Anna Golladay stumbled upon St. Marks for the second time during Holy Week, before Easter in 2012. It just happened to be the closest United Methodist church to her home on Chattanooga's North Shore.
Golladay — a lifelong United Methodist, like her father and his father and his father before that — wasn't looking for a new church home that Maundy Thursday six years ago. Since moving to Chattanooga in 2010 to take a job at Top Flight, she had settled into a Methodist congregation in Hixson. She had visited St. Marks the year before, but felt out of place in the small congregation of seniors. Still, she said, she felt God called her there that day.
"There was a spirit," she said.
She had no idea her decision to stay would eventually put her at the center of a longstanding denominational debate over sexuality and whether those who identify as LGBTQ can serve as pastors or be married by Methodist pastors.
Leading up to her visit to St. Marks that Holy Week, a group at Christ Church United Methodist in East Brainerd had been working behind the scenes to renew St. Marks, which was struggling to survive, despite its prime real estate on Mississippi Avenue. Their plan was to send 100 Christ Church members to bolster the congregation and be a catalyst for growth.
And the day the big announcement was made, a few weeks later, Golladay was among the 15 or so people sitting in the pews being asked to help bring about a revival.
It was a divine match, she said. She was a type-A fixer with years of experience in both marketing and Methodist lay leadership who lived in the changing neighborhood.
"I raised my hand in the air," she said. "That was the beginning.
"I joined a team of about a half dozen folks who went into strategic planning mode. New marketing. New branding. New logo. Changed worship style. Repainted. Got rid of the pulpit and put in a stage."
The church had so much going for it, she believed, including the fact that its new leaders had a desire to welcome and include those in the LGBTQ community. Golladay had been raised in a conservative home but decided while she was in art school in West Virginia that her faith wasn't in conflict with her friends' sexuality.
"There is nothing to change about their gender or sexual identity because those identities are not sinful," said Golladay. "It's of no consequence."
Carl Greene came from Christ Church and began leading the revitalization team and preaching regularly. And together he and Golladay spearheaded an effort to help St. Marks become one of three of the Holston Conferences' 880 churches to designate itself as a "reconciling community" by explicitly welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The Holston Conference, led by Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, covers the eastern third of Tennessee and goes north to Radford, Va., and south to Wildwood, Ga.
The church grew rapidly from a dozen or so members to 130, said Golladay, and a few years later, around 50 percent of the congregation was LGBTQ.
As the church grew, so did Golladay, she said. At times she would fill in and preach for Greene, and soon she began to feel a pull to become a licensed local pastor with the United Methodist Church. So she went through licensing school and in 2017 was appointed to serve at St. Marks, the church she had helped rebuild.
Her husband, Mike, also began attending the church when he moved to Chattanooga several months after Golladay settled in the city.
When Greene determined that it was time to step down as church leader, Gary Ihfe, the pastor of Lookout Mountain United Methodist, was appointed as the head pastor of both St. Marks and St. Elmo United Methodist, another one of the Holston Conferences' three self-identified reconciling congregations. Ihfe had already been serving as St. Marks' "shepherding pastor," conducting baptisms and blessing communion elements for the church because Greene could not. And Golladay was appointed as assistant pastor to help Ihfe lead the two churches.
"We were comfortable with the dynamics," she said. "It made a lot of sense."
And things went smoothly, she said, until a little more than a month ago when she was fired for officiating a same-sex wedding, an act explicitly forbidden by the United Methodist's governing document, the Book of Discipline.
Both churches she was helping pastor had a large percentage of LGBTQ parishioners, and she had been approached more than a dozen times to marry couples who she knew and loved. Still, she had consistently said no because she knew she could be disciplined for marrying gay couples. Ihfe, also, always said no.
The Book of Discipline has a clear position on this issue: "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," it states.
Then, in the fall of 2016, she said, she found herself in a situation where she felt she couldn't say no. Two of her closest friends, a lesbian couple who attended St. Marks, asked her to officiate their wedding, and after much thought and prayer she agreed.
When no one seemed to notice or chastise her, she said yes again, a year later, to another lesbian couple she was close with. This time, however, her decision was made public. The couple posted a photo on Facebook showing Golladay officiating the small wedding and someone saw it and sent it to church leadership.
Not long after, Golladay said, she was called into a meeting with Randy Martin, the district superintendent for the Chattanooga area, who said he had been sent a photo showing her conducting a gay marriage ceremony, as well as the marriage license with her name on it, and that the Scenic South District committee on ministry had voted the day before to rescind her license and terminate her position at St. Marks and St. Elmo United Methodist.
She had met with the legal team at Reconciling Ministries Network — which has been lobbying United Methodist leaders to change its Book of Discipline and training churches on how to be open and affirming — and had a plan to present to the district superintendent that would allow her to stay in her role, but she was never able to share it, she said.
Licensed local pastors go through a different disciplinary process than ordained ministers, said Martin, who confirmed Golladay's firing.
Martin said he didn't want to discuss his personal views on homosexuality because, in this situation, they aren't relevant. Right now, the church has to abide by the Book of Discipline. The only body that can change the Book of Discipline is the United Methodist General Conference which meets every four years, and at past meetings the issue has not been resolved. However, the general conference has called a special meeting for February 2019 to discuss human sexuality, he said.
At that meeting the rules could be changed, Martin said, but until then he has to uphold the Book of Discipline as is, even as he understands the challenge it presents to pastors of reconciling congregations who are working hard to be welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
"This was a personnel issue, not a human sexuality issue," he said. "She [Golladay] violated her oath to support the Book of Discipline by doing this wedding The option was either to ignore it or act. It couldn't be ignored because of the way it came about. That doesn't mean she can never enter into the process [of being a licensed local pastor] again. That is where the grace comes in."
A part of Golladay completely understood, she said.
"I always knew I was taking a chance," she said. "I am not going to lie and say this couldn't happen to me."
Another part of her was frustrated with the decision. They didn't have to fire her, she believed. Infidelity was also a blatant violation of the church's Book of Discipline, but she knew of several examples where pastors caught cheating on their spouses were allowed to stay in ministry. Church leaders could have just suspended her or asked her to not to conduct any more same-sex marriages until the General Conference vote next year at the special global meeting on sexuality, she said. Golladay also couldn't understand why she wasn't given an opportunity to explain her decision before the committee voted to withdraw her license.
Martin, however, believes Golladay was treated appropriately.
"It was not taken any more seriously than anything else," he said, when asked if Golladay incurred a harsher punishment than pastors caught violating the Book of Discipline's rule again infidelity.
Golladay's congregations were told the following Sunday that she was fired for conducting the marriage, and she showed up at both services.
Barry Condra, a lifelong Methodist who has been in leadership at St. Elmo United Methodist for 15 years, said he was devastated by the news and nearly quit the church. St. Elmo was the first church in the Holston Conference to identify as a reconciling congregation, and Condra had been a part of the leadership team that made it happen.
"I was mad. I was hurt. I was disappointed," Condra said, remembered when he got the call from Martin about Golladay's firing. "I don't want St. Elmo to be labeled a gay church. We are not a gay church. I just wanted a church where I could be gay You go to some churches and you have to be Republican, white and make $100,000 or you get looked at, and that is not who St. Elmo is."
The church is rooted in Methodism, he said, but their denomination isn't perfect. The Book of Disciple also used to forbid pastors from marrying interracial couples, but that has since changed, he pointed out.
"Jesus got killed because he was fighting the church and the church leaders," he said. "I am tired of trying to fight to be a Christian in organized religion, but I turned that anger into, oh no, we are not going to let this happen!"
Condra, a voting lay delegate to the Holston Conference, said he told Martin that the decision to defrock and fire Golladay made him, as a gay man, feel "unholy and unworthy." But it has also brought the church together.
"There is a fighting spirit," he said. "It has lit a fire under us. We have banded together.
"I am not going to stop," said Condra, holding back tears. "I have an 89-year-old father who has lived his faith and never wavered and instilled in his children the importance of God, Jesus and faith. We knew that something was going to happen. We know that we have pushed the boundaries of the church, but the only way that things can change is when people step out and push."
Ihfe posted his own reaction to the decision to dismiss Golladay on Facebook on March 5.
"Tears were shed, hugs were given, and prayers were said," he wrote. "I am so sorry for the pain that is being felt by many of our families who feel as though they have come under attack."
Golladay chose to remain a member at St. Marks. A week after the firing she published a video message to the two congregations explaining why and imploring those angered by the decision to stay as well.
"Yes, I did stand before a couple that many of you know and affirm and bless their marriage," she said. "These are humans who have been a part of our community, who have made their home with us, who have asked nothing more than that each of us love and care for them in the same way that Jesus taught us to."
Members shouldn't abandon the church, she said. They needed to unite with other like-minded United Methodists from across the country and world to change the church from within, and the first step was lobbying for an amended Book of Discipline leading up to the crucial vote at the global meeting next February.
"I really think we have a chance to make a difference in the way the decision goes, and I don't want them to have to fight this without me," said Golladay. "I believe the United Methodist church is irreparably harming their congregants, and I don't think any of us should give permission for that. The next 11 months are going to be spent getting this changed."
In the meantime, she has been working more with Reconciling Ministries Network, traveling to churches to speak on the issue and building a local Reconciling Ministries chapter. She is also getting a group together to lobby representatives from the Holston Conference who will be able to cast a vote in the 2019 decision on sexuality.
Helen Ryde, Reconciling Ministries' Southeast jurisdiction organizer, is working with Golladay and the 45 churches, communities and campus ministries in her coverage area to influence the 2019 discussion, and said she wasn't shocked to hear about Golladay's case.
"It's the system delivering what the system says it's going to deliver," said Ryde, who has been advocating for inclusivity in the Methodist church for years. "We have rules that say that this is what's supposed to happen, which is why it is so broken and wrong."
It's too early to say how a vote will swing next year, she said.
"It is critically important for all Methodists who have a heart for inclusion to be telling their stories, raising their voices and engaging in conversations wherever and whenever possible with the desire for communicating our hope for a United Methodist church that is fully inclusive."
Many within the United Methodist church still hold a conservative view toward sexuality and marriage. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, for example, is an organization working to keep the Book of Discipline intact.
"In keeping with Christian teaching through the ages and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union," the association's website states.
To learn more about efforts at St. Marks and St. Elmo United Methodist go to www.stmarkschattanooga.com or www.saintelmo.org. To learn more about the United Methodist Church's "Commission on a Way Forward" and next years planned meeting to discuss church rules regarding human sexuality go to www.umc.org/who-we-are/commission-on-a-way-forward.
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6601.