It’s been a long three days. And when trying to name the exact feeling, that’s where I find myself. Somewhere between broken and empty.
Over the last three days, the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America met for its annual Assembly. It was a special weekend for a few reasons, the highlight of which was a bishop’s election. I was honored to receive 13 votes on the second ballot; Rev Tracie Bartholomew was re-elected on that ballot with 298 votes. I was also on a ballot for Synod Council, which I lost in a second ballot to Rev Giselle Coutinho.
There was also an important action item — a resolution I submitted demanded the removal of binary gender requirements for Synod events and committees. The Reference and Counsel committee (the group which presents resolutions and memorials) took things even further by explicitly naming the term “non-binary” in the Synod’s constitution, and including percentage-based standards for diversity of gender. I was anticipating some negativity and difficult discussions. I’m non-binary; I’m always prepared to be disappointed in some way. But these were huge steps, and I was proud to stand in favor of their adoption.
I was not, however, prepared for the news I received early Friday morning. Changes to the constitution need to be presented in a specific way, and no one on the Synod Staff or on Reference and Counsel realized this until Friday. The deadline to correct the resolution would have been Thursday at 8:30pm. That means a parliamentary error in a document I legally submitted to the Synod’s Secretary two months before Assembly was not noticed until twelve hours after the deadline to correct it. Therefore, although we would be allowed to debate the topic, it would be unlawful to consider the resolution until next year’s assembly.
To be honest, I can’t handle more apologies. The committee admitted that this was an oversight, and that the mistake was irreversible (they did try, but there is no flexibility when parliamentary and constitutional laws are involved). But I am unable to accept these apologies, because that would excuse an act of gender-based discrimination committed by those people called to lead us as the body of Christ in New Jersey.
Truth be told, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in July will debate a similar resolution; if the Churchwide constitution is changed, synods would be obligated to follow suit. And truth be told, New Jersey was able to pass a memorial affirmatively including “non-binary” designations in the language of the Churchwide constitution. I’m not sure they will pass, but they are both important steps which should be seen as a win.
Yet I am feeling somewhere between broken and empty.
I feel broken because the Church I love and serve — the Church that prepared and called me to be a pastor, the Church that nominated me to serve on Synod Council, the Church that nominated me to be bishop after only four years of ordained ministry — this Church doesn’t always acknowledge my identity. (Actually, the constitution cares much less about the gender of pastors, it’s more of an issue for lay folks, but I digress.)
And I feel empty because the countless times I stood up at that microphone — passionately sharing my identity, pronouns, and story with the Assembly — it seems my words fell on deaf ears. Although I received an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike, my demand that the Church be just was denied due to a committee’s unfortunate mistake. I can’t say “that’s okay.” Because it’s not.
As my spouse said just after my prepared remarks, “We’re putting bureaucracy before people’s lives.” And as a young voting member said later in the weekend, “Sometimes we need to break laws to follow God’s love.”
Along with the other transgender and non-binary folks in the New Jersey Synod, I have a lot of allies. And the steps we made are huge. I am still proud to be a pastor in this Church.
Even so, each and every day I struggle with being seen and heard and acknowledged as a non-binary person. I grow weary from correcting pronouns. I avoid public spaces which do not have gender-neutral (or single-use) restrooms. I fight to take up enough space in most rooms I enter, simply because my identity doesn’t fit into column A or B. That takes a toll, friends.
I will give myself a few days to rest after this emotional and disappointing (yet otherwise joyous) Assembly. I will spend time with those who see and hear and acknowledge me for the person God made me. And after I recharge, I will once again demand that the Church be just.
But right now, I feel somewhere between broken and empty.