Junia Joplin, the Mississauga, Toronto, pastor who came out as a trans woman in a livestreamed sermon on June 14 (and who was profiled shortly thereafter by Vox), has lost her job after a congregational vote.
Joplin’s sermon proved hugely popular within the world of queer Christianity, in large part due to her skill as a preacher and how she weaved together themes of God-given acceptance and the struggle to embrace one’s truest self. “I want to proclaim to my transgender siblings that I believe in a God who knows your name, even if that name hasn’t been chosen yet,” she said during the livestream. “I believe in a God who calls you a beloved daughter even if your parents insist you’ll always be their son.”
Shortly after delivering her coming-out sermon, Joplin, a pastor at Lorne Park Baptist Church, said she received an outpouring of support from parishioners, including some she hadn’t expected to be in her corner. But the church’s leadership council sent her a terse email shortly afterward, saying “no decisions have been made yet.”
A July 20 vote on whether to remove Joplin from her position was carried out by drive-through balloting due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In a narrow 58-53 result, the congregation decided against Joplin’s continued employment by the church.
Lorne Park issued the following statement to Vox:
The Corporation of Lorne Park Baptist Church confirms that the congregation has voted to terminate the employment of Rev. Junia (June) Joplin as Lead Pastor of the church. The Church has journeyed for the past month through a process of attempting to discern God’s will resulting from June’s announcement of June 14, 2020 that she is a transgender woman. The vote concludes the first stage of that process. After a month of prayerful discernment and discussions between June and the congregation, it was determined, for theological reasons, that it is not in God’s will that June remain as our pastor. We wish June God’s grace and peace as she departs from us.
Joplin said those who voted to remove her were also asked whether their decision was based on theological reasoning. Eight of those people said they saw no theological basis for her firing, but voted to remove her for other reasons. On the theological grounds laid out in the church’s statement, Joplin said she came out ahead, 61-50. She still lost her job.
In the wake of Joplin’s firing, Lorne Park has undergone considerable upheaval. Six of its eight executive council members stepped down, as did two members of the church’s pastoral team, Joplin said. The “Who We Are” page on the church’s website is notably sparse.
Joplin’s firing was also a disappointment to trans Christians, who hoped she would avoid the fate of other pastors and church leaders who have come out as trans and subsequently lost their jobs. Yet there might be some room for optimism in the closeness of the vote.
“What you’re seeing played out [in recent years] are the ways in which the gradual increased understanding of queerness in the general population is changing the policies of the churches,” said Michael Pettinger, co-editor of the book Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms. “It’s intriguing and really encouraging that [Joplin] could get almost a 50/50 split. That would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.”
How Baptist church policies are ultimately decided gave some trans Christians hope that the congregation would vote to keep Joplin behind the pulpit at Lorne Park.
Unlike with, say, the Catholic church, which has a central governing body dictating how churches are allowed to carry out their business, each Baptist congregation is allowed to establish its own rules.Though Joplin said many churchgoers were very supportive, some who hadn’t gone through the process of becoming official members of Lorne Park were not allowed to vote, even if they attended regularly.
“I’ve had church members reach out to me and say, ‘You’ve got to remember the membership is not the same as the congregation,’” Joplin told Vox. “In other words, if it had been a vote that actually reflected the people in the pews, then it would have gone differently.”
She also said that she’s somewhat frustrated that people who voted for her removal didn’t bother to talk to her after she came out. But arguments against her were ongoing within the larger Lorne Park community. Adam McKerlie, who has been going to the church since he was very young and now attends with his wife, Lauren, said via email that he had been involved in a Facebook argument that reflected the groundswell against Joplin.
“A previous pastor of Lorne Park spoke out against June, going as far as using her incorrect pronouns and name. When I called the pastor out on Facebook, it generated some discussion and seemed to split our old youth group into people who were with June and those who were against, which was sad,” McKerlie said. “I unfortunately didn’t have a lot of hope for how the vote would go. I was surprised with how close it was, but saddened by the decision.”
McKerlie and his wife said they will no longer be attending Lorne Park.
Joplin told Vox that she has heard, at least secondhand, that some of the arguments supporting her firing went beyond suggesting a trans woman shouldn’t be a pastor.
“You had two congregations. The congregation that was, like, ‘Who cares if our pastor is trans? That’s fine. It changes nothing. She’s just as good as before, if not better,’ and then the other congregation is, like, ‘Well, not even cis women can be pastors,’” Joplin said. “Our denomination has been [ordaining women] for 60 or 70 years! Folks just had no clue that’s what our values are, because people don’t bother to learn.”
This exact debate — between embracing queer Christians and rigidly adhering to traditions that might be out of date — is at the center of arguments across Christian denominations right now, said Pettinger.
“What we’re seeing now is a kind of struggle in the conscience of people who have always believed that there was something wrong with gender- and sexuality-variant people suddenly realizing that, in fact, no, the question is not the worthiness or the worth of these people or the lives they live. The question is actually the sinfulness of homophobia,” Pettinger said, pointing to how often anti-LGBTQ Christians note that they’re “not homophobic” but still don’t think queer people should have a place in the church.
“It’s almost more about their need to maintain an identity as a good, loving person in the face of increasing evidence that, in fact, this is not a good and loving position,” Pettinger added. “It’s really intriguing to me that we’re seeing that shift at exactly the time we’re once again dealing with the legacy of racism and white supremacy in this country.”
None of that will get Joplin her job back, however. She told Vox she is exploring her legal options — in Canada, it is illegal to fire someone for being trans, but there are exceptions based on religious grounds. She also said that any severance payment from the church would likely come with strings attached that would make it harder for her to tell her story and build support for the next pastor to come out as trans to their congregation.
Joplin, who is American, has started looking for the next thing, which is somewhat constrained by her need to stay in Canada and not return to the US, both for medical reasons and because her children will remain in Canada. Church hiring is a long and complicated process. The soonest she might begin a new job would be in early 2021, she said, and it’s far more likely she would start later than that.
So until she finds something else, Joplin is guest preaching (though it doesn’t pay nearly as well as a regular job), and has a GoFundMe she hopes will buy her some financial breathing room to figure out what’s next.
And yet she, too, has hope.
“Christianity has had to change in some enormous ways over the last 150 years, and it’s going to change more. … Either stories like mine are going to invite the church to change, or it will die, at least in the way we know it. That’s sad in some ways, but the church constantly needs to die and be resurrected. That’s our story,” Joplin said. “If the 10 percent of every church that’s LGBTQ+ identified and if the one person out of every 100 that was trans came out in their congregation and spoke up, I think together, we could bring about a lot of change.”