CHICAGO As soon as Michael Overman announced he was gay, the Southern Baptist church that raised him – that led him to attend an evangelical Christian college and inspired him to pursue ministry – left him feeling abandoned.
He stayed estranged from Christianity for about six years before finding his way to Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, a congregation in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood that welcomes gays and lesbians.
Reinvigorated by the church’s acceptance, he enrolled at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and sought ordination in his new denomination.
But the United Methodist Church does not ordain gay clergy in committed relationships. That created a predicament for Overman, who joined his partner in a civil union last spring. He knew he could try keeping his relationship private as some clergy do. But that made him uncomfortable.
“If I’m going to be in ministry, I’m going to be in ministry as my whole self,” said Overman, 28. “When I look at Christian faith, it was always Christ’s mission to restore people in the community and restore people to wholeness. It didn’t make sense to me to go into ministry as a closeted person. That felt inauthentic.”
Following a number of gay and lesbian former Methodists who find themselves unable to serve in the church that cultivated their calling, Overman withdrew from the denomination last month to seek ordination instead in the Disciples of Christ Church, which accepts openly gay clergy in committed relationships. The departure of Overman and others spotlights the internal drama in one of the last mainline Protestant denominations that require gay clergy to stay celibate. Methodist teaching states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Many Methodist clergy and congregations disagree.
The Rev. Matthew Johnson, pastor of Holy Covenant, said the congregation’s acceptance can perplex people like Overman who don’t understand that the congregation is an anomaly.
Last year, Johnson joined more than 200 elders, deacons and pastors in the church’s Northern Illinois Conference who pledged to defy national church policy and bless same-sex unions.
Johnson said he and Overman discussed two options. Overman could wait until the church changed its teachings or he could forge ahead in trying to become a minister and see how far he got in the process before his civil union became an obstacle. Overman chose the latter.
Still, instead of naming his partner or referring to his husband, Overman spoke of “a significant other” on his application. When a committee charged with certifying him for ordination warned him about the ambiguous language, he felt uneasy. The panel never asked whether his significant other was a man or a woman, and it encouraged him to move forward.
“Practicing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in a ministry context is pushing people to sin,” Overman added. “Thou shalt not lie.” A blog item he wrote about his experience for Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist gay rights advocacy group, has gone viral.
Bishop Sally Dyck, head of the Northern Illinois Conference, met with Overman. She insisted the church does not take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach.
“We are saddened to lose a gifted person going toward ministry,” she said. “The district committee appreciated and respected Michael’s honesty about his personal relationship and in turn had to be honest with Michael about the reality that the Board of Ordained Ministry is bound by the current laws in the Book of Discipline.”
Overman said he understands that some clergy have chosen to hide their relationships. It’s not a route he can take.
“What I might feel would be deceitful or inauthentic on my part, someone else may have wrestled with and come to terms with,” he said. “I’m not called to hide.”