My purpose in sharing my experience of leading the local church through a process of discernment and conversation around LGBTQ inclusion is two-fold. First, I want to be an encouraging voice to any leader, clergy or lay, that feels alone in this time in the life of the United Methodist Church. I have at times felt alone, without anyone to turn to with a vision of what leadership looks like during this time. Second, I hope that sharing my experience will help spur others to open healthy dialogue in local congregations. I don’t believe that my experiences reflect the only way to begin to talk within the local context, but this process worked in my setting. Below is a summary of the steps we engaged in and the rest of this article will give the narrative of our experience.
- One on one conversations
- Meeting with formal and informal leaders
- Small group study
- Sharing the stories of gay members of our congregation
The context of our congregation is an important aspect of understanding this process. We are a mid-size historic downtown church in a suburb of a large metropolitan area. The congregation represents the entire spectrum of political ideology. While our core membership is middle class, we have ministries that reach out to Latino persons, housing insecure persons, and low-income individuals and families. We are not affiliated with Reconciling Ministries, Uniting Methodist or Wesley Covenant Association. We are United Methodist in polity, tradition, and theology.
When I arrived at the church I noticed there were some gay and lesbian members of the congregation. These members were in an older generation and they preferred to blend in with others, but this gave me the first clue that our congregation could be a welcoming congregation. At the time, I was not eager to carry the banner for inclusion. I, like many of my clergy colleagues, was of the mindset that there were other more important issues facing the church. It was not until a deeply spiritual season of Lent that I would awaken to my role as a leader for inclusion. What followed in the weeks, months and years after that season of Lent can only be described as a journey guided by the Holy Spirit. All that we have done in our local church has been bathed in prayer and lived out with courage. I fully believe that God empowered an amazing team of people to help me in this process, to encourage me, push me and come alongside me in this ministry.
I, as the Senior Pastor, began by having one on one conversations. Asking church members where they saw our church in terms of being a place of welcome to the LGBTQ community. I allowed these conversations to be guided by those that I spoke with and my intention was to listen. Some of these conversations were prompted by me, others were people that came to me to express their opinions. From these conversations, I began to see that our local church was very diverse on this issue, but – with only a few exceptions – the church was open to struggling with this topic.
I specifically met one on one with leaders, informal and formal, to talk about how we as a congregation have or have not addressed hard topics over the years. I proposed some suggestions of how we could begin to talk about inclusion within the ministry areas they represented. Some leaders were eager to open discussions, others were glad to have some resources to help them if the conversation arose.
As time went on, I realized that it was very important for me as a leader to inform my congregation about what was happening at a denominational level. I felt called to make sure that we were able to have open dialogue before the Commission on a Way Forward finished their work. I felt a strong responsibility to fully equip my congregation with the knowledge to be faithful in prayer for the Commission and its work. To expand the conversation, we started a small group study to inform our congregation of the history, wording in the Book of Discipline and work of the Commission on a Way Forward. We announced in worship and in print the issues that are facing our denomination, our responsibility to pray for the work of the Commission, and our need to be informed.
I pause to say that I believe that announcing this in the worship space before worship began was an important step in the process. It was a nerve-racking announcement. I did not know how it would be received. I was cautious to use language that was not harmful or offensive. For some people, it was the first time they had heard the church mention gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual persons. It was an opportunity to name the place we are as a denomination; to bring it to the light and not just hope it would fade away. It was also important in these moments that I named where we were as a local church. I named specifically we are not of one mind, but that we are people of compassion. I don’t believe it is negative to say that we don’t all believe the same things and have the same ideas. This helped people feel at ease in the process of beginning the conversation.
My staff and I previewed a lot of material to find the best book to use for our small group study. We finally selected a book published by UM Bishops in 2014 entitled “Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church.” We selected this book because it was the most balanced look at the issue of homosexuality within the context of the United Methodist polity. We also used the video with Tom Berlin that has become known as the “Sugar Packet Video.” We had 25 people engaged in the small group and others that read the book along with us but did not feel comfortable being a part of the discussion. The purpose of the small group was to have open dialogue and to educate people to be able to pray for the work of the Commission and the leadership of our denomination.
While the small group was successful, we realized that we had talked about homosexuality, but gay voices in the dialogue were minimal at best. We had talked more about an issue rather than the people that were a part of our church family. This realization helped move us to the next step of inviting some of our gay and lesbian members to share their stories with the church and the community.
Our story panel idea was born out of the idea that our faith stories are powerful ways in which we witness to the glory of God. As the pastor, I knew the faith stories of our gay and lesbian members. I knew their struggles and the peace they had received from God. I can bear witness to the fruit of their service and witness. With the help of some strong leadership on my staff and the prompting of an outside voice, we created a vision of what our night of story sharing would look like. I personally contacted the people that we invited to be a part of the panel. We chose our Associate Pastor to tell her story of being in ministry with LGBTQ persons, the parents of a lesbian daughter, a single gay man on the staff of the church, a married lesbian couple with a child. I met with each person and helped them write their story. All the panelists were members of our local church and all but one is a lifelong United Methodist. We called this “Our Way Forward.” We announced this over the course of weeks and explained the importance of listening to the stories of others and having a heart of compassion. As the pastor, I felt a great sense of responsibility for this night. I had asked six people to share a huge part of themselves in a public forum. For weeks, I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking and praying about the decision to ask so much of my congregation members. We all knew the risks that were associated with this sharing and we all gladly accepted them. I would not have intentionally endangered anyone, and I was confident that the people of my church would come with open minds and hearts to hear the struggles of our gay brothers and sisters.
I don’t have adequate words to express what happened the night that we sat together and heard the stories of pain that our panel shared with us. It was a holy moment. It was powerful and intimate. One by one we heard the stories of people we loved. People that we share a pew with each Sunday. Together we sat and heard their pain of rejection and desire to be fully loved and welcomed by the church. We heard the places that we had done well as a congregation and the places that we needed to work harder to express the radical welcome of Jesus. After the stories were complete, we received written questions from the audience. I personally read the questions and allowed the panel to respond. I believe this was a very important part of the process because if there were any questions that would have made the panel uncomfortable, I could have avoided them. This also helped ease the panel’s fear of what might be asked. The questions were well thought out and helped clarify our role as their church family. I invite you to hear our stories: “Our Way Forward.”
One thing rang loud and clear the night of “Our Way Forward.” We could see that we were a welcoming church and that we wanted to be sure that our community knew that we would be a place of welcome. We did not walk out with all the answers to our questions. The struggle continues with some even to this day. But we knew in that night, that we were committed to being a place where anyone can come to meet God.
I did not foresee “Our Way Forward” leading us to adopt a formal welcome statement. It became clear in the days and weeks after our story sharing that a welcome statement would be our next step. The following Administrative Council meeting we adopted this statement of welcome:
We believe that God’s love and grace extends to all people. Forest Hill United Methodist Church welcomes everyone regardless of age, race, gender, nation of origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation or socio-economic status.
Through this process, I continue to say that we are not of the same mind, but that we are committed to loving and welcoming others. This process has opened the dialogue in our local church. We no longer have the stigma that we can’t talk about this issue. We are committed to having hard, faithful conversation in the midst of a divided world. As I look to the near future with a prayerful heart, I hope that other local churches will have the courage to have this hard but faithful conversation.
This post was originally published at “Naming Grace” on May 25, 2018.