Opening statement to the Covenant Ministerium

by Micah Witham

This statement was given by Covenant pastor, Micah Witham, at the meeting of the Ministerium of Covenant clergy during the denominational annual meeting in Kansas City, Missouri in June 2022. Under review at that meeting was the removal of the pastor’s credentials, the background for which is given below. The subsequent vote failed to reach the necessary two thirds majority. This statement is reprinted with permission as a resource for Pietisten’s readers.

My name is Micah Witham. I’m the founding pastor of Awaken Community in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thank you for taking the time to listen and for your future discernment as my brothers and sisters in Christ. I regret that I cannot be with you in person. My wife Laura and I were accepted to a cohort experience with 20 folks from the US and 20 folks from the UK to study peacemaking and reconciliation. I have always told Laura that I wouldn’t sacrifice our marriage or our family on the altar of ministry and for me to be with you and for her to be here in Ireland without me, would have been just that. So thank you for grace and hopefully not holding it against me that I could not be with you in person.

I have thought a lot about what to say to you today. In fact, I’ve had dreams about it or maybe even nightmares. The obvious answer to the question is to “contest the recommendation.” To defend myself and tell you why I believe I’m right and the Board is wrong. But I actually don’t want to do that. In part because I broke the rule. I married a gay couple. I reported myself and did it in the open, never denying it…but I did break the rule.

And then I didn’t adhere to the Board’s suspension terms which banned me from all ministry including Awaken and from stepping foot on our church property. Suspension terms that I and my church believed and still believe are excessive and disproportionate to the offense, and are not generative or restorative for the church. So I’m not going to defend myself and try to convince you that I’m right and the Board is wrong. Rather, I come to you humbly as a brother in Christ and a partner in the work of the Gospel. Instead I want to talk about Dick Lucco and Julian of Norwich, and then I want to close by inviting us to be honest with ourselves and ask an important question.

In 2017, after saying no to a request to marry a gay couple in our church, I agreed to pray for them on their wedding day. I made a pastoral decision rooted in my context and my relationship. I tried to honor my ordination vows and do good pastoral ministry within the guidelines. For this, I was suspended for five weeks from all ministry, and banned from the property of my church. I served this suspension, met with the Board and was reinstated to ministry within the ECC.

The person who delivered this suspension on behalf of the Covenant was Dick Lucco. Over the course of those few weeks, we had multiple conversations. While I and our church did not agree with the course of action nor the severity of discipline, Dick was honest, prompt in his responses, and available to us as a church. Part of that process was to host a congregational meeting at Awaken where they would first learn of my indiscretion and that I was suspended for five weeks.

Over 250 people attended that meeting that night including my 13-year-old queer child who sat in the front row and watched the whole thing. The people of Awaken were shocked, saddened, and upset to learn that their pastor had been suspended for praying in the wrong location. And they let Dick Lucco have it!

They asked questions, voiced frustration, their anger and sadness. Dick sat next to me on a stool for over two hours and answered every question. He would later tell me that in all his years of service to the Covenant, his visit to Awaken was one of his fondest memories as he watched a church stand up for their pastor. In the end, when I was restored to ministry, Dick and I continued our friendship as we would meet at Midwinter for meals and to share a drink with each other.

After I was suspended in August of this past year for marrying Jon and Bobby, I received a text from Dick asking if we could talk. Our conversation was one I will never forget. He asked for my forgiveness for the part that he played in my suspension. He said what happened to me and the way it happened was wrong. He said that he could have done things that he didn’t do and that he could have done more in the places where he did advocate for me. He went on to say, “Micah for what it’s worth, I think we’ve got this one wrong as the Covenant. Not only in how we’re handling pastors who dissent on this issue, but the position itself.” He said, “I’ve been on my own journey over the past few years and while I was in the position of Executive Minister, I had to say and do things that I wasn’t sure I agreed with because I served in a role that required me to do that. But I’ve changed my mind.”

Dick asked for my forgiveness that day, and he also said, “Micah if you’re open to it, I’d like you to know that if you asked me to be your advocate as you meet with the Board my answer would be yes. You’re one of the most thoughtful and respectable pastors in the Covenant and if I can do anything to stand with you, I want to do that.”

In November, January, and for the last time in March, Dick Lucco, the guy who suspended me in 2017, sat next to me as my advocate before the Board.

I want to slow down here and allow this to sink in. Dick Lucco was a giant among us. He served the Covenant faithfully for over 40 years. He loved Jesus and scripture and was still learning and growing all the way to the very end of his life. I’m not asking anyone to change their mind today…that’s not why I’m telling you this. I’m telling you this because one of our heroes and most faithful Covenant servants, in the last moments of his life, said how we’re handling this issue and how we’re handling dissent is not right. It’s not who we are, it’s not the Covenant. As he left office in 2018, he conveyed this message to the incoming leadership and said, “we have got to do the hard work together, and to find another way.” I believe Dick was right.

Julian of Norwich was an “anchoress” or what we might call a hermit who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries in England. While Julian lived a monastic life as a hermit, she did it from a cell or what was called her “anchor-hold.” Her cell shared the outside wall of the church. It was not in the church and it was not detached from the church, but on the outside edge of the inside of the church. It was from this place that Julian served the church and the world. In her cell there were three windows. One window opened to the sanctuary where she could experience worship, one window opened to a garden where her daily needs were met, and one window opened to the streets of Norwich where she served the poor, and loved those she was called to.

I’d like to speak about the window that opened to the church and the window that opened to the street as a metaphor for how and why I find myself here today.

In the anchor-hold from which I live my life, one of the windows opens to the church of Jesus Christ and in particular to the Covenant denomination. Since graduating from college, I have had no job outside of the church of Jesus. I’ve given my vocational life to the church of Jesus. When I found the Covenant in 2001 as a senior-high youth pastor, I had no idea what I was stumbling into. It wasn’t until I planted Awaken and went through Covenant Orientation that I realized I had stumbled into a story and a family that I could call home if they would have me. I learned how to study the Bible in the Covenant from people like Scot McKnight and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom. I learned how to be a pastor from people like Dick Lucco, Scott Austin, Renee Franzen, and Mike Brown. I’m learning about race, what it means to be white, about justice and what it means to disciple white evangelical Christians from Dominique Gilliard, David Swanson, and Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil. As I learned the stories, history, theology, and values that made, and make, the Covenant what it is, my affection, appreciation, and commitment grew, deeper and deeper.

When I was ordained to Word and Sacrament in 2015, I very much understood that moment as a spiritual adoption. As a young man who didn’t have a great relationship with my dad or a spiritual heritage and story given to me, I was beyond grateful to have hands laid on my head and to be welcomed into this Ministerium. People have asked me why I don’t just leave since I can’t live within this rule.

Because I’m a Covenant Pastor. Because my understanding of our history and theology is such that I believe we can be together even in our differences on this matter. Because you are my family and family doesn’t walk out on each other. I am a Covenant pastor until you all tell me that I’m not. One of the windows of my anchor-hold opens to the Covenant expression of Jesus’s church. This is my home.

The other window of my anchor-hold opens to the world and the people that I serve daily at Awaken and in my community. My job is to love them, offer Jesus to them, help them hear the voice of God in their lives and to encourage them to live lives that bear the fruit of God’s spirit. The two men that I married this past fall love Jesus and I have the distinct honor of being called pastor by them. They serve our church faithfully and love our children in the 2nd and 3rd grade room. The fruit of the Spirit is evident in their lives. My study of the scriptures, my following of Jesus and of the Spirit has led me to a place where I can, in good conscience, stand before them, the congregation, and Jesus and bless their marriage and their future life together. I and many of my colleagues in this room have come to this place and we are telling you that where you say there cannot be the fruit of God’s Spirit—there is! The place where you say God cannot be present and cannot bless, God is present and is blessing.

You keep saying that you’re not hurting and harming gay people who want to follow Jesus by asking them to live celibate lives even though they don’t have the gift of celibacy and desperately want a partner to walk through life with. Yet, the vast majority of gay people I speak to are saying the opposite. That in fact, the church is harming them and that they would rather walk away from spiritual community than live alone.

I’m here today because I cannot stand before Jesus having denied Jon and Bobby full participation in the life of the church when the evidence of God’s Spirit was so clear and present, and be wrong. If I’m wrong to have married them, I have made peace with the idea of standing before Jesus and telling him that I wish he had been clearer on this if it was so important to Him.

I’ll close my opening statement by saying this: I believe that I and the church I pastor are thoroughly Covenant and standing in the middle of the tradition from which we come. A tradition that valued, and values, rigorous study of the text coupled with a humble posture in our findings, knowing that the Spirit is continually speaking. A tradition that understands that our unity is not in doctrinal agreement or creedal confession but rather in the “one needful thing,” which is our “aliveness in Christ.” A tradition that has preserved the sacred space of faithful dissent so as to ensure that we don’t become an echo chamber of agreement and stifle the emerging work of the Holy Spirit. A tradition that believes that policies must answer to biblical interpretation and that the work of theology is central to the work of the clergy, especially one ordained to Word and Sacrament. A tradition that recognizes that there comes a point where a pastor must choose to leave because they cannot live within a policy—or act in opposition to the policy, because they have done the work of theology, in order to incite the necessary dialogue to engage the policy. My conviction may not represent the majority voice in the Covenant related to human sexuality, but I am not alone in it either and in the end, I believe that I am better with you than without you. Even if I disagree with you on the matter of gay marriage.

My understanding of Covenant history is that for most of it, the majority of Covenanters were centrist to left-leaning and progressive on most things. Their collective voice to their conservative brothers and sisters was “We don’t necessarily agree with you on this issue—but you don’t have to leave.” It appears that we’ve reached a place where that has shifted to the majority of Covenanters being centrist to right-leaning and conservative and the collective voice is now, “We don’t agree with you on this issue—and you have to leave.”

So to the centrist Covenant folks who live in the grey middle, I suppose it’s up to you. You may not agree with me on this or maybe you wish I hadn’t married a gay couple, but maybe you don’t think we should kick out churches or pastors who can. Now is your time to speak up and say “This is not the path for our future.”

The question I would invite you to ask yourselves is when your kids, or your friends’ kids come out to you—and they will—and they say they love Jesus and want to follow Jesus but don’t want to live alone. What do we say to them? They either leave our fellowship (and they are leaving our fellowship, by the way) and they find other spiritual communities to be a part of or they leave spiritual community altogether.

Is the Covenant better or worse if there are pastors like me and churches like Awaken? Pastors and churches who will take them in. Who will love them, point them towards Jesus and invite them to participate fully in the work of the gospel. Pastors and churches who will baptize them and their babies and your grandbabies, confirm them and offer them Eucharist. I believe we are better together and I believe I am better with you than I am without you.

Thank you for listening.