This post is part of my series on the 2014 Gay Christian Network conference. EEWC-Christian Feminism Today is partnering with GCN to present GCN’s 2014 weconnect Women’s Retreat. Complete information on the conference can be found here. My introduction to the conference and the weconnect Women’s Retreat can be found here.
Thursday afternoon, January 9, the Gay Christian Network weconnect Women’s Retreat will begin. More than 120 female-identified people will sit at round tables in a hotel ballroom, going through goodie bags and introducing themselves to the other people at the table. An all-female band will start playing, and the 2014 weconnect experience will get underway. Read more information about the retreat here.
The retreat’s featured speaker is the Reverend Audrey Connor, a 36 year old lesbian from Lynchburg, Virginia, who works as a hospital chaplain after spending several years in congregational ministry.
Audrey grew up in the church. “Throughout my childhood, it was difficult to separate family from church life. At home, we prayed, discussed the concept of God and had a lot of youth group gatherings (my mom started out as a youth minister). And for my sisters and me, the same was true at church.”
When it came time to pick a career, Audrey decided to become a math teacher. She liked math. Teaching seemed a good choice.
But after teaching two years, it became evident this was not her passion. With the help of a spiritual director and her mother’s keen insight, Audrey began to understand that she was being called to ministry. She worried about whether she was making the right choice until she realized, “God is always with me, regardless of what path I choose.” And that realization informs her life to this day.
Her years at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School were rich and full of experiences that stretched her faith and laid the foundation for “a deeper understanding of the bigness of God.” She says it was during this time she “learned of the global dynamic of our human connection” and became committed to the struggle for social justice “for all people through the lens of faith.”
And what came next was a different understanding of herself.
“I understood for the first time that my life is connected to everyone else’s. And if I was afraid to admit my attraction to women, then I was contributing to all non-heterosexual people living in fear of themselves. I learned that our bodies were made to love – to share the same love that God infused in us – not to be limited but to be shared. I suppose God laughed when I first said aloud with fear and trembling to a therapist that I might be gay. Finally, I would be able to begin to fully live into myself.”
In 2005, Audrey accepted the call into Christian ministry. She was not out to anyone but close friends and family. She took a job as an associate pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Knoxville, Tenn. She had served less than a year when she was outed to her senior pastor, Scott Rollins. He was understanding and supportive. “Not only did he teach me the ins and outs of congregational life as a pastor, but together we learned the landscape of our beloved denomination for LGBTQI people.” Despite Scott’s insistence that she come out to the congregation, she didn’t. Instead, she silently promised God that in her next call, she would not serve in the closet.
Of her 4½ years at First Christian, Audrey says:
“I look back on these moments in my life, and I realize how lucky I am. I continue to know that God speaks to me through risks I take. It was through walking with Scott and other friends that I could see God is with me, whether I take the risks or not – so I might as well do what I think God wants me to do and risk.”
She discovered that keeping her promise to be out as a lesbian at her next church made it very difficult to find a job in congregational ministry. Open and affirming congregations were fairly few and far between. Eventually, Audrey took a job working for a not-for-profit serving the homeless. She speaks of this time as “one of the most fulfilling times of my ministry.” During that time, she said she “learned how to be a minister outside the church while working alongside others exercising the heart of the Gospel.”
When her then-girlfriend interviewed for a job in Lynchburg, Va., Audrey was surprised to find a job at an open and affirming church there. “I decided only the Divine could lead me to an open and affirming church in same city many consider the birthplace of conservative Christianity.” The job was as a family life minister, which was not particularly what she felt called to do, but she felt led to accept it.
I’ll let her describe her last years in congregational ministry.
“I discovered in those three years the importance of speaking out both in interfaith and ecumenical faith communities about the value in broadening welcome to the LGBTQI community. I helped lead three annual Coming Out Day events in Lynchburg, including a concert with Jennifer Knapp, a service with Mel White and a panel with assorted speakers. I took kids on a mission trip where part of their service was handing out stickers to LGBTQI people, inviting them to a faith community where they would be loved. I met lots of people for whom acceptance of themselves seemed impossible without the help of community, love and support. What’s more, I learned the profound healing that can happen when congregations get it right about what the message of grace and love is all about. I was even a part of the denominational momentum that created a space of welcome for people who are LGBTQI through a resolution at our General Assembly in July of 2013.”
Recently Audrey switched gears and now is a hospital chaplain and also works with a network of people interested in starting a PFLAG chapter in Lynchburg. I’ll let her close out this introduction.
“When it is all said and done, I realize the irony of ministry is that after you learn what gifts you have, then you have to learn to give them away. I was called into existence by a God who loves much, laughs much and surprises all the time. I know that God calls each of us, and I continue to believe that God will help us all form a community of love and support for all people.”
Related Content on Where She Is:
And There Was Singing (Sunday)
Rachel Held Evans’ Presentation Summary (Saturday)
We are Broken (Friday)
There Will be Some Tears (Thursday)
weconnect – Introduction to GCN Board Chairperson Susan Shopland
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 1
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 2
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 1
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 2
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 3
Introduction to the Gay Christian Network’s weconnect Women’s Retreat