Loving LGBT People Well, 12 Suggestions for Traditional Churches

Amid significant discussions about how churches relate to LGBT people, many people whether churches that teach traditional sexual ethics can love LGBT people well. Part of the question relates to how people understand the term traditional sexual ethics, but a bigger part of the question concerns the lived witness of churches towards their LGBT congregants.

For the sake of having a working definition, let’s say a traditional church is a community that teaches marriage as a fantastic, awesome, and inspiring union of a man and a woman focused on establishing a family.

Unfortunately, many traditional churches are best known for their political activities rather than their love and care for their community. Lindsey’s a notorious optimist and decided to make some suggestions for traditionally-minded Christians. After all, we were asked:

We’d like to take this question seriously, and we’d welcome continued dialogue with any traditionally-minded Christian who wants to take us up on our suggestions. So, without further ado, here are 12 suggestions for loving LGBT people well.

1. Commit to walking with people, not presuming that you have all of the answers. Listen far more than you speak, feeling the full weight of the power of words to destroy souls. So many pastoral challenges begin when pastors fail to appreciate that LGBT people are first and foremost people. Walking with a person involves sitting down together, establishing relationship, sharing vulnerably, and coming to places of trust. Realize that many LGBT people have been harassed and maligned by so many others, especially Christians. Watch what you say from the front of your congregation, especially during times and seasons where it seems absolutely fitting to teach about marriage and sexuality.

2. For the love of God, please don’t make saying the sentence “I’m gay” (or any other LGBTQ variant) the unforgivable sin in your congregation. Words are words, and they have the meaning we ascribe to them. Conservative Christian, please take time to ask what particular people mean when we describe ourselves as LGBTQ. Constantly demanding that queer folk censor our language at all times causes us to wonder if it’s possible to share our lives with you. Humble yourself and say, “I’m really not quite sure what you mean when you say that. Could you help me understand better?” Sure, some people navigating questions of sexual orientation and gender identity might not feel comfortable with using LGBTQ language, but don’t force others to make the same choice.

3. Investigate what your Christian tradition teaches about celibacy. Find positive, negative, and neutral views on celibate vocations. There’s a reason why this point comes third in our list of suggestions. We know so many traditional churches that have never had an honest discussion about celibate ways of life. Celibate vocation is not a shorthand for sexual abstinence; it’s a way of living. If you can’t comprehend what celibate vocations might look like, then you will likely try asking LGBTQ people to live into identically the same counsel as cisgender, heterosexual people when it comes to sexual morality. [Cisgender is a word that means not transgender. Cisgender people have a gender identity that aligns with their sex assigned at birth.] Without rigorously investigating your Christian tradition’s teachings on celibacy, you’re likely to assume that LGBTQ people just need to meet the right opposite-sex person to marry or do not need any support living into celibate vocations.

4. Seriously examine how your Christian tradition understands marriage. We’re admittedly coming at this question from an LGBTQ perspective, but sometimes it’s hard to see what makes marriage such a big deal in particular churches. So many heterosexuals seem to get married using designer services that say little about being called into a married way of life. It’s worth asking questions: Are there must-have and non-negotiable parts of a wedding service at your church? What do those essentials proclaim about the nature of marriage? Are those the right messages to send? For example, many Christian traditions regard “giving away the bride” as an essential part of a wedding service. However, this practice has questionable Christian pedigree because of how it’s been used to reinforce the idea that women are property.

5. Call on all parents to love their children unconditionally, making a point to specifically and explicitly discuss LGBT kids. This point is an absolute must. Too many Christians have advocated for “tough love” approaches where a child becomes expendable the instant he or she comes out as LGBT. Parents should be the ultimate safety net for their children. If parents cite something taught in your church as a basis for cutting off their relationship with their LGBT kids, then we hope you would get on with the work of public repentance stat. No parent should be forced to choose between their kid and their faith.

6. Get to know, and support the work of, community organizations working to serve LGBT kids when their parents fail to walk alongside of them. Any child who does not experience unconditional love from his or her parents is going to have a really hard time. Most kids whose parents cite Christian beliefs as the reason why they can no longer love their children are not going to come banging down the doors of a church asking for help. We’ve been impressed by organizations trying to do the heroic work of loving LGBT kids when parents refuse to do so. We’re grateful for organizations like the Trevor Project and the new Trans Lifeline. We’ve lost count of the number of people who found refuge at the Gay Christian Network. There are organizations like LoveBoldly trying to make a difference on a smaller scale. Many local LGBT centers serve as a great touchpoint for finding real-life organizations doing work in your community. Learn about what these organizations are doing, listen to people share their stories, and do what you can to extend tangible expressions of Christ’s love for all people.

7. Pray for yourself, other people in church leadership, and your congregation as a whole. Ask others to pray for you. If you’re still reading up to this point, congratulations. We know far too many traditionally-minded Christians who would give up after reading points 1 and 2, much less get all the way to point 7. Doing this work is hard, and trying to love others without counting the cost will change you. Entreat God to open up the storehouse of wisdom.

8. Ask God to reveal to you any way you have crushed the spirits of LGBT people… and expect to be surprised. No one expects to be the destroyer of souls. No one expects to have blood on their hands. But it happens. It happens all of the time. We’re Christians, but we all too often fail to love with the love of Christ. Repentance is part and parcel of any Christian’s journey. We don’t pretend to know what God will show you when you shine the light of Christ on this area of your witness. We simply want to invite you to pray with the Psalmist “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way within me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

9. Watch “Through My Eyes” and arrange periodic screenings at your church. This video resource is one of the most helpful resources we know of for promoting discussion of LGBT people in your church. It’s produced by the Gay Christian Network and features the stories of over 20 queer young adults. It differs from other resources in that it does not offer any kind of theological apologetic. We know many Christians who’ve found it to be a good way to approach the tough conversations from a place of empathy.

10. Read accounts of celibate LGBT Christians with traditional sexual ethics with an eye towards discerning their different pastoral needs along their journeys. Two of the best known are Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill and Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet. Now, there’s a great temptation to weaponize the stories of celibate LGBT Christians and assert that somehow we’re the “good” gays who should be welcome in churches while “bad” (sexually active) gays should be shunned absolutely. Resist that temptation with everything in your being. We’ve walked this journey with many, many, many LGBT people. Shoving one of these books (for that matter, our blog) in the direction of an LGBT person and asserting that individual can live a celibate vocation is incredibly unfeeling and excuses pastors of their pastoral responsibilities. We recommend these specific books because they are part memoir where a discerning eye can pick out places where both Hill and Tushnet needed real pastoral support. Could they, and others like them, get that kind of support from your congregation?

11. Talk openly with your church about how you’ve found gaps in how you love LGBT people. Expect a lot of controversy and commit for the long haul. Many of these activities are necessarily public activities. They are activities that invite action. Leading with love requires being visible. We know that it’s not easy.

12. Risk coming out in vocal support for the dignity of LGBT people. One theological tenet guides every suggestion we’ve made: all people are created in the image of God and have a fundamental dignity as children of God. What are you willing to give to proclaim that LGBT people have dignity? How bold are you willing to be?

We consider these suggestions as only the tip of the iceberg. As we wrote this post, we could identify maybe three church communities that attempt to to any of this work. But we have to wonder if there are local churches willing to embrace the challenges and love LGBT people well. Heck, we know many progressive churches that fall short of doing the things we’ve suggested here. We’ve put this stake in the ground because we think the time has come to stop shying away from boldly declaring that LGBT people have dignity and must be treated with respect. We’d welcome any church from any Christian tradition who wants to take up this challenge to contact us directly. Any information submitted through our Contact Us page comes directly to us, and we promise to hold your information in absolute confidence. If you want to identify yourself publicly in the comments, please do so.

As always, we invite commentators from every perspective under the sun to join the conversation on this post. Before you comment, please be sure to remind yourself of our comment policy.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Author’s note: this post has been edited to add a definition for cisgender. It’s important to have these difficult conversations in a way that is inclusive of both sexual orientation and gender identity.

19 thoughts on “Loving LGBT People Well, 12 Suggestions for Traditional Churches

  1. I’m trying to remember from what Justin said at the conference, but when will Through my Eyes be available to stream for free?

    (P.S. Outstanding suggestions. I’ve already forwarded this along to several folks.)

    • Hi Becky, we’re not sure of the exact timeline for streaming Through My Eyes for free. We’re glad this post has been helpful for you!

  2. Greetings Sarah and Lindsey … nicely written post. Just a few comments … I know what you mean by cisgender but others likely do not. You probably want to define that. ……………. I would move #9 up the list a lot closer to #1 if not #1… I talked for a long time about lgbt folks in my Adult class at church. But it was when I showed the DVD Through My Eyes that they actually began to hear what I was saying. That DVD was a game changer for the conversation. Also …. you might consider saying something about how you respond to the various sexual ethics out there other than a celibate view or perhaps reference the posts you have that cover this area on your blog. God bless, Dave

    • Hi Dave, thanks for the feedback.

      To respond in the comments: many people have heard the word transgender before. Cisgender is a word that means “not transgender.” It’s certainly not our favorite word in the universe, but we hope to write more on the topic in the future.

      We first put together our list in conversation with a particular pastor who has a tendency to start with theology. The suggestions weren’t made in any kind of rank order, and churches can move things around as makes sense for their context.

      We’re happy to engage in conversations about sexual ethics more broadly with anyone who wants to discuss the topic with us further. If you hit up our Index page (http://aqueercalling.com/index/) and search for “ethic” you can see what we’ve said.

  3. After reading “Gay and Catholic” I gave a Sunday homily about the need to reach out to gay Catholics. I guess I just wanted to say the words gay and same sex attraction from the sanctuary without sounding judgmental or condescending. I am not sure if I was able to make a real meaningful and articulate point. I received many, many good compliments.
    After Mass I sat down with a lady that was very concerned about me not speaking about the “truth” of being gay, which she meant to be always an objective evil. Even though I was not the pastor, I was so concerned to be thought as someone preaching something different than what the Church teaches, that I even let her make some point that were not necessarily part of our own doctrine. I figured I did not have to be that courageous with her since it was just a private conversation.
    I don’t have a parish but I help in several and I am always afraid to push the limits. I feel is not my place to start things and leave the pastor with a hot potato. I know that it does not sound like the mind of a shepherd but it is the truth.
    I find this Post very helpful in my own journey toward developing a pastoral heart. Thanks

    • Thanks for sharing your story with us! It’s amazing how simply using LGBT language in a sermon can invite people to share what they really think on the topic with a pastor. May God continue to walk with you and develop your pastor’s heart.

  4. A friend who wishes to remain anonymous says:

    “I don’t know if you are desiring to have a reach across traditions, but in my tradition we have elders and deacons. Whether LGBT or not, there is often a view in my tradition that single men are somehow less qualified to be elders in the local church. I guess how I’d succinctly state it in one of your principles is somehow reminding people that singleness, for anyone regardless of orientation but including those who are called to it by virtue of orientation, is not a barometer of maturity and gifting to serve the church. I actually had it out one time last year with my team leader here locally about the fact that he had never asked me to lead the devotional at our team worship, though he had asked every other male on the team…all of them married. It took an actual sit-down with him and me assertively telling him that if we are going to work well together, he needed to move past simply acknowledging my singleness to truly celebrating my singleness and celibacy as a wonderful gift and opportunity from God. Since then, things have changed positively, but my team leader is not the only one who holds this view, consciously or unconsciously.”

    • Anonymous friend’s situation is one that is easy for me to understand. My experience in a Baptist tradition, one that has deacons in an analogous role to other traditions’ elders, is an exception to the rule. They wanted more age diversity on the deacon board, so they asked a married man my age, and me, to serve. The people in leadership, and other people in the congregation who matter to me, treat me as fully human without regard to my marital status, and from what I’ve gathered from reading online, in a Protestant tradition, is that this borders on exceptional.

      It remains an open question – they haven’t asked, I haven’t told… yet – whether I’d have experienced the same outcome had they known that I “experience same-sex attraction” (i.e. am gay, but my church worships at the altar of Focus on the Family, the AFA, the FRC, etc., so I’ve inferred that saying that would be scandalous, even with a vow of celibacy). But given the paranoia I hear from them about LGBT people and children, I’m pretty sure that I’d never have been allowed to serve in the youth ministry, and my gut feeling is that I’d never have been nominated for a board either.

      Anyhow, if I thought they cared, and were ready to out myself, I’d send them these 12 suggestions in a heartbeat. There’s much that they could learn from it.

      • Thanks so much for sharing LJ. We truly hope and pray that someone from your church finds these 12 suggestions and considers them. Too many churches are trapped in paranoid fear. Those fears prevent our churches from being loving.

    • We’re certainly interested in reaching across Christian traditions, which is a large part of why we decided to define traditional church in the way that we did. All too often, churches fall down mightily when it comes to our third point about investigating celibate vocations. When churches look at a single person living in the world and see a person who has “failed to grow up” all sorts of maddening things can, and do, happen.

  5. How about something as simple as stop pushing the celibacy mandate on GLBT people. Doing that creates immense harm to many within the GLBT community. It is that simple.

  6. This post is so important! Thank you for writing it. I’m debating with myself whether I have the courage to send it directly to my father – who serves in a diaconate role at his church, and clearly believes that my queer identity means that I have strayed from the faith – or just post it somewhere I’m sure he’ll see it.
    Keeping these lines of communication open is a struggle, but you two make it a little bit easier.

  7. This is a well designed and useful tool. I will be sharing this with a friend who is an elder in a conservative church who is looking to lead his leadership board towards more thoughtful interactions with the LGBTQ populations they touch. I agree that cisgender is clunky and will be an unknown for many. You should define it in the text. Also, in section 5, the word you meant to use was “instant” and not “instance”.

  8. Awesome! I think this is a great contribution for Christians like me, and churches like the one I serve. Already in tune with most of this but particularly #9 blipped my radar for follow through.

    • Hi Jon, thanks for your comment. We’d love to hear more about which suggestions your church has already implemented. Through My Eyes is a great resource; please keep us updated!

Leave a Reply