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By Ruchi Naresh
It’s been 41 days since the Congregational Church of Birmingham welcomed the Rev. Louise R. Ott as its first openly gay pastor. This is also the first time Ott has been out of the closet – in her previous pastoral jobs, “hiding” was a way of life.
Ott felt this was a big transition, and now she and her partner of six years, Elaine Rachel Winter, can introduce themselves as a couple. Ott says she is a “pastor first” and everything else comes second – but in her continuous service to the church and community, she felt conflicted balancing that “everything else.”
Born in Bay City, Mich., Ott has a degree in psychology from Michigan State University and she received her master’s in divinity at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. After getting her masters, she was ordained in the United Methodist Church and for 20 years she led many congregations in and outside Michigan. In the last six years she has been the superintendent of the UMC’s Saginaw Bay District.
You have been with your partner for six years, so did the United Methodist Church know about your relationship?
They did not know and I never told them. I just continued in the closet, you know, don’t ask, don’t tell – that was the church’s version. But that gets old. I decided it was time to find a denomination that would allow me to be their pastor and to have my partner in life with me. So I left the United Methodist Church and I went through the whole process to become a United Church of Christ pastor (which is the same denomination as the Congregational Church of Birmingham).
How was the interview process with the Congregational Church of Birmingham?
First of all, the church became open and affirming in 2006, so not that long ago. When I came for what I call the speed-dating weekend, it was down to two candidates. At that point it was important to be truthful about my relationship. And I wanted to be clear that if you are going to meet me, you are going to meet Elaine. And if you choose me, you get us.
How has the church congregation reacted to you?
It’s a non-issue. These are highly educated, passionate, good-hearted people and the gay issue is done here. The vote was one abstention, one “No,” and the rest all yeses. Think about that. They are ready…they are OK.
How do you like this congregation compared to others?
I feel like I have come home. I don’t have to translate or have to be careful about the language I use. I like to use inclusive language for God and people, and that’s not a problem here. This congregation wants to make a difference in the world. There are some people in this church with means and that are highly educated, but we also have our average folks. They all want to make the world a better place.
T ell me how you met Elaine and the challenges in your relationship.
We met at a church. Isn’t that shocking? (Laughs) She was the choir director at Novi United Methodist Church for a while and then she took a job in Ann Arbor. At that time I got a job in Saginaw, and for a year we did the long distance dating thing. In 2005 her department got downsized (she lost her job) and she moved in with me. It was difficult for us. I was scared to death and I said to her, “If you move in you have to be invisible,” that means she couldn’t answer the phone or the door and she even had to keep the curtains closed. Now that everyone knows, being a couple openly still seems strange… but we’ll figure it out.
Why do sexuality and faith have to be mutually exclusive concepts?
Most faith communities are stuck with morality behavior that is more personal than corporate. We are too worried about individual behavior instead of worrying about what we are doing together in the world. They are afraid that people are not behaving the way they are supposed to behave. Why do some faith communities get freaked out about who loves whom and how they love them? I think the big picture matters more. It is more important how we treat people, and how we treat our earth. They always bring out the Bible and their interpretation of it. But it has been debated that the Bible can be interpreted in many ways. You don’t swallow your holy book whole. It’s the guidebook of God and humanity seeking to be in relationship in a way that’s edifying for all.
How do you view your role as an openly gay pastor?
It’s always hard to be the first one of anything. I am the first openly gay pastor. My role is the same as any pastor; it is to be competent and serving the congregation and being what is required and offer God’s hope, love and healing.
Why did you stay close to God and the church when much of the prejudice toward the LGBT community comes from the church itself?
I don’t want religion and faith in Christ to be driving people away from God. I want it to be a way of drawing people to God. I refuse to allow other people to define what Christian means to me. Jesus does not reject people or discriminate or doesn’t say that you can’t get married. Are you afraid we are going to get the same tax-break you get? (Laughs)