November 13th, 2010
10:47 PM ET

Pastor says student's suicide was tipping point for his coming out

The founder and pastor of a Georgia megachurch said Saturday that the September suicide of a Rutgers University student was the tipping point for his decision to come out of the closet to his congregation.

"For some reason, his situation was kind of the tipping point with me," said Jim Swilley, who calls himself a bishop. "There comes a point in your life where you say - how much time do we have left in our lives? Are we going to be authentic or not?"

Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off a bridge after a secretly-taped sexual encounter between him and another man was posted on the internet.

Swilley, 52, said that he has known he is gay since childhood, but that he never thought he would live openly. He came out recently after more than 20 years of marriage to his former wife, who continues to work at their church.

"At a certain point, you are who you are," said Swilley, who has four children from two marriages.

He ministers at the Church in the Now, an inter-donominational Christian church in Conyers, Georgia, about 25 miles east of Atlanta.

"What I told my church is that I was given two things in my life that I didn't ask for... one is the call of God in my life and the other is my orientation. I didn't ever think that those two things could be compatible," Swilley said.

On the whole, he said his congregation has been supportive of his coming out, though some people have cut ties with him over the decision.

Homosexuality is a hotly contested issue by many faith traditions.

Earlier this month, Gene Robinson - the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church - said that death threats and the continued controversy around his selection contributed to his decision to announce his retirement.

Speaking specifically about evangelicals, Swilley said gay people are sometimes seen as trying to build a movement, or "recruiting" - views he took serious issue with.

"My position is not about gaying up the church," he said. "It's about people being who they are."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Georgia • Homosexuality • United States

soundoff (977 Responses)
  1. StephanieInATX

    The beautiful part about my Christianity and my relationship with God is that I understand it is not my RIGHT nor my PLACE to judge ANYONE – whether he's (or she's) a person of "the cloth" or not. I do not want to be judged. I want to love, accept, comfort and pray for, as true Christians do, for all of God's children – even His GAY children.

    November 15, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
    • Christian Man

      StephanieATX: Like many others before you, you misunderstood the scriptures. You don't judge, the WORD of GOD judges us. Just as lying, stealing, adultery, etc are wrong, telling someone it is wrong is not judging them. Look at it from another perspective, a police officer who writes you a ticket for speeding is not judging you. He is simply doing his job. A teacher correcting a child for name calling, is not judging that child, they are correcting them. Don't miss the point that we all sin and fall short of HIS glory; that doesn't give us a pass to not speak up when we see wrong. You can sin through commission and ommission.

      November 15, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  2. A gay dad

    It's a tough enough road. i tried the Christian thing. Prayed to be straight. Married 19 years. 2 kids. I finally had to tell my wife (now ex) and my kids. Not because I "chose flesh over God" but because everyone in my life (me included) deserved to know the truth. It's not easy and his (and his family's) life just got way more complicated. He, and they, need support and understanding, not hate and hate mongering. Being gay is not a choice. Too bad we're not taught that from very young rather than telling us it's wrong, perverted, makes us less desirable. Then we hide and try to convince ourselves we can change when we can't. Thank God society is where it is today so we can be more truthful to ourselves and our God. Yep, I told Him. He already knew. What a relief.

    November 15, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
    • CW

      @ a g-a-y Dad

      Yes you do deserve love....all christians should love you as a person.....not love the sin you live in daily. You can say what you want but IT IS A CHOICE!!! You can live by the flesh of your own desires or lean on God to change you and live according to God's will. Oh and by the way....taking THE BIBLE creating in your own mind a god that is okay with your sin is wrong. I guess you only believe in some parts of THE BIBLE and not all the parts. I feel for you and your family as you have let your fleshy desires make a mess....please repent...ask for forgiveness.....go back to your wife and family....by the way...your still married in God's eyes. Lean on God...the only one true God...not the god you created in your own mind.

      November 16, 2010 at 9:26 am |
    • A gay dad

      Hey CW. Thanks for the concern. I couldn't return to that lifestyle if I wanted to. Ex and I are better friends now than ever. Besides, I have a bf. And to return would again put me in shackles and back into the deepest, darkest depression a person can know. You try denying who and what you are and see how long you can survive. Everyone can do it for a seaon but no one can do it forever.

      November 16, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
    • CW

      @ a g-a-y dad,

      You say that you could only make the "choice" to follow God's way for a season. You say that it caused you depression to live in your word's denying yourself. The truth is you were doing at that time what God would have you to do. In THE BIBLE it says that we are all to deny or should I say "die to self". In doing this we are to turn from any fleshy desires and lean on God. I feel for you that you stopped leaning on God...and turned to your own desires. As I said before...your still married in God's eye's...if you repent..ask for forgiveness and turn from your own ways. God will forgive you....that way you could return to your wife for which you made a covenant before her and God...till death do us part. I will be in prayer for you b/c as you stated you broke away from the chains holding you....but you just don't understand that the chains of Sin that have you now...those are real chains of bondage.

      November 17, 2010 at 8:18 am |
    • A gay dad

      CW. As much as I think your dialogue is interesting I have to end it. You seem very rigid in your biblical views leaving no room for other thoughts. Unfortunately that makes you inflexible and wanting to impose your religious views on others. Sorry, been there, done that, not interested. I'll pray that your eyes are opened as well. Don't bother replying. I'm not looking at this again.

      November 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  3. Brian

    Anti-gay people or Christians need to wake up now. Never know your friend or family will come out after mocking against gay people, you will feel sorry. Then have to respect each other..

    November 15, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  4. Samuel

    Will this tiresome controversy never end...

    November 15, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  5. Lynn

    a core recognition of virtually all religions, including christianity, is that "being who we are" is not nearly adequate to our human condition. We are all in some sense "fallen" – and in some sense need redemption, newness, second chances, etc. It's too cheap and easy to say "this is who I am," Because the "ought' and "aspiration" anD 'hope' always presses us to be something more whole, noble, loving and less self-centered and arrogant. This theme pervades literature, music, art as well as religion. In chriostian faith it is "sin" and "grace" and redemption to new life.

    November 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  6. Mary

    @ JBeggs. If you saw the interview with the pastor and his ex wife, you would know that she knew he was gay when they married. They still love each other very much and the divorce was a mutual decision. Aren't you judgemental for a "Christian!" To all the other self righteous posters, I am always amused that you pick and chose which verses of the Bible to quote. Never any mention about advocating slavery, women as property, and on and on....

    November 15, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  7. Robert

    I was disappointed to see this church be pushed by a CNN anchor as both "influential" and "a mega-church" when it is neither. Some preparation and authentic research should be done. The church is neither.

    I would challenge anyone suggesting that this "pastor's" decision is okay to reconcile their views with the Scriptural mandate for purity in leadership. This pastor has abdicated his authority and ordination because of his sin. I weep for the lack of honesty and overwhelming failure in the moral leadership of this church.

    November 15, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  8. Vertebrate Catholic

    @marc, it bothers me that someone would say they're Catholic but don't necessarily agree with everything the Church teaches. You must realize that Jesus promised that His spirit would protect the Church from error. If you believe that the Catholic Church is the one Church founded by God incarnate, then you should find peace and joy in being faithful to her teachings. Remember that the Church claims divine guidance in all of her official teachings. If you don't believe this to be true, then why would you want anything to do with the Church? I urge you and all other Catholics who are uncertain about the divine guidance of the Church to read John 16:13 and perhaps "Rome Sweet Home" by Scott Hahn. Find comfort and strength in the awesome gift of the Catholic Church, which gives certainty and meaning to our lives. Christ's peace!

    November 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • Christian Man

      In all my years of studying the Bible, and even growing up as a catholic, I've never seen the word "catholic" anywhere in the Bible. What's even more ironic is the catholic church was founded by a man several thousand years after Christ's death. The Bible says that Jesus Christ is husband to HIS church. If there were a bunch of different churches, that would make him a polygamist. We all know that is not accurate. The Church was founded by JESUS CHRIST. Any organization founded by a man, claiming to be a church, would be considered the wrong route, unless that MAN died, was buried, and resurrected for the forgiveness of your sins.

      November 15, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  9. LukeKnocks

    a gay pastor!! ...i mean....not that there's anything wrong with that.


    November 15, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  10. RodRoderick

    restated: "What I told my church is that I was given two things in my life that I didn't ask for... one is the call of God in my life and the other is the sinful desire of the flesh. I chose flesh over God".

    November 15, 2010 at 11:57 am |
  11. RodRoderick

    Otherwise stated: "What I told my church is that I was given two things in my life that I didn't ask for... one is the call of God in my life and the other is the sinful desire of the flesh. I chose flesh over God."

    November 15, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  12. pastor warren

    i think if he is gay he needs to ask god to help
    i don;t think he should continue to pastor
    if he feel it is so right why are he and his wife are quitting
    i just think satan has deceived a lot of people
    this is not a godly life style
    and god certainly is not in it

    November 15, 2010 at 11:45 am |
    • Patti Cook

      "why are he and his wife quitting"

      I'm not certain what you meant by this question but I do want to tell you that neither of them are "quitting." They remain as co-Pastors at the church because they have not been asked nor will they be asked to quit. I hope that answers that particular question.


      November 17, 2010 at 2:46 am |
  13. Sooz

    Swilley has class most preachers will never have nor bother to attain. So, so many men of the cloth have no belief in invisible phantom deities with wizard water walking son . . . but have a big belief in patronizing the fears of intellectually constipated segments of mankind so willing to pay to be terrorized each week in the pews. Yet another report aired last week discusses the very type who use mental midgets to make a living because it's a lot more glamorous than good old sweat equity to get a paycheck.

    There are hundreds, if not thousands, of 'men of the cloth' who have seen the light within the bible and their jobs that are more than willing to explain why they aren't men of cloth anymore let alone "believers" of ancient Middle Eastern myths.

    The only sad part of Swilley's situation is that he still believes enough in myth to continue participating in the very industry that would rather see him dead than alive as one of 'god's" children.

    Humanity without religion is like a serial killer without a chainsaw.

    November 15, 2010 at 11:20 am |
  14. dan

    Jesus loves every man, but hates the sin. Man is suppose to confess his sins, and then he will be forgiven, but if he still continues to commit the same sin, then he is not honest with himself or God, and is a liar. If this so called Bishop of a Christian church is gay, then he is not a true Christian and a liar to his congregation.

    November 15, 2010 at 11:16 am |
    • Mike

      you and your post confirms the truth in the quote below

      "Humanity without religion is like a serial killer without a chainsaw."

      November 15, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  15. Dale

    Just another example of fallen man attempting to make God conform to their own image. This is why God said that man would trade the truth for a lie. God does not change. God's ways are foolishness to those who are perishing. God gives wisdom and discernment to those willing to see truth.

    November 15, 2010 at 10:58 am |
  16. Zebula

    So many (self)righteous people here. I hope you're all as right as you think you are, or you've got a BIG surprise coming....

    November 15, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  17. sonny trinh

    Thank that I live in Canada and sorry for you people of Americans because you do not have rights , freedom and democry in your country. You people let religions run over you and impregnant religious wrong thoughts in your brains. Some of you is still not seeing that.

    November 15, 2010 at 10:29 am |
  18. Frogist

    More power to you, pastor. But I have to say, maybe you could have been willing and ready to come out sooner and save your wives some uneccessary embarrassment and pain. Whatever the reasons for your delay, I feel sorry for them. I hope in you rchurch you were not a stringent anti-gay preacher, or I don't blame your followers from leaving. I am glad you have started on your path of authenticity for what you feel is important in your life. But I am most glad that Tyler's story made an impact on you. And that his death has created an opportunity for honesty and acceptance. I'm sure your road ahead will be both easier and harder in different aspects. I wish you strength to hold to your authenticity in those times. Stay strong, pastor.

    November 15, 2010 at 9:55 am |
    • Patti Cook

      @Frogist...thank you for your kind words about our Bishop. Bless you...

      As for your questions about his wives...they are both fine. Pastor Debye still loves him very much and he loves her as well. They remain our co-pastors and work very well together. We are proud of both of them and respect them even more for their integrity.

      As for the question about anti-gay rhetoric, he never has said a word against the GLBT community and since every service has been recorded and is available to the public, anyone who'd like to go to the trouble can get them and research them to find it to be true. If you choose to believe a member, I can tell you that he has not.

      November 17, 2010 at 2:41 am |
  19. CW

    @ All those who say its okay to be Gay and call yourself's christian,

    We have yet another so called christian making his own god by "coming out" and making the "choice" to follow is own will and not the only one true "God's" will. Its truly a shame....not only for his former wife...but his whole family.

    The last time I checked THE BIBLE it was still an abomination for man to lay with another man.

    @ Kelly Garrett,

    The one thing I will say is eventhough she is steadfast in her lifestyle....she knows that calling yourself a christian and believing that you can follow your "own" will don't mix. I continue to pray for all people to be released from the grip of Sin.

    This pastor is doing wrong....I guess he'll never preach a sermon on Leviticus....or talk about Marriage b/c he'll know he is a hypocrite.....period.

    November 15, 2010 at 9:49 am |
    • Kelly Garrett


      Hey CW, just for the record, I am a guy...LOL. I get that a lot, no big deal. At 6 foot and 280 hairy, bearded pounds I would not be able to pass as drag...not enough Nair in the world...LOL.

      November 15, 2010 at 9:56 am |
  20. j-son

    Saying that "we are all sinners" or "we have ALL sinned and come short of the glory of God", as all Evangelicals and most Christians have heard infinity times just means that God tried to create a universe and humans, supposedly in his own image, but screwed up SO badly in his creation of that species that the first real member of the species killed his own brother out of jealousy. The bible said that God created us in his own image and he is a jealous god. Apparently both are true.

    Yea, yea....I know there's gonna be 15 Evangelicals berating me about Free Will, but if the creator is infallible and perfect, his creation should be perfect and infallible as well, even if left to his own devices. I cannot accept the infallibility of the Creator, so nothing else can be accepted.

    I try very hard to actually LIVE by, rather than just hypocritically profess to live by the actual ideals preached by Jesus Christ himself: love, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance. Of course, very few churches or denominations really adhere to those tenants and actually worship the writings and teachings of Paul rather than Christ and I consider that a sin.......

    November 15, 2010 at 9:45 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.