Learning from one who was at the frontlines of denominational change

Dr. Michael J. Adee shares his life’s work during a webinar on extending and expanding inclusion

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Michael Adee, the former executive director of More Light Presbyterians, speaking in 2019. (Photo by Michael Whitman)

LOUISVILLE — Educator, consultant, chaplain, tennis coach and human rights advocate Dr. Michael J. Adee offered up a lifetime of insight and stories during a webinar Monday exploring the work that’s been done by the church and remains to be done toward the full inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially transgender and non-binary people.

Adee also discussed the long journey he helped lead to end ordination barriers to LGBTQIA+ ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He spoke Monday during a World Mission event planned in response to the overture passed by the 223rd General Assembly (2018), On Celebrating the Gifts of People of Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities in the Life of the Church.

Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians from 1999-2012 who’s also taught university and seminary students and founded organizations, including the Global Faith and Justice Project, was a hospital chaplain and diversity consultant and also served as a campus minister and coach. He spoke during an online storytelling seminar Monday attended by more than 60 people.

Not sure “the church would have me” after coming out, Adee decided to visit Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati after friends recommended it. He’s since returned to that congregation via online worship from his seat at his kitchen table in Santa Fe, New Mexico, even transferring his membership. “It was the first time I had heard a good word about someone like me. I felt so much a part of that church that I decided to join again,” Adee told the Rev. David Maxwell, Vice President of Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, who asked Adee questions throughout the webinar. “That was the church that loved me back to faith, and they have welcomed me back into membership. It is a very meaningful connection with a church that stands up for the things I believe in.”

Maxwell recalled frequently seeing Adee during General Assembly in the years leading up to decisions to allow for the ordination of LGBTQIA+ pastors, ruling elders and deacons and to permit clergy to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. “You were everywhere!” Maxwell told Adee.

Adee recalled having “profoundly uncommon conversations” with people eager to discuss proposed changes. “People would say, ‘I am gay and the church doesn’t know’ or ‘I am transgender and I don’t feel safe.’” Adee would tell them, “It’s not safe yet. There’s no ordination policy change. But be known to someone and let the rest of us do the work of change.”

Ordination and marriage policy changes “provided liberation for people in so many ways,” Adee said. During one General Assembly, a delegate who was a leader of a Reformed church in Egypt attended a film screening put on by More Light Presbyterians. The film explored the faith of a transgender person. “This person and his wife came and sat there quietly,” Adee said. “I wondered, how is this going?”

The couple asked “thoughtful questions” and left with a copy of a book written by the Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson.

“I really do believe in the ripple effect,” Adee said. “That couple was open-hearted and engaged and went back home with a very different understanding. I loved working at General Assembly and being part of those events.”

Those hundreds of one-on-one conversations he had during General Assembly gatherings made “all the difference in the world. That’s where transformation happens,” Adee said. “As an educator I am all for conferences and meetings, but there’s nothing like saying to someone, ‘I have changed my mind on this and let me tell you why.’”

After completing his time with More Light Presbyterians, Adee looked out and realized “there are Presbyterians and [other] Reformed people in 100 countries.” One organization tracked 80 countries that penalized same-sex relations, 10 with the death penalty, including Uganda with its “Kill the Gays” policy.

“This was a life and death matter,” Adee said. “I realized that [holding] conversations with others could be not only life-giving but life-saving.”

Adee began working with international leaders including the World Council of Churches. He met a man who’d fled Nigeria to seek asylum in the United Kingdom. Their working collaboration drove home for Adee the idea of “accompaniment,” a term usually used to describe the efforts people of faith make on behalf of those in danger in Central and South America, for example.

“Accompaniment became my guide,” Adee said. “He needed me to write grants, and I know how to write grants. I know who the funders are and I know how to work with the language … I learned [about the value of accompaniment] from the accompaniment work done in Central America.”

Adee also touched on coming out to his father, a “straight white Kansas engineer who played college football. He taught me that with privilege comes responsibility.” Adee said his father, the clerk of session at several different churches while Adee was growing up, “engaged his brain with reason and science, but he also engaged his heart.”

But when his son came out, “he really struggled. He wasn’t surprised. He knew, but he didn’t want it to be said.” Adee invited his listeners to examine “compulsory heterosexuality, to use a term from a friend, or heteronormative behavior, or assuming everyone is heterosexual. It is an illogical and dangerous assumption and it doesn’t create space for people to be who they are.”

As he continues to research gender nonconformity, “I try to give myself grace as I make mistakes,” Adee said. “Transgender and nonbinary friends say they know the difference between people who use language as a weapon and people like me who make honest mistakes.”

Over the years, Adee said he’s been especially appreciative of the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteers program. He said he wonders what it would be like to have a YAV cohort completely comprised of LGBTQIA+ young adults “doing ministry in a place that is LGBTQ focused. It would be empowering and it would take the ball down the court in terms of ministry to folks who have not heard a good word from the church or who think they are outside of God’s love and God’s care.”

If he finds himself visiting a congregation or group he’s not familiar with, Adee said he usually seeks out a grandmother to learn from.

“I want to know who the matriarch is. I ask her, ‘What’s going on here? What can we do?’ Those matriarchs make a difference in so many ways,” Adee said. “I am glad men show up too, but I am grateful for people who will sit down with pastors and say, ‘This silence is not useful. If we have a transgender kid in our congregation, how are they going to be treated in Sunday school, in youth group and confirmation class? What learning do we need to create that safe space?’”

Adee said he feels increasingly called by the Spirit “to be a better ally to the transgender community. We have not done a good job around transgender and gender nonconforming people,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “That is a place I can make a difference” — perhaps not by speaking at conferences, “but I know people who can tell those stories,” Adee said.

There’s plenty to be learned “from the trajectory of the path of women’s ordination,” Adee said. “What’s underneath all of that is patriarchy and toxic masculinity. I think we need to name those things and address them. That is part of our work, to name the harm done to women and girls, transgender folks and gender nonconforming folks.”

“I’m not going to ignore what is underneath all of this,” Adee said. “I’m grateful for an invitation to this conversation.”

The Rev. Shanea Leonard, associate for Gender & Racial Justice in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, closed Monday’s webinar with prayer, thanking God “that all of us are divinely crafted and created, including our gender identification and our sexual orientation.” Leonard also thanked God “for Michael and for his decades of work, and for how he still moves to do the work today to inspire others, including myself.”

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