Not long after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elected its first transgender bishop, a transgender woman was ordained in a Baptist church. At a May 23 ceremony, Laura Bethany Buchleiter was ordained at University Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana. The congregation, which left the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999 after accepting a female pastor, is part of the Georgia-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF).
Although some reports identify this as a “first,” Buchleiter clarifies on Facebook: “I’m not the first transgender person to be ordained in a Baptist church, I may be just the second—and the first in a CBF church. I’m very grateful for those who have gone before me, and am also very aware that we are all still pioneers in this space.”
University Baptist Pastor Annette Briggs says, “We’re not ordaining Laura Beth because she is transgender. Our church self-identifies as a church that listens to the call of the people irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.” Briggs adds of Buchleiter’s ministry, “It’s a whole lot easier to tell the truth when you’re not hiding a truth.”
Who Is Laura Bethany Buchleiter?
Laura Bethany Buchleiter, 49, graduated from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis the day before being ordained. While studying there, Buchleiter served as interim pastor at University Baptist, and up next is an interim pastorate at a United Church of Christ congregation in Wyoming.
Buchleiter, who grew up in a conservative family that moved frequently, says, “My desire is to continue to work with churches, mostly in the Midwest, as an interim pastor to help navigate change and transition.” The pastor describes knowing “in early childhood” that “something was different” but never being “allowed to develop a language for that.”
After feeling “a strong call to the ministry” in high school, Buchleiter attended Moody Bible Institute for three years and then worked in Christian industries in Nashville. Marriage and a family followed, landing Buchleiter in Dallas and Dallas Baptist University.
After being diagnosed with gender identity disorder, Buchleiter eventually came out as transgender. Only after discovering LGBTQ-friendly churches and the CBF did Buchleiter realize full-time pastoral work was still possibLe. “When I came out, I really believed I had to be done with church,” says the pastor. “I didn’t know any church spaces that would be okay with someone like me.”
Support at the Seminary and in the Pews
David Mellott, president of Christian Theological Seminary (CTS), says he doubts Laura Bethany Buchleiter is “the first transgender person to graduate from the seminary.” Instead, he points to a trend of more transgender seminarians, saying CTS “creates a space” where “LGBTQ people feel comfortable.” That, he adds, is “a sign of a critical understanding of the gospel that seeks the flourishing of everybody.”
CTS, which admits students of all faiths, is part of the Disciples of Christ. Mellott, previously an ordained Roman Catholic priest, says he’s one of only a few gay men helming a seminary.
Bloomington congregants say they’ll miss Buchleiter but are excited about the opportunities ahead. “One of her most powerful witnesses was just being herself,” says member David Underwood, “comfortable in her own skin, inviting to all, unpretentious, clear-thinking and joyful in sharing God’s love with us.” Member Deborah Ensmenger says Buchleiter “is a gifted minister of the gospel and has an incredible opportunity to reach people who often feel completely shut out of the family of God.”
Buchleiter’s plans include creating a media ministry, drawing attention to high suicide rates among transgender people, and advocating for justice for transgender youth. “People die every day for telling the truth,” says the pastor.