Not So Churchy: The Rev. Mieke Vandersall
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sometimes it’s not about leaving a community but changing it from within.
By Lorena O'Neil
Have you ever been to secret gay church camp? No? Well, you are missing out.
In July 2005, 19 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Presbyterians, most of whom were strangers to one another, came together in a highly confidential location. Two of them were ordained pastors, the rest hoping and praying for an ordination that was still a challenge to accomplish in a church struggling with how to accept LGBT pastors. The Rev. Mieke (pronounced “Meeka”) Vandersall, along with fellow minister Eily Marlow, was there to lead the retreat, mentoring the group while finding her own alternative form of congregation.
The conversation is much more nuanced than ‘Are we going to hell or not?’
– Mieke Vandersall
“Eily Marlow and I talked about how lonely it had been to go through this ordination process not knowing anybody like us,” says Vandersall. The duo decided to start a retreat mentoring future pastors who were LGBT. The first year, Vandersall investigated everyone to make sure they weren’t moles. Now, the group has grown to 150 and communicates over the phone, gathering in person once a year.
As America starts to evolve on LGBT rights and equality, religions across the country are individually grappling with their levels of acceptance, particularly in their leaders. Within the Presbyterian Church, Vandersall is known as one of the trailblazers for openly gay ministers — she was the second openly gay pastor to be ordained.
A documentary about Vandersall and the retreats, called Out of Order, will finish filming this July. Producer and director Amanda Bluglass and the rest of her team are trying to raise the final $30,000 they need to wrap production on the feature-length documentary.
“Mieke is a great sort of mama bear for aspiring candidates for ordination,” says Bluglass. “She’s a real leader; she’s everything that you don’t think a pastor should be. She’s a lesbian, she wears Ray-Bans, she plays the fiddle, she studies karate.”
Vandersall, 37, lives in New York City and recently became engaged. She’s the executive director of Presbyterian Welcome, an organization working for LGBT and questioning Presbyterians. She also founded an alternative Christian community within the organization, called Not So Churchy. On the third Monday night of each month, a group of teachers, musicians, artists and community leaders meet to worship. While 70 percent of the 25 to 40 people who attend are LGBT, she says that is not what they want the focus to be on.
“The conversation is much more nuanced than ‘Are we going to Hell or not?’” she says. “They don’t want [being gay] to be an issue. They don’t want the church to have to go through Homosexuality 101 every year.”
If that passion requires joy or persistence or energy or patience, then that’s what it requires.
– Bill Smutz
This year their theme is “peacemaking” and every month they focus on different women in the Bible. “A lot of our work is in reclaiming scripture,” she explains. “Scripture has been used against us for so long, they need a place to explore that with a more critical eye. A lot of it is through music.”
Her connection with the church began when she was in middle school. Vandersall grew up in St. Louis, and says she was not very popular at a school that was “very urban with a lot of gang activity.” She felt safe whenever she was in church, and when a new pastor, Bill Smutz, arrived while she was in high school, she relied on him as a mentor.
“It was very apparent to me in that initial conversation that this was a person that God had some plans for,” says Smutz. He coached her to get involved in the church on both a local and national level, and says she eagerly followed suit. “She doesn’t do anything halfway, she jumps into it wholeheartedly and completely and passionately,” he says. ”And if that passion requires anger, it requires anger. If that passion requires joy or persistence or energy or patience, then that’s what it requires.”
That passion and persistence stayed with Vandersall as she fought to stay involved in a denomination that put up strict barriers for LGBT people to become pastors in 1997, just as she came out of the closet in college. Congregations that said they would ordain LGBT leaders were brought up on charges. Vandersall decided to try to go for it anyway, starting her three-year seminary school in New York without knowing if she’d be ordained when she finished. Halfway through schooling she came out to the regional committee, who met with Vandersall and the pastor from the “session” or ruling body of her church, accompanied her.
The Presbyterian Church didn’t drop its ban on gay clergy nationally until 2011, and even though openly gay clergy are allowed to be ordained, it still remains a contentious issue.
“She was met with a bit of … ’hostility’ might be too strong, but certainly with a lot of questions,” recalls her former pastor Jon Walton. “Given a challenge, Mieke rises to the occasion. She is articulate, bright, winsome, charming — but has a backbone of steel.” While the committee expressed doubts about continuing in the footsteps of preparing her for ordination, Walton pointed out that it wasn’t their job to decide whether she would become a pastor, it was just their job to make sure she was ready, if the time came for it to be accepted.
In July 2004, Vandersall was finally ordained in New York City. The Presbyterian Church didn’t drop its ban on gay clergy nationally until 2011, and even though openly gay clergy are allowed to be ordained, it still remains a contentious issue. Vandersall says she once had a contract to become a traditional pastor revoked, and she suspects part of the reason was that she’s gay. ”They ended up hiring a straight white guy from Jersey with kids. Read between the lines and figure it out,” she says.
Currently, Vandersall seems excited and satisfied with her alternative Christian communities. When asked about what she’d like to improve on in regards to her leadership style, she says she’d like to “lead with less anxiety.”
”I do get pretty bossy — that really comes out of anxiety, “ she says in an introspective way. Then with a quick laugh: “The flip side is that I get shit done.”