”Keep your head low…”
“Keep your head low and follow the Book of Order!”
That’s the response of my Executive Presbyter (EP) back in the day when I asked.” How do I navigate the ordination process as an openly gay man?”
Well, I knew his admonition wouldn’t work for me. I had already left the Roman Church over being gay and “keeping my head low” (read: being in the closet) – it had nearly killed me. Interestingly, this person considered themselves an ally.
So, I just kept going with the support and encouragements of some amazing folks at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, others in the presbytery and elsewhere. As I finished seminary and Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I continued to seek a call. My next EP told me point-blank, “You’ll never get an installed call as pastor in this presbytery. You bring the threat of charges against the congregation and the presbytery. We’re not ready for that.” (Read: you’re too out.) Another ally.
At this point, I had been in business for 20 years, taught in private and public schools for the next 20, and had just finished five years of seminary at night while teaching full-time high school. So, I didn’t discourage easily, mostly because I didn’t know any better. The courage of others in this struggle kept me going. G-6. 0106b loomed, but so did Presbyterians who knew better, among them a group of twelve congregations that went by the name Acts of Conscience, which refused to abide by this Amendment. I stuck with them. Still do. These folks and many more of you are a wonderful, wily, faithful, courageous bunch! Generous, too. In those days and since, you needed to be generous to stay in the struggle knowing what you would be subjected to. You did what you did for the others who would follow more than for yourself. So many of you truly are Rock Stars and Prophets.
Behold! I did get called and ordained to Palisades Presbyterian Church in Palisades, NY as an Interim Pastor, part-time. What a great and loving and strong group of folks, much like South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, under whose care I’d had been. What a difference these folks and others like them have made in the lives of so many. It was 2005 and I was 54 years old.
A lot has happened between then and now—a lot. I sought a call in the PC(USA) for more than a decade. I was never installed as a pastor until twelve years later at Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ, where I serve now, in my 4th year as pastor at 68 years old.
I lost count of the rejections I received in the PC(USA) along the way. And for Queer folk who have been through this journey—it’s not an uncommon display of bias (nor is it for women and others). But this is what I know. (Perhaps some of you will write about your experiences.)
Anyway, I kept trying.
In fact, after several weeks of open and transparent conversations with a search committee that had called me, I accepted an invitation to do a candidating sermon for an interim call in the PCUSA – 320 miles North of the Arctic Circle. No kidding. As much as the committee wanted to call me, two days before I was to plan the trip to the “Land of the Midnight Sun” – I got a call.
They asked me if I was celibate. Session wanted to make sure I wasn’t, well…whatever. I explained that that was really an inappropriate question but I understood why they asked. I answered directly. I explained that I was not in a relationship, may never be in a relationship, but that I was not celibate.
A day later I got a phone call, “Thanks, Ray, but we are going to keep looking…”
Well, that was it. I was done. How far would I have to go to get a call? It seems like it was time to get in my kayak and keep going. (I really don’t have kayak; just sayin’.)
Still, I knew better. I knew a call was not a position or a job, necessarily. It was to be who you are so others might know you and the God who loves you and lives in you. Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr, who many of you know, once told me that when we do this work as openly Queer people, we sometimes become the curriculum for others, so they can know us. I thought I was called to Alaska. Turns out the call was to be in the process. Maybe that helped them. I hope so.
It took a while, but I can see how it helped me, too.
And I think that’s the point I would like to share. Perhaps “a call” is really a process and a charge to live into the process, being who we are, open, affirming, courageous, prophetic, generous, transparent and unwilling to hide who it is God has created us to be. How could we serve others if we weren’t who we were?
For me, the process certainly isn’t keep my head low; nor is it to allow others’ fears to chart my path. Besides, I have enough work to do keeping my own fears out of the way.
Ray Bagnuolo, HR
Minister of Word and Sacrament
That All May Freely Serve
01.24.2020; email@example.com; 631-827-8611