Pastor comes out to church

CONYERS — Church in the Now is entering into a new chapter of its ministry after its leader and pastor Jim Swilley announced to his congregation that he is gay.

For many church members, Swilley's coming out during last Wednesday's service was not a surprise. Swilley said he had been aware of his sexual orientation since a young age. He and his wife and co-pastor, Debye Swilley, separated about 18 months ago and have subsequently divorced after 21 years of marriage. A video of the service was posted to the church's website Saturday that shows Swilley explaining to his congregation that he needed to be himself to continue his ministry and that meant explaining his homosexuality and debunking rumors about him.

"There are two things in my life that are an absolute. I did not ask for either one of them. Both of them were imposed on me. I had no control over them," Swilley said. "One was the call of God on my life ... the other thing was my sexual orientation."

Swilley gives a 50-minute talk in the video and says that his sexual orientation is something he has struggled with his whole life. He adds he was always attempting to come to terms with his orientation and his faith in God.

"It's like having blue eyes and saying that you can't have blue eyes," he said. "So I would put the contact lens in and say I don't have blue eyes ... I was doing it not to hide something but to change something."

The announcement brought some immediate changes to the church, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in May. Swilley will no longer be referred to as a bishop after he agreed to step down from the College of Bishops of the International Communion of Charismatic Churches, a coalition of church ministries of which Church In The Now is a member.

Swilley said churches in Kenya and The Philippines under his authority as a bishop remain strong but was not sure of who will take over for him.

There may also be questions about the future of the church. Membership numbers were unavailable, but CITN is one of the largest in the community. The CITN campus is a landmark overlooking Interstate 20, just east of the Salem Road exit.

In his comments, Swilley said he wants to continue his ministry and that everything is "on the altar, and if we do lose it everybody is ready to start something else."

"Our church, financially, is in the natural," he said, apparently referring to the down economy. "It's not in a great place. I don't know if the church can survive this," he said. "I definitely know I'm the talk of the town after 38 years, but I wish people can remember me for the fruits of my gifts."

Phone calls to the church were not returned. Swilley has received many comments of support on his blog, Facebook page and Twitter. However, in the video Swilley acknowledges members have left the church and personal relationships ended abruptly over the issue.