All Are Welcome! (Some Conditions May Apply)

A reflection by Sarah

It’s not really a secret that many LGBT people struggle to feel welcome at church. However, as I think on my own experiences, I can’t help but conclude that we often misdiagnose exactly what makes people feel unwelcome in faith communities. When trying to find a community where I can come fully alive in Christ as an LGBT person with somewhat traditionalist sensibilities regarding theology and liturgical life, I’ve frequently felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. As I’ve gotten to know other people walking in similar spaces, I’ve noted that it is rare for a person to be free to discuss openly his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, preference for historic patterns of worship, and appreciation for traditional theology all within the same faith community. Thus, folks at this particular intersection can find themselves fitting in nowhere.

To help readers grasp what life in the midst of this tension feels like, I want to share my experience of searching for a church home once after I had moved to a new city. I encountered two parishes full of people who were passionately committed to Christ. The one I’ll refer to as “St. Andrew’s” had a visible desire to engage in social justice work, and parishioners were entirely committed to living life at the front lines of loving their neighbors as themselves. The one I’ll call “St. John’s” valued forming people of all ages in the faith, providing ample opportunities for parishioners to tap into traditional prayers and spiritual practices. However, as a person attracted to life at both parishes, I soon realized that parishioners saw these two communities as being a bit at the extremes. The communities were so distinct from one another that most people I got to know at one couldn’t see how a person might find value in the activities and pursuits of the other. My own sense of self – a lesbian seeking deep spiritual formation within traditional Christianity – prevented people at both parishes from recognizing me as “one of them” no matter how much I participated in parish life.

When I first moved to the city, I was in a spiritual and emotional space that left me with an acute need for love and acceptance. Because of this, I searched out parishes known for welcoming absolutely everyone. My search brought me very conveniently to St. Andrew’s, a parish less than two blocks away from my apartment. From the moment I set foot in a Sunday service, it was clear that St. Andrew’s welcomed every kind of human diversity present under the sun. As soon as people found out I was new, they peppered me with helpful tips for adapting to life in my new city. Immediately, I had recommendations for local grocery stores, fun free things to do, parish ministries in which I could become involved, and the best place to go for frozen custard. Over time, I realized that St. Andrew’s folks would do just about anything to love their neighbors. Parishioners visited families living in poverty to discern their needs, held regular fundraising events to help people rebuild homes and meet basic needs after disaster struck, delivered first-aid kits to homes that would otherwise lack band-aids and antiseptics, and constantly referred people to social services organizations if and when the parish wasn’t able to help more directly. St. Andrew’s proclaimed a loving acceptance for all people because, according to its members, St. Andrews “welcomed everyone, no matter what.” All signs pointed to a thriving parish.

I was quick to get involved even though I had concerns about how St. Andrew’s seemingly failed to promote the observance of disciplines I found essential to my spiritual growth and wellbeing. I thought that surely as I shared my life within the parish, I’d find at least some people who would resonate with how I valued traditional devotions and approaches to liturgical worship. Within the first month, I was able to disclose a good deal about my own life. The congregation accepted me completely as a lesbian, and I found many people willing to discuss certain practical theological topics with me. However, after I had been at the parish for about six months, I realized that the only theological topics people were very interested in talking about centered on social justice and concerns that there needed to be “updates” to teachings on women’s ordination and gay marriage. Mentioning that I was considering a non-monastic celibate vocation resulted in questions such as, “Don’t you accept yourself as you are?” and, “Why are you letting the Church get to you so much?” Though I found myself irked by these queries, especially because this Christian tradition recognizes celibacy as a vocational option, I could handle them. I had much more difficulty when I began to see that that every conversation I attempted to start about the Church fathers, liturgy, official Church documents, or traditional spiritual practices would fall on deaf ears. One person even went so far as to tell me, “God hears what you have to say from your heart so you don’t need any scripted prayer.” I found it exceptionally odd that a person within a liturgical Christian tradition would have such a disparaging attitude regarding the prayers that have shaped this tradition.

It didn’t help that I had these conversations when I felt like I was floundering spiritually. I had an incredibly full schedule, and I found it difficult in that season of life to connect with the still, small voice of God. St. Andrew’s seemingly expected people to connect with God through serving the poor. Yet, even though I was actively conducting home visits and sorting baby clothes for new mothers living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, I perceived a real need for more contemplative spirituality. As I sought counsel from my priest, he told me that I just needed to get more involved in the parish’s ministries than I was already. I thought his prescription failed to address my main concerns. Not seeing any alternatives within the St. Andrew’s community, I began to look elsewhere in an effort to meet my spiritual needs.

I had heard about another parish, St. John’s, and decided to investigate further. I chose to try this parish for a number of reasons: it was geographically close to my apartment, I’d heard it had a beautiful liturgy that was much more traditional than contemporary, and I’d determined after a bit of research that it had several parish ministries aimed at fostering spiritual growth. As I met with the priest, he seemed excited to welcome me as a prospective parishioner. He showed me different events on the church calendar where people would gather to pray traditional prayers and support each other in a shared prayer life. When I mentioned the interest I’d expressed previously in starting a discussion group at St. Andrew’s on a Church document, he met me with enthusiasm and indicated that many people at St. John’s might also be interested. After that meeting, I rejoiced because I thought I had finally found a place where I could grow spiritually. When I went to Sunday liturgy, I felt a profound sense of connection to God and to my Christian tradition. This parish saw that adults were continuously learning about their faith; members of the parish placed a high value on scripture, tradition, and Church history. But because St. John’s had relatively few opportunities to do social justice ministry, I continued to volunteer with people from St. Andrew’s.

I experienced excellent formation in my time at St. John’s, but still did not gain a sense of feeling completely at home. Almost immediately, I caught on to the fact that St. John’s was not a safe place to be LGBT, as demonstrated through a number of clues. One Sunday in a homily, the priest emphasized how homosexuals would not inherit the kingdom of God. As I listened to him preach, I realized that I had not mentioned to him that I was a lesbian during our initial meeting. Another hint was that one long-time member of the parish was easier to identify by appearance as being a member of the LGBT community, and the lack of acceptance for this man was abundantly clear. Many parishioners talked about him behind his back, saying things like: I don’t know why Tom comes to church every Sunday if he’s not going to try to be normal, and Tom’s been here for years, but I would never let him around my children. The things those people do are abominable. I tried my best to foster conversations about any number of non-sexuality-related topics with other parishioners, and I perceived the people at St. John’s to be genuine folks who were doing their best to serve God. Though I discussed many diverse topics and built relationships with them, it seemed that no amount of relationship building could influence their perceptions of LGBT people. The moment that I took the plunge and revealed to one trusted person in that parish that I was a lesbian, I realized the gravity of my mistake. She responded immediately with, “Are you trying to get yourself healed so you can marry a man some day?” When I said, “No…” she cut me off before I could even mention my exploration of celibacy and asked, “Well then, why are you here? Why don’t you go to a denomination that’s more liberal and accepts people like you?”

I felt caught in an inescapable tension between these two parishes, electing to try and attend both for the next year and a half. I had never ended my involvement in the social justice ministries at St. Andrew’s. Most Sundays, I elected to go to St. John’s for worship and simply not stay to socialize with anyone afterward. Occasionally, I’d continue to pop in at different traditional prayer and study groups. Independent of my best efforts to do church with both communities, I realized I was constantly being forced to choose between being known and being loved. To be loved at St. Andrew’s, I couldn’t be known as a liturgical and theological traditionalist. To be loved at St. John’s, I couldn’t be known as a member of the LGBT community. As a result, neither parish afforded me a place to be me.

Summoning every bit of internal strength possible and giving one’s all to being church with others has an added level of challenge when you’re LGBT. I’d go so far as to say that sometimes, this feels impossible if you’re LGBT and at least somewhat of a traditionalist. Throughout my twenties, I continually experienced the St. Andrew’s and St. John’s scenarios playing out in my life every time I moved to a new place. They played out with greatest reliability when I was a part of my former Christian tradition. In my current Christian tradition, parishes are generally small, separated by long geographic distances, or both. Everyone who is a part of this tradition in a certain area organically ends up in the same church community, and that reality creates its own set of unique challenges. For my part as an LGBT person with traditionalist sensibilities, I experience a double-silencing. I feel as though I’m constantly being told to seek a church where “my kind of people” go. Depending on the context, “my kind of people” can have a host of different meanings. Generally, I don’t have trouble figuring out the implications of that phrase within a specific church community. Yet each time the issue arises, I find myself wondering: who are “my kind of people”? Folks within the LGBT community, or Christians with traditionalist sensibilities? I’m tired of being informed that my people fit neatly within any category narrower than “the Body of Christ.”

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24 thoughts on “All Are Welcome! (Some Conditions May Apply)

  1. Amen to all of that. This is my experience also, even in England where my denomination has another church down almost every street. I have always found that I need to attend several churches in order to find full expression of my faith. Like you I’ve found that many churches look at what others are doing and wonder why *anyone* would want to go there.

    I heard a speaker at a church conference recently say that many churches will end up naturally focussing mainly on what their vicar or pastor is good at or comfortable with. So a church may be wonderful at evangelism but struggle with discipleship or social action, while others will be great pastorally but fail to evangelise. The speaker advocated that equal importance be placed on worship, evangelism, small groups, discipleship, social action etc. This must be so hard to do in practice.

    My personal frustration is the local disinterest in any kind of small group discipleship, or praying the hours, or discussion or contemplative prayer groups. It’s not just ambivalence to or ignorance of these things, it’s active antipathy in some cases. Many of these things I see in other churches, but they have their own blind spots (such as inclusiveness).

    It does encourage me to visit lots of churches and makes friends across the city. I find it more frustrating that many people are missing out on the full richness of Christian faith than any paucity in my own overall experience.

    • Hi Tess, thanks for your observation that many pastors operate from their strengths. We can expect pastors to do so many things: offer pastoral care, give stimulating sermons, oversee ministry efforts within the church, reach out to the community, direct worship services, etc. However, as Christians, we ought to consider how we can help our local church(es) be the fullest expression of the Body of Christ as is possible. Each and every one of us can bring our gifts to the table. Blessings to you on your journey, Lindsey and Sarah

      • My apologies. I thought your post was trying to make the opposite point, that sometimes our gifts are rejected because we don’t quite fit in their pigeon hole. I actually don’t see any lack of people offering their gifts in the churches I visit. Forgive me for saying this but while I find your posts often beautifully generous & vulnerable, your comment replies often come across to me as painfully critical, especially when I thought I was agreeing with you.

        • Hi Tess, thanks for circling back. We’re sorry we misinterpreted your initial comment and grieve that you have felt so pigeonholed. It would not be a fun experience at all to be at a parish seeking a community to pray different prayer offices only to have that search resisted by a priest because that priest didn’t feel especially inclined towards prayer.

          Our comment policy is as much for us as it is for other commenters. Sometimes being human unfortunately involves misunderstandings and having to apologize as a result. Again, we’re sorry for interpreting your comment opposite your intended meaning. -Lindsey and Sarah

        • Painfully critical? Tess, listen to yourself. Its like you expect people to walk on eggshells when they comment to you. I’ve been seeing some of your other comments on this blog and I don’t want to be mean but I’ve never seen such a sensitive person in an internet comments section. Really talking about hard things means that people will disagree and sometimes that’s a strong disagreement, but other times that’s a disagreement with one of the nuances of a point. That doesn’t mean they’re being painfully critical. You can’t have a real talk about anything if you expect everyone to say “I agree, you agree, we all agree, lets be happy that everyone agrees.” More specific to Lindsey and Sarah’s comment to you here I just don’t get how you think it’s painfully critical or critical at all. They were adding to the conversation. That doesn’t mean they have to acknowledge the obvious every time, “Oh commenter, thank you for agreeing with us.”

          • Hi Candy, I’m going to take a minute to add a bit more to the conversation here 🙂 One challenge that many LGBT Christians face is mustering the courage to go anywhere for Christian community because of past hurts. We want our blog to be a place where people feel welcome to share their experiences, that may include people opening up about difficult times in their lives. I’m grateful when a commenter lets me know I missed his or her original meaning because it allows us to continue in conversation. -Lindsey

  2. I felt the same way as someone shaped by Reformed traditions when entering an affirming congregation that leans more toward Christian Universalism. I had a hard time having serious theological conversations there, and I also felt that that space would not be safe for someone pursuing a genuine vocation to celibacy. Such a person would have faced many of the same challenges that you articulated.

    It wasn’t that the affirming church or its tradition lacked theological depth. They had definite beliefs about things like salvation and the nature of the atonement, and although those beliefs were very different from what I’d previously been surrounded by, it had the potential to be a great opportunity for mutual growth! (Which, I believe, is often catalyzed by the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in the context of a loving community.) It’s just that this community lacked the social will to address those differences, for fear that it might give the impression that some beliefs were “truer” or “better” than others. And so there was a sortof unspoken moratorium on serious theological dialogue in the name of unconditional acceptance. Never really worked for me.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective! We appreciate hearing how other people in diverse Christian traditions experience these tensions. It’s unfortunate congregations themselves feel like they can have either serious theological dialogue or unconditional acceptance rather than both/and. -Lindsey and Sarah

  3. Great post.
    I came to very similar conclusions as you.
    I have been looking at some of the more liberal Catholic websites in an attempt to understand their positions. I tend to be somewhat traditional. I came to the same conclusions as you did. I saw the same bifurcation that you did.
    Some wanted the church to be a social service organization. period. The other side did not focus on their fellow man, just in providing their parishioners with a quality experience of reaching out to God.
    It seems both have taken only one half of Christianity and ran with it. In my opinion, every church needs to do both things. Each type of parish does what is easy for it to do.
    It was interesting that the “welcoming” parish was only welcoming when they saw you as someone who fit their mold. How ironic.
    On the other hand, how bitter for those at “St Johns” to reject you. I note however, that it was a few parishioners who made you feel bad. Although it is easy for me to make suggestions, here is what I would say: Do your work with the poor at St. Andrews.
    But go to St. Johns, and evangelize them. I know this is hard work, but since you are maintaining celibacy, you have the moral high ground on them. You are following exactly what Catechism of the Catholic church calls you to do. You may only be able to reach half of them, but that is probably better than reaching none of them. Enlist the priest on your side and tell him what you’re thinking. Pope Francis has called us all to evangelize more. Perhaps this is your calling.
    God Bless you, I am so impressed with what you are doing.

    • Hello, thanks for your comment. Sarah’s experiences at St. Andrew’s and St. John’s came when Sarah was in a different Christian tradition than our current Christian tradition. It’s worth pointing out that we have seen the bifurcation between parishes like St. Andrew’s and St. John’s in Christian traditions spanning the gamut from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, the United Church of Christ, to the United Methodists. Many local parishes seemingly feel forced to choose between social justice and contemplative spiritual practices. We appreciate your encouragement, and we agree that the world would be a better place if more Christians encouraged one another to grow into the fullness of the faith. -Lindsey and Sarah

  4. Amen! I grew up Southern Baptist and have some very specific and tightly held beliefs regarding dating/sex before marriage/theology but now find myself in a Methodist church. When I out myself as bisexual or even as a liberal Democrat- people make assumptions about my beliefs and are downright confused when I skew exceptionally conservative on a particular topic. So it’s been interesting trying to find a church that is the right fit, but luckily, my current church has an awesome group of friends that I’ve come to call family- so even though the liturgy may not be just right and we don’t agree on everything, I know I am loved and known.

    • Thanks for your comment. We totally agree that you’re a child of God. 🙂 Finding a church can be so challenging. We rejoice that you’ve found a family. Achieving those family-level connections can spur people onto putting in the hard work of being church. -Lindsey and Sarah

  5. Although I really have not been in any of your places, I will say this. On the one hand, “St. Andrew’s” has a blind spot that many of us have with our focus only on one aspect of their faith. On the other hand, I’m surprised that the pastor at “St. John’s” would actually focus on homosexuals not inheriting the kingdom as opposed to other sinners. Here’s a few points I’ve thought of:

    – First, when you say lesbian, no one ever thinks of celibate lesbian, they think of sexually active lesbian. In our current society everything is so focuses on sexual gratification, your life choice is not at the top of everyone’s mind. I’m afraid that in this environment most people think of someone with same sex attraction as either: in the closet and pretending to be straight, openly homosexual and in a sexual relationship with another of the same sex, or living a free for all sexual lifestyle. So I think if someone said to me, “I’m gay” I’d have a whole different set of preconceived ideas than if they said, “I’m a gay person committed to a celibate life.”

    – Second, I really think the pastor at “St. John’s” is so in the wrong for not differentiating between same sex attraction and living a sexual gay lifestyle.

    – Finally we all need to remember that we’re all sinners and it doesn’t do us much good to focus on one particular sin as opposed to other equally grave sins. I think the present problem is in presenting sinful behavior as good and honorable. Of course this isn’t just with homosexual behavior but with heterosexual shacking up behavior as well.

    Peace to you all.

    • Hi Mike, thanks for reading. We appreciate your comment here.

      We receive a lot of pushback when we describe ourselves as LGBT. In many ways, we think it’s important to challenge people’s assumptions about the LGBT community at large. Just because a person assumes certain things when they hear the word “gay” or “lesbian” doesn’t make those assumptions okay. Many of the automatic assumptions come from a deeply held prejudice about gay people. We don’t think that we should have to wear our celibacy on our sleeves or make it the absolute first thing people learn about us as people. -Lindsey and Sarah

  6. Oh dear friends! I have this problem often, too! I rarely mention my orientation, or my celibate tendencies, to anybody, least of all the authority figures in my tradition. I am finding that going to church for the truth they’re all pretty much ignoring on one front or another is not working for me. I love to be around Genuine Christians. But so far, I’ve found only people willing to advocate for the parts of the theology and liturgy that support their own preconceptions of the world, how it does work, and how it should work. I’m very sad because of this. I love God, try to pray the hours like a monastic would, try to remember fasting (you know, all those ascetic tools for getting closer to Christ) but I just can’t bring myself to willingly step foot in a church for fear of rejection on one or all counts of BEING ME.

    I know these folks *are* genuine Christians in that they are working on themselves and trying to be as Christ directed us all to be, but they hurt me most of the time with currently unexamined prejudices and assumptions. So I’ve stopped talking to anyone within the community, except you two, possibly, and my friend from Canada.

    I know this is ridiculous, but allow me to say it for the purpose of making myself feel better that the idea is, at least, out there:

    Maybe we should have a Celibate Vocation Discerning Group online that does video Skype chats (or not) once a month. We could either be all encompassing and help everybody who wants that in any Christian tradition or we could orient it to a club for people in our particular boat — Celibate LGBT Vocation Seekers in more Traditional Style expressions?

    Ok, that nonsense is out of the way. Thanks for listening. I want to be at liturgy every week, I want badly to develop my spiritual life to the highest level possible, and I feel very trapped by just being who I am. I get the distinct impression you both understand my heart right now.

    THis is where i come when I need to know I’m not alone. <3 Thanks, everyone.

    P.S. Sorry for not being the most hard-core academic thinker here. I tend to think with my heart.

    (Oh, and I won't be hurt if the idea I just put out there is not chosen as a Something To Do, So don't worry on that idea.)

    • Thanks so much for your comment. We feel distinctly honored that you come to A Queer Calling when you need to know you’re not alone. We know some communities that do have regular online hang-outs for LGBT people seeking celibate vocations. We’ll send you a private email to help you get connected! (And for other LGBT Christians trying to discern their vocations, please do feel free to contact us using the Contact Us page of the blog.) -Lindsey and Sarah

  7. I’m glad you all wrote a post about this because its a big problem in a lot of churches no matter the kind of church. Bless you both.

  8. Thank you for writing this. I am totally in the same boat. I have tried to check out on some traditions different from my own (Catholic) but just like your experience, I noticed that they have more emphasis on social justice issues than traditional liturgy. That’s not to say that social justice isn’t important to me, but I just found that within that said church, I found myself missing the traditions which I love partaking with my small and humble Catholic church. Am I safe in my current church? No. Will things change? Maybe. Hopefully one day.

    P.S. Thanks to technology I do found myself ‘mixing it up’ with various Christian traditions. Sometimes I watch evangelicals on TV and on online. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Glad you stopped by our blog today! Since publishing this, we’ve heard from many people who also share this type of experience. The challenging part is figuring out what to do about it. -Sarah

  9. I’m long-married and happily committed to Eastern Christianity (which, by the way, unites beautifully the traditional Divine Liturgy with service to the needy through a Pan-Orthodox organization called FOCUS), but I read your blog regularly

    because it turns a bright light on

    what I believe is the most troublesome issue any church today, in its official teaching, or any church-attending individual may not yet have faced fully, and not just not faced, but not even considered how to square with the Gospels and the notion of an all-loving God. If I am wrong, if what the acronym LGBT represents is being addressed fully and satisfactorily in religious groups, I am happy for that.

    For myself, I do not yet understand any of the “queer callings,” but I want to, and believe I need to if I am going to understand Christ and follow what Christ stood for, and gave everything for,” on behalf of all, and for all,” as our priest sang this morning at the high point of the liturgy, and has sung for nearly 2000 years, and will sing from now on.

    Great work here. Stay strong. Prayers & good wishes.

    • Thanks for reading! We’re glad to have you as a reader. Thanks for the encouragement. I think you’re right that there seems to be a disconnect between various Christian traditions’ official teachings and the idea of a loving God, and also how some of these teachings square with the Gospel. I think that’s a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed. I think a significant cause of this problem is the manner in which teachings are conveyed by priests and also lay Christians. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that everything in Christianity connects back to Christ. How can we expect people to see harping about the wrongness of x, y, and z with no further explanation as connected to a loving God? There’s a definite need for more pastoral approaches to a wide variety of tough issues. -Sarah

  10. Sarah and Lindsey–thanks for sharing. A friend just linked this post on Facebook, and I needed to hear it. I’m more or less straight, but I have gay and lesbian friends and family members, and between how much it hurts to watch them have to hide that identity around church people (and/or to see them [understandably] develop hatred for the Church), and my inability to give up Christmas and Easter (which become so soulless when they stop being Christ’s Mass and Pascha) and the liturgy and the Eucharist, well–I’m torn between your St. Andrew’s and St. John’s myself. Though I’m lucky enough that in my town, the factions may detest each other, but at least my parish has them crammed in and worshiping alongside each other.

    If it’s not too weird, please accept a warm virtual hug from a rather emotional stranger on the internet, and prayers. I will be following your blog. 🙂

    • We will accept that warm virtual hug and send one back to you! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. A lot of people seem to struggle with the St. John’s vs. St. Andrew’s situation. It is our prayer that one day the Church might truly be one. -Sarah

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