Jennifer Crowder Noricks
I said I would serve the Church of the Nazarene as long as she would have me. And I did.
To a great extent, I am who I am because of the Church of the Nazarene. I grew up there. I come from a family of church musicians. We were the “Sunday Morning, Sunday Night, Wednesday Night” variety. My family has actively served in our local church from the time I can remember. I attended Caravan and participated in Bible quizzing. I was saved at church camp when I was seven years old, sanctified while praying in my bedroom at age 19. I’m a graduate of Olivet Nazarene University.
I’ve had some questions, though. My gay uncle was spurned by his Nazarene church as a young adult in the 1960s. He spent much of his life being angry, rejecting God and remaining distant from our family. When I was a teenager, he had a spiritual transformation. He returned to God and repaired relations with our family. I remember him walking around the house listening to gospel music on his Walkman (Hey, it was the 1980s!) I would hear him singing praises to Jesus while he folded his laundry or rocked on the porch swing. The scars of emotional and spiritual abuse were still apparent, but there was also a joy that was new. One thing that didn’t change: He never stopped being gay. He was in a relationship with a man until the day he died at age 77.
It didn’t make sense. The things I was being taught about homosexuality at church didn’t jibe with what I saw in my uncle. What I was told about scripture didn’t line up with my experience. So I set out to learn, investigate, watch, pray about, listen to and study everything I could about the LGBTQ+ community. I became friends with LGBTQ+ people. I listened to their stories. I wept with them over rejection from family, alienation from their church, and prejudice from their community.
During my long quest, two significant readings came to my attention:
The first was a book by Rev. Dr. Jack Rogers called Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. In the preface, Rogers, a retired Presbyterian minister and academic, reveals his long-held opposition to the ordination of gays and lesbians. Then, during his compulsory participation in a denominational task force, he began deeply researching the origins of the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. What he found (bias in Church history and incorrectly interpreted biblical passages, to name a few) caused him to change his position. The information in Rogers’s book was quite convincing, but I was still unsure.
The second came to me while I participated in a Bible study on the book of Acts. Specifically, Acts chapters 10 and 11 went to work on me. It’s the story of Peter’s vision, Cornelius’s conversion and baptism, and the early Church’s acceptance of Gentiles into the church. “Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15, 11:9) convicted my heart. I knew my uncle had been made clean. I had since met other gay Christians whose lives also bore good fruit. Clearly, God had made them clean.
I read the scriptures on sexuality over and over again. I asked God to help me understand whatever he wanted me to know about those verses. I read more books and commentaries. I listened to podcasts. I prayed more. My quest lasted for two decades. I slowly came to the conclusion that the Church of the Nazarene had not done its due diligence before developing its stance on same-sex relationships.
I continued, however, to serve the denomination as a layperson. Throughout my adult life, I had a vague sense that God was calling me to do something. Drawn to the aspects of Christian service and justice, I earned a master’s degree in Social Work. My husband, our two small children, and I left our established Nazarene church in 2010 to help plant a Nazarene church in our neighborhood. I served there as worship leader and a children’s ministry leader.
In 2018, at the age of 45, I knew without a doubt that God was calling me to be a shepherd, minister, and advocate for LGBTQ+ people and their families. I attended a Nazarene conference on organic ministry which inspired me to start a local chapter of PFLAG (a support and advocacy group for LGBTQ+ individuals and their families.) It was a way to connect with the community I was called to serve. I received my local minister’s license, enrolled in the Course of Study, and wrote a detailed outline that I felt captured what God was calling me to do. The top of my outline read:
Long-Term Goal: Become an expert resource for the Church of the Nazarene on LGBTQ+ care and inclusion
As my classmates became aware of my ministry, I began getting confidential phone calls and emails. Youth pastors wanted to know how to love and support their LGBTQ+ teens. Pastors’ kids confided in me. One mom said, “Thank you for talking to my daughter. You’re the first person to give her any hope.” Several families at my church came to PFLAG meetings. One dad said, “You really helped me be able to show love to my transgender son.
One member of the Board of Ministry encouraged me to lean into my calling, saying, “Your ministry is so badly needed.” Another member said that my stories had encouraged her to talk more openly with people in her community who were dealing with LGBTQ+ family members.
I eventually became a bi-vocational district licensed minister, simultaneously serving my church as Worship Pastor while working as a licensed mental health therapist with LGBTQ+ clientele. I finally recognized and acknowledged my own bisexuality, which changed nothing on paper (I’m still happily, monogamously married to my husband of 22 years) but increased my efficacy in ministry. I adopted a statement from paragraph 33 of the Nazarene Manual as the vision & mission statement for my ministry: “We recognize the shared responsibility of the body of Christ to be a welcoming, forgiving, and loving community where hospitality, encouragement, transformation and accountability are available to all.” I strove to help establish such community.
Throughout that time, I followed the church’s rules. I yielded to the authority of the denomination while hoping and praying that the human sexuality portion in the Manual’s Covenant of Christian Conduct (CoCC) would be reevaluated (which typically happens with all passages in the CoCC. That’s how the paragraph forbidding movie attendance was removed and the paragraph on dancing was modified.) I grieved the fact that the church used one approach toward scripture to justify ordaining women, but a different approach to justify the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. I prayed that hearts would be broken for all the generations of LGBTQ+ people who had been forgotten by the church, from my Baby Boomer uncle all the way to the youthful Gen Zers of today.
I was fiercely protective of my lead pastor and the work she was doing in our local church. When she started getting phone calls about me, I offered to leave, lest her career or our congregation be harmed. Apparently, I was making some Nazarenes nervous. People on the district messaged the District Superintendent about my work. A larger church on our district was going to pay for our small church’s roof repairs. When they learned that PFLAG met in our building, they reneged. (It’s worth noting that our congregation, various scouting groups, neighborhood athletic groups, the community Easter egg hunt, and an active food pantry ministry also met and operated under that roof. But contempt for the sad, frightened, and lonely LGBTQ+ families caused the larger church to withhold their charitable contribution.)
One of my mentors cautioned me to “be wise as a serpent, gentle as a dove.” I certainly tried. I tried not to be too outspoken, lest I upset more Nazarenes and cause trouble for my pastor. I tried to faithfully, authentically serve the people to whom I’d been called. I was trying to do ministry with one hand tied behind my back and it became exhausting.
I met with my newly elected D.S., wanting to know whether I had his support. I did not. He and his assistant didn’t want to hear the stories of lives that God had touched through this ministry. Instead, they wanted reassurance that I was in complete agreement with the denomination’s stance on sexuality, and they encouraged me to cut ties with PFLAG. I briefly thought about resigning my board position with PFLAG, but God reminded me that my involvement there was part of my organic ministry. It was time to choose: Let go of the institution so I could freely love people, or serve an institution that couldn’t even see it was spiritually abusing people.
I prayed for discernment. I had said I would serve the Church of the Nazarene as long as she would have me. I would have continued walking through those minefields because I love the denomination that raised me. But they didn’t seem to want my service. They weren’t making a place for me to live out my calling. I was reminded of this statement by Pete Enns:
“…if after a time you are sensing that you do not belong, that you are a problem to be corrected rather than a valued member of the community, maybe God is calling you elsewhere…One thing is certain: if you stay where you are without any change at all, the pressure to either conform or keep quiet will work in you like a slow-acting poison.” (emphasis mine)
I realized that, while I wanted to help the church live up to her calling and become the best version of herself, I was viewed as A Problem. The Company Men who were charged with keeping everything in order weren’t interested in my expertise, my experience, my ideas, or the work I was called to do.
So I left. In my resignation letter, I told the D.S. I hoped he would still consider me a resource for LGBTQ+ families in the church. Then I walked out of my Nazarene church for the last time—the church I had helped to plant eleven years earlier—stopping at the door to symbolically kick the dust off my shoes.
I went to a United Methodist Church and spent several months ugly crying in my pew. God eventually gave me the green light to open dialog with the UMC about pursuing ordination there. Door after door began to open. Various people in the congregation have reached out to me to talk about their LGBTQ+ family members. My new pastor has called me twice this past week, looking to consult on several micro and macro issues concerning LGBTQ+ people in our community.
I asked my husband, “Why do you think he keeps calling me? Do you think he’s testing my fitness for ministry?”
My husband replied, “No, I think he trusts you and values your input.”
It may take me a while to get used to that.
The ministry handcuffs are off. The experience, education, gifts and calling God entrusted to me are being put to use. I am beyond grateful.
But the Church of the Nazarene has utterly failed to fulfill the Great Commission for an entire people group. There is a better way. God has called and prepared some of us to help. Will the church hear the cries of our hearts? Will she humble herself to follow the leading of the Spirit? If she is to survive, she must.
“I would have given [the Church] my head, my hand, my heart. She would not have them. She did not know what to do with them…She gave me [no] work to do for her…” —Florence Nightingale
Jennifer Crowder Noricks, MSW, LMSW is a mental health therapist. She is a candidate in the MAPT (Master of Arts in Practical Theology) degree program at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and aspires to ordination as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. She lives in Livonia, MI with her husband and two teenage children.