After serving as children’s choir director at a United Methodist church for more than three years, Ryan Mould said he was fired and told the denomination does not allow homosexuals to be “spiritual leaders.”
Mould, 29, said the pastor and staff parish relations committee of Trinity United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, North Carolina, cited The United Methodist Book of Discipline to justify his firing.
However, his supporters said that The United Methodist Church’s lawbook does not state gay people cannot hold leadership roles such as choir directors. The church does not allow self-avowed practicing homosexuals to become ordained clergy and does not allow churches to conduct same-sex weddings.
Mould said he never made it a secret that he was gay.
The pastor of Trinity, the Rev. Steve Smith, said he couldn’t discuss the firing.
“Because this is a confidential personnel matter, I am unable to offer comments or answer questions at this time,” Smith said in response to a request for an interview from United Methodist News Service. The chair of the church’s staff parish relations committee did not respond to e-mail from the news service.
The North Carolina Conference issued a statement that it was aware of the action but that personnel decisions regarding a lay employee are made entirely by the local church.
“Conference leaders continue to be in conversation with the parties, offering conflict transformation resources in the continued work toward healing, faithfulness and justice,” the statement said.
The Rev. Linda Taylor, district superintendent for Sound District, said she had no comment on a local church personnel matter.
The firing has caused some to leave the church, but Mould continues to attend every week even though he said he feels “blindsided” and hurt by the action.
The issue of his sexual orientation came up when he scheduled a meeting in October with Smith to discuss extending his role as children’s choir director to outreach by bringing in children from the community for choir during the week. Currently, the children’s choir meets during the Sunday school hour, he said.
Mould said Smith, who was not the pastor when Mould started attending Trinity, asked him about his history at the church and his baptism.
“I explained I was first welcomed to the church to sing in the choir and that led to me being asked to be the children’s music director,” he said, adding he was then baptized and became a member. Mould, who grew up in West Virginia and attended a United Methodist church there, has a degree in music from West Virginia University. He taught public school chorus for seven years and currently runs an after-school program at a local elementary school.
“I felt safe, welcome and loved at Trinity,” he said.
Mould told Smith that he struggled in his teen years and during college because gay people face barriers in the church.
“Being gay is not the defining quality of my life, but that’s who I am,” Mould told United Methodist News Service.
A few days after the meeting, Mould said the pastor called.
“He told me he had been thinking and praying about what I told him about my sexuality and he felt he needed to bring that information to the church’s staff parish relations committee.”
It was during the meeting with the committee that Mould said Smith told him the denomination’s lawbook does not allow gay people be in leadership roles.
Mould said the pastor asked if he was sexually active, if he was celibate, if he was seeking a partner of the same sex. Mould said he was told that not vowing to be celibate and seeking a relationship with a person of the same sex meant he was incompatible with Christian teaching. He said he was fired after the committee met.
At an open listening session attended by about 250 people at the church, Mould said it was clear there was division.
“There were people who admonished me, condemned me, who implied I was a pedophile and I would cause the church great harm if I stayed,” Mould said. “I was told I was an unrepentant sinner.”
Since then, some members of the congregation have resigned from committees, quit teaching Sunday school or stopped taking leadership roles in the church, he said. Some have left the church.
Angie Crandall, a member of Trinity, resigned from her committee. She and her family have been members of Trinity for about five years and attended for about five years before becoming members.
“I think it is important to say we didn’t know Ryan personally but it is not about Ryan. For us, it is about kindness, tolerance, acceptance and not judging other people’s sins. Especially when the Book of Discipline clearly states we are to be in ministry with and for all people.”
Crandall said she resigned from the committee because she recognizes she is also an unrepenting sinner at times.
“My sins are probably no worse than Ryan’s if his is a sin at all,” she said.
Crandall said after repeated emails, she and her husband did meet with Smith but she doesn’t feel she got any clarity.
Elizabeth Fairbanks, whose family left Trinity after Mould’s firing, said she sent an email to Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, episcopal leader of North Carolina and Taylor, stating she found Smith’s “behavior as a Christian leader disturbing.”
Kathy Flanagan, a member of Trinity and a certified deacon candidate, said, “Trinity has been shaken to its core.”
Quoting the Book of Discipline, paragraph 216, Flanagan said the church has an obligation “to provide the nurture that makes possible a comprehensive and lifelong process of growing in grace” after baptism.
“I would challenge Reverend Smith to present how Ryan has been nurtured after his abrupt firing and the public degradation he has been made to endure,” she said.
The Book of Discipline, paragraph 219, charges a United Methodist Church member to be “bound in sacred covenant to shoulder the burdens, share the risks, and celebrate the joys of fellow members,” she continued.
Terri Buck, who has been a member of Trinity for seven years, said she trusts the church leadership.
“I have found this church to be deeply compassionate and caring, not only toward its members and regular attenders, but our community and the unchurched as well. Everyone is welcome here. I believe the Staff Parish Relations Committee is guided by their love for God and our congregation, and can be trusted to make the best decisions for our church,” he said.
United Methodist News Service attempted to reach other church members who agreed with the church’s actions but got no other responses.
The Rev. William Lawrence, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology and is a former president of the church’s highest court, Judicial Council, said, “There is no law of the church of which I am aware that would prohibit homosexual lay persons from holding employed or volunteer positions in a local church.”
The Rev. Charles Kyker, president of the Confessing Movement, an unofficial evangelical United Methodist organization, said, “We uphold the treasure we already have in the Book of Discipline.”
If a pastor and staff parish relations committee believe as the Book of Discipline states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, “then it is up to that local staff parish relations committee as to whether they believe that (hiring) is in keeping with the Book of Discipline,” he said. Kyker is also pastor of Christ Church, Hickory, North Carolina.
However, Kyker emphasized the Book of Discipline says United Methodists will be in ministry with all persons “no matter their sexuality, no matter their color, origin or ethnicity.”
When contacted for a comment, the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, said such matters “should be handled in a Christ-like manner pastorally by the leadership of local churches and in accordance with the teachings of The United Methodist Church as contained in the Book of Discipline.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is an unofficial United Methodist group advocating for the denomination to keep its current language in the Book of Discipline stating homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and that marriage is only between one man and one woman.
Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group advocating for LGBTQ full inclusion in the church, is sending a letter to Bishop Ward and the conference cabinet that has over 2,000 signatures. The letter asks that leadership acknowledge that Mould’s firing is neither mandated nor supported by the Book of Discipline.
“This is yet another painful example of why changing our denominational policies remains an urgent issue. Until all discriminatory policies are eradicated, they run the risk of being manipulated and exaggerated, broadening their potential for harm as evidenced in this painful situation,” said Jan Lawrence, director of Reconciling Ministries Network.
Kyker said every United Methodist pastor and every United Methodist church will have to face this issue.
“The reality is, when someone comes knocking at the door and says, ‘Can we have a same-sex union at your church?’ no one gets a pass on that. You have to lovingly sit down and counsel them and say currently the Book of Discipline says I can’t do that,” Kyker said.
Mould said his dismissal is about something larger that exposes people to hurt. He was touched by the support and outpouring of empathy for him and worried about other people who might not have received the same support.
“Ever since I was told I could not be a leader, I am struggling to fulfill my vow of baptism. I can’t serve the church, which is what I have been called to do,” he said.
Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at 615-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.