Stan Mitchell and GracePointe Church are paying the price for being inclusive, and also discovering who they really are inside
The pastor greeted me on the front porch of his soon-to-be-vacated church building late in July. He was dressed in the same clothes he wears to preach in: pressed t-shirt and slacks.
The Reverend Stan Mitchell has a lot on his mind these days, and the upcoming exodus from an established church campus for rented quarters in South Nashville is just one of them. Pastor Mitchell has been trying to get progressive-minded Christians — the ones who want GracePointe Church for their spiritual home — to travel down to his Williamson County campus for some time. Soon they will have no more excuses.
GracePointe began holding services inside the walls of Unity of Nashville very soon after we spoke...roughly eight miles up the Franklin Pike and over the Davidson County line. In doing so the congregation is going back to its roots as a church that met in temporary spaces. One of the South’s first mainstream Christian congregations to openly become LGBTQI-inclusive has left its home for parts unknown—and known.
It was a different church that settled in Williamson County over eight years ago. A much larger one, too. But the times have changed and previously unspoken truths have been accepted by most of the present congregants.
The public embrace of LGBTQI people and same-sex relationships by Mitchell and GracePointe Church in 2015 has led to a major decline in attendance and revenue. The pastor and his congregation saw the financial writing on the wall and decided to go back to being renters for the time being. They don’t mind for the most part: they like their new progressive stance and the majority are willing to move to a temporary church home for it.
The upcoming move to Davidson County makes sense, Mitchell believes, because progressive-minded people who embrace progressive, social justice oriented ministries tend to live in urban areas.
“A progressive theology really decentralizes things,” he said. Everything does not have to happen inside a formal church structure, nor should people feel pressure to always attend a church. "As long as these same people do not disconnect from church," the pastor quickly added. Progressive-leaning folks have a learned tendency to do just that in the smartphone era and the Reverend Stan Mitchell plans to keep an eye out for that.
"They’re going to be the same church they have always been," Mitchell said. The same one that was re-born on an emotion-filled day in early 2015.
They will be doing it just a little further north.
The police officer smiled as he made the “slow down” motion with his hand.
It had been awhile since I had visited a church service. Synagogues run a little different: you basically pick the part of the service you like to arrive by and get there roughly a few minutes ahead of schedule. Church is different; you are supposed to show up before the service begins. I had forgotten about that, and was about to be late. Now I was in line behind the zillion other cars awaiting the opening of overflow parking for the Baptist church across the road from my destination.
You find GracePointe Church and its lot by turning off the Franklin Pike on to Country Road, then make a quick right. The congregants I know tell me that their church uses the pike address for prestige and the road address for access. It’s supposed to be a good joke, but the half-empty lot bears evidence of a minor exodus over two years of congregants who do not like progressive moves or movements. Ones who probably feel better worshiping somewhere else truly on the Franklin Pike in Williamson County, perhaps across the road…
The Reverend Stan Mitchell was trying not to look pensive as he approached the pulpit that morning, the service prior to the last one inside their current building that would come the next Sunday. He was trying, but he was also being human, and his mood matched that of the hushed congregants who sat before him.
“Over the last eight years here, I have come to the fuller conviction that our church has a special mission...and that we are not a special flower,” Mitchell began after the welcoming remarks.
We are like other churches who gather in this town...yet from the beginning, our special mission, our journey is that we believe that we are a part of the reformative movement within the Church that has as one of its chief missions to disabuse the Church of a fear-based view of G-d…
We believe that for the first two-thousand years, we have been a maturing bunch, moving little by little towards a view that alleviates that horrific fear of G-d that so many of us grew up with…
My young life was shaped by that view, and there were many times over the last two decades where I wanted to go away from it, sometimes from Christianity itself...but (Christianity) never let go of me, and within scripture were the seeds of its own healing, and maturation...and ultimately the direction...
Our church has as its mission this idea...to create an environment where kids are not scared of church, where they want to come back and develop a love for it...so if they have kids, they will bring them too…
We have a role in Middle Tennessee, and the world. It is a good, viable and necessary one...and it has a mission that is bigger than any one of us…
Our vision is intact, many call this place home. We are clinging to one another, and we will get to the other side of all this. So let us be good to one another as we move forward, and let us go do better.
“We need to get being LGBTQI off the sin list because it’s killing kids,” the pastor begins during our conversation.
He has just told me of the church’s plan to help lead a silent protest of a Southern Baptist Convention sponsored meeting on Christian parenting the next month in coordination with other churches and the pro-LGBTQI spiritual outreach group Faith in America.
Pastor Mitchell is excited. As the group’s Director of Spiritual Outreach, this is an opportunity he has been looking forward to. He reminds me that while they are not specifically targeting Southern Baptist ministers for direct engagement, they tend to be the more noticeable. His group is trying to help educate any religious body who believes being LGBTQI is a sin.
“Sometimes it takes a big ship a long time to turn around,” Mitchell says when speaking of Conservative Christian culture and the LGBTQI community. “There will be a moment down the road when society, including churches, look back on all this and say ‘oh my G-d!’ “
Hailing from a fundamentalist Christian family in Northeast Arkansas, Mitchell began to rebel against his background almost as soon as he began preaching at the age of sixteen. It was the Christian literature he read on the sly from the more liberal side of the spectrum that started him on this path.
“From that moment, the door cracked open for me,” Mitchell says. He could not imagine how people outside his fundamentalist worldview could write so movingly about the Christian faith and began to secretly read the literature mentioned in the bibliographies of those books. He wound up being changed inside and on the steady gradual path towards a rebellion against previous accepted traditional Christian views.
Asked how he wound up in the middle of our fight, Mitchell says he got here as a matter of conscience. He professed a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint toward the LGBTQI community until roughly twenty years ago when he began to directly engage many of us while pastoring another local church. The conversations and experiences educated him...and forced him to choose between the learned faith he grew up with and the growing knowledge inside his heart that much of what he had been taught may have been misinterpreted.
For Pastor Mitchell, the Christian Bible is not wrong: it is our understanding of what the Bible says that is likely wrong. Over the last twenty years, he has concluded that it was likely he and the majority of the Church have been terribly wrong about same-sex relationships and LGBTQI people.
“That’s the history of the Church,” Mitchell explained. “It comes from experiences, often the experiences of marginalized groups to help it to grow.”
Pastor Mitchell and GracePointe Church began to openly profess a “Progressive Christian” approach to ministry by announcing their 2015 inclusion statement from the pulpit. Progressive theology attempts to take the teachings of Christian scripture and apply it to a modern environment, according to Mitchell. The accumulation of knowledge and experience necessarily forces a re-examination of old scriptural interpretations over time.
“Science, reason and experience are always driving us back to the text (of scripture) to read it more effectively than before,” Mitchell explains. “We don’t reinvent wheels...we grow.”
Pastor Mitchell believes that every generation receives the Christian message as best they can within the bounds of their culture and knowledge. Speaking as a Progressive Christian, Mitchell says that he does not feel obliged to agree with traditional Christian teaching regarding LGBTQI subjects. The overwhelming majority of our culture no longer accepts that acts of slavery or misogyny are justifiable even if tolerated by Christian scripture...why should we then blindly accept the same about LGBTQI issues?
None of what has happened since the inclusion statement of 2015 was truly planned, according to the pastor.
“I never truly considered that it would turn into all this,” Mitchell adds. “I probably did not think (the outcomes) all the way through.”
He tells me the story of how his former minister of music came out to him as LGBTQI back in 2005. Mitchell says that he wanted to take his church in an inclusive direction back then by supporting his friend’s decision to publicly leave the closet, but the minister resigned instead to spare his church a potentially divisive issue.
Nine years later, the same friend was about to get married to his long time same-sex partner. Mitchell would have agreed to perform the wedding if asked, he says, but he wasn’t because this person knew that the pastor’s participation could still lead to a potentially fatal division at GracePointe.
Soon after receiving the wedding invitation, Mitchell was told by mutual friends that the minister who had agreed to tie the knot was forced to drop out because of pressure. “It was a crisis of conscience for me,” he says of that particular time.
Mitchell and other worship leaders at GracePointe had already been struggling in private with the issue of how to move forward to the full inclusion of LGBTQI people in their church. They knew that it was grossly unfair to ask them to stay hidden inside a closet because other congregants would not be able to tolerate LGBTQI people for a host of reasons, not just religious ones.
No one wanted the church to break up, especially Stan Mitchell, his friends and allies in ministry roles—and on GracePointe’s board. But he couldn’t turn his back on his friend. He says that he knew instinctively then that performing the wedding was the right thing to do. But it sent a shockwave through his church. The full inclusion statement followed soon after. And the aftershocks of both have yet to abate nearly three years later.
I ask the pastor if he feels that he may unintentionally went around his board when he performed that wedding?
“Hindsight is 20/20,” the pastor replies somewhat ruefully. He says that if he had to do this all over again, he would have gone immediately to the church’s full board and told them what he felt he had to do, offering his resignation if it had been requested.
Mitchell says that he told supportive members of his board at the time of his intentions. They asked him to “not make a big deal” about his officiating the wedding and the full board would meet on its regular schedule to discuss the ramifications of his action. Two years after, he says that he would love the opportunity to do all of this differently, but realizes he cannot…
The morning of final sermon in Williamson County could not have been more beautiful. Bright blue skies complemented the rolling hills. It was obvious why the church founders chose this spot a decade ago. Probably the same reason why most others come to live here. It's rural and beautiful. This will be a hard place to leave behind.
I had expected a funereal atmosphere, and was mostly wrong. There were more smiles than the last week and a bit of guarded excitement for the future. There was also the beginning of some tears.
I was standing out of the way after the service had begun when Reverend Mitchell bumped into me on his way to the sanctuary’s rear. He smiled a little and shook my hand in passing. He was shedding some tears too. It felt like the scene from my college graduation back in the day: you knew this was coming, you really didn’t want it to come just yet, but here you are.
Pastor Mitchell stepped up to the pulpit.
Eight years and four months ago we took up residence here. It seems like yesterday for me, and also one hundred years ago. A country road took us home to a place where we belonged, right here in Franklin, Tennessee. A place where we belonged for a season…
Most of you weren’t here then. We were a church of nearly 1500 members. In a herculean effort over a space of five years, they bought this campus and built this building in the heart of Williamson County. The majority were not wealthy people...all of them gave sacrificially and graciously, and the sacrifice for many of them was enormous…
By the summer of 2012, we went on to grow to around 2500 members when our church began another type of growth: a discussion over the full inclusion for our LGBTQ+ siblings. In January of 2015, we made the decision that to offer these, our siblings, anything less than the fullest rights and privileges of membership and leadership would be the actual sin, not their lives or their identity…
We came to a point where we realized that if people like many of you in this room could not serve in this congregation, there were some of us who did not want to go on. Inclusion was made...a shot was literally heard around the world, and the echo is even now growing…
Since making the inclusion statement, GracePointe has been exploring, discovering and describing what it means to be a Progressive Christian church, not simply an inclusive church. Most of us came into all this with an inherited faith, one that was imposed upon us...We are attempting to move to a point where we are living out of faith, one we hold true and dear…
Over GracePointe’s first decade, we made it our mission to be a safe place for people to question their faith. For the first ten years, many of us knew what we didn’t believe. After the inclusion statement, we spent two to three years shifting our primary focus and ministry to figuring out what we do believe, coming to a point where our theological identity is more solid and stable than ever before…
We are a Progressive Christian church. This realization has come from years of questioning and struggle...and this faith now feels like our own. This campus has never been our permanent home, no more than mortar and bricks can be yours, but inside this place we discovered who we are and what GracePointe is...and as we move forward, we will discover that this home on Country Road will have served its purpose well.
Soon after, the pastor asked all congregants to come down to the front: to reflect, to release, and to bless the campus for those who would come after them. They then went outside to do the same, holding hands in a circle around the padre as he cast the leftover bread and communion wine to the earth.
And then they were gone.
“We don’t want to be the monolithically driven church that always talks about the LGBTQI issue,” Mitchell says as he contemplates GracePointe’s next chapter, inside Davidson County.
Since the 2015 inclusion statement, he estimates that LGBTQI people represent about 35% of all congregants and will probably grow a little more after the move. The majority of them came after the statement was made, leading to some complaints from long-time congregants that GracePointe was turning into a classic gay/lesbian church. Mitchell says that this will never be the case. He understands the concern, but points out that it only seems this way because of how quickly so many of our community joined. GracePointe will always be a diverse church and never an exclusive one.
There was never any pressure from anyone in Williamson County to get GracePointe Church to leave, according to Mitchell. He says that the overwhelming majority who live there are kind intelligent people who, while never really supportive of GracePointe’s progressive vision, did not behave like Westboro Baptist Church types either.
The loss of over half the congregation since the inclusion statement was made has hurt GracePointe’s financial stability, Mitchell admits. The church campus in Williamson County has been placed on the market and the congregation is hoping the eventual sale of the property, along with recent budget and staff cutbacks, will help right the finances as they move forward. The pastor says that the financial picture darkened because of the loss of half the congregation in a short period of time and paying the note for a campus that was built for a different time and outlook.
“There are still hundreds of people who call the church home in the middle of Williamson County,” the pastor reminds me. They are not leaving because they have to at this point; it just makes more sense to do so now for the long term. He had expected to retire at the Williamson County location and will miss it terribly like most of the congregants, but any sadness is tempered by the excitement for the new challenge to the north, over the Davidson County line.
GracePointe is about to show other evangelical churches that they can do this too, Mitchell says. They can also become inclusive Christian ministries by such a move. It’s not easy, he admits, but GracePointe is better off in the long run by the changes it has made and what it is about to do. They are moving to in order to thrive, not just survive, and set an example for others to do the same.
“Did you foresee the outcome of your actions?” I ask.
“I knew it was coming,” he says. “When you spend enough time and holidays with LGBTQI people, it was not hard to figure out what was going to come our way.”
“Our? Do you feel part of the LGBTQI community now?”
“I do,” he says with an uptick of emotion. “I feel that I have been received.”
The pastor says he felt like Paul of Tarsus in the beginning of his journey into our community. Paul, in the Christian New Testament, was a persecutor of early Christians who went on to have a life-changing conversion experience and become their champion. While not directly comparing his personal journey to that of Paul, Mitchell feels there is a rather close parallel to both stories and, consequently, he feels called in a personal and pastoral sense to be a champion for LGBTQI people.
Mitchell knows that some in our community may be dubious and slightly wary of his recent public support for LGBTQI people and issues, and he doesn’t blame anyone for thinking that. But he also believes that he has earned some respect for the personal and professional hits he has taken over his public support for our community, too.
“If you say that you are an ally or an advocate for a group of people and are not getting hit by the same things that are thrown at them, then you are not close enough,” the pastor says. He feels that once he started getting hit, the LGBTQI community began to figure out that he was for real, and then began to accept him as an ally.
Mitchell is concerned that people inside and outside the community are questioning his motive for LGBTQI advocacy. He says that he is not trying to grandstand, and feels the Church as a whole needs to embrace this fight in the same manner as religious and political leaders did during the African-American Civil Rights movement. The pastor feels that he is just doing his bit and doing it publicly. That’s all.
“The LGBTQI community cannot just advocate for itself,” Mitchell argues. “There has to be other people to come alongside to help, not because they are affected but because it is the right thing to do.” He says that he had to work out his own learned prejudices over same-sex relationships and LGBTQI people. It took time, but he grew up and he believes others in his position can too.
“I want my friends (in the community) to know that there are people like me everywhere,” he explains. Allies like himself who are willing to lose their homes, endure hits and be honorably associated in full measure with the LGBTQI community.
The contemporary gospel song “Healing Rain” was playing from the sanctuary as I entered GracePointe’s first service inside Davidson County...
Healing rain, it comes with fire
So let it fall, and take us higher
Healing rain, I’m not afraid
To be washed in Heaven’s rain...
The Unity Centre of Nashville’s worship area is roughly half the size of the church’s former chapel, but it has cushioned pews.
“I didn’t think I would ever do pews again!” Pastor Mitchell exclaimed to the laughter of the congregation gathered inside. The Reverend had shared earlier that the worship staff had estimated they had set up and put away roughly 130,000 folding chairs the last time GracePointe worshipped inside temporary quarters. The seating was a pleasant surprise.
There was a mixed crowd this Saturday evening, the new time for the weekly service. It was a bigger crowd than the week before and the kids were in attendance as the “Sunday School” had yet to be set up in the new digs. One was holding the hands of an older lesbian couple.
The peace was soon offered followed by communion, Stan Mitchell the officiant watching from the pulpit with an unforced smile. For the first time in weeks, I saw the worry lines on his forehead disappear...
The sermon was an upbeat one.
It’s not time to stop reflecting, but it is also time to begin dreaming again…
We have fought a good fight and sometimes G-d drops hints that we must adapt and change…
G-d is capable of anything. It is time to ask bigger and think bigger here…
We will begin to dream once again now, even if we are sad and tired...we will grow and show all how well this has worked…
Because love never fails.
Again the congregation went outside and formed a circle around the padre as he once again blessed the earth with the leftover bread and wine.
We cast for hope and expectations…
For justice, equality, equanimity…
We bless the earth because the earth has blessed us…
And we are opening, dreaming and receiving…
Because people need what we are doing.
“Do you sometimes feel like you walked into something you did not expect, by showing open support for this community?” I ask.
No, Mitchell says. His eyes were always wide open and he knew inside what was probably coming. He says that he heard the stories from his LGBTQI friends and expected much the same when he took a public stand. Pastor Mitchell was not surprised that many people left the congregation over his pro-LGBTQI stance and his embrace of Progressive Christian theology to justify the stand. What did surprise him was the large number of people who agreed with his actions but came under strong family and social pressure to leave GracePointe Church.
“If you went to GracePointe and worked in Williamson County, it wasn’t too long before your family and neighbors began asking why you go to that church?” Mitchell says. He doesn’t judge anyone for leaving because of that, he adds. They were taking strong hits, too, just like he was.
I ask him: “Do you see fellow Christians who refuse to embrace LGBTQI people as bigots?”
He smiles, and says that he likes to employ the use of adjectives instead of nouns for this answer.
“The huge issue in the Church is not how we see LGBTQI people, but how we see G-d,” Mitchell explains. When our view of G-d matures, then our perspective on all other issues follows as well. Bigotry describes a learned action and not the person employing it. What LGBTQI people experience is bigotry, and it is bias, and it is very much wrong. But he also feels that the vast majority of traditionally-raised Christians are not homophobic and/or transphobic out of ill will. They are trying to be faithful to an unfortunate interpretation of Christian teaching.
LGBTQI bigotry is a Christian problem, according to the pastor. It’s not an exclusively Southern problem. He feels that bigotry shows up stronger on the radar here because of the overwhelming conservative nature of Christian practice in the South. But it is everywhere, and we must keep that in mind when dealing with our not-so-welcoming neighbors.
He reminds me that the early Christian Church was very exclusionary. All anyone has to do to see G-d’s reaction to that problem is to read the New Testament Book of Acts and see how quickly G-d worked to help the Church get over itself.
That said, Pastor Mitchell feels his primary call of ministry today is getting folks to see G-d and themselves differently, which he feels leads to seeing people who are not like themselves differently. He says that he became a Progressive Christian because of his interactions with LGBTQI people, and became an ally because his changed theological viewpoint called him to do so. GracePointe Church got to where it is on LGBTQI issues because of its changing nature too.
“Progressive Christianity is unashamedly Christian and unapologetically interfaith,” Mitchell says. Progressive Christians share similar concepts with Progressive Jews, Muslims and other faiths but come to it from a Christian standpoint. They are interfaith because they are Christian and are taught to be inclusive by examples from the earliest days of the Church. Progressive Christians support LGBTQI people because their faith calls them to do so.
“So what have you learned about us?” I ask.
“I am always amazed by how quickly the community can forgive, heal and embrace others,” Mitchell says. It shows human beauty and how we are made in the image of G-d because if there was any group out there who had a right to be cynical and bitter, it is this community. The overwhelming majority choose not to. LGBTQI people root for and help out the underdogs instead because we know what it is like to be one.
We carry incredible scars, gaping wounds, and have every right to be cynical about our lot, he says.
But we choose not to be.
“Remember, being LGBTQI is never a sin,” he says as we arise from our chairs. My time is up and we both have other appointments to attend to.
Perhaps Stan Mitchell is putting the best face on a bad situation, and perhaps too he may have walked into our community as naive as most of us were when we came out. But he looks relaxed, and possibly relieved as we stare off into the countryside just north of Franklin, on a fine campus soon to be vacated for a new beginning: for himself, and for a congregation that has embraced our community in deeds and not just in words.
A new beginning located inside friendlier territory. Just a little further to the north.
Julie Chase is the pen name for a local 40-something trans woman.