While various churches reported the following processes to be helpful, they may not be helpful in all contexts, or might need to be significantly modified in certain settings. Obviously congregational polity will dictate necessary changes to the following suggestions.
1. Design a retreat that brings together different stakeholders in the conversation. Try to make this group as diverse as possible. Rather than focusing on getting through issues, the core goal of the retreat should be to listen to one another and establish mutual trust. One suggested design for such a retreat may be found here.
2. Bring together a group of stakeholders that is as diverse as possible to guide the congregational conversation. Lay leader Heather from Reba Place Fellowship (RPF) commented, “Having someone you know within our community and on our dialogue steering committee who’s a gay Christian has been such a gift both simply for who that person is and the integrity with which he’s been on this journey and just the real honor of him putting himself in our community’s hands in a certain way. That’s just huge and so I think that he has helped us all take it [the conversation] more seriously since that you know this is not an academic exercise.” Pastoral staff and church leadership should be well represented in this steering committee. The steering committee should meet frequently during the process guide the process and make course corrections as necessary. The steering committee might begin by surveying the congregation to get a sense of where the congregation stands on the topic of LGBTQ inclusion, and on what kinds of topics the congregation would like more teaching.
3. Articulate a clear vision for the conversation. The conversation may provide an occasion for the congregation to think about the important topics of sexuality, scripture interpretation, and unity. The conversation may be an opportunity—not so much to divine the “right answer,”—as to witness that people can love each other across significant differences. Pastor Dickau of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church (GCBC) notes that in their congregation the conversation was important because it opened up “all the questions around it that are important like hermeneutics and what does it mean to be in a covenant, a member of a church . . . it’s shown us that we can move on to other important issues as well, and so we can dialogue around issues that we disagree with.”
4. Create a library of resources. Use a variety of mediums such as books, videos, and websites so that people may select the means by which they best learn. Sally Schreiner-Youngquist, leader of RPF recalls, “We encouraged people to read, intentionally read something that expressed the opposite view point from the one that they held and to just be open to listening to different viewpoints.” Here is a list of suggested resources.
5. Establish ground rules for respectful communication with one another. Pastor Barry Dundas of Trinity United Methodist (TUM) recommends the guidelines for “Holy Conferencing” which may be found here. Review a basic vocabulary for respectful conversation for people who may not be familiar with discussing LGBTQ sexuality.
5. Have congregation members share their stories about relationships with LGBTQ people, or formative experiences related to their beliefs about homosexuality and sexuality, in small groups. During this time the goal is not so much discussion as it is listening and appreciation of other’s experience. Lay leader Ben, of RPF reports on the process of sharing in small groups, “It felt very personal, it wasn’t about debating, it wasn’t about arguing or sides. It was just about your personal experiences and I think that was very helpful in a lot of ways.”
6. Conduct a series of teachings on sexuality as a larger topic. Some congregations have found that this discussion provides an occasion for thinking about sexuality in general. Such a discussion helps provide a foundation for a more focused discussion of same-sex sexuality. Pastor Dickau relates that after his last sermon in a four part series about the need for healing and wholeness in sexual relationships, about half the people in worship that Sunday came up for prayer. One member commented that is was a “relief that we finally started talking about sexuality.”
7. Organize a teaching series on the interpretation and use of scripture. This might provide an occasion to discuss the role of scripture, a topic that is sometimes overlooked in congregational life.
8. Invite speakers from both sides of the issue to tell their stories and give their perspectives. Sometimes having outsiders represent a viewpoint allows for more honest and authentic conversation than if pastoral staff is trying to represent multiple perspectives. Ask that members intending to “weigh-in” on the church’s final position to attend these meetings.
9. Invite (if applicable) a denominational representative to inform the steering committee or congregation as to the denomination’s position and process concerning homosexuality.
10. Present teaching and preaching on the importance of unity and on the character building that can accompany conflict. See the final section on “theology” for more thoughts on how to frame the discussion.
11. Allow the congregants to express what they’ve learned, and what they believe concerning the issue in the context of small groups (in which a steering committee member is present) or on the context of one or more congregational meetings.
12. Meet as the steering committee and attempt to offer a proposal as to the best way forward given the sense of the congregation.
13. Meet as a congregation to discuss, and hopefully approve some version of the steering committee’s proposal. Pastor Isaac Villegas of Chapel Hill Mennonite (CHM) suggests that it may be useful to utilize an outside moderator such as a pastor from a sister church. Grandview Calvary Baptist Church (GCBC) decided to share communion at each of these meetings as a way of remembering that they are united in Christ despite their differences. Taking time for prayer and silence in order to pay attention to promptings of the Holy Spirit in these meetings is crucial.
1. A History of Welcoming Diverse Groups – each of the congregations surveyed that had hosted a conversation allowing for diverse viewpoints on LGBTQ inclusion already had practices in place to welcome a diversity of members.
a. Ethnic diversity – GCBC and RPF (which is part of two congregations, Reba Place Church and Living Water Community Church) both have welcomed African and Asian immigrants. Each had long histories of working hard to host other cultural practices in worship, leadership, and communal life. Pastor Dickau describes the church’s movement from a shallow multiculturalism to a “shared, integrated life” through a “commitment to community, which continually places us in proximity to each other, whether in our worship gatherings, around a meal afterwards, at a church meeting, on a church retreat, or in one of our home groups (Plunging into the Kingdom Way, p. 60).”
In general, first generation immigrants from majority-world nations tend to be more conservative in relation to LGBTQ inclusion. On the other hand, both churches have a large contingent of progressive white members who tend to favor LGBTQ inclusion. GCBC and RPF’s surrounding congregations value their ethnic diversity deeply, and having worked so hard at welcoming one another, they have a strong desire to find a “third way” solution regarding homosexuality that will accommodate, as much as possible, both groups.
b. Inter-generational diversity – the most dramatic example of this is at RPF which has been together over 55 years as an intentional Christian community. Because of its long history, it has many older members who come from conservative Anabaptist backgrounds. About fifteen years ago, the fellowship realized that it had done poorly at attracting younger members. The fellowship began a year-long apprenticeship specifically aimed at attracting young people interested in Christian community. It has successfully attracted young people, many of whom have become full members. RPF has a wide spectrum of views that do not correlate much with differences in ethnic Mennonite or life-stage differences. At this point it appears that the majority opinion is on the “affirming” side and a minority on the “traditional” side. But it matters quite a bit how the questions are phrased.
c. Social and Political diversity – TUM is part of the United Methodist Church, a progressive, mainline denomination. It is located in Salina, Kansas, a socially and politically conservative city (in 2012 65% of residents voted for Romney, while only 33% voted for Obama). Although several of their members have close family and friends who are LGBT, and they are generally “welcoming and affirming” in spirit, the congregation declined to formally affiliate as a “Reconciling Congregation” because it was felt that this stance would be alienating to those they seek to serve.
2. Recollection of Past History – as members of RPF contemplated the potential divisiveness of a debate over homosexuality, some of them made comments like, “Well, we’ve been through this before.” Specifically, they recalled the years of controversy over the status of divorced people in their midst, and the conflict they had over women in leadership. Now, Reba Place Fellowship is led by a woman. Recalling the turmoil of past conflicts, and the present unity on such issues, members of Reba approach the topic potentially divisive topic of homosexuality with more equanimity than might be otherwise expected.
Pastor Dundas reminded his Methodist congregation of John Wesley’s efforts to bring unity among the various Methodist factions and cited Wesley’s sermon on Christian unity in which he concludes, “If thine heart is as my heart, if thou lovest God and all humankind, I ask no more: Give me your hand.”
As part of its statement concerning the context for dialogue at GCBC it reads in part, “In the past, we have experienced disagreements around issues to do with conflict and war, when and how to start a second congregation, and appropriate levels of pay for our staff—to name just a few. In each case, while we have not come to consensus, we have found a way to discuss these important subjects and identify enough common ground in order to move forward together in unity.”
In each case, recalling the past helps normalize the experience of conflict, and recall that while costly, the church has weathered conflict in the past, has developed some positive practices for dealing with conflict, and may well continue to thrive in spite of current conflict.
1. A clear distinction between the “essentials” and “non-essentials” of faith – Pastor Barry Dundas, in a letter to his congregation writes, “United Methodists have never been afraid to address controversial decisions. However the phrase ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity’ has become a maxim among Methodists, who have always maintained a great diversity of opinion on many matters within the Church. Differences are not unimportant but they do not need to be a barrier to unity. We do not all have to think the same to love one another.”
Pastor Louis Lotz of Central Reformed Church (CRC) concurs with this sentiment noting that while the topic of homosexuality is “important” it does not rise to the level of a doctrinal issue worth dividing over. Rather he envisions a church that can contain both sides with respect. In a sermon on the topic in which he advocates allowing both sides, he says “The world needs the example of a Christian Church that can come to terms with the issue of homosexuality in a way that is honest, respectful, and biblical, and without tearing itself to pieces in the process.”
In GRBC’s position paper under “truths we seek to affirm” number eight is, “Our theological views and commitments around same-gender attraction and sexuality are important but not part of the essential teachings of the church (such as the divinity and humanity of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus, the hope of a new world, etc.).” Sally Schreiner Youngquist related how RPF intentionally looked at issues of controversy in the New Testament and emerged with a sense that, “this year we’re ready to go more into an intentional look at scriptures and I think that one of the things we’re being encouraged to think about is to not necessary believe we will all come to the same place, that we will all come to the same discernment and conviction together, but something that emerged in our survey is that we believe our unity is more important than dividing over this issue.”
In every congregation that has or is hosting a conversation about homosexuality with a view to allowing differing perspectives, putting the debate over homosexuality into perspective as a “non-essential” of the faith, has been a crucial component.
2. A view of conflict as an opportunity for transformation – Mary Dickau of GCBC expresses this well in her statement that “this [difficult conversation] is our opportunity for transformation in our own life and for healing and the healing that makes our hardened hearts soft and makes us learn what grace looks like and how to suffer love, and not just suffer, but to suffer love so to learn how to love. I’m all for those things and they’re not easy, they’re hard but there’s just so much life in it that I just want to encourage people, don’t be afraid. Just go there because Christ is faithful to us.”
3. “A sign rather than a solution.” – One of the mantra’s GCBC adopted through its process is that it seeks to be a “sign rather than a solution.” Pastor Dickau explains that the phrase is taken from Jean Vanier L’Arche community “which is not curing or changing the realities of disabilities for people, but they are trying to live as a community that says there is a way for us to share life together, and it is healing and good for everyone.” He goes on to explain that “That’s the tack that we’ve taken as a church in saying that we want to find a way of walking together in difference around this issue, rather than dividing or polarizing which is what so many in society have done for the most part and many churches have done too. So we’ve wanted to resist that and find a way to journey together as a sign that the gospel can hold us together amidst these differences.”Book Reviews