Welcoming Gay People: Why It’s a Conversation You Need to Have (Redux)

The Conversation (Part 2)

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: "€œThanks. I really appreciate that."

Pastor: "€œYeah. 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, I don’t think it’s the right time for us. Unfortunately, having that conversation now is liable to call down a firestorm."

Me: “I guess it could.”

Pastor: “Look, I’m with you on where the church needs to be on this issue. If it were up to me, we’d already be Open and Affirming. The problem, though, is I’ve got two constituencies I’m responsible for.”

Me: “Which two constituencies would those be?”

Pastor: “Aw, come on, you know … the liberals and the conservatives.”

Me: “What do you take being ‘responsible’ for them both to mean?”

Pastor: “As a pastor, I can’t be seen to be too partisan on this issue.”

Me: “I’m not quite sure ‘partisan’ is the word I would have chosen. I guess I would’ve preferred ‘prophetic,’ but I think I know what you mean.”

Pastor: “Ok. I see the dig. But the truth of the matter is that I have to take the whole congregation into consideration ... not just those folks who agree with me.”

Me: “Sorry about the sarcasm. Look, I understand, but if you’ll forgive me, taking them ‘into consideration’ sounds less like pastoral responsibility and more like conflict avoidance.”

Pastor: “Maybe so, but I don’t want to be the person who caused the split I fear would be inevitable.”

Me: “I know it’s tough. But there’s another constituency you haven’t named that also has a stake in this.”

Pastor: “Who’s that?”

Me: “All those people interested in finding Jesus, but who won’t ever walk through the doors of a church that talks about justice and equality, but then offers a long list of qualifications about who can receive it, and who’s not eligible for one reason or another—starting with LGBTQ people.”

Pastor: "€œLike 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

You will perhaps, dear reader, recognize the format from a previous article. It seems to me, though, that this a good way to begin an analysis of that 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 "€œjust not there yet." If "€œwe'€™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 once again jump in with both feet.

"I have to take the whole congregation into consideration ... €”not just those folks who agree with me."

On a theoretical level, I think I know what this means. Talking about taking the whole congregation into consideration, it is believed, is an attempt at fairness—€”sort of like the conversation every parent of multiple children eventually has:

“Dad, who’s your favorite? Am I your favorite?”

“I’m a parent. You’re all my favorites.”

Whether or not it’s possible for parents to avoid having favorites, the analogy falls apart when it comes to one very crucial issue: This issue isn’t about liking one group of parishioners more than another—or even the appearance of liking one group more than another. This is an issue about faithfulness to what you understand to be the direction of God’s reign in this world, and your responsibility to point toward it.

“Meaning what, exactly? That sounds an awful lot like stacking the rhetorical deck in your favor.”

Ah, yes. Ok. Let me come at it a different way. If one of my children were to begin living in a way my wife and I were convinced was destructive, would the fact that another of my children pointed it out mean that I should ignore the destructive behavior—€”just so it didn’t appear as though I favored one child over the other? Isn’t there a sense in which keeping silent so as to avoid sibling rivalry ceases to be loving and becomes enabling? That is to say, isn’t speaking truthfully a prerequisite to true love even being a possibility?

“But that’s exceptionally patronizing, don’t you think? It sounds like you’re the parent and your parishioners are the children—that you have all the answers, and that they can only hope to grow up spiritually with the benefit of your wise guidance.”

Point taken. However, I’m not sure it shakes out quite so easily as that. For one thing, pastors get paid to speak the truth … they don’t get paid to keep the peace, if by peace one means the maintenance of a theological DMZ. True peace, as I’ve stated before, is only possible where speaking the truth in love is a higher priority than preserving some mutually beneficial cease-fire.

Second, as a pastor, while I must retain a certain amount of humility about my capacity to have all the right answers, that doesn’t mean that I should just shut up until we stumble across an issue upon which everybody already agrees. If the primary virtue of pastoral ministry centers on articulating non-controversial platitudes, there’s really no need for pastors; all that’s necessary is a “well-lubricated weather vane.”

Being prophetic, though it can function as an altogether too difficult to decline invitation to self-righteousness, is part of the job. I’m not saying it’s easy; I’m just saying it’s necessary.

“Once again. All that’s easy for you to say. You don’t face the same kind of pressures I face.”

Perhaps not. I suspect I do work in a different environment than many pastors. But please don’t be tempted to think that I operate in some blissful pastoral idyll. I still have to figure out which vocational hills are worth dying on—just like everybody else.

“What about this third constituency you were talking about?”

Right. Conversations on whether or not a church should officially take on the identity, “Open and Affirming,” often seem to assume that only two groups have much interest in the fight—€”liberals and conservatives. Whatever decision you come to is guaranteed to make one side or another mad.

As a result, what savvy pastors do is the utilitarian calculation about maximizing pleasure (in this case pleasure can be defined as the absence of pain). Making decisions based on what will anger the fewest number of people seems to keep the waters calmer. Unfortunately, one group that gets left out of the calculation are those people who might be interested in church, but who are scared away because of the perceived hostility to LGBTQ people.

“Why is that?”

For whatever reason, it’s harder to take into consideration people who aren’t seated around the decision-making table. From the church’s standpoint, it’s difficult to consider the impact of decision-making that excludes people who don’t come anyway. You can’t lose what you don’t have, right?

I want to suggest, though, that this failure to factor into decision-making people who love the idea of Jesus—whom they understand to offer an expansive welcome to everyone, but whose followers often cultivate the perception that purity ranks infinitely higher on the list of priorities than hospitality—is one of the reasons young people are staying away from the church … in droves.

According to research done a few years back by the Barna Group, an evangelical research firm, 91% of non-Christians age 16–29 believe that “anti-homosexual” is the term that best describes the church. Among church-going young people of the same age group, the number is only slightly better at 80%.

“Well, of course. The church has traditionally taken a position opposing homosexuality. So, that number may just be describing what everyone already considers the church’s historic position on the issue, not the church’s attitude toward gay people.”

That might be an important objection, except that the Barna Group probed the perception and found that “non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.” The very group churches say they want to attract—declining mainline denominations in particular—have already formed strong opinions about the church’s moral authority. That’s increasingly problematic.

“Why?”

According to Gallup, the truth of the matter is that “there is a gradual cultural shift under way in Americans’ views toward gay individuals and gay rights.” That shift is toward acceptance. Gallup indicates that “this year [2010], the shift is apparent in a record-high level of the public seeing gay and lesbian relations as morally acceptable.”

And the younger you are, the more likely it is that you believe that “gay and lesbian relations” are “morally acceptable.”

“So, are you saying that the church should just follow the culture?”

No. I’m saying that if you already believe in the acceptance and celebration of folks who are LGBTQ, but resist taking a public position on the issue for fear of alienating people, you need to realize that you’re alienating more and more people every day by not taking that stance. As I said before, if you think the whole LGBTQ issue is wrong tout court, you probably stopped reading a long time ago—since my reflections are aimed at that already-convinced-but-not-ready-to-go-public segment of the church.

“Then, you’re saying that the church should make theological decisions based on pragmatic considerations about church growth.”

Again, no. If you’ve already made the theological determination that LGBTQ people deserve to be received with hospitality in the church but haven’t made the decision to go public, all I’m saying is that refraining from taking a public position on the issue for fear that people will be alienated if you have the discussion, fails to take into account the fact that you’re already alienating another group of people by not having the discussion.

Why not be just as afraid of losing people who aren’t part of the church yet as of the people who might decide to leave? At least in the case of the latter, chances are extremely high that people who leave because you’ve decided to make this decision publicly will find a new church home. In the case of the former, however, chances are they’ll never find a church home.

It’s not easy.

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.