By Ken Wilson and Emily Swan
We’re not here to tell you what to do, but after the United Methodists decided to double down on stigmatizing LGBTQ policies, your heart may be troubled. If you’re straight and consider yourself an ally, you may wonder about going to a church (any church) that treats your LGBTQ loved ones like that. Or you might be one of your LGBTQ loved ones, and you’re open to a nudge in the direction of leaving. Here are three reasons to leave. And, of course, we don’t pretend to know what’s best in your particular situation. But sometimes we normalize to situations that dull us a little and narrow our thinking.
1. Why sit in the front of the bus if your LGBTQ loved ones have to sit in the back? You can get off the bus.
If we think of ourselves as allies, consider this: By staying, we are demonstrating a willingness to enjoy the privileges afforded to straight people (like being married in the church) … knowing that our LGBTQ loved ones are denied those same privileges.
Try a thought experiment.
Say you were a white person who lived in Montgomery Alabama in the 1950’s then, 1. You’re probably glad to be alive still; and 2. You might feel a little ashamed about happily sitting in the front of the bus while your African-American neighbors were forced to sit in the back of the bus; and 3. I bet you wished that you had participated in the bus boycott to support your African-American neighbors.
So it’s 20 years from now, 2039. How will you feel then about being willing to enjoy the privilege of being a straight person in a non-affirming church, while your LGBTQ loved ones had to sit there with the stigma ... or more likely knew to stay away entirely.
Allies take up some of the burden.
It’s almost impossible for straight church goers to appreciate the anguish of being LGBTQ and wanting to go to church, but not having options that aren’t fraught, that entail subjecting one’s self to religious stigma.
But if you’re straight, you could share some of that burden for your LGBTQ loved ones. Perhaps you can afford to put up the fuss in your church on their behalf. And if, after putting up your fuss, the church decides, for whatever reason, to abide by policies known to be harmful to your LGBTQ loved ones, you could leave in protest. Not just for what it says to your church — non-affirming churches know they would suffer more losses by changing their policies than keeping them — but for what it says to your LGBTQ loved ones. That if a church is not good enough for them, it’s not good enough for you.
Look, we as co-pastors are committed to the church enterprise. We don’t like it when people leave churches for petty reasons — because they prefer different worship songs or the youth group isn’t as nifty as they think it should be, or the sermons don’t entertain as much as they’d like, or the creamer for the coffee in the lobby isn’t half-and-half. But a church insisting on practices that stigmatize LGBTQ people — denying marriage to a same-gender couple because their love for each other is considered “unnatural,” or “perverse,” or “disordered” — is not a petty reason.
Let’s say you consider yourself a straight ally and you’re engaged to be married. What signal does it send to your LGBTQ loved ones, that you’re happy to get married in a non-affirming church, knowing that your loved ones would be denied that privilege?
When we tolerate harmful policies it sends a signal that such policies are tolerable. Yes, for straight people — no skin off our noses. But for the person who is a sexual minority, these policies are deeply stigmatizing, harmful, an assault on their dignity as children of God.
Now back to that LGBTQ loved one of yours. Wouldn’t it be powerful to tell them, “If you aren’t as fully accepted at my church as I am, then it’s not my church anymore.” The trauma of being a sexual minority is greatly reduced by knowing one significant ally — a person who stands with you, and is will to pay a social cost for doing so. Wouldn’t it be great to be one of those people for your LGBTQ loved one?
2. Non-affirming churches are risky for LGBTQ kids and parents don’t know if their kids are at risk.
The title of the article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine is chillingly clinical, “Association of Religiosity With Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt”. If a person is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, attending a church that regards their sexual or gender identity as sinful, perverse, disordered, unholy, or displeasing to God, is — GO FIGURE! — harmful. It’s bad for their mental health. So kids who turn out to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, have higher rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, and other bad outcomes because they went to a non-affirming church. By contrast, our straight kids are immune to this risk; they only get the benefits of going to church (which are significant, positive mental health outcomes because they go to church).
The problem is, parents don’t know if their kids are at risk, because they don’t know if they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender until later in life.
Consider these findings from a 2013 Pew survey of LGBTQ people:
The survey finds that 12 is the median age at which lesbian, gay and bisexual adults first felt they might be something other than heterosexual or straight. For those who say they now know for sure that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, that realization came at a median age of 17. Among those who have shared this information with a family member or close friend, 20 is the median age at which they first did so (emphasis added).
Parents, if your child is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender — and thus subject to the harmful effects of stigmatizing policies in your church — you probably won’t know it until they are out of Sunday School and Youth Group. You will not be in a position to protect them from the harmful effects of the church policies, because you will probably assume they are straight, and like you, immune from the harm.
(That survey was six years ago, and things may have changed since then. This may slightly increase the odds that you will know sooner whether or not you are exposing your children to possible harm.)
3. If you are a sexual minority, staying may not speed up the change process and you may be paying a higher price than you realize now.
Sexual minorities don’t have a lot of affirming churches to choose from. And the ones that are available may not scratch their spiritual itch. So we can understand when a person in that situation finds a church that is more to their spiritual tastes and chooses to put up with the second-class citizen status. We make trade-offs all the time, and those are our calls to make, not someone else’s call to make.
But often we’ve seen LGBTQ people stay in a non-affirming church because they want to be part of a change they hope for. And that is an honorable position. But it comes at a cost.
And change is glacially slow.
A handful of historic mainline denominations have made national policy changes that allow congregations to be affirming. The Episcopal church has been fighting about this for decades. They didn’t “resolve” the dispute until after the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality. That’s when they finally allowed their LGBTQ members to be married. (Before, they only offered a separate-but-unequal rite of “blessing.”) The Presbyterian Church, USA, recently “resolved” the issue too, after decades of fighting. But many of the local congregations in the denominations with affirming national policies, are not affirming … so there are still lobbying efforts in these settings, which are still anxious systems. And many “affirming” congregations are only affirming on paper. They have no openly-LGBTQ people. And these “on paper affirming” congregations may have plenty of members who would leave if they had a clergy person who was LGBTQ.
Churches in the vast evangelical orbit have doubled-down on their traditional policies, as has the United Methodist Church. (And, sadly, fewer “progressive” clergy and churches in the UMC than we hope will refuse to abide by the policies and risk losing their churches and their buildings. Many will reluctantly tolerate the double-down policies.) Don’t look for change in these settings until there is a significant shift in the financial base of these institutions.
There is an embryonic but growing phenomenon of “non-denominational style” churches which have been ejected from their evangelical orbit and practice full inclusion. Our church is one of those. But you probably don’t have one in your town yet.
So your choices of affirming, or fully-inclusive/accepting churches — pick your term, we’re interested in the policies here, not the terms — are limited, severely limited. (If you’re Roman Catholic and can’t picture yourself leaving that tradition, you might find a “progressive” parish that is “friendlier,” but must abide by the stigmatizing policies. The same could be said for pre-dominantly African-American churches.)
LGBTQ people (like me, Emily) have our own particular tastes and convictions about spirituality like everyone else and churches are not one-size-fits-all. So we appreciate finding a church that practices full-inclusion is difficult or impossible. And then it’s time to make hard choices and compromises.
But consider this in your calculations. The LGBTQ people we know who have been part of non-affirming churches have suffered as a result. Often they have symptoms of having survived a trauma. We regard it as “religious trauma.” Often people who suffer from it don’t realize how bad it is until they leave their non-affirming church.
There’s one other thing to consider. In many non-affirming churches these days, traditionalists defend their policies by pointing to LGBTQ congregants (usually only a handful at most — and hardly ever people who are transgender) as a sign that the polices must not be that harmful. It’s a little like politicians who trot out an African-American staff member to prove they are not racist (while supporting policies that are.)
So there it is: If you are a sexual minority, staying may not speed up the change process (and might, in some cases, slow it down) and you may be paying a higher price than you realize now.
There is hope. Change is slow, but in some settings it’s been building up for a long time. Consult churchclarity.org for some of the best research on what’s out there. There are new options on the landscape that didn’t exist even four years ago. Like Episcopal parishes that will perform a same-gender wedding, and a small band of non-denominational, former evangelical-orbit churches, and a few affirming African-American churches popping up. We’re especially encouraged by the network of Bishop Yvette Flunders, an African-American Pentecostal in the United Churches of Christ. (Yes, we are leaving many affirming churches out of this list, consult churchclarity.org for more.) It’s also hopeful that people are finding spiritual connections outside the organized-church landscape, out in the wilderness, where Jesus is often very much present and doing some his best work.
But a final word for those who consider themselves allies. Maybe your most powerful act as an ally is to leave your non-affirming church. In so doing, you subject yourselves to the challenges that your LGBTQ loved ones face when they can’t take it anymore in a stigmatizing religious environment and venture out. You may only find an affirming church that isn’t your cup of tea, isn’t as comfortable as your non-affirming church, and annoys you a little every Sunday. You may long for and miss your former church. You will lose important relationships because you left. But your longing and sadness and grief can be an act of worship. Besides, isn’t that what Jesus does — identifies with the marginalized, the scapegoats, and suffers their fate — and finds joy in the offering?