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And Also with You: The Identity of the Worship Leader, and Why It Matters

Brian Ellison

Brian Ellison is executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians; stated clerk of the Synod of Mid-America; and host/contributor at KCUR, the NPR affiliate in Kansas City, Missouri. 

The Presbyterian congregation in which I was baptized and grew up was a loving congregation of faithful folks, where I learned a lot of what was important about being a Christian. I’ll always be grateful to Sunday school teachers and youth pastors who schooled me in Bible verses and Christian love. They also planted and fostered what would become a lifelong passion for crafting and leading worship; those weeks letting teenagers run the sound system or preach on Youth Sunday have more impact than we sometimes know.

But if I’m being honest, those early years left me woefully underinformed about some things that would later become critical in my spiritual journey. For starters, the congregation—for all its love and compassion—wasn’t on the forward edge of LGBTQIA+ inclusion. I was a gay kid, and a Christian, but I never saw up close a version of faith and practice that would have allowed for the possibility I could be both. Surer of my religious affiliation than my sexual identity, I celebrated the former and suppressed the latter. My earliest experiences of leading worship were times when I gained experience and compliments, but I always held them in tension with the fullness of who I was. That continued—through years of an evangelical campus fellowship in college, and even in my years of seminary—until a bifurcation of my identity from my liturgical leadership presence became the only way I knew to preach and publicly pray.

The second thing I did not learn about in my home church was . . . robes. I learned about the joy and beauty and underlying theology of Reformed worship only once I was in seminary on the East Coast. But my West Coast Presbyterian church didn’t even use the denomination’s hymnal. I remember talk of “seeker-sensitive” worship that could reach “the unchurched.” I don’t remember saying a communal prayer of confession or singing the Gloria Patri. And mostly, I have almost no memory of ministers wearing robes. The first time I wore a black Geneva gown regularly, as a seminary intern, felt profoundly significant. And the thing I remember most was the stated reason someone taught me why Reformed ministers wear the plain black robe: to downplay the identity of the individual wearing it. No fancy suit or dress, no personality-displaying outfit to steal the show. The robe states plainly: this isn’t about me; it’s about God.

 Looking back, I can now see the ways the bifurcation of my LGBTQIA+ identity from my sense of call to preaching the gospel was profoundly damaging, both emotionally and ecclesiastically. My work with the Covenant Network of Presbyterians1 still introduces me almost weekly to examples of the aftermath and continuing impact of generations of ministers’ exclusion, hiding in closets, and bringing less than their full selves to worship.

But even as we celebrate the progress of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and many mainline churches in opening the doors to ordination for those of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, as our presence in pulpits is less novel, I wonder about that historic (metaphorical) commitment to the plain black robe. That is, how much should the identity of the preacher or worship leader actually matter to the congregation they are leading? As we speak of “queering worship” and strengthening the inclusivity of our congregations, do we risk making it “all about us” rather than about God? Or, rather, do we need to start viewing identity and worship leadership through an entirely different lens? 

“I Love to See You up There”

There’s really no denying that whatever our Reformed theology or history may say about minimizing the personal identity of the worship leader, the modern congregation cares very much about who is leading them. The experience of hearing Scripture or song is and always has been about both text and context, about the speech and the speaker.

Consider what happens on Christmas Eve in the traditional Lessons and Carols service that the BBC broadcasts each year, when a single child soloist opens the service singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” a capella. Or when an elementary-school-age kid in a clear and high-pitched tone reads Isaiah’s pastoral vision of the wolf and the lamb lying down together and a little child leading them. Perhaps there are times when such a moment in worship is one of distracting cuteness and saccharine sweetness. But for the worshiper who gives themselves to the experience, there is a depth that may not otherwise be heard—the promise of deliverance through the leadership of one who begins as an innocent child, the hope of eternity held in one not so different from the stuttering, hair-slicked-back, new-Easter-dress-wearing beloved one—the one we all saw baptized just a few years ago. The Word incarnate.

Or think of another worship moment, one in which a recently widowed man rises and walks slowly to the lectern. The bulletin will declare he is about to read a psalm that speaks of God’s faithfulness, but the congregation will be thinking only of his marriage of many decades, the sadness in his eyes, the shake in his voice. He will say, “You will not fear the terror of the night,” and they will think of him lying alone in their big old house. He will say, “With long life I will satisfy them, and will show them my salvation,” and the people will ponder the blessing of longevity in a new way. It’s not just what the people are thinking based on their relationships that is significant. The reading will seem significant even to a first-time visitor, inflected with grief and faith unique to its reader. Anyone could have read Psalm 91, but only this man could have read it this way, on this day. This, we believe, is how the Holy Spirit moves in worship.

It is not such a surprise, then, that the LGBTQIA+ identity of preachers and worship leaders would matter. It always has, of course; queer folks have been serving the church since long before their identities were recognized, much less celebrated. But as the sexual and gender identity of those called to lead worship have come to be something that can be discussed more openly, we might ask what particularities their identity contributes to the experience of a worshiping community. Every individual obviously brings their own story, their own joys and traumas, their own barriers and triumphs. Even so, certain common experiences of the community might be instructive to observe.

Few communities have experienced a systematic exclusion of the sort that LGBTQIA+ people have in the church. Certainly, the church has a long history of oppressing and demeaning all sorts of people on the basis of their sex, race, ethnicity, language, age, and marital status; normative standards have long elevated those occupying particular places of power and privilege—and we still do, of course. But the exclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in modern Protestant churches, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is unique in both its nature and its recency. Unlike those who long suffered because of their sex or race in our churches, gay and lesbian people could be systematically and explicitly excluded from ordination as ministers, elders, and deacons because their lives were sinful.2 The principle being invoked against allowing LGBTQIA+ people to preach the Word and call God’s people to prayer was that of purity: queer folks had no business representing God to the people, because their lives were too divergent from God’s intentions. They lacked the credibility, the worthiness, the integrity to lead God’s people. Needless to say, this context presented a barrier far more difficult to overcome than by simply illustrating an inequity of access to the pulpit.

And of course, the church’s emphasis on the sinfulness of LGBTQIA+ people’s lives was still being proclaimed and enforced by the church’s polity well past the time when other aspects of society were providing substantial legal and social protections for them. (Speeches on the floor of the PC(USA) General Assembly as recently as 2014, in debating a change to constitutional language about marriage, still invoked hateful stereotypes and false assumptions about the nature of same-sex relationships.) Only in 2018 did the General Assembly actually take action to celebrate the gifts of LGBTQIA+ people for ministry and to affirm the full dignity and humanity of transgender and non-binary persons.3 For the LGBTQIA+ community, the history of discrimination is not a painful but distant memory; rather, it has been a lived reality for almost every LGBTQIA+ person serving the church today. 

These twin realities about LGBTQIA+ exclusion in the church profoundly shape the context in which any worship leadership offered by queer folks occurs. It is true that in some congregations, the ministry of the openly LGBTQIA+ pastor has now been celebrated for a decade or more. It may not be the first thing that either the minister or the congregant thinks about on any given Sunday. But these islands of uneventful full inclusion are the exception rather than the rule. And I would suggest that even in these spaces, there is still something going on beneath the surface that does not occur with straight, cisgender worship leaders. 

For starters, the LGBTQIA+ preacher who stands before a congregation harbors an ever-present awareness that there is almost certainly someone in the congregation who has a concern, a problem, a misgiving about listening to such a person. The pastor of a congregation may know very well in whose chest that skeptical heart is beating; not knowing does not make it any easier to act as though all is well. The impact of this abiding wariness may have both benefits and costs. It may make the preacher more attentive to the details, surer of the citations, more careful in their articulations. But it may also lead to a greater hesitation, masked as sensitivity—a fear of saying what needs to be said so as not to “rock the boat” or “stir the pot.” 

In reality, the LGBTQIA+ preacher brings a lot of gifts and experience that any other preacher would not bring. The queer preacher has the opportunity to preach a word about God’s faithfulness that is sharpened by hard experience—much as the newly widowed person reading about the promise of eternal life. The queer reader of Scripture can offer a vivid depiction when reciting Mary’s declaration that the lowly will be lifted up or retelling the generous outreach of Jesus to those who society feared to touch—not so different from the child speaking in clear, uncynical tones about a peaceable kingdom. And when Scripture takes the congregation to difficult places—to the “clobber” passages that have been inappropriately used to victimize LGBTQIA+ people in ages past, or to Old Testament depictions of marriage and sexuality the modern listener finds troubling—it is often the LGBTQIA+ minister who can, by virtue of their demonstrated confidence in God’s Word despite its historic use against them, redeem it with broader vision and new understanding. 

There is, of course, diversity within the queer community. In today’s church, the transgender or non-binary4 person brings a particular set of perspectives and experiences that inform the interaction between worship leader and worshiping community. Trans folks were never explicitly prohibited from ordained roles in most denominations, but the exclusion—backed by social custom and comfort rather than by polity—has in some ways proven even more insidious. As contemporary politics has seized upon the trans community as a target for discriminatory laws for electoral gain, those trans and non-binary folks who would lead God’s people may find the glare of the chancel lights a little harsher these days. A constant need to educate—about names and pronouns, about biology and culture—makes simply being present in the worship moment a challenge for many, even in the most well-intentioned congregational settings.

But here, too, the identity of the worship leader brings real opportunities. In some cases, the non-binary person may be a visible testimony that steers us away from oversimplified binary thinking. Reductionist readings of Scripture that portray moral choices as simple or temporal judgments as absolute are more difficult to retain when the one leading us is modeling the fluidity of God’s creation. It is not so surprising that a preacher who has had to view life through an evolving lens of personal identity might show more grace and patience and agility in connecting with the varying perspectives of the persons in the pews.

Robes and Closets

While a modern focus on “queering worship” may cast new light on the identity of the worship leader, the reality is that recognizing the uniqueness of each new generation’s voices and faces has always been part of the Reformed tradition. The pastor, in particular, has always been expected to bring all of themselves to the work, and our appreciation for what is included in that fullness has expanded through the centuries. We speak of vocation, provide housing, approve terms of compensation that include words like “so that you may be free of all worldly care and avocation”—all because we historically presumed that this particular office is somehow supposed to encompass all of its holder’s being (for better and for worse). But what happens when the person leading worship is still struggling to name or accept their sexual orientation or gender identity themselves? What about situations where they deem it unsafe, or premature, or disruptive to claim the fullness of who they are in the presence of the faith community? 

Even today, more than a decade since the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began permitting ordination of openly LGBTQIA+ individuals, I become aware almost every week of ministers, elders, and laypeople who are serving “in the closet” to varying degrees. They are certain enough of their own identity to be sharing that information with me and with other people they trust the most, but not confident about the impact it would have should they “drop a bomb on the congregation” and speak openly about who they are. Some fear for their jobs. Others worry about causing controversy and division. Still others believe they would be personally supported but, like a minister covering up a smart outfit with a plain Geneva gown, they can’t bear the thought of the congregation paying more attention to them than to the gospel.

This was, in some ways, my own dilemma in the early 2000s when I was serving as pastor of a Presbyterian congregation. The church I served was lovely and welcoming, supportive of me and growing in faith and numbers. I was a closeted gay man who had only in the closing season of seminary really acknowledged my identity to myself. When I finally allowed myself the possibility of (semi-secretive) dating and entered into a relationship (with my now partner of twenty years), I found that the fullness of my identity now had to be dealt with in the context of my ministry. Coming out and expecting to continue in service felt likely to cause division or discomfort for a congregation I loved. Quietly walking away seemed unfaithful to the movement of the Spirit that was happening in that growing congregation. Breaking off the relationship seemed untrue to myself and my partner and in any case didn’t really solve the problem. So faced with what seemed an impossible choice, I didn’t do any of those things; I continued serving as a pastor and preacher, but without talking about my sexual identity at church. I remained in that parish until the denomination’s policy changed and I accepted my current ministry role, at which time I also came out to the church.

I frequently question the choices I made during that time. There was a break in authenticity between my internal and external lives that took a toll, not only on my emotional and relationship health, but also on the connection I made with the congregation. Many of my most fervent supporters, when I eventually came out, shared their sadness and pain at the fact that I had not trusted them with my secret, and this spark of distrust may well have affected their broader life of faith. And I have to believe that the worship life of the church was, in fact, also affected adversely. What was I subconsciously omitting from my proclamation for fear of discovery or perceived hypocrisy? How did the anxiety inherent to the closeted life affect the creative process for those who planned and developed worship? What were congregants missing out on in our personal connection, longing for a fullness and honesty in the pulpit that just wasn’t forthcoming? I may never know. 

And unfortunately, the reality is that mere polity changes have not changed the fundamental situation for a lot of LGBTQIA+ people, in a season when many presbyteries still have zero openly LGBTQIA+ people serving congregations as pastors. Indeed, more progressive ministry contexts sometimes prove just as difficult for full authenticity, as complacency about a church’s commitment to inclusion (“We settled that long ago”) leads to an acceptance that is assumed rather than achieved, and to a community that lacks the vocabulary and emotional tools to process a pastor’s surprising revelation about gender and sexuality. Among those who have attempted to walk that journey and continue in ministry, leading weekly worship and the rest of their pastoral life—including those I have walked alongside and those I have observed from afar—success has been the exception.

There are tangible ways our congregations can change, including in our worship life, that would enable a transition to deeper authenticity—a coming out—that not only is more comfortable and professionally sustainable for the minister but also results in a richer and deeper experience for
the community.

To begin, we can rethink the symbolism and historical theological vestiges baked into our liturgy and worship leadership that may be unintentionally reinforcing the idea that the individual identity of the minister is to be suppressed rather than celebrated. Can we reimagine the robe as something that binds us to all the others who wear it and have worn it, rather than as something that diminishes who they were and are? Inspired by the expanding richness of liturgical resources that mine the depths of imagery and language, reflecting the full diversity of biblical metaphors for God and the breadth of human experience, might we take the next step in our worship planning, relying less on pat phrases and rote recitation and more on the expressive voices of those who are called to lead? Worship planners should write from their hearts. Pastors and laypeople standing before congregations should speak with the passion and humor and honesty they use before the prelude starts. When every minister brings all of themselves to their praying and preaching, the queer minister’s queer preaching and queer praying will seem a lot less, well, queer to those who once were uncomfortable. New doors in their hearts and spirits can open.

Any successful transition to deeper openness will also surely be grounded in the “ordinary” spiritual life of the faith community. Truth-telling requires fortitude, and Christian disciples find that strength in practices of worship. There is a reason those calling for social justice have sung hymns as they marched. It will be more difficult for believers to reject one another when they learn something they didn’t know if they have spent the last three years of Wednesday mornings praying together at 7:00 a.m. Mission projects and education and coffee hours all matter, of course; but worship binds us together like nothing else, forging the bonds of trust and openness within which a more authentic understanding of each other will become not only feasible but enriching.

Perhaps more than anything else, the environment necessary for “coming out” in ways that become a blessing to the worshiping community is created by laying a solid foundation in that congregation’s understanding of God and ourselves in the first place. A regularly preached gospel of love and grace builds Christians of love and grace. A focus on fences and fear forms Christians who withdraw and defend rather than embrace and expand. And in every age, worship is the most influential place for laying this foundation, through the message we preach and the prayers we offer. In baptism, and at the communion table, worship is where all of us, of every gender identity and sexual orientation, come to know who we truly are.

Meeting the Resurrected Christ

So now we return to where we began: Why does it actually matter who is leading worship? In Christ-centered community and God-directed prayer and praise, when it is God’s Word and not merely a human word being spoken, what is the actual impact of the worship leader’s identity? In my quarter century of ministry, the first half as a congregational pastor and the second doing work of advocacy and support among queer clergy and congregations seeking to expand their welcome and affirmation, I have come to believe that the impact is nothing less than critical. The very gospel is at stake. Only when we open ourselves to the leading of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations in worship will our worship do what our Reformed tradition insists it does: embody the risen Christ, alive and at work among us. Only when worship leaders are able and willing to be fully who they are can any of us experience the fullness of who God invites us to be.

I think of the example of K. As a seminarian, out as a gay man to only a few close friends, he attended a conference on how the church might live out its mission and ministry in the season after the church had opened its policies but not yet many of its pulpits to LGBTQIA+ people. At a closing worship service, an out gay man was celebrating the sacrament of communion. K. speaks of having a profound realization—a spiritual experience—where he came to understand that contrary to a lifetime of expectations, it really would be possible for him to live out his call to ministry and also be authentic and honest about who he was. He proceeded to come out to many others of significance in his life. He was ordained as an out gay man and became the first openly queer installed pastor in the presbytery of his first call. He served for years on the board of our organization and has been a friend and inspiration to many others. All of this, he would say, was in part because of a moment in worship where the leader’s authentic self was allowed to speak the message of Christ’s presence just as fully as the words of institution did.

There is the example of C., a young person who found the church and who, during years of growth in faith and in life, also came to understand himself as a trans man. There were no other trans people visible or out in that community, no map for such a journey in that space. But C. persevered and began to share his story. Standing before the congregation—of people who loved, even before they understood—C. experienced in worship, and in the acts of community that surrounded it, the congregation’s affirmation and—by extension—God’s affirmation. In time, C. would be ordained as a ruling elder and would lead worship and even preach. The pastor of that church will tell you that the congregation has been as richly blessed as C. himself, understanding themselves more fully, opening their eyes to a previously unexplored aspect of the community’s needs. They recognized the embodied presence of Christ among them, in time helping them more fully embody Christ’s presence for each other and for the world. 

There is another congregation that has long understood itself as affirming. It is a member of the right organizations, and rainbow colors adorn its signs and sanctuary. It has been a beacon and a haven for LGBTQIA+ people for years, led by allies and advocates. Recently, the congregation had its first out queer pastoral leader, first on an interim basis and now as a newly installed pastor. The service of installation for J. was an occasion of palpable joy and fulfillment. Now, her every Sunday sermon is a source of profound affirmation from the moment she goes to the pulpit, an assurance in at least one consistent way—they are a church whose actions match their values. Those sermons, fueled by the strength and wisdom of J.’s authentic journey as a queer person in ministry, are shaping that community’s faith and inspiring new commitments to embrace the fullness of the community, LGBTQIA+ and otherwise, around them.

None of these examples should surprise us in the Reformed tradition. We have been bold to proclaim that community is the place we encounter the risen Christ. When we discern the mind of Christ, it is not through a solitary bishop or a static document, it is in the coming together of leaders to discuss together. When we partake of a sacrament that declares our Savior’s presence, we declare Jesus to be there not on the table, but around it in the hearts of those who gather. We have always offered up community as the source of access to the divine, so it should not surprise us that who is facilitating our experience of the central practice of our community—holy worship—would matter. And if our worship leadership is limited to those of particular gender identities or sexual orientations while excluding others, it is separating those gathered, at least for a time, of the full presence of the risen Christ. That is a scandal to the gospel. But in seeking out God’s full spectrum of identity to lead us at table and font and pulpit, we make the gospel ever new, and ever good.

Perhaps there will come a day when the queer community’s shared history of exclusion and pain at the hands of the church will no longer shape their experience of authentically expressing their identity as pastors and other leaders. But we are nowhere near that day. In the meantime, as a church we have the profound opportunity to be blessed by the richness that a worship leader’s queer identity offers us all. As congregations and councils of the church move with intentionality to expand the church’s welcome, we will also be strengthened by attention to our worship life and leadership. We may even encounter, in a new way, the risen Christ.


1. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians is an organization that seeks to strengthen the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by working for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in its life and leadership. Its ministry of education, engagement, and equipping occurs in councils and congregations across the country. For more information, visit

2. The constitutional provision that excluded gay and lesbian people from ministry, G-6.0106b in the Book of Order, specifically required “fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” Framed as about behavior rather than identity, this exclusion served only to emphasize the collective church’s disgust and disapproval. To put it another way: LGBTQIA+ people were not merely unfortunate or lesser, they were bad because, in living out their identity, they did bad things. 

3. Items 11-12 and 11-13, approved by the 223rd General Assembly (2018).

4. I use this language of “transgender and non-binary” with the intention of inclusivity. This is the language used in 2018 actions of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirming this community’s dignity and humanity, but I intend it (as did the Assembly action) to represent the full diversity of gender identities whatever terminology a particular person or community might use.


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