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Megachurch bishop takes a leap of faith 

When he came out of the closet, Jim Swilley risked it all to practice what he preaches

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After a Sunday morning service, members of Swilley's family — his parents, Darlene and Jim, a retired pastor; his younger sons, Jonah and Judah; his second (now ex) wife Debye; and her parents — gather in the church's chambers for a catered lunch of pot roast and potatoes. As everyone eats, Darlene chimes in about a panicked phone call she received the other day. Upon hearing that Swilley came out of the closet, the acquaintance was under the mistaken impression that it was her husband, the elder Jim. She's tickled. Her husband seems slightly less amused by the confusion, but smiles accommodatingly.

Part of Swilley's weekly routine is meeting in the lobby with new visitors to the church, so he's the last to arrive at the table, but a plate awaits him at his usual seat. Although they've been divorced for about a year, Debye put together his plate before she put together her own.

Debye looks more like the wife of an aging rock star than the wife of a megachurch pastor. Her hair is close-close cropped and dyed jet black in back and sides, with a shock of platinum blond on top and in front. Tattoos climb up each of her forearms; "Love" on one, the Hindi greeting "Namaste" on the other. In manner, however, she was — and still is, in a weird way — very much the doting preacher's wife.

According to Debye, Swilley was honest about his orientation for the entirety of their 21-year marriage. She appears prepared to answer the obvious question: Why would you marry a gay guy? "People ask, 'If he's gay, why did you marry him?' I tell them, 'There are tons of gay and straight people, couples, who are not intimate for whatever reason. It might be mental, physical, psychological, whatever.' You have to understand, that was the only part of our marriage that wasn't intact. Basically, the only reason to get married is if you can't live without somebody. And that's where we were at. We thought, 'We don't want to live without each other.' Whether that's crazy to some people or not, it's really the way we felt."

The couple built Church in the Now together in many respects — Debye says that the lack of a physical relationship with her husband encouraged her to channel that energy positively within the church — and became the image of the perfect marriage: the bishop and his wife, the power couple. But as Swilley reached his 50th birthday, he started reflecting on his situation. "At a certain age, you really take stock in your life and think about how much time you have left. Am I going to live out the rest in authenticity or not?" Debye recalls, "He started going within himself. He would show up to preach, but he was reclusive. I thought, 'Oh, God, he's dying.'"

Throughout his career, Swilley counseled people unable to come to terms with their own sexuality. "You talk about bizarre-o world," he says, "Here, I'm praying with somebody, taking them through the motions, when inside I want to say, 'Hey, off the record, this isn't really going to work.'" Swilley toured on occasion with other ministers, some of whom were "reformed" homosexuals giving ex-gay testimonies. "We'd be sitting around the table, and I'd say, 'Let me ask you something: When you say you're delivered or changed, you mean you're not attracted to the same sex anymore?' And every one of them would say, 'Oh, no. I'm still attracted to the same sex.' I wanted to tell them, 'Well, you're just celibate. Nothing changed with you.'"

As her husband continued to "regress," as Debye describes it, she decided to file for divorce. Inadvertently, she nudged Swilley toward the closet door. "Even if he never said anything publicly," says Debye, "if he just loved himself the way he is and stopped hiding from it, [I'd be happy]. For the longest time he'd say, 'I don't know what I am.' I'm like, 'I know who you are.' But to reconcile those two things — a man of God and a gay guy — it was like, how do you fit that round peg into a square hole? Luckily, he got to walk out all of the necessary steps to love himself before it became a media frenzy."

More worrisome than the prospect of coming out to his congregation, was coming out to his kids — especially his sons (Debye says Swilley's daughter Christina knew before the boys did). "Male acceptance is important to me," Swilley says. "I have these great sons who think I'm awesome, and I didn't want to damage that image at all." He says all the boys reacted differently, but that they've all been "awesome."

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