Relevant truth telling with a queer twist

Layton WilliamsAn equal measure of grace
It’s hard to be vulnerable when you “represent” a whole sexual identity, race, or gender.

by Layton E. Williams

Last winter, I had an unexpected conversation with a new friend. We had known each other only casually through our common Presbyterian circles, but she had reached out to me after hearing that I was struggling in my first year of ministry. Hundreds of miles apart, we got to know each other over video chat. I stumbled awkwardly through an explanation of what I was feeling about being a pastor—how it was hard in ways I never expected, how I wasn’t sure if I was any good at it. Finally I said, “Sometimes, I just wonder what the heck I was thinking.”

After a moment’s pause, I hastily added, “Not that I’m questioning my ordination because I’m absolutely not.” She studied me, and then offered a half smile. “Oh,” she said, “because I was going to say that I’ve definitely questioned my ordination.” I sighed and nodded.

I had told others that I was struggling, but I had never admitted actually questioning my call before. It felt dangerous to voice out loud, especially as a queer woman whose ordination was a symbol of triumph in the work toward justice in the church. My new friend understood that intimately, because she was queer too.

In the many months since that conversation, I’ve grown more at peace with my sense of call, my role as a pastor, and the questions that are never too far away. I’ve heard many peers also express occasional doubts about their call to ministry. In my experience, there is a particular degree of fear about admitting such doubts when others in the church have long doubted your calling also—doubted, not because being a pastor is hard, not because pastors face dramatic challenges in today’s environment, not because everyone with a calling doubts at some point (check your Bible), but because of some quality, such as your race, gender, ability, or sexuality.

‘The equality queer people deserve isn’t only about inclusive ordination or marriage—we are asking for an equal measure of grace. We are not asking to be seen as perfect; we just want a world that knows our queerness isn’t why we are imperfect.’

This isn’t really surprising. Many of my queer friends and I feel pressure to be perfect in our work and love lives. I’m guessing this is true for many of my colleagues of color, for women clergy in general, and anyone who has had to fight to prove their worth. Unlike my white, straight male colleagues, we don’t get to just be individuals. We represent something bigger than ourselves, and others are basing their understanding of queerness (or blackness or woman-ness) on what they know about us. Any questioning, or messing up, or even basic vulnerability, feels like it has the power to undermine all the progress that’s been made. It can feel overwhelming and dehumanizing at times.

The pressure to demonstrate perfection as a queer person isn’t just limited to how we do our jobs. A number of my LGBTQ friends are going through difficult seasons in their marriages and some are seeing their marriages end. Though I cannot claim to know through my own experience, it is clear to me that the work of ending a covenant relationship and separating a common life is painful, lonely, and excruciatingly difficult. On top of this difficulty, queer couples often struggle with being the shining example of marriage equality—a beacon of success—to many people they know. I see friends and colleagues tremble under the weight of this expectation, and it makes an already heartbreaking situation even harder.

I went into ministry because I believe that the church can and should be the place where people come home to be embraced in the fullness of who they are. I came out as queer and have worked hard for LGBTQ justice in the church because I believe that people like me are just as deserving of that sense of home in Christ as everyone else. I have rejoiced as our denomination has embraced ordination of LGTBQ people and an understanding of marriage that is inclusive of same-sex couples. I have seen these progressions as positive indicators that we are, indeed, moving toward a church that offers genuine acceptance and justice for all people.

Still, this past year has clarified for me that there is work yet to be done. The equality queer people deserve isn’t only about inclusive ordination or marriage—we are asking for an equal measure of grace. We are not asking to be seen as perfect; we just want a world that knows our queerness isn’t why we are imperfect. We are calling for a church that knows we need grace—not because we are queer—but because we are human.

The true measure of the church’s embrace of LGBTQ people will not only be how it celebrates with us when everything is wonderful, but how it walks with us, encircles us, and holds us up when life is really, humanly, hard. I believe in that church, and I believe that the day will come when we can all bring our whole, beautifully imperfect, divinely beloved, human selves into that church and know that we are home.

Layton E. Williams is a teaching elder currently serving as the pastoral resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Her ministry focuses on young adults, adult education, and a jazz worship service.