Isaac Villegas and Weldon Nisly have a lot in common. Both are Mennonite pastors and both performed same-sex marriages for members of their congregations against the guidelines of their denomination (MCUSA). Nisly, now retired, first performed a same sex wedding for two members of Seattle Mennonite Church in July 2004. Twelve years later, Villegas married a lesbian couple in Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina. Both ministers have had their credentials suspended by the denomination as a result. Nisly’s ministerial credentials were later reinstated; Villegas’ are still suspended. The two pastors agreed to share a conversation about pastoral discernment and what they’ve learned along their journey.
NISLY: What was the process of discernment for you as pastor and within your congregation that led you to officiate a same-gender marriage?
VILLEGAS: It all started when a church member brought a discernment item to our Congregational Life meeting, which is the decision-making body of our church. She asked us to consider adopting a position regarding the involvement of LGBTQ people in our congregational life—a posture for our church that would explain our difference from the policies of our regional Mennonite conference. While our conference had outlined a restrictive vision for gays and lesbians, our congregation had cultivated openness to people regardless of sexual identity. One member thought it was about time that we made our stance public, because if we didn’t, then people would assume that we were of the same mind as our conference.
This began a three-year process of discernment, involving a variety of forums for discussion—including a Sunday school series, Saturday seminars, small group meetings, and sermons. As Mennonites, we are committed to providing spaces for everyone to participate in our decision-making. This means that this was a slow process, perhaps too slow for some of us, but we wanted to make sure we provided enough space in our discernment for the Holy Spirit to surprise us with a word of guidance, with wisdom. A central virtue of our Mennonite faith is patience, a waiting with each other for God to speak, for God to lead, for God to sanctify our decision-making.
After three years of discernment, we reached consensus that we would not use sexual identity as a criteria to restrict the ordinances of the church, including the ordinance of marriage. The week after we made this decision, Kathryn and Kate asked if I would officiate their marriage ceremony.
Over the last year, I’ve been overwhelmed with the support I’ve received not only from the people in my congregation, but also from the wider Mennonite community—and not only Mennonites, but Christians of all sorts of traditions have reached out to me to offer their affirmation and encouragement. This widespread support has sustained me as my conference decides whether my ordination will be revoked.
I’d be interested to hear from you, Weldon, how you felt God’s sustaining hands while you underwent a disciplinary process after you officiated a same-sex wedding years ago.
NISLY: The Franciscan Richard Rohr, my long-time friend and spiritual guide, gave me a major mantra for ministry: “Living on the edge of the inside.” While being committed to the heart of the Mennonite Church, most of my ministry has been on the margins of the Church and beyond. The heart of my call to ministry was a covenant to serve Christ and Christ’s body as fully and faithfully as possible.
A pastoral challenge of my call came when two women members asked me to officiate their wedding. I shared with them it is pastorally possible and impossible – as possible as any other marriage in the Church and as impossible as being forbidden by the Church. Nevertheless, I committed to walking this journey with them into this impossible possibility, “for nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
And so we did. And God made the impossible possible. I officiated the wedding of the two women in July 2004. I soon entered a disciplinary process led by our Mennonite Church regional conference leaders and Pastoral Leadership Team. My wife and several congregational leaders accompanied me each step of this disciplinary process. It was an intense and arduous, yet grace-filled and revelatory journey. The result was that my ministerial credentials were eventually suspended for a time and later restored. I felt the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit throughout my entire pastoral discernment and disciplinary process.
I confess this pastoral act elicited the most intense and extensive spiritual discernment of my life. Over the two years prior to and two years following [the wedding] I engaged numerous congregational, conference, and denominational leaders, pastoral peers, and ecumenical friends in my discernment. With each person I invited their deepest spiritual wisdom and made clear that I wasn’t seeking approval or agreement with my pastoral act to officiate a same-gender marriage. That deep discernment was profoundly sustaining and clarifying for me, even when it was with someone who differed with me.
I also felt God’s sustaining hand from several of my former seminary teachers who blessed me with encouraging wisdom even as they had three decades earlier when I was their student. A long retired Mennonite Church leader offered his blessing, adding, “If I were young and beginning ministry I hope I would have the courage to do what you did.”
Isaac, what are some ways you have discovered that help us discern how to live with personal faithfulness and integrity and yet remain committed to the church?
VILLEGAS: I officiated Kathryn and Kate’s wedding because of my commitment to the church. My church empowered me to offer this ordinance to them. Their wedding was a ministry of the church, not my own doing. In that sense, Weldon, I’d say that I haven’t felt a tension between my personal integrity and my commitments to the church.
As my congregation was discerning whether to offer them the ordinance of marriage, I did reach out to Church leaders throughout our denomination—to seek their counsel, to get a sense for the wider Church. While the oversight committee within my own conference indicated that there would be consequences if I performed the wedding, I was overwhelmed with the wisdom and insight of Church leaders throughout the country. The most memorable conversation I had was with Chester Wenger, the retired missionary and pastor from Lancaster Mennonite Conference. “You know the truth, and you have to be faithful to that truth,” he said. “The most important thing is that you can trust your people, that you can rely on your congregation in all things.” I told him that I do trust my people, even if they’ve gotten me into this mess! It’s been a holy mess. A faithful mess. Sacred mess.
NISLY: That’s a good way of putting it. It is a sacred mess and it’s happening in churches all across the country. We need to engage in dialogue with others about what God is doing in our LGBTQ affirming churches, including talking with those with more conservative positions. Last year, I had the opportunity to contribute to a nine month-long electronic Respectful Conversation on Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality. I offered a pastoral perspective for inclusion of LGBTQ members in the full life and faith of the church.
Isaac, I appreciate having this conversation with you and for the intentionality and integrity of your pastoral discernment and action. Clearly our pastoral ministry is discerned and lived in the deep and devoted context of our beloved Mennonite Church. We are called by God and the Church for ministry in a particular Mennonite congregation with ministerial accountability and responsibility to the larger Mennonite Church. And yet I think you are like me — called to “live on the edge of the inside” — which is bound to cause trouble. Another mantra that has long inspired my life and ministry has evolved from deep listening with various spiritual guides over the years is: “True followers of Jesus are absurdly happy, totally fearless, and almost always in trouble.”
VILLEGAS: Yes, and as John Lewis often says, it’s “good trouble.”