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By Eliel Cruz 5-11-2017

In October 2014, pastor Gary Hale was excited to start a new church. He moved his family from Seattle to San Jose, Calif., to plant the Bayshore Community Church, to the excitement of his home church and supporting evangelical community. In fact, more than 20 churches and evangelical organizations promised more than $300,000 dollars in support to launch the church.

But today, Hale has moved back to Seattle, and Bayshore Community Church has closed. After Hale and his staff became affirming of LGBTQ people, the project immediately lost $50,000 in pledged support, and more sponsors pulled out in the weeks following.

Hale told Sojourners that the leadership’s journey to LGBTQ affirmation began almost as soon as it was planted. Hale’s 23-person launch team, all friends from Seattle, included an openly gay man. Hale said for him that was a non-issue, but he didn’t give much thought to the theology around same-sex relationships. To the Southern Baptist Covention — and Hale — non-straight relationships were sinful.

But the fledgling church and its members were repeatedly confronted with the reality of LGBTQ Christians. Early on, the Bayshore Community Church team promoted the new church plant to residents of San Jose. At a fair at which the church had a booth, a lesbian couple walked up to the table and asked, “Can gay people come to your church?”

Again, Hale responded against as if it were a non-issue — of course gay people could come to Bayshore Community Church. 

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The Bayshore Community Church launch team in San Jose, Calif., 2014. Photo courtesy Gary Hale.

After the church sent around a mailer of promotional materials, another gay couple emailed Bayshore asking if they could attend. Again, the question was met with a resounding yes.

This “yes” allowed gay parishioners to feel comfortable contributing to church life. The lesbian couple from the fair soon became an “integral part” of the church, Hale said. Other LGBTQ people also began to attend, and soon LGBTQ Christians made up nearly 30 percent of the congregation.

A year after the church was planted, the couple from the fair asked to be baptized. Hale was elated. The Southern Baptist Convention, which had supported the church plant financially, not so much.

Hale said the SBC called him about the baptism, and asked about his theology on LGBTQ people. “I don’t know where I’m at,” Hale said he told the California branch of the SBC. “All I can tell you is that I have friends who are gay, and they’re having a life-changing experience in our church.”

As a result of the interaction, in 2016 Hale and his church team launched a Bible study on same-sex relationships, engaging both traditional and affirming theologies on LGBTQ people. According to Hale, their theological searching didn’t take very long — the church team was in agreement. They were an open and affirming church.

“I just wish we could have had more conversation before funds got dropped from 20-plus backing churches and organizations,” Hale told Sojourners. “Rather than the conversation, we went straight to protocol. And that’s a sad reality of the way big business and denomination operates.”

Sojourners reached out to the California Southern Baptist Convention for clarification on their funding model. Veronica Morales, administrative assistant of the Church Starting Group, told Sojourners that church planters apply for funding through the North American Mission Board (NAMB). The California SBC works in collaboration with NAMB, providing church planters mentorship.

In order to secure funding, church planters apply through NAMB agreeing to a code of conduct and expectations as well as adhering to the Baptist faith as outlined by NAMB and the Southern Baptist Convention. Under “The Christian and Social Order” section on the Baptist faith message, the SBC website says, “In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.” (Emphasis added.)

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Pastor Gary Hale and family. Photo courtesy Gary Hale.

Hale isn’t the first pastor to suffer loss of funding over his shift on theology on LGBTQ people.

Pastor Danny Cortez of New Heart Community Church in La Miranda, Calif., famously announced he was affirming of LGBTQ people in 2014. His church shifted to a “third way” stance, in which members agreed to fellowship in tension on their beliefs on same-sex relationships.

“I thought for sure I was going to lose my job, and began to look for other job opportunities,” Cortez said. “When it became clear there was a high probability that I would remain pastor, I was afraid at how much funds we would actually lose. I prepared to work without pay if need be.”

Cortez said the church lost half of its membership, and nearly half of its budget — severely limiting their mission.

“We had to cut off all of our missionary and compassion giving," Cortez said.

“We also were asked to leave the Baptist church we were renting from ... so we found rent at an Episcopalian church for half of what we were paying. We also cut my pay and benefits.”

Cortez says he hasn’t had a raise in salary since the split.

“We’ve been recovering slowly,” he said. “It’s been 3 years since the split, and we have just voted to begin giving outside of our church again … Our giving is now related more to justice work around race, LGBTQ, reconciliation, and homelessness.”

A fear of losing funding has kept pastors from pursuing affirming theology or outright announcing their shift to it — even those who otherwise may, said Matthew Vines, Executive Director of the Reformation Project, which promotes a Bible-based approach to LGBTQ inclusion.

“It's definitely a justified fear, given that virtually every Christian church or organization that changes its policies to become affirming does lose donors, and often major donors,” Vines said.

“Church leaders have to take those financial perils seriously, and many have to face the prospect of losing enough support that they'll need to downsize, lay off staff, or even close their doors altogether.”

But to Cortez, silence was not an option.

“Finances and trying to save the institution should be second to caring for marginalized people,” Cortez said.

“If the church closes, or we lose our jobs, so be it. But we have to have the courage to stand up for what is right. Leave the 99, and go after the one.”

Eliel Cruz is a speaker and writer on religion and sexuality with five years of faith organizing experience on the intersections of faith, sexuality, and gender. 

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