UMC pastor relieved of duties after performing as drag queen on HBO series

The Rev. Craig Duke performs in drag on the HBO series “We’re Here,” which aired Nov. 8, 2021.
The Rev. Craig Duke performs in drag on the HBO series “We’re Here,” which aired Nov. 8, 2021. | YouTube/HBO

A United Methodist Church pastor was recently relieved of his duties after participating as a drag queen in the HBO reality series “We’re Here.” 

The Rev. Craig Duke, formerly the lead pastor of Newburgh United Methodist Church, was relieved of his duties effective Dec. 1. The Rev. Mark Dicken will serve as interim pastor.

Duke became the center of controversy after being featured in a Nov. 8 episode of the docu-series. In the episode, Duke was shown preaching to his congregation about love before transitioning into singing Kesha’s song “We Are Who We Are” with “drag mother” Eureka O’Hara.

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The series follows three renowned drag artists who travel to small towns across the country teaching local residents how to perform as drag queens. Craig was nominated by the River City Pride organization to take part in the series. 

In a letter sent to the congregation last week, Dicken said that although he had “positive feelings about stepping in as the interim pastor,” he was not “not happy about the circumstances that led to this.”

“I love this church for many reasons,” wrote Dicken. “I am committed to helping NUMC through this challenging time. But I will need your help.”

“Come home. Come home to Newburgh United Methodist Church. Come home for worship. Come home for the holidays – and beyond. Healing takes time. Reconciliation and rebuilding trust is not easy and can be frustrating and sometimes painful. Most of all, come home to Christ.”

Duke and his family will be allowed to live at the parsonage until Feb. 28, though he will not serve as senior pastor at the church and his salary has been reduced.

Mitch Gieselman, superintendent of the South and Southwest Districts of the Indiana UMC Conference, sent a letter to the congregation on Nov. 26 stating that Duke was neither fired nor suspended.  Rather, Duke “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,” wrote Gieselman.

“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 there is a divide in the congregation over whether Duke should have been relieved of his duties due to his involvement in the drag performer series.

“I’ve received numerous calls and emails that are highly critical of Craig’s actions, and I’ve received numerous messages of support for him,” Gieselman stated.

“In such a polarized climate, our main intent is to foster an environment in which both NUMC and the Duke family can move forward in grace.”

Gieselman assured that Duke's actions were not a "violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline."

A GoFundMe page launched in support of Duke has raised a little more than $57,000 through more than 1,400 separate donations as of Wednesday morning. 

“Pastor Craig considers himself to be a man of faith, a father, a husband, a social justice advocate, and ally for the LGBTQIA+ community. Craig has a hope and has fought for a fully inclusive church that is welcoming to people of all races, all genders, and all sexual orientations,” reads the campaign page.

“Please join us in praying for Pastor Craig as he (and his family) navigates this time of transition. If you feel inclined to donate to help offset some of the family’s living expenses, it is greatly appreciated.”

Craig participated in the show in support of his daughter who identifies as pansexual. Duke told The Courier Press in a Tuesday interview that his wife, Linda, also stepped down from her role as the church’s youth pastor. 

Duke said he believes that “God loves all people as we are.”

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