Joining drag queens on TV show costs Indiana pastor his job

New York – Reverend Craig Duke has been a Methodist minister for three decades, building a reputation as a strong advocate for LGBTQ inclusion. His pastoral duties are now over – the result of a bitter rift surfacing in his church in Indiana after he sought to show solidarity by appearing in drag alongside prominent drag queens in the reality series HBO “We are here”.

Duke, 62, said he believed most of his 400-member congregation at Newburgh United Methodist Church shared his inclusive views, and he was surprised when a prominent member of the congregation, soon supported by other loyalists, circulated emails attacking him.

“You threw NUMC under the bus to raise a minority of individuals,” one of the emails said. Another, according to Duke, said Satan must be happy with the LGBTQ rights disharmony.

Duke, who declined to identify his main critics, told The Associated Press that the attacks “seemed very personal”, causing him to worry about his mental health.

“It was all about sadness and disappointment and heartbreak on my part… realizing that I was losing the ability to lead,” he said.

According to United Methodist Church protocol, a pastor does not have the option of resigning, but Duke said he made it clear to his immediate supervisor, Regional Superintendent Mitch Gieselman, that he must step down.

On November 26, Gieselman – who had heard criticism and supporters of the pastor – sent a letter to the NUMC congregation announcing that Duke “is relieved of his pastoral duties.”

Over the next three months, Duke said he and his wife would be allowed to continue living in the NUMC Rectory as he faced a 40% pay cut. They are due to move out by February 28, when his salary will be suspended, Gieselman said.

While Gieselman noted in his letter that Duke’s actions had “polarized” the congregation, he said none of those actions constituted a formal violation of the UMC Discipline Book, which functions as a legal code for the Methodist clergy.

“I was bullied,” Duke said.

This image released by HBO shows Eureka O'Hara, left, and Pastor Craig Duke, of Newburgh, Indiana, in a scene from the HBO series

The episode of “We’re Here” starring Duke – at one point wearing a dress, high-heeled boots, pink wig, and thick makeup – was taped in July but no ‘only aired on November 8.

Duke was invited to appear on the show by an LGBTQ Pride group in nearby Evansville and partially agreed to show support for his 23-year-old daughter, Tiffany, who identifies as pansexual.

The premise of “We’re Here,” an Emmy-nominated series now in its second season, is that three renowned drag performers are heading to towns and small towns across the United States, recruiting a few locals for them. join as drag queens.

Even before the episode aired, some members of the congregation complained that Duke had not given them advance notice of his decision to appear on the show, which included scenes filmed at church. In response, Duke wrote to the congregation in August, saying he was sorry that confidence in his leadership had been damaged.

But he defended his motives, saying, “I was willing and excited to share God’s love with the LGBTQ community nationally.

Any hope that the conflict would subside faded in mid-November when emails started circulating the attacker.

The split within Duke’s congregation reflects larger divisions within the United Methodist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

This image released by HBO shows Eureka, second from right, and Pastor Craig Duke, of Newburgh, Indiana, second from right, in a scene from the HBO series "We are here."

Conservative UMC leaders have unveiled plans to form a new denomination, the World Methodist Church, with a doctrine that does not recognize same-sex marriage. The move could accelerate the long-awaited breakup of UMC due to different approaches to LGBTQ inclusion, especially if LGBTQ people are to be ordained as clergy.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the UMC general conference – at which the schism would be debated – has been postponed for two consecutive years and is now scheduled for August 2022 in Minneapolis.

According to Duke, one of the reasons he was invited to appear on “We’re Here” was because of divisions within his own church and the UMC.

“My only hope and goal was and is to bring the message of God’s unconditional love to a community that has been greatly marginalized,” Duke wrote to his congregation.

The decision to terminate Duke’s tenure has already had ripple effects. His wife, Linda, who was pastor of youth ministry, resigned. The same goes for the church’s administrative assistant, Erin Sexton, who, along with her husband, Chris, has organized a GoFundMe campaign to help the Dukes.

As of Wednesday morning, more than $ 52,000 had been pledged by more than 900 people, with dozens of whom added comments thanking Duke for his LGBTQ advocacy.

Chris Sexton said he has been a member of the Newburgh United Methodist since he was a child and described Duke as “one of the most engaging and genuine” of the many pastors who have served over the years. But the Sextons said many worshipers avoided the ‘We Are Here’ conflict, allowing Duke’s critics to dominate the debate.

Duke isn’t sure what his next step will be, although he doesn’t consider taking over as pastor. One possibility, he said, would be for him and his wife to establish “an inclusive camp” for youth and young adults.

“My heart is going in a new direction,” he said. “There are so many people who have been hurt by religion, who have felt rejection, who are reaching out, who hope that it will inspire me to do something different on their behalf.”

The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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