Sunday, November 05, 2006

Being Called and Speaking Your Truth

This article brings up an ongoing debate that plays repeatatively in the minds of all those who are trying to discern the best way to live out their call on their journey of life and faith. Does one stay in your birth denomination and bear witness, or does one go elsewhere? Everyone's truth and path is different. Here's one person's story...

By _Eileen E. Flynn_ ( AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFSunday, November 05, 2006

As she prepares to graduate from seminary, Karen Thompson knows she might never be ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Worse, as she learned Friday, she might not even have the opportunity to try, despite the four years she's spent earning a master's in divinity and the support she's won from many clergy members. Even if she stays, any ministry Thompson has will probably be limited because of the denomination's policy on homosexuality. But this is where the 44-year-old lesbian believes that God wants her. "I keep feeling like God has called me to this place at this time," she said. "I feel what I am called to do is just keep saying yes. I don't think now is the time for me to say no."

Last fall, Thompson, who attends Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, was approved by regional church leaders to become a candidate for ministry, the step that precedes ordination.The move was controversial because noncelibate homosexuals are banned from ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church, and some felt that the regional governing body disregarded this policy. A retired minister filed a complaint against San Antonio-based Mission Presbytery, prompting a trial that ended in a split decision and is now likely to be appealed to the national church. A decision against the presbytery would mean Thompson can no longer be called a candidate.Thompson, who will complete her course work next month, said church officials didn't notify her of the appeal. And she isn't sure what the future holds. But, she stressed, "not one minute of this has been wasted. I have been preparing for ministry, and God will use me. "Thompson could have pursued a pastoral job in a church that ordains gays. But when she thought about the hurdles she's already cleared and the gay seminarians who will follow her, Thompson felt called to be a voice of change from within. Her plan now is to work with That All May Freely Serve, a Presbyterian group that promotes ordination for homosexuals. "I feel I'm called to share the good news," she said.

Thompson nearly backed out in September after the Mission Presbytery trial, which was held at the seminary. Thompson, who was not allowed to testify, remembers sitting in the back of the room before opening arguments. A woman handed out name tags and a marker to the observers. Thompson held the sticky tag in her hands for a while before writing her name."You just have to understand what it was to be Karen Thompson in that room," she said. She listened to people talk about her. The unrepentant homosexual person. The sinful lifestyle. The person they were praying would change. They didn't describe the flesh and blood, 6-foot-2-inch woman who carries pictures of her kids in her purse. The woman who loves God and has served the church as a deacon and elder.

"The greatest power we carry is our stories," Thompson said. "It's in the stories of being human. It's in the stories of how we love other people. It's in the stories of how we serve the church. "When the trial ended, even though she remained a candidate for ministry, Thompson felt defeated. She went home and cried for two days. Maybe, she thought, she should switch to the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination founded specifically for gay people. She had recently taken a job at a local Metropolitan Community congregation as a staff team leader. But then it struck her, she said, "This is not about Karen Thompson being ordained. This is about people who are called by God to serve in the church and who are being told no." Thompson now plans to speak to Sunday school classes, informal church groups, parents of gay children, people who have given up on the church because of the debate on homosexuality. She wants to make herself available not just to tell her own story but to hear the stories of others. She'll be following in the footsteps of other gay Presbyterians who have been blocked from ordination. Lisa Larges, who works for That All May Freely Serve in San Francisco, has been a candidate for ministry for 21 years."As long as I feel called to ministry, in good conscience I can't drop out of the process," Larges said.

The Rev. Toby Brown, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Cuero, supported the complaint against Mission Presbytery over Thompson, but he's also determined to assert his views with a Christian spirit."There's no name-calling. No one's mad at Karen Thompson," he said. "It's that we're concerned that this lifestyle is not what we believe is appropriate."It's one thing for an aspiring minister to sin and acknowledge her weakness and vow to do better. But, Brown stressed, Thompson, Larges and others don't view their homosexual relationships as sinful."That's the key," he said. "Presbyterians believe that every human being is a sinner, that they need forgiveness from God. That's not the issue. However, we expect our ordained leaders to be able to say, 'I need God's grace in my life to be able to repent of these things and continue to grow and to grow out of sin and into the faith more.' "Brown said he thinks the tension over this issue might force a denominational schism.

As the shadow of uncertainty looms, Thompson's network of support keeps her motivated to stick to her convictions. She relies on her friends at Metropolitan Community Church, along with Central Presbyterian, the church that sponsored her as a seminarian, and Faith Presbyterian, where she worked previously. She knows people will continue to tell her to leave the denomination for one that ordains gays. But there's the rub, she said with a weary smile: "The Presbyterian church is my church." And as far as she's concerned, God is asking her to "get on with the ministry."

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