Experiences Within the Church of The Nazarene Surrounding Human Sexuality Doctrine Causes Reflection

Within the past year, pastors and members of the Church of the Nazarene have seen the effects of a decision made in spring play out in San Diego. The Church of the Nazarene designated their Covenants of Christian Character and Conduct as articles of faith. 

This change put the Nazarene church on Point Loma Nazarene University’s campus in the spotlight as the Southern California District Board put the local pastor on trial due to an essay he published stating that he disagreed with the Church of the Nazarene’s stand on the LGBTQIA+ community. 

The Church of the Nazarene’s statement on human sexuality is part of the Covenant of Christian Conduct. In the Covenant of Christian Conduct section of the Church of the Nazarene Manual, it states in section 31: “In order to resist adding to the brokenness of sin and to be able to witness to the beauty and uniqueness of God’s holy purposes for our bodies, we believe members of the body of Christ, enabled by the Spirit, can and should refrain from… 

  • Sexual activity between people of the same sex. Because we believe that it is God’s intention for our sexuality to be lived out in the covenantal union between one woman and one man, we believe the practice of same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to God’s will for human sexuality. While a person’s homosexual or bi-sexual attraction may have complex and differing origins, and the implication of this call to sexual purity is costly, we believe the grace of God is sufficient for such a calling. We recognize the shared responsibility of the body of Christ to be a welcoming, forgiving, and loving community where hospitality, encouragement, transformation, and accountability are available to all.”

The elevation of the Covenant of Christian Character and the Covenant of Christian Conduct has never happened before. While some say little is known on why the elevation of the two covenants has occurred, Tatum Tricarico and Katie Donaldson, PLNU alumni, said this landmark change has been a point of tension for a while within the church denomination. 

As a result of these actions, Tricarico said the church may experience a loss of young pastors graduating from seminary, but this bleedout is not necessarily new; this change just may have further exacerbated it.

Tricarico said what initially attracted her to the Church of the Nazarene was that it was accepting of women in leadership and of “misfits.” 

“I was really excited initially about the Nazarene ordination process,” Tricarico said. “I loved the fact that from the very beginning they had been so committed, like the beginning of the history of the Nazarene church, to women’s ordination.” 

Tricarico was on the ordination track for the Church of the Nazarene while she was a student at PLNU. Tricarico graduated in 2021 with a Christian studies major and philosophy minor.  She had her local license for over a year, 2019-2021, and was moving toward her district license. However, she said the church’s stance on the LGBTQIA+ community led herself and other friends to pivot away from the Church of the Nazarene. 

“I just watched two or three friends who had their local or district license come out as queer and have really strong pushback from the Church of the Nazarene and lose their license eventually, or have to give up their license,” Tricarico said. “And that was so hard for me to watch. The church that had felt so inclusive and had intentionally been so inclusive from the beginning.”

Tricarico gave up her Nazarene local license and is now in the ordination process for the United Methodist Church at Duke Divinity School. This change, she said, set her back.

“To jump from the Nazarene process to the Methodist process, it’s probably three more years of an ordination process, which is very annoying,” Tricarico said. “And actually, Nazarenes don’t require seminary, but Methodists do. So that’s probably the biggest difference. I’m two years out of Point Loma, so I potentially — it would have taken a lot of work — could have already been ordained [in the Nazarene Church].”

She said she’s seen how the Nazarene’s changes to the articles of faith have affected her Nazarene peers at Duke. Some, she said, have formed affirming beliefs but are still hoping to become ordained in the Nazarene Church. 

“I just laugh because I’m like, all these people who are getting out of seminary, or like, ready to become pastors are all affirming or gay, you know?” Tricarico said. “What are the boards going to do when we all get there and are ready to be ordained? It’s either they’re not going to ordain us because we’re all queer and affirming, or they’re going to not have pastors.” 

Tricarico said there is a disconnect between students coming out of seminary and the people who are going to interview them. 

Katie Donaldson, a pastor at Ojai United Methodist Church in Ojai, CA, said this disconnect was real for her as she came out of seminary. Donaldson graduated from PLNU in 2014 with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Sociology. She completed her Master’s of Divinity with an emphasis in cross cultural ministry in 2019 from the Nazarene Theological Seminary.

“I went out to seminary to fix my theology. And it didn’t fix it like they expected,” said Donaldson. 

Donaldson had her district license from Northern California while at PLNU. Originally, she said she thought she could be affirming as long as she didn’t teach contrary doctrine. 

“While I was at Point Loma, I started realizing that my theology didn’t quite match up with the Nazarene church,” Donaldson said. “And what I had always been told is, as long as you don’t teach contrary to the church, you’re fine.”

When she flew back to Northern California to renew her district license, she said she was told to go through seminary to see if it would “fix” her theology regarding the LGBTQIA+ community and alcohol. 

“That’s why there ends up being hostility toward the education system because it’s turning out pastors who can think and not just accept things for what they[‘ve] been,” said Donaldson. “It’s making people uncomfortable. Instead of handling the conversations, they’re exclud[ing people]. They’re not even excluding; they’re literally ostracizing people instead.”

After completing seminary at Nazarene Theological Seminary, she decided to move her district license to Kansas City. At the transfer workshop meeting in Kansas City, they asked her questions as part of the regular interview process and she said they emphasized two questions about marriage and alcohol. She decided to abstain from alcohol to be obedient to the manual and continue in her process toward ordination, but Donaldson said she couldn’t fully agree to the statement on human sexuality.

“It feels like a witch hunt, that they’re trying to find people who differ from those two, to what they now will say are doctrinal beliefs, right,” Donaldson said. “And in my interview, what I remember, what I desired was for it to be what they said: a conversation, a table, a moment for us to have a dialogue around this. And it never was. On any of it.”

A year after the workshop meeting, she went into the interview for ordination approval. 

In a post she wrote online, Donaldson said: “At the end of the interview, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be ordained, but I could keep my license at least, because they made it clear I was called by God and was doing good work. The DS said that I’ve changed on other matters so maybe in the next year I’d change on this. I explained I stopped drinking alcohol out of obedience, but that my opinion hasn’t changed and wouldn’t.”

Donaldson’s district license was taken away by the Church of the Nazarene in 2021. 

She was rejected for the ordination process. Before these actions were made, however, she said something suspicious happened in her interview.

“At the interview, which should have been for my ordination, they said, ‘Oh, well, luckily for you, you haven’t completed your years of ministry.’ They misplaced some of the documents from NorCal to Kansas City,” Donaldson said. “And so they didn’t have the cumulative years [of ministry documentation]. They didn’t have it from the decade of ministry experience I had, so they wouldn’t be able to put me up for ordination anyways. But when they saw how the interview went, which was me disagreeing with them, they said, ‘Well, luckily, we don’t have this [ministry documentation] and we know that you’ve changed in the past, so that’s probably how this will go. We will allow you more time for discernment over this issue of sexuality. And we’ll interview again next year.’”

Donaldson said she pushed back further and they pulled her license.

“They held my district license, because according to them, which is not in the manual, a district license is only given for those who will be ordained,” Donaldson said. “It’s not in the manual. There are plenty of people who are district licensed so that they can be chaplains so that they can go into high schools and teach whatever the cases are. But no, they pulled it all together.”

What Donaldson said she’s realized with the recent elevation of the covenants is that the church isn’t a safe place for those who differ in beliefs regarding the LGBTQIA+ community. 

“The hard truth is then it is not a safe place for people who differ from those doctrines,” Donaldson said. “And you need to just own that.” 

PLNU professor of theology and world religions Michael Lodahl has been a lifelong member of the Church of the Nazarene, with experience writing, teaching and speaking from the pulpit about Nazarene theology. He said he has felt confused about the recent elevation of doctrine; for Lodahl, it feels contradictory. 

“I’m not even sure what it means to elevate them to the level of doctrine when doctrine itself can also be changed,” Lodahl said. “But one thing they’re definitely doing, I mean, this is really — and I don’t think anybody can really disagree — this is really all about same-sex attraction activity. That’s what the elevation of these is about, to that level of doctrine. I just don’t think there’s any way around that.”

Lodahl said that he thinks the timing is more than a coincidence, especially when he thinks about what happened to his friend Dee Kelley. 

“It definitely does create a culture of fear, a questioning of, ‘Wow, do I really belong here? Maybe I don’t.’ I already know of some ministers who have sort of made that judgment, their own,” Lodahl said. 

Lodahl said that he wrote a letter to the district board when the trial with Kelley unfolded. 

“So when it came back that this thing said [to Kelley], you’re out of here, that was all I needed to hear. And essentially, my letter was something to the effect of: ‘If there’s no room for Dee then there’s no room for me,’” Lodahl said. 

Lodahl said he felt distressed that Dee Kelley and his family had been put through this situation on what he believes to be insufficient grounds. 

“I did say [in the letter], if there’s no room for this guy as a pastor in our denomination, I don’t want to be part of this denomination,” Lodahl said. “Because this guy is an amazing, amazing pastor, spiritual leader. I mean, that’s what he is. And so yeah, I have, I guess you could say I’m in the process of moving on.”

Bailey Pickard, a third-year biochem and philosophy student at PLNU, attends First Church of the Nazarene and has been disappointed by the lack of dialogue regarding the church’s bureaucratic processes and changes. As someone who grew up in the Nazarene church, Pickard began attending First Church of the Nazarene when she came to PLNU. The experience of losing Dee Kelley as the head pastor of her church was unexpected.

“This whole situation was really strange because a lot of it happened over the summer when I was home,” Pickard said. “So that was really isolating, to get news later and to be away from this community that was hurting. When I left [for the summer] he was still our pastor, and then my first week back was our first week without Dee.” 

Pickard also said that if it weren’t for what happened at First Church of the Nazarene, she might not have been aware of these changes. 

“I probably would know a little because I pay attention to Nazarene politics, but this feels like the only context for me that people have really been talking about it,” Pickard said.

Pickard said that while there will never be a situation where everyone agrees or believes the same thing, she still wants to have conversations about these issues. 

“I want to be able to talk about these issues as a community but part of the danger of the elevation of these doctrines is that we can’t really talk about it anymore,” Pickard said. “We need to re-analyze our doctrine, and see what we as a community believe. But we can’t do that anymore because the conversations are just getting shut down.” 

The Point reached out to three board members of the Southern California District of the Church of the Nazarene, including six emails to Steve Rodeheaver, district secretary and adjunct professor at PLNU, an email to assistant superintendent Wink Davis and four emails to district superintendent Thomas Taylor. The Point did not get a response to any of the emails inquiring about the elevation of the Covenant of Christian Character and Covenant of Christian Conduct. 

Dee Kelley had a hearing for his appeal on Nov. 10. Stay tuned with The Point as we continue to reach out to Church of the Nazarene district leadership.