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.