One Pastor’s Reflection on the Olympia Overture

One Pastor’s Reflection on the Olympia Overture

Nearly a quarter-century ago I was a seminarian and wrestling with a surprise calling to become a pastor. I had been certain that God was calling me to become a professor, but after spending a summer serving as an intern at a PC(USA) church I was received by them with open arms, becoming a member there as I headed into my second year of seminary. I had been raised in a conservative Pentecostal church and yet this more progressive church received me with open arms and invited me to start the ordination process. I wrestled with whether the PC(USA) was the right fit for me as they were in the throes of debates about sexuality and marriage, but I slowly began to see that these arguments were actually the very reason I belonged there, the very reason I had found my family. Whereas some denominations were arguing over women in ministry and seven-day creation, here was a denomination that was wrestling with literally the same thing that I had been wrestling with my own family for the previous twenty years.

When I was ten my father left my mother because, as I would soon discover, he was gay and wanted out of his marriage. Immediately, my family was tossed into the fray of faith and sexuality. I did not, of course, choose this ordeal, and yet the pain and loss that came with my father’s departure did not make him any less my family. To be sure, as a teenager I often wanted to be thrown out of my family and not have to navigate this complex web of love and faith, truth and grace, body and spirit. But there really was no choice. Even those who attempt to run away from their family never really escape it. Family may very well be messy, but it is still your family. There is a bond, a connection, that runs deeper than any disagreement or difference. It is a bond that allows you to stay attached even when every fiber of your body longs for separation.

This familial bond is why, more than a decade ago when many of the more conservative colleagues of our denomination were considering departing to more peaceful pastures, I was both saddened and unnerved. How do you leave home? Yes, to leave the denomination would give them an easier path to trod and it might give them a sense (at least for a while) of now having a more “pure” family. But eventually this kind of utopian path toward supposed purity reveals itself as a mirage. Family is not where the pure live, it is where the mess of our lives resides. Our society (especially, it seems, in our current times) is full of people running to the pure pastures on the left or the right, believing that once they have found this place they can rest and flourish, and be safe. But we don’t actually flourish in sterile places, we flounder. Growth does not come from like-mindedness; it comes from being challenged in loving ways that force one beyond self-deception and pride. And so, in 2011, when I opened The Presbyterian Outlook and saw pages full with names of our denominational leaders and progressive leaders alike, assuring conservatives with great clarity that they desired for us to stay (to quote the progressive leaders verbatim, “we implore you not to leave”), I took that invitation for what it was: an invitation to stay with this family.

I have flourished because of this family, this denomination. Colleagues from across the theological spectrum have loved me, challenged me, frustrated me, and shaped me. Would it be easier and more comfortable to be in a more monolithic and conservative denomination where colleagues would echo my own thoughts and our theological journey had fewer speed bumps and potholes? Absolutely. But it wouldn’t look like my family. And ultimately, what I want (and what I think we are called to) is not safety, comfort, or ease, but a community that refuses to allow me to stay as I am. If I can be so honest, the conservatives who have stayed have done so because they are open to this kind of dialogue, born out of this mutual love and forbearance.

We have endured the pain of people who have left our congregations because they were convinced we should have departed from the denomination. We have had our own theology and integrity questioned. But nonetheless we remained because we believe strongly that at the center of the church is not an ideology or political policy, or even the doctrinal particularities we Presbyterians love so much. The center of the church is, and always has been, the person of Jesus Christ. And as can be clearly seen by the disciples he gathered around him, Jesus was much more concerned about fellowship and unity, than he was about adhering to an homogeneous set of beliefs. One does not have to read very far into any of the gospels to see that Jesus’ selection of who he wanted around him was diverse and messy. But it was his family.

Our denomination is now faced with a decision to make. The overture from Olympia (POL-001) is an attempt to cull any officer from our denomination (pastor, elder or deacon) who takes a more traditional position on sexuality and marriage. (I understand that others may disagree with my interpretation, but honestly, I do not believe it is hard to read between the lines of this overture and to see it otherwise feels more like a political tactic than reality). In other words, it is an attempt to find a “pure” place to live, where those with other opinions can be silenced. I do not question that this would make the journey of some easier and more comfortable. I do, however, question whether it would actually bring the peace for which they yearn. Much like the decision I made more than a decade ago, now is the time for those of us in the church to discern whether we are looking for a pure pasture, or whether we are looking for something resembling the messy families in which most of us live. I ask this question sincerely as someone who wonders whether or not this overture brings us closer to a place of home or whether it is an eviction notice for those who were once invited to stay. I have loved this family and I have no desire or intention to leave. The question, though, is whether I will be allowed to remain.

Every summer my family and I go to my dad’s house for a week at “Grandpa’s Camp.” It is perhaps the thing for which my family looks forward to the most. Grandpa, Mr. Tim, uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins all together under one roof. We eat together, laugh at one another, talk and listen to each other, and yes, have times of deep disagreement. It is wonderful. But make no mistake it is also messy. It is not always easy or comfortable and it certainly takes commitment and compromise from each of us. But each of us have made the sometimes-painful decision that we are willing to sacrifice for one another because we know that it is only by staying in relationship that we will grow in love for one another.  Only by staying in relationship that we will be able to understand more deeply one another. Only by staying in relationship that, quite honestly, we will be able to shape and be shaped by one another. This is what family does and my family and I would have it no other way. My hope and prayer is that as a denomination we would also have it no other way. And in so doing we might be a witness to a watching world who desperately needs to see an example of this kind of counter-cultural love.


Jerry Deck is the senior pastor of Zionsville Presbyterian Church in Zionsville, Indiana.