having people come out to him during his 15 years in ministry prompted intense study on the Bible and sex. He eventually came to realize he no longer believed traditional church teaching about homosexuality. The first person he told was his 15-year-old son, who responded, “Dad, I’m gay.”
When Cortez preached on his change of heart, some people left the church. The remaining members disagreed about homosexuality but voted to adopt a “third way” of neither affirming nor condemning LGBTQ persons and not casting judgment on those with whom they disagree.
Cortez called it “a huge step for a Southern Baptist church.” The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee didn’t see it that way, voting unanimously that New Heart Community Church failed to meet the definition of a “cooperating church” under article of the SBC constitution banning congregations which “act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”
“This action does not reflect a lack of love for homosexuals,” Executive Committee President and CEO Frank Page said at the time. “But when you love someone, you tell them the truth about their actions. By its action on behalf of the convention, the Executive Committee is telling New Heart that its failure to condemn homosexuality breaks the heart of God.”
Page, a former SBC president, resigned last week for what he called a “personal indiscretion” described by the Executive Committee chairman as “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past.”