MEDIA CONTACT: [email protected], 607-527-0778

JACKSON, Miss.—When two former students asked their United Methodist college chaplains to help them celebrate their love in Christian marriage, the clergy knew they had to say yes.

Rev. Elizabeth Davidson and Rev. Paige Swaim-Presley felt compelled to offer the ministries of the church to all persons, as they vowed to do in their ordination as United Methodist clergy. They now face a potential termination of their clergy status because they officiated what some are interpreting as a same-sex wedding, which church law currently forbids. It is unclear if the denomination’s Discipline even speaks specifically to the marriage in question, between two non-binary people.

United Methodist Bishop Sharma Lewis of Mississippi denied the request of the two clergywomen for further talks to reach a complaint resolution; instead the bishop is requesting immediate unpaid involuntary leave and she wants a public trial with hopes that the clergy will be stripped of their orders.

Traditionally, United Methodist clergy and their bishop will make a determined attempt to reach a resolution before moving a complaint like this forward to a costly public trial. Bishop Lewis abruptly ended talks with the two clergywomen who requested a mediator. Now, all that stands in the way of Elizabeth’s and Paige’s potential expulsion from being United Methodist clergy is the possibility their colleagues may agree that the penalty the bishop is calling for is going too far. It is a punishment even more severe than the recently passed Traditional Plan legislation requires, already seen as too harsh by many.

The Mississippi Board of Ordained Ministry Executive Committee will hold Paige and Elizabeth’s immediate fate as they will first vote on the bishop’s request to place them on “involuntary leave,” a clergy status in the United Methodist Book of Discipline reserved for those who are allegedly displaying “incompetence, ineffectiveness, or inability to perform ministerial duties.” This status is normally only invoked under extreme circumstances in which profound harm would occur should the clergy person remain in active service, such as when the allegations involve sexual abuse or child abuse. While it is possible to invoke this status during a process adjudicating allegations of violating certain church laws, it is extraordinarily rare for a bishop to do so. If the committee supports the involuntary leave, the decision will need to be affirmed by a two-thirds vote of all United Methodist Mississippi clergy who will meet in Tupelo at the end of June.

According to the Discipline, the bishop is only allowed to seek this punitive leave status if the complaint “cannot clearly be resolved in 90 days,” a belief the two clergywomen disagree with as they have requested and been refused the help of a mediator to avoid putting the denomination through the pain of a public trial—a trial that would once again highlight The United Methodist Church’s discriminatory and harmful stance against LGBTQ people. Even if UMC clergy of Mississippi vote against involuntary leave, Paige and Elizabeth are still likely headed toward such a trial so long as the bishop remains unwilling to negotiate a resolution.

In an email to the clergy, Bishop Lewis stated “I do believe that you intentionally violated your ministerial vows and that this act of knowing disobedience cannot be resolved outside of termination of your clergy relationship… …I do not feel that there is any resolution for your ministerial disobedience short of removal of your clergy status, [so] I did not choose to engage [the mediated Just Resolution] process during the Supervisory Response.”


Paige and Elizabeth, both former college chaplains, met the students through their involvement in the Wesley Connexion ministry at Millsaps College. “We walked with them through the formative years of college and had the privilege of discipling them through Bible studies, one on one conversations, sharing theological books and discussions, and even having one member of the couple serve as our Wesley Connexion intern over multiple semesters,” said Paige. “We affirmed from the beginning of our ministry with these students that God loves and affirms their whole, authentic selves. To say no to their wedding would have done harm. We made a vow to do no harm.”

“Through our pastoral relationship we had the great privilege of ministering with them as they trusted us with some of their very hardest days, so when they invited us to participate in one of their best days we were honored,” said Elizabeth. “We could not and would not turn down this opportunity to continue serving as their pastors.”

The primary concern of the clergy is the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of the couple, who both identify their gender as non-binary. The married couple said, “We have been harmed by being publicly misgendered and in the politicizing of our personal decision to live into our calling of Christian marriage, which we celebrated in a beautiful and intimate wedding with our loved ones. We wanted our church, imperfect as it is, at the center of our commitment to together reflect to the world what God’s love looks like in our love for each other.”

Clergy in The United Methodist Church are caught in a Book of Discipline quandary. To obey discriminatory rules forbidding the officiating of same-sex marriage would mean to break other rules of the Discipline that require ministries of the church to be offered to all people, as well as a requirement for clergy to follow their conscience, resisting harm and unjust rules. Elizabeth, a deacon, and Paige, an elder, were hoping to reach a Just Resolution with Bishop Sharma Lewis in compliance with the standard process for addressing complaints laid out in the Discipline. However the bishop abruptly ended that process with an ultimatum at the end of March, giving the clergy a day to either surrender their credentials or face a church trial and an additional threat of being put on an involuntary leave of absence. The clergy did not surrender their credentials.

This measure by the bishop is an extreme action even given the history of The United Methodist Church’s discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons. It is an especially puzzling punishment given that many believe the denomination is likely heading for an end to LGBTQ+ discrimination in 2024.

Methodism historically is full of examples of clergy and lay persons who courageously did the right thing before the rules allowed them to do so. Women like Anna Oliver preached before it was permissible and continued to come for ordination because she had “no other choice.” John Wesley himself preached and administered the sacraments outside of church buildings, ordained lay preachers, and spoke out against his Church of England. Many congregations in the South defied the laws of segregation. Right practice has almost always preceded church law becoming more just.

Making a joint statement, Paige and Elizabeth said, “It is our hope that this distraction to our collective ministry will be resolved quickly so we can all return to telling a hurting world about God’s love, and the good news of liberation for all people that Jesus Christ came to bring. In officiating this wedding, we were simply trying to live out the call of Jesus who always placed himself with the oppressed and marginalized. If we must be punished for doing so, we are at peace. To all LGBTQ+ persons and specifically to our beloved transgender siblings: you are loved by a God who affirms and delights in all of who you are, no matter what any church might say.”


Additional Material: