On Conflict, Pain, & Composting: Reflections on the Worst Church Year of my Life

by | Aug 10, 2022 | Blog | 23 comments

Since May, 2021 I have been involved in a conflict with my former denomination – The British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (BCMB). This conflict led to me being stripped of my credentials for not being able to meet the conference’s expectations of a credentialed pastor. In the end, I was not willing to prove my “unequivocal commitment to the Confession of Faith.” Anabaptists, due to their historic persecution, have often been wary of how people in power can weaponize creeds. So as an Anabaptist, my position is, and remains, that the only thing worthy of my unequivocal commitment is the Lord. Confessions of faith are living documents. They express the consensus of a community at a particular moment in time (a snapshot) and change (another snapshot is taken) after what can sometimes be agonizingly long periods of deliberation and discernment. For example, after many years of debate, a 2006 resolution finally made it possible for individual churches to decide whether or not to allow women to occupy all levels of church leadership. This process is indicative of how stubborn, inflexible, and tragically slow to change this living document can be. It also demonstrates how the speed and cost of change processes are not experienced or born equally by everyone (e.g., women, those identify as LGBTQ+).

Anneken de Vlaster is thrown into the fire in 1571.

During the few years leading up to the revoking of my credentials, I had intentionally chosen to tone down my preaching and teaching of the conference’s traditional position on sexuality and marriage. This choice was made following the precautionary principle which holds that when an activity or belief raises threats of harm, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. Given that some studies have shown that participation in church can lead to increased levels of suicidality among those who identify as LGBTQ+ I compassionately paused rigorous preaching on the Conference position. Additionally, following the expressed desire of a majority of the congregation I served (Cedar Park Church), our leadership team (pastoral staff and elders) sought to open up honest dialogue about human sexuality. Personally, after fifteen years of theological study related to sexuality and pastoral ministry that led me into the complexities of people’s lived experience, my own theological and pastoral positions were evolving.

My understanding of the gospel was also called into question as a result of me fore-fronting longstanding injustices…

Additionally, complaints were made and suspicions were raised by congregants about my pastoral intentions. My understanding of the gospel was called into question as a result of me fore-fronting longstanding injustices (e.g., racial, environmental, gender, sexual orientation) that the pandemic allowed a wider swath of society to finally see. Read about why white North American evangelicals often see social issues as a distraction from the gospel. Meetings were held, phone calls were made, and emails were exchanged about me – without me or my former church’s leadership team. A Conference-led review of my work (examining sermons, combing through the church website, reading things I had written, and meeting with certain congregants) went on for months without my knowledge.

The level of suspicion mounted as live-streamed pandemic Sunday services were scrutinized, and communication was sent by congregants (unknown to me) to the denomination about my actions or inactions. For example, one week during our church’s prayers of the people, a widow announced her engagement and expressed her hope that her female partner and others like her would one day be welcomed and celebrated in more churches. Many in the congregation applauded to share in this beloved sister’s joy (Rom. 15:12, 1 Cor. 12:26). Afterwards, Conference leaders found out that I had apparently failed to rebuke this announcement (I’m not in the habit of rebuking/correcting/censoring prayer requests) or quickly follow it up with a mini-homily clarifying the Conference’s position that same-sex marriage and same-sex sex is a sin. This kind of scrutiny fostered a work environment where the levels of suspicion, criticism and anxiety became toxic. However, I continued to preach the gospel of Jesus who was sent to proclaim good news to poor and to set the oppressed free. I led memorial services, countless prayer meetings, and dozens of listening circles to lean into the desolation, excitement, and confusion congregants were experiencing. However, the conflict between me, the Conference, and a minority of congregants escalated.

When Helping Hurts

As a pastor, one of my main goals in serving the church has always been to help people. The pain of hearing that I was causing people distress combined with accusations that I was bowing down to unbiblical political ideology and leading people astray – all while I was sincerely trying honour the Bible’s special concern for the vulnerable – was too much and contributed to suicidal ideation. When you keep trying to help the people who hurt you, the relationship can go rancid. Under the care of my family doctor and long-term psychologist, I began to take medication for depression and anxiety. This was a first for me.

The pain of hearing that I was causing people distress combined with accusations that I was bowing down to unbiblical political ideology…contributed to suicidal ideation.

After being interviewed/interrogated about my beliefs by the Conference, being asked to prove my “unequivocal commitment” to the Conference’s Confession of Faith (a bizarre request that would disqualify most BCMB credentialed pastors who struggle with various confessional convictions), and disclosing my evolving convictions regarding sexuality, I expressed my willingness to surrender my credentials if the Conference determined that I had failed to meet their expectations of a credentialed pastor. Expecting that my disclosure would be grounds for the removal of my credentials and knowing that the church was obligated to have a credentialed pastor on staff, I, along with two pastoral colleagues expressed our forthcoming resignations – effective at the end of March 2022. I then received prompt communication stating that my credentials had been removed. Five of the six remaining church board members also announced their forthcoming resignations.

When Church Wounds

The Conference moved in quickly and called a congregational meeting on April 3, 2022. I still lack words to fully describe what ensued. I remember fragments. A denominational leader affirmed publicly that he thought I was a “false teacher” – a designation that led to the drowning and burning of my Anabaptist ancestors in the sixteenth century. Read my poem “False Teacher” about this moment. The Conference clearly stated their traditional sexual ethic while a queer-identifying former church leader sat under the cross holding a sign that spelled “LOVE” in rainbow letters. Like the women who faithfully gathered around Jesus as the religious and political powers conspired to crucify him, more people gathered under the cross in solidarity as the meeting wore on. See my poem and artwork “His Body Dismembered.”

People became increasingly agitated as it seemed that despite the Conference’s previously communicated willingness to answer questions, they were unequivocally committed to not admitting any wrongdoing in the carrying out of their investigation of my work and dealing with the conflict at the church. Tense energy coursed through the room. What appeared to be contradictions and half-truths spoken from the front infuriated many. People spoke loudly from their seats as a surging righteous indignation seemed to override Canadian politeness. I looked for a table to overturn (that wouldn’t hurt anyone). One former BCMB pastor who was in attendance as a witness reflected on the meeting writing:

It was a meeting I will recall as among the saddest I have witnessed in my life—at almost every conceivable level. No one left the meeting untouched, unharmed. That night, I had this raw read of the meeting. Pastor Lee Kosa and the people of Cedar Park Church are broken and devastated and, in my view, exhibited the signs of being abuse victims. It felt like a window in on the story of the Good Samaritan, with the priests and Levites of BCMB walking by on the other side extending no compassion, no hand to help. In fact, some said, even a pouring of salt on the wounds of the wounded throughout the evening. And what even increased the tragedy of the wounded? By their account, it was those very same priests and Levites who had thrown them to the curb in the first place. I wept as I listened and felt and saw.

“Pastor Lee Kosa and the people of Cedar Park Church are broken and devastated and, in my view, exhibited the signs of being abuse victims.”

At the end of the meeting, I remember standing at the front of the church. In an effort to reveal how the theological logic of the conference affects flesh and blood people, I confessed the depth of pain I experienced from the conflict and from the way it was handled. I remember my voice beginning to break and feeling hands of support from members of the congregation on my shoulders. I spoke of how what I believed to be the mishandling of the situation by Conference leadership which included manipulative triangulation (between church leadership, anonymous congregants, and Conference leaders) and a lack of a robust conflict resolution or review policy, had exacerbated the conflict and contributed to the deterioration of my mental health to the point that at times I felt the only way to escape the pain would be to end my life. Suddenly, my nervous system had had enough and spun my body around, away from Conference leadership. I remember walking briskly out of the sanctuary repeating the phrase “I’m done” as I exited the room. I made my way outside into the night and collapsed in the garden between two shrubs, sobbing uncontrollably for the brokenness of a church that casts out those who are defined as deviant, who dare critique the status quo, or who for the sake of biblical compassion call for the re-examination of convictions that contribute to harm. I sobbed because my psyche was wounded, and my body traumatized. My wife followed me out of the church and found me curled up in the dark, wailing. That meeting was the last time she has stepped foot in any church. See my poem and artwork “Led to the Wilderness” about this particular moment.

Seeking Peace

Since then, I have written several letters outlining specific complaints about the behaviour of Conference leadership that I think mischaracterized me to others, failed to meet their own publicized commitments, and that violate what I believe to be basic ethical standards for any organization.

Upon my request, an ad hoc Conference committee performed a narrow review of the BCMB’s actions that led to my credentials being stripped but found no evidence of unfairness or a lack of transparency in the process that would have led to a different outcome. However, my experience of the review process was that it was unfair, unChristian, unprofessional, and failed to meet standard employee investigation standards. My subsequent specific questions about the process and the BCMB’s lack of a robust credentialling review policy have been largely ignored. I was told that it was the committee’s opinion that I should find another denomination. It appears that when leaders decide that someone no longer meets their expectations of a credentialed pastor, they can remove their credentials by any means necessary. The ends apparently justify the means.

My experience tells me that the combination of leaders with great power (e.g., to conduct secret investigations of pastors, to remove them, and to deem people to be false teachers), a lack of specific accountability mechanisms, and the absence of robust conflict resolution policies to mitigate against the misuse of power (despite policing a Confession of Faith that states the centrality of peacemaking and reconciliation) all combine to create a dangerous and toxic culture in any conference/denomination. I will not work in such an unsafe environment.

Looking for justice, reconciliation, or at least a peaceable parting, I’ve knocked (and sometimes pounded) on every door I could find or afford.

Since leaving, I have sought to hold leaders accountable to their stated commitments, to pursue relational repair through mediation, and to advocate for policy reform. To date, the BCMB has not admitted substantive wrongdoing. They believe they have addressed the issues I have raised and have declined my request for mediation stating that they do not believe any further discussion will change either side’s perspective. They consider the matter closed, and will not engage in any further process with me.

BCMB’s unilateral declaration of this “matter closed” and their unwillingness to engage in face-to-face mediation or any further process is at odds with the Confession of Faith’s convictions regarding reconciliation and fails to follow Christ’s clear teaching on conflict resolution. Commenting on the problematic nature of one side terminating communication during a conflict, Sarah Schulman in her book Conflict is Not Abuse writes, “Shunning…is never useful in resolving problems…in most cases it is…primarily a way to avoid an adjustment of the self that is required for accountability. It has no terms for resolution, it is simply a form of asserting supremacy…”

Looking for justice, reconciliation, or at least a peaceable parting, I’ve knocked (and sometimes pounded) on every door I could find or afford. At this point, the way toward confession, repentance, amends, and structural reform, seems to be closed.

In telling a fraction of my story, I’m not looking for sympathy. Nor am I trying to center my experience at the marginalization of others. I realize many other minoritized and stigmatized people have been hurt far worse by Christian institutions (please keep the “not all Christians” defensiveness out of the comments on this post). As I wept outside the church, I experienced a momentary solidarity with the suffering Christ and many who have been scapegoated and rejected by religious groups. By God’s grace and with the Spirit’s guidance in the form of a brilliant trauma-informed spiritual director and wise psychologists, I am engaging in the slow but holy work of alchemizing this experience. Two psychologists have told me that I have experienced complex spiritual trauma and that my body may need a one-year break from full-time pastoral ministry in order to heal.

This is some of the logic that drove Paul to persecute Christ himself as he chased down Jesus followers.

There are folks who have gone through these painful events with me who may never step foot inside a church building again as they cannot reconcile how such harm can come from a community that speaks of peace, justice, and love. However, as I see it, a sinful disregard for people’s well-being is commonly rationalized by a utilitarian ethic (ends justify the means) that puts the advancement of missiological aims (spreading of the kingdom through the advancement of the church), protecting God’s honour by defending doctrine, and soteriological goals (saving people from hell) above all other concerns. This is some of the logic that drove Paul to persecute Christ himself as he chased down Jesus followers. It is what justified the abuse of Indigenous children at residential schools and it actively fuels abuse of women, folks who identify as LGBTQ+, and anyone who is perceived as a potential contaminant to a theological system that is arrogantly and erroneously perceived to be pure and therefore to be protected at all costs – even if it means covering up abuse, protecting perpetrators, villainizing victims, and gaslighting those who are courageous enough to voice concerns. Read more about what drives some Christian leaders to be led by this harmful utilitarian logic.

Saul holding the coats of those stoning Stephen, from St. Étienne du Mont, Paris

An Invitation

After reading this, please do not try to fix, correct, or save me. I invite you to simply bear witness to the picture my words paint and to interrogate your own emotional responses to what you see and feel. I also invite you to consider that we live in a time when Christian denominations/institutions across North America are facing a crisis of accountability. If you are connected to a church conference or denomination through employment, membership, participation, or financial giving and you know about misuse/abuse of power, structural issues that leave people vulnerable, and a lack of accountability that enables leaders to act with impunity, and you remain within the denomination/institution while you have the power to advocate for reform/healing justice, and yet you do not, then perhaps you are complicit in an unsafe system that perpetuates harm in the name of Jesus.

If you are employed by a Christian institution that has structural issues or holds harmful theological views, there is a time to stay, play the long game, support those around you financially, and to work for incremental change. If that is your strategy, please heed the warnings of Martin Luther King from his letter to white moderates which he penned from a Birmingham jail. Not everyone bears the weight of incrementalism the same way. Be sober about who has the power to “set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

Be sober about who has the power to “set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

There is also a time to count the cost of leaving loud and pulling down the curtains that shroud sinful systems and justify harm as you make your way out the door.

In the Bible, there is a time to work towards restoration and reform, but Jesus shows us that when institutions no longer bear the fruit of justice, there is also a time to curse the fig tree and move on. There is a time when the ax comes to the root of the tree and composting is the only honest way forward. As Jesus teaches and shows us, there is a time to let go, to descend down into the loamy darkness, to metabolize the pain, and double down on resurrection.

Therein lies my hope.

3 MB pastors resign over LGBTQ, role of Confession
The Anabaptist World covered the removing of my credentials by the BCMB in an article. Journalist John Longhurst also reported on the conflict on his blog Time to Tell: A blog dedicated to reporting about the topic of LGBTQ+ and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches from a journalistic point of view.