Jonathan Williams was three months into his ministry when his father called to say they needed to talk. Paul Williams, Jonathan’s father, was prominent in the evangelical Christian world, chairman of an organization that started independent churches around the country. One of those churches was Jonathan’s, Forefront Brooklyn, a new congregation that met in a performance space downtown. Paul Williams’s organization, Orchard Group, had helped it raise $400,000 and assemble a staff.
Paul Williams had never felt entirely comfortable with who he was. When he was very young, he thought he would someday get to choose his gender, probably before kindergarten, and at that point he would choose to be what he felt, a girl. And when the figure he thought of as the gender fairy never materialized, he soldiered on.
He followed his own father into ministry, preaching as a guest in some of the country’s largest evangelical churches; he married a minister’s daughter, fathered three children and became a successful executive in a conservative Christian organization. From their home on Long Island, he loved to take Jonathan hiking or mountain biking. He was an alpha male, the head of a religious home. Whatever else was going on in his mind, he decided, was a secret that he would take to his grave.
Then, sometime before his call to Jonathan in late 2012, he decided that he couldn’t do that any longer.
Jonathan, who is now 40 and favors rumpled shirts and faded jeans, came to ministry without strong positions on sexual or gender issues. He knew few openly gay people, and no transgender people. “Abortion I didn’t have an opinion on,” he said recently at the Whole Foods Market near his home in Brooklyn. “Premarital sex, same thing. My wife and I waited until we got married. It was something we valued at the time. The evangelical culture told you that that’s what you do, and we did it.”
At Forefront, when people asked him if his church welcomed gay congregants, his answer was always the same, he said: Yes, of course, everyone is welcome and loved. “And then later on if they were asking, ‘Well, are you going to hire someone who’s gay?’ at the time I would say, ‘No, we’re not going to hire someone who’s gay, because we’re under the Orchard Group umbrella, and they take a stance that says this.’ It was an easy excuse for me, ’cause I wasn’t sure at the time what I thought, so it was convenient. There was a line I couldn’t cross, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to cross it, either, at that point.”
In December 2012, when his father flew in from his home in Colorado to talk with him, Jonathan thought that his parents might be splitting up, or that his father had cheated on his mother. Maybe, he thought, his father was going to say he was gay.
Then his father said that he wanted to live as a woman. “She said transgender,” Jonathan said, inadvertently using the female pronoun, though at the time his father still used the male.
“I was relieved for a split second, not really knowing or understanding what it was,” Jonathan said. “This was before Caitlyn Jenner or ‘Transparent.’ Then within minutes, going: ‘Oh, wait a second — wait a second. This is a way bigger deal. I would rather you be gay or be splitting up from Mom.’ It was this weird wave of emotion. We had a church Christmas party that night, so I get this information and I have to go to the church Christmas party and pretend everything’s O.K. I drank too much and did my best to put on a happy face, but it was pretty brutal.”
At Whole Foods, he managed a wry smile at the strangeness of that day: how unprepared he was, how it set in motion events that shape his church today.
His father had been his male role model and daily counselor in his ministry, as well as his entry into the evangelical world that financed his church.
Now, he said: “I felt betrayed, lied to. I didn’t want to know my dad’s new name for six, seven months after it happened. Then she said, ‘Paula,’ and I said, ‘O.K., it’s not that bad.’ But I was still feeling angry.”
Paula Williams, 66, is 6-foot-3, with light brown ringlets, a soft voice and an affinity for phrases like, “Oh, my goodness.” She is still married to Jonathan’s mother, and they share a Christian counseling practice, but they no longer live together. “Our therapist basically said, ‘You’re a lesbian and she’s not,’” Ms. Williams said.
On a warm afternoon last month, she was at the West End Collegiate Church in Manhattan for a conference of female evangelical church leaders. The conference happened to begin on her birthday, and that morning she had received a birthday email telling her that it was not too late for her to turn back to God and live as a man. She received other messages, too, that were not as mild, and some that were not mild at all.
For months after she told her son about wanting to make the transition, the secret remained within the family. Paul still lived as a man within Orchard Group; Jonathan worked on establishing Forefront Brooklyn, with guidance and financial support from pastors at other conservative churches.
For Jonathan, the secret threatened both his father’s career and the fledgling church. People had committed their lives to making Forefront Brooklyn work, or looked to the church for moral guidance. Did he owe it to them to confide that there was a storm coming that might blow the church away?
“I couldn’t say anything to anyone,” he said. “Here I am going, ‘Let’s be authentic, let’s be a community that loves one another,’ and I’m not being authentic. I’m not telling people what’s going on in my life.
“I’d be upstairs crying before church. Like, this is miserable. My dad was my hero, and my dad’s not my dad any longer. I’d stop crying and come down and I’d preach and be really glad and say hi to everybody, and then I’d get home and go to sleep. My wife would be like, ‘You’re superdepressed,’ and I’d go, ‘I know, I’m superdepressed, I don’t know what to do about this.’ I got counseling about three months after I found out. And I went to him for three, four years dealing with it.”
In 2013, Paul Williams told Orchard Group that he could not live as a man any longer. He expected the board to keep him on for another two years to complete projects he had started. After all, Ms. Williams said, the Bible was mostly silent on transgender issues, except for one verse, Deuteronomy 22:5 (sometimes written, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God”), which struck her as no more binding than biblical proscriptions against trimmed beards or long hair.
Instead, the board demanded that Paul resign. A 2014 announcement on the organization’s website said simply, “Paul retired quietly from Orchard Group,” and wished him and his wife “God’s best as they step into the future.” In July 2014, still using the name Paul, he wrote a blog post describing his lifelong sensation of gender dysphoria, which he defined as “the struggle of a person who feels they are in a wrongly gendered body.” The post, which ran on the website of the counseling practice she shares with her wife, quickly reached 65,000 page views, and was widely shared in Christian circles.
Friends felt angry or betrayed, Ms. Williams said. Some prayed for her, others cut off all ties. She recalled that one young leader told her, “You were my only example of an alpha male who was gentle.”
The words hit her hard. “I was an alpha male and I was gentle,” Ms. Williams said. “And I began to realize to how many of these young pastors I had been a father figure.”
In Brooklyn, Jonathan Williams was still dependent on the good will of people who considered gender reassignment contrary to God’s wishes. He told congregants that Forefront was a place for questions, not for answers, but many days he found himself at sea.
Despite his pedigree, he had taken a circuitous route to the ministry. He stopped attending church at age 18 because it was “too judgmental” and returned six years later only because a woman said she would not date him unless he did (the two are now married, with two children). Instead of pursuing a divinity degree, he earned a master’s in multicultural and urban education, and for seven years he taught fifth grade in a poor neighborhood in West Philadelphia.
His parents were more supportive than he expected, he said. “They said, ‘O.K., you’re asking a lot of questions, and we feel some of the same ways you feel,’” he recalled. “When I look back now, I think, Was my dad going through some of his struggles with his identity, and my mom having her own struggles as well?” As for his time away from church, he said, “I didn’t miss it.”
When Paula visited for the first time in September 2013, after some hormone replacement and cosmetic surgery — she declined to discuss the details of her transition, saying it would be inconsiderate of people who cannot afford surgery — Jonathan worried that people would look at her funny or make comments. He became protective of his father, who had always protected him. But when he saw that she passed as a tastefully dressed professional woman, he found the normalcy even harder to assimilate. “I’m like, I can’t do this,” he said. “I can’t do this. So after that I don’t think I talked to her again for like another six months. Before that we talked every day, so to not talk for six months was huge.” He kept his father away from his daughters, not wanting them to see their grandfather as a woman.
“That was my lowest point, probably,” he said. “I was really depressed, not doing well, really struggling. My staff said: ‘What’s going on? You’re in bad shape.’”
Stefany Fontela, 32, was an original member of Forefront Brooklyn who became close to Jonathan Williams during this period. Like him, she had also spent her early adult years estranged from the church. On a recent Sunday at the performance space Roulette, where the church meets, Ms. Fontela bounded down an aisle in a denim jacket, hugging friends from the congregation, which on this day numbered about 100, mostly in their 20s and 30s. In college in California, Ms. Fontela had been asked to leave her church and Christian sorority because she was a lesbian, and she ultimately dropped out of school.
“I felt that the church gave up on me,” she said recently over lunch near the tech company where she works as a designer. “If anything, me not going to church forced me to develop a personal relationship with God that helped me at that moment in a way I needed it to. I was really upset. I was depressed. So I really leaned into faith. In those moments that are really dark, and you can’t go to church, I could pray, I could read Scripture and try to focus.
“But it was one of the darkest times of my life. The girl that I fell for abandoned me. The church abandoned me. Certain friends abandoned me because of coming out. I would sleep and listen to sad music and go to work so I could pay the rent, and that was it.”
When she got to New York and started visiting churches that described themselves as “gay affirming,” meaning that gay people could participate in all aspects of church life, including marrying within the church, some were too small, some not theologically rigorous enough for her. She saw an internet listing for Forefront in Manhattan, which predated the Brooklyn branch, and decided to give it a try. Though the website did not say the church was gay-affirming, there were no statements opposed to same-sex marriage, and a Google search of the pastors did not turn up any antigay remarks. At a brunch with some members, when the topic of same-sex marriage came up, Ms. Fontela waited for someone to say something that would force her to leave, she said. But everyone supported it, she said.
“I’m sitting in this big table of Christians, and they’re all completely for this thing that I’ve been hiding and afraid of sharing,” she said. “It got to my turn to chime in, and I could barely get the words out. I said: ‘I don’t think you guys realize how important all the things you’re saying are to me right now, because I’m gay and I’ve been afraid to tell you guys. I feel safe.’ They just embraced me even more.”
Ms. Fontela was energetic and vivacious, eager to get more involved in the church. But Forefront was “gay welcoming” rather than “gay inclusive” or “gay affirming,” meaning that she could attend but not participate except from the seats. When a local blog wrote about the church — a potential boon for a new congregation seeking members — Mr. Williams and his staff did not publicize the article because Ms. Fontela talked about being a lesbian. “We could lose our support,” she said.
Such conflicts were making Mr. Williams increasingly restless in the church network. Ms. Fontela had become a close friend, sometimes an overnight guest, and strong in her faith. Was she really unfit to lead? What about other gay men and lesbians who might be part of the church? In summer 2014 his father visited again, and this time they had a five-hour airing of grievances — “I said things like, ‘You were a bad parent when I was 16,’” Mr. Williams recalled — after which he introduced his father to his two daughters, who were ages 4 and 6.
“I said: ‘Girls, you’re going to meet Grandpa, but it’s no longer Grandpa. Grandpa is a woman. Grandpa feels she’s been a woman her whole life, and now she’s going to start living as a woman. So now your Grandpa’s going to look different.’ They walk into the house and she’s there and she says hi, and after about 15 seconds my 4-year-old goes, ‘Do you have a penis?’ And we all just erupted laughing. And then it was normal.”
Grandpaula, they called her.
On that visit, Mr. Williams remembers watching his father with the girls, holding their hands on the street. “And that was a really big moment for me, because I was like, ‘This is how God sees my dad,’” he said. “The way my kids see my dad is the way God sees my dad. They’ve got nothing but love, nothing but joy. At that point I was like, O.K., we’re going to publicly talk about this now, as a church.” It hurt him, he said, that his father would be a second-class member of the church. At a staff meeting in 2015, he told his core group that the church would move toward full participation for gay, lesbian and transgender members.
“We took a tour of everybody who’s done this in the evangelical world,” seeking advice, Mr. Williams said. “It was not a big tour.”
Doug Pagitt in Minneapolis was one stop on the tour. Mr. Pagitt is the pastor of Solomon’s Porch church and the founder of the Organizing Progressive Evangelical Network, a loose association of churches that strives for greater inclusiveness. He estimated that several dozen evangelical churches have officially affirmed gay members in recent years, with many more moving in that direction. But the path was risky, he said. Mr. Pagitt warned Mr. Williams that churches that have taken it, including EastLake Community Church near Seattle and GracePointe Church near Nashville, lost up to 70 percent of their members and large shares of their revenues. “It’s not the smartest growth model,” Mr. Pagitt said.
“In mainline churches, clergy tend to be more progressive than their congregations,” Mr. Pagitt added. “In evangelical churches, clergy tend to be more conservative than the people in the pews. And people like it that way. So when the pastor becomes more progressive, that shocks the system. Even people who are themselves O.K. with gay people in churches, something shocks them about their pastor changing. Having that conservative anchor is something they find very freeing.”
Go easy with the congregation, Mr. Pagitt told Mr. Williams. Make sure the people who were uncomfortable with the change did not feel indicted or unwelcome.
When Mr. Williams told people that his father was transgender, reactions were divided. His childhood friends from Long Island, after their initial shock, told him that his father was happy and that he should accept that. “And in the church world people were like, ‘We love you, how can we support you, how can we help you,’ but with an undertone of: ‘We know your dad’s wrong. We think that he should talk to so-and-so, who’s a great Christian counselor.’ I don’t think anybody out-and-out said, ‘Your dad is wrong.’ But there was an undertone of: ‘This isn’t right. We’re sorry you have to go through this thing that’s not right.’”
Because Orchard Group is a church-planting organization and not a denomination, it provides support for a limited time, after which the churches go their own way. At Forefront Brooklyn, Mr. Williams was expected to become financially independent by 2016, four years after its start. Until then, he said, he was under the group’s aegis, including restrictions against affirming gay members.
Orchard Group’s chief executive, Brent Storms, declined to comment for this article. Jonathan Williams emphasized that he maintained a “very strong” relationship with the organization and close friendships with his associates there.
But he was moving Forefront Brooklyn toward affirming gay members. He invited a gay speaker to talk about his faith and told the congregation, “You might not all agree with this, but we’re not after uniformity, we’re after unity, and this is the church we’re going to be now.” He encouraged people of divergent views to stay in the church and shape the conversations.
Finally, in April 2016, Mr. Williams told his congregants that the change was official: They could now fully participate in the church whatever their sexual orientation.
Ultimately, about a quarter of the congregation, 30 to 50 people, left. “I had people I thought I was really good friends with leave the church,” Ms. Fontela said. “I had no idea they had a problem with me being gay and the church saying it was O.K. I was hurt. I know it hurt Jonathan as much as it hurt me.”
Sarah Ngu, a new member, said she knew gay congregants who left because they thought the church was becoming too progressive, straying too far from the Bible.
But new people joined the church, some referred by gay evangelical organizations. Affirming gay members distinguished Forefront from similar churches. Though finances are tight, Mr. Williams said the church has grown stronger.
“We’re a more transparent church,” he said. “We say a lot of times that we’re way more interested in asking good questions than having the answers. And I think people were able to open up with a lot of questions, not necessarily related to that. Like, I don’t know if Christianity works for me, but I’m still here. Or, I’m battling bipolar disorder, but I’m here. It opened us up to talk through our struggles.”
For Paula Williams, a surprise of coming out as transgender was discovering the extent of misogyny and male privilege within the church, and the degree to which she had benefited from these in her male past. Churches that once welcomed her in the pulpit would no longer permit her to preach, not because she was transgender, but because she was female.
For the family, she said, the hardest part was not having a chance to mourn Paul. He was the head of the household, and one day he was gone — not dead or estranged, but a pronoun they no longer used.
Jonathan Williams said he worked to keep sexual issues from dominating Forefront’s identity. He had started the church with an emphasis on service and social justice, and he wanted to maintain this.
“I’m very clear that we’re a Christian church,” he said. “Where we plant our flag is in Jesus Christ. We just happen to be inclusive and affirming. But we’re not the gay church. And that’s something I’ve said from the stage: No, we’re a Jesus-believing church.”
On a spring Sunday at Roulette, Ben Grace, Forefront Brooklyn’s worship director, led the congregation through a light rock song welcoming “a rainbow of race and gender and color” and claiming “for everyone born, the right to be free.” Mr. Williams in his sermon made no mention of sex or gender, hewing instead to themes of social justice.
He told a story about Jesus healing lepers and restoring them to their communities, then segued to Colin Kaepernick, the pro football quarterback who was criticized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence. “We struggle with people who upend social structures,” Mr. Williams said, contrasting this to the “neat, tidy Jesus” envisioned by many Christians. “No, Jesus is crazy, he’s upending social structures.”
“This is the Jesus that we want to follow,” he added.
It was not polished, and he seemed most comfortable describing his own stumbles on his way to ministry, breaking down the distinction between the minister and the congregation. But in this crowd, on this day, it did the trick. As the music came up for communion, the congregants lined both aisles.
Ashley Austin Morris, a comedy writer and performer who was attending the service after some time away, said she appreciated the church’s acceptance of disorder.
She had left because she wanted a church that would force her to change herself, she said, but then returned because experiences at the ones she found were too painful.
“At one the pastor said, ‘I really don’t know how you can be a Christian and be in entertainment,’” Ms. Morris said. “I internalize that and say, ‘I’m wrong, I’m bad.’ I fell apart over that. When really, you’re not supposed to just hang out in a church with other Christians. You’re supposed to be loving wherever you work. I really got that at Forefront. I felt more accepted there, and people didn’t have answers.”
She did not know if she would remain at Forefront, but she was glad to be there.
“I don’t like when people have answers,” she said, sounding a lot like Mr. Williams. “I don’t have answers. I have a lot of questions. And for me, that’s what practicing your faith means.”