When the Church’s “Welcome” to LGBT People Hurts

In the last several weeks, we’ve noticed an uptick in messaging that churches do not need to extend a special welcome to specific groups because churches follow Christ’s example and welcome everyone. We believe that any time a local church extends a special welcome to any group, that welcome has its roots in past hurts. Even a celebration like Mother’s Day came after society realized it was not particularly appreciative of mothers. Neither of us has ever attended a local congregation that has explicitly identified itself as a community that welcomes LGBT people. On occasion, we’ve attended churches that are generally regarded as places that are willing to journey alongside LGBT people even if they don’t say so explicitly. At present, we feel blessed to have a priest who appreciates and respects our desires to live celibacy while assuming the best about our intentions. Nonetheless, this past Sunday was probably the most traumatic experience we’ve ever had in a church environment, even though we had done our best to prepare for the worst.

Churches that teach traditional sexual ethics tend to be traditional in other areas as well. Traditional churches often recognize places where the Gospel praises seemingly disparate approaches to life. They strive to find a good balance between extremes. They see it as important to proclaim both Love and Truth, to have space for both Justice and Mercy. They value both right belief (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy). We firmly believe that churches need to present a balanced view of the faith. Like many Christians, we know that the way of Christ is indeed a narrow way that can be hard to find. Like many Christians, we’ve experienced seasons of needing to be reminded of God’s law and other seasons of needing to be reminded of God’s grace. Growing spiritually can sometimes be two steps forward and one step back as we frequently overcorrect along the way. It seems fitting to suggest that maturing in Christ is a lot like bowling with bumpers where all things good and holy try to direct forward progress.

Just as individuals can struggle to find the narrow way of Christ, many church communities teaching traditional sexual ethics do struggle with welcoming LGBT Christians. Every week, we experience a mixed bag of “welcome” when we attend church. You could think of it in terms of our necessary adaptation to a certain undercurrent. On a typical Sunday, we might experience between 1 and 3 interactions that indicate a person feels considerable animosity towards LGBT people. We know to expect it and even truly welcome the occasional presumptive “understanding” of what our lives are like. It doesn’t offend us when people try to be welcoming, but struggle. We’re glad to educate those who want to be educated. People asking almost-stupid questions directly can be a sign that they trust us enough to let their guards down and open up to learning more. However, while we’re used to hearing questions that contain some arguably innocent misconceptions, a particularly pointed discussion about LGBT issues in the Church has the potential to rip our hearts out through our noses. It’s especially bad when misconception stacks on top of misconception, and discussants drift away from considering LGBT people first and foremost as people. We’ve seen this trend in multiple local church communities, so we wanted to take the opportunity to say what not to do if you are trying to “welcome” LGBT Christians:

  • Use the first possible opportunity to ask the pastor publicly to clarify teaching on homosexuality because you suspect that there are LGBT people among your church’s membership.
  • Explain that LGBT people are welcome only because all sinners are welcome, assuming that all LGBT people struggle with lust.
  • Zoom in on a vague sense of “sinful behaviors” when discussing LGBT issues without offering any discussion about what said behaviors are.
  • Defend conservative reactionaries who have been “hurt” by gay activists before acknowledging the emotional and spiritual strains on LGBT Christians who are constantly accused of any number of outrageous activities.
  • Permit cisgender, heterosexual people space to talk openly about LGBT issues while telling LGBT people to remain “discreet” about their sexual orientations and/or gender identities.
  • Discuss the sexual orientations and perceived sins of specific members in the congregation with a priest or pastor while less than 6 feet away from those members.
  • Glare over your shoulder directly at suspected LGBT people while talking about them.
  • Accuse celibate LGBT people of a well-crafted charade to corrupt a perfectly good congregation with a hidden “liberal” agenda.
  • Suggest that LGBT people are secretly flirting with one another at church.
  • Demand proof of exactly how pastors know celibate LGBT people aren’t having all sorts of sex.
  • Accuse celibate LGBT people of lying about their celibacy.
  • Inform LGBT people they’re being “too sensitive” if they give examples of people saying hurtful things.

To be crystal clear, we’ve directly experienced all of these things in multiple congregations. Moreover, we know other celibate LGBT people who experience comparable “welcome” from their congregations. Enduring this litany seems to be part and parcel of the parish experience for many LGBT Christians, both celibate and non-celibate, who attend churches teaching a traditional sexual ethic.

The natural next question is, “So why don’t you just find a different church?”

Short answer: it’s not that easy.

Longer answer: These experiences are shockingly common. Especially within conservative Christian traditions, it’s challenging to find parishes where several items on the above list don’t happen on a regular basis. Seeking a parish and a priest is emotionally taxing beyond description. It’s like dating while knowing full well that 8 of your 10 first dates will involve verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse. It requires being willing to try out a specific church, actually going, meeting with the pastor, being prepared for the severe condemnation that usually follows, taking a week or two to recover from that encounter, then repeating the process again and again until finally landing in a parish that seems not ideal, but survivable. Both in the past when we were single and now that we are a couple, we’ve found that it can take months or years of searching before finding even one priest in our tradition who is willing to see us as people instead of pastoral challenges. At this point you might be wondering, “If the two of you are celibate, why are you encountering such problems?” When it comes to our presence within a parish, our celibacy matters very little to culture warriors who see us as nothing more than incarnations of a political agenda.

We’ve never made a public statement about our LGBT status. People simply assume that we’re public sinners because we have committed the unthinkable act of showing up for Liturgy. We’ve had to recalibrate our sense of welcome and what it means to have realistic expectations about acceptance. To us, “welcome” frequently means that there are at least two people present who won’t scowl at us for every person who does. That’s not the kind of welcome other groups of people receive at church, yet so many parishes where members behave in the ways described above seriously think they’re doing all they can and all they should need to do in order to welcome LGBT Christians. How is it welcoming to foster an environment where parishioners are constantly suspecting other parishioners’ actions and motives? This is why thinking about exactly how we experience “welcome” hurts. It hurts a lot. 

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