Rev. William Green had two early moments that were strong clues he was heading toward a future as a pastor.
Seeing a pastor distribute communion at his home United Methodist church in Arkansas at age 6 inspired him to comment to his mother that he wanted to, “feed people like that someday.”
“It’s this kind of epic family story that gets told every family Christmas,” says Green, 29, who goes by Will.
By age 12, he started to think he might like to work in a church setting full time but he didn’t know in what capacity. Thoughts of being a youth or music minister occurred to him. But the first time he ever preached, a dramatic transformation happened during the course of his 15-minute sermon.
It was Pentecost Sunday — the day, usually in May, when the church celebrates the arrival of the Holy Ghost — and Green was overwhelmed standing in the pulpit with 15-foot-tall stained glass images of Jesus and Methodism founder John Wesley staring down at him from the back of the church.
“All I could think of was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to wind up swearing or something instead of reading the scriptures,” he says. “I was panicked. And then I remember coming to the end of this sermon I’d written out and there was this innate feeling that this is something I can’t not do. Something about it just felt right.”
His pastor at the time helped him get started in pre-seminary mentoring and “it all kind of snowballed from there.”
Green started his current role as associate pastor/director of connecting ministries at Foundry United Methodist Church on July 3 after four years as associate pastor at First United Methodist Church of Arlington Heights, Ill., where part of his ministry was devoted to LGBT believers.
Last December his partner, Philip Rothrock — a conservationist and atheist — got a job in Washington. Green had been in discussions with Foundry, widely known in the denomination as a gay-affirming church, before but he felt the time was right.
Although created two years ago, his position wasn’t filled until this year. A previous applicant wasn’t able to accept and it worked out that Green was available.
“I get to do a little bit of everything here,” he says. “I’m like one of those videos you see of an octopus running across dry land. It’s wonderful and I got my fingers in all kind of stuff from leading Bible studies and retreats to engaging people in conversations about white privilege and starting small groups all over the city.”
Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, Foundry’s senior pastor since July 2014, says Green is all the church had hoped to find for a connecting ministries pastor and more.
“He’s creative, determined and prayerful in building networks of relationship and shared ministry,” says Gaines-Cirelli. “In just six short months, Will has skillfully laid out a vision for spiritual formation and small groups and has strengthened our practices of radical hospitality.”
It’s a core reason why Green — who considered being ordained in more LGBT-affirming denominations — stayed in the United Methodist Church.
“What I landed on again and again was that the theology I feel shows the vital connection between personal faith and active service in the world was nowhere more alive than it was in the United Methodist Church,” he says. “So the theology fit me in a way that allowed me to be progressive and orthodox and gay and evangelical and all those things that are really critical to who I am. So it’s not because I grew up that way, it’s because it was the right fit.”
It wasn’t an easy decision as LGBT issues continue to rankle the denomination, the third-largest Christian denomination in the U.S. (after the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention), with church members voting the issue was the top news story in 2016, partially inspired by the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian who became the first openly gay bishop in the United Methodist Church in July. There are more than 12 million members in the denomination worldwide. In the U.S., it’s the largest mainline Protestant denomination.
At the denomination’s general conference, the council of bishops opted to delay further debate on homosexuality and name a special commission that would start exploring the issue again from scratch. Its Book of Discipline says the “practice of homosexuality (is) incompatible with Christian teaching,” though some conferences, including the Baltimore-Washington and New York conferences, have voted to ordain and license LGBT clergy.
Green and other out clergy are at risk of being charged and defrocked, though church officials have pretty much left Foundry — which has been “affirming” for 20 years — alone historically. Former long-time senior pastor Rev. Dean Snyder told the Blade in 2013 about one-third of Foundry’s 1,200 members at the time were LGBT. There might be 400-600 who come through the doors on an average Sunday. Green, who coordinates a young adult LGBT potluck group, guesses it’s about 25 percent queer.
He says attendance has been on an uptick since the election. Green says that even though Foundry is musically and aesthetically quite traditional, the church’s progressive teaching attracts those gearing up for possible “active resistance” to the Trump administration and strong stands against racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia.
“This is one of the things Foundry does best,” Green says. “We have a wide diversity of people of all ages who have a wide diversity of theological expressions and an any given Sunday morning, we’re all there worshipping together. I think Foundry models the potential of progressive orthodoxy with this ability to be honest about who we are.”
Green cites “Once in Royal David’s City” as his favorite Christmas carol and “Blessed Assurance” as his favorite non-seasonal hymn. He also likes “Come Thou Fount.”
“That’s my southernness coming out,” he says. “Give me Fanny Crosby any day. I grew up singing that stuff.”
He says the Christian message epitomizes his overall convictions about living out the gospel.
“I continue to be amazed by the way in which the revelation of God to the world came in absolutely unexpected ways,” he says. “For much of the world, it was missed. We think of it as this miraculous thing that captivated the world but we forget that Mary and Joseph were immigrants, they were undocumented according to the Roman standards. He was born in a manger with shepherds there. … God comes to us all the time in unexpected ways and often we lead such busy lives that if we’re not careful, we miss it.”