The Reverend Dr. Bryan Franzen has been the senior pastor of San Jose’s Westminster Presbyterian Church since January 1, 2012. He is one of the few openly LGBTQ+ head ministers in San Jose and is well known for his community and political involvement.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1974, he was the third of three boys to a father who was in middle management for Sears Roebuck & Co. and was also a reserve officer in the US Army. His mother, a teacher, was a stay-at-home mom during most of his upbringing, but was very active in philanthropic work, often bringing him along.
Bryan remembers one of the most impactful groups his mother worked with was a church group that gave microloans to small businesses in a community that had roots in the Underground Railroad. Those neighborhoods and descendants still lived in poor conditions; many of the homes didn’t have indoor plumbing. This gave him his first introduction to helping people who are in need.
In addition, when his young mother’s best friend was restricted to a wheelchair due to spinal bifida, Franzen recalls he and his brothers using the wheelchair as a jungle gym of sorts, which she loved. Although his parents were fairly conservative, it was normal for him to be surrounded by people of different ethnicities and abilities.
Franzen remembers when he was about nine that he wasn’t attracted to girls like his brothers and friends were, but it would take a few more years for him to realize he was gay. He knew homosexuality wasn’t something supported by society, so he worked hard not to have mannerisms that were stereotypically gay. As was expected, he dated a girl in high school but was relieved early in the relationship when they agreed that “good Christians” did not have sex before marriage.
Franzen went to Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, a private college that is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA). Both of his brothers had gone there, so his father was able to negotiate a reduction in tuition. “My dad gave me a choice. I could go to Millikin or Eastern Illinois University, which I really didn’t want to attend. I have some learning disabilities, so I worried that I may not get the extra help and services in a larger college,” Franzen said.
As a freshman, Franzen was put into a senior seminar on world religions, specifically Hinduism and Buddhism. “The class really challenged me and brought me out of my cocoon and everything that I had been growing up with. I just fell in love with studying religion and why people believe what they do.”
By the end of the class, Franzen knew that his trajectory was either ministry or being a college professor.
At the end of his first year of college, Franzen began volunteering at the local Presbyterian church in Decatur, Il. The associate pastor suggested he get a job at a church to gain experience. This led him to become the youth director at a Presbyterian church in Monticello, Illinois, working with Sid Hormel, who was the pastor at the time. “Sid got me excited about a future career in ministry and really helped me to develop my call.”
After graduating with a major in world religions, he applied to numerous seminaries. He was coming to the point of choosing one back east when he got a call from a recruiter from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. He flew out for the Inquirer’s Weekend the next day and fell in love with the campus and the program. He studied at the seminary from 1997 to 2000, where he had a great deal of exposure to non-Christian religions and cultures he’d never known before.
During seminary, Franzen did a pastor shadowing at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Marin City, the bicultural church author Anne Lamott attends, and interned at the Chinese Presbyterian Church in Oakland.
Throughout his bachelor’s and master’s programs, Franzen threw himself into academics to avoid thinking about his sexual identity. “I think a lot of gay folks in conservative areas and professions overcompensate in other ways not to have to deal with things.”
He was afraid of coming out because he’d heard stories of people who faced great difficulties, and at the time the PCUSA was still debating the ordination of LGBTQ+ individuals. Because he did not have a partner at the time, he didn’t see any reason to take on that fight. “I knew life would be easier if I were straight and because of that there were times that I didn’t want to be gay,” he admitted. “But, you know, it was never not part of who I understood myself to be.”
Franzen was ordained on July 15, 2001, and had his first call at the First Presbyterian Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The conservative congregation there had grown in its relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. An elder in the church had died from AIDS, and some in the leadership began to question their views. “They looked inward and asked themselves if we had been accepting of him, would he have been able to have healthier relationships? Would he have been able to be out? Would he have gotten more medical attention quicker?”
The average age of the members of the congregation was in their early eighties, so 27-year-old Franzen was leading a funeral practically every other week. Being surrounded by death took its toll, and soon he was reflecting on his own life and consequently, his sexuality.
He sought counsel at the Metropolitan Community Church in Omaha, which was just across the river from Council Bluffs. The pastor there gave him powerful advice and helped him find the counseling he needed. “At this point, I really needed to deal with my sexuality and have that life opened up to me so that I could be a healthier pastor.”
Although he never officially came out to his elderly congregation, Franzen found his place in the gay community in Omaha. “Omaha was a great place for me to come out. They had one of the better gay scenes of anywhere I’ve ever lived,” he said with a laugh.
From there, Franzen transferred to Hightstown, New Jersey, to lead another struggling congregation. While in New Jersey, he worked on the campaign to allow for civil unions and then gay marriage to the state. He stayed there for nearly eight years and was able to bring stability and growing programs to the congregation. But towards the end realized that it did not challenge him as it once had, so sought out a new congregation.
Even from across the country, he was drawn to Westminster in San Jose and its troubled past. The once very conservative congregation had a dozen splits since the mid-eighties. To make things even more difficult, the pastor before him had given a sermon that was anti-women and anti-gay before announcing his departure for another congregation in San Jose.
“With many of the conservative members gone and the congregation a shell of what it once was, many looked at the congregation and saw the problems. I saw a church in a thriving community with diverse neighbors and the Billy DeFrank Center close by, and
I thought this is a place where I can be out where I can really do some great things and connect the community with the church and the church with the community.”
While Franzen never sought out a “gay” congregation, he knew that the success of the congregation and its future was to be a place of welcome. “I wanted to go to a church that I considered to be the body of Christ, which was welcoming and inclusive of everybody.”
Since arriving in 2012, he has worked with the Billy DeFrank Center and other LGBTQ+ organizations in town as a representative from the church. Many community groups hold their meetings there. He is frequently invited to give the opening invocations at government meetings. In addition, he serves on the San Jose police chief’s LGBTQ+ community task force, he has been the chairperson for the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, a founding member of the Silicon Valley Faith Collaborative, a PACT Leader, and is currently collaborating with the Bill Wilson center on a new facility focused on families in need utilizing the old education building from Westminster.
Franzen recognizes the abusive history and oppressive power of the church institution but finds the Presbyterian church to be a healthier environment where people aren’t fearful of their sexuality or forced into the closet. “We welcome the LGBTQ+ people as our brothers and sisters and non-binary friends because they are us and we are them, and we are all broken people together.”
Still, there is much work to be done. “We’ve got to get to a place where people are comfortable to be able to come out and experience the love that people have for them.”
Franzen recalls a time early on in his ministry when he recognized a member of his congregation at a gay bar. The young man had come into his office two weeks earlier for a counseling session about some problems with his family.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Now I understand what we were talking about.’ And he looked at me like I was crazy. I said, ‘You’re having a hard time coming out to your family, and you’re afraid they’re going to reject you if you tell them that you’re gay.’”
“And he looked at me and he had a little tear in his eye, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I know your grandma. It’s okay to tell her because I came out to her myself. You know, there are people that will accept you because they love you for who you are.’”
Franzen understands that many LGBTQ+ people are struggling between their faith and sexuality. “Too often churches make you choose, but in my tradition, we don’t see LGBTQ+ people as sinful, wrong, or bad in any particular way because they are like everybody else. What really matters at the end of the day is that you’re able to connect with God and with the rest of the community. Reconciliation happens when people realize they don’t have to hold on to the expectations of others.”
It was not by happenstance that Franzen was drawn to the ministry. Having followed his mother around while very young and always seeming to be at church, the church had become a safe space for him. “Growing up, the one place where I could let my guard down, where I could be as flamboyant as I wanted to be, where I could just be relaxed, was at the church. It is my hope that I can help create that reality for others in my ministry.”