Dell, who never backed down even when the United Methodist Church convicted him in 1999 of violating a ban on blessing homosexual unions, is being forced into retirement by his condition. Next Saturday the church will host a farewell event for Dell as he abruptly ends his career two years earlier than planned.
The crippling neurological disease has caused Dell, a pastor for nearly four decades, to question his own words on the power of faith. In frustration, the pastor asked himself: Do you really believe what you’ve been preaching? Do you believe that God is dependable, even in the worst of circumstances?
“This has pushed me in terms of my faith,” Dell said during an interview in his office. “First, this sense of anger and loss. Why is this happening? How dare the universe conspire to take away my last two years? Not God, but the universe! So the challenge for me, then, was to be open to what I’ve said in my preaching for 37 years and that is: God doesn’t cause human suffering. But in the midst of it, God always works to open another door or another window.
“I’m at the end of one rope, but it’s more like a trapeze, letting go of one and looking for the next one that’s coming toward me.”
Part of the struggle in facing the disease, Dell said, is that clergy are usually trained not to be angry or grieve. They are taught that God’s got it all under control. “Well, I don’t see it that way,” Dell said.
“I think anger and grief are signs of how precious life is. Precisely because life is precious and valuable, we should be angry and we should grieve when life is assaulted. I remind myself that there is legitimacy in being angry. But not to get stuck there. To be open to that next door, that next window that might be beginning to open.”
Dell’s 1999 conviction sent repercussions throughout the 8 million-member United Methodist Church, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, leading to deeper divisions on homosexuality and talk of schism. He was suspended from ministry indefinitely, but an appeal limited the suspension to one year and he returned to Broadway United in July 2000.
Even after his highly publicized church trial and suspension, Dell continued to allow gay couples to affirm their unions in his church, almost a dozen times in the last seven years.
To abide by church law that bars Methodist clergy from marrying people of the same sex, Dell says he does not marry the couples. Instead, he provides couples who already consider themselves wed an opportunity to share their vows in the church.
“I often talk about ministry of the loopholes,” Dell said. “But it’s not the kind of thing that makes headlines because technically we’re legal.”