Life at the Edge of Schism

A reflection by Lindsey

I’m blessed to know a large number of Christians passionate about loving LGBT people. While most of my friends in this category would feel comfortable describing themselves as LGBT, I also know many straight Christians who care about having thoughtful conversations as well as Christians who would rather say that they have struggled or currently struggle with same-sex attraction. Over the years, it’s been interesting to see what kind of topics tend to ignite spirited conversations. My Facebook feed is a great place for every sort of news item on the intersection between LGBT people and Evangelical churches. As it stands, I was well-positioned to see the opening of a new church called Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor.

Normally I wouldn’t be writing a reflection about the opening of a new church, but the story of Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor connects with a surprising number of places on my own spiritual journey. Ann Arbor first bleeped across my radar when I noticed then-Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson talking about a new approach to discussing LGBT people in the church. The blurb caught my attention, and I immediately reached out to Ken because I was so impressed to see a Vineyard pastor making a public declaration that LGBT people should be “welcomed and wanted” by local churches. We reviewed A Letter to My Congregation a few months later while I held my breath wondering what would happen in the Vineyard Church as a whole. The response of most Vineyard churches to questions of homosexuality has been to offer Living Waters programs, arguably one of the best known “healing” programs for people “struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.” When I saw the announcement for Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, I realized that something had happened. Indeed, Ken’s position on pastoral care for LGBT people had lead to another schism in the church.

As far as I can tell, the Ann Arbor story goes something like this: Ken Wilson had been talking and writing about responding to the shifting pastoral care needs of LGBT people in his congregation. Vineyard USA had tended towards silence on the issue. But then Ken published A Letter to My Congregation. Vineyard USA responded to the book with an 90-page position paper entitled “Pastoring LGBT Persons” that does, to its credit, use LGBT language and refers to LGBT people as persons. The Executive Team of Vineyard USA wrote a letter to the Ann Arbor Vineyard basically asking the church to agree publicly with the position paper in order to remain affiliated with the organization. What seems to have happened is that the Ann Arbor Vineyard now has 1 pastor and the newly established Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor has 2 pastors, ostensibly dividing the existing community. Additionally, there are other churches that have jettisoned their affiliation with the Vineyard movement in the wake of the position paper.

The Ann Arbor story hits closer to home than our readers might realize. While I’ve never lived in Michigan, I was a member of the Cambridge Vineyard Church when I attended university in Boston from 2001 to 2005. It’s safe to say that a lot has happened in the intervening decade, both in my life and in Evangelical Christianity. I learned so much about following Jesus and trying to do church with other people while at the Cambridge Vineyard. It was difficult to leave Boston after graduation, but God had other plans. I remember choosing the Cambridge Vineyard halfway through my freshman year because it looked like it was a place willing to have some honest conversations about homosexuality. (The other church I had been attending at that time viewed almost any problem as an opportunity to exorcise demons, which totally freaked me out.) I hadn’t even started coming out to myself, so I had a metric ton of questions. Being at the Cambridge Vineyard gave me reassurance that I could build my faith on the idea of trying to give my life fully to following Jesus. It certainly wasn’t a perfect church community. Needless to say, I was rather pleasantly surprised when I learned that Dave Schmelzer (who was the lead pastor of the Cambridge Vineyard during my time there) is actively working to help Blue Ocean Faith churches.

I’ve spent the last few days reading deeper into what happened at the Ann Arbor Vineyard. In many ways, it feels like a story that might have happened at any church I’ve attended. It’s way too easy to see myself in the story. Coming to faith in Evangelical communities, I’ve always wondered if my life had the potential to cause a scandal that would rock any group I was a part of. In college, I got involved in ex-gay ministries because I viewed my questions about sexual orientation and gender identity as a kind of ticking time-bomb that would eventually explode and destroy my faith community. It’s been an uphill battle to figure out how to think about my own queer experience as anything other than a liability.

So much of the challenge has been encountering church leaders who always felt the need to warn me about impropriety. Truth be told, I couldn’t imagine a person with lower risk factors than myself for living a “scandalous” lifestyle marked by partying and free-wheeling sexuality. When I was in high school, I was the kid who always buttoned the top button and tucked in my shirt. I had no interest in showing skin and still experience regular frustration with shopping for clothes that fit right. I don’t know what would have happened if I had been in an Evangelical church where the leaders committed to helping me follow Christ in an atmosphere of generous spaciousness around questions of who I loved and how to love these people best.

Much of my journey has involved carving out a sense of generous spaciousness for myself. I’ve made the argument time and time again, “Human beings have meaningful relationships with other human beings because that is a part of what it means to be created in the image of a triune God.” When I started to say that all humans have meaningful relationships with other people, I discovered ways to live in rich friendships where the word friend failed to capture the mystery of those relationships. Meeting Sarah showed me how things look and feel different when two people fall into an organic pattern of relating with one another. I’ve been blessed to have some wonderful spiritual directors who have been able to walk with me on my journey. When it comes to the particulars of my relationship with Sarah, we take joy in the fact that we’re figuring things out as we go along.

I don’t know how a compassionate Evangelical pastor would respond to my life with Sarah. I could see this hypothetical pastor asking himself or herself whether it made sense for me to marry Sarah even with our commitment to celibacy. After all, many Evangelical pastors I’ve met over the years would say that in marriage two people seek God’s blessing upon their relationship and formalize their promises to one another in the presence of witnesses. I could see this pastor asking Sarah and me a ton of questions about how we’ve struggled to navigate different facets of health care access. I wonder how this pastor would encourage the two of us to share our commonly held prayer requests with our faith community. I really have no idea how I would handle talking with a pastor who had these sorts of questions, but I do know that it’s an amazing surprise whenever a person decides to let me know that he or she cares about walking with me along my journey. But I wonder if this hypothetical pastor would feel like he or she was teetering at the edge of a schism for even asking thoughtful questions about our relationship and any pastoral needs that might arise when two people are in such a relationship.

Many Evangelical churches do not have any tradition of celibacy lived in community. I wonder if a compassionate Evangelical pastor would investigate different ways Christians have shared life together over the years. Would he or she stumble upon skete monasticism? If so, would this hypothetical pastor feel like he or she could help us discern our vocation as a community of two? Would this pastor perceive that his or her only option would be to pray with us on the condition that all three of us never said a word to anyone else?

Living in community creates some interesting tension points. I’m rather used to feeling like I live at the edge of schism. I’ve been counseled more times than I can imagine to live in silence, to keep quiet, and to stay out of sight lest the issue erupt. That’s part of what it means to be closeted. But I wonder how much longer people can fit into the closet when trying to provide faithful pastoral care to LGBT Christians. I’ve seen families who have gone into hiding with their loved ones. I’m sure there are many pastors who have taken the route of “I will pray with you, but please don’t tell anyone else that I’m journeying alongside of you.” The whole situation reminds me of playing “Sardines” as a youth group kid. After a while, the game turns comical because all of the youth are trying to hide in exactly the same spot. There’s no hiding anymore.

How is it that any, and seemingly all, conversations about providing pastoral care for LGBT people happen at the edge of schism? Lord have mercy.

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Why Offering Me Communion Doesn’t Make Me Feel More Welcome at Your Church

A reflection by Sarah

Over time, I’ve talked to a lot of people who are concerned about welcoming members of the LGBTQ community in churches. More broadly, I’ve noticed that every few months there is some internet discussion about helping many different groups feel more welcome. Questions arise: how can the church better welcome LGBTQ people, celibate people, disabled people, parents with small children, or (insert group here)? I’ve seen various kinds of prescriptions offered where to welcome x group, churches should be doing y and z. I’ve noticed a trend that many of these prescriptions focus on making sure that all these different groups feel welcome at the Eucharistic table. It troubles me that often, churches see the Eucharistic table as the baseline for welcome. Today I’d like to reflect on why I don’t associate receiving communion with being welcomed at church.

Before I dive into my reflection, I’d like to clarify a few things up front. First, I’m not going to be making a theological case for open or closed communion practices. I respect that Christian traditions have differing norms, and I’m not going to tell anyone what to believe on this matter. Second, I believe that decisions regarding whether or not an individual participates in the Eucharist within the context of a particular community should involve that person and the priest or pastor of the church. I do not support the practice of denying people communion without offering any sort of explanation. I do not support using the Eucharist as a way to humiliate people publicly. Furthermore, I do not support denying a person the Eucharist simply because of known or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, ability level, class, race, or other factors that I’m forgetting to name off the top of my head. Priests and pastors should not surprise people by denying them communion when they approach the chalice. If at all possible, any issues regarding reception should be sorted privately before the service has begun.

Throughout my life, I’ve always belonged to Christian traditions that practice closed communion, meaning that only duly prepared members of that particular tradition are able to receive at the Eucharistic table. In my current tradition, I’m grateful for the fact that it is common practice for parishes to offer an unconsecrated bread of hospitality in addition to the Eucharist. This unconsecrated bread can be consumed by anyone in attendance, including visitors and members who have chosen not to commune regardless of reason. I’m also grateful for the fact that I’ve never belonged to a parish where I have felt obligated to receive the Eucharist at every service. I have always seen the decision to receive or abstain from the Eucharist and the process that leads to that decision as an essential part of my spiritual formation. All of these factors probably play a role in why it is so jarring for me to encounter very different attitudes when I’m visiting church with a friend from a different Christian tradition or when I’m in an environment where communion is offered to every person present regardless of whether he or she is even a Christian.

Not long ago, I attended an event that involved Christians from multiple traditions and people who did not identify as Christian at all. I knew that as part of this event, communion would be offered. I didn’t even need to consider the question of whether I would receive because I’m committed to following the practice of my tradition: communing only at parishes within that tradition and only on days when I’ve prepared myself properly to receive communion. At this event, one of my friends introduced me to another friend of hers. I don’t remember our initial conversation topic, but within less than five minutes this new acquaintance wanted to know my Christian tradition. I responded. Without a moment’s delay, he asked me, “Are you going to take communion with the rest of us on Sunday?” Taken aback, I responded with a very timid “No.” He proceeded to fire questions at me one after another in an attempt to figure out why my response was not “yes.” I can’t think of too many situations in my life where I’ve felt more awkward with a person attempting to help me feel more welcome. As I responded to each of his questions, it became obvious that none of my answers were satisfactory to him:

My tradition doesn’t practice open communion, and I’m not comfortable receiving at this event.”

“But closed communion is a tradition of man; at God’s table, everyone is welcome. Don’t you feel welcome?”

“I do feel welcome here, but I’m not comfortable with participating in a Eucharist outside of my own tradition.”

“Don’t you know that God loves you and wants to embrace you?”

“Yes, and I don’t need to receive communion in order to know that.”

“Why don’t you challenge yourself this weekend to let go of everything that’s holding you back so that you can be welcome at God’s table?”

Though this example is an isolated incident, it is not the only time in my life when I’ve ever been asked to defend my decision to abstain from receiving communion. Again, I understand and respect that Eucharistic theologies differ from tradition to tradition. I don’t see it as self-evident that people from other traditions will be aware automatically of the norms present in mine. Nonetheless, I’m troubled by my observation that most attempts to make me feel welcome at the Eucharistic table have actually caused me to experience shame and alienation.

The decision to partake in or abstain from the Eucharist in any Christian service is a deeply personal choice that should be far more complicated than asking oneself, “Is anyone going to stop me from receiving? No… Okay, then. I guess I’ll be taking communion.” I consider questions of Eucharistic reception to be on the same level of intimacy and privacy as questions about one’s sex life. I have no more business wondering why someone else isn’t receiving the Eucharist when I am than I have in wondering why (or if) someone else is having sex while I’ve chosen celibacy. Conversations about these matters should take place in the context of meaningful relationships where it is safe to be vulnerable. I cannot imagine myself discussing all the particulars of how I decide to receive (or not receive) the Eucharist with anyone other than my confessor, Lindsey, or my closest friends. I don’t discuss the depths of my spirituality with just anyone. It strikes me as entirely disrespectful for any other person to be asking me to justify in detail why I’ve decided to abstain from communion.

It is my opinion that using the Eucharist as the primary means of showing welcome is one of the most theologically detrimental aspects of life in modern churches. Holding that “welcome” necessarily means “Eucharistic participation” confuses the life we share with God and the life we share with each other. It minimizes the significance of community hospitality by implying that any church following a closed communion practice is, by nature, inhospitable. Historically, baptism has been the way we connect our life in Christian community with our life in God. Until the past couple of centuries, the Eucharist has never been understood as first and foremost a showing of hospitality. While the Eucharist is indeed a community act, it seems to me that many churches today neglect to consider how this sacrament relates to one’s individual life with God and to theological unity within the community. When a new acquaintance is telling me constantly, “You are welcome at God’s table,” this person is not communicating any sense of care about my relationship with God or the faith I confess personally. Instead, this person is trying to reassure me that there is no rupture in the relationship between me and the people gathered in that space. It leads me to wonder, how could a relationship that does not yet exist be ruptured? Does this community believe that the only way to build a relationship with me is to invite me to their Eucharistic table first and then get to know me and my faith later?

Such practice can lead to an even more detrimental belief: that we are all entitled to the Eucharist. I empathize deeply with people, particularly LGBTQ Christians, who have been denied communion unjustly and have perhaps been publicly humiliated in the process. It’s wrong to weaponize the Eucharist. On more than one occasion, I have been denied the Eucharist simply for being a lesbian, so I can relate to the spiritual agony of being unjustly barred from communion. However, telling Christians that they have the right to demand the Eucharist because it is an entitlement only exacerbates this problem. I know people who choose what churches to attend based solely upon which priests or pastors will allow them to commune without asking any questions about their spiritual lives because from their vantage point, they are entitled to the Body and Blood of Christ on account of their baptism. I believe that all Christians should have access to communities where they feel safe among members of the parish and with the clergy. All Christians should have access to communities where it is safe to commune.

Paradoxically, the only way it can be safe to commune within a particular church is if abstaining from communion is also safe. Grilling a person with a thousand questions about why he or she chose to abstain from receiving the Eucharist does not create an atmosphere of safety. Gossiping about why a person has abstained (and what sins he or she is certainly committing…because why else would anyone abstain?) does not create an atmosphere of safety. It seems that very few churches today have any space whatsoever for the person who has decided to abstain from communion, regardless of the reason. It doesn’t matter if a person abstains for a day, a month, a year, or more. Many church communities opt either to flood that person with welcome so he or she feels okay to take communion or to humiliate the person publicly in order to encourage “repentance.” These communities have lost sight of how baptism welcomes us into God’s family and have replaced baptism with Eucharistic participation in terms of its implications for hospitality and love. In many cases, both open and closed communion churches have made Eucharistic participation the baseline for welcome. As long as this remains true, discussing communion with me as a visitor in your church is not going to increase my sense of comfort in worshiping with your community.

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The Problem of Wanting a Truly Inclusive Church

A reflection by Lindsey

Being and doing church together is hard. I can’t think of many things that are as demanding as trying to be the Body of Christ, built together for the purpose of reflecting God’s heart for the world. Some days I find myself wanting to give up all together.

I have certain scriptures that haunt my consciousness. They have for years. When I think about the Church, I hear John’s observation from Revelation ricocheting between my ears: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” I’ve wondered what exactly that verse indicates about the life in the hereafter, and I long to be a part of a church community where everyone is welcome with their diversities.

But there’s a problem with wanting a truly inclusive church. I find myself always leaving certain people out.

Over the last several months, I’ve been made painfully aware that I’m an ableist jerk. Attending church and coping with Sarah’s rapidly changing ability levels has been hard. I’ve realized that no matter what parish we attend, Sarah is frequently the only person with substantive hearing loss who needs support in accessing the service. But I’ve realized that there are more people who are absent. I’ve attended church in so many different communities. Across all of those communities, I recall only ever seeing one blind individual, one hard-of-hearing person, and maybe four wheelchair users. That’s really pathetic.

But what strikes me as even more pathetic is my own response. I have it in my head that these people pass through church. They come to church, they get prayer, and God heals them. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? There are countless stories of Jesus healing in the Gospels, and there are all sorts of exhortations to pray for the sick in our efforts to manifest God’s Kingdom on earth. How many times have I laid hands on a person to say “Holy Spirit come and bring healing”? How many times have I decided that if a particular person isn’t interested in healing, then that person lacks faith?

It’s tough stuff, so I find myself wondering, “What does God’s vision for an inclusive church actually look like?”

I don’t have the foggiest clue. Lately, I’m wondering if God’s Church is full of people who make me really uncomfortable. I am a judgmental, arrogant jerk who asks the question, “What is that person doing here?” But every time I ask the question, I realize that I could very easily be on the wrong side of the line I’ve drawn around who is welcome. When it comes to drawing lines to divide us and them, there’s something in me crying out, “You know Lindsey, by that set of metrics, you’re among the them.” The more I try to wiggle and redefine the boundary so I’m on the “right” side, the louder that voice cries out. Drawing lines to divide people is hard.

The problem is especially pronounced in Christian communities because, as Christians, we have a sacred obligation to present Christ to the world. Over two thousand years, God has chosen to entrust this task to people with the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us along the way. I can’t help but read the history of the Church without thinking about the Old Testament stories of the Israelites. Does anyone else read 1 and 2 Kings and start screaming at the Israelites to get it to together already? If the scriptures bear witness to anything, I think they tell us that we truly suck at being a people of God.

I live in this odd hope that the Kingdom of God is made manifest now. Here, on Earth, in real time. I wonder a lot about what the here and now is supposed to teach me about the Eschaton. I reflect on everything I think I know and how so many of those beliefs have changed as I’ve really given myself to the task of following Jesus.

I do my best to find my way through the fog. Thinking about how I approach these really hard questions, I keep coming back to, “What are we saying about Jesus if we say xy, or z?” I try really hard to listen for the Holy Spirit. Occasionally, I reach conclusions that x is likely incredibly dangerous and has amazing potential to do harm. I’ve dug into that those questions and have concluded that certain theological tenets are essential. I didn’t have a sense of belonging in a particular Christian tradition when I started asking these questions, but along the way I encountered my current Christian tradition where all of a sudden I had a way of saying, “This is what it means to be the Church.” Fast forward six years, and I find my spirit troubled that I’ve never been in any local church community in any tradition that invites everyone to encounter Christ.

So much of the problem of being a truly inclusive church is that gap between what I believe the church should be and my tendencies to squirm when I see someone who makes me feel uncomfortable. Lord, have mercy.

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.

The Challenges of Allyship

A reflection by Lindsey

Doing life with people is hard. It’s tremendously difficult, especially when trying to live at the intersections of power and privilege. An ally is a person who sits at these intersections trying to listen, trying to learn, and trying to be present. Sometimes it’s essential to be an advocate for the people closest to you.

I’ll admit, sometimes it’s just plain weird to think of myself as Sarah’s “ally.” The word doesn’t come to mind when I think about our relationship. But then I think about everything I’ve learned from Sarah about life with chronic illnesses, surviving sexual violence, and negotiating rapidly changing ability levels. The more I learn, the harder it is for me to not care. I even find myself incredibly invested in causes I never knew existed before I met Sarah. I want so badly to cast aside my own prejudices and advocate zealously for the dignity of every human being.

Except it’s not that easy.

I can’t turn off my own story. I can do my best to foster compassion, to create space, and to listen, but I’m always living in my own story. So often my story gets in the way. It’s hard for me to look at how power and privilege block what I’m able to see. Most of the time I really don’t want to see from another’s perspective.

In the past several months, I’ve watched Sarah grow towards becoming a late-deafened adult. Along the way, I’ve learned a bit about deafness, the Deaf community, and Deaf culture. It’s amazing how I’m seeing a part of the world that I’ve never seen before. And it’s also hard to realize how I’ve lived my whole life simply assenting to a view that hearing is a superior way of being. In reality, there’s something mysteriously amazing at how deafness enables a different way of experiencing the world, even as my experiences of silence remain remarkably different from Sarah’s.

I’ve been thinking a lot more about allyship lately. As I reflected recently, learning to be who I am as a white person taught me a lot about being who I am as an LGBT person. Sarah also recently introduced me to The Help. And I continue to think about how allies can let our own stories get in the way even when we have the best of intentions.

At a meta-level, The Help already raises big questions about whose story the author is actually telling. Abilene Cooper, a black maid, brought a lawsuit against author Kathryn Stockett on the grounds that Stockett had represented Cooper’s life story without permission. Watching the film adaptation of the book, I found myself asking a lot of questions about being an ally.

To quickly set up my observations, Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone) is trying to make it in publishing. She takes on a job writing a cleaning advice column to gain some more experience. Skeeter doesn’t know much of anything about cleaning, so she gets permission to ask her friend’s housekeeper Aibileen a bunch of questions. She realizes that she would love to write about what it’s like for black women to work as maids in 1960s Mississippi because their perspective hasn’t been heard before. It’s new, it’s fresh, and it deeply connects to Skeeter’s own relationship with the maid who raised her. However, Skeeter jumps into her project with both feet before she realizes what she’s doing. She’s a bit taken aback that the maids she knows aren’t keen on speaking with her. She goes to the courthouse, figures out what she’s doing is illegal, and proceeds more cautiously. Aibileen cautiously agrees to start sharing stories.

I see a lot of myself when I look at Skeeter. She jumps in with gusto before taking any time to listen and learn. Shortly after Sarah had found out that one ear is medically deaf, I saw a story flying around the internet about a “fake interpreter” working at an Ebola conference. I was furious, so naturally I shared the story on Facebook with a guarded statement of “From what I can tell, this interpreter doesn’t seem to be doing a good job. ASL-fluent friends, what say you?” I was definitely not prepared to put my foot in my mouth after I learned the interpreter is a Certified Deaf Interpreter working on a team with another signer. But my friends corrected me, asked me to change something in my initial comment, and took some time to explain to me how Certified Deaf Interpreters work with a hearing interpreter. The hearing interpreter signs an initial English-to-ASL translation to the Deaf interpreter who then polishes the ASL such that it’s more intelligible for native ASL users. As it turns out, using Certified Deaf Interpreters is a best practice. Being an ally means learning, sometimes putting yourself out there, quickly putting your foot in your mouth when you screw up, and listening some more.

Being an ally is not fun, and it frequently means sitting with the discomfort that you are wrong a lot more than you are right. It means working to perfect your “I’m sorry. Please let me know what sort of corrective action I need to take,” muscles. I’ve had to own my story of privilege time and time again as I reflect why I didn’t understand something that should have been so plainly obvious. I’m so grateful for everyone who has had space to correct me when I’ve screwed up, and I’m profoundly humbled by the way folks have responded to me during times when I’ve missed the point entirely.

I’d love to be a part of the solution in making the world more welcoming and more hospitable to people who are different from me. But in order for that to happen, I need to learn how to position my story such that it makes space for other people to share theirs.

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 remove some unintentionally vidist references that negatively portrayed blindness. If other folks see places where my language has fallen short of my goal, please consider taking to the comment box to let me know what I’ve done unintentionally and suggest some alternate ways of communicating the same meaning.

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.