Yesterday was a historic day in our country. Wherever you may stand on the issue of same-sex marriage, the sheer gravity of the moment cannot be denied. As an American, as a Christian, and as a pastor who has performed a couple of same-sex unions, I was absolutely ecstatic. There were moments yesterday when I was overwhelmed almost to the point of tears thinking about all the people I love who are now afforded equal treatment and equal rights under the law. Seeing the outpour of emotions on social media was moving and profoundly hopeful for me.
But of course, it didn’t take long to begin to hear from some folks around the country who were less than thrilled about the decision. Those responses ranged the thoughtful (because even when I disagree with him, Russell Moore is always thoughtful) to the downright absurd (because Matt Walsh is always absurd). Sadly, most of the responses against the ruling came from prominent Christian leaders, most of whom can’t seem to fathom that anyone of faith would ever be able to celebrate this as a victory. To be sure, there were also many Christian leaders making statements in support and in celebration, but those don’t get quite the same coverage.
The struggle I feel now as we begin to process this new reality, is what it means for me as a pastor. I serve a small congregation in rural Florida (well, technically two—I’m also the stated supply preacher at the Presbyterian church the next town over). Not surprisingly, most of the folks this congregation tends to lean conservative, but that’s the not the way I should begin my description of them. Instead, I should say they are loving, kind, caring, thoughtful, and a joy to be around. These people truly feel like family and they have embraced us, especially our children, so much more deeply than we ever imagined. It has been a remarkable experience for which we continue to be unspeakably grateful.
But, it probably goes without saying, I know this decision will be a hard one for many people that I love to deal with, including many in this congregation. Some see this is an attack on traditional Christian values and yet another sign of our country’s unfortunate moral decay. While I don’t agree with this perspective at all, I understand it and I recognize how painful this moment must be for many.
The people I’m talking about are not hateful or bigoted. No one that I know is saying that we should “execute the homos,” and they would be just as appalled by that suggestion the rest of us are. But as loving, caring, and decent as they are, they are also likely in a state of mourning at this moment. Mourning the loss of the America that thought they knew.
I often struggle with my role as a pastor, particularly in a context such as this. I tend to lean on Paul’s command in Romans 12:15 to help define my pastoral identity: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Most days this is simple enough. Being a pastor means walking alongside people in their joy and in their sorrow; sharing in the most significant moments of their lives. And it is such a gift. Being able to officiate a wedding and then celebrate afterwards with the family is joy that is difficult to explain. And being able to sit and pray with a family after a loss, is an honor that cuts to the very core of my being. As a pastor I am often welcomed into moments to which most other people are not privy. We are graciously granted access to the most personal moments and experiences of people’s lives—their fears, their hopes, their joys, their struggles, their pain—and it’s an invitation I don’t take lightly.
But it’s easy in most of those situations because my emotional response matches the emotion of the moment. It’s easy to rejoice at a wedding, because (usually) everyone else is rejoicing, too. It’s easy to mourn at a funeral because others are mourning as well and part of my calling is to give them permission to mourn. But what’s the role of the pastor when her emotional reaction doesn’t necessarily capture the mood around her? Is public rejoicing at a time like this, in a context like this, tantamount to laughing during a funeral while everyone else is weeping?
I’m not so naïve as to assume that everyone in the congregations I serve will be upset, but I know that many will (and those are not will mostly rejoice in private). And I’m also not just talking about the churches I serve—I have plenty of other friends and family who feel similarly. But I am left wondering: What does it mean to weep with those who weep when all I want to do it rejoice? What is the proper pastoral role in this situation?
For starters, of course, I know I’m called to listen. I do a lot of that as a pastor. I know that just as when people mourn the loss of a loved one, my presence with them is far more important than anything I could ever say. But is that it? Is that the extent of my call in this situation?
This question feels particularly pressing for me as I consider the life, and especially the death, of the man who was so beautifully eulogized by Pres. Obama yesterday. Rev. Clementa Pinckney followed in the tradition of many pastors who speak up for equality and justice, a tradition that is deeply embedded in the history of the AME Church (as Pres. Obama observed). No doubt, Rev. Pinckney understood his pastoral role to encompass some of the fire of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who often spoke up for the cause of justice on behalf of the poor, the widow, the alien, and the orphan. In a very real way I feel that Rev. Pinckney’s life, ministry, and death are an indictment of my own. If all I’m doing is rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn, am I faithfully living into my pastoral call?
That’s the question that haunts me. What does it mean to be a pastor in times like this? Do I weep with those who weep, or should I be speaking out more in support of what I believe to be unabashedly good news—should I be rejoicing more vocally? Should I be speaking out to show that there are plenty of Christians who see this decision as a way for us to live more faithfully into our calls and who take the Bible seriously while also affirming same-sex marriage covenants?
What is the role of the pastor? When are we called to pick up the prophetic mantle and when are we supposed to listen in empathetic silence? And what if I lack empathy for a position that, while I recognize is not necessarily inherently hateful, does strike me as harmful and counter to the character of the God I worship? How do I listen to and mourn with someone whose position I not only fundamentally disagree with, but even struggle to fully understand? I don’t have a good answer to this question, and I don’t know that I ever will. I’ll likely continue to err on the side of weeping with those who weep for fear that my rejoicing may push people away and end important conversations. But I’ll also probably continue to lose sleep wondering what the hell I’m even doing as a pastor when I’m often silent about issues that matter for fear that I might offend people, or what business I have standing behind that pulpit week after week when people like Rev. Pinckney are murdered in their churches for being a prophetic force for justice and equality.
All in all, I feel like we took a huge step forward as a nation yesterday—I’m proud and I’m still a bit ecstatic. I just hope I can find the grace to live faithfully into my call as a pastor, whatever that might mean.