SOUTH HAVEN — For more than 30 years, Rev. Michael Tupper was devout to the First United Methodist Church.
But that began to change six years ago when he attended his daughter’s marriage to another woman and was disciplined by the church for signing her marriage license.
The fallout from that experience started Tupper on a six-year journey that has resulted in a new calling and a new denomination, and First Congregational Church in South Haven has now selected Tupper as its new associate pastor.
“I never thought I’d leave the Methodist Church,” said Tupper, who was a Methodist minister for 39 years. “It’s hard to leave something you spent your whole life with, but I couldn’t in good conscience remain with a denomination that discriminates against my daughter.”
The Methodist Church teachings dictate that all people are worthy. However, homosexuality is not compatible with the church’s beliefs, and Methodist ministers cannot perform same-sex marriages.
The church’s stance on the issue has been debated over the years at its General Conference. Following the latest debate in 2019, church leaders proposed to split the denomination due to “fundamental differences” regarding church beliefs on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy. The proposal will be put to the test in May when the General Conference meets to determine whether to split the church into two different denominations.
Regardless of whether the church splinters, Tupper feels he made the right decision to leave, because there will still be a conservative portion of the church that excludes the LGBT community.
“This past fall I took a retreat to Ludington and asked God, ‘Do I need to switch denominations?’” Tupper recalled. “The Lord said you need to move on. I’m hopeful they’ll (the Methodist Church) become welcoming, but I want to be part of a denomination that better fits our family.”
Tupper didn’t always have a rift with Methodist teachings regarding the LGBT community.
“Back when I started I was of the mind that homosexuality was a sin and we needed strict rules,” Tupper said.
But then a young man walked into his office one day, hoping to join Tupper’s congregation. But he worried he would not be accepted because he is gay.
“I thought, ‘Well of course God would want you to be a part of the church,’” Tupper recalled thinking. As a result of the conversation, he began to re-read scripture and concluded Methodist leaders had misinterpreted them.
“God welcomes all people,” Tupper said.
When his daughter told her parents in 2012 that she was gay, she told them how difficult it was to grow up attending services where it is implied she will be going to hell for being gay.
“The shame and stigma she dealt with ... we didn’t know it at the time,” Tupper said.
Tupper resigned in 2016 from his Methodist congregation in the Kalamazoo area and he and his wife began traveling. However, when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, it led the couple to a new church and a new denomination for support. They found what they needed at Phoenix Community Church in Kalamazoo, which is part of the United Church of Christ denomination, as is First Congregational Church in South Haven.
“They’re (Phoenix Community Church) predominantly LGBT, so we were the minority. But they were so welcoming and supportive. It was just what we needed.”
Ironically, even though the couple joined a church affiliated with another denomination, Tupper made the decision in 2017 to become a part-time pastor at Gull Lake Methodist Church in Richmond. On Sundays he would pastor at the Methodist Churchm and in the evening, attend services at Phoenix Community Church.
“I really liked the Gull Lake church and hated to leave, but when the church decided to have a young full-time pastor I thought this was an opportunity to make the shift.”
Tupper is finishing up his part-time pastoral duties at Gull Lake Methodist Church, while learning his duties at First Congregational Church in South Haven. He plans to wrap up his pastorship in Richland in May.
Meanwhile, with all the change in his life, Tupper said he also is enjoying spending time with his daughter, who gave birth about four months ago to a baby girl.