The Rev. Gregory Dell became pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago
in 1995. At the time, approximately 40% of the congregation's members were
gay or lesbian. Since the 1980s, he had included holy union services for gay
and lesbian couples as part of his pastoral duties because he believed a person’s
God-given identity should be celebrated rather than a reason for exclusion.
But his denomination struggled with the issue of homosexuality. Dell found
himself caught between being responsible to his ordination vows and call to
inclusive ministry on the one hand, and his denomination’s official antigay positions
on the other.
Dell’s view was that in every church where he had been a pastor, “it was with
the understanding that I would serve the whole church with the ministry that the
United Methodist Church puts in place for clergy to offer to a congregation.”
That included the church offering a blessing on a couple's commitment of
faithfulness to one another and because of their relationship to the church and
to God. In September, 1998, Dell decided to conduct a service of holy union
for two gay men in his congregation. “I extended ministry to two men who love
each other, love God and love the church.”
A gay paper published a story about the service, and a clergy person showed
it to Dell’s bishop. The bishop, though he personally disagreed with the
denomination’s negative position on homosexuality, filed a complaint alleging
Dell had been disobedient to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist
In March, 1999, a church trial court of 13 clergy
members voted 10 to 3 that Dell was guilty of disobedience. The court suspended
Dell from his ministerial duties indefinitely, until he either signed a pledge
to stop performing union services for same-gender persons or the church changed its policy. Dell refused
to sign such a pledge. To stop, he believed, would discriminate against
gays and lesbians in his congregation. Dell appealed the conviction. The appeals committee
had authority only to change the punishment, not the verdict. It changed
the penalty from an indefinite time period to a one-year suspension if he would
not sign the pledge.
Dell’s sense of justice goes back to experiences growing up in northern
Illinois and in his pastoral development. He flirted with the idea of becoming a
minister in the eighth grade, and got a license to preach in the Methodist
Church. He had been an Eagle Scout and was thinking about pursuing scouting
professionally. He was interested in providing support and guidance for young
people. But he also had a deep desire to work for justice, reflected in
activities regarding issues of race and South Africa.
He was influenced by a pastor who encouraged him to think about the ministry.
The pastor helped shape Dell’s understanding about faith. Either there is a God
of all reality, including the political and economics; or a God of only part of
reality, such as prayer life and scriptural study. Dell said, “It’s
incomprehensible to put something outside of God’s care.” He also learned that
Jesus’ ministry was always affirming God’s love and care for creation. “Social
justice is not an option, social justice is part of the gospel,” says Dell. “It
meant you take a stand against racism or any other injustice. It’s a
matter of faith.” When he was 17 or 18 years of age, he decided to become a
pastor. Dell earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Illinois Wesleyan University
and a Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School. He was appointed
pastor at churches in several Illinois communities before going to Broadway
United Methodist Church.
During his ministry, Dell became increasingly involved in social justice
issues: Third World concerns, race, gender, and eventually issues involving
sexual orientation. Early on he saw that people were being oppressed because of
their racial identity. So as other issues arose, like equality of
women and sexual orientation, he concluded it was reasonable to affirm and
celebrate their identity.
The United Methodist Church had always been a home for Dell, his faith
community. Although there was not always agreement on tactics and strategy, he
saw his church as committed to social justice. On identity issues such as race
and gender, it taught that identity should not be used as a criterion of
discrimination. But when it came to sexual orientation, he felt the church had
violated its call to be inclusive.
During the one-year suspension, Dell continued to work for social justice
within his church. At his denomination’s 2000 General Conference, he joined in
nonviolent civil disobedience in protest to some of the body’s legislative
decisions, resulting in two arrests. He became executive director of an
organization called In All Things Charity. Dell remembered someone in the
Religious Right commenting that since they had convicted Dell, now he
would be doing full-time what he had been doing part-time.
Dell was reinstated to his pastoral duties at Broadway in July, 2000. He
became involved in a movement called Church Within a Church, which plants new
congregations that are full justice ministries.
On issues of social justice, Dell calls himself a radical rather than a
reformer. “A radical goes to the root for what is going on, a reformer is simply
trying to adjust this,” says Dell. “Reform is too often a way of compromising
where people’s lives are, or their rights. You can’t compromise people’s
(This biographical statement edited from an article by Larry Washburn who
conducted an interview with Greg Dell on February 28, 2005. )