Reverend Craig Duke of the Newburgh United Methodist Church was relieved of hiis duties as lead pastor on Dec. 1 after he appeared in the HBO reality series "We're Here" on its Nov. 8 episode.
The HBO reality TV series features Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O'Hara and Shangela, former contestants of "RuPaul's Drag Race" who travel across the U.S. to discovger small-town drag queens to perform in one-night-only drag shows. Rev. Duke was one of those participants in the November episode.
According to the Christian Post, the Nov. 8 episode featured Rev. Duke preaching to his congregation about love before transitioning into a performance of Kesha's song "We Are Who We Are" with his "drag mother" O'Hara. The UMC pastor was nominated by the River City Pride organization to be a a part of the HBO reality series.
The pastor who was relieved of his duties at the UMC will be allowed to live at the parsonage until Feb. 28, but will be prohibited from serving as a senior pastor at the church. Rev. Duke's salary has also been reduced.
In a letter sent to the congregation on Nov. 26, superintendent of the South and Southwest Districts of the Indiana UMC Conference Mitch Gieselman explained that Rev. Duke was not fired or suspended, but "has reached a place where he feels unable to continue to serve in parish ministry at present."
"During his time of being relieved from pastoral duties, he will be engaging in a process of renewal, reflection, and recovery that will be monitored by our conference Director of Leadership Development, Bishop Trimble, and myself," Gieselman explained. "Our desire is to provide an opportunity for Craig to again be able to utilize his numerous gifts as a pastor in a local congregation. He will not, however, be returning to the NUMC pulpit."
Gieselman also noted that Rev. Duke's participation as a drag queen on the HBO reality series has created a divide in the congregation, with reactions from both ends of the spectrum. He added that he received numerous messages, including "highly critical" comments on Rev. Duke's recent actions, as well as an outpouring of support for the pastor-drag-queen.
Gieselman expressed his congregation's desire to "move forward in grace" especially "in such a polarized climate." He added that Rev. Duke's recent actions were not a "violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline."
A GoFundMe page was launched to support Rev. Duke after he had been relieved of his duties at UMC. The fundraiser already surpassed its goals, raising upwards of $58,000 for the the pastor who is described on the page as "a man of faith, a father, a husband, a social justice advocate, and ally for the LGBTQIA+ community."
The description also read that the pastor had "fought for a fully inclusive church that is welcoming to people of all races, all genders, and all sexual orientations." He also had a message instructing supporters to give to LGBT organizations.
Deadline reported that LGBT advocacy organization GLAAD Media Institute showed their support for Rev. Duke, with its Senior Director of Education and Training Ross Murray emphasizing that Duke's church members "bully" him to the point that he was removed from leadership for performing as a drag queen. Murray claimed that the relieved UMC pastor is "emulating the example of Jesus, who also spent time with those who were rejected by the pious."
Meanwhile, Rev. Mark Dicken will serve as interim pastor at Newburgh United Methodist Church. He said that while he felt "positive" about serving in the position, he was "not happy about the circumstances that led to this." He also encouraged congregants to "come home" to the church for healing, reconciliation, and rebuilding trust.