Cover Story: Megachurch bishop takes a leap of faith

When he came out of the closet, Jim Swilley risked it all to practice what he preaches

On a Sunday morning in early November, a crisply suited Bishop Jim Swilley asks the congregants of Church in the Now a question you wouldn’t expect to hear within the four walls of a house of worship, let alone one in super-suburban Conyers: “Have you ever noticed how destructive religious people can be?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but Swilley still receives the response he’s likely angling for: a smattering of laughter and murmured affirmations. He’s discussing the Gospel of John, chapter 10, but he’s also clearly enjoying the subtext, the onstage liberation of having recently divulged a lifelong and intensely private secret.

Swilley focuses on a passage he says is commonly misinterpreted. The “wolf” in the parable, which “snatches and scatters” a shepherd’s flock, is usually taken to symbolize the devil and the flock the Christian people. But, Swilley explains, “The wolf doesn’t have to be the devil. It can be anything that drives people apart” — the devil, sure, but also Christian doctrine, and even seemingly well-intentioned religious folks and the judgment they harbor in the name of God. The undertone of the sermon is that Swilley, his church and its congregants are somehow different from the others.

Superficially, Church in the Now — a sprawling, 43-acre religious complex off of I-20 — is a typical megachurch, a representative member of a species that’s as ubiquitous in suburban Georgia as strip malls and chain restaurants. An ostentatious, stories-tall sign marks the entrance to its shopping-center-sized parking lot. And its leader is as scripture-meets-Southern-fried-machismo as his brethren. Well, almost.

Neither the parking lot nor the cavernous sanctuary are close to full on this particular Sunday. Swilley would argue the meager crowd has more to do with his nontraditional message than recent headlines — in People magazine, on CNN and NPR, and all over the Internet — centered on his bold decision to come out of the closet from the pulpit of his church. “In the last few days, I’ve read things about myself on Facebook — dark, negative, hurtful things, lots of scripture quoting,” the bishop tells his congregation. “But I truly only care what God thinks about me now.” The crowd explodes into applause.

After the service, sitting beside his ex-wife Debye at a long dining table in the church’s chambers, Swilley is unapologetic about his willingness to break ranks with some entrenched religious beliefs about who and who isn’t worthy of God’s love. “The message that I preach is held suspect by a lot of conservative Christians,” he says in a smooth, deep voice that carries just a twinge of Southern drawl. “They feel like it’s too tolerant, too inclusive, too open-minded. Even what I preached today would be considered scandalous in a lot of churches.” He says he’s been accused of espousing an all-embracing doctrine during the years he lived as a straight man as part of a long, drawn-out attempt to set the stage for his coming out. “You know, maybe in some ways I have been,” he says. “I don’t think that necessarily needs to be defended.”

The pulpit of a Southern megachurch is a surprisingly easy place for a gay man to hide in plain sight. First, you’ve got the built-in cover associated with being a man of God. In Swilley’s case, he also has the benefit of coming from a long line of powerful Georgia preachers. (His name is probably familiar to CL readers less for his predecessors than for his progeny; he’s the father of Black Lips frontman Jared Swilley.) Second, flamboyance is requisite. And given the vanity inherent in the position, it’s doubtful many people will question a proclivity for perfectly coifed hair, meticulously composed outfits, or fingernails so well-manicured, they’re buffed to a sheen.

Swilley obscured his sexuality behind that image for years — 39 as a pastor, 25 as the head of Church in the Now — and smack in the middle of the conservative ‘burbs. “I don’t think I’m effeminate, but there are some gay stereotypes that I fit into,” Swilley admits. “If you’re really savvy and really listened to some of the things I would say, you might suspect. I’m not a sports fan, I know all the lyrics to ‘Gypsy.’” He pauses for a second before cracking up.

His affinity for show tunes aside, Swilley isn’t nearly as flashy as plenty of other megachurch pastors, even the certifiably straight ones. When he came out to his congregation — and to the world — during a Wednesday night service in October, many were struck by his demeanor and candor. Citing the reason he decided to go public — a recent string of suicides among young gay people that culminated in the “It Gets Better” campaign — he’s almost moved to tears. But his coming out wasn’t theatrics. Just as he hadn’t had a choice about being called to minister, Swilley explained at the time, he’d never had a choice about being attracted to men. “It’s about just being who you are and telling the truth about yourself,” he says.

But while the hardest part — divulging the secret — is over, the seemingly easier task of living life as an open and honest gay man (who just so happens to be a megachurch bishop) isn’t without its stresses. Even if Swilley’s congregation, by and large, accepted his coming out, will they be as willing to embrace the bishop’s boyfriend when the time comes?

Discussions about homosexuality and religion tend to revolve around sex. In recent years, gay sex scandals involving leaders in the Christian church — many of whom habitually persecuted gays while building their extravagant empires — have become clichéd in their frequency. Colorado megachurch pastor Ted Haggard was shoved out of the closet by a male prostitute he’d been patronizing for years. Most recently — and locally — Lithonia megachurch Bishop Eddie Long was accused of preying on young, male parishioners. Four of them filed lawsuits in September accusing Long of plying them with trips, cars, accommodations and shopping sprees in exchange for sexual access. (Long has yet to comment on his sexuality, but told his congregation that he’s not the man he’s been made out to be in the court documents or in the press.)

Swilley’s coming-out was different from others on several counts. For one, there was no scandal of which to speak: no humiliating revelation about morally ambiguous sexual conduct, no lawsuits, no claims of infidelity. He made the revelation of his own volition. Perhaps even more important to his coming out in good conscience and good standing is that Swilley never preached against homosexuality. From the beginning, he built a church “in which all are welcome ... a place where all individuals and families can grow and flourish in their own faith and discover God’s unique plan and purpose for their lives.” Try as they might, no one could paint him a hypocrite.

The media came calling almost immediately after he came out. Since October, he’s appeared on Don Lemon’s show on CNN, Talk of the Nation on NPR, and Joy Behar’s program on Headline News. (He turned down other shows, including, probably wisely, “The Wendy Williams Show.”) He’s gotten something like 1,000 new fans on Facebook. He’s become an icon. He reads aloud from his cell phone a message someone left on his Facebook wall: “Just saw your interview on CNN and thought it was inspiring. To speak so eloquently about a very Christian rationale for accepting people as they are will have a huge impact on the lives of many. Although I am not a Christian, your actions restore my faith in what truly wonderful things can happen when religion is used to bring people together rather than to divide.”

“I get a lot like that,” he says proudly.

Jim Swilley had what he describes as an “old-school, neo-classical Pentecostal” upbringing. Pretty much everything was a sin, but he was able to take comfort in a doctrine that preached imminent rapture. Jesus would come soon, and he would be fixed.

A fourth-generation pastor — and nephew of influential megachurch pastor Earl Paulk, who died in 2009 and saw his legacy at south DeKalb’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit tarnished by widespread infidelity and allegations that he molested underage girls — Swilley wasn’t raised in an environment in which being gay was acceptable. Cathedral of the Holy Spirit did become known as one of very few Pentecostal churches to welcome openly gay people, but that was much later, well past Swilley’s formative years. Swilley’s unable to point to an epiphany or moment of self-discovery, but says he knew he was attracted to the same sex from the time he was 5 or 6 years old. Even at that early age, he knew it was taboo. He recalls, “Pretty much as soon as I knew it, I thought, ‘Well, I gotta change that! That’s not gonna work!’”

As Swilley aged and his theology evolved, be began thinking about Christianity differently. His belief that the Bible wasn’t to be taken quite so literally was transformative, if controversial, and it helped to inform the more progressive, real-world gospel he preaches to his congregants today. But, it also meant he’d have to come to terms with his sexuality.

Still, Swilley didn’t tell his first wife he was gay. (Swilley says he did not begin having relationships with men until after his divorce from his second wife.) They married in their early 20s, and had two children, Christina, now 25, and Jared, 27. “I married her with the intention of changing. I figured I’ll get married, we’ll have kids, and it will change.” It didn’t change, and the couple divorced after five years. “When she divorced me I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to be married to God.’” That didn’t stick either.

After a Sunday morning service, members of Swilley’s family — his parents, Darlene and Jim, a retired pastor; his younger sons, Jonah and Judah; his second (now ex) wife Debye; and her parents — gather in the church’s chambers for a catered lunch of pot roast and potatoes. As everyone eats, Darlene chimes in about a panicked phone call she received the other day. Upon hearing that Swilley came out of the closet, the acquaintance was under the mistaken impression that it was her husband, the elder Jim. She’s tickled. Her husband seems slightly less amused by the confusion, but smiles accommodatingly.

Part of Swilley’s weekly routine is meeting in the lobby with new visitors to the church, so he’s the last to arrive at the table, but a plate awaits him at his usual seat. Although they’ve been divorced for about a year, Debye put together his plate before she put together her own.

Debye looks more like the wife of an aging rock star than the wife of a megachurch pastor. Her hair is close-close cropped and dyed jet black in back and sides, with a shock of platinum blond on top and in front. Tattoos climb up each of her forearms; “Love” on one, the Hindi greeting “Namaste” on the other. In manner, however, she was — and still is, in a weird way — very much the doting preacher’s wife.

According to Debye, Swilley was honest about his orientation for the entirety of their 21-year marriage. She appears prepared to answer the obvious question: Why would you marry a gay guy? “People ask, ‘If he’s gay, why did you marry him?’ I tell them, ‘There are tons of gay and straight people, couples, who are not intimate for whatever reason. It might be mental, physical, psychological, whatever.’ You have to understand, that was the only part of our marriage that wasn’t intact. Basically, the only reason to get married is if you can’t live without somebody. And that’s where we were at. We thought, ‘We don’t want to live without each other.’ Whether that’s crazy to some people or not, it’s really the way we felt.”

The couple built Church in the Now together in many respects — Debye says that the lack of a physical relationship with her husband encouraged her to channel that energy positively within the church — and became the image of the perfect marriage: the bishop and his wife, the power couple. But as Swilley reached his 50th birthday, he started reflecting on his situation. “At a certain age, you really take stock in your life and think about how much time you have left. Am I going to live out the rest in authenticity or not?” Debye recalls, “He started going within himself. He would show up to preach, but he was reclusive. I thought, ‘Oh, God, he’s dying.’”

Throughout his career, Swilley counseled people unable to come to terms with their own sexuality. “You talk about bizarre-o world,” he says, “Here, I’m praying with somebody, taking them through the motions, when inside I want to say, ‘Hey, off the record, this isn’t really going to work.’” Swilley toured on occasion with other ministers, some of whom were “reformed” homosexuals giving ex-gay testimonies. “We’d be sitting around the table, and I’d say, ‘Let me ask you something: When you say you’re delivered or changed, you mean you’re not attracted to the same sex anymore?’ And every one of them would say, ‘Oh, no. I’m still attracted to the same sex.’ I wanted to tell them, ‘Well, you’re just celibate. Nothing changed with you.’”

As her husband continued to “regress,” as Debye describes it, she decided to file for divorce. Inadvertently, she nudged Swilley toward the closet door. “Even if he never said anything publicly,” says Debye, “if he just loved himself the way he is and stopped hiding from it, I’d be happy. For the longest time he’d say, ‘I don’t know what I am.’ I’m like, ‘I know who you are.’ But to reconcile those two things — a man of God and a gay guy — it was like, how do you fit that round peg into a square hole? Luckily, he got to walk out all of the necessary steps to love himself before it became a media frenzy.”

More worrisome than the prospect of coming out to his congregation, was coming out to his kids — especially his sons (Debye says Swilley’s daughter Christina knew before the boys did). “Male acceptance is important to me,” Swilley says. “I have these great sons who think I’m awesome, and I didn’t want to damage that image at all.” He says all the boys reacted differently, but that they’ve all been “awesome.”

“Judah, because he’s on staff, said, ‘I love you, this doesn’t change anything. But don’t ever say it publicly. Let’s keep the image.’ And, you know, I understand that,” Swilley recalls. “Jonah was my main concern because he’s a senior in high school, and I didn’t want him to have to deal with stuff at school. And he kind of said, ‘Yeah, people have already talked about it and it doesn’t have any bearing on me.’”

Of his eldest son, Jared, he says, “He’s never been spiritually inclined at all, but he wrote me this long letter one night. He said, ‘I really think you’re supposed to be the Martin Luther King of the gay movement.’ I mean, that’s not my vision, but the point was, he was saying please speak to the disenfranchised, it makes me love and support you more than ever. And it was just very out of character for him.” In an interview with CL in November, the Black Lips frontman said he thought what his father did “took a lot of balls.”

“Once I knew my kids were OK,” Swilley says, “I was invincible.”

If Swilley’s Facebook page is any indication — pretty much every day, nearly a dozen users post messages of praise and encouragement on his wall — his story has resonated with people far beyond the confines of his church. Homosexuals who were raised in religious households or who became involved in ministry — many of whom also tried and failed to lead a hetero life — have been particularly responsive.

“It’s awesome what he did and a lot of people can relate to him,” says Bruce Joffe, pastor of the non-denominational, predominantly LGBT Christ Church of Peace in Jacksonville, Fla. “I was married twice, I have two children. I personally could relate, but I can tell you, in my church, probably 80 percent of the church could relate, whether women or men.” Christ Church of Peace had always been an LGBT-affirming church and Joffe had been out of the closet for years — he’s been with his current partner for nearly two decades — when he was installed in June.

Pastor Dennis Meredith of Tabernacle Baptist Church on Boulevard in Atlanta was also married twice, and had three children before he came out to his congregation as gay-bisexual in 2007. During the 16 years he’s overseen the church, its demographics changed dramatically. His son, the church’s choir director, came out six years before he did, in 2001. Around that time, more and more homosexuals began joining the church. Without his knowledge, a performer at the Decatur gay bar Traxx had been encouraging people to come to services. Meredith’s coming out was practically a reaction to the composition of his congregation. During a sermon, he says, the confession just kind of slipped out, the crowd cheered, and that was that.

In describing his church’s philosophy, Meredith laughs at the notion that Christian churches have to specify that they’re “inclusive.” “I don’t know what that means,” he says. “Someone coined the term ‘inclusive’ and we all use it. Isn’t that strange? You have to say ‘inclusive’ when you’re supposed to already be that way.” When news of the Eddie Long scandal broke, Meredith — who was already in the process of filming a documentary about his church — recorded a strongly worded video statement that was subsequently posted on CNN’s iReport, admonishing Long for his hypocrisy. Still, Meredith believes that even if scandals like Long’s appear to be damaging to the acceptance of gays in the religious community, that’s not the case. “It may look like it’s pushing us back,” says Meredith. “But it’s really not. The fact that it’s out there is making us talk about it.

“Ultimately,” Meredith continues, “I think this is bigger than Swilley and Bishop Long and all that. I think it’s just the hand of the divine moving civilization to a point where we get along, a point where we are better.”

While Church in the Now’s congregation is diverse and has openly gay members, it’s far from majority homosexual. Coming out to them wasn’t risk-free. Predictably, the revelation wasn’t universally well received. A person calling himself “Concerned Christian” posted an article on the website calling, as many did, for Swilley to step down from his post. “God loves him and can forgive him, just as he loves and will forgive all those living a homosexual lifestyle if they will confess to Him and repent, but He does not want this man to be a leader in the church,” the anonymous author said in late November. “Jim Swilley’s gay lifestyle is not only a sin but he has been dishonest about who he is to a whole group of people that looked to him as their leader. Deceitfulness is a sin as well.”

Facebook commenters have habitually served up hearty helpings of judgment (quotes from Leviticus are especially popular) on Swilley’s page. For every five or so positive comments, there’s one condemning him, his orientation and his message of acceptance. In November, Deborah Stewart — who’s among a small but fervent group of regular commenters — wrote: “I am sorry, but you need to follow the Bible you teach, God love gay people?? Where did you get that? He may love Gay people, but not the sin Homosexuality. That is what is wrong with the church today, God is not in it. ... You are going to be in for a rude awaking one day. Sin is sin ... Bishops, priests, and preachers like you need to step down.”

Following his coming-out, the mass exodus from Church in the Now that Swilley had prepared for never took place. A few congregants left — some eventually came back — and one longtime staff member jumped ship. Swilley also says his unexpected fame has brought at least some new people to the church. Of course, there’s no telling what will happen once the buzz has died.

In the end, if the Swilleys — who plan on continuing the ministry as a team — can’t sustain the church’s massive facilities, it’s all the same to Debye. “If we stay on this campus or not, it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “I’d rather be in a warehouse somewhere. The shit doesn’t matter. I love this place, but it’s more about him being whole.”

Swilley says he recently started dating men for the first time in his life. (He says it’s been erroneously reported elsewhere that he would remain celibate, a vow he says he never made.) Still, he hopes that to some extent he can keep his personal life private. He’s not exactly sure how members of his congregation would react to the preacher’s boyfriend — or if that’s an introduction he’s ready to make. “Where I’ve left it with my future, is that it’s my business,” he says. “Everyone’s OK with me now, but I don’t know how OK they would be seeing me with a partner. That’s another bridge to cross.

“At this point, we’ve said we’ll just keep our personal lives out of it,” Swilley says, speaking for himself and Debye. “But, I don’t know how realistic that is.”

There’s a rustle of tissue-paper-thin pages as Swilley’s congregants obediently locate Matthew 22:34 in their Bibles on a Sunday morning in December. In that passage, one of the Pharisees asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus names two: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, etc.” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Implicit in that second commandment, Swilley tells his congregation, is another holy mandate: to love oneself.

The sermon is more self-help than what Swilley would probably describe as the “religious BS” he avoids. Swilley advises his followers to, among other things, “see yourself as God sees you,” “expect to be respected,” “love yourself unconditionally,” and “tell your truth always.” Finally, he’s taken his own advice.