September 17, 2013
Dear Bishop Webb,
I am writing to you about The Reverend Steve Heiss, the charges that have been filed against him and your role as you contemplate the situation during the Supervisory Response phase of the process. I also am writing to you as an elder under your care and administration in the Upper New York Annual Conference.
I am and have been deeply concerned about the continued growth in the divisions and adversarial nature within our beloved UMC around the issues of human sexuality and inclusion. Over my more than twenty five years of servant leadership in the Troy and now Upper New York Annual Conferences, I have seen many gifted and grace-filled clergy and laity walk away from the UMC because they could no longer live with what they believed were unjust, prejudicial, hypocritical and harmful mandates around the treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. Some because of the harm it was doing to friends, family and/or parishioners; others because of the way they were forced to choose between following their call from God and being able to live fully as the person God had created them to be in life.
As a denomination, we are fast approaching the tipping point (in the United States) of aging congregations and dwindling resources that we need to squarely begin to face the reasons why young people of faith no longer see the Church as relevant, but rather as judgmental and hypocritical. As I have traveled around the country in many areas where the UMC is traditionally seen as dying, I see growth, new life and young people engaged in ministry in many of the places that call themselves “Reconciling.” I believe we are being seen as increasingly hypocritical and thereby irrelevant because we ask people to join a denomination that requires people “to accept the freedom and power God gives them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression (Book of Discipline - BOD ¶217);” except when the evil, injustice and oppression is imbedded in the institution of the church itself; and, when we encourage someone to follow a calling to Servant Leadership (lay or clergy) and ask them to “watch over one another in love (BOD ¶138 – John Wesley quote)” in such a way that “we recognize that… as a diverse people of God who bring special gifts and evidences of God’s grace to the unity of the Church and to society, we are called to be faithful to the example of Jesus’ ministry to all persons (BOD ¶140)” and then the denomination requires that we don’t extend this ministry and “privilege of servant leadership” to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer persons based on a majority agreed upon bias, prejudice and/or hatred.
In the case of The Reverend Steve Heiss, whom I have known and called friend for several years now, I have discovered a person who is always trying to follow his calling as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church with great integrity and honesty. I know he sees his care and love for all of God’s children who are seeking Discipleship in Jesus Christ as a tremendous privilege and responsibility. He has struggled, as many of us do, with how to do ministry with a level of integrity that not only builds up the Body of Christ within the UMC, but does so with a level of honesty that challenges and loves the UMC toward a more perfect loving way, as Christ challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees of his Judaic heritage toward greater faithfulness. As a colleague, I believe The Reverend Heiss to be an outstanding example of pastoral gifts, graces and integrity.
I am sorry that we have not yet had the opportunity to get to know one another on a personal and professional level. I hope that time and ministry will correct that circumstance! I do believe, from what I have heard and seen so far, that you are much more interested in seeing this case lead to a place of just resolution than having to refer the complaint to counsel for a potential trial. It is up to you, now or at any time during the process, to exercise the latitude and leeway afforded you, to recommend a process for potential resolution, follow-up and healing. You also have the other option of referring the complaint to the cabinet for dismissal.
My hope and prayer is that you will find a way to make one of these two options; just resolution or dismissal, it is your choice! I ask you to prayerfully consider this because to do otherwise would, I believe, do further harm in terms of the clergy covenant and the trust, collegiality and respect for the diversity among our clergy, that makes this covenant function on behalf of God’s grace within the life of our connectional churches.
When I first came to Upper New York as a clergy person, I admittedly had problems with the “incompatibility clause” found in the Book of Discipline. I was however able to say that I would uphold the BOD as part of my faithfulness to the UMC. I saw my faithfulness to the BOD and the clergy covenant as being lived out in the Wesleyan concept of “watching over one another in love.” To me that meant working within the confines of the BOD and at the same time challenging the UMC to live out our Wesleyan heritage and faithfulness “to the example of Jesus’ ministry to all persons” by changing those parts of the BOD that were inconsistent, even hypocritical, to the main tenants of faith and faithfulness.
Since then, however, many more passages have been added to the BOD that have codified what I believe to be a prejudicial toward our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) brothers and sisters in Christ. I am now very restricted in the ministries I can offer to LGBT United Methodists as a UM clergyperson. So I am now faced with a choice, the same one I believe The Reverend Steve Heiss is faced with; do I strictly follow the BOD in order to maintain my “clergy in good standing” status, or do I strive to follow the “example of Jesus’ ministry to all persons?” I continue to understand my calling to be from God and then recognized by my clergy colleagues in covenant with one another. In other words, I have no choice but to follow Jesus and allow the recognition side of the equation to fall where it will… not because I want to have to make this choice, but because the changing politics and policies of my native church have now brought me to this point.
I am saddened by the continued politics, division and quarreling that goes on in our beloved UMC! I hope and pray that those who are in the role of leadership within the denomination will begin to find a way to bring us to a place of renewed holy conferencing, a renewed vitality and a renewed relevance and hope for a deeply hurting world.
Respectfully and Hopefully!
Reverend Steven C. Clunn