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October 24, 2019

Why I Was Forced to Resign from Southwest Church (Indian Wells): Pastor Gerald Sharon’s Story

Gerald Sharon

Usually we feature blogposts written by congregants who have experienced harm due to a church’s ambiguous policies. For this blogpost, we have a reverse perspective: A pastor who led a church that practiced ambiguous policies, and who over time began to change his mind. 

My name is Gerald Sharon. If my name sounds familiar, you may have heard it from California news stories in June 2016 about how I was forced to resign as the Lead Pastor of Southwest Church in Indian Wells, California, because I refused to condemn homosexuality.

That summer, several news outlets reached out asking if they could interview me in-depth to learn my story. Although I was legally free to speak because I had refused to sign the non-disclosure agreement offered to me by Southwest’s elders, I declined all requests, because I wasn’t ready yet to tell my story. But I’m ready now. 

I grew up in Southern Baptist churches and started pastoring in 1979. In 2000 I joined the staff of Saddleback Church where I held 9 different titles, including Executive Pastor of Ministries and North American Director for the Purpose Driven Network. 

The morning I was leaving for the airport to begin at Saddleback, my son, who was 16, hugged me and said, “I wrote you a letter. It’s in your briefcase, but don’t read it until you get to the airport.” When I got to my gate, the seats were full so I was leaning against a wall while waiting to board. I opened the letter and as I began to read I realized the letter was his coming out to me. As I began to digest the fact that one of my twin boys was telling me he was gay, my legs grew weak, I couldn’t stand and literally felt my body slide along the wall to the floor as I crumbled in tears. Time stood still, but my mind and emotions didn’t. I feared what this would mean for my son’s future: What will his relationships look like? What pain will he experience at the hands of others? My theological system was instantly confused: My entire past had taught me that “homosexuals do not go to heaven,” but I knew my son. I was the one who had baptized him and spoken the words as he rose from the water, “Born as my son, now baptized as my brother.”  

Over several years, my theology began to slowly shift, and I lived with a troubling duality—I affirmed my son and loved him for who he was, but I was never public about my posture towards my son in the context of my ministry. Partly because I was still working out my convictions and partly because of the potential ramifications for my ministry. My son told me that  he didn’t want his sexuality to negatively impact my career.

In 2012, I left Saddleback and joined Southwest Church in Indian Wells first as the Interim Pastor, and a few months later as the Lead Pastor. We were experiencing tremendous growth as a church, averaging over 3,500 people a weekend by 2015; I was mentoring local pastors who came to us for advice.

The clock had started to tick in 2015. Southwest Church had three policies that were written by my predecessor and affirmed by the elders: One on women in leadership, one on homosexuality, and the last one on human sexuality. None of these were published online. In 2015, I led our elders through a study and we adopted a new position paper that removed any restrictions on women in church leadership, which was significant because Southwest is an Evangelical Free Church.

Then we started having conversations about our policies on homosexuality. Southwest Church had emphasized repeatedly that “all are welcome” in our branding and posture. We were located 30 minutes from Palm Springs, a well-known LGBT destination in our region, and had openly gay attendees in our church. During these conversations I asked the elder board, “What is your definition of ‘all are welcome’ as it relates to the LGBT community?” Their answer, “It means they’re welcome.” As I continued to push for clarity on what “welcome” means the sum of their answer remained, “They’re welcome.” I said, “Since you can’t define it more clearly, it seems you mean they’re welcome to attend, to give us their money, to serve in limited non-leadership roles, but that’s it.” Their negative, visceral response was obvious because they knew it was true.

The practical implications of what they meant by “welcome” became even more clear when we launched a program in our church to train people to become lay counselors. One of the people who had signed up was a gay man, which caused panic among the elders and leadership staff. Should we accept him into the program? The elders decided there was no way he could be a lay counselor, but their solution was to not tell him about the church’s policy. They were afraid of public backlash, given that they were located in an area with a large gay population. So they instructed the staff to put his name at the bottom of the list and to tell him, “There is a long waiting list and we just haven’t gotten to you yet.” 

Months later, when that same man wanted to volunteer at Vacation Bible School for kids during the summer the only place the staff would let him work was the registration table, since they didn’t want him to work with kids directly. So the staff told him, “The place we really need help is registration—could you volunteer there?” And he said, “Yes, if that’s where you need me.”

Mother’s Day in 2016 was a turning point. I was preaching on the tensions and struggles of mothers, and to illustrate my point I found a baby formula commercial that showed different kinds of moms. The commercial pictured the tensions moms experience because of the perceptions moms can have of moms who are not like themselves. As the tensions in the commercial grew, there was a brief shot of a woman putting her arm around a mom sitting on a blanket holding her baby. I played that video during my sermon and the elders perceived that quick shot as implying they were a couple. The following week I learned that the elders had an emergency meeting without my knowledge, even though I was an elder. The outcome of that meeting was another meeting, which came as a sudden surprise to me.

There was a conference room just outside my office and I was told, “The elders are out there waiting for you now.” They accused me of playing that video to advance a “gay agenda” and that I was not preaching the next weekend. I never preached again at Southwest. At the same time, my wife and I were told we were not allowed on the church campus and that we could not talk to anyone about the situation, including our small group. The “protective silence” further diminished clarity.

During the time they had pulled me from preaching, I visited my son and his partner. I had been serving as the Lead Pastor at Southwest Church for four years, and I told them that I was on the verge of being forced to resign because I wouldn’t endorse and teach their positions on homosexuality and human sexuality. I was still on my journey of discernment about my own beliefs and what I understood about the Bible had to say about same-sex relationships, but I knew I couldn’t do what my elders wanted me to do. My son and his partner said to me, “We want you to know that we are proud of you, but you don’t need to do this for us. We know you love us.” After a rapid moment of reflection I said, “I’m not doing this for you, I am doing this for me.” At the time, I didn’t know what my final position would be, but I knew I had to be honest about my shifting views and that somehow the church needed to allow LGBT individuals to be fully engaged in the life of the church. The pressure had become physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting; it was time to be free.

After a series of intense and frankly disgusting meetings, the board met with me for what would be the final time in June 2016. They slid across the table a vote of no confidence letter signed by all the elders. They told me they wanted me to leave Coachella Valley – the surrounding region of our location, including Palm Springs – and they would pay all my relocation costs, including closing costs on my home, and provide a reasonable severance. The condition was that I would only be able to speak to a given statement and could not start a new church in the Valley for two years.

I refused to sign the form, so under duress I was forced to resign and left in June. I had no place to go and didn’t know what my future would hold. A few months later the senior pastor of Hope Lutheran Church (an ELCA congregation) in Palm Desert invited me to join his staff to launch and lead a contemporary, modern service to complement their traditional, liturgical service. 

When I left Southwest many people were shocked because everything about the church and how it welcomed gay people left them with the impression that it was an LGBT-inclusive church. People were doubly wounded—first by knowing the actual policy and position, and second by realizing the position was hidden from them all this time.

Looking back and knowing what I know now, I wish I had done a better job at clearly communicating my church’s policies. The truth is that at some point, the elder board decided that they wanted the church to go public with their positions and policies and even wanted me to preach on them, but I refused to do so knowing how much it would hurt the gay community. But if I’d been upfront about the positions and policies of the church, we could’ve avoided some hurt. I apologize to the LGBT community for my role in not being clear.

I’m thinking of the gay man who wanted to be a counselor and to volunteer with kids at Vacation Bible School, and whom we believed did not deserve to know the truth.

I’m thinking of the lesbian couple who showed up to a new believers’ class and were given bibles by the teacher. The preface of each bible explained that the destruction of our society was tied to the destruction of the traditional family unit. They called me, hurt, and immediately I had those bibles replaced. Later on, they wanted to sign up for a marriage course. I first said, “Sure, why not?” and, after receiving backlash from staff, I then had to backpedal and encourage them to attend a women’s bible study instead, fearing that they would receive hurtful comments from people in that course. If my staff had worked out clear and consistent policies about who can attend or do what, and if I had communicated all of that upfront in a caring way, I would’ve saved people from some hurt. 

Clarity should be paramount. I know that now, and I deeply regret any hurt I’ve caused. 

To my fellow pastors who are quietly on the journey of discerning your affirming positions, or who have arrived at a position of inclusion that does not align with that of your church, or who are afraid to come out because you might lose your job and your community, I’d say, “The price you’ll pay will be high, but it doesn’t come close to the price that our LGBTQ siblings have to pay when the church is unclear.” And, the price you will pay will likely be higher than what you can imagine. We’ve lost community, close friends, income--it’s a long list, but every price is worth being clear. 

I am now more free and authentically myself than I have been in 40 years of being a pastor. My pastoring is exponentially more real and authentic; my leadership and preaching are more genuine than they’ve ever been. It’s time for you to come clear. And it would be my honor to walk with you on your journey.

 


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