Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Coming Out of Bishop James Earl Swilley

A dozen or so years ago my daughter and I were taking highway I-20 across Georgia (no, it wasn't the sad Highway 20 Ride) when just outside Atlanta we noticed a church with a huge cross and the unusual name of Church in the Now. Seeing some cars in the parking lot, we realized a service was going on and whipped off the highway to check it out (life's adventures often come from these little whims). As we walked in, I realized that it was trying to be as "modern" as it could be to attract as many of "the lost" as possible. My daughter remembers the large disco strobe lights in the center of the auditorium, and I remember thinking that, like many churches, it seemed to be centered around the personality of its leader, Bishop James Swilley.

I hadn't thought much about it afterwards until my daughter told me a few weeks ago that Bishop Swilley was in the news; he had just informed his congregation he is gay. The sermon in which he did so, available here, is well worth hearing. A few days later he and his business partner, who is also his ex-wife Debye, were on the Joy Behar show on an episode, available here, which is also worth watching.

As I watched them on Joy Behar I realized that what they were saying needed to be analyzed and interpreted to a non-religious audience just as I usually analyze and interpret Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The Bishop, of course, did not describe Debye as his "business partner", but as his "ministry partner". This in itself requires an explanation that was probably lost to Joy Behar.

Religious people who belong to comparatively small groups often see those groups as larger than they really are. From their vantage point at the center of the group, it is not just a small sub-set of American religious culture, but a main ingredient. Many of them adopt the name of their founder. Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, and Kenneth Copeland are only a few of dozens of examples that could be given. It's not coincidence that the name of Bishop Swilley's business is JESM, James Earl Swilley Ministries.

If I were to define the word "ministry" in a religious context, it would be "a non-sustainable religious  enterprise centered around the personality and vison of its founder and supported by his followers." It is non-sustainable because the founder will inevitably die or become involved in a crime or scandal and lose the financial support of his followers. The exceptions are people like Oral Roberts or Jerry Falwell who founded successful universities, or Billy Graham whose legacy lives on in his son's international relief organization Samaritan's Purse. The ministry is an enterprise because it is a business and its bottom line is money. Without financial support, the ministry collapses. This support is given by followers who are often convinced they themselves will receive spiritual and financial blessings by giving money to the ministry's CEO.

In the Joy Behar interview, Debye described her abiding love and respect for her now ex-husband. If she ever asked my advice, I would encourage her to take a deep step back, forget the "ministry" for a long while, and give herself lots of time to think about what really happened. She might begin by looking a little more deeply at the religious beliefs or psychological motivations that led her to marry a man she knew was gay. She might ask herself what was so compelling about this "ministry" that caused her to sacrifice the values of honesty and intimacy for so many years.

I wish both Debye and Jim Swilley the best. You don't get many shots at happiness in this life, and I hope they both get another one. I especially hope they open themselves to the possibility that this happiness could lie outside their acclaimed "call to the ministry" and all that that entails.


John Lollard said...

I drive by that church every time I go between my school and my house. So weird. Don't they also have the ad billboard with what is essentially a close-up of a guy's crotch who is holding an electric guitar?

Good to finally know something about that place.

Anonymous said...

I read your post about James Swilley, I know him as JimEarl, and have known him for years. I am not now, or ever have been a member of CITN.

Let me assure you, because you must not know, that a great deal of good has been accomplished by JimEarl's life in the ministry. I met him when he was just beginning in ministry and it was obvious then to me that he was gifted from God in presenting the heart and mind of God, through Jesus the Christ, and that he was gay.

At the beginning of his ministry, he was young and attractive and could have easily come out of the closet like the rest of Atlanta, and had his pick of men and luxury lifestyles. By his own admissions, he never denied that he had same-sex attractions. His family would have gradually accecpted him and stood up for him because he is an only child, and because they love him so.

Your drive by commentary on his life and the lives of his family disturbed me, because I know of the sacrifices he has made all of his life for his congregation, his children, and his family. Your one visit to the CITN may seem enough to you to form your opinions, but I'm writing this to dis-qualify your comments, and shake you from your lofty perch.

If you love your children and your family and work hard to provide for them, then there's not a dimes worth of difference between you and JimEarl Swilley. He comes from generations of pastors and laborers in the church. His children will prove you wrong one day because they will continue the good work of their father, their family, and their generations of ministry.

I suppose you think that he would be happier or gayer as an interior decorator or hairstylist. Precious little you must know of the great and mighty works of your Creator. Study to show thyself approved sir.

A Christian that has had enough! said...

So the best you could do was jump on a band wagon with this "analysis"- wow. Not letting my being a church member from his father's church and family friend since 1989 jade my opinion- as I do not agree with the lifestyle and I have a difference of opinion than he on how being gay happens- I have to remind you and the world: you without sin cast the first stone. I'll let you find that scripture reference since you have so much time on your hands to sit around and pick apart others. Coming from a professional analyst is this comment and I need to clarify that no analysis is necessary- let alone one with inaccurate information. Your getting his name wrong discredits you to pieces. Any analyst knows that incorrect data voids the analysis. The coming out event, the ministry, the people, the whole ball of wax is no one's to decipher, grade or otherwise. Judge not lest ye be judged. Based on that rule from God Almighty, might be a good 'ideer' to repent for all the stones that have been thrown here.