A New Experience

Soon after I retired I received a visit from the Moderator of the Disciples General Assembly, who also happened to be my pastor, Dr. Michael Mooty.  He asked me to become the staff person of the Discernment Committee on Gays and Lesbians in the church.

Although I had prayed that in retirement I might still be useful to the church, I told him no.  I did not know much about the matter, had no experience with gay people, and did not know anything about gay life.  Dr. Mooty asked me to think about it for a week and left me the job description.  While thinking about it, I remembered my prayer.  Was this what God wanted me to do?  I was not sure, but just in case, I finally agreed to take the job.  It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

The committee had already been appointed.  It included pastors, lay people, academics, and a regional minister.  Represented on the committee were whites, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, men and women.  There were gay people and straight people.  There were people who strongly opposed gay people, there were advocate for gays, and there were people to believed that they needed to learn much more about the whole situation.  It turned out to be a major learning experience for me.

We were charged to do two things.  First, we were to frame the issue which we eventually defined as “What is the Gospel message of our church as we relate to Gay and Lesbian Christians?”  The second task was to develop a process a congregation or other group could use to explore the question.  The result was a little book that the committee produced titled, “Listening to the Spirit.”

Many of our churches are not familiar with discernment as a process.  Usually we deal with questions by choosing up sides and taking a vote. The winners think they have accomplished something, and the losers feel that they have not be heard or understood, and that their church has rejected them.

Discernment does not use debate; it uses listening, listening to each other and listening to the Holy Spirit which we believed to be present and at work in the church.

That is what we did on the committee.  We listen to each other, to the gay members, to the opposition, to people’s questions, to peoples fears, and to people’s theology, especially their views on the Bible.  We met for two and a half years, and at the end of each meeting we celebrated the Lord’s Supper.  That was a powerful part of the experience.  While there were many differences on the committee, we knew that we were all one around the Lord’s table.

I did not know how to begin our work, so I asked each member to bring to the first meeting an experience with a gay person.  That proved to be a very powerful experience. One member expressed sadness over a broken friendship.  A college chaplain told of students’ concerns.  One gay person said she lost a job when her orientation became known.  Gay members said they were often pressured to lie about who they are in order to keep a job, keep membership in a church, or stay in the ministry.  One expressed appreciation for the hospitality of gay people who welcomed her into a church.  Others mentioned the importance of friendships with gay people.  Several members reported negative experiences.  It took two days for committee members to express themselves, and it bonded the group at a very deep level.  This sharing was often referred to in subsequent meetings.

I learned many things.  At a General Assembly workshop the group led, I learned that there are many gay people in heterosexual marriages because that is what society expects, and everyone involved is miserable.  I learned about language issues.  When I used the term “gay lifestyle,” one of the gay people on the committee told me, “Our life style is not that different from yours.  We get up in the morning, have breakfast, go to work, come home in the evening, have dinner, clean the house, do the laundry, watch a little TV and go to bed.  The next day we go through the same thing.  On Sundays we go to church.”

Another gay member expressed resentment at the term “gay issue.”  “We are not an issue,” the person told me, “we are people.”  I also learned that I had known more gay people than I realized.  One minister proudly told me that there were no gay people in his congregation. I believe that he is wrong; he just doesn’t know who they are.  They know they will be opposed in that church if they come out.

As our meetings went on the outline of a process began to take shape, and what we finally presented reflected the experience of the committee.  We produced a process that has seven stages.  A stage may take more than one meeting of a group.  The process can be done over a period of weekly meetings, a weekend retreat, or any other schedule that works for a group.  It is important that the process not be rushed.  There needs to be time for reflection.

We believe strongly that whatever group uses the process, there must be gay representation.  I have had phone calls from people who did not understand that requirement.  I told them that if they did not hear the gay voice, their conclusions would not have integrity.  People have to try to understand each other.

The process has no predetermined outcome, but if followed faithfully it will lead participants to a very deep understanding of the realities of the matter.  The most difficult part for many people will be avoiding debate.  Debate is not to be allowed.  It is listening that is most important, and in listening we may hear the Holy Spirit at work.  We will hear it not in any one thing a person says, but in the totality of the experience of the group.

We begin with a covenant statement which is to be repeated in unison at each session. It includes honoring every participant as a person of faith, a belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a willingness to examine the Bible as a whole, not just isolated verses.  It insists that the church be a safe and confidential place where people can deal with questions about being attacked or rejected.  Listening to each other’s stories is a key to the whole process.  In light of their experience together, the committee said that each meeting of a group should conclude with the Lord’s Supper.

Bible study is a major part of the  process, and we begin it with a specifically Disciple perspective.  The Bible studies were actually written by a lesbian New Testament scholar and the conservative evangelical pastor of a large church.

How was our process received in the church?  I had a number of phone calls from pastors and lay people who wanted to know more about it. It was used enough that the Christian Board of Publication had to do a second printing of our little book.  One person told me that the process had taken the fire out of a heatedly divided congregation.

I led a group of elders of the church to which I belong through the process.  Later they produced a new welcoming statement that is published in the church bulletin every Sunday.  Its concluding sentence says, “We welcome all persons into membership who seek to follow Jesus Christ regardless of previous religious affiliation, mode of baptism, gender, race, ethnic background, age, sexual orientation, economic circumstance, family configuration, or ability.”