Read all of our 2015 Pride coverage: Grace Under Fire: Embracing LGBT members may have saved Franklin's GracePointe church — or destroyed it; The Buddy System: A new volunteer organization helps transgender individuals with the sometimes tricky elements of health care; Lip Service: Ladies, remember the first time you kissed a girl? So does a Nashville Web series; Ron, Baby, Ron: Longtime Nashville denizen DJ Ron Slomowicz bids Music City adieu
On Jan. 11, Pastor Stan Mitchell stood before the congregation of GracePointe, a nondenominational church in Franklin, and steeled himself for the most momentous 20 minutes of his ecclesiastical life.
As he finished an otherwise ordinary sermon on the Epiphany — Christ's manifestation to the world as the Messiah — a strange calm came over him. He strode down the stage stairs and launched into a hastily tacked-on segue about how sometimes epiphanies, the lower-case "e" kind, do not happen all at once. Indeed, for Mitchell, the moment seemed inevitable, as if everything that came before had led him here, to do this.
"I felt equal parts foreboding and relief," he recalls. "It was what the ancients called a 'liminal space,' a threshold. I knew there was no going back."
Thus he began to read the statement he'd written early that morning, after a scant few hours of sleep. GracePointe Church, he told the assembly, would thereafter welcome LGBT members. Not just as observers. Not just at a remove. They would be full participants in church life — leadership positions, marriage, child dedication.
Were this a Lifetime movie, the music would swell, the congregation would begin a slow clap rising to its feet, and the camera would tilt heavenward.
That is not what happened.
Some congregants stood and quietly applauded. For Lauren Wedertz, 28, one of GracePointe's worship leaders, the moment felt historic. But not everyone cheered.
"There was a heaviness in the air," Wedertz says. "It was sad to me that this wasn't an eruption of joy. People were upset."
Throughout the restrained ovation, Mitchell kept his eyes closed.
"The ones who weren't standing? I couldn't look at them," he recalls. In that singular moment, Mitchell realized, the familiar milieu inverted. The shocked dissenters, whose silence spoke their opposition to the church's new policy of full LGBT inclusion, were now the ones feeling like outcasts.
"I couldn't bear the discomfort of what it must be like for them," Mitchell remembers, sitting on the front porch of GracePointe's modernist chapel on a rainy recent day. "You just feel like an asshole sitting there."
That was six months ago, and the media furor that greeted Mitchell's announcement has largely died down. But a happy ending has not materialized. Members have left, and the very fate of the church is at risk. And while he is at peace with his decision, Stan Mitchell has paid a cost professionally and personally.
The Scene recently spoke at length to Mitchell and interviewed church members on both sides. What emerges is a portrait of a driven pastor, a divided congregation, and the struggles that await churches across the South as they decide whether to embrace gay Christians — or exclude them.
With his dark hair and closely trimmed goatee, Stan Mitchell, 47, isn't a dissident by nature. He wants people to like him. His memory is notably sharp, and in conversation he ricochets from literary allusions to amusing personal anecdotes to citations from scripture and philosophy. Casual and approachable, he often wears jeans in the pulpit, offers confidences like gifts in person, and unconsciously mirrors whomever he's talking to, to put them at ease.
But he knows there's a dark side to such skills. Onstage before his congregation, in trying to be "all things to all people," he's found himself at times facing a metaphorical hall of mirrors, wondering which reflection is the real Stan Mitchell — the empathetic pastor, comforting the afflicted, or the headstrong, borderline arrogant prophet, afflicting the comfortable.
By the Sunday after his Jan. 11 declaration, hundreds of congregants had let him know which Mitchell they saw. They voted with their feet.
"They felt sideswiped," says Mitchell. "I knew they weren't haters. They're just bound to a conviction that they had grown up with their whole life."
Mitchell understood how they felt. He grew up, as he puts it, "a homophobe from the deepest part of rural Arkansas ... with a pathological fear of being tortured forever." According to his family's Pentecostal beliefs, hell was real, and speaking in tongues was necessary for salvation. Nobody who believed otherwise had any chance at eternal life.
He delivered his first sermon at 16. A few years later, a Methodist neighbor gave him a book by popular Christian author Max Lucado. Mitchell hid it under his bed, like a forbidden copy of Playboy. According to the fundamentalist orthodoxy he'd been preaching, that kind of "external literature" was dangerous propaganda, a beguiling lie that might lead a young man to apostasy.
One day, Mitchell pulled it out and read it. He was scandalized.
"I couldn't imagine that somebody who wasn't saved could write so movingly about Jesus," he says. It was the beginning of a long intellectual and theological journey — one that terrified and thrilled Mitchell, and ultimately carried him away from northeastern Arkansas and Pentecostalism and into the pulpit of a sleek new church on Franklin Road.
Mitchell founded GracePointe 12 years ago with a small group of people, most of whom, like him, grew up in evangelical traditions. He envisioned a place that would offer "recovering" evangelicals the comfort of a Sunday service that echoed the style and structure of their childhood churches, but encouraged the sort of intellectual and spiritual journey that Mitchell himself had undertaken — a journey from rigid dogma and fear of damnation to discovery, along a path of inquiry he calls "deconstruction."
"Our altar has been a laboratory where people could work through those things safely without being told they're losing their faith," Mitchell says. "Because it might just be that part of their faith journey is losing their faith."
Christopher Pilny, a 28-year-old writer and editor who attends GracePointe fairly regularly, describes the church ethos as "a sort of psychotherapy for people who have gone to really guilt-driven churches." He says the message, on repeat in the church's Contemporary Christian-style music program and in the sermons and guest lectures, is "God loves you no matter what. There is no reason to fear."
Mitchell had moved a long way from his fear-soaked Pentecostal roots. He describes his and GracePointe's theology as "progressive Christianity." But until recently, he admits, his tactics were still very much "small 'e' " evangelical. He had seen the light, and he wanted everyone else to see it with him. He wasn't just making room for people to question their beliefs. Deep down, he wanted to "heal" them by steering them toward his own, more liberal view of Christianity.
In light of all that has happened since Jan. 11, he now sees this as hubris. "I thought I had a better idea, so I was trying to convert people," he admits. The problem was, of course, that not everybody agreed that they needed to "recover" from their version of faith, or that a move toward progressive Christianity constituted evolution.
Pastor Dan Scott of Christ Church in Brentwood, where Mitchell once preached, describes this theological divide in terms of how scripture is viewed: "Is it old literature that we reinterpret in a new time, or does it have authority in our lives? That takes you down different paths."
A few years ago, Mitchell saw a schism emerging. The church membership of slightly more than 2,000, he felt, was beginning to cleave into three almost numerically equal parts: conservative evangelicals who enjoyed the music and sermons and had little desire to pursue his deconstruction plan; progressives who'd already been there and back on that path (and folks of Pilny's generation who were basically born there), impatiently waiting for everyone else to catch up; and a moderate group Mitchell describes as "smack dab in the middle of deconstruction."
Melissa Greene, a former Contemporary Christian artist who joined GracePointe six years ago as pastor of worship and arts, fell into the second, most liberal group. She'd come from a conservative Christian church background that, she explains, dictated what she was to believe about the world — and about the gay people she was befriending in college and in her circle of musicians.
"I could not reconcile what I was taught and how I felt," Greene says. "I loved them and wanted to believe God accepted them, but I kept coming back to scripture." Greene began to feel that the beliefs she'd inherited didn't fit with her experience of the world, and she longed for a more thoughtful approach to faith, one that embraced doubt and debate.
GracePointe seemed to fill that longing. Here was a church that welcomed gay members, if somewhat quietly, and encouraged searching discussions about different ways to interpret scripture. Ultimately, Greene and Mitchell wanted the same thing: to include LGBT members in all church roles. They didn't love the unspoken "don't ask, don't tell" homeostasis the church had fallen into when it came to LGBT issues, but it worked — for the moment. At the very least, they figured it would buy them some time.
Besides, LGBT inclusion wasn't the single, all-consuming source of the congregation's disagreement. At least until three years ago this summer, when suddenly it was.
In June of 2012, country artist Carrie Underwood defended marriage equality in an interview with the U.K. paper The Independent. She happened to mention that her church — GracePointe — was "gay-friendly." All eyes turned toward her gay-friendly church. The cartoonishly predictable Westboro Baptist Church immediately added GracePointe to its picket schedule, and the press piled on.
According to GracePointe members who spoke to the Scene, friction increased as the congregation separated more and more into two camps: one whose stance amounted to, "It's about time!" and an opposing group whose view was essentially, "Our church is what?" People were coming to Mitchell privately, asking him what, in fact, the church did stand for. It was the opportunity he'd been seeking.
"I sat down with the elders, and I said, 'Underhand pitch. Let's [talk about] the LGBT issue,'" says Mitchell. "And they were like, 'Start there?' 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let's start there.' "
He and Greene planned a series of Sunday sermons and Wednesday-night discussions about topics from LGBT issues to biblical inerrancy. He wanted to find a way to hold the three factions of the congregation together and nudge the whole toward "deconstruction" — and he hoped, toward full inclusion of the LGBT members whom he'd asked, again and again, to be patient.
"Our church is not fully there," Mitchell kept telling Antonio Compton, a GracePointe member who owns the upscale gym Barry's Bootcamp in the Gulch. "I'm working on my congregation." Compton had always felt welcome at GracePointe, and he was OK with the waiting. He was Mitchell's target audience: an Indiana kid from a fundamentalist religious community. He remembers a summer camp preacher urging the kids to stand as close as they could to a campfire one night, telling them, "You think this is hot? If you don't accept Jesus, you're going to burn forever."
Compton didn't come out until later in life. He'd married in college (the marriage didn't last) and now has a grown son. He spent years bouncing from church to church, sitting in the back pew and dodging questions from people who wanted to know why he didn't have a wife or a girlfriend.
"I was always fearful," he says. "I didn't want to come out to them. I thought I was bound for hell."
A friend convinced Compton to try GracePointe. Soon, he was attending regularly and volunteering to help clean the campus. Eventually, he got to know Mitchell and felt he could confide in him. He asked the pastor whether who he was — a gay man — was OK with God.
"That day he told me, 'God created you as gay, Antonio,'" recalls Compton. "'It's not a sin.' "
Those conversations helped Compton let go of the fear and shame that had accompanied so much of his religious past. Which is why Compton stuck it out at GracePointe, even when Mitchell asked him to step down from singing in the choir. Compton was out by then and had started dating someone openly. So for the time being, Mitchell felt he had to enforce GracePointe's formal position, which the pastor describes as, "welcoming, loving, even membership, but not the full rights of membership — you know, the 'platinum package.'
"Isn't that gross to think about?" Mitchell adds, with disgust. "We're not going to give them the right to be leaders in the congregation. We'll take their money. They can do grunt work. But they aren't going to be able to lead worship, teach a Sunday-school class, be an elder or a life group leader."
Greene laughs bitterly when she reflects on that time. "Antonio's one of my dear friends ... and I've had to be a part of saying, 'You can't do what I do, not because you're not talented enough, but because you're gay. And now this is laughable to me that I carried out those decisions."
Everything had been easier in the de facto "don't ask, don't tell" period. "Our people actually had lived a better theology than was the dogma," Mitchell says — meaning that folks had simply treated each other with respect and kindness. But because he'd opened a conversation in the church about LGBT issues, Mitchell felt he had to state its formal position on LGBT roles outright and enforce it ... or risk losing a third of the congregation.
"I was a little sad, but I understood it," Compton says. "I get it. I grew up in a really conservative world. All we've ever known is what we've been told. ... They were never faced with someone who was gay."
Instead of uniting the flock, the opposite happened. GracePointe started shedding folks from all over the ideological spectrum. Archconservative members left because they didn't see why the church was even having an LGBT conversation: The Bible, they felt, was pretty clear on the matter. LGBT members left because they were sick of waiting for equal rights in church life, joined by liberal Christians outraged by their friends' partial exclusion. Lauren Wedertz recalls a heated conversation with Mitchell a few years ago, after she had to disinvite a gay friend whom she'd asked to join the choir.
"I was crying," she recalls. "And [Mitchell] slammed his hand on the table. And it was like, 'You guys aren't the only ones hurting from this damn thing.'"
Up to that point, Wederetz had seen Mitchell's attempts to hold the congregation together as "a people-pleasing thing." She then realized he was heartbroken, too, and was also sick of waiting. "Then I saw it was a strategy, of not rushing," she says. "To get these people to move along in this theological journey."
Still, she was hurting for her friend and impatient with the pace of change. "My clan was ready to be honest and be who we were," she recalls. "They were about to lose the group that was ready."
The fissures were in danger of splitting wide open. This was no abstract theological debate. Actual human beings were being asked to wait patiently for the rights and responsibilities they felt they deserved as much as anyone else. And Compton did wait.
"I never thought about leaving, not once," he says. "I stuck it out because I believed in Stan's heart. We're not a 'gay church.' We're a Bible-preaching church, not Unitarian. I knew it was going to be a process."
Eventually, Mitchell says, the process stalled. His efforts to bridge the gap between the congregation's two ideological extremes had reached an impasse.
"I was waiting on them to change," he says, "because I did not have the courage to face the moment that was coming."
That moment came in December 2014. Michael Popham, a longtime friend and former GracePointe pastor of music, was getting married in two weeks, and the minister he'd asked had backed out at the last minute. Technically, Popham and his fiancé, Josh Johnson, were reaffirming vows they'd taken in California, because in Tennessee they could not legally marry.
But for them, the ceremony in Nashville, Popham's hometown, was the one that counted. The two had met at GracePointe 10 years ago, and Popham had wanted Mitchell to perform the ceremony in the first place. Still, he understood the pressures his former pastor was under. He'd endured them his whole life as the "quintessential gay kid in the evangelical world," according to Mitchell.
The call to perform the ceremony came one night while Mitchell was writing a sermon about how his life had been changed by a new sense of mission: to become an ally to the LGBT community. And now, here was his chance to step up and be one. Here was a mutual friend of his and Popham's on the phone, explaining he hoped Mitchell might perform the wedding but wasn't sure whether it was fair to ask him.
This would be no under-the-radar event. Popham was marrying a flaxen-haired HGTV-star interior designer nicknamed "Sparkle Josh," at the Country Music Hall of Fame. There would be hundreds of guests. There would be silver tuxedos. "You can't not make waves with this, in retrospect," Mitchell says.
A favorite May Sarton poem flashed into his mind, "Now I Become Myself" — "All fuses now, falls into place/From wish to action, word to silence" — and he realized, "I've got to finish this." He quietly let a few of the board members, elders and staff know about what he was about to do, but he did not formally give notice to the full board.
"That was a mistake," he says. "I have to own that."
After the wedding, several board members, elders and pastors left GracePointe. But David Schwab stayed. He'd met Mitchell more than 20 years earlier, when Mitchell became a junior pastor at Christ Church in Brentwood.
"He was a very articulate, talented young man," Schwab says. "And I felt comfortable with his theology." In 2002, Schwab, his wife, and several other couples encouraged Mitchell to start a new church, with their support.
Mitchell had known Schwab, a Brentwood developer, for decades. But Schwab wasn't present at the two-day retreat Mitchell took with some of the remaining board, staff and clergy. By Saturday night, when the group headed home, they'd made their decision: Mitchell would issue a statement to the church the following morning that would radically alter the church's policy on LGBT roles at GracePointe.
As Schwab remembers it, he was on his way to church Jan. 11 when he got a text from Mitchell, apologizing for not informing the board in advance about officiating the wedding. "[The text] said just stay with him, he would never make a decision like that again without consulting the board first," Schwab says. "An hour and a half later, he stood up at the pulpit and said that he had made a major shift for the church, that we were now fully going to accept — totally entitle — gay relationships, marriage, dedicating children and, basically, in my opinion, promote that lifestyle.
"I told him, 'If I were not a board member, which I am, and I were sitting out there in the congregation, and you said what you said, I would think, 'Wow. All the elders, the board, have endorsed this. Not true.' That had never been discussed with the board and the elders. ... I wrote my resignation the next day, and we haven't been back.
"I'm still deeply hurt by the whole thing," Schwab says quietly. "I love Stan. He is an incredible talent. But he was not truthful with me."
"I lie awake a lot," Mitchell says today. "If I had it to do over again, I would do things differently. I would do things better. I wish I could say I did my best, and I'm sorry."
In the aftermath of the Jan. 11 inclusion statement, Mitchell says, "This place, it was like an atom bomb." He props a sandaled foot up on a patio chair on the church's wide front porch, as summer showers wash over the roof. "I did not predict how severe the furor would be and how deep the pain would go," he adds. "How great the losses would be."
"We've lost half our church," Greene says, adding that some who left were major donors. New members who've joined since Jan. 11 — roughly 30 percent of whom identify as LGBT — have offset those losses somewhat, but Mitchell estimates attendance is still down 30 percent from last year. The church has cut staff and expenses to the bone. Mitchell puts the current annual budget for church expenses at $1.3 million; as for revenue, he expects to bring in approximately $900,000 this year. "You can do the math pretty quickly and see that's not going to work long term," he says.
"The more remarkable thing has been how many of the people who gave the standing ovation have left," Mitchell adds. "In this area, the social pressure is immense. The familial pressure. Even the vocational pressure and financial pressure is immense. What I have faced with my own family? You would have to be deeply convicted to face this." Mitchell knows the social costs. He's lost friends and alienated family members. And he's in danger of losing the building itself.
But other churches are taking notice. Mitchell says he's getting lots of calls and emails from pastors all over the country who are navigating similar waters. Others, like Dan Scott, don't agree with his position, but acknowledge the need for just such an open conversation in churches. In early February, Scott posted an open letter to his congregation at Christ Church explaining the theological basis for his differences with Mitchell.
"I don't believe that a single isolated pastor or believer can diverge on the basics of Christian faith that widely and remain connected to the historic stream of Christianity. I think you cease being an orthodox Christian," he tells the Scene.
But Scott says he respects Mitchell for taking a firm stand and acknowledges the social price he will pay. "Like Stan, I believe it is important—vitally important—to think seriously about issues like the one he has spoken about," he writes in his letter. "It is spiritually irresponsible and cowardly to ignore them."
And new members are making their way to GracePointe. Tabitha, the owner of a small tech business who identifies herself as transsexual, attended her first service in February after reading about Mitchell's declaration on the Time website.
"Stan is really smart and accepting," she says. "I guess he'd rather err with grace than condemn somebody."
Lauren Wedertz says she's more committed than ever to GracePointe since the inclusion statement. "There's a freedom in the air," she says. "Before, we felt like we had to tiptoe, or speak in code." She's always loved the fact that it wasn't a church that purported to have all the answers. But on this issue, she felt, the time had come for conviction.
"You can be uncertain, but there are still times you have to take a stand," she says. And she's optimistic about GracePointe's future.
"It will survive," she insists. "There's nowhere like this around. If we have to downsize, we downsize. The church is standing on something so much bigger than a building or a location."
On a Sunday in early June, the auditorium fills as Greene's band winds down and Mitchell takes the stage to deliver a sermon on courage. A quote from C.S. Lewis appears on the big screen up front: "Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point." Mitchell then turns to a source you don't often see invoked in church, Anaïs Nin: "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."
He preaches with confidence and charisma, tells stories, makes fun of himself, and draws widely from scripture, literature and history. Up on the stage, it's clear he's still on an intellectual journey, and the folks left in the audience are willingly along for the ride. Everything he feared most happened: He did lose a significant chunk of his congregation and many dear friendships. There may be more losses to come.
But the world did not end, he says, and that has unburdened him mightily.
"I am at peace," he says. "I have been disabused of that need to change everybody. That has been a huge lesson through all of this. You don't change people. Life changes people."
Asked later about the Nin quotation — about whether his life has shrunk or expanded — he pauses and stares out into the rain.
"Now I become myself," he sighs, a half-laughing exhalation of resignation and relief. "I am expanded to whatever the parameters of Stan Mitchell are."