When people hear of the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent vote to reject the appeals of two churches who were expelled from the denomination for having female pastors, some wonder: Why would those churches want to stay in the denomination? Why not chart a different path?

One might well have asked some analogous questions of my younger self. I attended a conservative evangelical church for 11 years as a young adult, including two years of full-time college ministry work.

When I quit my college ministry job, I emailed a letter to the students to tell them why, explaining that I couldn’t work at the church long-term because I did not oppose same-sex relationships. I planned to step down from paid work but continue parts of my job as a volunteer.

In response to my letter, church leaders questioned my suitability to keep volunteering. I was called before the all-male elder board to defend myself. I hated that I had to defend myself. But I did so, and successfully. I kept leading Bible studies and meeting with students until I moved across the state for seminary several months later.

What was the point of fighting to keep volunteering? Why did I want to stay?

On the professional side, I didn’t want to abandon the college students in the middle of the school year. More personally, though, I considered the church my home-away-from-home, my family-away-from-family.

Church people had welcomed me warmly when I was a college student, and they were there for me in the most difficult moments of my 20s. Fellow young adult churchgoers were many of my closest friends. Especially once I worked there full-time, the church enveloped my day-to-day social and professional world.

I knew there were things I disagreed with the leadership about, and strongly — but I still felt that we had so much in common. There was so much to love about the church. It was hard to imagine leaving.

And I do mean leaving — not just no longer volunteering. Because the threat of being asked to stop volunteering felt like a threat of being expelled. How could I keep going to a church that didn’t want me to use my gifts to serve and lead? I wouldn’t have been able to stay.

Similarly, the two churches who fought to stay in the SBC believed that the values held in common were stronger than the differences that divide. They wanted to believe churches could agree to disagree. The denomination had been their home — their family — for a long, long time. The pull to stay is strong.

I speak now from the other side, several years removed from that nerve-fraying elder board meeting — and several years removed from that church. And it is good.

I’m glad I didn’t have to quit volunteering before that school year was over. But I’m also glad I am no longer a part of a church that seriously considered asking me to stop volunteering. I am better off for having left.

These days, I can speak and write the truest things I know. I can continue to learn and change, liberated from the debilitating fear that I might change in a way that sets me at odds with religious authorities and, thus, cuts me off from the communities I consider home.

I don’t have to walk impossible tightropes where any deviation from the views of those in power can be seen as “liberal drift” and appropriated as grounds for dismissal. I can choose communities that choose me.

I can live in freedom from conservative theological constraints — and I can offer that same freedom to others. We can acknowledge that we are all different and recognize that our differences make us stronger.

People different from me — and especially people on the underside of power structures like white supremacy, heterosexism, classism and ableism — know things I don’t know. Our communities are only whole if all of us are free from the pressure to contort ourselves to fit a certain mold.

This is what I want, both for individuals and for church communities. The right to self-determination is crucial. For all that the churches expelled by the SBC will lose — and they will feel the loss — they will gain much more.

For any other churches, then, who find themselves at odds with the SBC’s new constitutional amendment prohibiting female pastors, I wish them the courage to stand up for their beliefs — and to be willing to be expelled.

The voices of the biblical prophets echo through the ages, calling people of faith to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8), inviting faith communities to embrace God’s Spirit who has been poured out on all flesh of all genders (Acts 2:17, quoting Joel 2:28-9).

I have no regrets. And I hope for these churches the same.

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