In June 2022, the clergy session of the annual meeting of The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church rejected 16 ministry candidates for provisional membership on the basis of two of the candidates being openly LGBTQIA+. Another added her name to the list voluntarily. They had been previously recommended by the Board of Ordained Ministry (BoOM) for provisional membership, but they were 3% of the vote short of final approval by the voting members of the conference. In an article on the Florida Conference website, Bishop Kenneth Carter added, “The great majority of the voices of those who spoke against their candidacy, or the processes leading to their candidacy, were those of pastors who are in formal processes of departing from the United Methodist Church.” Three of the rejected candidates—Shawn Klein, Erin Wagner, and Anna Swygert—sat down with Yet Alive’s Dylan Parson and Trevor Warren for an exclusive interview about the process, their futures, and their hopes for a fully inclusive United Methodist Church.
DP: Tell me a little bit about your background.
AS: I like to make the joke that Methodism runs in my veins because it’s always been a part of who I am. I was baptized and I grew up in the same church that my parents were married in. When I went to undergraduate at the University of Florida, I got involved in the Wesley Foundation and worked there for the majority of my undergraduate career. But during the fall of my freshman year, my father died and it transformed me in a lot of ways, but really brought kind of this Methodist identity to the forefront where I found solace in God and in community and became more involved in student ministry but also became involved in hospital work and started volunteering in the program that now I’m the assistant director of.
During that time, I found a call to accompany young people through chronic illness and decided that was the motivation that brought me to seminary, because I wanted to study spiritual care in the end-of-life setting. While in seminary, I worked as a chaplain in a prison facility offering long-term medical care to inmates in the state of Georgia. I worked as a pediatric hospital chaplain and as a chaplain for Emory University and felt this deep call to chaplaincy but also a deep call to work with young people who were really skeptical of authority. And so I now work in a kind of psycho-social care where I like to call it “chaplaincy adjacent” because as a chaplain, you can’t really walk into a teenager’s room and have them trust you, but as a person who plays video games and can talk TikToks, I earn a lot of trust. So that’s the spiritual care that I feel called to now. I work with a lot of people with sickle cell, cancer, fibrosis, and different autoimmune illnesses and help them kind of navigate their identity while also living with chronic and or terminal illness. So I see patients from diagnosis to cure or end of life.
EW: I think mine is almost the inverse, where I think of Methodism in terms of adoption. I was born in New Orleans and grew up Catholic. Even as a kid, I was really interested in God and in that type of community and faith and found a lot of solace in it. And after the hurricane, my family and I moved to Florida where almost immediately, I was integrated into the local United Methodist Church there. This church saw and named worth in me and my brother at a time when that would have been so easily lost. My parents have always tried their best and done their best but struggled with mental illness and substance use, and so church became a true living home for both of us and a place where our leadership skills and our community skills could thrive. [At the University of Florida,] I came out as gay and was trying to figure out what that meant in my faith and also in my professional world. I had never really seen a gay person that was happy or successful or managed a type of presence that was respected in public life, and so that kind of became my mission, to integrate those pieces. In college, I started a small group for folks to start to do the work of piecing together their faith and their sexuality. I went to pursue my Master’s of Divinity and Master’s of Social Work. I worked with populations that are very close to my life experience, so folks entering homelessness or major mental illness in different capacities, and now I work in a community mental health center, which spans the gambit of needs, and equip the church communities with the tools to engage with these types of people.
SK: I was born and baptized into the Catholic church in south New Jersey, in a relatively poor community that was becoming more violent. When we moved to Florida, the Catholic churches were few and far between. And so it just wasn’t feasible for my mom, who was a single mom, to take us there. One Christmas, my grandmother invited me to her United Methodist church. I saw a guitar on the stage and I’ve been a United Methodist ever since. That was really all it took for me at like 10. That church kind of became a spiritual home for me. But I also knew that my Muslim friends, my gay friends, the people whom I loved who were illegal immigrants, who came over as refugees… While I’d be welcomed into any church space as a straight white dude, they wouldn’t be. And so I kind of became disillusioned with the church as a whole. I didn’t really want anything to do with it. I still kept going to camp. For some reason, camp felt like a thin place to me where I could still feel God’s presence. [As a camp counselor at a prayer station,] I remember writing, “I wish the church loved people like Jesus loved people,” and I went through a hall of mirrors. On the very last mirror, written above me was “You are the church,” and I felt like I was punched in the stomach by God and realized that if I wanted to see that change, I had to be a part of it. I couldn’t throw stones from the outside. I started the process of candidacy to be an elder in the United Methodist Church, and since then, I’ve served in church settings.
“I … realized that if I wanted to see that change, I had to be a part of it. I couldn’t throw stones from the outside.”
DP: It’s amazing how you feel this place of total inclusion, of total understanding, to some degree, of a place that’s really your home, and now there’s a wall, like “Whoa, you took us a little too literally.” So I’m curious as to what your relationship has been with the church as you’ve pursued ministry. If that’s changed, how has that played into the sense of inclusion and affirmation that you felt at the beginning?
AS: When I am asked this question, I always think how blessed I am where I’ve only ever been in affirming communities. And so it has always just been very integrated in me. This church taught me how to love and taught me to love with no boundaries. I have identified as queer for a while. I went to Candler School of Theology and I was … trying to create inclusive environments. I dated one of my classmates while I was there. I was very out. And then [I] came to work at the hospital where I wear a Pride pin every day. And then I work at the United Methodist campus ministry, [which] has become a haven for queer folks. It’s the only affirming campus ministry at the University of Florida, and so we see a lot of queer students who have escaped homophobic campus ministries. I’ve only ever been in inclusive communities that affirmed me, seen all of me, have really taken in my loved ones, and shown a real dedication to the queer community. And so it’s been such a culture shift, then, to be like, “Oh, this is not the entire United Methodist Church. This is not the entire Florida Conference.” Where my experience is not the norm unfortunately, where I wish more people felt so affirmed in their context from a young age to them entering into ministry. I can go back to these communities where I’m so clearly affirmed, where I know who I am and I am clearly called to this work. I am called to leadership in the church. And it is affirmed by these fruits in my ministry. It is really heartbreaking for that not to be recognized at an institutional level.
EW: There has never really been a time in any of this that I’ve stepped away from the church. Maybe because of my background or maybe because of figuring out how to find safety, I feel like part of this call, at least on the church side, has been to create [a] sense of spiritual safety for myself and others. When you have people that feel loved and respected and included, they’re going to offer their gifts and their talents and be a part of something that’s bigger than them. And even though most of my practical work does not happen in the church, it happens in community mental healthcare. I work with a lot of queer kids. And I’m out at work, so when you name something about yourself, at least where I am, they tend to just give you folks that identify in the same way. Sometimes it feels exhausting, to bear so many stories of the queer community. But for the most part, it’s such a blessing to be part of people seeking that sense of inclusion and safety across realms. And these kids especially are some of the most spiritually oriented thinkers, and they’re so attentive and aware of who does and does not want them. So to be an adult that gets to offer that is a real gift. I’m hurting a little bit, but I’ve never stepped away from the church because I feel called to be a part of it and equip it and to create a spiritual home for myself and for others. Using all the principles and tenets that we did learn at a really young age, we get to love people, we call them worthy when other places don’t. And continue that arc even to the places that the church doesn’t exactly deem worth yet. I think some of that double-dealing has always been part of my life in the church but has also given me the tools to figure out how to navigate it and still remain committed to something that I love a lot.
SK: When the vote happened, they made it very clear that it was not about my call. They didn’t actually really care about that. What they cared about was one thing that they knew about two people. They didn’t look at anything else. You know, there are probably very few churches that I couldn’t get ordained in just because of my own identity and those things. And that makes me sad that that’s a part of that reality.
DP: What I have seen is that it was because of two members of your class that you were declined. Is that you, Anna and Erin, or is that Kipp [Nelson, another LGBTQIA+ candidate]? Who was that?
EW: Initially, it was me and Kipp … but also Anna.
AS: Two weeks after the Board of Ordained Ministry made their decisions, there were complaints filed against Erin and Kipp for being “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” And because Erin and I are great friends, I knew this and was like “I’m not included?” And there has been such a privilege and heartache in that. If you did any research about me, you would know that I’m queer. It’s not hidden. I’m out everywhere. We live in a very heteronormative society where you are straight until proven otherwise. So there was this option to come out publicly, and doing so would release my voice and my control over the story. But there also was [talk like], “There’s another candidate not comfortable being out.” And I was like, “That’s not true. I’m comfortable being out!” But there was this double standard on what being out meant.
DP: I wondered about that. They said there were two, but that’s not what everybody’s writing.
AS: Yes, it’s not something we’re asked by the Board of Ordained Ministry. I think if you’re married, you’re asked about your sexual behaviors, but the rest of us candidates aren’t. And so we’re not asked about what celibacy in singleness means, who our partners are. We all sign off on a social media release, but it’s not a part of the process. So we were just never asked and there were assumptions. Erin is engaged to a woman, and Kipp has been pretty out on social media, but I don’t use social media. So I made the decision that if Erin and Kipp are not getting commissioned based off their sexual identities, then I’m not going to either. So I had prepared speeches to make on the floor essentially coming out publicly to the clergy session as a naming of “This is me too, and if you’re looking for the homosexuals, you can throw me in there too.”
I didn’t want to go through with it and come back to my communities and say, “I’m ordained because I wasn’t out fully myself.” I work with so many queer people. I couldn’t hold that dissonance in myself. And Erin has been one of my best friends for so long, and I can’t imagine getting commissioned without Erin. It wouldn’t feel right to me. Yes, there are some benefits of being in the system and being able to change it, but I made the decision on my own. I also was a buffer in a lot of situations because a lot of people didn’t know I was queer. I’m able to have certain conversations that maybe Kipp and Erin aren’t able to. But people also felt that they had more permission to say really homophobic things to me because there’s an assumption that I don’t share those identities.
DP: So Erin and Kipp are still under complaint, is that correct? Was it a formal complaint?
EW: There were two formal complaints written [and] formally given to the bishop for him to deal with.
DP: It is profoundly unusual to file charges against a layperson, especially for that. That’s really unique. That never ever happens.
TW: It [virtually] only happens in situations of child abuse.
EW: I mean “homosexuality” [air quotes] is put next to child abuse and child sexual abuse and so many things, so that actually doesn’t surprise me. But I feel a little bit famous that my first complaint was written by [now-president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association] Jay Therrell. I was like “How do you even know?”
SK: I sort of had to decide what I was going to do after the clergy session. Am I going to stay at annual conference? Am I not? I made the decision the next morning that I was going to go, which was kind of surprising to me, but I’m glad I stayed. I ended up having a brief conversation with someone who I now know voted no on all of us, who did not recognize me. Which further points to the fact that they knew one thing about two people. There was no discernment further than that. Which is incredibly frustrating.
DP: The clergy session is genuinely not equipped to make decisions about candidates. Ideally, it is, but it’s not. And I think it’s helpful to understand that they really didn’t know anything at all.
AS: And I’ll also add, I’m not sure how much of this is well-known, about how clergy session went. There was first a vote to keep us on a slate to vote on all of us together, and that vote passed, but it was like 56 percent. There was a considerable amount of people that wanted to vote on us individually because they trust the Board of Ordained Ministry [BoOM] for people who are straight or straight-passing. Prior to conference, there were conversations like, “But we have the Book of Discipline. And we have candidates who are knowingly breaking the Discipline.” And I think people do trust BoOM when it comes to fitness of call, and they were upset that BoOM did not ask these questions. And so they felt like it was their moral duty to prevent queer people from being commissioned. There were a lot of people who wanted to vote on us individually so that self-avowed practicing homosexuals could not be commissioned.
DP: Would you say it was not a surprise that you were all voted down?
AS: I have gone through every single possibility of what would happen. I never dreamed they would shoot us all down. I had no concept of it. I think most of the people who were organizing also had not thought of that possibility. I mean, you just struck down an entire cohort of leaders.
EW: And looking at other annual conferences, they’re like, “Oh, we ordained two people and commissioned one.” We were about to commission 16 people! That is tremendous in terms of annual conferences. I don’t think the move would have been made to keep us together if anyone thought that they would vote everybody down. There was anger towards the Board of Ordained Ministry for putting the conservatives in a position in which they could not maintain their covenant to the Book of Discipline. Which is so interesting, because I’m not sure we have a covenant to the Book of Discipline! We have a covenant to God and each other, and that’s listed in the Book of Discipline. There was a resolution up for vote on Saturday, and one of the motions against the resolution was that the conservative voters felt that they had to choose between grace and the Book of Discipline. And I was like “Are you listening to yourself?” In what world am I choosing the Book of Discipline over grace? It felt like such a foundational difference in the approach to what ordination is, what life in the church is, and maybe it’s part of why we did not expect the vote to go the way that it did.
“In what world am I choosing the Book of Discipline over grace? It felt like such a foundational difference in the approach to what ordination is, what life in the church is.”
AS: I actually thought you were going to mention a different part of one of the speeches where there was a member that was really well known in the WCA, and how I interpreted this speech [is] they were quoting the disaffiliation clauses within the Book of Discipline, and it really felt like they want to go for free and are upset that they are being held to the Book of Discipline, and if they could just leave, then we could do whatever we want. And so it felt like, “Oh, you’re not giving us what we want, so we’re going to strike down all of your clergy.” You don’t intend to stay! You don’t intend to help repair this church. You don’t care. And, like people have been saying, you just want to burn the house down before you go. That’s what it felt like as someone who is trying to build the church, who has been formed by it. It felt like you don’t care about the destruction you’ve caused. And it is more complicated than that I’m sure, but that’s how it felt in my heart—you don’t care about the future of this denomination and so you don’t feel any sense of responsibility for this pain that you’re causing.
SK: And I didn’t think about this until somebody mentioned it to me, but a super minority was able to vote us down. And we talk about supermajorities a lot, 2/3 is a supermajority, but this is a superminority was able to say no to commissioning an entire slate of candidates.
DP: So I don’t want to ask you to speak for the rest of your class by any means, but was there a broader collective sense outside the four of you that you were going into something together?
EW: I don’t think that was the case.
AS: We had a group debrief [with] as many candidates as possible—I think like 14 out of the 16 of us were able to join—just to kind of talk through logistics, but also to give us a space to express how we were feeling. There was overwhelming support from all of the candidates. There was a huge gratitude for the ability to stand in solidarity because I think in the aftermath we realized that this is so much bigger than just us. This is a denominational issue, and they got to know us and to hear our stories, and several people said that it was such a privilege to stand in solidarity, and none of us want to be commissioned if all of us can’t.
TW: When you think about how the church talks about young people, how does that intersect with what happened to you here?
SK: I know that not everyone who is in that session or in our particular clergy cohorts is in their first careers. But for me, this is it. I don’t have the skills or the training to do anything else. The church needs young clergy, and we’re really, as far as I can tell, not going anywhere. Everyone went back to their jobs and said, “We’re ready to stick this out until it happens for us.” Which is saying something. Because I’m not sure I was really willing to do that, especially the night after the clergy session. There’s obviously a lot of pain, and yet I still feel called to this even if it sucks sometimes. And that Thursday sucked. And yet I still feel called. And so there is this sort of dichotomy of “We really need young clergy and yet we’re going to vote down this entire class.” But even with that, it doesn’t seem like our class is going anywhere. At least not me.
DP: What have you been feeling about how you’ve become a national proxy war lightning rod, including what’s correct and what’s not? And what is your vision of where United Methodism is leading?
SK: People have coined the term “Florida 16,” which I have really mixed feelings about personally. This group of people knew one thing about two people and made that the entirety of their reason for voting no. They stripped every single person of their stories, of their individuality, of their ability to proclaim God’s work in their lives. And while I recognize that that kind of simplification of calling us the Florida 16 is well-meaning, and I recognize that there is a necessity around sort of simplifying things for movements, it still does feel like an extension of stripping that individuality, how we’re being boiled down to a state and a number.
DP: And you’ve got a future Global Methodist Church ordinand included in that 16. So there’s a whole lot more going on than a movement of 16 people. That’s not at all what’s happened.
SK: That’s the problem of the language, the facelessness of it.
AS: I am very grateful for the support that’s come mostly nationally. I have people from CalPac reaching out to me. I knew Bishop [Karen] Oliveto from Candler, and she sent me pictures from all over. CalPac made T-shirts of solidarity. So there’s just been so much support. Having other queer clergy from across the conference reach out to check in and lay people from all around Florida, just their gratitude, and people sharing their stories.
I’m filled with a lot of gratitude. I’m also at capacity. There’s a lot of people sharing their spiritual trauma with us, and it’s really heartbreaking to both hold my grief and the grief of so many generations of queer people fighting for a seat at the table, and I think my grief has been compounded by others. And the wheels don’t stop. I mean, it’s not like this decision happened and then I’ve gotten the ability to just hibernate for months. I had to come back to work; I had to face my students. And they have been so kind. So many of them text me apologizing. You talk about young people in the church, I mean the students I work with are just so incredible. And the first thing they were like, “We have to repair this.” They’re not leaving, they want justice too, and being surrounded by their desire to achieve justice has been really inspiring. They’re like “No, we’re still here, and we’re gonna fight for you and for everyone.” Because they want the vision of a more inclusive church.
“I believe that at the end of this there will be a bountiful table for all of us to sit at.”
It’s just been such a layered experience for me because as I was reflecting on this gratitude I have, there’s also been this pain of translation. I work in a hospital and a lot of my patients, a lot of the students, aren’t Christian. So having to explain over and over again what happened to people has been really exhausting for me. Having to relive it over and over again. The Methodist jargon is so difficult even as someone who has been in the process for seven years. And so having to explain this over and over again, and people just being like, “Why don’t you just find a new church? Why are you staying?” and [asking] what’s going to happen next and me saying, “It could be a year or two” and them being like, “Oh, this is a long-term thing.” This is a political system in which we operate. It’s a human system. And I trust that grace is within it, and that transformation can happen. And it’s exhausting to exist in sometimes. And I’m actively choosing to stay in it, to suffer the pain, because I believe that at the end of this there will be a bountiful table for all of us to sit at. Grief is the best way to describe this experience. There is this gratitude for all of the love in my life, there is this hope that there will be promises of happiness and beauty in the future, but there’s also this anger that this happened. There’s disappointment; there’s a deep sadness. So my body is pretty tired of holding them, and it’s going to keep going. There’s still a fight to fight. And so I am just prepared for what’s happening next and trying to care for myself as best as I can in the meantime.
SK: I really felt like conference leadership rallied around us in a pretty major way. So I was grateful for that. Sitting down with folks from the Board of Ordained Ministry, from the Office of Clergy Excellence, and them saying, “We express support for you. We’re going to work this out until it happens for you.” For the bishop to say out loud at the ceremony where we would have been commissioned, “I would have gladly commissioned every single one of you,” it felt powerful to me.
I went to the commissioning ceremony. It was a painful experience for me to be there, but I went and we were singing, “You have called me higher, you have called me deeper, but I will go where you will lead me, Lord.” So I was half-singing those words, hardly believing them, in the middle of this worship service, right before I would have been commissioned. And a pastor that I just met that morning—the pastor of the church that I grew up at, but I’d yet to meet, who is still my grandmother’s pastor—walked over from where she was sitting and draped her stole around my neck in the middle of that song. And I lost it, I was sobbing. It was a really powerful thing for me to have that. When I went to go and leave, to walk out of that space, and hand back this pastor her stole, she said, “No, it was feeling a little heavy around my neck. I want you to have it until you get your own.” And I think that sort of speaks to the amount of support that we have received in the midst of this. That was something that was powerful for me, and the first Sunday that I’m preaching, it’s not the liturgical color, but I’m wearing that stole. Because I needed that to still be assured that I’m called to this. And so I’ve just been grateful for the support that we’ve received.
Anna Swygert is a deacon candidate for commissioning in the Florida Conference. She is an associate director in adolescent palliative care at a Gainesville hospital and works with the Gator Wesley Foundation at the University of Florida.
Erin Wagner is a deacon candidate in the Florida Conference. She lives in Boston, where she is a social worker and outpatient therapist in mental health.
Shawn Klein is an elder candidate in the Florida Conference and is serving as a pastoral resident at a retirement community in North Carolina.