Sixteen years after 1988, in 2004, I was two years into my first pastoral charge — settled there by Transfer & Settlement Committee of the United Church of Canada. I had gone to General Council in 2003, and was excited by the General Council/church’s decision to allow gay marriage! The caveat was that each church could and would decide from themselves. (There was no education prescribed, just the vote).
My small four-point pastoral charge was keen to vote immediately. Many folks were expressing their displeasure about the General Council/church’s decision to accept gay marriage. One gentleman, our Treasurer, sat at my kitchen table in the manse and exclaimed, “Why not call them civil unions not marriages?” Most people, if not 99%, had no idea I was a lesbian, DESPITE being “OUT” in ALL my documents for Settlement. I would guess in hindsight, less than a dozen people talked to me directly, ALL were disparaging.
A vote happened in each church. One church had called all the members who hadn’t darkened the doors in years, to come vote. These churches voted “no” to gay marriage in their church. Our church voted only on blood relatives [of members of the congregation]. It was like they were worried gay people would flock to them wanting to be married. As if!
Eventually, in 2004 all the votes were completed and people started to gossip about me. One farmer, who was quite lovely to me previously, said “We told the Settlement Committee we didn’t want a gay minister.” I said, “Well, you‘ve had me for two years!”
I became angry and eventually depressed over time. I left on sick leave in September 2004. I was off work for 9 months. During a conversation, the insurance person through the UCC said, “You have to decide if you will go back to your pastoral charge.” I was RELIEVED. I had no idea how I would minister to those folks who had been so opposed to me, so openly against my sexuality, my love, my ministry. They had loved so many aspects of my ministry, I know this now—they appreciated my creativity and education, my leadership. Their prejudice got in the way of us working together though… and I couldn’t go back.
So, 16 years after 1988, there wasn’t acceptance of me as a gay minister. There was still a long way to go in Rural Eastern Ontario.
Thankfully, after questioning my gifts and skills, after situational depression, after looking at other options, after a voluntary placement with a church in a suburban area… I returned to ministry with a renewed sense of purpose, a renewed sense of call, a renewed hope for people and the church that I so loved and felt so called to serve.
I have learned so much, but I know I will never hide who I am again.
Rev Jenni Leslie
(Shared with permission. Photo credit: Wix stock photography.)