“I was nervous about talking with you,” the young woman said. We were having a conversation about her work with marginalized people in Arizona. She is doing amazing work with a group of people often overlooked by society.
“Why were you nervous?” I asked. She replied, “Because you are a pastor.” And there it was again: a reminder of how isolating it can be sometimes to be a religious leader. But it’s not just pastors who seem unapproachable for many people. It’s the church itself. “I would never be comfortable in a church. Besides, they wouldn’t welcome me.” Time and again I hear these comments from younger persons, recent college or grad school students, who associate church with a kind of closed-mindedness that does not embrace a diversity of people or thinking. “I would never fit in there,” they say.
Recently our church has been considering adopting a “Statement of Welcome” that makes an explicit claim that we are open to persons “regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” Now forgive my boasting, but our congregation is a place of warmth and welcome for so many already. And we have been in ministry with and to persons in the LGBTQ community and their families. That’s why it’s understandable when some wonder why we are considering the adoption of a statement of welcome. Aren’t we already welcoming to all people?
It’s a good question that I’ve thought about quite a lot. And here’s where I’ve landed. I honestly believe the first step in analyzing whether or not I believe we need such a statement is to admit that I am not really qualified to answer. I am a white man, married to a woman, father of three, living in the South, with a cute dog. With rare exception, I am privileged to be welcomed into most spaces and places. I do not have to hide my identity. With access to so many groups and people in society, it’s hard for me to know what it’s like to be excluded. In fact, I may be surprised at what I learn from persons who are marginalized by the vocabulary and practice of the church. I may be made aware that I am unintentionally doing or saying things that make them uncomfortable or imply, without intent, that they are outsiders.
My discernment about whether or not we need to explicitly state that we are a welcoming community, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is best informed by listening to people who are LGBTQ and their loved ones. Here are some of the responses I’ve heard from them:
We need a welcoming statement so that people like our gay son, who feels abandoned by the church, know that we welcome them in our lives and our worship.
We need a welcoming statement so people like our transgender daughter can feel she has a church family that will not judge her or makes her feel uncomfortable. She has a hard enough road to travel without being shunned by the church she grew up in!
I don’t believe most churches would welcome me, especially if they knew I was gay.
Having been bullied for being “different,” I am frightened about coming to church.
Go to church? In the South? Are you kidding me?
The last time I went to church with my gay son, the pastor told a story about a group standing up against the “gay agenda.” We won’t be going back.
The starting point for me as I think about why it important for me to be intentional and specific about my own welcome of LGBTQ persons comes from insight I gain from listening to them and their families. Most of their lives they have learned that when churches say, “All are welcome,” they do not really mean it. This has been especially true when it comes to LGBTQ persons, unless they choose to remain closeted. “You can come so long as you don’t reveal who you are. Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the church has said, explicitly and implicitly. I find these insights compelling.
There’s a lot to consider as we discern God’s direction in these days, not just for the church where I serve, but for all of us as we navigate our way in a beautiful and diverse world created by God. As we do this work together, I invite us all to be in communication with one another. I envision beautiful and helpful conversations as people come together, straight and gay, parents of LGBTQ persons and parents of straight children, learning from one another. I am thankful for the voices of LGBTQ people who have formed me over the years. I still have much to learn. I still make mistakes that do not speak of inclusion and welcome. But as I continue to grow, I am thankful for their voices. They have reminded me why intentional acts of welcome are so important, especially for those who have been wounded by the church.
Grace and peace!