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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Political Yard Signs

Our question this week is likely to elicit a variety of answers because in some ways, as our Matriarchs indicate, how you deal with this issue depends a great deal on your context. Here is our question this week:

I serve as Associate Pastor in a large, suburban congregation, and I live about 2 miles from the church. Parishioners that live in my neighborhood know which house is mine; the vast majority of the congregation never drives past my house, and would have no reason to. On the ballot this fall in our state is a referendum to retain our current "Domestic Partnership" law, which grants the rights of marriage to gay and lesbian couples, as well as to adults over 62 who don't wish to marry, largely for financial reasons. I'm in favor of this law and a few politically active members of my congregation have given me a sign to put in my yard advertising my support. Because my congregation is part of the "Reconciling in Christ" movement (meaning that we openly welcome GLBT folks), I doubt that too many people would be surprised by my support, even if most of them never see the sign, but this situation makes me wonder about the principle of the thing: Is it appropriate for a pastor to post political yard signs? What sorts of guidelines would you suggest?

Sunday's Coming writes:
I have never displayed a poster for any particular political party at my house as I don’t want people to pigeonhole me and stop listening to the gospel because they think I support the ‘wrong’ one. However, I have displayed posters for particular causes, if they are consistent not only with my personal views but also with what people hear from me in my preaching week-by-week.
In short, if you’d wear it on a T-shirt or preach it from the pulpit, why not put it on a poster at your house?

Jennifer writes:

I think your question about raising one’s political voice largely depends upon what you know about your congregation. Have you displayed bumper stickers on your car? What was the response? Have you worn buttons that convey a message of some sort? What was the response? I think a yard sign on your own property is much the same. I’ve always served politically diverse congregations (and have been a manse dweller) so I’ve unilaterally refrained from signs, buttons and bumper stickers for that reason.

Your setting and situation may be different….

What about the rest of you? How have you handled this? As for me, I serve a University church in a medium-sized town, where we own our own home about two miles from the church. While I would never wear a political button to church or put one on my car which will be seen in the church parking lot, I feel like my home is different (no one has to come by my house, whereas if I displayed my political preferences on church grounds, every member would be subject to them) and I have felt free to put yard signs up supporting candidates for president. In my previous context - a very small rural town (population 1100), where I lived in a parsonage - I never did so. Because I lived in church-owned property, I would've been concerned that people would have thought I was speaking for the church.

Let's hear from the rest of you. What have you done, and why?

As usual, if you have questions for the Matriarchs, please email them to


  1. My husband and I (both pastors) tend to be more moderate-to-liberal in a part of the country where Christians tend more toward the conservative end of the political spectrum. We also live in a parsonage (in other words, a home that is owned by the congregation. Because of these two facts, I'd never display a political sign.

    I also agree with the person who said that they don't want their politics to interfere with others' ability to hear the Word of God proclaimed by me...even (especially?) if I feel that my political views are faith-based. I'd never want someone else to feel that I judged them "less faithful" because they're understanding of Holy Scripture differs from mine.

  2. Here's a slightly different take on the topic. In Maine the legislature passed a carefully written law last spring allowing same sex marriage. The Governor signed it, but because we have both a waiting period and a people's veto, there is now a ballot question asking if we would like to overturn the law. It's one of those confusing words where "yes" means you're against same sex marriage and "no" means you're in favor of it. We had a similar confusing ballot issue regarding our anti-discrimination laws four years ago, and someone finally said to pastor, "Look, the churches that are anti-gay rights don't hesitate to say so and don't hesitate to tell church members how to vote. Why aren't we talking about this?" Last week a colleague allowed a congregation member to do supply while she was on vacation, and that congregation member began the service by instructing the church to vote "Yes on 1" to overturn same sex marriage.
    I guess my point is, I understand the desire not to offend or alienate people, but I also think we have a responsibility to raise awareness and live in a world where one end of the spectrum feels freer to do so in church than does the other.
    All that being said, if I lived in a parsonage I wouldn't put up a lawn sign for a candidate, and would only do it for an issue if the church had voted/discussed supporting the issue. I've had signs in my own yard, but as an Interim, I'm not living where I'm serving, so I'm not in the same situation.

  3. I have a bumper sticker on my old red Ford half-ton: it read "Real Women Drive Trucks"...and even that gave some folks heartburn...

  4. I have lived in church-owned housing for all of my ministry so I would not display any political signs outside, But if I lived "off campus" I would not hesitate to do so.

    By the same token I wouldn't wear a political pin to work, but I might on my day off.

    My car is a gray area I'm still thinking about. My previous rectory was not visible from the church so I didn't think an Obama sticker on my car was too much, but now my car is very visible from the church unless it is in the garage (and that may be the answer--just keep it in the garage).

    My previous diocese sent around some guidelines about this as the last primary season started up, the gist of which was what you do on your own time and property was your own business.

    I do have some small signs in my office from Episcopal Fellowship for Peace and I do sometimes wear my EFP cross which incorporates a peace sign. Not everyone may agree with those but they are consistent with the gospel and not overtly political in a partisan way, imo anyway.

    On the issue SB raises, I lived in Vermont when civil unions were being discussed and our bishop went on record (testified in the state house hearings) as being in favor of same-sex marriage (as the current bishop there did last year when the law was changed from civil union to marriage). I wasn't clergy then, but I think priests had to couch their opinions carefully--but then it was a gospel issue, and needed (needs) to be talked about so that is difficult.

  5. There's another aspect of this issue you might consider, which involves the tax exempt status of churches. When churches are identified as politically active, particularly to one side of an issue or supporting a particular candidate, it is possible that the tax exempt status of the church will be challenged, and perhaps revoked.

    This has sometimes been frustrating for me serving in small towns when I would love to show my support for a candidate or issue. On the other hand, it has been helpful to have an "easy out" when someone representing an especially narrow viewpoint drops off brochures to be distributed at church.

    I heartily agree that being seen as taking a stand can interfere with others' ability to hear the gospel. When I served in very upstate New York (Canadian border), I joined with several area clergy in signing a letter to the editor in support of a woman's right to choose. Almost immediately, there was a barrage of letters from my Roman Catholic colleagues. Those in my local clergy association broke fellowship with me, even saying I was a "murderer". I was banned from participating in a wedding at a Roman Catholic church of one of my church members to a Roman Catholic woman. (The irony of that was that the bride's family was so irate that they moved the wedding to a Methodist Church in a nearby city with me presiding!)

    While my congregation was very supportive, the overall debate was ugly and took its toll on all of us. It took up way too much of our time and energy that should have gone towards ministry.


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