Terry Rice, hospice chaplain in Walla Walla, Washington, finds his career on hold because the Adventist church has so far refused to acknowledge his calling through ordination.
Question: You are a chaplain for a hospice in Walla Walla, Washington. How long have you been working as a chaplain?
Answer: I’ve been a healthcare chaplain since 2008, and before that, I was a Chaplain/Bible Teacher in Seventh-day Adventist academies. A chaplain is a pastor who ministers in a community impacted by a non-congregational institution. After I “came out” as gay, I moved from the educational setting to the health-care setting where I minister to hospice patients, their families, and our own staff as they desire. When someone comes on hospice,he/she is given a prognosis of six months or less to live. A hospice team providing comfort can include a nurse, NAC [certified nursing assistant], social worker, chaplain, and volunteers if desired.
What does your job entail? What does a typical day look like for you?
While the hospice is a non-faith-based nonprofit, spiritual support is highly valued in our community. Thus, I am one of two full-time chaplains who travel to farms, log cabins, assisted living centers, and the state penitentiary in our counties of northeast Oregon and southeast Washington state. I empathize with patients/families and administer spiritual practices congruent with their faith as they engage in soon-coming death. I serve the bereaved in many grief groups we offer or through funerals when there is no reference to a pastor. Baptisms, communion, prayer, scripture reading, and guided meditation, are among the many rituals I might be asked to perform for such a diverse religious population.
Were you a theology major?
I graduated with a BA in Religious Education from Southern Adventist University to become an academy chaplain. After teaching for a couple of years, I took a year to train as a literature evangelist in Florida in a program called SOULS (east) at that time. Right after that, I trained at Andrews University in the seminary, graduating with a Master of Divinity. Then I returned to teaching religion at our academies. Throughout this training, I served in Beijing, China, as a student missionary in and Taipei, Taiwan, in the founding teaching team and summer camp director for what is now Primacy Preparatory Academy.
How did you decide to become a chaplain?
I had a heart for spirituality at an early age. But it was after talking to Chinese students desiring Bible studies in Beijing that I followed my heart for learning and sharing wonderful things about God.
Have you belonged to the Adventist church all your life? What was your upbringing like?
I was born into a missionary heritage. My grandfather was president of Spicer Memorial College in India. He and my grandmother started a community service center in Cooranbong, Australia. My oldest brother was born while my parents were serving in Papua, New Guinea. I grew up within this culture while my father was a professor at what is now Southern Adventist University. I am an Adventist to the core! Growing up near the colleges, I experienced a collegiate-style Adventism.
Does the hospice you work for require that you be endorsed by your church?
I’m glad it hasn’t as it would have caused more stress in the matter. But my employer does assume that we chaplains do what it takes to grow professionally. And the Association of Professional Chaplains requires that I have endorsement by the national agency of a denomination before I engage with the committees that lead to Board Certification. Being board certified puts me in an interfaith network of chaplains to collaborate and explore best practices and accountability to a code of ethics and continuing education. As a pastor, acknowledgment of my calling through ordination (within a denomination) would also be my next step.
I understand that the North American Division refuses to permit Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries to endorse you because you are gay. What have you been told about that decision and the reasons behind it?
Last August, I went to support my chaplain colleague Jaci Cress who was being ordained (commissioned) at an Adventist hospital in town. The North American Division team performing the service took me aside. I was told that my “endorsement is in process.” When I asked for how long, the answer was “indefinitely” and that I “had no choice but to wait.” During the service, the NAD team called all pastors to come to the front to lay hands on Jaci Cress.
“Why aren’t you going up there? Aren’t you ordained?” a social counselor sitting next to me asked. “I’m ordained by Jesus Christ,” I said. But when the NAD team prayerfully laid hands on my colleague, she asked for me to come to the front with the other local pastors to join in the laying on of hands. "It was the right thing to do," Jaci told me later when I asked her why she had made a point of my participation. The wait for endorsement has required a lot of patience on my part since I fulfilled my requirements many years ago. My experience with Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries has been very supportive until I reached the committee that includes pastors of other NAD entities.
The chaplains who head up Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries have spent years serving the general, non-Adventist population, and some have an awareness of the social injustice gay people face. Their experiences of gay Christians in the military is well informed. But I can imagine communicating this viewpoint is very difficult to those whose perspective on LGTBQ people is informed solely by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I really feel for them as they try to find the “right moment” when a committee of well-informed pastors see my being gay as a non-issue to the hospice community I serve. This moment never seems to come. I wonder if they are worried that I am believing the strong faith of the loving, committed, same-sex Adventists that I see God bless. I wonder if they are puzzled that one can be called to celibacy and still be unashamedly gay. Whatever their reasons, they don’t understand that waiting prolongs a climate of oppressive injustice for me.
Is there any chance that the Division could change its mind and decide to allow you to be endorsed? Is there a specific person or committee that is responsible for the decision?
Apparently a committee chair noticed my name and removed it before the committee could vote on it. Unfortunately devoted, godly men with good intentions are taking action to keep the church “pure” from people like me. But the only person feeling this action is me. Some sort of accountability must be introduced in the NAD to make sure well-trained chaplains are not dismissed without discussion. Messing with the ordination/endorsement process should put their own ordination status at risk. But I see no accountability there nor any real communication. I am told by both retired/current Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries members that people don’t want to vote against the person stonewalling me as he has lots of political influence in the NAD. And my career is stuck in this political game “indefinitely.”
After four years of keeping this issue silent, last year I started to get vocal. Realizing my chance to voice this, I was flown out to the General Conference in Silver Spring this year to answer questions about my being gay and Adventist. Still today, ACM has not voted on my name “yay” or “nay” nor made recommendations as I was promised. If I’m at fault for misunderstanding, I’m sorry. But no one is continually clarifying with me anymore. Whenever I am discriminated against by my church, this pattern of silence always happens. Thank God this is a non-issue at my hospice, and there any hold-up based on one’s sexual orientation is seen as a case of discrimination, upheld by law. But in religion, people can discriminate.
I take responsibility for putting myself at risk to stay Adventist. I know my beliefs are more affirming. I realize this can be a scary issue for people who feel they must protect the church from “condoning sin.” I sin; we all do from time to time, regrettably. My question is this: Where have I sinned on this matter? What does this have to do with hospice ministry? I wonder if they aren’t happy simply because I am not ashamed of being gay.
How does the lack of endorsement affect you professionally?
As I said, it holds me back from networking with other colleagues in the Association of Professional Chaplains. And I think my hospice deserves a chaplain who is ordained after so many years.
How does it affect you personally?
When you’ve dedicated yourself to the church you love and see yourself as nothing other than a Seventh-day Adventist; when this church puts you “in process” with no reassuring guarantees because of your sexual orientation — I feel very dehumanized. I start to question my own abilities. I feel less confident. My tendency is to beg for affirmation, until I discover my best affirmation is found in Jesus who created me utterly amazing. I can’t expect them to understand, let alone advocate. You see, I’ve been in this position waiting many times — most frequently when I am dealing with the Seventh-day Adventist church. The whole experience is really gut-wrenching. Must I choose another denomination even though I feel so connected to Adventism? Being gay and Adventist is who I am.
Would you consider leaving the church? Or your job? What are your plans? Why do you stay?
We all are making choices. The church is making a choice to not do anything and stay silent. And this means “Go away." It took me six years to learn this. Even if I believed the best and I got a “Yes,” would I want this kind of endorsement backing my hospice ministry? I’m here on this earth to serve the Lord and minister. I love my church, but I love my Lord more. I love what He calls me to do more. If this means leaving my church to do His will, I will do it.
Interacting with thousands of patients of other religions tells me that God is very alive and present out there. Right now I’m told by pastors of another long-standing denomination that they’ll not only consider ordaining my hospice ministry but also ordaining me to the people I serve in the Adventist Church, having a dual identity with them. And there is some friendly competition between pastors of local congregations Sweet Life Church and First Congregational Church about which of them might back my hospice ministry. I love their grace toward my Adventist beliefs and being gay. Both say that joining their denomination doesn’t mean I must leave the Adventist Church unless a local Adventist church enforces a narrow membership policy on me. That would be their choice — not mine — and I’ll respect that.
How and when do you think the church's attitude toward gay members might change?
It will never change in my lifetime if we keep a need for a global consensus to bless what we say and do locally. In North America, it has changed for the better over the years. A few more Adventist churches are becoming not only welcoming but also affirming.
What is there about the Adventist church that makes you feel hopeful?
I know of many Adventist pastors who tell me privately that my orientation is a beautiful expression of God’s diverse creation. It starts with humbly learning God’s love and realizing “sola scriptura” doesn’t mean “sola hermeneutics.”
We Adventists also have an imperfect social justice history that has eventually sided in favor of inclusion. Our expression of Christianity is different enough for many progressives to remain in the church to some degree. Also, millennials teach us that sometimes we need not leave one tribe for another. So long as one Christ-serving tribe fills the soul with strength, we can identify with many and make a difference everywhere.
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