Georgia Megachurch Pastor Reveals He's Gay

Bishop Jim Swilley said he hopes to prevent teen suicides by coming out.

November 2, 2010, 7:04 AM

Nov. 2, 2010— -- The pastor of a Georgia megachurch with thousands of followers, who was twice married and is a father of four, is speaking out about his recent decision to publicly declare he is gay.

"I know a lot of straight people think orientation is a choice. I want to tell you that it is not," Jim Swilley said in a video shot in the nondenominational megachuch Swilley founded 25 years ago.

Though Swilley said coming out was a decision he's struggled with since childhood, he made the announcement last month not for personal reasons -- he said he hopes to save lives.

The 52-year-old founder of Church in the Now in Conyers, Ga., said he's coming out to help stem the recent tide of gay suicides in America and won't be swayed by some hateful messages that have been written about him online.

"To think about saving a teenager, yeah, I'll risk my reputation for that," he told ABC News' Atlanta affiliate WSB-TV before before tearing up. "As a father, thinking about your 16-, 17-year-old killing themselves."

Online, those hateful messages have been drowned out by an outpouring of support. Swilley has recently reached his 5,000-friend limit on Facebook and his wall is adorned with praise for his decision to come out.

"I'm overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support that I have received in recent days..." Swilley said in a church blog post. "Your words of kindness have been life-giving... Those of you who have had less than supportive things to say, please know that I really do understand where you're coming from, and I'm sure many of you actually mean well, and want to help me... I respect your opinions and viewpoints, and can only ask for the same consideration."

Since Sept. 22, when 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped off a New York City bridge after his roommate allegedly revealed his sexuality via live video on the internet, there have been rallies, vigils and an online movement spawned by one man.

Inspired to do something after Clementi's death, Dan Savage recorded the first in what would become a spiraling series of videos -- many eventually featuring prominent celebrities -- called "It Gets Better."

"Hearing about these kids who are committing suicide, the reaction as a gay adult is, 'I wish I could have just talked to them for 15 minutes or five minutes and told them it gets better,'" Savage said. "It occurred to me in a flash that we can talk to these [people] about it. We don't have to wait for an invitation or permission -- that we can reach out to them using social media or YouTube. Why not?"

Officials, Celebrities Join in 'It Gets Better'

Three weeks later, in a city council meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, gay city councilman Joel Burns was moved to share his own emotional story about how close he came to killing himself at age 13.

"I look back and my life is full of so many happy memories I wish I could share with the 13-year-old version of me that day," he said.

Soon, from the president of the United States to the cast of Jersey Shore, big names around the world joined the movement to say, "It Gets Better."

Swilley said he is proof of that message.

His family, including his ex-wife, remains his biggest supporter, but he is unsure if the rest of his church will stand by him.

"The name of our church is 'Church in the Now' and that name really becomes prophetic for us. We'll just have to take it one day at a time," Swilley told WSB-TV.

ABC News' Lee Ferran contributed to this report.