Monday, August 2, 2010

Ignoring Conventional Wisdom

This is my column for the August edition of The Triangle. To see the rest of the publication, check it out at

When I think about Nancy Petty, my good friend and pastor, one question comes to mind. How did she get to this place in her life? How does a lesbian become the senior minister of one of the most prominent Baptist churches in a southern state? To appreciate the answer you need to know the whole story.

Nancy grew up in Shelby, west of Charlotte, not exactly the progressive center of North Carolina. Her family was active in a small Baptist church outside of town. Tagging along with her father, who was an active lay leader in the congregation, Nancy was in church every chance she got. To this day if she hears an old hymn Nancy will break into song as though she has been transported back to her childhood church.

Nancy went to college at Gardner Webb University, a Baptist school in Shelby, and then to seminary at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. She was preparing for ministry in a tradition that had little room for women ministers. To make things even more challenging, Nancy’s understanding of her sexuality clarified in her college and graduate school days. So, she was a good Baptist girl from a traditional Baptist family who happened to be gay and wanted to be a pastor. Raise your hand if you sense a problem on the horizon.

This is the point in the story when most people would have followed the path of conventional wisdom and made a choice. Nancy could have hidden her sexuality so that her career as a minister might still have some chance of taking off in the Baptist world; she could have left her beloved Baptist roots to seek ordination in one of the few religious traditions accepting of gay ministers; or she could have abandoned her calling and pursued a life outside of the church. From an outsider’s perspective these were the only realistic options open to her and each one meant giving up something critical to her soul.

Nancy refused to abide by the choices presented to her by conventional wisdom. For almost twenty years she has served as an openly gay minister at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. She has had different titles during that time: Minister of Education, Associate Pastor, Co-Pastor (a title I was proud to share with her for eight years), and now Pastor. She suffered the slings and arrows of denunciation from inside the Baptist world, and she overcame many doubters in her own church family. In the end, as the kids say, she outlasted the haters.

Of course none of us make it in life without much support along the way. Nancy would be the first to name all of the mentors, colleagues, and friends who helped her get to this point in her career. Even so, the key ingredient in Nancy’s story is her determination to live as authentically as possible. Her refusal to play by the rules handed to her by society, the church, and other traditional powers has resulted in one of the most interesting biographies of any minister I know.

Conventional wisdom is a subtle force that lulls us into faulty assumptions. It leads us to believe that the way things are must be the way they will always be. Conventional wisdom suggests that how most people see the world reflects the only acceptable truth about the world. More insidiously, conventional wisdom provides cover for those in power to deny the powerless access to basic rights and opportunities.

Liberation means throwing off the shackles of conventional wisdom and refusing to accept the paltry choices it sets before us. Of course it takes courage to live a truth others find uncomfortable or upsetting. It also takes patience and determination to continue on the narrow path that doesn’t immediately lead to success. However, we have a word for those people in any movement or culture who go against the grain and live honestly in the face of conventional wisdom’s rebuke. We call them heroes.

The heroes and heroines who have changed their world, either in big or small ways, all started from the same point: they were dissatisfied with the way things were and took a risk to make a change. For many of those people, that risk was simply being themselves in an open and proud fashion. And the amazing thing is that over time conventional wisdom succumbs to the power of the truth lived by such courageous souls.

Nancy Petty is a short woman with a huge heart whose determination to be herself is changing the church and our community for the better. Let us give thanks for such heroes in our midst.


About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology