Being Forced Out of the Church

Contributed by Reuben Sancken

I’ve been very busy since starting seminary. Not just with school work, but also with acclimating to a new place and making new relationships. While there have been struggles since coming to Indianapolis, overall it has been a good experience and I believe this is where God calls me to be. In my pastoral care and counseling class last semester, I studied trauma and grief. One of the things that I’ve learned is that if one doesn’t take the time to grieve, then it will eventually catch up with them. It is time for me to voice my grief. The events that aggravated this grief are important for people in the Mennonite church to know. Especially, in light of the recent statement released by the Executive Board.

I started seminary in the fall of 2013. For each student pursuing a Master of Divinity degree, they contact their denomination to begin the process of ordination. I had several conversations with the denominational minister, a member of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) staff, who processes new ministry inquiry applicants. I wanted to be honest with her, so I was upfront with being openly gay. She told me that MC USA no longer is processing openly gay or lesbian applicants (unfortunately, bisexual and transgender people are not a part of the conversation). This ruling was made quietly in January of 2013 by the MC USA Executive Committee. I’m astounded that the MC USA Executive Committee could make a decision to exclude a group of people from being considered from leadership. It is especially of concern that this decision was not made public knowledge.

The denominational minister then told me that I could go through the ministry process if I was in the closet. She told me she would not tell anyone that I was gay. I was horrified that she even suggested this. I told her that I was not going back into the closet. I don’t think she had bad intensions by suggesting that I go back in the closet. Still, it is not good to suggest someone go back in the closet for several reasons. One, it can be harmful to the person’s sense of who they are if they are forced back into the closet. A person’s sexual orientation (also gender identity) is an important component to who they are. Making someone go back in the closet could harm their mental health. Another reason that suggesting someone go back into the closet is not helpful is that it is potentially harmful for the congregation to have a leader who is closeted. Authenticity and honesty are important components of leadership. I believe the best option is not encouraging someone to go back into the closet. If LGBT people desire to be “out,” then walk beside them and encourage them to be honest about being a member of the LGBT community.

I don’t think the MC USA executive committee realizes the implications of their decision to ban LGBT people from applying to become pastors in the church. It basically means that openly LGBT people called to ministry are being forced out of the denomination. The dismissal of openly LGBT people from pastoral leadership positions has been happening for decades. Countless LGBT people have been dismissed for “coming out” in leadership positions. There have been a few very public dismissals, but the majority have been done behind closed doors through private shaming.

Being active in the Mennonite Church is challenging for most LGBT people. Although those LGBT people called to leadership within the church face an added barrier. For years, I’ve felt like I’ve had to choose my denomination or my call. God has called me to ministry. If I’m going to be true to God’s calling of ministry, then I’m forced to pursue ministry in another denomination. With the executive board’s recent statement of eight “action steps,” never has the rejection of LGBT leaders been as painfully clear as it is now. The “silver lining” of these “action steps” is that finally MC USA is acknowledging in excluding statements that LGBT people are leaders. In the past, resolutions and guidelines targeting LGBT people have been about membership at churches and same-gender marriage. Still, even with this “silver lining,” the pain inflicted on LGBT people and those who love them are fresh.

This is yet another violent act against the LGBT community. Every time the church closes the door on the LGBT community it hurts. Every reaffirmation of denominational guidelines that exclude the LGBT community hurts. It sends the message to the LGBT community that you don’t matter as much as other people in the church. ALL people matter to God. Jesus is like the woman who searched until she found the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). Jesus acts as the shepherd searching for the lost sheep until it is found (Luke 15:1-7). Nothing is lost and no one is forgotten by God.

I’ve joined the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and taken the first steps in the ordination process. I’ve chosen to be open about being gay throughout the entire process. The Indiana region of the Disciples of Christ has approved me to be under their care for ordination and I will be serving at a Disciples of Christ church this fall as the Student Associate Pastor. The Disciples of Christ is a tradition that ordains openly LGBT people. Unlike MC USA, the Disciples of Christ do not require LGBT people attracted to people of the same-gender to remain celibate. Although it is still difficult for openly LGBT people get ordained, as it is with many of denominations that have recently opened their doors to leadership from openly LGBT leaders, at least they give LGBT people a chance to pursue ministry. As long as the MC USA does not allow openly LGBT people to be licensed, ordained, and/or take other leadership roles, then they will continue to lose their LGBT leaders.

I’m thankful for my biological and chosen family, churches, pastors, and other friends who have extended their love over the years. Thank you for taking the love of Christ seriously. Keep up the good work! I will keep connected to Brethren Mennonite Council, Pink Menno, and other welcoming groups. I may be in a different church, but I will continue to sing my part!

4 comments on “Being Forced Out of the Church
  1. Deb Brubaker says:

    Reuben, I had no idea that MC USA had done this. Thank you for shedding light on this horribly negative aspect of the denomination. I’m saddened deeply that the Mennonite church is not supporting you – you have marvelous gifts of depth and sensitivity to share. Keep on following your heart. Hopefully some day, the Menno church leaders will catch up with the rest of the world. In support, Deb.

  2. Mary Biddle says:

    I’m heartbroken to learn that you’ve been forced to leave MC USA. Your voice and your insights are needed among us.
    Thank you for sharing this letter. I pray it will help to prompt a declaration of full inclusiveness of all who are called to serve in the Mennonite Church.
    Blessings on your ministry.
    Mary Biddle

  3. Ruth Stoltzfus says:

    What a disgraceful time for MC USA!! What can we do to support you? Leave with you?
    Ruth Stoltzfus

  4. Reuben Sancken says:

    Thanks for the support. I felt God really pressing on me to share my experiences. I hope it helps to bring change in the church. I don’t want people to leave the church if they don’t have to. We need as many people as possible to remain in the church to speak-up against discrimination.
    Reuben Sancken