As the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church continues its “Where Love Lives” campaign this month, the Greater Northwest Area of The UMC will explore our LGBTQ+ siblings’ call to ministry in a denomination where, by and large, they are still not welcome.
This is the unfiltered story of Rev. Katie Ladd, an ordained elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference who identifies herself as queer. Listen to her story of being called to ministry as an outsider, going through her ordination service without her beloved standing beside her, and her hopes for the denomination’s future.
Being Methodist is a core part of my personal identity. My family counts two circuit riders in it – Jeptha Hughes and Ashley Hewitt. While history does not indicate calling, the stories of circuit riding down the Natchez Trace and into Louisiana fueled my imagination as a child. I preached to my stuffed animals on the Sundays we did not go to church. This imagination would become part of my dreaming for a church rooted in the past, oriented to the context in which it is found, and nimble and responsive to a future yet to be charted.
The first real voice that invited me to think about ordained ministry was my associate pastor, a woman, who approached me after youth Sunday and remarked that I might give the idea some thought. I brushed it off with a laugh. After my first year in college (a United Methodist liberal arts college), I began the candidacy process; it languished for years. While working for an environmental chemistry firm in Houston, my spirit cried out for more. My college advisor from the religion department encouraged me to return to graduate school with eyes toward a master’s degree of divinity (MDiv). I wanted to enroll in a master’s degree in art program en route to a doctorate degree. This adviser persuaded me against the latter, seeing in me something I couldn’t see in myself. This has been true throughout my call.
Some are called from deep within; some of us have the call articulated by others and are guided toward a life that we otherwise would not have chosen – think Jonah or Moses. Even in divinity school, I did not see myself working in a church setting. Medical ethics was my focus. Yet, throughout a gradual but transformative time, the work of sowing community and participating in the healing of the world through community led me back to what my ancestors did so long ago – pastoral work in a rapidly changing social landscape.
Being Queer is as much a part of me as my gender, nationality, ethnicity, or Methodist roots, and it clearly has influenced my call to and work in ministry. Throughout my life, I have been an outsider. I have never fit in. Some of that is due to sexual orientation, but not all. This outsider status has opened me to empathy in a way that transcends the particularities of my own experience and in ways that bring me into deep spiritual community with people very unlike me. That said, when I began the long and circuitous route to ordination, sexual orientation was not part of the conscious discernment process – not until divinity school. It was there that the dean of Methodist studies discouraged me from taking Methodist classes. He deemed them a “waste of time” because I refused to live in a closet. I insisted on living out as God created me to be. Therefore, I would either never be ordained or would not remain ordained. He told me to save my money and spend it elsewhere in school.
In the 1990s there was no place for an out bisexual clergy person in any denomination, including ours. While I didn’t take his classes, that discouragement achieved the opposite of his goals; it made me more determined than ever to stake my claim in the church that had been my home – and my family’s home – for generations. I belonged here and no prejudice would drive me out. Most of my early ministry was centered on people living with addiction, as I have done. I worked with abused and neglected children. I worked with unhoused youth and young adults. While I have never experienced this kind of trauma, I did know what it felt like not to belong and to know what it means to have one’s core self-excluded, ignored, derided, and despised.
But the privilege of growing up loved and secure gave me a strength to stand in the breach with those not afforded the same. Knowing a God who always embraced me in times of duress put holy ground under my feet. I understood the experience of exile and the joy of homecoming. These have circumscribed my ministry – exile and homecoming. This is fueled by the slights and struggles I experienced as a young Queer person, but my ministry is with and to all who have experienced exile and who yearn for sacred homecoming.
My ordination process began in what was once called the North Arkansas Annual Conference. I grew up around Memphis, TN, just south in Mississippi and just north in Arkansas. My family is from the Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana corner of our nation. I’m deeply Southern. It won’t surprise anyone that neither my theology nor my person found home in the church that formed me. The church that baptized me ultimately did not want me to serve any of its congregations. My process was largely unremarkable until I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry where things went decidedly and horribly wrong. Evidently my psychological evaluation was returned with a handwritten note that said that I “don’t conform to traditional female roles,” which was, evidently, code for suspicion that I might be “gay.” Not wanting to deal with this in a direct manner in the mid-90s, another tack was taken – to tear apart answers to theological questions. At first the conversation with the board was confusing, then heated, and eventually it turned acrimonious. During a break, the same pastor who had first approached me regarding ministry filled me on the assumptions. I simply challenged them to ask if I was gay and I left. That ended the process in Arkansas. Much like being dissuaded from taking Methodist classes in divinity school, this did not stop the pursuit of ministry. Rather, I searched for a place where my exile could become homecoming. That led to the Pacific Northwest Conference. One might think the challenges ended here.
While my time here has been much different from Arkansas, there were challenges in my process and there remain challenges in ministry. Leading up to annual conference where I was to be ordained an elder, I was cautioned not to bring my partner up with me during the laying on of hands as is the tradition. I couldn’t in good conscience leave my spouse sitting with my church and bring my parents. I was ordained alone. That is a more dramatic moment, but life is filled with such moments. For years, or so I’ve been told, there were people who asked for me not to receive an appointment. That exile experience made its way into my heart, too. For years I needed a new robe or alb, but I wouldn’t buy one because I was certain that I wouldn’t make it through the next year as a pastor of a church. I have lived with that for 23 years of ordained ministry. That low level anxiety continues to be part of me even though I am unaware of it most of the time: I still don’t have business cards….
Even here in the PNW Conference, and the Western Jurisdiction, we have work to do today.
Even in congregations that become part of the Reconciling Ministries Network movement, much work is needed to re-sculpt them into places of homecoming for LGBTQIA+ people, including clergy. Beyond that, even in those congregations that have created strong ecosystems of welcome for and leadership from LGBTQIA+ people, much is needed to align this work for justice and dream for homecoming with other struggles, such as dismantling white supremacy.
Struggles do not exist in a vacuum. Injustice does not exist in a silo. Each is related to the other. As part of our Gospel call, there is much to do, and it cannot, or should not, be left to individual clergy and congregations to sort out alone. For example, I was going to be appointed to a congregation that was not yet reconciling. In conversation with the then bishop about my concerns, I was told that no preparation would be done because sexual orientation shouldn’t be an issue. There was a distinct “if we don’t talk about it, it’s not a problem” naïveté with this attitude. This kind of naiveté creates harm, and, as Wesleyans, our first rule is to “do no harm.” Harm ensued. Over the years there have been acts of vandalism, protests, and even threats of violence directed toward the churches I’ve served and to me. Largely I have been left to sort through these on my own using pre-existing relationships to seek wisdom and to my own devices to find the resources required. This is not connectionism at work. We can, and must, do better.
As we look to what Methodism might be in the future, I hope that our new incarnation will not simply be the same old church but one that will fully embrace LGBTQIA+ people. I hope we let the Holy Spirit blow through this institution with holy life that ties us each to another – struggle to struggle, hope to hope, congregation to congregation such that no person feels abandonment, despair, injustice or oppression. The Gospel is a proclamation of life in the midst of death. To affirm Queer folks is to break open the staid and dead systems that hold us down so that life erupts in unexpected ways. This requires truth telling, life sharing, discomfort, and hard and courageous conversations – absolutely about sexual orientation and gender identity, but also about so much more – sexual ethics, white supremacy, wealth and money, missional priorities, colonialism, prophetic nerve, bold action, empowered laity, willingness to fail, nimble systems, accountability for the privileged, and courageous leadership.
God is at work in our world and in our people. The prophets tell us that God calls from the margins and demands that we center the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – those who are most despised and vulnerable. The community that does this is on the side of God’s Gospel of life. We need to center the voices of those who have been pushed aside, dismissed, and discounted. Then we will find ourselves moving toward the beloved community – God’s holy reign.
Rev. Katie Ladd is an elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference, currently serving churches in the Seattle area.