United Methodist Pastor Speaks of Transgender Experience

A transgender United Methodist pastor has shared his story with other members of the denomination’s Baltimore-Washington Conference in the hopes of promoting a broader discussion about gender identity.

The Rev. Drew Phoenix – formerly the Rev. Ann Gordon – spoke at both a closed clergy session and a general plenary session on May 24 during the annual conference meeting at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. He is pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baltimore.

“I was very grateful for the opportunity to be able to share my story and who I am,” Phoenix told United Methodist News Service in a phone interview following those sessions. “I was very pleased at the number of people who were very honest in their reflections and questions.”

He said he has been undergoing medical procedures for the transition from female to male during the past year, with “a great team of medical people who helped me think it out.”

In his statement to the plenary session, the 48-year-old pastor explained that “last fall, after a lifelong spiritual journey, and years of prayer and discernment, I decided to change my name from Ann Gordon to Drew Phoenix in order to reflect my true gender identity and to honor my spiritual transformation and relationship with God.”

By sharing the story of his spiritual journey and relationship with God, Phoenix said he hoped the conference participants “will commit ourselves to becoming educated about the complexity of gender and gender identity and open ourselves to those in our congregations who identify as transgender.”

Phoenix, who was ordained in 1989 and previously served in the Bethesda area, said he joined the ministry because of “a calling to be in service to folk who are oppressed, who are poor, who are excluded, who are marginalized.”

Although he was named Ann and declared a girl, Phoenix said he always felt he was male and had trouble understanding “the disconnect I was experiencing between my physical, external self and my internal, spiritual self.”

“Fortunately, today, God’s gift of medical science is enabling me to bring my physical body into alignment with my true gender,” he told the plenary session.

No church policies

He had informed his bishop, John Schol, and his congregation about his decision to undergo the transition. Schol told United Methodist News Service that he, the conference cabinet and the congregation have approached the matter in a serious and prayerful manner.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline has no specific policies regarding gender reassignment. “The cabinet and myself have done everything to ensure that the Discipline is being carried out,” Schol said.

Both Phoenix and St. John’s staff-parish committee requested that the pastor be reappointed to the church as part of the normal appointment cycle, which begins July 1. That request will be granted, according to the bishop.

Church members told Schol that under Phoenix’s leadership, membership has grown and the congregation’s financial situation has improved. “There is a spirit within the congregation that hasn’t been experienced within a number of years,” the bishop reported.

More effective pastor

Phoenix believes his transition is making him “even more effective” as a pastor and said his greatest concern “is that the congregation continues to grow and thrive.”

That growth, he pointed out, is evident at St. John’s, located just north of downtown Baltimore. With a membership spanning a wide range of ages and backgrounds – including the first youth group and confirmation class in years – the congregation is planning to renovate its historic building.

Phoenix is not the first transgender clergy member in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. In 2002, the Rev. Rebecca A. Steen decided to leave the denomination after controversy over her desire to return to active ministry after gender reassignment.

She had sought voluntary leave from the conference in 1999. Prior to that time, Steen, who was then the Rev. Richard A. Zamostny, had served churches in three Maryland communities during a 17-year career.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.