Welcoming Gay People: Why It's a Conversation You Need to Have

*Since the recommendation of the General Board of the Christian

The Conversation.


Pastor of Christ’s Church, Anywhere, USA: “Hey, Derek! How’s it going? I’ve seen what you guys are doing at your church. I want you to know how much I appreciate the work y’all are doing with the LGBT community. The church needs to wake up on this issue.”

Me: “Thanks. I really appreciate that.”

Pastor: “Yeah. It’s good stuff. Of course, in the church I’m in we aren’t there yet–I mean, ‘open and affirming.’”

Me: “Why’s that?”

Pastor: “Well, we’ve got some gay and lesbian folks in the congregation–a couple of elders, actually. It’s no big deal. We already consider ourselves open and affirming; we just don’t see the need to make it official.”

Me: “Why not?”

Pastor: “Well, it’s just … we don’t see the need to be all formal about it … you know, put up a sign or anything … make a big deal out of it. We know we are.”

Me: “You don’t think it’s important to let the rest of the world know that?”

Pastor: “Like I said. We’re really not there yet. Maybe one of these days.”

Me: “Yeah, maybe one of these days.”

The Post-mortem on the Conversation

I can’t tell you how many times I have had that conversation. These are pastors who, on an individual level, believe that LGBTQ people ought to be welcomed into the life of the church without any qualification of the kinds of ministry or service in which they might engage. That is to say, these pastors are sympathetic to the idea of Open and Affirming as a move the church needs to make … some day down the road. They’re “just not there yet.” If “we’re just not there yet” describes your congregation, this post is for you.[1]

Let me preface what I’m about to say with a nod toward the difficulty of negotiating the pastoral waters. All churches are different, but they share enough in common that I know what I’m about to say is a difficult word to hear. Pastors have to take into consideration a number of factors, not least of which is their livelihoods. As someone who very nearly lost his first job out of seminary over this very issue, and who had to leave another job over some principles on which I thought it necessary to take a stand, I’m well aware of the treacherous waters in which pastors swim.

Having offered that disclaimer, let me jump in with both feet.

“We’re just not there yet.”

That can mean any number of things, from, “I have a significant constituency within the congregation who are opposed to the idea of the full inclusion of gay people, and that’s not going to change unless some people die or move on,”[2] to “We used to have a significant constituency within the congregation who were opposed to the idea of the full inclusion of gay people (we had a big blow up over it once) and we’re afraid to open that can of worms again,” to “I was a pastor of a congregation that had a big fight over this issue, and I don’t ever want to go through that again,” to “I really don’t know how my people would respond to this issue, but the thought of having it cause dissension makes my sphincter seize up.”

“We’re just not there yet” can mean different things, depending on your congregation. I don’t know what it means for you, but you better know … and with some precision. If you believe that God wants LGBTQ individuals to be welcomed and affirmed in the church as a general rule, then you need to get a handle on why they’re not welcomed and affirmed your particular congregation.

What are the obstacles that stand in the way of your congregation becoming Open and Affirming?

Write them down. Put them on a spreadsheet. Draw them up with an Etch-a-Sketch. It doesn’t really matter to me. But you need data, you need faces in your mind, if you’re going to think this through.

“We already consider ourselves ‘Open and Affirming.’ We don’t see the need to be all formal about it … put up a sign or anything … make a big deal out of it. We know we are.”

That’s great! The important question, though, isn’t, “Do you know if you’re supportive of gay people?” The really important question is: “Do gay people know you’re supportive of gay people?” It’s an important distinction.

Your church may very well feel good about its reception of LGBTQ people. But if you’re looking not to go public with that information, the question you have to ask yourself is why does at least part of your congregation care about its posture with respect to gay people?

Presumably, some part of your congregation cares about welcoming gay people because they want gay people to feel welcome in church. No big mystery there.

See, but here’s the thing: If you don’t make that fact public, how will gay people ever know they’re welcome in your congregation? If you don’t ever publicly come out and say it, why do you think gay people will ever risk walking into your congregation to find out?

The problem is that LGBTQ folks have traditionally found the church to be pretty uniformly hostile. Unless they see some extremely public sign that they’re welcome, chances are, when they come upon your church, they’re just going keep walking. If you want gay people to come to your church, you’re going to have to go out and wave some kind of rainbow colored flag to let them know it’s safe to come inside. The burden isn’t on them to do the spade work to find out if your church is a closeted Open and Affirming congregation; the burden is on you. The point, of course, is that there are no “closeted” O&A congregations.

A friend and gay colleague of mine once said to me that expecting gay people to show up at your church if you’ve failed to advertise it as safe for gay people is like expecting African-Americans to show up at a random hotel in rural areas of the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Why would anyone risk that without some assurances?

“Maybe one of these days.”

Let me go on record as saying that the acceptance of gay people into public life, and into the life of many churches (it will probably never be all churches), is inevitable at some point in the not too distant future. The demographics are pretty clear that the younger you are the more likely you are not to have a problem, theological or otherwise, with LGBTQ people. As more and more young people take on positions of leadership and authority in society and in the church (and older ones exit the other side of the stage), this issue will cease to be an issue.

So, the welcoming of gay folks in church is a matter of when, not if. If you’re already there, but your church isn’t, the question you need to ask yourself is about how a failure to act affects your LGBTQ brothers and sisters right now. Is history eventually going to vindicate them without the prophetic voice of the women and men God has called to lead the church? And if so, what kind of credibility will the church have forfeited, when it becomes clear that the church once again let society do its heavy lifting?

“Well, that’s fine for you. It’s easy for you to sound all self-righteous. You’re in a progressive church.”

I’m not going to defend myself against that–although, I think I could. Instead, for the sake of discussion, I’ll stipulate that you’re right. I’m a self-righteous jerk. It’s easy for me, and I never experience any difficulty over this issue.

Now that that’s out of the way, the question you still need to ask yourself is whether I’m telling the truth. Because if I’m telling the truth, all we’re arguing about is whether or not this is difficult.

Once again, I’ll stipulate that it’s difficult. It’s hard, potentially-lose-your-job-and-your-friends kind of hard. I know.

But you’re a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ; hard is what you do–or, at least, it’s what he did.

I didn’t make the map; I’m just telling you where I think it leads.

  1. If, however, you happen to be someone who is not convinced that LGBTQ folks should be welcomed into the life of the church, you probably ought to stop now, and go find another article to read, because the rest of this post is only going to irritate you. I don’t mean go away for ever, just for the rest of this post.  ↩
  2. If you’re the pastor of a congregation where this issue is clearly settled, either because you’ve recently had a vote on becoming Open and Affirming that failed, or because you’ve had conversations with enough people that if a vote were taken today, you are certain it would fail, then what I’ve got to say isn’t for you. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. Even God can’t drive a parked car. Well, maybe God can, but you know what I mean.  ↩