I often struggle to answer questions about my “call to ministry,” and often about my past in general. As a closeted kid in a so-called “complementarian” church, I believed I couldn’t be a pastor. My life plan at age 20 was to leave the United States forever and dedicate myself to Jesus in anonymity somewhere on the other side of the world, somewhere my gender and sexuality might not find me. Now as an adult trans man, finally at peace with both God and myself, my sense of calling to the Christian pastorate—to preach the gospel, teach discipleship, administer the sacraments, care for the community gathered around Christ, and foster works of justice and mercy in the world—is stronger than ever. Yet even though it was UMC churches who welcomed me in and supported my healing from my community of origin’s rejection, the UMC as a whole is not a social world I can safely navigate as a trans person. Whether I belong in the church at all is constantly up for debate, though it is usually sloppily lumped in with tired arguments about sexuality. This means that the traditional route to pursuing my vocation, namely by seeking ordination in the denomination to which I belong, is fraught with danger and uncertainty. But, none of this is easy to summarize at coffee hour when asked if I’m “pursuing a call to ministry.”
I’m white, straight, fluent in Christian-speak, married to a cis woman, and can pass as cis most of the time. In fact, I stand out in church spaces far less now than I did before my medical transition, when my appearance tended to disturb people’s gender-binary expectations more noticeably. Trans feminine people and gender-nonconforming people face more danger merely walking into Methodist churches than I do, much less pursuing ordination in them—and those who are non-white, even more so. On top of questioning whether I can navigate the UMC in light of my gender history and identity, I also question whether I can do so in good conscience, knowing that so many of my trans siblings would be denied even the opportunities I might receive. Is the table of UMC ordination one I want a seat at?
The early 2020s are proving to be a time of increased reaction and animosity against trans people of all kinds, and my own journey of discernment takes place within this wider social context. Drawing on a tradition of disgust and fear towards gender nonconformity, the resurgent movement for white Christian nationalism has identified trans existence as a primary target for its grievance politics. Republican politicians across the country have attempted to pass hundreds of state laws targeting trans youth, their parents, and their doctors; rightwing pundits viciously depict trans adults as malevolent influences on children and trans women as perverts in disguise; conservative parent activists equate acknowledgments of gender diversity with pornography. Meanwhile, moderates often see both trans existence and the onslaughts against us as “controversial subjects” they prefer to ignore, both in the public square and within churches. In this context, pursuing ordination—and more bluntly, considering whether I can publicly represent an institution in which most of its members either cheer on these inhumane attacks or else are insufficiently bothered by them to protest—takes on a challenging valence.
My Bible-shaped imagination jumps to thoughts of prophets, visionaries, and dissidents who suffered persecution for their courage and faithfulness. I think of so many of the best Christians throughout history, many of whom were slandered as heretics (and “youth perverters”) in their lifetimes for daring to challenge established powers and call the church back to its true vocation, John Wesley included. These traditions inform me that a prerequisite for meaningful leadership is a readiness to do what is right regardless of opposition. Yet, I’m no individualist, and neither were these exemplars of the faith. The body of Christ is, intrinsically, a social body. “Pastor” is not a role that can exist apart from a community that affirms it, in traceable continuity with broader Christian history and tradition. Every prophet and reformer we now honor wrestled with this same tension: love for and commitment to the Church combined with discontent and outrage against its abuses and sins.
The process of the individual and the community co-creating the pastoral identity is not unlike my own experience of gender: first an inward experience, then expressed and affirmed through my public transition. Likewise, my experience of transness is its own kind of vocation, one that identifies me with and commits me to solidarity with the gender deviants currently under threat of persecution by the state. My experience of Christian discipleship and this “fire in my bones” to preach the gospel is another vocation, one that—for now—leads me to pursue ordination within the United Methodist Church. I know I cannot compromise one for the sake of the other, if I seek to live up to the calling(s) I have received (Ephesians 4:1). Yet whether these two vocations will ultimately coalesce within the UMC remains unclear, depending primarily on the choices of human beings endowed with institutional authority. Either way, “God’s gifts and God’s calling are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). I trust that God’s Spirit will lead me in the footsteps of Jesus—whether in confrontation with oppressive religious authorities in the centers of power or outside the city walls where the non-conforming bodies make their own home together.
Luke Melonakos-Harrison (he/him) is a master of divinity student at Yale, socialist tenant organizer, Bible nerd, and relatively new Methodist. Now a member at First and Summerfield UMC, he aspires to pastoral ministry and new church planting/organizing. Originally from San Diego, he currently lives with his spouse, Lana, in New Haven, Connecticut.