amanda garber

Garber said the "shaming" for her stance on LGBTQ rights got out of control, even to the point of being called an "attention-seeking bitch" by UMC leadership.

It was the Facebook pictures that got her in trouble.

As Amanda Garber stood at the front of the hall, preparing to marry two of her best friends, she knew she’d face discipline. And when she saw the pictures pop up on Facebook on her drive home, she knew she might lose her job. 

Garber is an ordained United Methodist Church (UMC) reverend, and she was marrying two women. 

It was freezing cold for November at the Frontier Culture Museum, yet Garber was struck by the beauty of the surrounding mountains and of the event unfolding in front of her — and that event’s significance. “You’ve enabled me to access a courage I didn’t even know existed within me,” she said to the two women standing in front of her, Lindsay and Brittany Caine-Conley. 

When she said the traditional officiating words, “By the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the room of slightly less than 100 people cheered. The wedding was held Nov. 1, 2014, a Saturday. Less than one month earlier, Oct. 6, 2014, LGBTQ marriage had been legalized by the Supreme Court of Virginia. 

The reception after is a blur, Garber said. As she sat at a table socializing, her mind wandered elsewhere — the people and the food and the music became “background noise” to her thoughts about what was to follow her decision to officiate the wedding. Two days later, as Garber sat at a parent-teacher conference for her son, her phone rang. On the phone was the man who’d filed charges against her: district superintendent Tommy Herndon. 

He said, “Do you know what you’ve done?” 

Four months later, Garber was suspended from ministry for the Caine-Conleys’ wedding.

“It makes me sick”

At the top of the website for RISE, a self-labeled United Methodist “faith community” in downtown Harrisonburg that Garber founded and currently pastors, the header reads, “EVERYONE MEANS EVERYONE.” It’s a controversial stance to take within a denomination that’s not known for its LGBTQ inclusion, but it’s a major part of RISE’s theology.

The idea for RISE, Garber said, came out of a team of individuals unsatisfied with the traditionalist worldview of the UMC. Though Garber was raised United Methodist, she said she yearned for a “different expression of this thing called church.” RISE was supposed to signify a willingness to break doctrinal norms in support of stances counter to UMC theology.

Before the Caine-Conleys, Megan and Kelsey Marker approached Garber in June 2012 about marrying them, and she declined. She defended the decision by telling herself RISE was too young and unstable to withstand the hit the community would take if Garber was to be sanctioned by the UMC, especially if she were to be barred from ministry — and she almost certainly would’ve been. But even with a reason behind her decision, it didn’t stop a feeling of unfaithfulness to who she felt she’d been called to be as a United Methodist leader from rising after her decision to turn down the officiating job. That regret, in turn, became resolve.

“What struck me as I sat at Delfosse Winery, watching someone else officiate at their wedding … I remember sitting there feeling like a coward,” Garber said. “I said to myself and to God … ‘If I have another opportunity to do this, I will do it.’”

The UMC has, since its 1968 foundation, held a traditionalist stance against LGBTQ rights in the church sphere. Clergy cannot ordain LGBTQ weddings or identify as LGBTQ. When the Supreme Court of Virginia legalized LGBTQ marriage in 2014, the bishop of the UMC Virginia Conference at the time, Young Jin Cho, sent a message to the conference’s churches saying that while LGBTQ marriage may be legal in Virginia, it was still unacceptable under UMC policy.

“The denomination, like it or not, continues to say to people, ‘You are not acceptable as you are,’” Garber said. “[That’s] what the public hears, and it makes me sick.”

The line, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” in the UMC’s Book of Discipline — its doctrinal text — is central to the LGBTQ debate. In February 2019, a special session of the General Conference — a regular meeting of worldwide UMC leaders to debate denomination-wide issues — was called to resolve the nearly 50-year-long debate around sexuality and its role in UMC policy. The session culminated in a vote on what to do about the division within the UMC around the issue.

Following the passing of what’s referred to as the “Traditional Plan,” which doubled down on the existing non-affirming language, the UMC now faces a major schism between two ideologies — a traditionalist view of biblical marriage and what a clergyperson should be, and a progressive view that validates LGBTQ identity in the churched sphere.

Megan and Kelsey were married in June 2012, and only a year later, Brittany and Lindsay approached Garber about officiating their wedding. Garber agreed almost immediately, an easy and obvious decision for her — a second chance that she would take regardless of the consequences to follow.

“What are you gonna do to me, suspend me from the ministry?”

The phone call from the district superintendent’s office was followed by litigation and bureaucracy — emails, phone calls, voicemails and four meetings in the conference room of Bishop Cho’s office in Richmond. Throughout the process, Garber said, emails and phone calls would consistently arrive late, and at every meeting, she’d be asked the same questions as if the previous meetings had never happened. 

Just as painful as the month of suspension for Garber were the four months leading up to the suspension itself. Garber said the Bishop’s office told her she wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone not directly involved with the case about what was happening, claiming a need for confidentiality in the judicial process. The result — four months of isolation from her church. She had no one to talk about the case with except for the small defense team she built and fellow UMC leader Rev. John Copenhaver, who was going through an identical resolution process at the same time for the same reason, but no one at RISE knew.

She often questions why she obeyed the silencing directive — “What are you gonna do to me, suspend me from ministry? You did that anyway.” She consistently uses the word “shame” to describe the experience of the lead-up to her suspension.

The “shaming,” she said, came from all sides. Garber said she was called attention-seeking several times, including the use of “attention-seeking bitch” by UMC leadership — “attention-seeking,” “out of control,” “disobedient.” And outside of the church itself, The Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative United Methodist think tank, published several columns against Garber. They included claims that she “did serious harm to four same-sex-attracted individuals by actively misleading them about God’s will for their lives and actually encouraging them to continue in what Scripture and 2,000 years of consistent church tradition call ultimately self-destructive sexual sin.”

The organization describes its vision as being “to lead the fight rallying Christians to champion biblical, historic Christianity and its role in democratic society, and to defeat revisionist challenges.” Falling under that banner is an intense pushback against pro-LGBTQ equality groups and individuals within the UMC.

When the Virginia Conference made its public announcement of the sanctions to be levied against Garber in March 2015, Garber was made into a bona fide black sheep in the UMC. Church administration, she said, did its own part to make it clear that to draw close to Garber was to fall down the same punitive rabbit hole — the list of people who reached out after the charges were publicized, she said, was small. The thing to understand about shame in systems of power, Garber said, is “the way it separates,” and that separation continued throughout the resolution process.

Garber never went to trial, and four months later, a just resolution — or “conflict resolution” as she calls it because she refuses to refer to it as “just” —  sat in front of her, mandating one month’s suspension from ministry — from May 11 to June 11, 2015 — with benefits but no pay. 

The UMC’s Book of Discipline allows for the passing of what’s known as a “just resolution” — an alternative to a formal trial in which a document is drafted acknowledging the alleged wrongdoing, describing any punitive measures and confirming that both sides have agreed to the outcome. UM News, the official media publication of the UMC, quoted the resolution for Garber’s case in an article as saying it was “an effort by all parties involved to maintain the unity of the church and to settle their differences through the resolution process rather than through a costly and time-consuming ecclesiastical trial.”

The Virginia UMC Bishop’s office, reached by email, provided The Breeze with a statement in response to questions about Garber’s allegations:

“Confidentiality is essential in just resolution processes with the United Methodist Church. As such, it is not appropriate for the Conference to publicly discuss the particulars of this or any other personnel matter.”

Drew Ensz, a campus minister at George Mason University and a good friend of Garber’s and the Caine-Conleys’, is going through the same ordeal — he’s been under complaint for over 500 days. When a LGBTQ couple who’s not been named publicly came to him to marry them, he called Garber immediately. Her encouragement and strength, he said, is a part of what gave him the courage to say yes. 

“The wisdom and the courage to stand up for what [Garber] knew was the right thing to do, I think, has been inspirational, not just in that moment, but in the future, you know, in my ministry as well,” Ensz said.

Ensz’s reasoning for breaking with church policy echoes Garber’s. He said he wants to love openly, and he believes LGBTQ individuals deserve the same rights as straight individuals. If that means breaking with the church’s rulings, that’s part of the good fight.

“I made a promise when I was baptized and when I was confirmed to stand up against evil, injustice and oppression in any form they present themselves,” Ensz said. “I love my church enough to stand up against it when it’s doing harm and something that I believe is wrong.”

After a final meeting with the Bishop and district superintendent, Garber gave verbal consent to the resolution: one month with no pay, no ministerial activity and no contact with individuals within the UMC, including RISE. 

“The system tried to shame me”

Several Sundays later, just after Easter, Garber woke up sick. It was time to publicly tell RISE she was being suspended. After stumbling through a generic Sunday sermon for the congregation, she began to speak and broke down crying — her first public display of emotion about the entire ordeal. Several members of RISE leadership came to stand with her and, as she finally made the announcement that she’d be gone, an audible gasp moved through the room. Several in the room began to cry along with her. Garber knew the people in the room at the Harrisonburg Court Square Theatre loved the Caine-Conleys, who were in attendance that Sunday, but that the shock of losing the most prominent leader of their church would be hard on her congregation.

And then it was over. Garber left Court Square Theatre and went home to sit in her thoughts and process what had already come and what was still to come. May 11, 2015, came, and for one month, Garber had no contact with the RISE community. She still questions why she listened to the instruction to cease contact — she had already been suspended. That plays into the shame she experienced, she said — “The system tried to shame me.”

Now, seven years later, she’s still healing. After an initial hesitation to call that period of her life traumatic, she’s started to use the term to unpack what it means and what the repercussions of the trauma have been, including having to remind herself that religion doesn’t need to equal exclusion.

“Trauma will lead us to think in really bifurcated ways, like this file or this file — that’s what my brain did,” Garber said. “I now have started to pull some things out of each file and realize you can be wonderfully kind and inclusive, and be United Methodist.”

What she’s learned, she said, is to use her voice for herself and the work she cares about. She’s learned that remaining in a tough space can often be a way to slowly transform those spaces. She’s seen the deep intricacy of how the UMC views itself, its work and its people. She’s seen that fighting what she believes to be a good fight for reformation in a space she believes needs it is hard, but necessary.

“[The UMC] is beautiful, and we are horrible,” Garber said. “The same denomination, the same people who call themselves United Methodists, are the people who formed me and shaped me into the rebel I am.”

In 2021, Garber is still an ordained reverend with the United Methodist Church. She’s never once regretted marrying Brittany and Lindsay.

“Sheer goodness”

On Feb. 21, 2021, Garber and two other leaders in the RISE community, Adam King and Christine Jones, gave an introductory sermon via Facebook Live for a new series RISE was starting on shame — what it is, and why people shouldn’t feel a need to feel shameful of themselves. In the sermon, Garber mentions repeatedly her belief in the inherent goodness of all people.

A statement on the RISE website reads, “Here at RISE, we believe that God created us all differently and wonderfully, and we want you to be comfortable being yourself, not who you think we want you to be. We welcome any and all sexual orientations and gender identities and want you to express yourself fully and honestly.”

In the comments on the Facebook Live feed for the series-opening sermon, a woman responded: “I’ve felt such shame in being queer which i feel is really different because it ISNT about something you did or something that has been done to you. It’s part of who you are.”

Garber doesn’t think of herself as a rebel or an activist, specifically. Instead, she sees herself as following a calling that includes supporting LGBTQ individuals in a space that historically hasn’t done so. One picture stands out in Garber’s mind from the Caine-Conleys’ wedding: Brittany and Lindsay are saying their vows, and Garber is standing in between them, beaming. It reminds her of who she is — “sheer goodness,” she called it.

Contact Jake Conley at breezeeditor@gmail.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.