The Hardest Lesson I’m Grateful I Learned
When she turned and dramatically pointed her finger at me, I felt the room began to spin.
“Tell us, right now, pastor!” she demanded.
“Tell us what you actually believe.”
Even my ordination examination on the floor of Presbytery had not been this intense.
My blood pressure must have been off the charts.
Tears threatened to escape.
This time, it was personal.
The “right” answer could not be found in a theology book or in Holy Scripture.
I could no longer hide behind Presbyterian polity or statements put out by the General Assembly.
I couldn’t defer to a committee or refer to an expert.
That’s what I had been doing.
And that’s what was so unsatisfactory that in a called congregational meeting, a furious church member put me on the spot.
She knew that I had been using the Book of Order as my shield from the firing squad, who was angry about the nomination of an elder who had been outed as gay.
I had been scapegoating our denomination as the “bad guy” so that I could appear neutral.
Now, my cover was blown.
Though this woman was attempting to publicly sabotage my pastoral leadership, what she actually did was give me a gift; she gave me my voice.
In a purple church that was now divided into two warring camps, I knew that my voice would ostracize many.
I knew that I was to become the target as soon as I asserted that homosexuality was not a sin and there was no justification for using it as a measuring tool of faith.
I had seen how they bullied the person nominated for elder, and though I sat with her in private, I did not want to join her in the spotlight.
I was five months pregnant and three years into this call as a solo pastor.
Risking my future in a church that I loved was more than I had bargained.
I wasn’t prepared to become a martyr.
Looking back, I am embarrassed at my hesitancy to stand up for what I believed in.
Even writing this, I cringe at my cowardice and fear.
Especially considering where I am now, it’s painful to recall the depth of my panic in that moment.
That antagonistic woman dramatically pointing her index finger at me in front of the whole congregation forced the hardest and best change in my professional life.
It drove me out of my hiding place.
Exposed, I told the church exactly what I believed.
Though I can’t recall my exact words, I spoke from my heart, telling them about Jesus and his love, grace, and message.
It was my most authentic public profession of faith to date.
After that disturbing meeting, the elder at the center of the debate was elected by a significant majority of the congregation.
Those whose angry words and emails caused me such anxiety left the church, and the remaining congregation began a process of healing and visioning.
New member classes began quickly refilling the rolls and budget.
It has taken years to recover from the intensity of that divide.
I’ve spent years doing personal and professional development work in my Leadership in Ministry cohort.
However today, we are a LGBTQ affirming and supportive congregation, a statement of inclusion hangs on the outside of the church building, and I have a rainbow flag hanging prominently in my office.
I have claimed my voice and shared my faith-based perspective on other controversial subjects, frequently posting statements on justice on our church marquee for the community.
My preaching has become emboldened with a conviction that Jesus has called me to speak truth to power.
I am far less timid to preach about Jesus’ passion for justice and concern for the oppressed.
This most uncomfortable moment in my pastorate taught me what authentic spiritual leadership really means, and I and my congregation today are stronger for it.
I’m still a work in progress, but for that hard lesson, I give thanks.
The Rev. Catherine Cavazos Renken has served as the Pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Kennesaw, Ga., since September 2011 and will be installed as the Moderator of Cherokee Presbytery in February 2022. She received an M.Div from Columbia Theological Seminary and B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Arlington. She has served churches in Brentwood, Tenn; North Palm Beach, Fla., and Fort Worth, Texas. Catherine volunteers as a Chaplain for the Cobb County Police and is passionate about supporting organizations that fight human trafficking. Catherine is married to Brad, who is the owner of Hearthstone Luxury Pools + Outdoors, and she is the beaming mother of two young children.