Pastor relieved of duties after intense backlash over performing in drag on HBO show

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An Indiana pastor has been relieved of duty following an appearance in drag on HBO’s “We’re Here.”

After backlash from congregation members, Pastor Craig Duke was compelled to ask for reassignment and will not be performing his pastoral functions at Newburgh United Methodist Church, at least for the time being, according to Religious News Service.

The show follows renowned drag “artists” Eureka O’Hara, Shangela and Bob the Drag Queen as they travel to small cities and towns across the United States in search of locals they wish to transform into drag queens. Pastor Duke had accepted an invitation to be in an episode filmed in Evansville, Indiana, citing his desire to connect more closely with the LGBTQ people in his community and to express support for his daughter, who recently came out as pansexual.

Following the Nov. 8 airing of the episode featuring Duke, congregants fired multiple email salvos, and while some expressed support for the pastor, the negative feedback outweighed the positive.

“Enough were so negative that — at the ‘insistence’ of Newburgh’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee, Duke said — he requested a new assignment from Bishop Julius C. Trimble of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church,” Religion News Service reported.

Duke had anticipated leading a six-week Bible study that was to focus on sexuality in the church, but he said that after withstanding much backlash, one email broke the camel’s back. The pastor said it was the “negative, bullying, attacking email from a church person” that came on Nov. 14 which “flipped the tide.”

“Clearly, there were folks that were more displeased with my participation than I was aware of, or, at least, the group that was unhappy continued to work together,” Duke told RNS.

“It just got to the point where the conflict, the anger grew too much, and so for my mental health, too, I started to back away, and I told my district superintendent that the conflict was so much, it was at such a level from some, that I was unable to be an effective leader,” Duke said.

Mitch Gieselman, the superintendent of the South and Southwest District of the Indiana Conference apprised the congregation of Duke’s situation in a note sent to all the church’s members.

“Rev. Duke is being relieved from pastoral duties effective December 1, 2021. He will not be available to perform any pastoral functions at NUMC. He and Linda will continue to reside in the parsonage until no later than February 28, 2022, but he will not be at the church in any capacity,” Gieselman wrote. “Duke will continue with a significantly reduced salary until no later than February 28.”

The letter continued:

Craig has not “resigned,” nor has he been “fired,” as these are not actions that are consistent with our appointment system. While there is a diversity of opinion regarding the moral implications of Rev. Duke’s actions, he has not been found to have committed any chargeable offense or other violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

In short, Craig has reached a place where he feels unable to continue to serve in parish ministry at present. During his time of being relieved from pastoral duties, he will be engaging in a process of renewal, reflection, and recovery that will be monitored by our conference Director of Leadership Development, Bishop Trimble, and myself. Our desire is to provide an opportunity for Craig to again be able to utilize his numerous gifts as a pastor in a local congregation. He will not, however, be returning to the NUMC pulpit.

 

A crowdfunding effort has raised tens of thousands of dollars to date, ostensibly for Duke to fight the decision legally, though it remains unclear whether he will or even could do so.

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