A Seattle clergywoman is pursuing an assignment within the United Methodist Pacific Northwest Conference of Seattle, despite coming out officially as a lesbian.
Karen Dammann, a United Methodist Church clergywoman since 1991, declared on March 25 that she intends to pursue a church assignment guaranteed to pastors in good standing — a guarantee she feels should not be curtailed because she is a lesbian. The Rev. Dammann, 44, stated her desire in a letter to all 371 clergy in the UMC Pacific Northwest Conference, with which she is affiliated. She says she is now willing to drop any semblance of secret and demand a clergy job guaranteed to fully credentialed UMC clergy members.
Despite the fact that many of her colleagues knew about her sexuality, Dammann states that after formally adopting her domestic partner’s baby in 1998, United Methodist Church officials advised her against taking the customary newborn parental leave and instead insisted she take a Periodical Professional Leave. She acquiesced, but upon returning to service several weeks later, Dammann found a petition being drawn up against her within her own congregation. Sensing the growing hostility from her own congregation and the Conference leadership, she left the area nearly two years ago under a “Family Leave” status to care for the couple’s toddler.
Dammann states that the incidents surrounding the birth of her son created an irreconcilable gap between her hidden personal life and public professional life.a gap that the Church Conference was not willing to bridge. “Preparing for the birth of our baby really brought home the craziness of attempting to live ‘in the closet’ as a United Methodist clergyperson,” Dammann says. “An ordinary and predictable experience for most couples became extraordinary and unpredictable for us.”
Raised a Roman Catholic, Dammann informed her parents at an early age of her intentions to “grow up to be a priest.” She pursued a religious education degree, and after nearly ten years as a professional “lay” coordinator in the Catholic church, Dammann left Catholicism for United Methodism in 1989, where a clergy path for women was unfettered. She enrolled at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and graduated in 1992.
At the age 36 Dammann hadn’t yet determined she was a lesbian (“apparently I was one of the last to do so,” she states), but time in therapy following a cancer scare, along with meeting “soulmate” Meredith Savage, revealed the truth. When the issue of her sexuality became evident, Dammann began the double life of a closeted gay clergyperson, living with the unofficial church policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Dammann and Savage held a commitment ceremony in 1996, in the presence of other United Methodist clergy, while Dammann was under appointment at Woodland Park UMC of Seattle. It was at Woodland Park where the petition forced her to leave her congregation following the birth of their child.
Upon taking her Leave from the Conference, Dammann followed her partner to San Francisco, where she took a one-month interim preaching assignment at Pine United Methodist Church. The “warm acceptance and affirmation” she received in San Francisco made it “impossible to ever return to the closeted secret life of a gay clergyperson in the UMC,” she says. A few months later, she and Savage moved to Northeastern United States to be with her partner’s ailing mother as Savage pursued a Ph.D. program. Dammann willingly went to have a chance to sort out her career choices, and currently works as a security officer.
Facilitating Dammann’s petitioning process to the UMC Pacific Northwest Conference is the First UMC of San Rafael, Calif., a congregation that insists on calling itself a “reconciling congregation” despite the Church’s Judicial Council ruling in 1999, which called the label “divisive” and ordered it dropped. “Reconciling Congregations” advocate full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in church life. San Rafael’s pastor, the Rev. John Auer, has agreed to be Dammann’s clergy support point-person in what could be an uphill fight for both an appointment and acceptance.
Dammann states that she only wants the opportunity to serve in the United Methodist Church as a right to her ordained status, without having to disguise her sexuality or “live a lie.” The Church’s official response is still pending.