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Thursday, July 04, 2013

Ask the Matriarch -- so far, so good, now what?

Our question this week comes from Anonymous, who looks at recent political and judicial developments and wonders what the next step should look like -- if our response to SCOTUS, for example, goes -- collectively -- beyond individual applause, what should that "beyond" include?

With LGBTQ issues so much in our national conversation these days, I feel like it's time to have some new congregational conversations around these issues in my church. My congregation is theologically diverse, with a tilt towards progressive (but with several members who lean more conservative/traditional), situated in a progressive area of the country. Although other mainline congregations in our city have come out as welcoming and affirming in some way,  what that means varies from church to church (one church has an openly gay pastor on staff; another displays the rainbow and calls itself "welcoming" but does not perform same-sex unions). When my congregation had  conversations around these issues in the late 1990s (before my tenure), they were handled poorly and did not go well; the congregation has been hesitant to tread that ground again . 

I feel like it is past time that we have some intentional conversation and maybe make some difficult decisions about where we stand as a congregation. I have some ideas about how to have some honest and difficult dialogue around this, but I'd be very interested in hearing from any of you who have successfully navigated this issue with your congregation ("successfully" doesn't have to mean that it turned out exactly the way you'd hoped, but that the process was healthy and honest and respectful). I'm especially interested to hear about what your process was for having conversations and making decisions as a congregation. Anything you thought went especially well? Anything you'd do differently if you could do it over again?

We have one response to start the conversation rolling, this morning -- looking forward to YOUR perspective, your hopes, your planning.

Our responder writes -- 

I have not led a congregation through this particular decision process, but I am aware of what has worked well for me in helping people to explore this topic together.  I have found, first, in recent years that I have an increasing number of one on one or small group conversations about this topic initiated by the other parties.  When this happens I take the opportunity to talk freely and openly as well as educate these who are often the ones open to learning and changing their views toward inclusivity.  I also find that providing class/teaching opportunities to gather together to talk are important in the process.  This was particularly powerful in one of my congregations where the gathered group included a mother who had lost her son as one of the first AIDS deaths in our state,  and a man who was blatantly and vocally anti gay/lesbian and thought those with AIDS  only got it from these relationships.  In short, opportunities to learn and discuss are paramount  precedents to congregational votes.
Shalom,  Rev Red.
We're looking forward to your thoughts on what happens next -- have you thought about the next stage in a congregational process?  "What would you plan if you knew it couldn't fail?" (or whatever stimulus works best for you!)
As always, your questions, quandaries and quibbles are welcome at!
All blessings, everybody!


  1. ARRGGHHH I did not mean to sign this off without wishing everybody a "safe and sane Fourth" -- wasn't that the slogan of our youth? Have a happy!

  2. Blessings on you for working toward an intentional discussion with your congregation on this subject. In my experience, the discussion is always worthwhile for everyone, even if at times it is difficult.

    Our congregation has been (officially within our denomination) an Affirming ministry since 2006. I agree with Rev Red re: one on one and small group discussions. These seem to have the most substance as many folks are hesitant to speak at larger congregational meetings (though you will need to have those as well).

    Perhaps a good first step would be to find some natural leaders in this area within your congregation. You could either ask individuals yourself or ask for leadership suggestions at your board or council level. Once you have some lay leaders in place it will feel less like your personal project and more like a community effort. These leaders will be a key part of the discussions. Some people may feel more comfortable speaking about this topic with someone who shares a pew with them.

    There will be fear. "Will we lose people?" The answer is yes, some people may leave. Your prayers will go with them as they seek out a more comfortable spiritual home for themselves. But don't let that halt the process. In our case, we have gained far more people than those who have chosen to attend elsewhere. Virtually all of these treasured new members found us because of our Affirming status.

    Good luck with your process!!

  3. I was involved in leading a congregation through a process to discern whether to become a member of the Covenant Network (a group within the PCUSA that works for full inclusion/acceptance for all people in church and society). We began at the council level--the session studied, discussed, prayed. When they had consensus, then they became the facilitators for most of the congregational discussion. We had small groups, we used the usual adult education time, and we had a couple of town-hall style meetings. There were lots of one-on-one conversations between the pastoral staff and individual members. It took lots of prayerful Bible Study, discussion of church history and theology, and eventually a decision to claim who we already were. The whole process took about 6 months, from the first session meeting to the announcement of the decision. Saying it out loud, putting our name on a website, etc, was a big step for a lot of people who wanted to know why we couldn't just continue to be welcoming without shouting it out publicly. Be ready with an answer for that.

    We did have people leave. Not a lot, but a couple of families. There are also some families who stayed even though they disagreed vehemently. And the numbers of new people who joined because they knew we were inclusive was larger than the number of people who left--though of course there's no making up for the gifts people have (one of the people who left was a tenor, LOL). The community will change, but that happens in many different ways anyway, so perhaps consider it an opportunity to assess your calling for this time and place.

  4. I missed being able to comment on this. Somehow the question got trashed in the transmission.

    I want to commend you on being willing to discuss this in your congregation. It is quite difficult especially if you are invested in one side or the other. I agree with Rev Red and Sue. In small groups it is easier to deal with the questions, the fears and the 'unknown' that so many straight folks have about LGBTQ folk. If you have LGBTQ people in your parish DON'T expect them to be your poster children because it is really hard to take the heat when your whole life is being questioned and perhaps attacked. However if you have someone who has worked through the issue with the help of LGBTQ people, that person may be helpful to field questions and calm many fears. But small groups can make it possible to surface the underlying fear that makes this the hot topic that it is. Mostly it rooted in the tales that are told during our childhood that need to surface. At it is those mysterious tales that the Church has been so complicit in fostering and maintaining and MUST repent from so that LGBTQ persons can know not just freedom but real safety in society. Even in our most 'civilized' cities we are still having egregious gay bashing that keeps a whole segment of society from realizing our potential due to fear.

    I am almost 70 years old and I am still afraid at some level that I am going to be attacked. Part of this is due to my own history; but it is a helluva way to live life! LGBTQ rights aren't just about marriage--it is still very fundamentally a right to life. Because if we can be discriminated about for how we love, we can be marginalized about our right to live. It is as simple as that.

    But I know it isn't simple. Scripture says something that has been interpreted as 'abomination.' You must be willing to do your homework on the Scripture about what it says and does not say. You as clergy need to know what the Scripture says and what it DOES NOT and there are several good books on both sides of the issue out there.

    I would recommend "Gifted with Otherness" by William Countryman and M.R. Ritly as a book about the unique gifts of LG persons that are helpful to a polarized society. It is a bit old but so am I. ;>D

  5. A similar decision point came when a same-sex couple began attending worship with us several years ago. I was prepared for people to leave; what I was not so prepared to handle was that some people vowed to stay and fight till the bitter, bitter end. They weren't going to cede any ground in "their" congregation.

    The first step was to declare that worship was not the time and place for lobbying. In worship we talk to God, and God already has this figured out. I had to say several times that my calling was NOT to block anyone's access to God.

    The second challenge was to identify the metaphorical middle ground where we could agree to meet and talk, because our congregation was small and didn't have much middle. No one was neutral. We had to approach it like a geometric proof: GIVEN that Jesus Christ is Lord of all ... THEREFORE ...

    I love that triangular "therefore" symbol.

    Our same-sex couple had a dramatic breakup caused by issues not at all unique to same-sex couples. It was conducted publicly, and although I expected a setback what I got was unexpected understanding. "Wow, 'those people' suffer from alcoholism just like us." There were a lot of wows that led (with considerable prompting) to the eventual realization that "just like us" and "those people" were not compatible ways of thinking.

    But, both those women left, one to reconcile with estranged children and one into dependence, and I'm afraid that too many people in our congregation will expect the next couple to be just like them, rather than just like the larger "us," and we'll have to learn those lessons all over again. That is the difficulty of a small congregation is that the long view is hard to achieve; not only are such issues very personal, they're also very specific and it takes us a long time to get to the larger lessons. For example, I am utterly convinced they all love me ... and that they'll also all be glad when they can have a "real preacher" who is male.

  6. Bravo for being willing to engage the question!

    When I was called by my parish, they knew that I had worked in a very progressive parish that was fully inclusive of LGBTQ folk, so they knew what they were getting. Even in my meetings with the search committee and the vestry prior to my call, I made this quite clear.

    After I had been at the parish for a year, we went through an entire summer of conversation about the history of marriage, the nature of human sexuality, people's feelings about LGBTQ folk (did they know any of which they were aware, what about relatives who are/were, what feels comfortable and what doesn't), and of course a very detailed study of Scriptural passages that may or may not relate to homosexuality. The end result of that parish-wide study and conversation was that although some folks were admittedly uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex blessings, they trusted my pastoral judgment to be as pastoral and thoughtful about same-sex couples as I am about straight couples, and they also felt strongly - even the most conservative ones - that we are family, and if we have folks in the congregation who are in committed same-sex relationships, we want them to feel affirmed and blessed as members of the Body of Christ. This was what I hoped for but did not entirely believe we would finally get to...and I am so happy we took our time and talked it through.

    Then the Vestry (our lay leadership) voted in support of this, so I felt I had the full backing of the parish.

    Not all Episcopal parishes in our diocese bless same-sex unions. Those who do have gone through a process similar to ours, followed by a request to our Bishop for permission. This is probably a wise way to go in a diocese with wide theological differences on the subject, although I pray for the day when it is not even something we need to think twice about, except to rejoice in mature and faithful love regardless of the genders of the partners.

    Hang in there, and trust that your people may surprise you. Mine did!

  7. Okay, first some technicalities:
    In my denomination, the United Church of Christ, there is a status, Open and Affirming, but no specific process a church must undertake before voting on it. The test of the process is whether the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns will accept the church's written statement and confer the status. So although there is no particular process, there is a test in the outcome, and the test has gotten stricter over the past almost thirty years as congregations have been challenged to state their welcome for and affirmation of more categories of orientation and gender and also to wrestle with the question of marriage equality. That's a lot to put on the table if, as a pastor or leader, you are in the know about the degree of difficulty. In one congregation I served, where we had the conversations almost ten years ago, few people knew what transgender meant, but a gentle explanation led to an amazingly sympathetic response. (I did need to clarify that it was not the same thing as transvestite, since the congregation using our sanctuary on Sunday afternoons included a man who sometimes worshiped as his female persona.) The standards for an acceptable statement have become more stringent. That statement referred to orientation broadly, which would not be enough now for the status to be conferred.
    (more in the next comment.)

    1. Because there is no established process, I looked around for resources and found great Bible study materials available from the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. I adapted those materials and ran a five or six week discussion class. In another church I served, we did a series of activities: a showing of the film "For the Bible Tells Me So," a panel discussion with four church members (two gay or lesbian and two with gay or lesbian family members) telling their stories, a forum about a previous church discussion twelve years before that had not gone well, and a Bible study where we simply read the texts used in arguments against homosexuality and discussed them without coming on to strong about the interpretation of the two pastors leading the study. In that church, the other pastor and I worked with a committee of lay people to determine what to offer. At their request, we preached a dialogue sermon about why Open and Affirming mattered to us, and how we had come to conclude that LGBT people were part of God's family as much as anyone else. We did all this with an awareness of the marks required to be met. In the end the committee determined to have a vote on whether to vote, which sounds funny, but there was a called congregational meeting at which the sole agenda item was whether to schedule an Open and Affirming vote for the Annual Meeting a couple of months later. At that meeting we had a draft of the Open and Affirming statement. During the meeting the congregation amended it to add an asterisked line about marriage equality should it become law in the state, which it since has. While there were still a hardcore but small minority in disagreement, they could not help but acknowledge having had the chance to be heard, and the church did not lose any members (despite a threatened departure or two). The new Associate Pastor (I was the Interim) is a married lesbian with twin sons, and her family has been absolutely embraced by that congregation.
      The reason I go into so much detail on the latter story is that the church, like yours, had a terrible showdown around similar discussions in the late 1990s, under other pastoral leadership. The question at the time was a narrow one. A beloved family in the congregation had a gay son, and there was some thought that he and his partner wanted to make a religious commitment, and the Church Council and/or other church leaders started a process to allow the pastors to officiate at same-gender covenanting ceremonies. There was a majority vote of the congregation, but there was enormous anger on the minority side. A dozen couples/families left the church, never to return. Things were said that could never be unsaid, including a remark in a congregational meeting about the image of two men fornicating on the altar. That moment left scars, as did the process, and although it was successful, the couple they had in mind went elsewhere for a service and no pastor there ever exercised the privilege granted by the congregation. You can see why it seemed dangerous to bring it up again, but we went at it slowly, gently and matter-of-factly.
      God bless you as you discern the way to go in your congregation.

    2. Last thing: my own lightning bolt moment that led to coming out had not occurred when I was engaged in the second church's process. In my next church when the subject came up as a possibility, I knew I would be coming out at some point, and I did not push to have the process take place, lest it look like self-interest.

  8. Crimson Rambler, I know you meant to link to this post discussing the topic, but Blogger seems to have eaten your comment. So here it is again.

  9. thanks, Martha! "I thought I had" but I guess it didn't take. Glad you caught the omission!

  10. I have been ostracized from some groups that I volunteered with (The Walk to Emmaus retreat organization) because I am an affirming and welcoming pastor, and have married two same sex couples. It hurt me very deeply to have things written about me that were no true (my marriage was "bad" so I was looking for options, my children are gay -- not true but no biggie to me). I responded immediately and directly, but the nasties did not stop.

    I stopped supporting groups which do not affirm LGBTQ persons (Salvation Army) and told them why. That was a small step, but one of integrity to me. If my church wants to do something for them or with them, then I suggest that someone else within the church leadership step up and do it.)

    I am still being gentle in how I handle this issue in my present church. Not because I believe any less strongly about it, but because the "hate war" made it hard for me. Maybe others of you are thicker-skinned, but I am not. And I've been a pastor over 8 years now.


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