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Crescent Heights Methodist Was 'Too Gay' for Church Officials, Pastor Says

Scott Imler cites an increasingly conservative Methodist denomination for the discontinuance of the West Hollywood congregation.

Pastor Scott Imler says it was his controversial views and background, as well as fallout from Proposition 8 that led to the .

“I’m a gay, pro-medical marijuana pastor,” Imler told Weho Patch as he prepared for the church’s final worship service to be held this Sunday at 11 a.m. “The United Methodist Church is becoming increasingly conservative and our church is too gay for them.”

Crescent Heights Methodist, located on the southeast corner of Fountain and Fairfax, is being “discontinued,” a decision made by officials from the Los Angeles district of the United Methodist Church. The official reason given is that the church is no longer financially viable due to its small congregation of 39 members.

Although the congregation is being dissolved, the building will stay open and Imler will remain its caretaker. The nonprofits and 12-step groups that meet there will still be able to call the church home, at least for now.

“They’ve asked me to stay on here without a congregation and to maintain the ‘ministry of hospitality,’ ” said Imler, who has been pastor of the church since 2005.

“They say they want me to transition my Midnight Ministry into the future, which means, ‘We love that you’re working with homeless, drug addicted, LGBT prostitutes and hustler boys, but it’s a little too edgy for the United Methodist Church,' " Imler added. "So keep up the good work, but as an Un-tied Methodist instead.’”

Church district officials declined to address Imler’s allegations. However, Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth, the superintendent of the church’s LA district, told Patch, “Our hope, our strategy, is that we will continue. Our commitment is to still be here. That is the message. It doesn’t benefit anyone to have another empty building.”

Proposition 8 problems

Imler says church officials began having problems with him after he persuaded delegates at the church’s annual conference, a gathering of 380 Methodist churches from Southern California, Hawaii and Guam, to oppose Proposition 8 in 2008. That voter initiative made same-sex marriages in California illegal.

“The church was left with egg on its face for supporting a losing campaign,” says Imler, who married his boyfriend of 20 years, George Leddy, during the five months when gay marriage was legal.

Imler says he knew there would be trouble ahead when he got an icy reception at a church district gathering held a week after Proposition 8 passed. “No one would even say, ‘Hi, Scott.’ Nobody can shun like church people,” said the pastor.

Beyond Proposition 8, Imler believes the United Methodist Church has grown increasingly conservative. He says there has been exponential growth of Methodism in areas such as West Africa, Asia and Latin America. That growth outside the U.S. has contributed to a dramatic shift in the balance of power in the 10-million member worldwide denomination that remains deeply divided on LGBT issues.

“As the oldest, most visible and potentially nettlesome LGBTQ- reconciling congregation in Southern California, Crescent Heights Methodist was once a badge of distinction and progressive honor for the Cal-Pac Conference,” Imler said. “Now, in the face of a reversal of LGBTQ fortunes, we are perhaps just too painful a reminder of the denomination’s failure to live up to its advertising of ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors.' "

Financial troubles

In its 97 years, Crescent Heights Methodist Church has flourished and floundered. As recently as 2004, the congregation was growing so much, it asked the many 12-step programs meeting there to find other spaces. The West Hollywood Recovery Center was started as a direct result of the church closing its doors to the 12-step programs there (12-step groups have since been allowed to meet there again).

During that time, Pastor John Griffin was holding Sunday services that incorporated Broadway show tunes, bringing in a lot of new members. But when Griffin was reassigned to a church in Long Beach in 2005, the people who loved the Broadway tunes left with him.

In the ensuing years, the congregation dwindled. Imler was away in Missouri in late 2007/early 2008 burying his parents and settling their estates (they died within four months of each other). When he returned, he found he had missed a deadline for submitting paperwork to receive an annual $5,000 stipend from the district.

More important, he also found church district officials had placed Crescent Heights Methodist on a list of churches marked for discontinuation. He says he went to church officials who told him not to worry, that they would work everything out.

Imler took them at their word and threw his efforts into the Proposition 8 campaign, which he admits consumed most of his attention in 2008.

“I spent like a drunken sailor during Prop 8,” he said. “I opened the doors to any Marriage Equality group that wanted to meet here and I didn’t charge them a cent.”

By the time Proposition 8 passed and the church was left embarrassed for supporting a losing campaign, Imler said church officials were no longer anxious to work things out. "Once you’re in the discontinuation box, you can’t get out of it,” he said.

Finding religion

Imler first came to Crescent Heights Methodist in December 1995, hoping to recruit people to work on the medical marijuana initiative (Proposition 215). Having previously worked on anti-nuclear organizing, he had been sent to Southern California from Santa Cruz to spearhead Proposition 215 efforts. Imler, who has epilepsy, says medical marijuana helps with his seizures.

“I hadn’t done church since I was a kid,” he recalled. “When I was told about Leviticus [which says homosexuality is an abomination], I never looked at a Bible again.”

But when he got to Crescent Heights Methodist, with its largely gay congregation, something felt different. His says his first two impressions about the church were that it was “close to God’s unfinished business” in that the church was ratty and in desperate need of repair, and secondly, it would be “great to be a pastor of a little church like this.”

He soon joined the church and even attended the California Pacific Annual [Methodist] Conference where he got delegates to endorse the medical marijuana initiative.

In 2003, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he pledged that if he survived, he would devote his life to service of God. When his cancer went into remission, he kept his promise and enrolled in seminary school at Claremont College.

Within 18 months of entering seminary, he was named the pastor at Crescent Heights Methodist.

Future of the building

Although the ministry of hospitality will operate at the church for now, the long-term future of the property remains in doubt. With the dissolution of the congregation, the title to the property reverts to the church’s district offices.

One plan is to create an LGBT Cultural Heritage Center, which would include a performing arts space and a gallery for LGBT items of historical significance, as well meeting spaces for LGBT and 12-step groups.

Another plan is to create a homeless shelter there. The much larger and wealthier Hollywood Methodist Church (the church on Highland at Franklin with the large red AIDS ribbon on its exterior) has been in talks with PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) about the building.

Whatever happens with the property, Imler is left saddened and frustrated.

“They say the important thing is the people. They say the building is not important, it’s just four walls,” he laments. “But now that the congregation is being dissolved, it’s all about the building.”

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lampshade August 26, 2011 at 08:55 PM
Perhaps the church can find a more accepting and progressive denomination to connect with, which would be a better fit for West Hollywood such as the United Church of Christ, Metropolitain Church, or Unitatiran Universalism. Sounds like this is an important institution for the city and that isn't because it is "Methodist" but the people/leaders in the building.
Barbara George August 26, 2011 at 10:28 PM
we had a problem several years ago after we began attending a Presbytarian church. We joined because our research told us they were gay friendly, and although we are not gay, we know and love many people who are, an would not want to belong to any group that was anti -gay. After a year we started noticing the church becoming more and more fundie. We finally left when the anti gay rhetoric came from the pulpit (this was a few yrs. before prop h8). A few yrs. later they changed to become a fundie church.
Sarah Taylor August 26, 2011 at 11:49 PM
That church was a cornerstone of the community for years. I remember getting a one year cake at the Saturday morning AA meeting 25 years ago..I wouldn't have thought they would have taken a right turn. Too bad.
jimmy palmieri August 27, 2011 at 02:21 PM
this church has brought happiness and recovery to many people in the west hollywood area. i remember my first meetings that i attended there. i hope it stays open as a public rescource for 12 steppers, and for gay political groups as meeting space. perhaps gievn the amount of people and organizations needing space, that the costs can be offset by their "rents" which are usually by the hour. it will be sad to lose this west hollywood treasure.
Clara Gonzalez August 27, 2011 at 03:43 PM
You are not the first gay pastor of the United Methodist Church and the fact that you are gay does not justify the business decision not to pay a salary to a minister for a congregation of only 35 people. I believe you have a talent for advocacy that is God's given, but the role of a minister includes responsibilities as a manager, not only of compassion, but of resources. I was present at that Annual Conference where you campaigned nonstop for the legalization of medical use of mariguana back in the 1990's and I thought your skills were useful and well intended, as perhaps was your decision to become a minister, but, again to be a minister is not like being a teenager where your parents handle you money every week. In times of abudance that might have been possible, but not now, and that has nothing to do with your sexual preference. I hope, and pray that meetings will continue to happen in that churh building, where compassion and love for all can be offered and shared, and that when you get your next church, you are willing and able to be a complete manager of your assignment. I also pray that my church, the United Methodist Church will vote to ordain people of all kinds of sexual preferences in the near future. But, if you dedicate yourself to advance that cause only, you might end up with another closed congregation. Grow up.
jimmy palmieri August 27, 2011 at 04:06 PM
WOW! I hope most congregants are not as judgemental and and so self righteous that they actually have the ability to say Grow Up, and mean it. Perhaps that pointing a finger, is something to take a look at.
Clara Gonzalez August 27, 2011 at 04:25 PM
You are not the only gay pastor of the United Methodist Church. In times of economic constraints the costs of supporting salaries and other compensations for ministers have to be shared among all the congregants. Where is it that you can go and stay for more than a month for free? I believe your talents as an advocate are God's given, but the standards to which a United Methodist minister is held include managerial skills that transcend the individual campaigns. This is an economic issue. Nothing to do with your sexual preference or the fact that you are an advocate for marihuana legalization for medical reasons. If that would have been the case, you would have been taking away the rights to behave as an ordained minister. Perhaps you could find a job with a pharmaceutical company and do the church thing part time. It was perhaps precipitous to give you an assignment as a pastor in only 18 months if you were not aware of the complexity of all the responsibilities that it demands to be a minister. Are you suggesting that the United Methodist Church should lower their standards because you happen to be gay? Or because you believe in the medical benefits of mariguana? Now is your opportunity to create a congregation, or to find a job that fits your talents. You are an exceptional campaigner.
jimmy palmieri August 27, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Thank God for Clara. How else would people know how to run their lives if not for her? Clara I personally am grateful for you. It;s people like you that know what's best for everyone and everything that help all of us survive in this rough world.
Ali August 27, 2011 at 10:59 PM
Wow, harsh comments from Clara and Chip.
Wesley McDowell August 28, 2011 at 12:29 AM
Crescent Heights UMC has been on life support for many years. It hasn't been able to sustain itself for at least 20 years. The California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church has paid the pastor's salary during this time. The appointment of Scott as pastor was another attempt to keep it going. Scott is a great guy, but he is not an ordained pastor. He has never attended seminary. This does not take anything away from his abilities, it's just a fact and was one way the conference could continue to put money into it. CHUMC was one of the first Reconciling Congregations in the United Methodist Church, acknowledging and accepted L/G/B/T persons in the church. CHUMC is not "too gay". Many other UMC churches are more "gay" that it could ever be. The real problem is that it is located in an area where going to church and being a part of a faith community is not a priority or even a desire. It's simply a sad sign of our times. I hate seeing it close but it may be better transforming into another ministry rather than a Sunday morning church. As for Hollywoood UMC, don't let them get their greedy hands on it. All they want to do is get the homeless and less fortunate off their steps so the "pretty people" won't have to step around or over them.They may not be as wealthy as Patch seems to think!
Sarah Wright August 29, 2011 at 02:10 AM
If the UMC were as judgmental towards people of color and the church building were located in a black neighborhood, how long do you think it would last? How long SHOULD it last? Saying, "I also pray that my church ... will vote to ordain people who aren't white in the near future" would not be enough. Would you belong to congregation that discriminated on the basis of race? As Crescent Heights closes, I, who was both christened and raised in the UMC, and who functioned in numerous capacities in the West Hollywood church, have pledged to myself never again to donate my money, my time, my work, my voice, and my heart to the UMC. Given the inescapable conflict between the Book of Discipline and the word of Jesus, there is only one choice: "Love one another," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," "Love your neighbor as yourself." There are no exceptions to these FIrst Directives. A church unwilling to follow the words of its own founder, in whose name it prays, and from whom it seeks blessings in its endeavors, deserves to have its hypocrisy rewarded with ever-diminishing coffers and reduced membership rolls, and, sadly, if it does not see the light of love, its own eventual "discontinuation."
jimmy palmieri August 29, 2011 at 02:18 AM
chip, your comment is both offensive and not condusive to good debate on this page.
Sarah Wright August 29, 2011 at 03:36 AM
It is absolutely untrue that "Scott has never attended seminary." He has attended for some years now. As to "The real problem …” etc.: It's true that church rolls are diminishing everywhere. However, Crescent Heights is uniquely situated in a city with large numbers of gay residents who have fought long and hard to achieve self-acceptance and civil rights and who are all too aware of the denomination’s discriminatory policies with regard to gay pastors and congregants. Why should such people join a church only to be told that, “Sorry, no wedding celebration for you! Go over to City Hall or some other church -- but don't forget to come back!” “Open hearts, open minds, open doors! -- Uh, wait. Some exceptions may apply ...” With demographics like those in West Hollywood, even if church-going was a popular activity, it would be really difficult to maintain any church, but to try to do so not only without the support of the larger church but in the face of serious animosity is a losing battle for which few have the stamina. Crescent Heights UMC has served as an island of blessing buffeted by hostile waves; that it has survived as long as it has is nothing short of a miracle.
Wesley McDowell August 29, 2011 at 05:15 AM
Sarah those are good arguments. Too bad they aren't exactly accurate. There are many other United Methodist churches which welcome l/g/b/t persons and flourishing. I totally agree that the UMC has not been as welcoming as most of us would like but to blame that for the demise of CHUMC is misplaced. Honestly, do you really think it makes any difference if CHUMC is a United Methodist church? Why not reconstitute as a UCC or Episcopal. Would it make a difference. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Sadly, the problem is not which denomination it is a part of. Iit is clear the church doesn't want to look at itself and would prefer to lay blame somewhere else.
Sarah Wright August 29, 2011 at 05:53 PM
With all due respect, Wesley, I'm afraid you missed my point. I am aware that there are flourishing Reconciling congregations; I suspect, however, that such churches have a heterosexual majority membership and are located in areas that are also heterosexual majority, however gay-friendly they may be. What made Crescent Heights unique, however, is its West Hollywood venue. West Hollywood consists in large part of individuals who have been demonized by mainstream religion and told they are "abominations," and who, because of their experience, understandably interpret "church" as a synonym for "antigay." This fact makes it profoundly difficult to sustain a congregation in a place like West Hollywood, particularly in light of the fact, which you point out, that church-going is in general on the decline. Crescent Heights' unique situation and its ministry to those rejected by even its own denomination made it different from other Reconciling congregations. Had the UMC been inclusive rather than exclusive towards this target population, although Crescent Heights might not have been packed to the rafters, it would have had a fighting chance to continue its work. It was a lovely place of which to be a part; it is sad to see to see it go.
Pastor Scott T. Imler August 30, 2011 at 03:25 AM
You are correct Clara, I'm not the only gay pastor in the Methodism. But since its rules still prohibits us, most serve in silence. I never said that being gay drove the "business decision" to not pay the pastor's salary. And since I was the pastor in question and voluntarily went without pay for 16 months in order to continue paying our pianist, it seems a little odd that you'd bludgeon me with it to make a point about fiscal responsibility. Frankly, after the denomination cut off its salary subsidy to CH I thought it was a very sound business decision made in the best interest of the church. And while the powers that be eventually informed me that I wasn't allowed to "work for free" (lest the idea of such an abomination catch fire), it was a lame reason then to initiate "discontinuance" and it's an even lamer reason now on which to sharpen your knives. Besides I've never worked at CH for free. It cost me and my family plenty to work here. And frankly madam, there is only one woman in this universe who has the right to tell me to "grow up" . . . and I buried her almost four years ago. So show a little respect, would you please. if you'd like to discuss the facts about CH, get some. The problem isn't that CH was TOO gay. The problem is it wasn't gay enough for its community context. And after 2000 of derision and death at the hands of good Christians, it will take more than a couple red-ribbons and a handful of closeted pastors to close the deal.
Pastor Scott T. Imler September 01, 2011 at 08:21 PM
Wesley, thanks for the thoughtful comments You are correct that CH has been on “life support” for many years, but it is not unique. You are also right that I am not ordained. I remain in the candidacy process, attended Local Pastor Licensing School at Claremont Schoool of Theology in 2004 and the Course of Study every summer since then. It's my personal belief that I was NOT as ready as would have been helpful when I was initially appointed in July 2005. Being a pastor is without a doubt the most difficult job I have ever had. And as you point out, in the community where I am serving the job is additionally complicated for reasons both you and Sarah have articulated. But I have always been clear that my calling to ministry was location and constituency specific. My “mission impossible” has been to build a homeland ministry to serve members of the global genetic Gayaspora – not exclusively but primarily. The Reconciling Movement – through no fault of its own – is little more than lip-service to the aspirations of gay folks due to the denomination’s Book of Discipline whichsays "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" and forbids gay pastors, gay weddiings, and prohibits spending apportioned funds on support for the homosexual lifestyle. Because it has seemed unitl recently that the denomination was heading in the right direction in repealing these provisions, I believed with patience we could succeed anyway. I was wrong.
Pastor Scott T. Imler September 01, 2011 at 10:05 PM
Wesley, you're probably right, denomination may not matter. However I take exception that we are looking for someone to blame. While there are individuals who had a direct and self-interested role in setting the dominoes in motion, no one has ever blamed them or anyone else for systemic troubles that date back 30 years. The real irony is when the Board of Congregational Development put CH on the "dead church walking" list in Spring '08, CH was relatively stable financially, with all obligations & apportionments paid 100% in advance. We had also given up our salary subsidy after 20 years. And given the Paragraph 213 Assessment wasn't even completed until 2 years after the ostensible results were published, it begs the question of WHY was CH targeted and saddled with a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look at the list of 45 local churches similarly situated relative to debt load and unpaid obligations and you’ll find CH at the bottom of that list. Yet we were at the top of the hit list. My naivete and inexperience were definitely factors in the demise of CH, but only insofar as unwittingly enabling the execution of a longstanding plan by a sister UMC to have the CH property for their own. Truth be told it was a good old-fashioned land-grab that would make even old man Mulholland blush. I naively believed that church folks were above the kind of lies, duplicity, and back-stabbing skullduggery that we witnessed and experienced. My bad. I promise it won't happen again.
steve James September 09, 2011 at 07:52 AM
lets look at the bigger picture - in the DC area at least 6 UMC churches will do gay marriage ceremonies despite the book of discipline which needs updating to include real love and respect for gay people. In the DC baltimore area about 170 ministers have requested a change of the book of discipline to officially allow gay people to marry in the church. In the midwest, about 700 to 1000 ministers (the number varies depending on hwere you read it) have done the same. Like it or leave it the UMC will ultimately give full and official inclusion to its gay members - Joining the Quakers, UU, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians USA, MCC, and American Baptists, and Jewish reform and some conservatives And some others I've missed. Leaving only the southern evangelicals / baptists (heirs to the religious culture that justified slavery as per the bible, and the catholic church of the endless hidden molestation of children as the only two major groups still actually demonizing gay people. I'm sure that some UMC people will leave the church, that is their right. But for the most part they will be the older people who simply cant conceive of change. The die is cast, the tipping point is here - Our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors are going to be treated as just another part of Gods wondrous creation.
Pastor Scott T. Imler September 13, 2011 at 04:15 AM
Steve- I can't dispute the numbers you've presented and I would like to believe that the denomination will come to its senses and do away with the most onerous provisions of the Book of Discipline. But I do not believe that will happen until the UMC is fundamentally restructured. The next opportunity will be in May of 2012 when the General Conference of the worldwide church gathers in Tampa, FL. But here's some other numbers for your consideration. A recent survey revealed that the UMC in the US is bleeding 14,000 members per month. Outside the US, the Central Conferences in Africa, Latin America, Asia are growing exponentially. The Ivory Coast joined the UMC 8 yrs. ago a million strong, becoming 10% of the denomination overnight. Only U.S. churches are bound by The Book of Discipline and while they get to vote on the content of the BoD, Central Conferences are not bound by its provisions and are free to minister to their people in ways that are culturally appropriate. 27% of the delegates to the G.C. 2012 will be from Central conferences. By 2016 it's projected that only 30% of Methodists will live in the U.S. and under the current structure will foot 90% of the Central Conference budgets.
Pastor Scott T. Imler January 25, 2012 at 01:58 PM
UPDATE TO MY LAST COMMENT: A clergy friend who has accepted a position jointly funded by the Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Action to lobby Central Conference delegates re LGBT issues told me that Central Conferences will actually comprise 37% of the total delegates at the 2012 Conference in Tampa. In terms of how they have traditionally voted on LGBT issues, at the last General Conference in Houston, the denomination set up an Ethics Committee - its first in 250 years - to investigate accusations that hard right conservatives gave all the Central Conference delegates cell phones with which they could direct them how to vote on the various matters to come before the conference.' Id like to think they did it because they see the writing on the wall and are desperate to stem the tide of inevitable change. But I can assure you that the ecclesiastical bean counters have done there calculations and checked them twice and none of them believe that the future growth necessary to survive current trends will come from the LGBT community, but more likely from communities that are luke warm at best on LGBT issues and certainly don't cherish the prospect of a gay pastor being assigned to their church. I hope I'm wrong, but I guess that we will be significantly farther away than the 98 votes we needed at G.C. 2008 to change the discipline prohibitions on gay pastors and weddings, let alome our "incompatibility with Christian teaching."
Ruben Martinez September 27, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Did anyone know my old pal Steve Brinegar, who use to hang out at this church? I know he passed away, but I need some closure on some things.

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