Editor’s note: Though Wilshire Baptist Church isn’t in our neighborhood, a good number of Lake Highlanders attend the church — or did, before Wilshire voted at the end of 2016 to allow LGBT members to marry and be ordained as ministers. The ensuing fallout was a loss of hundreds of members and hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The Rev. George Mason has seen the church through two controversial votes over the years. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

The Rev. George Mason has seen the church through two controversial votes over the years. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

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But they believed this was an issue that couldn’t be glossed over or kicked down the road any longer.

Over the years, it had bubbled to the surface, and now it threatened to rock the congregation.

Wilshire was known as a progressive church, but this change represented a line in the sand some members said they couldn’t cross. Their beliefs were sacred, and giving in would unravel a faith that, for some of them, had been a lifetime in the making.

Nearly 450 members voted, and 67 percent affirmed the church’s new direction.

It was 1991, and after four decades of existence, Wilshire would allow women to be ordained as ministers.

The church’s new, young pastor, George Mason, had taken the helm of Wilshire two years earlier after the retirement of longtime leader Bruce McIver. Mason, at 35, navigated his flock through that tenuous period and into its future.

Twenty-five years later, in November 2016, Mason found himself and his church in a similar crisis. This time, the issue threatening Wilshire’s unity was the role of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the congregation.

They already were church members, but gray area persisted: Could they marry? Have their babies dedicated? Become leaders as deacons or even as pastors?

Once again, the decision would be the final straw for some folks. This time, nearly 950 ballots were cast with 61 percent of votes affirming the full rights of membership for those in their midst who identified as LGBT.

“Open to all, closed to none” became Wilshire’s new mantra.

And yet, now as then, hundreds of people felt shut out by the decision. In the aftermath of the 1991 vote, most people stuck it out despite their theological differences. This time, however, the bleeding began as soon as Wilshire’s leadership announced a committee would study the issue, and continued for 14 months until the vote elicited a hemorrhage. Three Sunday school classes of older adults disappeared altogether.

Months later, after the bleeding had stopped, the church counted its losses: About 250 members left, taking $700,000 of annual giving with them.

Mason, now 61, calls the experience “the biggest misjudgment of my ministry” — not in terms of the decision itself, but in terms of its consequences.

“I assumed that if we followed a deliberative process on this matter, that like these other matters, we would have had dissent, but we would not have had a major loss of membership or financial contribution,” Mason says.

“I was wrong.”

(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

‘The distance between us is insurmountable’

A couple of months after Wilshire’s monumental vote, a schism unfolded at a different “church” across town. Uptown’s Kalita Humphreys Theater transformed into a sanctuary for the Dallas Theater Center production of “The Christians.” The play portrays the story of a megachurch led by Pastor Paul, who blindsides his congregation one Sunday with a sermon revealing his epiphany that hell doesn’t exist.

The show’s director, Joel Ferrell, spent a couple of months visiting local conservative and megachurches to get a better feel for their dynamics. Wilshire’s clergy were among those he asked to participate in “Stay Late” conversations following each performance.

“The fact that Wilshire was a Baptist church dealing with an issue that had separated the church body made it interesting to me,” Ferrell says.

Typically 30 to 40 audience members stick around for Stay Late sessions, but for “The Christians,” the theater company saw crowds rise to 50 or more. Those who stuck around were “intrigued, passionate” and often had personal stories to share about schisms they had experienced in their own churches, Ferrell says.

“This play rings really, really, true,” Wilshire’s associate pastor, Mark Wingfield, told theatergoers at one Stay Late session. “It’s almost painful to watch because it’s bringing stuff up. And at the same time, you realize this kind of conflict is inherent from the very beginning of the church.”

Wilshire’s “splintering,” the term Wingfield prefers to “split,” was not about hell — “though some would say it’s felt like hell to have the conversation we’ve had about LGBT inclusion,” Wingfield says.

“Don’t be like Pastor Paul,” Wingfield quipped to the audience after the play. And yet, he added, “the reality is that even with a lengthy, drawn-out process that’s much more thoughtful than what Pastor Paul goes through, these difficult issues of faith can still be so controversial.

“The assumption is, if we just talk about it more, if we study it more, we’re going to come to some agreement. And the reality is, too often, we’re not. It’s insurmountable. The distance between us is insurmountable.”

Wilshire is hardly the first Dallas church to affirm same-sex marriage and ordination. Cathedral of Hope in Cedar Springs, known as “the world’s largest gay church,” has been around since 1990. Discussions and debate in mainline Protestant denominations — such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists — have impacted Dallas churches, too. Grace, Greenland Hills and Lakewood United Methodist Churches (UMC) in our neighborhood all are part of the UMC network of “reconciling” congregations who fully affirm LBGT members.

It’s the “Baptist” in Wilshire’s name that seemed to draw such shock from outsiders and such ire from within its denominational ranks. Texans are most familiar with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an almost 170-year-old network of more than 47,000 U.S. churches. It’s the predominant Baptist force in the Bible Belt, which still loops around North Texas.

Dallas is home to more than 100 Southern Baptist churches, the best known of which is First Baptist Dallas, the Downtown church led by the Rev. Robert Jeffress. His proclamations from both the pulpit and the cable news circuit — that the Bible is unequivocal about the sinful practice of homosexuality — is representative of SBC doctrine.

But Baptists are a “hugely diverse group throughout history,” ranging from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. to Jerry Falwell to President Jimmy Carter, says Ted Campbell, professor of church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

That’s because in Baptist congregations, decisions are made at the local church level, which is different than hierarchical denominations, where edicts come from on high and are passed down to local congregations.

“Each [Baptist] congregation can make up their own minds about the issues that face them,” Campbell says. “Congregational polity allows Baptists to have a degree of flexibility, despite their kind of legendary conservatism.”

Wilshire was part of the SBC until it stopped participating in 1990 and formally severed ties in 2000. It identifies instead with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which tends to represent churches that are “progressive on social issues and traditional on forms of worship,” Campbell says.

The CBF split from the SBC in 1991 over scriptural differences, including the ordination of women. The SBC still maintains its long-held belief that the Bible limits pastoral roles to men.

“I do think you can draw a straight line from that vote to the latest one,” Wingfield says of the 1991 and 2016 votes, “and find a number of folks who acquiesced on the women in leadership issue despite reservations but hung on anyway, until the possibility of same-sex marriage was just a bridge too far.”

Note: Whites and blacks include only those who are not Hispanic. Source: Pew Research Center survey conducted April 12-19, 2016.

Note: Whites and blacks include only those who are not Hispanic. Source: Pew Research Center survey conducted April 12-19, 2016.

‘That is not a Baptist church’

Jeff Patton attended Wilshire for 58 years. He sat in the same pew every Sunday. His parents and his grandparents were Wilshire members. His mother taught Sunday school. For 15 years of Mason’s tenure, Patton and Mason shared a locker at Lakewood Country Club. Patton considered his pastor a good friend.

But one day, “George Mason took it upon himself that we should start marrying gay people,” Patton says. “I’ve got nothing against gays at all, but gays don’t get married in a Baptist church.”

Wilshire’s clergy say the intent of the 14-month study was to ensure people had all the information they needed to make a decision and plenty of opportunity to have a voice. But for Patton and other Wilshire members with similar views on gay marriage, it felt like a long, drawn-out campaign to change people’s minds.

“He pushed a little too far this time,” Patton says of Mason. “Something just went haywire in his head. I told him he had lost his mind.”

Patton had his own experience pushing the envelope at Wilshire. In 1968, when Patton was in high school, fellow Woodrow Wilson High School student John Paul McCrumbly attended Wilshire with Patton’s family.

Woodrow recently had begun integrating, and McCrumbly, who is black, was ushered by Dr. Walter H. Patton to the second row of “a Southern Baptist church that never had a black person in it,” Jeff Patton told us for a 2011 story.

Patton does not see any parallels between the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s and the Gay Rights movement of late, at least as it applies to Baptist churches. Nor does he see parallels between the 1991 vote to ordain women and last year’s vote to ordain LBGT persons.

“There’s absolutely no comparison. You’re talking about apples and oranges,” he says. “Baptists do not ordain gay people. It does not happen. That is not a Baptist church.”

Campbell, because of his expertise in church history, has provided historical perspective to the discussion his own United Methodist Church (UMC) is having on gay marriage and ordination. His study and interactions have led him to believe that it is the “flashpoint issue” of our era.

“I think the direction right now is polarization. It’s not heading toward consensus at this point,” says Campbell, who says the United Methodists are seriously divided over these issues, and those divisions may take the form of denominational division by 2020. “The question in the UMC is, ‘Can’t we all just get along with each other?’ And the answer is absolutely clear — the answer is no.”

“A flashpoint issue becomes the standard for orthodoxy,” Campbell says, “and people go to their own sides and say, ‘I’m not going to budge on this.’ ”

After the vote, when Patton left his church of 58 years, he says it felt like family members had died. It was “betrayal,” he says.

“The church got stolen from the people who built it,” he says.

Of the more than 250 members who left Wilshire, Patton is the only one we found willing to allow his name to be used in this story. No one else is willing to be identified, he says, because “everybody wants to be politically correct and have 8,000 friends on Facebook, and I don’t do Facebook.”

After leaving Wilshire, Patton and his wife visited a few churches and landed at Park Cities Baptist Church, along with more than 100 other former Wilshire members, according to Wilshire’s accounting. One older adult Sunday school class moved to Park Cities almost en masse, Wilshire says. (Park Cities Baptist officials did not respond to an interview request for this story.)

The people who left tended to be older, wealthier and more conservative, Wilshire officials say. Of the roughly 250 active members lost, right around 200 of them were over the age of 50, and more than 100 of them were over the age of 70.

The stark generational divide on LGBT issues is not unique to Wilshire. According to a Pew Research Center study released in late 2015, “roughly half (51 percent) of evangelical Protestants in the Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996), say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with a third of evangelical Baby Boomers and a fifth of evangelicals in the Silent [or Greatest] Generation.”

The study also showed, however, that “acceptance of homosexuality is rising across the broad spectrum of American Christianity, including among members of churches that strongly oppose homosexual relationships as sinful.” Attitudes and perceptions have “shifted absolutely remarkably in the last five years,” Campbell says, which he attributes to the simple reality of “gay people’s willingness to publicly say that they are gay.”

“Basically, gay and lesbian sex has been a concealed subject in the past that couldn’t be talked about or admitted to,” Campbell says. But now, “people have the opportunity to get to know them and realize these are not frightening monsters — these are people just like us who have different sexual orientation than we have. Getting to know people has always been the key.”

Yet Campbell believes polarization will trump consensus for the foreseeable future because “that’s the historical pattern.” The church’s last flashpoint issue in American history was slavery, he says. From the 1820s through the 1860s, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and other denominations “were all divided regionally and absolutely could not compromise until after the Civil War,” he says.

But even after slavery became illegal in the United States, churches had to decide whether to retain segregation in their churches or allow the new law of the land to inform their congregational polity. Some integrated, and some embraced Jim Crow. It could be argued that “the regional divisions still exist,” Campbell says.

He expects that church compromise on LGBT inclusion will have a similar timeline.

“Really, after one generation kind of dies off and fades away from leadership, you can move toward some sort of consensus,” Campbell says, “but we’re not there yet.”

How can a pastor change his mind?

The timing of Wilshire’s vote coincided with the tensions surrounding our country’s divisive 2016 election; Wilshire’s members cast their ballots on LGBT issues in church the same week they voted for president.

The Sunday after Wilshire announced the results, protesters showed up on its sanctuary doorsteps greeting worshippers with a bullhorn and signs declaring, “Sin Destroys Nations” and “Cleanse Your Hands You Sinners.” The following week, some neighbors responded with a counter-protest, holding signs referencing 1 Corinthians 6:14, “Do Everything in Love,” and “Thank You Wilshire for Loving All.”

Many Christians believe the historical definition of biblical marriage rules out gay marriage, and any change shows the church is caving to the culture on issues of LBGT inclusion. They believe the Bible is timeless and unaltered by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision that same-gendered marriage is legal in America.

This shift in the law of the land was no doubt part of the impetus for Wilshire’s study, Mason says. Until the Supreme Court decision, churches couldn’t perform same-gender weddings because it was illegal to do so. Once they became legal, churches had to make their case upon religious convictions rather than the law.

And at that point, Mason had to come to terms with his own convictions.

Source: Pew Research Center survey conducted June 4-Sept. 30, 2014.

Source: Pew Research Center survey conducted June 4-Sept. 30, 2014.

In his office, months after the vote that splintered Wilshire, Mason reflects on how long it took him to change his mind on LGBT inclusion. It’s an issue he grappled with for the entirety of his ministry.

“For many years, I went back and forth struggling with how hard a line to hold, how much grace to grant to people who were struggling with same-sex orientation,” he says.

Though Mason didn’t believe that gays and lesbians could control their affections, for decades he urged those he counseled to control whether they acted upon those affections. He told them that pleasing God and being fully accepted in the church meant bearing the cross of celibacy for their entire lives.

“That means they would never be able to have intimate relationships of love with another person the way the rest of 95 percent of the Christian world could,” Mason says.

“I realized how little hope that really gave, how little good news the church was offering to them, and I watched them live too often in futility, having to bear shame and often leaving the church. Increasingly, I believed something was wrong with that.”

Mason describes himself as a person who needs to be sure of something before he changes his mind. Over many years, he came to believe that biblical passages about homosexuality addressed people acting in sexually irresponsible and perverse ways, rather than in loving and caring relationships. That wasn’t enough, however, for him to build a case for gay marriage.

“But finally,” he says, “the weight of other biblical passages overcame my need for certainty.”

Mason references New Testament passages that talk about how Christians should not grieve the Holy Spirit, who is at work in people’s lives; that Christians should not prevent people from becoming a full part of the church because they hadn’t been circumcised, hadn’t eaten the right foods or had become eunuchs.

“All these things that were part of scriptural prohibitions, the early church discerned that the Spirit was at work in these people anyway, and they should accept them,” Mason says.

“Finally, I came to the conclusion that the authority of the Bible is not only in what it tells us to do or not to do; it is in how it helps the church to discern the will of God for today. The Bible shows us how the people of God made decisions in their day. The authority of the Bible calls on us to do as they did, not necessarily what they did.

“That became a new way of me being able to see the presence of Christ in my gay brothers and sisters and want to see them flourish within the body of Christ.”

Wilshire congregants who believed differently than Mason, who were upset with him for changing his mind, felt that he was judging them for not being enlightened enough. But it wasn’t an overnight process for him; it had taken a lifetime. To look down upon these congregants “would be intemperate on my part,” Mason says.

Some people criticized the church for acting too swiftly. Wilshire’s members would have come around within a few years, they believe, and the church could have avoided what felt like a bad divorce if the church had just waited until more people were ready.

Mason responds by talking about the gay and lesbian members in Wilshire’s own congregation, including people nominated to be deacons “and our own kids coming out who had grown up in our church, in our families.” They could be members, yes, and worship alongside heterosexuals, “but couldn’t do so honestly,” he says. “It was much more ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

This reality, combined with external factors such as the Supreme Court decision, necessitated a conversation that the church had been putting off for years, Mason says. Once that discussion began, “there are thousands of people for whom if we said ‘we’re not ready’ would be more deeply hurt than if we never took it up at all,” he says.

Another factor, Mason says, is that he’s no longer a spring chicken. At 61, he isn’t sure how much longer he will be at the helm of Wilshire. If “ready” meant waiting until after his retirement, “then we would be leaving the most contentious issue in the church’s history to a new pastor,” he says. “It seems to me that this is one I had to take, so to me, delay meant deny.”

“I feel for the people who have left because I believe that they loved their church and they trusted their pastor and the leadership over many years to lead with integrity, and many of them feel betrayed,” Mason says.

“I regret that. I wish it weren’t so. But this is not a matter that we could continue to sweep under the carpet. Lives were at stake here. The witness of the gospel as we understand it was at stake.”

They are coming hesitantly, cautiously

Despite all of its losses over the past year, Wilshire is seeing glimmers of hope.

The church has welcomed 100 new members since last November, “which is a pretty high number for us,” Wingfield says. “All of those new members — to a person — know about our decision and have intentionally come to us either because of the decision or in light of the decision.”

The church hasn’t yet tracked the age of all newcomers, but typically they are younger than 60, which means that “all of a sudden, we have become a much younger church,” Wingfield says. “And yet, we still are a highly intergenerational church.” He recently presided over a funeral for an 89-year-old woman “who was one of the most vocal proponents of our inclusion efforts you could imagine.”

“We have lost some longtime leaders through this. And we lost some younger emerging leaders,” Wingfield says. But, he says, “the losses we’ve experienced have caused others to step up and take leadership roles when they hadn’t seen a need to do so before.”

No clergy or staff members walked away from the church. Mason sought their buy-in before embarking on the study, knowing that financial fallout could put their jobs at stake. They were aligned in their willingness to push forward, he says, and in some cases preceded him in their resolution.

The church budget did take a hit, dropping from $4.9 million in 2016 to $4.2 million in 2017. This reflects “a realistic projection of the financial shift going on,” Wingfield says. It also reflects the giving patterns of younger congregants, who aren’t as likely to tithe as regularly or as much as the Greatest Generation or even Baby Boomers.

The same is true for church attendance.

For 30 years, Wilshire’s active membership, or people who come to church at least once a year, has been relatively stable at around 1,500. It has dropped to 1,300 since last November, but because of church attendance trends, the gap appears larger than that, Wingfield says.

“A pastor friend in Richardson who has not addressed this LGBT issue in his church recently commented to me about the number of Greatest Generation members he was burying,” Wingfield says.

“And he said this: For every Greatest Generation member I lose, it takes at least two new members to make up their attendance and three new members to make up their giving. That’s just the way it is these days.”

No same-gender weddings have taken place at Wilshire since the vote last November. There have been no baby dedications for same-gender couples, no practicing gays or lesbians ordained as deacons or ministers, either.

“So there have been no precipitating steps since the vote, except that we have now what we hoped in the vote, and that is hope for LGBT persons and their families, that they can live openly as followers of Jesus among us and worship and serve freely,” Mason says.

They are coming, he says, but they are coming hesitantly, cautiously.

“Many have been visiting since November and still haven’t joined because they’re still trying to believe that it’s so and that we won’t change our minds again,” he says. Yet, “we are seeing gay people who feel for the first time in their lives that they can trust God and the church again. I don’t know how that is not evangelism.”

It has been a painful journey, probably the hardest stretch of Mason’s ministry, but “this was for Christians who are gay and lesbian and transgender and for their families and for the gospel’s sake. These are people who have known pain and rejection that I will never be able to match,” Mason says, adding that the temporary suffering of Wilshire’s staff and parishioners “is nothing compared to centuries of loneliness, alienation and rejection felt by LGBT Christians.

“If we can share in the sufferings of others so that we can share the joy of this, that’s where the hope is found.”

Peace be with you

When Wilshire began its voting in November 2016, the weight of both the impending national election and the local church election hung thick in the sanctuary air.

“We will vote in both cases on matters that have divided us,” Mason preached in his sermon that morning. “Some would rather move to Canada than live in a future in our country under the administration of the one they didn’t vote for. Some would rather move to another church than live under the conditions of a future determined by a vote they didn’t support. But by doing so, we only prove that the way the world operates is the only way open to us.”

The world draws lines in the sand and refuses to join hands with people on the other side. The church should be different, Mason says. It should be able to unite amid differences of doctrine. But by that point in Wilshire’s journey, Mason had accepted his own naïveté that Wilshire’s people could come together.

He then spoke directly to those who stood across the line from him.

“I am aware that this may be the last time many of us will worship together. If you are one of those who have already decided that you are leaving, I have something to say to you.

“Thank you,” Mason said.

“Thank you for all the years of sacrifice and service. Thank you for the gifts of time, talents and treasure that you have given to make us the church we are today. And if you wonder how you will be remembered after you leave, I will tell you: You will be recorded among the saints of this church. No one wants to be judged on the basis of one decision or snapshot of time in a life. So we will bless you and miss you.”

When the sermon ended, Wilshire congregants rose to “pass the peace,” an ancient practice of the church that allows Christians to reconcile with one another before they receive God’s forgiveness at the communion table. “Peace be with you,” Christians say to each other, with love and forgiveness flowing through handshakes and eye contact.

Mason left his pulpit and walked down the platform steps to the front pew. He sought out Wilshire deacons who no longer recognized their church, and he passed the peace of Christ to them. He knew it likely would be their final exchange.

A little over a year later, Mason is still sitting in the tension. But he is, indeed, at peace.

“It’s entirely possible that when we all get to the end, they will have been right, and I will have been wrong,” Mason says.

“But how will we know now? And if you have to be on the side of love and grace, or on the side of caution that keeps people from experiencing the full dignity of their life in Christ in the church, which side do you want to be on?”