HILLSBORO, Kan. — Ryne Preheim wanted to be a Mennonite Brethren pastor. He enrolled at Tabor College in the fall of 2014 to pursue that goal and see if he could reconcile his Christianity with being gay.
A year later, Preheim is preparing to transfer after struggling with being an openly gay student at a college that upholds a traditional view of homosexuality. But Tabor is also experiencing dissent, including from alumni who believe it should be more welcoming of LGBT students.
In the past year, the Tabor faculty and board have dealt with related issues, and Preheim became the focus of a letter to the board supporting greater welcome of students like him.
A member of Reedley (Calif.) Mennonite Brethren Church, Preheim was active in theater, music and Bible courses at Immanuel High School, an MB-affiliated school. He desired to merge his interests into pastoral ministry.
Believing his attraction to men was unhealthy, he went “deeper into the closet, thinking this is something to hide,” he said. “I began thinking I needed to go out and find the perfect woman to change my feelings. Going to Tabor, I thought, this was my chance.”
He quickly got involved in choir, theater, the Wichita Urban Ministry Project, leading the campus worship team and working for the athletic department doing announcing and play-by-play broadcasting.
He started dating a female student. They were best friends, but he felt no physical attraction. She supported him when he came out to her, much like his parents did shortly thereafter.
“They said this is your life, and we’re going to support you, and we’re not going to stop loving you,” Preheim said. “They’re completely in my corner.”
On campus, he said, fellow students didn’t have much of a response when he announced things broadly in social media.
“Some people were surprised but nobody was apprehensive or defense or telling me I was doing the wrong thing,” Preheim said. “This was just Ryne and we love him and we should treat him like he should be treated.”
When he returned home over the summer, Preheim said, the Reedley MB church board told him he could not date other males while home, could not post to his blog and could not post on any media platform about sexuality matters. After this summer’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, he posted thoughts online and was contacted by church leadership.
“I could either voluntarily give up my membership or go before the board,” he said. “ . . . I could present my case, and they would vote about whether I could keep my membership.”
He ultimately decided to withdraw his membership in the face of what he felt was adversity and inconsistent application of grace. In another act of withdrawal, he removed himself from the Tabor worship team to lessen controversy for other team members and the college.
However, Preheim said his unease at Tabor went over the edge after he went on a date with another male early in the semester. He said a college official assured him going on a date did not break the student lifestyle commitment. But after being seen and reported to administrators, he was called in for a discussion. Preheim said he was removed from his position in athletic broadcasting and transferred to a job as a volleyball line judge.
“The way it was made clear to me was that I was being removed from my position because I was actively dating in the homosexual community,” he said. He said he was told it made him “unfit to serve in that leadership position.”
Tabor President Jules Glanzer said the situation is unfortunate, but what actually happened has not been portrayed accurately, and student privacy limits what can be said. He said Preheim was not reassigned because he went on a date with a man.
“When you look at the timeline, it doesn’t bear it out that way,” Glanzer said. “I know what’s being said.”
Faculty and Confession
Tabor is owned by the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, and Article 10 of the USMB Confession of Faith states: “Disciples maintain sexual purity and marital faithfulness and reject immoral premarital and extramarital relationships and all homosexual practices.”
Defining “practices” varies from person to person, and Preheim isn’t the only person getting acquainted with the Confession in a new way this year. Faculty members noticed wording was included in an April 30 letter accompanying 2015-16 contracts that states “by signing this notice, you are also affirming the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith.”
Because of the USMB connection and Christian identity, the Tabor faculty hiring process includes reviewing a summary of the Confession’s articles. However, associate professor of biblical studies and board faculty representative Del Gray said the Confession is not consistently implemented. He cited strict enforcement of sexuality matters and softened stances on remarriage and divorce, oath-swearing, separation of church and state, and adult rebaptism after infant baptism.
“There is an unknown canon within the canon, and the administration is the keeper of that,” he said. “Frankly, some of our faculty are nervous. . . . There are members of our community who have very significant variance on some of these issues.”
Glanzer acknowledged that there are and have been “allowable variances,” and no faculty member is expected to completely affirm the whole Confession.
“What is the determining factor? For me personally, it’s something I call the brand of what determines who we are, what we want to be known as in the community and society,” he said. “That speaks heavily to the variances. How much Scripture speaks to it would also somehow influence the variances.”
Since the Supreme Court marriage ruling, some Christian colleges and universities are concerned a federal mandate to hire married LGBT people is on the horizon, though none exists. It inspired some institutions to bulk up their language.
Glanzer said institutions go about that in different ways. Based on input from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Tabor decided to put the wording in a letter.
“We were told that from the federal government’s perspective, to demonstrate that this is a conviction of yours as an institution, you need to have faculty, staff, administrators yearly sign a statement that they are in agreement with your Confession of Faith,” he said.
Because of variance among instructors — and an interest in academic freedom — faculty proposed alternatives to “affirm,” such as “respect” and “support.” Glanzer has counter-proposed “honestly adhere.”
At its meetings Oct. 16-17, the Tabor board of directors encouraged the conversation between Glanzer and faculty to continue.
“I think it’s good for us,” Gray said. “It’s a clear and transparent discussion of where we are and how we relate to the Confession.”
‘Love and respect’
A group of alumni supporting Preheim worked to initiate similar discussion about his experience and Tabor’s treatment of other LGBT students.
A letter criticizing “unfair treatment” of Preheim and other LGBT students was submitted to the board, signed by 110 alumni and faculty from all generations. The quiet, unpublicized campaign by Ian Wohlgemuth, Kayla Vix and Will Friesen requested an investigation into his case.
The letter cites the college’s community life covenant, which calls for honoring the dignity of self and others, including restraint from harassment or discrimination of any kind.
“We ask the Tabor College Board of Directors to perform this self examination to evaluate whether the current policies against gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning students should be revised,” the letter says.
It notes Goshen (Ind.) College and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., have changed some policies to no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation.
The letter continues: “We challenge Tabor to be a leader in the Mennonite Brethren community, one that shows love and respect equally to people without reservation on the basis of professed sexual orientation.”
The board produced a statement saying it believes Tabor’s policies and practices regarding sexuality are consistent with the Confession of Faith and “affirms the administration’s implementation of these policies in a fair and compassionate manner. At the same time, the Board recognizes that continued conversation on these issues is essential. . . . We further commit to being Christ-like in our responses, with the Confession of Faith and Scripture as our guide.”
Glanzer said the board did not address Preheim’s situation because he has not filed an official complaint.
Not a black sheep
The board’s statement has little bearing on Preheim’s trajectory. Early this semester, more than a month before the board meeting, he made the decision to transfer to Bethel College, a Mennonite Church USA institution 25 miles to the south in North Newton.
He’ll make the move between semesters and is already learning the music for Bethel’s spring opera. When he visited a friend from Reedley who is a student there, Preheim said he suddenly didn’t feel like a black sheep.
“I was exposed to just incredible normalcy with my own homosexuality,” he said. “I fit in. That’s something I haven’t had for a year and a half, and that’s something I missed.”
He still wants to be a Mennonite pastor.