Joining the Covenant Conversation

Covenant Network of Presbyterians restarts its Covenant Conversation series with a stellar panel

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Covenant Network of Presbyterians restarted its Covenant Conversation series Saturday with a hybrid conversation in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Covenant Network of Presbyterians)

LOUISVILLE — Together with its partners, Covenant Network of Presbyterians re-launched its Covenant Conversation series Saturday with worship, workshops and a panel stocked with thoughtful and passionate Christians.

Saturday’s four-hour hybrid conversation was held at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, in partnership with the Presbytery of Charlotte, First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, Davidson College Presbyterian Church in Davidson, North Carolina, and Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. In addition to those attending the conference in person, dozens more people joined the conversation by viewing the livestream.

“Every region has those who affirm LGBTQIA+ people and some want to but aren’t sure how to,” said the Rev. Brian Ellison, CNP’s executive director. “These events are being offered to bring these communities together.”

“Welcome can be a tricky word, especially for LGBTQIA+ people,” Ellison told those gathered on Saturday. “Today is about what we as a church need to do to get there.”

Following worship, panelists discussed their experiences working toward welcoming LGBTQIA+ people fully into the life of the church. Comprising the panel were:

  • The Rev. Dr. Mark Achtemeier, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian who wrote “The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage.” He taught theology and ethics at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary ands served pastorates in North Carolina and Iowa. He and his wife, the Rev. Katherine Morton Achtemeier, are retired in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
  • Jonathan Hardin, a member of Caldwell Presbyterian Church who served three years on the session and now is an active member of the church’s Touchpoint Committee, which focuses on outreach to the LGBTQIA+ community and education. Hardin is a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate, work that includes providing multicultural counseling services to teenagers and adults.
  • The Rev. Leslie Oliver, a native of Newark, New Jersey, who hails from four generations of womanist preachers. Oliver recently earned an M.Div in pastoral care from Union Presbyterian Seminary and serves Sanctuary Outreach Ministries in Charlotte.
  • Heather J. McKee, a 1987 Davidson College graduate who earned a second degree from Queens University of Charlotte and worked for a time as an accountant before attending Princeton Theological Seminary, where she earned an M.Div in 1994 and went on to a career focused on health policy, medical ethics and health administration, most recently as the interim CEO at The Pines at Davidson, a senior living retirement community. McKee attends Davidson College Presbyterian Church, the same church that originally affirmed her call 30 years ago.

Jonathan Hardin

“When I hear the word ‘welcome,’ I can’t help associating it with conditional welcome,” Hardin said. The message can be that if you do attend a worship service or church function, “don’t come in and openly advertize to people you are gay or trans or what have you … Those mixed messages still live with me. As affirming as Caldwell is, I still check my surroundings for my safety.”

McKee said she couldn’t “authentically serve as a minister of Word and Sacrament” at the completion of seminary studies because of the anti-LGBTQIA+ arguments circulating around the PC(USA) in the early and mid-1990s. She and her partner eloped to Hawaii eight years ago, then decided they wanted a ceremony where their friends and families could join them.

Heather McKee

“All of a sudden it was no longer a theological conversation” at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, McKee said. The session decided to allow their service of blessing. “It has been a very Presbyterian process — decently and in order,” McKee said. “Now at every worship service we say we are an affirming and welcoming congregation … It is with gratitude and grace that I have come back home to be part of that change.”

“Your perspective has changed,” Ellison told Achtemeier while introducing him, recalling that Achtemeier used to oppose the full welcome of PC(USA) churches for LGBTQIA+ people before writing his book. “Why?”

“I was in leadership circles with groups that wound up putting the infamous ‘fidelity and chastity’ language into the [PC(USA)] Constitution,” Achtemeier said. “Bible verses had cast [same-sex relationships] in a negative light, and I thought it was pretty clear.”

The Rev. Dr. Mark Achtemeier

Eventually, “I got into deep conversations with friends in the LGBTQIA+ community and learned some things that made a real impression on me,” he said. “I heard stories about people’s relationships, and they were no different than mine. The cumulative weight of these kinds of encounters had me going back to the Bible to check the math, because things didn’t seem to be adding up. I looked at Scripture carefully to see what I’d missed and chronicled those in my book.”

“Thankfully, I have come out in a different place,” he said. “God has afforded me the opportunity to undo some of the damage I did in the denomination.”

“Jesus was clear on the honesty of his ‘why,’” Oliver said. “He just talked to people, including Nicodemus and the woman at the well.”

“Have those real conversations about why the church is here in the first place — to love people, to honor the Shema,” Oliver said. “People are watching us, mainly the youth. You can say, ‘I don’t understand you all the way, but I love you.’ We can start there.”

Achtemeier said when he publicly changed his position, “I got kicked off the speaking circuit and kicked off boards. But I am grateful to this day for the welcome I got from Covenant Network, even though they had every right to be scared of me.”

Welcome and affirmation come in many ways. For McKee, one significant affirmation occurred when the congregation laid hands on her when she was ordained and installed as a deacon. “I had no idea how powerful it would be for me,” McKee said.

For Hardin, affirmation means “I am welcome unconditionally. I am not labeled or stereotyped. I am welcomed for who I am independently as a person who loves God and is assured that God loves me.”

“All of us come before God as sinners who are saved by grace and are dependent on it,” Achtemeier said. “If we all depend on the grace of God, we are all sisters and brothers in the same boat. I think that is a theological definition of affirming.”

The Rev. Leslie Oliver

“Put your dictionary down, and put your ego down,” Oliver advised the crowd. “We didn’t see Jesus carrying a bunch of books around — just love. If I love you, I’m going to affirm you.”

McKee said her church’s membership rolls have grown as its calling to affirmation has strengthened, “and it’s not just members of the lesbian and gay community,” she said. “People want to be part of congregations that are affirming, and they want their children raised in a faith community where they can see the wonderfulness of all God’s children.”

Who are we, Oliver asked, to decide “how love should be distributed? That’s how we ended up in the hell we’re in. You don’t get to tell me to sit down. It wasn’t you who knew my inward parts — that was God, who created me … Jesus challenged people to do things differently. What I see people doing in the name of ‘tough love’ is not that.”

“My catch phrase is, ‘Don’t just talk about it — be about it,” Hardin said. “People are naturally drawn to our church.”

“Given the state of the church generally in the United States, I think lesbian and gay people coming into the door have every reason to assume they are not welcome [in your church] until you say it to the contrary,” Achtemeier said.

Ellison thanked participants before the conference broke for workshops, which will be the subject of additional stories this week from Presbyterian News Service.

“I know these conversations will continue in pulpits and pews beyond this space,” Ellison said.

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