FeaturesQueer in Galveston

A Place in the Pews

Openly gay pastor Todd Starnes-Williams leads an LGBTQ-affirming Galveston congregation.

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Todd Starnes-Williams

Faith has always been at the forefront of pastor Todd Starnes-Williams’ life, helping him stay positive despite the hardships he has faced.

“I have always had an association with the faith community,” he says. “My grandfather was a pastor, so growing up I always knew something about church. I always participated in church in some way.”

But Starnes-Williams, originally from Indiana, didn’t set out to be a pastor. He had a career in marketing before making the trek back to school to become an ordained minister.

“I always knew that I was going to do something different with my life,” he admits.

After receiving his Master of Divinity degree from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1999, he made the move to Texas that same year to preach.

The trip to Texas would start a divine journey that eventually led Williams to come to terms with his sexuality.

“It was while I was pastoring [at First Christian Church of Alvin] that I finally decided to come out,” he recalls. “I also went through a divorce.” The eventual termination of his Alvin job led to some particularly rough times.

“I really struggled, because the denomination that I loved just did not have a place for me,” he says. “I knew that being gay was not something that the church would support.”

After starting  New Covenant Christian Church in Montrose, a church that worked closely with LGBTQ homeless youth, Starnes-Williams slowly began to heal. After receiving a Peace Fellowship Award from his denomination, he realized that he had a voice and could help others who were going through struggles.

“I learned that I still had a calling,” he says. “I went back to school at MD Anderson, where I received all my training to become a hospice chaplain.” 

Starnes-Williams has been a chaplain for 17 years. Three years ago, he started to become heavily involved with Westminster Presbyterian Church in Galveston, and began to see that religious groups were slowly becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ community.

“It was then that I discovered I could be gay and a pastor,” he says.

After working with Westminster Presbyterian members in Galveston, church officials decided to hire Williams to become “their” pastor.

“In December of last year, I was officially called to be the Stated Supply for Westminster Presbyterian Church,” he says. “It is an amazing congregation there, and we are actually getting ready to celebrate our 125th year as a presence on the Island.”

But the road to become a notable leader in Galveston County’s religious community had some setbacks earlier this year when his hiring in December sparked a backlash from certain crowds.

“We posted my hiring on our Facebook page, and did some social-media marketing with it,” he says. “I think it shocked some of the leadership of the church to see just how mean people can be online. There were some threats made on our Facebook page. It was just ugliness—overwhelming ugliness.”

Reflecting on his early career as a pastor and comparing it to where he is now, Starnes-Williams notes that much progress has been made, even though there is still much work to be done.

“There are times when I feel like we are making great progress, and then I am disappointed,” he admits. “I try not to let it get to me, but it is hard not to. It reminds us that we still have work to do.”

Williams is grateful that he had a pre-existing relationship with Westminster Presbyterian before the controversy of his hiring erupted online.

“We knew each other well enough to know that what we were doing was important,” he says. “It’s a church with a historic past, and we are living the historic present. By hiring someone who is openly gay, we knew that we were entering a different arena.”

Despite the negativity, Williams continues to keep an open dialogue with everyone. Regardless of what some individuals may think of his sexuality, he welcomes them all into the church.

“There is always a place in the pew,” he says. “Conversations are important.”

Starnes-Williams wants his hiring to serve as a beacon of hope for others in the gay community who are spiritual and looking for support.

“It takes a lot of courage for a gay person to walk into any faith community,” he says. “I have always been fortunate to be affirmed by people who love me. If that can happen in my life, we have to make it possible for others.”

As he looks back at his career as an ordained pastor, he hopes he is remembered as someone who was compassionate, helpful, and welcoming to people from all walks of life.

“I do not know if it is so much about being a great pastor,” he notes. “I am hoping that, at the end of the day, I was just a good human being and did what was right.”

For more information on Galveston’s Westminster Presbyterian Church,
visit westminsterprez.com.

This article appears in the July 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Connor Behrens

Connor Behrens is a communications graduate from the University of Houston. He has written for the Washington Post, Community Impact Newspaper and the Galveston County Daily News (the oldest newspaper in Texas). When he's not writing stories, he is likely watching the latest new release at the movie theater.

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