John Elford

Mary Ann Kaiser has been in the ordination process for seven years. Kaiser was told this month she could not be a deacon because she is a lesbian.

Photo Credit: Emily Ng | Daily Texan Staff

After about seven years of enrollment in the process to become an ordained minister, Mary Ann Kaiser of the University United Methodist Church was suddenly removed from candidacy because of her sexual orientation. 

“I was very surprised when I found out that the board met and decided to remove me from the ordination process, even though they had not yet interviewed me or otherwise met me, solely on the basis of my identity as a lesbian,” said Kaiser, a youth director and justice associate at the church on UT’s campus.

The Board of Ordained Ministry decided at the Southwest Texas Annual Conference earlier in June to remove Kaiser from the ordination process. Kaiser had previously been voted and recommended for ordination in full acknowledgement that she is gay. The decision to remove Kaiser from the ordination process wasn’t made locally, but instead by church leaders who oversee multiple churches in Texas.

United Methodist Church‘s policy that does not allow openly gay clergy to be ordained was met with opposition from Austin churches. In addition, the board has been accused of mishandling Kaiser’s process of removal from ordination. The final decision could have a lasting impact on the church’s relations with the LGBT community and it could cause greater divisions among the liberal and conservative elements within the church.

Rev. John Elford, the pastor at University United Methodist Church, spoke on behalf of Kaiser and argued that Kaiser should be ordained. He said the board failed to follow proper procedures that are outlined by United Methodist Church’s own rulebook, the Book of Discipline. Elford said the Book of Discipline requires the board to interview all candidates before denying the ordination process.

“On what grounds can [Kaiser] be removed from candidacy if she has not been interviewed?” Elford asked.

Kaiser was voted and recommended for ordination by the District Committee on Ordained Ministry in April 2013. This committee, among other responsibilities, recommends and votes for candidates to be ordinated. Her meeting and interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry was scheduled for January 2014, although she was removed in early June.

Kaiser said she has been deeply disappointed by the board’s decision and their handling of it. 

“I was shocked at the Board’s decision to act preemptively,” Kaiser said. “I didn’t expect anything at all to happen with my ordination process until my next scheduled interview.”

Bishop James Dorff, the area provost of the North Texas Annual Conference, has 30 days to investigate the matter and revise his previous decision to remove Kaiser. The denomination’s judicial council will automatically review the decision.  

“My decision will be based on my understanding of the Book of Discipline, which I have pledged to uphold,” Dorff said in a statement. 

After the 30 period, Dorff’s ruling will be posted on UMC’s Annual Conference website, www.umcswtx.org.

“The ordination of gay clergy members is a really hot topic that has fractured the church,” said Eileen Flynn DeLaO, a former journalism professor who taught religious reporting at UT and a former religion reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. 

The UMC Book of Discipline has a few lines declaring that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” cannot be ordained.

“These are the declarations that are guiding the board’s decision to remove Kaiser,” DeLaO said.

Back in April, the Reconciling Ministries Network announced that Kaiser would be married to her lesbian partner, Annanda Barclay, in August at the network’s convocation. The network, a supporter of Kaiser’s ordination, is a pro-LGBT Methodist organization that mobilizes United Methodists to create full inclusion of all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“A woman who privately identifies as a lesbian but does not pursue a same-sex relationship would likely be eligible for ordination, according to church policy,” DeLaO said. 

Because of her public relationship, Kaiser is not subject to the exception anymore, hence the removal from the ordination process. 

According to DeLaO, the ordination of gay clergy has divided other Christian dominations as well, and she believes it is highly likely that it would have the effect of causing great disruption within the United Methodist Church. 

“While many liberal Methodists are working to overturn the ban on gay clergy, other Methodists would feel betrayed because they believe the Bible is clear in its teaching on homosexuality,” DeLaO said. “And many conservative Methodists might leave the church and form a new denomination.”  

Supporters of gay ordination have a different biblical interpretation, as they believe that if a person feels called by God to the ministry then that call should be answered, DeLaO said.

“I think the tide is turning in favor of openly gay clergy,” DeLaO said.

Kaiser also believes the general sense of acceptance for the LGBT community in the church has shifted greatly over the years.

“There is still a long way to go but the fact that conversations are happening and that so many churches are standing in opposition to the United Methodist Church laws hostile to the LGBT community reveals how much things have changed and must continue to do so” Kaiser said. 

Kaiser is not the only one who is happy about this issue being discussed publically and raising awareness. She said she has received emails and Facebook messages from LGBT members in the United Methodist Church from all over the country who have been rejected from the ordination process because of their sexual orientation.

The board’s decision also resulted in a call for action by Kaiser’s supporters. According to the Reconciling Ministries Network’s website, Southwest Texas Annual Conference’s meeting was preceded by a Twitter blast with more than 240 participants defending Kaiser. This was in addition to emails and letters written to Dorff. 

Kaiser and the LGBT community are currently awaiting Dorff’s decision.

“It is hard to imagine, if this decision is upheld by the bishop and the judicial council and made final, the vocation I have spent years, money, school and passion working toward being thwarted,” Kaiser said. “I can still work in churches as someone who is not ordained (as I do now) but it is limiting — both vocationally and theologically.”

Extreme heat conditions have forced Austin’s homeless population to seek refuge in air-conditioned settings across the city, including areas on and around campus.

While UT students and faculty can avoid high temperatures in their air-conditioned offices and classrooms, homeless people do not have the same resources to keep themselves cool during this record heat wave.

Mitchell Gibbs, director of development and communications at Front Steps, a local nonprofit providing resources to the homeless, said finding shade and water sources is a high priority for those without a place to live. He said in addition to homeless shelters, public buildings such as hospitals and libraries are frequented by the homeless because they often provide both.

Perry-Casteñeda Library spokesman Travis Willmann said the library is open to nonstudents, as well as UT students. Willmann said he has noticed an increase in library visitors this summer and feels it could be related to the heat.

“We’re open to the public, so we get people from the local Austin community who may come in off the streets and use our place to relax,” Willmann said. “Anybody can walk into any building on campus, and I think occasionally you have incidents, but there’s nothing of note on a regular basis.”

Kinesiology senior Kassandra Knapp said she visits the PCL approximately once a week and has noticed others at the library who she believed were not students and might be homeless. She said she identified them by tattered clothes and a general “out-of-place” appearance.

Knapp said she never felt frightened by homeless visitors in the library, but feels the issue could possibly become a breach in security someday.

PCL spokesman Travis Willmann said library administration is not aware of any serious incidents occurring because of nonstudent visitors.

John Elford, senior pastor at University United Methodist Church, said the church’s Open Door Ministry aims to provide support to the homeless community living around campus. Elford said the church formerly allowed a small group to sleep in their parking lot, but no longer allows people to rest overnight on their property because the group became larger and potentially destructive.

“I know there’s several volunteers who know these folks really well,” Elford said. “When it gets hot, everybody’s a little touchy. I’ve noticed people have more personal issues in this weather.”

Elford said there may be an increase in attendance at Open Doors worship services because they are held indoors and provide escape from the heat. The ministry currently provides transportation, clothing and meals to displaced workers and the homeless population, he said.

Although University United Methodist no longer provides overnight accommodations, Gibbs said the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless managed by Front Steps provides day and overnight sleeping arrangements. Gibbs said while surviving the heat is a concern for those who live mostly outside, finding meals is not difficult because of the many ministries like Open Doors that reach out to the homeless. He said the facility has also provided approximately 800 bottles of water per day to people in need, and staff members are trained to identify heat-related medical concerns and make necessary hospital arrangements.

“In years past we haven’t had the same ongoing temperatures, but we saw more folks coming in suffering from heat-related illness,” Gibbs said. “This year we’ve only had a couple folks that look like they need medical attention, and I’m sure that’s because we’ve been able to provide water.”

This winter, the University United Methodist Church at 24th and Guadalupe streets may join a growing list of Methodist churches across the country that are officially open to GLBT Christians. The church’s leadership will vote in December or January on whether to join the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church, a group of 300 churches that explicitly accept gay congregants. It’s a move that has been a long time coming, said senior pastor John Elford. The official law of the United Methodist Church says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings. “One of the struggles the early church had was whether gentiles had to be included, because Jews weren’t supposed to spend time with gentiles,” Elford said. “The early church was stretched at that point just like we are stretching now, but our stretch is how to include women, people of other ethnicities and people of diverse sexual identities.” Only two of the 300 Methodist Churches in the Southwest Texas Conference are members of the Reconciling Ministries Network, one in San Antonio and Trinity United Methodist Church in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin. Trinity joined the network in 1992 under the leadership of Pastor Sid Hall, who has worked to include GLBT Christians into the Methodist Church since the early 1980s. Hall said in the early years he received threats of damnation from anonymous Methodists and came into conflict with his overseeing bishop, but now the Reconciling Ministry is simply a part of Trinity’s culture. University United is well-suited to join the network, especially under Elford’s leadership, he said. He added that the more churches that join the network, the more pressure there will be on the larger Methodist Church to change its laws to accept homosexuals. “Having a church-wide polity that says you must not discriminate based on sexual orientation, that time is coming,” said Hall, who is still pastor at Trinity. University United’s bulletin each week includes a statement of acceptance to all sexual identities. Joining the network will help the church and its members to fully embrace an environment of inclusion, Elford said. University United’s young adult ministries pastor Bill Frisbie said the church’s campus ministry has always welcomed GLBT students. “We’ve had GLBT people in our group, and it doesn’t change what we do,” said chemical engineering senior Linda Conway, the church’s co-chair of campus ministry. “The problem is that young GLBT people in college see our church and may assume that it’s just another church like back home. By signing onto [the network], it’s showing we are actively open.” For Christian students who identify as GLBT, there are several churches around campus whose ministries say they actively include GLBT individuals, including the Lutheran Campus Ministry on San Antonio Street. The University Catholic Center has a student group called Prism that works to bring GLBT Catholic students, allies and those with questions together for discussion. Although it is currently inactive, group leaders said they are hoping to reenergize it in the spring.