Dear Pastor Conflicted about LGBTQ+ Inclusion

Dear Pastor Conflicted about LGBTQ+ Inclusion,

We have been in your shoes. You’ve started to wonder whether the church – YOUR church – needs to become more inclusive, especially of LGBTQ people, and you feel conflicted. Your heart is torn, your mind is spinning.

  • On one hand, you’ve heard a lot of stories about how LGBTQ people have been hurt by Christians. Perhaps even some LGBTQ people you know and deeply love. On the other, you’ve also heard a lot about “the gay agenda” – are you just getting sucked in? Is your compassion leading you astray?
  • On one hand, you’ve already rethought a few other beliefs you once held firmly, and the process actually strengthened and deepened your faith. So why not be willing to at least listen to the conversation around LGBTQ inclusion? On the other, the Bible has always seemed pretty clear to you on this one.
  • On one hand, you see Jesus gravitating toward the people that “good religious folks” shun. You see Jesus being radically welcoming, over and over again. On the other, LGBTQ inclusion in the church is such a hot button issue that just bringing it up as a question worth exploring together could cost you members – or even your job.

We Get It

Everyone’s journey is different. Certainly we (Brenna and Bill) have each traveled different paths. But we’ve seen over and over again, for many it’s a frightening journey. So whatever you’re feeling, you’re not alone.

I (Bill) grew up a true conservative evangelical

I came to faith through Young Life, served in missions with the Assemblies of God, worked with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and pastored at a modest megachurch. None of those settings were welcoming to LGBTQ people, most of them believed in reparative therapy and ‘pray-the-gay-away,’ and lots of queer friends have since reported experiencing intense harm from each of those settings where I was a leader.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I began to rethink the church’s approach to LGBTQ inclusion. There was lots of wrestling – and tears – on that journey. Asking those questions and trying to follow Jesus in this area has cost me plenty of friends and opportunities along the way. So the fear of loss is real. (Note: the loss tends to be greater the more conservative your space is.) 

I (Brenna) was also raised in the conservative evangelical church, but

My relationship with it was complicated. I loved Jesus and, like Bill, went straight into ministry after college, first with Campus Crusade for Christ, then with a mid-sized church. But there was always a tightrope for me to walk – not only as a woman preaching, leading and pursuing the pastorate, but as someone with doubts about how well the church was following Jesus in the ways of justice.  And the questions I had about LGBTQ inclusion – not only were they clearly taboo, I had no idea where to start exploring answers.

In the end, getting pushed out of the church I was serving and off the tightrope I was walking created the initial freedom I needed to dive into my real questions. My job ending in 2015 was a painful but real mercy, one that I’ve experienced again and again in smaller ways since then, re-calibrating relationships to make room for who I actually am and what I actually believe. Along the way I’ve found new spiritual companions, just as passionate about Jesus, just as curious about whether there is a different way to read Scripture and love people than we’ve been taught.

Church journeys are also highly individual.

When we began as a congregation to examine this issue, we lost over half our church.  This was despite planning very intentionally for a healthy, honoring, Scripture-centered process. (An oft quoted line by those departing was, “You don’t need to study this issue – it’s clear.”) We’ve heard many similar stories, but a mass exodus is not inevitable. Our friend Brian Nietzel with Making Things Right has been compiling encouraging stories of churches that have transitioned without major ruptures. Those are becoming more common. Recently we’ve been working with a number of churches that are coming into this conversation with a fair amount of unity.

Still, the risks you anticipate personally and for your community may give you pause. You may be wondering, is it really worth it to open up the conversation about how we love and include our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors?

Is It Worth It?

In a word, yes. Following Jesus is always worth it. But if that answer sounds a little pat (and it should), here are just a few of the incredible benefits we’ve experienced ourselves and heard echoed by our church members: 

(1) We’ve re-gained a sense of spiritual integrity and wholeness.

Perhaps this is a selfish one, but it’s real. Despite the ongoing pressure from more traditional congregants and family and friends, we just can’t unsee how radically welcoming Jesus is. And we can no longer believe that the Spirit is done bringing in the marginalized. So committing to radical welcome and inclusivity ourselves has meant living undivided; our hearts and day-to-day work finally align.

“Committing to radical welcome and inclusivity has meant living undivided; our hearts and day-to-day work finally align.”

For our church members, one interesting way we’ve seen this sense of spiritual wholeness reflected is in how often and readily, without any pressure from us, they are inviting people to church. It’s the kind of thing our former churches pushed and longed for, yet almost never saw. What our people have told us is, “I’m just so glad to finally be at a church I’m not embarrassed to invite my gay co-workers and neighbors to. I’m so glad to be part of a church that aligns with my values and connects with my day to day experiences.” 

(2) Opening that one door allows in a whole rainbow of light.

A few years ago at Christmas, we rented out a new neighborhood brewery and offered a free drink to every neighbor who came in. When a local pastor friend heard about our neighborhood Christmas party, he lamented aloud that he’d never be able to do such a thing at his church. Our (perhaps a bit flippant) response, “Once you let the gays in, beer is easy.”

Here is the more serious truth behind that reply. Working through what is currently one of the most divisive issues in the church together, learning how to have good, loving and honest conversations in the midst of disagreement – it changes your church culture for the better. We can talk about everything now. We can ask what following Jesus looks like at our local brewery and at the voting polls. We can teach and wonder through the hard subjects of scripture like centering the poor and confronting racism and all the other isms that divide us. We can rethink how power works in the church, for worse and for better. 

(3) We’ve seen such remarkable healing and redemption.

The best part by far has been seeing Jesus bring healing to so many people who’ve been harmed by the church, who’ve felt hated by God, whose families have kicked them out, and who’ve felt trapped in shame. Like our friend whose father – a pastor – outright condemned her when she came out. Years later not only have they reconciled, but she’s now on our church board and gives the most joyful benedictions at our Sunday service.

It isn’t just our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors being healed on this journey. It’s repairing the souls of us straight folks too.

And let’s be clear – it isn’t just our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors being healed on this journey. It’s repairing the souls of us straight folks too. We’re rediscovering a God who is so much bigger and kinder than the rigid moralism we’ve been steeped in tries to tell us. We’re learning to love the Bible more deeply as we approach it with fresh eyes and honest hearts. We’re undoing years of training that faith looks like stifling our questions and our compassion and beginning to embrace their wisdom instead. And all of this is changing how we love people. It’s shifting us away from a posture of control, toward one of care, curiosity, and respect.

We owe our LGBTQ+ friends so much – not just apologies for how we’ve treated them in the past, not just respect for how they have persevered despite our harmful and exclusionary practices, but deep gratitude for how their friendship and participation in our community is helping us become better humans and followers of Jesus.

Practical Suggestions

If any of this speaks to your soul, a few practical suggestions to help you take another step or two on the journey toward LGBTQ+ inclusion:

(1) Start learning – especially listening to stories.

We spend a whole session on this in our Inclusion Cohort, so it’s beyond what we can cover here, but notice in Acts, Galatians, and Philemon how the first century church spent so much time listening to stories when it came to their big debates about inclusion. We should do the same. Who are the LGBTQ voices in the church you are listening to? Might we recommend Oriented to Love, QCF and The Reformation Project as places to start. 

(2) Consider your finances.

We recently worked with an associate pastor who asked us to change which email we used for her because if anyone on staff found out she’d been corresponding about her questions on these issues she would be fired. That’s a real consideration for some of you. Sometimes wisdom requires you to hold your tongue while you prepare for a difficult transition. Like one of our elders, who as a teenager had a pre-packed travel bag ready just in case their pastor-parents found out they were queer. (And yes, eventually they used it. If you’re a pastor-parent, this blog is on how we can do better.) It can be wise to get your finances in order, switch health insurance to your spouse, etc., depending on the type of employment situation you are in.

(3) Get coaching.

There are better and worse ways to go about having these conversations on your board or in your congregation. You’ll need to work through issues around theological diversity on human gender and sexuality; you’ll need to figure out who the decision makers are and how others are brought into the process; and you’ll want to establish healthy patterns for engaging conflict. But often pastors’ training up to this point has not equipped them well to lead their people through these conversations. Coaching (for example, our 6 week LGBTQ+ Inclusion cohort – reach out for all the details) allows you to learn from the mistakes others have already made, to bring better tools with you for the journey ahead, and to connect with other leaders on a similar path.

Dear pastor conflicted about LGBTQ+ inclusion (and truly, truly, you are dear), your explorations won’t necessarily lead you where ours have. We do hope along the way you’ll hear the call of Jesus to someway, somehow do better at loving our LGBTQ siblings. If there’s any way we can come alongside you on the journey, please just send us a message – we’d love to talk more.

Grace and peace,

b&b

P.S. If it would be helpful for you at this stage of your journey, we offer a free webinar called “An Intro to the Progressive Reading of Scripture for LGBTQ+ Inclusion.” 

Just sign up on our website for our monthly newsletter, and you’ll receive the recording link automatically. Even if you unsubscribe later, we’ll be so glad you took the opportunity to thoughtfully listen and consider.

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