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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Being Conscious of Conscience

Issue: With all the fractiousness going on in some denominations, it can be a question of perspective, and, at times, anguish as to where to stand on issues. Priesthood and politics are tricky, and many of us have seen it up close even with our own ability to minister, as women pastors and priests. So it must be jarring to find oneself invited to participate in a group with a grassroots agenda that has some things you agree with but clashes with one "hot potato" issue that you feel strongly about, as one of our number did recently.

This morning I was approached by a congregation member who wanted to invite me to join him for a gathering of the Methodist Laity Reform Movement. This is a group within our conference that wants to promote a more conservative reading of the social principles but also is looking for more grassroots reform of the whole conference system. There are some things in their agenda and principles I can agree with, but not everything - particularly the views on homosexuality. While I hate to say that is the only issue that would keep me away from it, the fact that half of their "issues" on the website were regarding whether gays and lesbians can be ordained or members or on Supreme Court rulings regarding homosexuality, I have to take a step back.

I have not yet stood up and shared my opinions/beliefs on the subject. I do have a Human Rights Coalition equality sticker in my office and a number of books in my marriage and relationship counseling section - if anyone is interested in looking, that would announce where I stand on the issue.

I guess the question I have for other pastors is how do you start to broach the subject? Do you wait until asked specifically, or in the case of this group, should I have said up front that was the reason I wasn't interested? I did say that there are many reform movements and caucuses in our annual conference and that it wasn't one I was interested in participating in, but I left it at that.

I want to be true to myself, but I also want to be pastoral and help the congregation wrestle together with this issue. It relates to one of my last posts regarding truth and perception. I have a position on the issues that I can't impose as fact upon others. I need to listen to them, as much as they need to listen to me. And we all need to open up space for the Holy Spirit to guide us.

And it all has to do with understandings of scripture. Ironically, my mom called me just yesterday. She said that a co-worker knew that I was a pastor and so he came up to her and asked if I had read 1 Timothy 2. She didn't really know what he was referring to (and didn't stop to check), but passed along the information to me. One of the reasons that we (or many of us) don't take verses 11-15 seriously today is because 1) we have been revealed other truths by the Holy Spirit... ie: we have witnessed women's ability to lead and teach men and 2)we are able to contextualize that passage, look at where and why it was said and we also judge it against other scriptural passages.

So, I guess I'm just waiting to have this conversation and wondering if i should be the one to initiate it. Another congregation member seemed to be really searching for that kind of dialogue and said that she felt very alone and isolated in conversations about such controversial issues in the past. She seemed to indicate that whenever these sorts of issues come up, it would be nice to have an informed and healthy way of having the conversation. And even if I did present different ways of tackling "tough issues" from a faith perspective, should I play the role of Switzerland and just remain absolutely neutral

Navigating that delicate balance of listening is really, really tough. I'm an Episcopalian that writes for a blog where we cover how hard it is on a global scale. So is our matriarch, Ann, who notes that not taking a position is a position in itself:

I don't think you have to be Switzerland. Hopefully you can state your position in such a way that others do not feel like they have to agree. I pretty much stay away from preaching issues from the pulpit, a lot of power there -but I do offer study groups and a listening place.

With regard to the group who asked you: Sometimes if it is a segment of your congregation, it is worth going without commitment to join just to listen.

Perhaps you can set up a holy conversation time for those who want to discuss it. Have some strong guidelines about respectful conversation - Eric Law has several good books on this. Inclusion: Making Room for Grace is one. Basically everyone gets to talk without out interruption, debate or attempts to convert or convince by others, a good way to start is to have everyone state their beliefs on the subject, then everyone says what their personal experience with the topic is. That usually brings out more nuance—a silent time, reflections on what each has heard, people state what they heard from others. There should be time for each to say how they think and feel after the conversation.

There is no amount of Bible study that can change feelings, but there are some helpful books on the Bible and Homosexuality from your point of view. I've sent some links below that can direct you to other resources.

For you, I suggest you reflect on the cost and promise of stating your position or not stating your position. Most people probably already know from other things you have said. You don't have to "die in every ditch" -- but there will always be a time when one has to be true to one's self and those one cares about. Hopefully it won't cost you your job - but if you have to lose it, might as well lose it for something you believe in.

One thing you can be sure of - there is that one person waiting for a cup of cold water in a very thirsty desert. Think of her or him when speaking your truth.


The other matriarchs who wrote in also support not being Switzerland. From Jacque, some powerful testimony based on her own experience with the issue:

I believe this is an issue of faith and faithfulness and therefore we cannot remain neutral like Switzerland. It seems to me that our colleague is being offered opportunities to enter into discussion of these issues and to facilitate discussion with those in her congregation who need to talk about the issues that matter.

Every congregation has members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered and/or family and friends of GLBT persons. Our silence does not help the church deal with this vital issue. In fact, we cannot remain silent when lives are at stake because of the prejudice in our society.

I can understand that in the UMC, she is at risk if she participates in covenants or marriages; however discussion of human sexuality and faith is very much a part of ministry. Our colleague can choose to step slowly and carefully so as to invite others into conversation, it seems she has an opportunity to open up dialogue.

Only she can sense the time, the context, and the approach. The conversation does not have to happen over night -- in fact sometimes it takes years. But it does have to happen. It is a fallacy for anyone in the church to think we can avoid dealing with sexual orientation. People are encountering our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in some way daily. Let's do it in the faith and way of Jesus the Christ.

You may be assured that pastors are clearly speaking out in their congregations when they believe that gay and lesbian people who are in relationships are acting in sin. If we who believe otherwise are silent, then God's people, whether glbt or straight affirming, are left alone to believe that they cannot be themselves and be people of faith.

This takes tremendous courage. I know. I have waded through this conversation for 26 years in 3 congregations and in General church and Regional church conversations. I felt at times like I would literally throw up. The conflict makes me sick. But again and again, God's Spirit has been apparent and life-giving conversations have taken place. In one congregation, when the Elders began their study of the topic, parents of gay and lesbian people began 'coming out'. They had known each other for years in the church and had never felt that they could speak the truth that their children whom they loved were gay or lesbian. We found that we had 5 families whose adult children were g/l. They wept as they shared how much they love and respect their children. They shared the faith of their children, most of whom were no longer attending church because they
felt unwelcome.

We will always be surprised by grace and joy when we help people to speak the truth.

Facilitating dialogue requires a great deal of skill and aptitude, as RevHoney notes, but it's a good and worthy path to tread:

I think issues of conscience and leadership like this one require deeply-rooted spirituality in the leader, a highly-developed level of trust within the faith community, a good knowledge of the context – the lay of the land, and the nudging of the Holy Spirit…all of those together with lots of courage.

Maybe your last paragraph is your answer. Start by creating and developing a safe, healthy and holy context for difficult conversations to happen. See if that is possible. You may be laying the groundwork for yourself, or someone down the road to address the issue…the Holy Spirit will tell.

And some last notes from Jan, who suggests that being able to navigate the scriptural basis that supports your beliefs and to call up the reflections that you've had on the matter is a critical piece of being in dialogue, and the experience of doing so within your congregation will give you diplomatic skills that will carry you forward:

Just as everyone in your congregation has beliefs, you too have beliefs. Every one of your beliefs - as their pastor - should be supported by scripture IMHO. Know what you believe and why, and be able to give the 5 minute review of why you believe it. It will be assumed that you have prayed about these things, studied these things, and reflected on these things at least as much as the people in the pews because that's your job and calling.

Having said this, we are all on a journey and people come to different positions at different times in life. God is the only One who doesn't change (unless you count God's change of heart towards Ninevah in Jonah.)

Also, more than ever, we need to get together with people with whom we disagree. This could be the greatest gift you offer to your colleagues and congregants. If you have the time, join the organization, if joining means you are discussing/addressing these issues and it doesn't mean that you agree with a laundry list of beliefs. You might be able to make inroads in terms of congregational and denominational diplomacy that gives you cred down the road when your congregation and district are debating these hot topics.

A church is supposed to include all kinds of people including a variety of understandings of scripture recognizing that no one has cornered the market on God's Truth. As one of our RevGalBlogPal sisters says, "you've got to love your people." Love them and even if they disagree with you, it will be fine.

My thanks to the matriarchs who weighed in on this difficult issue and on how to handle it gracefully and inclusively. We invite your comments as well, and bear in mind that the issue is how to facilitate a dialogue about controversial matters when your beliefs might put you on one side or the other. (Who knows; perhaps your tips will help us Anglican-types as the Lambeth Conference approaches!)

Now, onto other matters. The dog days of summer are upon us, and guess what! We're out of matriarch questions! Some of you that have written recently have added that you have more questions when we have the time, and now is that time. I will be driving to North Carolina next Thursday and will work with the other matriarchs to make sure this space is covered, but we can't answer without questions: or do we need a round of RevGal Jeopardy? Please send your questions about ministry, no matter how thorny, to:


  1. Whew, you have taken on a tough one! Brava!

    I agree with you wholeheartedly: You must allow your congregation to know where you stand on issues. It is the only way you can have any integrity in the congregation.

    I would also like to warn the sister of those who would love to use one's personal position to argue his/hers.

    I made the mistate of allowing a group of those who were angry about a position that the national church had taken to use an organization within the congregation to berrate other members who didn't agree with them. I should have closed down that organization--I had the power to do it-- because his purpose was to sow discension in the congregation under the guise of bible study.

    Back in the day when women were first being ordained in my denomination, my standing at the altar was all I really needed to do to speak about women's ordination. The sign value was enough.

    But as a lesbian, now I have to speak to the issue and I am very uncomfortable about it. I would rather just let it be the sign of me standing at the altar be enough. But the issues are so broad and so difficult for people to deal with because we are dealing with people who are having to grapple with getting themselves out of thinking that all gays are pedophiles to finding the whole issue of gay marriage a reality for them.

    I have had to talk about my own journey, how I have had to accept myself as who I am and also talk of my own struggle with the issue of gay marrigage (or to be honest--the whole institution of marriage). I do not do this from the pulpit, but informally and personally with memebers as they fumble with the issue themselves. But one needs to have struggled with the issues--the issues of conservative/liberal, the LGBT issues. As women we have all struggled with the isse of women speaking in church. But we need to have done our own theology and know how we got to the place we are before we can hope to address the issue with congregants.

    I have a transexual in the congregation and I had to do the theological work on that issue so I could be supportive of that person and the family. I most of all I had to pray about it!

  2. Thanks so much for bringing up this opportunity for sharing personal convictions with congregations. This is one that I continue to face on many fronts. I agree that the Switzerland approach is not always the most effective. Thanks for the tip on creating holy space and a biblically based process to address such differences of opinions.

    I'd like to offer another resource "Lutherans Concerned North America".

  3. I have mixed feelings on this one, I think, based on experiences of watching one pastor in particular (and others in general) use the pulpit and their power to advance only their convictions on controversial issues. I stand in a "left of center" position on this particular issue, and I'm willing to share that with those who ask. I'm not ashamed of it. In my tradition I vote in that direction when I get to the opportunity and pray for the day when GLBT folks will be included fully in our life and ministry.

    That said, I have not yet run into a time when I felt it was appropriate to preach this from the pulpits of my churches because I think it is a sensitive and potentially divisive issue. I hear that their are calls to be prophets, but I'm not yet feeling that call in my ministry on this one.

    I do feel the call to teach and provide safe and open places for discussion on this one (and other) topics. I like it better in these sorts of settings because it does more to ensure that not just one side of the issue is heard, not just my voice is speaking, and hopefully, a segment of the congregation is not alienated during a time of worship, a time of praising God.

    (I didn't necessarily hear others say take this up in the pulpit, I'm just giving my full answer.)

    I was asked my opinion during my interviews with churches in the call process. I always answered that I would be happy to share where I have come in my discernment if they wanted my personal answer, but they needed to know that I value the discernment of all people in the community, and the community together. I know that there are many faithful people who have come to a different conclusion than I have come to, and in my ministry I will always strive to be a pastor to all, no matter where anyone lands on this or any issue. I will provide opportunities when the time seems right for the congregation or groups within it to discuss and discern the issue, but out of respect for the potential authority of my office I won't work to "advocate" for my position in the congregation. I don't want folks to feel they have been coerced into siding with me or anything like that.

    I will listen to any "special interest group", those with whom I agree, and those who believe differently. If one is invited to come speak to the congregation, the other side will also be heard. I have chosen not to join any (even those who theology I support) because I see all of them as POTENTIALLY (not necessarily actively) divisive.

    I think I am being true to who I am and what I believe to be God's calling to me at this time. I also think I am able to keep lines of communication and pastoral care open to all of my congregation (or at least as much of it as I would if this weren't an issue!).


  4. Birth is not a choice, neither is our sexuality. How we live our life is.

    God's love does not differ for any of us, so I suppose looking at that is hard enough for some people. Yet, if God creates and loves all of creation, how is it we have learned to do otherwise?

    We worship a living, love-filled God, or however each may name this indescribable Energy.

    It seems we forget where we come from when having these kinds of talks...and to whom we belong. The real answer to both is...God, who is the Lover and sustainer of Love.

    You have a belief, you stand on and for. Good. Speak it with love, listen with your whole being, pray together. Listening to God is hard because our society is noisy and distracting, yet God knocks and waits.

    Remember any group that seeks to 'win' over another is about power and often an arrogance develops.. over the ones on the 'other side'. Love has no idea of rudeness, or arrogance.

    Ask them this...
    Acknowledging each other as belonging to the Spirit..Love.. how do we now proceed to listen and hear each other?

    Our denomination has talked about "Holy Manners" when in discussions of any kind. Perhaps they can think of how they'd like to be these 'Holy Manners'.

    A Holy Space is a great idea.

  5. I was once a member of a congregation where the priest was very anti-gay. The kind of priest who would preach that AIDS was a sign of gods judgment against gays. In college I was attracted to both men and women. I ended up marrying a man and I present as 'straight' to the outside world-- and even to myself most of the time. However I am aware that I receive the privileges of heterosexuality by the sheer luck of the draw. So when I heard that priest spouting what I knew to be harmful hateful words from his position of power it devastated me.

    Looking back on it, is one of the reasons that I have become a tribal episcopalian-- raised in the faith, believing in its core teaching, but outside of any regular congregation. I did confront the priest in private and told him how his words hurt me and I hope that I surprised him and made him think about who might be sitting in the pews listening to his words.

    That would be my advice to any priest in this situation, regardless of what side of a debate they are on. You never know who is listening and what impact your words are having-- so make sure your words are good, kind, and loving and call people together to see each other as people and not as positions.

    Talking to that priest about his dehumanizing treatment of me through his sermons was one of the hardest things I have ever done. If I had not had the support of my husband and my own faith, I could not have done it. Just writing about it now brings all the anger and sadness back.


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