“I’m gay.”

In the current church climate, there are few words as explosive as these. Because I’m not in the habit of lobbing grenades into my congregation, I always figured those words would only ever echo hollowly in my meticulously barricaded closet. Convinced the Bible makes no room for me to indulge my same-sex attractions but equally certain that to disclose their reality would be pastoral suicide, I had peaceably resigned myself to minister in muteness and celibacy. So, I withheld the truth about my sexuality when I was hired as a pastor.

But just six months into the new job, God spoiled my plan for secrecy. Before I was hired, a married lesbian couple had begun attending the church, having frequent conversations with my senior pastor about our beliefs on sexuality. No longer able to ignore the strained relationship between LGBT people and the church, the leadership team of the church began praying, “God send us someone who can help us navigate this topic.”

When I learned this history, I panicked: “Shoot! That’s me!”

Like any faithful fool, I stalled for several months before God dismantled my resistance. Despite my fear, I could not get around the undeniable divine orchestration behind my seemingly inconsequential cross-country move to this church. So, taking strength from Mordecai’s words to Esther—“Who knows, maybe you were brought to the kingdom for such a time as this”—and adopting Esther’s desperate resolution—“If I perish, I perish”—I walked into my pastor’s office one December afternoon and pried those two (and a half) potentially damning words from my mouth: “I’m gay.” Sweating and trembling, I cringed for his response.

“John, if this were four years ago, I would have fired you on the spot. But God has changed my heart toward LGBT people. I am honoured that you chose to tell me. And I love you.”

Nothing exploded! The grenade didn’t detonate! When I walked out of Pastor Jeff’s office, the first glints of color invaded my sepia world, revealing the possibility of a future far different from the one I had imagined for myself—a future where maybe I could share my story. Unsteady and cautious, I began exploring this new possibility, telling the church staff, my friends, and my family. I submitted my broken testimony to God to do with as he wanted, even if it meant telling the entire church.

Naturally, it meant telling the entire church. So a series was planned. A date was set. A sermon was written.

As my friend, Greg Coles, warned me, the months of preparation for my coming out were rife with “angst.” The carefully crafted façade of nonchalance I had worn for years now cracked under the pressure of past pains that would no longer be stifled. With the sermon fast approaching, I would find myself sobbing inconsolably from the overwhelming amalgam of disparate emotions. There was trepidation for the endless stream of prevenient comings-out; excitement for new, deeper friendships built on honesty; hopelessness over how to pack solid biblical exegesis and 25 years of life into a 37-minute sermon that wouldn’t explode the church; terror that such a reaction was possible and completely out of my control; and a pernicious guilt that I inevitably would be causing a scene. Angst was the word.

On the first Sunday of 2019, we began announcing our upcoming series on faith, gender, and sexuality, reifying my ominously impending sermon. The escapes were locked. I had missed the last ship to Tarshish, and I had no choice but to go to Nineveh. That Sunday, I skipped worship service to lie in the dark on the floor of my office, breathing deeply against the threat of an anxiety attack.

But the next day, by God’s grace my dread dissipated. Pastor Jeff called the whole church to prayer and fasting in preparation for this weighty series, and as I saw people denying themselves and interceding for me (unbeknownst to them), I was both humbled and strengthened. God assured me that he would smooth out the rough places before me, making possible the task to which he had called me. Our attitude changed from fear to eager expectation, and as a staff, we began praising God for the work we trusted he would accomplish as a result of my testimony.

When you so firmly trust that your own thorough preparation is backed and blessed by God’s perfect preparation, coming out to your congregation is not the terror it would seem. Prayed-up, confident, and at peace, I walked onto the stage on February 17, 2019, stood before my congregation, and broke years of silence, shame, and fear by saying, “I’m gay.”[1]

I pulled the pin, threw the grenade, and waited.

And the congregation rose to their feet in uproarious applause. The grenade was a dud, just as I had come to expect.

Actually, it turns out that at my church, “I’m gay” is not a bomb at all; it is a balm. In the weeks since coming out, I have met three different LGBT/SSA people whose apparently random decision to come to church that day was no less than God-ordained. For one woman, it was her first time back at church in 10 years! I have received numerous emails and messages from all sorts of people sharing stories of God using my sermon to bring healing in their lives. The most encouraging has been when parents assure me that they wouldn’t have anyone else pastoring their children.

Now, there has been some fallout. A few families opted to respectfully leave the church to uphold their convictions. One particularly pugnacious woman accused me of being a plant from the “gay agenda” to infiltrate and adulterate the church—an inane assertion that just makes me laugh. But these situations have been exceptions as my congregation has unequivocally pronounced their support for me. This is the church I never thought I could have.

Growing up, there seemed to be but two options for someone like me. Either you could keep your sexuality a secret your whole life and in return, remain a part of the body of believers, or you could speak up about your attractions and be forced out of the church (usually after an obligatory stint in conversion therapy).

But a new way is emerging; a way where “I’m gay” doesn’t excommunicate you; a way between the polarities of isolating silence and loveless expulsion; a way that understands the church’s “no” to gay sex as an invitation to a greater life of rich intimacy in the family of God. It’s a hard path to clear, but I’m thankful for churches that courageously choose to pursue it, not for my sake, but for the sake of LGBT people whose churches have not been as kind to them as mine has been to me.

I wish my situation weren’t an anomaly. I wish it weren’t noteworthy that a pastor came out to his church and kept his job. I wish it weren’t commonplace for LGBT people to be forced into silence or forced into exile. But something’s coming. Our ears tingle to hear it; our eyes delight to see it. We are the firstfruits, the harbingers of what is yet to come—a better way.

Who knows, church, maybe we were brought to the kingdom for such a time as this.

[1] I’m not brazen enough to lead with “I’m gay,” but the words were spoken in the course of the sermon. If you want to see how it really went, here is the recording (sermons starts at 17:25):