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


From the West Hollywood Patch:
By: James F. Mills

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 closure of Crescent Heights United Methodist Church.

“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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6 thoughts on “Crescent Heights Methodist Was ‘Too Gay’ for Church Officials, Pastor Says

  1. “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.”

    Well that pretty much sums up what this minister was all about. . . . issues. . . not God’s Word! If you don’t like God, just kick him out of the church??? This doesn’t sound at all like the United Methodist Church’s theology or membership vows or anything I’m aware of. . . just one person going his own selfish way.

  2. Bless his soul, Scott’s anger and resentment have gotten the better of his judgement. The United Methodist Church in the LA area has several very “gay” churches (not sure what that means) that are thriving. Hollywood First UMC among them. It’s not Scott’s “edginess” that’s caused this, although that’s often the claim of pastors who are not getting the results we all might like. Crescent Heights isn’t financially viable and effective ministry is being done in the area. It’s that simple. I’m sorry Scott feels the need to discredit those who’ve tried to help him along the way. This is very selfish and spoiled-brat sounding of him. I expect better of my colleagues. (PS, have been a “pro-gay” United Methodist pastor for over 30 years and have never gotten anything but support from my denominational officials.)

  3. The closure of the worshipping community at Crescent Heights has been heartbreaking for many of us; however, to say that it is because Crescent Heights is ‘too gay’ does not hold water. There are at least three examples of churches who stood against Prop 8, advocated in favor of gay marriage, and who have many LGBTQ members, who are not slated to close their doors:

    ONE:
    http://www.argonautnewspaper.com/articles/2008/06/26/news_-_features/santa_monica/sm5.txt
    Rev. Janet McKeithen, United Methodist Minister, stands up for same sex marriages

    TWO:
    http://www.hollywoodumc.org check it out; same sex couples with kids at Hollywood First UMC

    THREE:
    At my church, First United Methodist Church Los Angeles, we openly opposed Prop 8, including HUGE BANNERS to say No on PROP 8. We have many gay members.

    So, respectfully, I disagree with Scott’s idea that Crescent Heights UMC was ‘too gay’ for what he calls ‘an increasingly conservative church.’ In fact, the youth and young adults in our churches are moving away from the anti-gay rhetoric.

    It’s true that we have a long way to go in terms of full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in our global United Methodist church, but in our regional California-Pacific Annual Conference, we have an increasing majority of outspoken advocates for full inclusion as well as support for LGBTQ clergy and laity.

    And, by the way, it was about fifteen years ago when Rev. Thomas Griffith was the minister that Crescent Heights hosted the very first medical marijuana dispensary which was under the administration of Scott Imler at that time.

    • Sandie,
      Thank you for sharing your comments! Being a UM pastor myself I agree with you completely, the reflection of the membership within our church is not a reason that a church will close. Although many churches in our denomination are very conservative, it is heartbreaking to all of us when one of our congregations must close their doors due to changes in their community. Each year at Annual Conference we hear of churches that close, but we also celebrate the opening of new congregations.

      Perhaps Scott Imler needs this time to grieve and discern his next steps. Perhaps he is being called to serve the body of Christ in a different denomination or a different form of ministry.
      Whichever the case may be, I pray that the community of believers may continue in their relationship with our Lord and that he (Scott) may find God’s peace for his own life.

      Shalom,
      Pat

  4. Regardless of your views, I don’t think Imler was serving God – he was serving Imler. Any pastor who spends most of a year on political issues when they have other responsibilities (such as the people that Imler professes to care about) is not really in it for the church or God. Compare Imler to Rev. Dr. Paul Gamber in one of the other articles here.

    • That’s a good point you made here! It does seem as if this is someone who chose a vocation instead of responding to a call on his life. I hope I am wrong and that it is simply the slant of the reporter in the article.
      Most of all, I pray he and this community find the healing God offers to them.
      Shalom Brother ~

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