This trans pastor believes there’s no need to choose between having faith & being yourself

UMC Pastor Andi Woodworth
UMC Pastor Andi Woodworth Photo: Screenshot, Georgia House of Representatives

For Andi Woodworth, a transgender woman serving as pastor of the Neighborhood Church in Atlanta, GA, her call to ministry and journey of self-actualization resulted from a series of discoveries.

“I wish I could tell you that there was one massive moment where the skies parted, and a beam of light shone through and all of those things,” she tells LGBTQ Nation. “But for me, my call was truly an ongoing and unfolding process.”

One moment, though, does stand out. When she was a teenager, Woodworth had what she describes as an experience with the living God.

“It felt like the world opened up, and I experienced this kind of radiant divine love in a tangible way around me,” she reflects. “There was this sense that God was real and alive and present and in love with me.”

Woodworth’s approach to pastoral leadership today is born out of the revelation of that experience when she was a teen and rooted in what she has always felt as a responsibility to those on the margins. She began putting it all into practice during her years as a summer camp counselor and director, which eventually led to becoming a co-pastor. She believes everyone needs to understand that the radiant love of the Divine is all around them all the time. It drives her pastoral commitment, even in the face of uncertainty as an openly trans woman leading a United Methodist Church (UMC) congregation.

Woodworth co-founded Neighborhood Church in Candler Park – an affluent, majority-white upper-class neighborhood in Atlanta – with her now ex-wife, Anjie Woodworth. They were assigned to two churches that merged to proactively close their doors before arriving in absolute crisis mode. They formed Neighborhood Church after a year of discerning, learning, and unlearning.

“We were the first intentionally progressive church plant in North Georgia,” Anjie tells LGBTQ Nation. “Lots of them ended up being progressive or were kind of covert, but we were the first ones who were just unabashed about it from the get.”

But being a progressive ministry within a denomination struggling with its overall stance on homosexuality isn’t simple. The issues have haunted the denomination over the years, resulting in a split in 2023 due to theological differences over LGBTQ+ inclusion. But Anjie says they were not interested in simply perpetuating the ideals of the church.

“For us, it’s all very clearly rooted in the gospel. But how do you make that clear? And how do you deconstruct that with folks for whom Scripture has been used as literally an abuse tool?” “Where we landed is that there are people who need healing in this space that can’t get it anywhere else.”

All of who you are is welcome here  

Both Neighborhood and the Woodworths found themselves practicing what they preached when Andi began transitioning in 2020.

“I was standing up in church and saying every week, ‘All of who you are is welcome here. All of who you are is loved by God,’ and slowly, I began to hear those things as true for myself,” Andi said. “We had made a space where I could actually be me.”

Not only did they have to figure out what this change would mean for their family and the congregation, but also what it meant within the denomination. But Andi says the contentious debate over sexuality allowed gender identity to remain unaddressed. Until a recent landmark vote, the language in the Methodist Book of Discipline (BOD) only prohibited lesbian and gay clergy leaders, not transgender men or women.

“It is threatening to see people living outside of the structures of control because it means that, in fact, life is possible outside of the structures of control,” Andi says. “So even as much as some people might not want to have trans people be in leadership in our denomination, there are no rules about it.”

But that’s not to say there were no concerns. In 2022, Andi said she “came out” to her now-former bishop (the neighborhood Church is part of the North Georgia Annual Conference of the UMC).

 “For nearly two years, I waited for the other shoe to drop,” she says. “I spent years worried that I would be removed from ministry, lose my job, my housing, my credentials, all of those things.”

 And even though the bishop was supportive and affirming at the time, her fear was as tangible and universal as many others within the denomination.

Recently, Karen Oliveto – the soon-to-be-retired bishop of the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC and the denomination’s first out gay bishop – shared during Sunday morning worship at the General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, a fear she has had throughout her ministerial career.

“For 42 years, I have woken up every morning wondering if this is the day my ordination will be taken from me,” she said. “Every single day. I’m gonna retire at the end of August, and there’s hope that I won’t have that fear anymore.”

Neighborhood’s current bishop continues to support Andi, Anjie, and the church.

“I think the Methodist Church, the United Methodist Church, is on this point of recognizing that it’s going to change structurally to be more inclusive of queer humans,” says Andi. “And the folks that are in leadership know that that’s the structural change that’s coming, and they’re like, let’s dive into this.”

Kylan Pew, Director of Restorative Practices at Neighborhood, tells LGBTQ Nation he’s eager to see what the future holds for the UMC.

“I’m eager to see how doors are open to others. I think what we know and understand around instances like this, is that there is an exception to every rule,” he says. “So right now, I think we are operating in an exception, the turning of the other cheek. The favor, if you will. The work, then, is helping to push the narrative of this reality at Neighborhood Church into becoming the norm, right, of welcoming diverse bodies of people into our communities and affirming their full being. It’s not only about building the table wider but about stretching the umbrella of inclusion.”

So far, things seem promising. In the summer of 2024, Anjie will leave Neighborhood Church. She has been assigned to another church just 2.5 miles away. And as stated above, during the UMC’s General Conference, the denomination voted to repeal its ban on gay and lesbian clergy.

“If the United Methodist Church has not come and either removed me from ministry through an official process or removed our congregation through an official process, then we can stand firm and say, we, too, are Methodist, right?” says Andi. “This is my church. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. And it’s, I mean, it’s scary. Believe me. I have been scared this whole time and still am sometimes. But this is who we are theologically — who we are as human beings. And they don’t get to kick us out. They don’t get to drive us out. We have the living God with us.”

Mashaun Simon is an award-winning writer and journalist. Currently, he is a Local News: US South contributor for GLAAD. Before GLAAD, he served as co-associate editor of Geez Magazine. He has written for NBC News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Black Enterprise, Bloomberg News, Ebony Magazine, Essence Magazine, the Counter Narrative Project’s (CNP) The Reckoning, and others. He holds a professional writing degree from Georgia Perimeter College, a Bachelor of Science in Communications from Kennesaw State University, and a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. 

*This piece was created in partnership with GLAAD

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