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Nuancing Church Clarity

A new website launched last week called churchclarity.com, and already there is a lot of buzz.  Simply said, this group is looking for churches to be clear about their policies regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion.  As they say on their home page, “We believe that ambiguity is harmful and clarity is reasonable.”  Through crowdsourcing, they want to create a database that will score local churches on the clarity of their policies as represented on their public websites.

One thing this group has done is to invite people to become advocates for their work.  And when I heard about it, I signed up.  This is why:  Over the last 15 years, I have heard so many deeply painful stories about LGBTQ+ Christians who invested their heart, their time, their talents, and their treasure into a church that seemed to be warmly welcoming of them.  At some point, sometimes months down the road or even years down the road, it finally became clear that the warm welcome wasn’t the whole story. One dear friend was kicked off the projection team because he had become personally convinced that God’s love invited him to be open to a same-sex relationship – even though he was still single at the time.  I’ve seen others lose their faith after a traumatic “bait and switch” experience in the church.  I have seen time and time again that over-promising LGBTQ+ inclusion without explaining the limits (that a church might not even want or like) is completely unfair to LGBTQ+ people and causes a lot of harm.  That’s why I think it is so important for a church to be clear.

At the same time (because anyone who knows me, knows that I love to live in the “both / and”) I am working with a lot of churches that are really trying to find their way.  And while some would say that a site like churchclarity.com puts pressure on churches, I don’t think that pressure is very helpful in many situations. The churches I’m working with have leadership teams who are deeply wrestling with how to move forward in a wise and discerning way, in a manner that won’t do spiritual violence to LGBTQ+ folks – and won’t hurt other folks in their congregations either by pushing people past a place of readiness at a pace that does harm.

In a recent blog post, churchclarity.com articulated what they are NOT assessing:

  1. We are not scoring Church Culture. Whether a church is “loving and friendly” or “hostile” to LGBTQ people is a culture question. A non-affirming church could very well have a friendly, welcoming posture towards the queer community; moreover, an affirming church could still be passively uncomfortable with queer people. Culture is complex. This is not  “Yelp” or “Glassdoor” for churches. Our scores should not be taken as evaluations of a church’s particular culture.

  2. We are not scoring Church Tolerance. How much a church tolerates different theological views within its congregation differs from church to church and does not correlate with our policy-categories. There are non-affirming and affirming churches that allow a diversity of theological views on LGBTQ people within their congregation and leadership, and there are non-affirming and affirming churches that basically enforce a homogeneous theological view within their body. Our scores should not be taken as evaluations of Church Tolerance.

  3. We are not scoring Church Theology. We acknowledge that LGBTQ theology is complex and each church has their own particular take on how to interpret Romans or Genesis, the exact hermeneutical approach to adopt, etc. There are tons of books and literature that represent the entire spectrum and unpack the theological nuances. At the same time, while theology is complex, policy is straightforward. “Will you officiate a same-sex wedding?” is a question with a “Yes” or “No” answer. “Can a trans person apply to be a pastor at your church?” is similar. Churches already have a response to these policy questions, even if the response is, “We are actively discerning this question.” So aside from actively discerning churches, every other church does actively enforce a policy. And we believe it is reasonable to be clear about what that policy is.

Some of the churches I work with would fit the category called, “Actively Discerning” about which churchclarity.com says, “The score for identifying churches who are openly and proactively contemplating their LGBTQ+ policy. Publicly acknowledging this process is an example of delivering clarity.”

Many of the churches I work with are working through the culture and tolerance questions that churchclarity.com acknowledges they do not assess – but I would assert are really important matters.  It certainly matters to many LGBTQ+ people.

In my consulting work with churches, I talk about being energized by both our priestly and prophetic roles.  Our priestly role means we want to bring as many in the community together in unity, common ground, and shared commitments as possible – recognizing that there will still be diversity among us. We want to be attuned to where people are at and ensure they are able to process and understand what the church is articulating about LGBTQ+ inclusion.  Our prophetic role raises questions of urgency, of justice, of harm.  If LGBTQ+ people are being hurt by our church, we need to act to ensure the harm does not continue.  If it looks like a congregation is going to continue to be diverse in its convictions about same-sex relationships, then how can they articulate that clearly so that LGBTQ+ people can discern whether that is a community they want to invest in?

Is there a way to capture the nuance of difference – managing the polarity of both cultivating safety for LGBTQ+ people and safety for diverse convictions? 

Many churches I work with are part of larger denominational bodies that have very clear policies regarding marriage and ordained office. At a local congregational level, there may be a genuine desire to cultivate a deep sense of belonging for their LGBTQ+ adherents and generous space for the reality of different theological perspectives in a manner that does not harm, coerce, silence, or oppress one another.  How can these churches address the call for clarity without being pressured or pigeon-holed unfairly?

I encourage churches to draft ethos statements that capture the culture and tolerance questions that churchclarity.com acknowledges they do not assess.  Here are a couple of examples:

Our Generous Space ethos:

This is a Generous Space group, a community of people who want to know and follow Jesus, and know and love one another. There is room for you here, no matter your sexuality, gender expression, or relationship status; no matter your convictions, interpretation of Scripture, or theology; no matter how vibrant your faith, audacious your questions, or persistent your doubt.

We do not always agree, and we are not a perfect community, yet we seek the unity for which Jesus prayed. We are committed to dialogue, listening to and learning from each other, maintaining confidentiality, and pursuing reconciliation when needed. We want this to be a safe space, but we don’t always expect it to be a comfortable space, because we know that constructive tension is necessary for growth.  May God use our time and friendship to nurture a community marked by humility, hospitality, mutuality and justice.

From Highlands Church:

Married, divorced and single here, it’s one family that mingles here. Conservative and liberal here, we’ve all gotta give a little here. Big and small here, there’s room for us all here. Doubt and believe here, we all can receive here. LGBTQ and straight here, there’s no hate here Woman and man here, everyone can here. Whatever your race here, for all of us grace here. In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us and all of us, let us live and love without labels!

In addition to these ethos statements, however, local congregations would do well to consider an additional statement that is easily located on their public website.  Example:

XYZ Church exercises submission to the ABC denomination that maintains a marriage policy restricting clergy to officiate only weddings between one man and one woman and has, therefore, closed the ordained positions of pastor and elder to those in same-sex relationships.  XYZ Church recognizes the diversity of interpretive conclusions on these matters in our midst, and is committed to welcoming all people to belong and contribute to the fullest extent that submission to our denomination’s policies allows. We acknowledge the tension this creates and lament the ways this may cause harm to our LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ.

As I have opportunity to hear from LGBTQ+ Christians, I know that this will be unsatisfactory to some – perhaps to many.  Given their past experiences, current theological convictions, and/or relationship status, only a congregation with a fully affirming position on same-sex marriage will feel like a safe place to invest their time, talent, and treasure.  In other situations, perhaps where there are no affirming churches, or when a person is committed to celibacy or in a mixed orientation marriage, or when it is important to an individual to continue to worship in a tradition that formed and shaped their faith, LGBTQ+ people will have the opportunity to decide if that is a place where they want to connect.

I know the agonized prayers of church leaders seeking to navigate the complexities of theological difference and the longing to be a safe place of belonging for LGBTQ+ people.  Feeling like there is more pressure to articulate a clear “either/or” statement is the last thing that would seem to be helpful.  What I think is crucial to remember is that a lack of clarity causes harm to LGBTQ+ people.  So doing the hard work, taking the risks, and seeking to communicate as honestly and as clearly as possible is part of living out the desire to serve LGBTQ+ people well.

If Generous Space Ministries can serve your congregation in this process, do contact us.  There aren’t easy or quick answers, but there are thoughtful, wise, and discerning steps forward to take.

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