CHICAGO — When Jeannine Oakes answered God’s call to become a pastor, it was a moment of both clarity and confusion.
Though her heart belonged to the Presbyterian Church, she also hoped one day to give her heart to a woman with whom she would share her life. The Presbyterian Church’s ban on openly gay clergy did not allow for both.
Eventually, she asked the leadership at Fourth Presbyterian Church to endorse her mission and enrolled at McCormick Theological Seminary to complete the necessary coursework.
“I need to be fully who I am, and the church needs to accept that,” said Oakes, 32. “God calls me to both things equally, to be who I am and to be a pastor of the church.”
On July 10, Presbyterians across the country ushered in a new era, lifting the ban on openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seminarians. For Oakes, the policy change answered years of prayer that her church would accept and welcome LGBT people in its pews and pulpits.
Raised a born-again Christian, she followed her older brother when they were teens to an evangelical Presbyterian church across town because of its vibrant youth group.
“We loved church and wanted to hang out with more than just four people our age,” she said, chuckling. “It didn’t occur to me that their beliefs were different.”
During her first year of college at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she discovered Fourth Presbyterian Church, the grand Gothic structure on Michigan Avenue, where she was blown away by the message and the music.
But what really drew her in was the congregation’s recitation of the Apostle’s Creed — an ecumenical and communal declaration that she never had encountered in the evangelical churches where she was raised.
At the same time, Oakes was confronting her sexuality.
She had always liked women more than men, but clung to the church teaching that homosexuality was a sin and hoped she would someday meet a man who could change her mind.
On the contrary, Fourth Presbyterian welcomed people who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. In adult Bible classes, Oakes received the message that full inclusion didn’t contradict Christian theology.
“Recognizing this church is a lot different than what I grew up with . . . seeing or hearing biblical interpretation that was very different from what I grew up believing, was a really big, life-changing, pivotal moment for me,” she said.
She read volumes of gay liberation theology and came out to her family shortly after college when she introduced her girlfriend at the time to her parents.
Though Oakes enjoyed her job as a supervisor and gymnastics instructor for the Chicago Park District, she began to realize she wanted to spend more time in church.
She didn’t want to be a pastor — the mere thought of writing a weekly sermon and mingling during coffee hour contradicted her introverted nature. And becoming a Presbyterian pastor seemed an impossible feat given the church’s law on fidelity and chastity. Gay clergy had to be chaste, and she longed for companionship.
Instead she envisioned a career in academia and enrolled at Yale Divinity School to pursue graduate degrees. But she couldn’t ignore a small voice beckoning her to the pulpit.
To avoid conflict, she began pursuing ordination by the United Church of Christ, which has ordained openly gay clergy for years. But yearning for the Presbyterian traditions and sense of community that she loved, she returned to Fourth Presbyterian and sought the necessary recommendation to pursue ordination in the Chicago Presbytery.
“I felt like I didn’t have to argue or fight for my ability to be ordained just on the basis of my sexuality,” she said.
“If I’m being called by God to do this and I’m affirmed by the people around me that I have these gifts, the church needs to recognize that.”
“The moment of realization that it’s not that cut-and-dried and I guess I do have to fight for it — I was in a lot of tears for a while over that.”
The Rev. Calum MacLeod, one of the pastors at Fourth who recommended Oakes for ordination, said the church law that took effect July 17 helps congregations focus on the talents that make someone a suitable candidate for ministry, “rather than be a standard about sexual orientation.”
The Rev. Frank Yamada, the new president of McCormick, said many seminarians who are “LGBTQI” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and Intersex) are relieved that ordination no longer requires that a person be married to someone of the opposite sex or be chaste.
“It was a constant dilemma for a lot of our (gay and lesbian) students. Some of them could not be open with their presbyteries about it,” he said. “That was a more common story than not.”
Oakes said she doesn’t question the integrity of seminarians who make the decision to stay silent about their sexuality. While the new church law permits presbyteries, or regional governing bodies, to ordain openly gay ministers, elders and deacons, it also gives power to the presbyteries to make their own decisions. Some still can choose to uphold the ban.
“My sexuality was so intertwined in my ordination process and becoming who I am,” she said. “Some people say, ‘My sexuality has nothing to do with it.’ Everyone has their own process. The spirit calls them to go through that process in different ways.”
As tortuous as that process tended to be at times, Oakes said she never lost faith.
“God wasn’t giving up on me,” she said. “I wasn’t giving up on God.”