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A commissioned ruling elder from Kendall Presbytery tells his faith story on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

Nathan Sobers, who leads First Presbyterian Church in Soda Springs, Idaho, is the broadcast’s most recent guest

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Nathan Sobers

LOUISVILLE — Nathan Sobers, a commissioned ruling elder in Kendall Presbytery and the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Soda Springs, Idaho, shares part of his faith journey on the most recent edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.” Listen to Sobers’ conversation with ‘A Matter of Faith’ hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe here. Sobers comes in at 11:55.

Sobers told the hosts he was born and raised outside Salt Lake City and excommunicated from the Church of Latter-day Saints at age 19 for being gay. “That was a very traumatic experience for me,” he said. “I really felt like God had turned God’s back on me.”

For the next 10 years or so, Sobers appeared in churches only when he was hired to provide organ music. “I figured if God didn’t want to have anything to do with me, I certainly didn’t want to have anything to do with God,” he said.

He moved to Seattle and became the organist and choir director at a predominantly African American PC(USA) congregation. “These folks welcomed me like nobody had,” he said. Some of the members had come to Seattle during World War II to assemble military aircraft in Boeing plants. A couple of decades later they were “heavily involved” in the civil rights movement. “They knew what it was like to be on the margins,” Sobers said.

He served first as a deacon and then a ruling elder, despite the ban at the time on gay people being ordained for ordered ministry. “When they asked me to be an elder, I said, ‘Are you sure?’ I listed all the things that could happen to them for ordaining an openly gay man as an elder at a time when it went against the Book of Order,” Sobers said. “The woman chairing the Nominating Committee put up a hand and said, ‘Just stop. We know exactly what the risks are, but we believe that God has called you to be an elder.’ How do you say no to that?”

Eventually he was invited to join the board of More Light Presbyterians, which he served as co-moderator for three years. One Sunday, an associate executive presbyter asked Sobers if he’d ever thought of serving in ministry. Although Sobers said he hadn’t, there was a precedent. “My mother tells the story about when I was eight years old. My friends would all be out playing, and I’d be lining my sister’s dolls up on the bed and preaching at them, and so yes, it had been part of my thought process,” he told Catoe and Doong.

Sobers was then asked to organize a new worshiping community, Stonewall Ministries in Cathedral City, California, which Sobers described as “an outreach to the LGBTQ community with a focus on helping those folks who have been hurt by the church to be reconciled and feel like they have a place in the church.”

The Soda Springs church called Sobers in July 2021. The community is about 3,000 people and is “relatively isolated,” Sobers said. About 4 in 5 people of faith there are Mormon.

Sobers gives top marks to the church’s search committee. “They were more concerned with how I’d be received in the community than in the congregation,” he said. He’d grown up in the Intermountain West, and one thing he’s always appreciated “is that people tell you what they think about you. There’s no artifice, no talking about you behind your back. Here you know where you stand at all times with everyone, whether you like it or not. I value that.”

“In an environment like this, we don’t have time to waste with religious arguments,” he said of small-city ministry. “We have to rely on each other a lot, just for basic survival.”

“It’s pretty common knowledge in town about who I am, but it doesn’t seem to impact my ability to lead ministry in this place, and I’m grateful for that,” Sobers said. “For us here, the things we have in common are more important than the differences.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Sobers also serves the denomination as a member of the General Assembly Committee on Representation.

“I don’t know of a church in the country that doesn’t claim that ‘all are welcome,’” Sobers said. “The issue becomes, how do we live into that?” At the committee’s fall meeting, Sobers asked if congregations have a wedding policy that explicitly welcomes same-gender ceremonies in their facilities. Many eyebrows went up around the table, he reported.

“There is a gap between what the rules now say is possible and the reality of many congregations,” Sobers said. “The work is about changing hearts and minds.”

“That’s how we teach the church — by example, by showing them that queer spirituality exists,” Sobers said. In many faith communities, “there’s a level of internalized homophobia we need to deal with.” For some, “our ideas are more than sinful — they’re going to send us to hell. How do we with confidence engage the larger church about these issues — overcoming the ‘ick’ factor and talking in healthy ways about sex and sexuality?”

“How can we engage properly,” Sobers asked, “if we haven’t done our own work to get rid of the internalized homophobia?”

Doong thanked Sobers for speaking so openly with the hosts. “We hope people learned a lot,” he said. “We wish you the best in your ministry.”

Watch previous editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” by going here. New editions drop on Thursdays.

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