It's Not You. It's the Institution.

When church institutions make exclusionary policies, the harm ripples out far beyond that denomination and its congregations. Re-opening wounds and reinforcing a deep sense of alienation and rejection, LGBTQ+ people get blindsided by such pronouncements again and again. Below, Chad Lucas, one of our beloved GS community members writes about his experience with his denomination and offers a message of comfort and hope to all those hurting from church-inflicted harm.

My queerly beloved friends,

If you're hurt by Vineyard Canada's recent decision to enshrine its policies banning same-sex marriage and ordination for LGBTQ+ believers, I see you and I share your pain.

For those of us with Vineyard backgrounds, this didn't come from nowhere. Vineyard USA already went this route. Vineyard Canada has been unofficially non-affirming for years, though communication and practice have varied across churches. Now it's official. Churches and pastors have essentially been asked to adapt or leave. It's all couched in friendly terms, but the line is drawn.

It's not a surprise, but it hurts. We hoped for better.

Decisions like this often hurt even when it’s not your denomination. Maybe you’ve survived your own version of this story: you find a “welcoming” church where people wear jeans and serve coffee and play drums and use terms like relational and family, then eventually you learn the rules on which family members get to sit at the main table.

Maybe your story is like mine. I grew up in a Vineyard and I'm grateful for much of what it gave me: intimate worship; Holy Spirit encounters; the language (if not always the practice) of “everyone gets to play.” And I gave back. Joined the worship team at 15, led youth group for years, served in leadership locally and regionally.

But I knew by my early teen years that I was not a proper heterosexual Christian boy. I didn't have the language then to call myself bisexual, and I buried everything for years out of fear and shame. When I finally told church leaders, they assured me they loved me and tried to fix me. It wasn't full-blown conversion therapy, but the intent was the same.

The short version: it hurt more than it helped. Many of you know this story.

In my case, I eventually fell in love with my wonderful wife, Shawna. We're happily married with four amazing kids, and that let me “pass” enough to stay in the inner circle. But I also eventually discovered that contrary to what the church taught me, being queer is a good and beautiful gift.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Many of you have lived the next chapter: saying that out loud often comes with a cost.

Maybe you've had people call you biased, or imply that you've upset the relational nature of the family, or grow angry when you ask them to face the human implications of their theology.

Maybe you've heard lines like I'm tired of being made to feel like the bad guy.

Maybe you were asked to leave a ministry or leadership role. Maybe you felt compelled, as I did, to lay down your roles because you can't keep operating in the gap between the story being told and the story you're actually living.

Many of you have lost more than I have. I'm so sorry.

Maybe Vineyard Canada's decision brings a scrap of relief that at least they're saying the quiet part out loud now. Maybe you're frustrated that it still comes wrapped in florid, institution-centered language that minimizes your experience. Either way, I know it hurts.

Here's the main reassurance I can offer you, beloved: it's not about you. This doesn't reflect one iota on your worth and beauty before God.

It's not even about the people who made the decision. Not on a personal level, anyway. It's about how they uphold the institution.

I wrote this after the decision went public:

The force of inertia is a powerful thing in any religious institution where the leadership is almost exclusively straight, white and over 40. That's not a judgement on individuals; it's a reality of systems. Even if everyone involved is a lovely person, even if they promise they've listened and learned from marginalized people who aren't at the table, it's almost impossible for a privileged majority not to prioritize its own perceived self-interest. Institutions don't change if decision-makers don't change.

Make no mistake, Vineyard Canada is an evangelical institution—one branch of an international institution. Contemporary-casual churches often inflict unique harms upon queer people by insisting they're not institutional even as they behave like institutions. Vineyard is no exception here. For many of us, the most heartbreaking parts of this process were the “family conversations” where we shared our pain and people told us they’re sorry and they know how much damage the church has done, yet they stayed the course for the institution.

The 2,100-word statement released earlier this month hints at this paradox in its impossible acrobatics of trying to have it both ways. There are token acknowledgements that non-heterosexual orientations are not inherently sinful and inclusive theology is not heresy—yet you can't be married or ordained if you live out a non-heterosexual orientation, and it's not “practically viable” to allow inclusive churches under the Vineyard name.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A plainer translation: we can’t say for certain you’re wrong, but you don’t fit the institution.

The statement acknowledges that national leaders have left many questions unanswered about queer participation in local churches, and it provides no insight at all for trans and nonbinary people. A longer document is supposed to follow eventually. Many of us will keep pressing the national body and local churches to be honest and clear about what LGBTQ+ believers can and can't do in a Vineyard.

For queer people, if the grief and disenchantment feel raw right now, that's OK. Take care of yourselves, and each other. Don't let the language of the statement burden your spirit—after all, it was written to straight church leaders, not to you. In Vineyard Canada's deliberations on gender and sexuality, actual queer members have been peripheral at best. This, too, is the way of the institution.

For allies, now is a great time to remind the denomination of the proven harms that come with policies of exclusion and urge it to live up to its emphasis on Kingdom justice. Inertia is powerful, but it is not invincible. Institutions change slowly and reluctantly, but change is not impossible. The Spirit is usually doing her work on the margins.

If you feel discouraged, beloved, remember: It's not you. It's the institution.

Chad Lucas is a writer, musician and communications professional with a passion for equitable and inclusive communities. His first novel for young readers will be published in spring 2021. He lives with his family near Halifax.

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