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Transgender clergyperson leaves church, keeps faith

7/2/2002

A UMNS Feature By Joretta Purdue* By Joretta Purdue*

WASHINGTON--The United Methodist pastor that brought controversy to the Baltimore-Washington Conference after undergoing gender reassignment calls her decision to leave the denomination painful.

"I've been a United Methodist all of my life," the Rev. Rebecca A. Steen told United Methodist News Service in a telephone interview just a few days after leaving the United Methodist Church. "To step away has been an extremely painful thing."

As a hearing on June 28 began that would determine whether or not she would be put on involuntary leave by the regional unit of the United Methodist Church, she surrendered her clergy credentials and withdrew her membership in the United Methodist Church.

"There has been a parting of the ways because I don't think the church is ready for me, and I'm sad to say that," Steen observed. "I will continue to seek to do the will of the Lord and to be active in ministry wherever God leads me."

Steen had sought voluntary leave from the Baltimore-Washington Conference in 1999 and subsequently underwent gender reassignment. Prior to that process, Steen, who was then the Rev. Richard A. Zamostny, had served churches in three Maryland communities during a 17-year career.

When Steen asked to return to the active ministry, her request sparked controversy. A formal complaint was lodged against her in early June. Bishop Felton Edwin May has said the contents of the complaint are confidential but that it pertains to ministerial effectiveness. Transgender issues are not named in the complaint, he stated.

Transgender issues were at the heart of a declaration written by eight conference clergymembers. Called the "Renaissance Affirmation," the document was circulated June 8 during the annual session of the conference.

Steen, 47, a parent and grandparent, said that prior to her withdrawal she realized the issue was going to become extremely divisive for the church, her family and herself. That's why she decided to stop the process.

"I don't think it would be a good thing for anyone, to make this a topic of heated debate and controversy," she remarked.

She expressed her appreciation to the many clergy and laity that supported her. At the same time she acknowledged that many others have opposed a transgender clergyperson.

"My theology is one that says you need to love everyone. If it's not an act of grace - if it's not an act of love, then you shouldn't do it," Steen said.

Instead, she indicated that she is going "to take some time to explore other faith communities and to see how I may be able to continue to serve the Lord in whichever faith community I am accepted."

She expressed amazement that "in general society, for most people, it's not an issue, but it is very much an issue for the church," she observed. She added that the church preaches protection for all people out in the world but does not want to extend those protections within its framework.

Steen said she hopes her experience has cracked open the church door for anyone in the future who is not accepted because of gender, race, or other conditions-those who do not conform to "the norm of what the established church expects them to be." Some people in "our church . . . aren't quite open to others," she said.

"I am not angry or bitter over this at all," she stressed. "I really care about the church. I am going to continue to pray for the United Methodist Church, but I am called to minister and I am going to go to those who have been disenfranchised, those who have been pushed out.

"I am concerned about the family of God. The family of Jesus Christ extends to all people - not to a specific group," she said. "I am going to go on preaching … and go on loving in the name of Jesus Christ - wherever I'm called."
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*Joretta Purdue is the news director of the Washington office of United Methodist News Service.

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