News from AllianceQ: February 2018

Now That We're O&A, How To Welcome?

Mark Johnston, Executive Director of AllianceQ’s Open & Affirming Ministry Program,
reports that he has been asked several times in the past month “We’re an Open & Affirming Church…
but we’re not sure we really know how to welcome the LGBTQ community…?” Here are his reflections on that question.

Just this past month, by phone and in person, I’ve been asked a couple of times a variation on a question that goes something like this: “We’re an Open & Affirming Church… but we’re not sure we really know how to welcome the LGBTQ community…?”

Wow! What a perfect question! And yet I realized, I didn’t have the perfect complete answer, and so I promised those who asked a response – here it is.

One of my favorite images of how God welcomes us comes from the hymn “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”

Your sure provisions gracious God
attend me all my days;
oh, may your house be my abode,
and all my work be praise.
Here would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
no more a stranger, nor a guest,
but like a child at home.

First, I don’t promise that my answer is perfect and complete, and I want to assure you that it’s actually a good thing that your welcome will also not be perfect and complete. Ok, before you give up on me, hear me out: Welcome is always a process of getting to know another, a neighbor, a friend, a stranger; and welcoming this person into our congregation in such a way that we become family. Welcome, like family, doesn’t seek to make another just like me. Welcome accepts – because, you know, family is family and always will be. Welcome, like family, provides and includes. Family knows we are incomplete without each other. Family knows that the stranger is nothing less than a family member whom we have yet to include. Family welcomes knowing that it is the newcomer who gives us the most important gift: wholeness.

Welcoming another always changes us because of course our family is now a little larger, our relationships a little richer, our understanding a little deeper. And, importantly, a true welcome is a complete welcome, allowing others to be fully themselves and offering others full and complete membership in our community, our family.

Ok, but how do we welcome those whom we don’t know? Here are a few thoughts

While an Open & Affirming congregation has done the work of understanding that God welcomes us all to the table, there is often more work to do to understand the neighbors who respond to our invitation to the table, to understand these neighbors in a welcoming and affirming way.

It is our job to do the work of understanding our neighbor as we seek to expand our church family. Of course, this is exactly why I’m so thrilled to be asked in the first place, “but we’re not sure we really know how to welcome the LGBTQ+ community?” Clearly, those who are asking this question realize that they have some work to do and are expressing the desire to do that work.

I would suggest first that we make sure that our theological house is in order. Sure, when our congregations went through an Open & Affirming process, we did a lot of this work. However, new people come into our congregations who weren’t with us then, and all of us can use a refresher course from time to time. I always recommend that an O&A congregation offer an opportunity at least once a year to renew their O&A commitment through study, prayer, and celebration. Some practical places to begin: I always love recommending the Bible study Hearts Unbound. Also, youth (and adults) will find The God Box an absorbing read that will help us understand the experiences of many LGBTQ teens. There are many other resources listed on our website in the Bible Study section of the Resources tab.

The rejection preached by many churches threatens the very lives of LGBTQ+ people in many ways.

As we keep our theological house in order, I would next suggest that it’s important that we remind ourselves how important welcome is to our LGBTQ+ neighbors. For LGBTQ+ people who have been rejected by the church, especially youth, ours isn’t just an invitation to a casual get together. The rejection preached by many churches threatens the very lives of LGBTQ+ people in many ways. As our understanding of the vital life giving nature of our welcome grows, the more committed to welcome we will become. I have written a few things about this, including this newsletter article: “The Open in Open & Affirming Saves Lives.” You’ll find more inspiring writing from others in the Welcoming Openly section of our Inspirations tab.

…we all have our own call and our own commitments, and I know that allies come in many shapes and sizes.

Third, I would suggest that, we must be prepared to meet our neighbor. When people have asked me this month, “how do we best welcome our LGBTQ visitors?” I think this is the part of the answer that most were looking for. I would suggest that to welcome is to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. Now, when I say ally, sure, I would love it if everyone in your congregation was ready to march in the local Pride March and to staff a table at the local community festival ready to talk about your congregation’s welcome of all including LGBTQ+ people. However, I know that we all have our own call and our own commitments, and I know that allies come in many shapes and sizes. At the minimum, I would hope that the majority of people in your congregation have a personal commitment to be pleasant and respectful of all visitors to the church. Respect is certainly something that can be learned and cultivated. It is modeled when clergy use examples of LGBTQ+ people  and families in sermons. It is cultivated when church leaders use and teach appropriate and respectful language for LGBTQ+ people.

I have created a new section under the Resources tab of our website called Being an Ally. In this section you’ll find some materials that will help increase an understanding of LGBTQ+ people. These resources cover understandings of sexuality, gender, and culture among LGBTQ+ people. You might start with Be Not Afraid: Straight for Equality in Faith Communities and Guide to Being a Trans Ally. You may find more useful information in Guide to Being a Straight Ally. For basic language you might find Equality Literacy 101 useful. Don’t forget to look further into resources available for understanding our transgender and intersex neighbors.

I can’t emphasize enough how much welcome is expressed when an LGBTQ+ person walks in and people are already comfortable with language, comfortable asking a transgender person which gender pronoun they use and sharing their own pronouns, comfortable talking with a bisexual person without challenging the existence of bisexuality, comfortable referring to a husband or wife as…  husband or wife.

Your welcome mat belongs outside, not inside the door.

Another very practical element of welcome that I often point out to churches that are not yet Open & Affirming: Your welcome mat belongs outside, not inside the door. Yes, I am often asked “everyone in our church knows that everyone is welcome – why do we have to do anything else?” And of course, when I say your welcome mat belongs outside your door, I mean that your neighbors need to know that they are welcome: welcome is an invitation. Welcome is signage on your church. Welcome shows up at Pride Festivals and has a rainbow banner or flag on your booth at the local community fair. Welcome is a mention of LGBTQ people in your advertising and on your website. (“Open & Affirming” is a great way to name ourselves, but not everyone knows what these words mean to us. Check out our O&A logo, which churches listed as O&A on our website can use. Our O&A logo does include LGBTQ explicitly. The logo and other downloads are available on our website.)

I want to repeat: this welcome is not just life affirming but life saving. There are members of the LGBTQ+ community who need to know that the church which taught them condemnation is not God’s final word. Some may never walk through your church doors, but welcoming visibly in your community is a vital ministry for many, inside and outside your doors.

Finally, I want to suggest that the ultimate welcome of all is to value and include all for they are. Yes, as LGBTQ or ally, but ultimately who we are as individuals with much to offer. Welcome must finally include. Not grant permission. Not set a boundary and say “you’re welcome here, but not there.” Welcome is not welcome until the stranger is family, fully empowered to be at home with all the give and take of being a part of it all. (Check out the book Radical Welcome and other resources in the Going Deeper section of our resources.)

Oh, and one more thing. I am convinced that there is always another neighbor around the corner to meet. So find the courage to get out there, look around, and notice who seems to need a welcome. Yes, literally get out there. And keep on building the realm of the God who welcomes all to the table.