I’ve decided to take a risk and share truthfully about a phase in my Christian life that I have been afraid to talk about. There’s been a lot of debate in the evangelical blogosphere about the appropriateness of female pastors. Mark Driscoll suggested that British evangelicals are failing because they have female pastors. More recently, Rachel Held Evans asked for Christian men to share their thoughts on John Piper’s assertion that “God has given a Christianity a masculine feel.” I’ve got scriptural arguments for why I support women in ministry, but I’ve found before that making appeals to the Bible doesn’t change “Biblical” minds who have already figured everything out and barricaded themselves behind their proof-texts. So I thought instead that I would share a real life story about Pastor Cheri, my first female pastor. I was only at her church for about nine months, but she had a decisive influence on my Christian identity.
From 2001 to 2002, I lived in a place called the Collingwood Arts Center in Toledo, Ohio. It was a partly dilapidated former convent with cheap, sparse cell-like accommodations for writers, painters, and musicians. For a 24 year old, it seemed like the perfect utopia, and there was a lot of cool creative synergy that happened in that place for me as a musician and poet. The problem was that it involved staying up late at night even on weekdays and doing a lot of unhealthy things I shouldn’t have been doing. Combined with a high-stress job at a farmworker union, this quickly made my life into a train-wreck.
About a block up the street was Central Avenue United Methodist Church. I decided after a few months that I needed to go back to church so I went to check it out. The pastor’s name was Cheri Holdridge. Another woman there named Tanya helped out a lot with worship and Bible study, but she wasn’t allowed to be the official co-pastor because she was a lesbian. It turned out that the majority of people in the congregation were gay. Having grown up in a moderate Southern Baptist family, the only thing I knew about my faith at that point in my life was that I wasn’t a fundamentalist, and a church with gay people in it couldn’t possibly be fundamentalist. It made me feel safe. I felt dirty, and I figured people who had been judged all their lives couldn’t possibly judge me.
So I decided to get involved with the church, but first I felt like I needed to tell Pastor Cheri what a mess I was. The only thing I remember about my first talk with her was when I told her that I was suffering from depression and the shrink wanted to put me on Zoloft, she said, “Oh really? I take Zoloft too!” That exchange kind of captured our relationship, and it’s shaped my approach to pastoral care today (I try to be an “Oh really? I take Zoloft too!” kind of pastor). I told Cheri about other things including the bad stuff I was putting into my body and the unchaste, volatile relationship I was involved in. She didn’t say, “Well, you know what you’re doing is an abomination to God.” She didn’t make me sign a discipline contract. But somehow being able to confess my sins to her helped me to begin the process of healing.
Pastor Cheri planted a lot of seeds that didn’t bear fruit until years later. She introduced me to Henri Nouwen, and the gospel that she preached was heavily influenced by him. It was a very different gospel than the one I had heard growing up in which the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross was to save us from His angry Father. What Cheri taught me is that it’s a lot harder than we think to come to a true realization of how much God loves us. We can say it as an intellectual proposition all we like, but to really learn it in our hearts is something that can only happen by the grace of God. When we finally do accept God’s unconditional love for us, then we’re saved from our fearful dishonesty and defensiveness so that we can be vulnerable with other people, which is the only way to experience real community.
As a United Methodist pastor, I submit to our Book of Discipline’s stance on homosexuality as well as the authority of scripture, but I will say that the mostly gay congregation with which I had fellowship at Pastor Cheri’s church were some of the most compassionate, dedicated Christian disciples I’ve ever met. They took care of me for the brief season while I was there. No one in that church was an “in-crowd” Christian who had all the right answers and wore an impenetrable mask of self-assurance. They were all wounded people just trying to find Jesus together. In other words, they were truly a crowd of Samaritans and tax collectors, not a single Pharisee among them.
I’m not sure I would have become a pastor if I’d never met Pastor Cheri. I try to be the kind of pastor she was with the people in my congregation. I care very passionately about learning the truth about God, but I don’t feel like for the sake of decorum that I’m supposed to pretend to know all the answers. I don’t think I would have opened up to a male pastor in the same way that I opened up to Cheri, at least not a male pastor who carried himself with the kind of confident, unapproachable masculinity that Mark Driscoll and John Piper seem to think pastors are supposed to have. I have definitely needed a male role model and shepherd in different phases I’ve gone through, but there is no question that Pastor Cheri was exactly who I needed at one of the lowest points in my life. God used her in my life and for that I will be forever grateful.