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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - How Can We Do This Well?

A great question...especially as it relates to the welcome a church offers:

I've been visiting your lovely site for years now and always glean some inspiration, thank you.

I am part of an independent/ecumenical congregation that is slowly beginning to look at the issue of welcoming people of different sexual orientations. Slowly, leadership is having conversations with individual members to seek out their perspectives and stories. There's no one "pushing" this issue, i.e. wants to "come out" wondering if it's safe (as far as we know), but some people would like to be able to be sure that we are welcoming. Some members, while stating their own openness, worry that this will rip us apart. Others would rather let sleeping dogs lie and not deal with things at all, but this feels exclusive to some others!

My questions to all of you are, what process/resources do you recommend to us? How can we do this well?

from the prairies in Canada

From Sharon, blogging at Tidings of Comfort and Joy

"Why do we have to talk about it?" That's the question that we heard so often that a gay colleague and I developed an interactive presentation by that same title to take to churches just like yours who were struggling with whether it was even a good idea to open up a conversation about homosexuality and the church. So, I suggest that it could be helpful to start with a conversation about why you do have to talk about it. Include the opportunity to hear and address the fears of those who think it's better not to talk about it. Do you know someone from outside the congregation who could help facilitate that conversation?

The United Church of Christ website has some good information and resources on LGBT issues and how congregations can become Open and Affirming of all people. Something there might be helpful to you.

I would not start with a Bible study on homosexuality or with trying to come to consensus on what the Bible says about homosexuality. The Bible says many things that can be used to support both/all sides. In your case, you might consider a Bible study or book study on congregational hospitality.

Another thing to put in place immediately, if you don't have one already, is a safe church policy. I say this because that subject will come up in this context. The statement needs to be made that all children (youth, adults) are safe in your church because safeguards are in place and applied equally to all people at all times. When a church doesn't have a policy, I immediately get the leadership body (council, consistory, etc.) to adopt this as a beginning: Wherever there are children or youth, there must be two unrelated adults present (at least within earshot and fairly easy sight) at all times.

Many blessings to you and your congregation as you take these courageous steps!

And from Muthah+  who blogs at Stone of Witness

Dear Prairie Canadian,
As a lesbian, I want to thank you for being willing to address this issue in your congregation. So many still prefer to "keep quiet". But there are some really important issues that are out there to challenge your congregation and their willingness to provide that hospitality that the Christian message calls us to.

It is a difficult issue and few really want to talk about it. But I daresay you already have some members who are LGBT or have family members who have hidden their 'secret' for many years. They may not even yet be willing to be out among you, but by being welcoming you have embraced them in ways that they have never known. I have had LGBT members in my congregations my whole career. Some of them let me know and some did not. Some I supported quietly and some I had to be quite vocal about. This is long before I ever came out myself.

For those who are the most vociferous in rejecting LGBT people are often people who have had negative experiences especially in their youth. The are not likely to talk about these incidents but be prepared for them if they share their feelings privately. I am often horrified with the type of predation that happens to young people not by gays but by predators. And those who have been victims often identify them as 'gay' rather than predators.

Even though I am from a denomination (Episcopal) where this issue has supposedly torn us apart, it does not need to as long as people are allowed to express their feelings without judgement or that they must conform to a specific set of values. (In our denomination the split was less about LGBT folk than it has been a struggle who has the authority to interpret Scripture.) Slowly but surely LGBT folk are being seen in much more acceptable light. And we have dealt with the Scriptural problems that so many who are against seem to trot out. Be sure you have a working theology and have dealt with those passages in Scripture yourself so that you can lead by example. Don't expect LGBT folk to provide that for you as you invite them into your congregation. If you need to, go over those passages with the congregation so that they understand you have a good Biblical stance for your actions.

I have found that the more that people have contact with LGBT people, the more the barriers come down. Make sure that when LGBT folk are invited to the congregation that you have a plan of welcome prepared so that there are those who will go out of their way to treat them with grace and respect. Often it is same sex couples or families who come to your door that jar your members. Know which Sunday School classes are available; have someone who will reach out to them and guide them to the fellowship following the service or whatever you do as a community. Also do the follow-up calls.

It sounds as though you already have members who are ready to do this sort of thing. They just might be afraid of 'certain people' in the congregation who might say something untoward. LGBT folk are used to that. Just make sure that there are those who are supportive who are on your welcoming team so that you don't have to be worried about the 'troglodytes' in the parish while you are running the service.

I also want to commend your congregation for their willingness to address this issue. Many years ago--the bishop of San Francisco addressed our clergy conference in upstate NY. He chastised us for not being willing to minister to the LGBT members of our small communities that forced LGBT people to congregate in places like San Francisco, NYC and the like. This was at the height of the AIDS/HIV epidemic. And he was right. Thirty years ago gay folk were often so ostracized that there was no other places where they could find any affirmation. Hopefully, today our LGBT folk can live comfortably on the plains of Canada and be known as the creative people that they are.

Join in the conversation...share your thoughts on how we can do this well...

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. While I agree that we all ought to have a Safe Church policy in place, do we really want/need to connect these two issues so directly? Isn't that encouraging homophobia? I'm concerned about this because I serve a church in which there is a bizarre, visceral response to the idea of even talking about ONA. We are UCC (and I am choosing to post this anonymously on purpose), and although the denomination has been talking about ONA for decades, there is nothing in our polity that presses local churches to do so. I've been involved in two ONA processes previously, both which went well. But in this church, people who would identify themselves as liberal on this issue go absolutely APE over the suggestion we ought to talk about it. My concern is that they are protecting someone (or more than one) they fear will be outed as soon as there is a conversation. A few reactive people have closed down the discussion when it has been suggested in a Deacons meeting and in a larger Visioning retreat. This is very disappointing and worrying to me, because there is clearly something going on beneath the surface and I don't know what it is exactly.

  2. Agree with Anon. re. the linking of what we in the CofS refer to as 'Safeguarding' and of a more open/welcoming/inclusive approach. Given the continued mis-perception in some quarters that 'all gays are paedophiles [and in some cases deliberately mischievous policy of misinformation aimed to keep this the case - nowt like fear to discourage folk interacting with each other], to re-emphasise/ or introduce child protection polices at the same time as the move to inclusion of LGBT folk has the unfortunate effect of subconsciously planting a niggling seed of doubt about 'these' people.

    That welcome:
    *sigh* at this point of time in the CofS, I'm getting to the point where just not being called an abomination unto the Lord is a positive. :(

  3. I too thank you for raising this question; my parish NEEDS to have this discussion, but I am not sure we are ready. When I was called the search committee and vestry let me know directly and indirectly that this has NOT been an inclusive place--in fact was the opposite. I let them know that if I were their priest, we WOULD be open and inclusive, and they called me anyway. They've heard me preach in ways that make it clear where I stand on the matter, and I've had a parishioner come out to me. I've heard some positive comments about my approach to this, but I know that I am still treading on tender ground. I think we are still in the "laying the foundation" stage, but at some point I hope we move on.

  4. Here's a resource for you:

    The Bishop of the Oregon Synod of the ELCA recently did a presentation to a group of congregations called "Hope, Hospitality, and Homosexuality." It's available online here:

    It's an hour and a half long, but it's very good about looking at both how we read the Bible in general, about how we navigate differences between our culture and the culture of the Bible, and how being hospitable to others (including homosexual people) fits in with our witness as Christians.

  5. I just wanted to second Anon and Nik concerning the joining of discussions about being open and affirming of LGBTQ folks with discussions about child protection policies. I wholeheartedly believe both need to be discussed, but as a lesbian, those discussions tied together immediately send me to this thought: "oh if we're going to welcome queer folks, we need to ease the congregations worries about them harming the children..."

    Now if your approach is "how do we as a church, who cherish the spiritual practice of hospitality, seek to be a safe and welcoming place for all people?" ...then I can completely see how those topics, as well as a plethora of others, would easily have a conversation devoted to them.

  6. Re the Safe Church policy, I was very glad to have it in place when this issue first arose in my church because I was able to point to our policies and say, "We have a SC policy; this doesn't raise additional concerns." So I agree with those who say the two issues should not be linked, but anyone leading a congregation into LGBT issues for the first time surely knows that someone likely will link them. Be ready to just take child sexual abuse off the table.

    I also agree that it's easier to introduce people than issues. When our first same-sex couple began attending our newly reorganized church, it was immediately obvious that they were two whole, complex people with many gifts to share. That helped the inevitable discussions proceed far differently than if we'd been talking about a hypothetical person.

    I have had to say more than once, "It is not the task of the church to keep people away from God," but in a "new" church, hospitality was an interesting beast, because there was no one with an ownership stake to be hospitable. We were all on the same footing, and that was very good. Everyone had the right to worship. No one had the right to decide who was in and who was out.

    I apologize in advance if I've not made myself clear about fully supporting LGBT participation. My intent was to say that I've seen my calling as clearing "crap" out of the way.

  7. What Suzy said is what I was going for when I suggested having a safe church policy in place. I totally agree that safe church (slash) child sexual abuse SHOULD NOT be linked with LGBT participation and leadership in the church, but it will be more likely to come up in a conversation about widening the welcome if there is NOT already a safeguard policy in place.

    The question, in a broader sense, was how to be more welcoming as a congregation. IMHO, a safe church policy is essential to a ministry of welcoming ALL people into the congregation, especially those who might be otherwise (irrationally) feared or fearful -- including (for example) homeless people, people who own guns, people with illnesses, feminists, etc.!

  8. Thanks for this conversation!

    If you have a lot of straight evangelicals in your congregation, this book by InverVarsity Press is EXCELLENT:

    Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin

    He is not as progressive as I am, but that is an asset... The Marin Foundation is able to bridge the gap by remaining agnostic on whether homosexuality is a sin but emphasizing hospitality and evangelism.

    If your community can build consensus about an ethic of welcome, then I pray that we can move to becoming fully open & affirming later. The first step seems to be the hardest...

  9. I hate acronyms. I looked back through all that was written here, trying to figure out what Anonymous meant by ONA. Nothing. I googled "acronymn ONA" and got nurses associations in Oklahoma, Ontario, and Oregon. Finally, noting the "we are UCC" part, I googled "UCC ONA" and discovered ONA means "open and affirming." It does? How was I supposed to guess that when the words start with OAA?

    Having chosen to affiliate with an inclusive congregation after I retired, I was willing to go searching for ONA so I would know what we're talking about. But if we want people to stay with us on this, it would help to be clear and either explain our acronymns or use terms everyone knows.

  10. Bonnie - I too was a little puzzled by the ONA acronym... I worked out the O for open and the A for affirming... but puzzled re the N... so came up with

    Open 'n Affirming ;p

  11. I'm sorry my use of an acronym was so annoying. I was responding to Sharon, who is also a United Church of Christ pastor, and used our denomination's shorthand. But did my use of it merit the equivalent of a slap in the face?

  12. A suggestion from the moderator: when we're posting on topics that are already potentially challenging or divisive, let's cut each other some slack, especially at this festive--ahem--season of the year. And if you have a question about an acronym, try asking it here. Someone will be sure to know the answer. Thanks!

  13. just dropping by to express my thanks for this exploration of the subject and especially Muthah+'s adroit use of the term "troglodyte"... it has made my afternoon, entirely.

  14. Anonymous, I'm sorry it souned to you like a slap in the face. I didn't mean it that way.

    Songbird, I wasn't frustrated at a person as much as frustrated at trying to work out acronyms all the time, not necessarily here, but everywhere. I would eventually have asked here for enlightenment. Thanks.

    I apologize to the whole list if I'm the reason discussion slowed down (stopped?) on this subject.

    Nik, thanks for helping me see "N" as a truncated "and" ---> 'n' for short.

  15. And to add apol's if my attempt at humour was unhelpful ... I forget tone is hard to detect online.


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