Pastor relieved from duties after appearing in drag on HBO reality show


NEWBURGH, Ind (WEHT/AP) – A Indiana pastor has been relieved from his duties after taking part in the HBO docuseries We’re Here.

The show follows three drag artists as they travel to small cities and towns to transform locals into drag queens to promote a safe and inclusive place for LGBTQ communities. Reverend Craig Duke was a clergy member at United Methodist Church and was nominated by the River City Pride Organization to participate. According to the church, Duke has since been relieved from his pastoral duties effective on Dec. 1.

Duke, 62, said he thought most of his 400-member congregation at Newburgh United Methodist Church shared his inclusive views, and he was taken aback when a prominent congregation member, soon backed by other churchgoers, circulated emails attacking him.

“You have thrown NUMC under the bus to elevate a minority of individuals,” said one of the emails. Another, according to Duke, said Satan must be pleased with the discord over LGBTQ rights.

Duke, who declined to identify his chief critics, told The Associated Press that the attacks “felt very personal,” causing him to worry about his mental health.

“It was a matter of sadness and disappointment and heartbreak on my part … realizing I was losing the ability to lead,” he said.

Under United Methodist Church protocol, a pastor does not have the option of resigning, but Duke said he made clear to his immediate superior, regional superintendent Mitch Gieselman, that he needed to step away.

On Nov. 26, Gieselman — who had been hearing from the pastor’s critics and supporters — sent a letter to the NUMC congregation announcing that Duke “is being relieved of his pastoral duties.”

Through the next three months, Duke said he and his wife will be allowed to continue living in the NUMC parsonage, while he incurs a 40% pay cut. They must relocate no later than Feb. 28, when his pay will be halted, Gieselman said.

While Gieselman noted in his letter than Duke’s actions had “polarized” the congregation, he said none of those actions constituted formal violations of UMC’s Book of Discipline, which functions as a legal code for Methodist clergy.

“I was bullied out,” Duke said.

The episode of “We’re Here” featuring Duke — at one point shown in a dress, high-heeled boots, a pink wig and heavy make-up — was taped in July but did not air until Nov. 8.

Duke was invited to participate in the show by an LGBTQ Pride group in nearby Evansville and accepted in part to show support for his 23-year-old daughter, Tiffany, who identifies as pansexual.

The premise of “We’re Here,” an Emmy-nominated series now in its second season, is that three renowned drag performers travel to towns and small cities across the U.S., recruiting a few locals to join them as drag queens.

Even before the episode was broadcast, some congregation members complained that Duke hadn’t given them advance notice of his decision to be in the show, which included scenes filmed at the church. In response, Duke wrote to the congregation in August, saying he was sorry that trust in his leadership had been damaged.

But he defended his motives, saying, “I was willing and excited to share God’s love with the LGBTQ community on a national level.”

Any hope that conflict would subside vanished in mid-November when the emails attacking him began to circulate.

The rift within Duke’s congregation reflects broader divisions within the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States.

Conservative leaders in the UMC have unveiled plans to form a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, with a doctrine that does not recognize same-sex marriage. The move could hasten the long-expected breakup of the UMC over differing approaches to LGBTQ inclusion, including whether LGBTQ people should be ordained as clergy

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the UMC’s General Conference — at which the schism would be debated — has been postponed for two consecutive years and is now scheduled for August 2022 in Minneapolis.

According to Duke, one of the reasons he was invited to appear on “We’re Here” was because of the divisions in both his own church and the UMC.

“My only hope and goal was and is to bring the message of God’s unconditional love to a community that has been greatly marginalized,” Duke wrote to his congregation.

The decision to terminate Duke’s duties already has had ripple effects. His wife, Linda, who was pastor of youth ministry, resigned. So did church administrative assistant Erin Sexton, who along with her husband, Chris, organized a GoFundMe campaign to help the Dukes.

As of Wednesday evening, more than $58,000 had been pledged by about 1,400 donors, scores of whom added comments thanking Duke for his LGBTQ advocacy.

Chris Sexton said he had been a member of Newburgh United Methodist since childhood and described Duke as “one of the most captivating and genuine” of the many pastors who served over the years. But the Sextons said many congregants shied away from the conflict over “We’re Here,” allowing Duke’s critics to dominate the debate.

Duke is unsure what his next step will be, though he doesn’t plan to return to pastoring. One possibility, he said, would be for him and his wife to establish “an inclusive camp” for youths and young adults.

“My heart is moving in a new direction,” he said. “There are so many people who have been hurt by religion, felt rejection, who are reaching out, who are hopeful this will spark me to do something different on their behalf.”

You can read the statement from the church below:

My dear friends at Newburgh UMC, Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ. I pray that your Thanksgiving observances were joyful, even though they come at a most challenging time in the life of your congregation. There has been a great deal of information circulating in recent weeks concerning the status of Rev. Craig Duke in the wake of his appearance on the HBO production “We’re Here.” Much of that information has been less than completely accurate. My hope is to clarify the situation as best I’m able.

No single resolution will be satisfactory to all. I’ve received numerous calls and emails that are highly critical of Craig’s actions, and I’ve received numerous messages of support for him. In such a polarized climate, our main intent is to foster an environment in which both NUMC and the Duke family can move forward in grace.

Rev. Duke is being relieved from pastoral duties effective December 1, 2021. He will not be available to perform any pastoral functions at NUMC. He and Linda will continue to reside in the parsonage until no later than February 28, 2022, but he will not be at the church in any capacity. Rev. Mark Dicken will serve as interim pastor, with full pastoral authority, until a full appointment is made. Rev. Dicken’s compensation will be provided by funding from the Southwest District. Rev. Duke will continue with a significantly reduced salary until no later than February 28. This will, of course, pose a huge challenge for Craig and Linda.

Craig has not “resigned,” nor has he been “fired,” as these are not actions that are consistent with our appointment system. While there is a diversity of opinion regarding the moral implications of Rev. Duke’s actions, he has not been found to have committed any chargeable offense or other violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

In short, Craig has reached a place where he feels unable to continue to serve in parish ministry at present. During his time of being relieved from pastoral duties, he will be engaging in a process of renewal, reflection, and recovery that will be monitored by our conference Director of Leadership Development, Bishop Trimble, and myself. Our desire is to provide an opportunity for Craig to again be able to utilize his numerous gifts as a pastor in a local congregation. He will not, however, be returning to the NUMC pulpit.

For now, I appeal to you to keep Craig and Linda in your ongoing prayers. The coming days will continue to be extremely difficult for them. I also invite you to warmly receive Rev. Mark Dicken back into your midst, and to lift him in your prayers as he leads your congregation in this uneasy season. Mark has a great love for this congregation, and I have full confidence in his ability to serve at this critical time.

I welcome your prayers for the NUMC staff, and for your Staff-Parish Relations Committee, as they navigate the process of transition to the next chapter of pastoral leadership. I also want to express my appreciation to the SPRC, and especially to Chairperson Leann Beaven, for their faithfulness in the unenviable task placed upon them. At numerous times in recent months there has been an understandable demand for information, while I appealed to them to maintain the confidentiality that their work demands. It hasn’t been easy for them.

Again, I recognize there will be more questions, and the answers that come will often be unsatisfactory to many. I readily acknowledge our imperfect efforts to Do No Harm, and I appeal to your sense of grace. As we move into the season of Advent, a time of inviting God to prepare a way through the wilderness, I will continue to lift you in daily prayer, trusting that God’s promises are true and that Christ will come into our midst once again.

Faithfully yours,

Mitch Gieselman, Superintendent South and Southwest District, Indiana United Methodist Church

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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