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
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: AskTheMatriarch@gmail.com.