EVANSVILLE, Ind.—A United Methodist Church pastor in Indiana was replaced after appearing in a televised drag show on HBO. While he says he was not fired, his pay was reduced by 40%, and an interim pastor will take over his role as he stops his involvement with the church.
The episode, part of a series called “We’re Here,” aired on Nov. 8, and the show is meant to reach out to the LGBTQ+ community by showing everyday people in drag shows. The pastor, named Rev. Craig Duke, did it in support of his daughter, who identifies as pansexual.
The show documents three drag queens as they travel to small towns to pick out local community members and teach them how to perform in drag. Duke said he enjoyed the experience, and his daughter was overjoyed.
The reaction among members of Newburgh United Methodist Church was less enthusiastic. On Nov. 26, a regional representative of the church notified the congregation that Duke would be “relieved of his duties” amid fallout from his participation on “We’re Here.”
A letter to church members from Mitch Gieselman, superintendent for the South and Southwest Districts of the Indiana United Methodist Church, cited “numerous calls and emails that are highly critical of Craig’s actions,” as well as “numerous messages of support for him.”
Gieselman said Duke has not been “fired” — nor had he “resigned” — because those actions are “not consistent with (the United Methodist Church) appointment system.”
During an interview with the Evansville Courier & Press, part of the USA TODAY network, Duke emphasized that he had not been fired, and said there was “misinformation” about his departure online.
Duke and his wife, Linda, will continue to reside at the church’s parsonage until Feb. 28 and Duke will continue to draw “a significantly reduced salary” – Duke said his pay was cut by 40% – but he will not be involved in the church in any capacity. A new reverend was appointed interim pastor in Duke’s place.
“While there is a diversity of opinion regarding the moral implications of Rev. Duke’s actions, he has not been found to have committed any chargeable offense or other violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline,” Gieselman told church members in his letter.
Last week, Duke said the whole ordeal has left him tired.
“I’m just exhausted,” he told the Evansville Courier & Press.
More on filming in Evansville: HBO’s ‘We’re Here’ drag queen show, filmed in Evansville, features pastor, other locals
Duke said his biggest worries have been for his wife, who stepped down from her role as youth pastor at the church, and for his 23-year-old daughter Tiffany, who is struggling with how people see her as a person who identifies as pansexual.
Duke said his mantra continues to be that “God loves all people as we are,” something he’s tried to live by in his faith.
Eureka O’Hara, one of the professional drag queens who serves as a mentor on the HBO program, reached out via Twitter.
“Craig is an amazing person and deserves the same love that he shares with everyone around him,” O’Hara tweeted.
Supporters of Duke have raised over $50,000 to assist his family with rent, food and other necessities.
Duke hopes that the situation – and his involvement with “We’re Here” – will be a catalyst for conversation connecting the community of faith and and the LGBTQ+ population. He said there is often a “disconnect” between the two groups.
For now, he’s planning to take a step back to work on himself and his family. But that doesn’t mean there are regrets.
A reporter asked Duke if he could go back, would he do it all again?
“Yes,” he said.
Rayonna Burton-Jernigan covers diversity and culture-related topics for the Evansville Courier & Press. Michelle Shen is a reporter for USA TODAY.