In 2021, the Collegeville Institute hosted a virtual writing workshop led by Dori Baker and Patrice Gopo titled Our Own Deep Wells: Writing on Vocation Across Race and Culture. The online workshop began each day listening to participants’ responses to the prompt: “Tell a story about a specific person, practice, or tradition that called you to life.”
This essay by Pastor Liz Miller relates her particular vocation story. Click here to read other essays that came from this and the 2019 offering of this workshop.
Every pastor has a pocketful of stories to pull out when someone asks, “When were you called to ministry?” I offer affirming anecdotes that point toward a sense of vocation, such as the transformational week in college spent at an intentional Christian community in South Georgia that left me saying, “Yes, I want to live with that kind of faithful authenticity, but maybe not on a rural farm. Is there authenticity in the suburbs?” I tell easy to digest stories for the sake of simple explanations. The deeper truth is that parts of my calling are more complicated, written in grief and loss. Those stories I leave crumpled up, buried deep and covered in lint, nervous that they are too complicated to unpack in a quick anecdote.
My call to ministry was the ultimate teenage rebellion against my dad who, when I was 19 years old, told me, “The lifestyle you’ve chosen is a sin. There is no place for it in my family or in God’s church.” His words left me stunned and heartbroken, especially when his rants were replaced with a silence and separation that carried me from teenager to young adult. In the rawness of my grief grew a small, defiant voice that whispered, “I’ll show you, Dad. I’m going to church, and you can’t stop me!”
My dad was a Christian pastor. My parents were divorced, and I visited him during long summers full of church camps and Vacation Bible School. I tagged along on pastoral visits and sat in the front row each Sunday for worship, listening closely to see if my brothers or I would make a cameo in the sermon. My summer life was so wrapped up in the church I could see the moonlight shining into the sanctuary through my bedroom window at night. The members of the church he served felt like extended family. They were my Sunday School teachers; their children were my friends.
I’ll show you, Dad. I’m going to church, and you can’t stop me!
The church we belonged to was a Midwest mainline congregation. It could have been any church in small-town America: grounded in the local community, family histories that span three or four generations, a place where young kids are cherished and teenagers are sent to a basement room with overstuffed, well-worn couches, perfect for Bible study and weekend lock-ins. They were not a radical congregation—in either direction—and mirrored the quiet status quo of the surrounding community.
When I began thinking about coming out to my dad, it was not his reaction I tried to anticipate, it was the church’s reaction. I mined my memories for clues that would tell me if it was safe. What did my Sunday School lessons teach me? I remembered acting out the story of the Good Samaritan, when I got to play Jesus because I was a foot taller than the rest of our class. We were encouraged to be the one to stop and care for the person beaten on the side of the road. Would they follow their own lesson, or would they recast themselves in the story when it became real life? We were asked repeatedly who our neighbor was and given a commandment to love. We named outsiders or those who do not fit in, and surely that included LGBTQ+ kin?
We were asked repeatedly who our neighbor was and given a commandment to love.
My review came up blank—I could name general values of love and welcome and kindness that were passed down but there was no explicit mention of identities or communities that were not already visible in the community. The absence of any mention of LGBTQ+ folks, good or bad, led me to write myself into my beloved church stories. It turned out that I was overly optimistic.
Being rejected by my dad, and by extension the church, when I finally presented my full queer-self hurt in part because I was not expecting it. I couldn’t believe that the same people that filled my summers with joy and gave me a second home would turn away when I asked them to love all of me. There was no dramatic confrontation or thumping the Bible from the pulpit, just the silence that I realized was never going to be filled with the explicit affirmation I needed.
Thankfully, something inside me refused to believe one church had the final authority on God. Those lessons they taught me about Jesus’ unconditional welcome backfired because a voice deep within kept saying, “Look for the places where you will be fully loved.”
Sunday after Sunday I showed up in new churches. I tried congregations that looked like the church of my childhood—places where people were pleasant, where everyone looked like each other and kept differences deep in their closets. I ventured into congregations that had rainbows and “Open and Affirming” plastered on signs out front but inside repeated the same old story. I listened for who was named in liturgy and sermons as examples of being whole and beloved. I paid more attention to the silences and realized that, with 2,000 years of practice, there had been plenty of time for churches to exclaim a loud welcome if they wanted to.
I listened for who was named as examples of being whole and beloved.
My defiant search for a church to call my own finally led me to places where no one asks for a Father’s Day sermon but expects Pride Sunday every Sunday. Churches where new folks nervously walk into the sanctuary and weep when they hear their queer sacred selves affirmed for the very first time. Churches full of elders who share stories of gay kids and transitioning grandkids that remind me not every coming out ends in estrangement. It led me to congregations that need pastors who know the tenderness of complicated grief and broken family systems.
From the outside, these churches look the same as any other. As you drive by, you might assume it is another Midwest mainline congregation. But once you go inside and start to listen, the stories are different. The local community my church grounds itself in includes the LGBTQ+ community. Family histories include chosen family, whole groups of close-knit friends that share pews together each Sunday. Young kids are cherished, and teenagers are sent to political rallies and organize AIDS walks. We are not a radical congregation but we push ourselves to practice a love that keeps growing and stretching.
My lack of belonging transformed into a call to cultivate communities of radical love. For years I felt like the early rejection I experienced had no place in a ministry that feels so joyful. Now I know it is simply the prologue to a story of how God’s love is fiercer and more persistent than any human love. A story of how a church, when it lives authentically, can save lives. A story of how communities of healing and hope are needed, even in the suburbs. My dad does not hear these stories, but someone else’s dad hears them. Someone else’s child hears them. I hear them, and I know I was called to tell these stories of God’s radical welcome.