Finding my voice

Photo by Michael Carruth/Unsplash

by Richelle Goff

Twenty-one years ago I experienced a life-transforming call to ministry that I’ve been trying to faithfully live into ever since. I thank God for so many people I have met along my journey who have helped shape who I am today.

I have also had people discourage me along the way.

My first district superintendent told me I wasn’t smart enough to go to the seminary of my choice and that I was too overweight for ministry. It crushed my young and self-conscious spirit. l thank God I also had a local pastor and a church family to nurture me and invest in helping me understand who I was and the gifts that God had given me! Thankfully, I did end up attending the seminary of my choice, and I slowly began to find my voice.

My voice and witness have grown stronger over the years because of the experiences I’ve had, the people who’ve captured my heart and those who have encouraged me. When you have people on the journey who lift and encourage rather than tear down and discourage, transformation can happen. I am proof.

I currently serve Fairport United Methodist Church. In March 2021, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to allow same-sex couples to be married on church property under the same guidelines as heterosexual couples, and as their pastor I declared myself willing to celebrate the covenant of marriage without discrimination.

Fairport was disgusted after the 2019 Special General Conference, which affirmed the denomination’s ban against LGBTQ+ marriage and ordination and increased the penalties for breaking these discriminatory rules in our Book of Discipline. The congregation decided that it could not wait until another General Conference to do the right thing. The church’s vote to allow same-sex weddings was originally scheduled for March 2020, but the pandemic brought everything to a halt. I informed the bishop and district superintendent then of Fairport’s intent to vote on this issue and did not receive a response. After the March 2021 vote, however, I did hear from both the bishop and district superintendent—because local news reported it.

Some of you know that I recently had a meeting with Bishop Webb in which he informed me that he was removing me from the Upper New York Board of Ordained Ministry. Bishop Webb told me that he would not re-nominate me to serve on this interim board because of my public unwillingness to uphold unjust church rules regarding our LGBTQ+ siblings.

My heart hadn’t changed in a year. The bishop was aware of my stance and the stance of the church I serve. I have dedicated much time and energy to the board, learning how to fulfill the role of registrar in a pandemic while virtually schooling two small children and serving a church full time. But, Bishop Webb explained, now that the wider world knew the Fairport congregation and I weren’t committed to following discriminatory and harmful church rules, he felt he had to remove me from the board, effective three months from our conversation, on July 1. (I assume my delayed removal is because there is so much work to be done and I am somehow still competent to do it in spite of my “heretical” views. )

In March 2020, Bishop Webb declared his intent to leave the denomination should exit-plan legislation known as the protocol pass General Conference. Part of aligning with the protocol is a promise to hold in abeyance any administrative or judicial processes regarding LGBTQ+ restrictions. Bishop Webb also declared that he remained committed to help clergy, laity and churches live out their future mission and ministry wherever that may be.  And what happened to Bishop Webb’s commitment to not taking punitive action unless charges were filed against a pastor?

Bishop Webb is within his rights to remove me from the board, but it is an obvious abuse of discretionary power and in opposition to his own promises. Removing me from the board is an act to hinder the inclusive future of The United Methodist Church.

Removing me from the board of ordained ministry broke my heart. I love serving on the board. I have loved it for over a decade. I am hurt. And I am disheartened.

Yet, above all, I am encouraged. I am encouraged because since the time I shared this story in a Facebook post on May 4, 2021, I have received countless messages, emails, phone calls, texts and letters of support and of thanks for my public stand. Reconciling Ministries Network has invited me to take part in their next virtual worship service.

What a whirlwind of connection and encouragement after this long time of isolation due to pandemic! It has been life-giving to know that I am not in this alone! We are ALL in this together. Real people’s lives depend on our speaking out and letting the world know that discriminatory, unjust, hurtful laws cannot and will not have the last word in a church that follows Jesus Christ. The church exists because Jesus shows us a different way of living in the world, a way of love and inclusion. This is the way of Jesus who loves us: he calls us out into the light on behalf of others so that we might invite them to live in his love too.

I am a straight, white, cisgender, employed married woman who is a U.S. citizen. In many spaces I am privileged. Though it’s not without risk or pain, I have the ability to speak up in places others may not. I will speak against discrimination in my denomination. 

If you don’t think you can make a difference, just look at me. I am still the person whose pastor said she wasn’t smart enough or physically fit enough to be a pastor. I am a clergywoman in a denomination in which less than 30 percent of clergy are women. I never in a thousand years thought that I would be a person that others called brave and courageous for risking so much. I’ve always played it safe, thinking I didn’t have anything unique to offer. I have learned that sometimes just being yourself and listening to the nudge of the Spirit and a few good friends is all it takes to step out of the shadows.

Friends and colleagues, I’m so grateful for each one of you, for your love and support and for your helping me find my voice. Let us continue to work together to call out the injustices around us and in our church and follow Jesus’ command to those he called his friends. Let us strive together to do the only thing that matters: Love.

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