Members of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church laid their hands on Mark Rupp Sept. 21 as they installed him as pastor of Christian formation.
“It hit me during that moment that rather than lots of individual hands on me, it really felt like a blanket of support, and that was really, really meaningful,” Rupp said in an Oct. 15 interview. “It wasn’t me out there alone. I had a lot of support.”
Rupp, who attended Columbus Mennonite for a year and a half before being called, is in a committed same-sex relationship.
After decades of theological study and spiritual discernment, in 2007 the congregation became one that accepts members regardless of sexual orientation. Now, Columbus Mennonite has begun to live its commitment to inclusion in a new way.
“The fact that he is gay is something some people see much more as an asset rather than a negative,” said Joel Miller, the lead pastor. “He brings a perspective of the church not being a safe place and helps guide us in asking, ‘How do we make the church more accepting?’ ”
Called to ministry
Rupp first felt called to Christian ministry as a senior in high school during a summer camp affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, the church he grew up in.
He attended Bluffton (Ohio) University as a music education major while he considered what this call would mean. After a year and a half, he switched to music ministry.
After college, where he got to know and feel at home in the Mennonite tradition, he took part in Mennonite Voluntary Service for three formative years.
“That was a time when I thought the only way to be expressive in ministry was to commit myself to celibacy,” he said.
It wasn’t an easy time.
“I knew that God was calling me to ministry,” he said. “At some point I accepted my sexuality, but the repression of that sexuality was not life-giving in a lot of really depressing and a lot of really hard ways.”
But through conversations, life circumstances and relationships, his idea about that began to shift.
“I started to realize that ministry as an openly gay man was not something that was completely off the table,” he said.
Beginning seminary at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, he assumed his ministry would have to be in another denomination or in a nonpastoral role.
“I started throwing myself into the idea of using education as a ministry,” he said. “It was a ministry that was more attainable in the world that we live in.”
He was still in this mindset when he heard a job was opening at Columbus Mennonite, where he had attended for a year and a half.
“I decided that I was not going to let fear keep me from putting myself forward as a candidate,” he said.
Miller said Rupp’s “gifts and sense of calling fit with exactly what we were looking for.” Before beginning the hiring process the congregation held discussions about whether their inclusive stance extended to pastors.
“There was strong affirmation,” Miller said.
Columbus Mennonite anticipates responses, both positive and negative, to the news of Rupp’s hiring. Reactions were heard across the wider church after the February licensing of Theda Good, also a pastor in a same-sex partnership, in Mountain States Conference.
Members intend to approach it with a biblical theme of “come and see,” a common phrase in the Gospel of John.
Rather than trying to win arguments, they want to invite others to come and see what Columbus is about — from vibrant worship to knotting comforters for Mennonite Central Committee to serving with the homeless and partnering with a racially diverse coalition of local congregations to address justice issues.
The congregation is prepared to hear from those who disagree.
“We’re being intentional about there being a small group of people that are attentive to hearing response,” Miller said.
He sees “an elevated sense of love” in his congregation.
“I see joy from people with gay family members for whom this is kind of a dream,” he said. “And there’s a sense of peace within the congregation.”
A member told Rupp that if he ever feels like a lightning rod to remember it was ultimately the congregation’s decision to affirm his call.
See also: “Another Conference to License Gay Pastor“
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