Oak Lawn United Methodist Church to self-appoint LGBTQ pastors after bishop denies request

The Oak Lawn United Methodist Church will self-appoint two LGBTQ+ staff members to pastor positions on Sunday after their nomination requests were denied by the North Texas bishop.

Reverend Rachel Baughman will name Isabel Marquez and Ryan Wager, Oak Lawn UMC staffers who identify as lesbian and gay, respectively, without permission from the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church.

The act is seen as “civil disobedience” and a challenge to the church. Unlike other denominations, bishops in the Methodist Church traditionally appoint local pastors and elders to serve a congregation. The move comes as the Methodist Church officially splits over the issue of LGBTQ+ marriage.

“Although we lack ecclesial authority to officially name Isabel and Ryan, we claim the moral authority to recognize God’s call on their lives and to celebrate and bless their pastoral ministry work,” Baughman said.

Wager and Marquez went through a certification and licensing process to serve as local pastors in the North Texas Conference. They applied with the intention of being appointed to Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, located in the middle of Dallas’ LGBTQ+ neighborhood.

The months-long process involves mentorship, interviews, and Methodist licensing school. For those who go through the process, the goal is to eventually be appointed as a pastor.

But as Wager and Marquez completed the licensing process last week, Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference told Oak Lawn UMC leaders their request to appoint Wager and Marquez as pastors would be denied.

Ryan Wager and Isabel Marquez pose for a photo Thursday, June 2, 2022 at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. (Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

The North Texas Conference did not cite a reason why the nomination was not approved, Oak Lawn UMC executives said. The North Texas Conference said in a statement to The Dallas Morning News that they would not say why the nominations had been refused.

The denied nominations are a blow to Wager and Marquez, who, after years of dealing with personal turmoil over their identity and the church, wanted to fully pursue their calling in ministry at Oak Lawn UMC.

Wager left Christianity after coming out as gay in his twenties, but found his way back to the church after his father’s death. And Oak Lawn UMC felt like home.

“I knew at the time that being gay meant I couldn’t be a pastor,” he said. “But I found Oak Lawn and realized there was a seat at the table for me.”

Baughman said the bishop was invited to attend Sunday service, but she did not receive a response. The North Texas Conference said the Rev. Edlen Cowley, superintendent of the North Texas Conference Metropolitan District, plans to attend Sunday worship at Oak Lawn UMC and has been in contact with church leaders. .

The United Methodist Church has been at odds for decades about its stance on sexuality and gender within the church, particularly as it relates to LGBTQ+ United Methodist ordination and marriage.

In February 2019, 53% of church leaders and lay members voted to strengthen the ban on LGBTQ+ marriages and that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”.

Following a proposal, a special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, and three vote postponements, the denomination officially split. A new conservative denomination called the World Methodist Church was launched on May 1, marking the official split.

Oak Lawn remains in the original denomination and is designated as a reconciling congregation, committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Oak Lawn United Methodist Church in Dallas on Friday, January 3, 2020. (Lynda M....
Oak Lawn United Methodist Church in Dallas on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News)(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

His oppressor and liberator

Marquez has been with Oak Lawn UMC for three years, but has been attending church since she was 9 or 10, she said. Now 46, Marquez said her call to ministry was something she couldn’t ignore, even after coming out as a lesbian more than 20 years ago.

“I fell in love with my wife,” she said. “She was my first partner and I’ve been in love with her ever since.”

Since being openly gay, Marquez said she faces resistance in almost every facet of a Methodist church she once belonged to, which she says was quite conservative.

Marquez said he learned that several members of the congregation were part of the LGBTQ+ community. When tensions began to boil over, Marquez decided to leave the church and hold services for those members at her home.

It was almost four years ago. The devotees, who speak Spanish, have formed a plant church within Oak Lawn UMC called Gracia Viva, led by Marquez. Baughman offered them Oak Lawn UMC as a place of worship.

Marquez took a position at Oak Lawn UMC while simultaneously running Gracia Viva. She applied twice for the certification and licensing process to become a pastor, but she was barred from interviewing for the process two years ago, and stopped again last week after getting her bachelor’s degree.

Being rejected twice was shocking, Marquez said, but especially hurtful after going through the whole process in hopes she might end up on a date.

“There are a lot of questions going through your mind,” she said. “How can I now tell a Spanish congregation that has gathered here that we are no longer welcome? »

Marquez said she felt an overwhelming outpouring of support from worshipers and others around the world who caught wind of the news. She wants to keep moving towards her connection to her faith, which she says has challenged her in more ways than she can count.

“The church has been my oppressor,” she said. “But it was also my liberator.”

The “chosen family”

Wager’s faith began at New Paltz United Methodist Church in New York, where he said he became a strong and devout Christian. During a convocation in Louisville, he realized that he wanted to be part of the church for the rest of his life.

But in his twenties, Wager came out as gay, and his outlook on pursuing the ministry changed.

He moved to the Oak Lawn neighborhood about nine years ago. When his father passed away in 2019, Wager said it pushed him to attend services again, even though his absence from the church had been decades.

He visited New Paltz UMC, where he began his journey of faith, and noticed a gay pride flag above the door. Upon returning to Dallas, Wager decided to become a member of Oak Lawn UMC.

Last April, Wager had a heart attack. In his recovery, he said he received a message from God calling him to ministry. So he sued him at Oak Lawn UMC.

“I found that I was loved and supported unconditionally,” Wager said. “This reconnection with God happened because I was able to find Oak Lawn and be part of what we call the ‘chosen family’ there.”

Wager, now 46, entered the certification and licensing process in September in hopes of becoming a local pastor. Unlike former pastors, a local pastor stays in a church and works with the community, Wager said.

Wager had just finished his bachelor’s degree when he learned that his dream of becoming a pastor would be denied.

“I didn’t prepare enough for the reality of not being named,” Wager said.

Cheryl Allison said she watched church services during the pandemic. Although not a member of the church at the time, Allison submitted a prayer request for his wife, who was undergoing chemotherapy.

She said Wager contacted her and offered continued support.

“He got my phone number and he started texting and said, ‘I want you to know you’re loved,'” Allison said. “He spearheaded it by wrapping his arms around us and he didn’t just do it the following week, he kept going.”

Allison, now a church member, said Marquez is a vital link to Gracia Viva worshipers and has been a constant presence at Oak Lawn UMC for the past three years. The refusal of their nomination worries him, as well as other members.

“What does it do to their faith? What does that do to their trip? she says. “Are they starting to move away from the church? I doubt it, but these are feelings that some of our devotees are feeling, and we are helpless.

An act of defiance

When Baughman learned that Wager and Marquez’s nominations had been rejected by the North Texas Conference, she waited until the couple returned from their final week of bachelor’s school to speak in person. They were devastated, she said.

“They have really – in good faith – taken every step possible, facing discrimination along the way, knowing that there are those among us who do not value or see their role as legitimate because ‘They’re part of the LGBTQ community,’ Baughman said.

The North Texas Conference said it intentionally supported the LGBTQ+ community ministry; In 2019, the North Texas Conference ordained an openly gay pastor.

Pastor Rachel Baughman will lead a
Pastor Rachel Baughman will lead an “act of civil disobedience” and nominate Isabel Marquez and Ryan Wager after their nominations were denied by the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Baughman said the nomination was a big step for the LGBTQ+ community and the church. But she stressed that the named person was not in a committed relationship.

Wager has been in a relationship with his partner for nine years. Marquez has been with his wife for over 20 years and they have three children. Baughman said she wondered if relationships played a role in their being turned down as pastor. The North Texas Conference declined to comment.

Baughman turned to her board members to do something about it, and they decided that Oak Lawn UMC would appoint Wager and Marquez on their own. To honor their ministry, Baughman said the Sunday service will include a liturgy and celebration to recognize their graduation from bachelor’s school.

“We will celebrate the things they have done and recognize them at Oak Lawn because we believe we have the moral authority to do so,” she said.

Baughman said she was aware her actions could impact her career and ministry, but it was worth it.

“Civil disobedience has consequences, but I consider the consequences of inaction to be far too great,” she said. “Inaction harms those who have already suffered the most.”

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