Perhaps you find yourself in a place where you’ve concluded, “Our LGBTQIA+ siblings deserve full affirmation in the Church,” but you’re in a ministry context where that’s not the “official position” of the ministry with which you’re involved.
So, what do you do? Should you stay? Should you leave? If you’re in a lead role where you can directly affect that kind of change, how do you go about it without blowing everything up? If you’re in a more supportive, team role, what do steps look like for you? How can that transition from “non-affirming” to “affirming” happen in any sort of healthy way?
That was me for a long time. I had come to that conclusion, but I was the leader of large, contemporary church with about 2500 people who would attend weekend services where the official position was that we were “non-affirming.” We openly proclaimed we loved everyone and that all were welcome. We even had several people in the LGBTQIA+ community who called our church home. We didn’t preach against homosexuality but, in the spirit of “let’s give everyone space to slowly come along,” I just left it vague. I knew there were large contingencies of people within our church – if hard lines were ever drawn – who would be on opposite sides of that line. And being someone with a bent toward bringing people together despite differences, who loved the vision of unity, I felt like this was the only way to move forward in any sort of health.
But then, there were moments when vague didn’t cut it. For instance, those times when a same-sex couple, who called me their pastor, and who I loved, came and asked me to perform their wedding ceremony. I’d been around Church long enough to know THAT was one of those “hard lines.” I knew the Board I served under at the time would not approve. And that wasn’t just an assumption on my part, it had been made clear. So, in these moments, I had to choose sides. And I chose to submit to the authority I was under. Those times when I had to look couples in the eyes and say, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t perform your wedding ceremony, not because I’m not available, but because the church’s official position is that we can’t publicly affirm your relationship,” they linger as some of the largest regrets in my life because I piled onto the rejection they already carried. And I’d done so in the name of God – after publicly declaring that we welcomed and loved all people – and they simply took us at our word. But now, I was essentially communicating that those statements had asterisks, fine print we had kept hidden until they had taken a leap of faith to be incredibly vulnerable – trusting that they were just as much part of the family we had declared them to be.
These kind of moments started a fracturing in me. It felt like so much was at risk: my own job and the way I provided for my own family. Dozens of staff members, their families, how they put food on their own table, and paid for their own mortgages. People that I loved that I knew would leave the church and how those relationships would be broken forever. The multi-million dollar building project we were in the middle of and the potential financial ruin we’d face if we didn’t meet certain obligations. All of that felt like it was at stake. Yet still I knew what was right. Deep down, I knew what Jesus’ love looked like. But I lacked the necessary courage to lead through it. That’s the bottom line. This wasn’t about a story of me wrestling with faithfulness. This was a story of me wrestling with fear.
Finally, I remember taking a small step in a Board meeting one evening when the topic had come up yet again. “Here’s what I know to be true,” I said. “If one of my sons comes to me and tells me he’s fallen in love with another man, and asks me to perform the wedding, you need to know, I’m going to say, ‘Yes.’ I’m going to choose my kid over any job, interpretation of a Bible verse, or doctrinal position. I’m going to choose my kid. What I also know about me, is that once I’m willing to do that for my own kid, it won’t be long before I’m convicted that I would love anyone else’s kids the same way. And so, we don’t have to do this right now, but soon I’d like to be intentional about revisiting this issue, studying and praying together, and seeing where God leads us all. Because here’s what I believe to be true of all of you: what you want from me and what we want from all of us as leaders is to be people pursing Christ, listening to what Christ’s Spirit is inviting our particular church into right here and right now, not simply pursuing a set of doctrinal positions or ideas. So, we have to be open to the possibility of letting Christ’s Spirit change our minds on some things — especially when it comes down to how we best love actual people. So, that’s all I’m asking, is that we sincerely revisit the issue together.”
Everyone agreed to that process. But an off-handed comment made by a particularly influential Board member made it abundantly clear that after we went through the motions, we’d just end up back where we started: “At the end of the day we all know it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Apparently, God’s answer to our sincere prayers was going to be predetermined from the outset.
Then life happened. Building campaigns happened. Other crises happened. Still, I tried convincing myself that I would soon meet it head on: I’ll bring it back up once everything else calms down a bit. Now just isn’t a good time for the sake of the church.
The truth was, I was scared.
I wanted it to happen, but I wanted it to be easier. To be convenient. My white, American, heterosexual, Christian self hadn’t ever really had to realize the pain and costs of actually confronting injustice.
One day, one of my best friends was pushing me on the topic, and he relayed a conversation that he had with a gay friend who had asked about our church’s position. My friend shared how we, as a church, try to keep everyone at the Table, how we try to provide space for people’s minds slowly to be changed by learning to sit and do life with people who share different perspectives. How we’re trying to help people listen to each other and have compassion on one another.
And in response, his friend articulated, “You know, that sounds nice. But whenever you choose to stay in the middle on an issue of justice and equality, the only voices that benefit are the oppressive ones. You’re asking a vulnerable target group to minister to their oppressors by letting the oppressor set the terms and the timetable.”
And dang, that shook me to my core. This value of unity that I thought I was fighting for was really only the veneer of unity. The Jesus I followed stood with the oppressed and marginalized. He wasn’t trying to figure out how to make the religious elitists feel comfortable and appease both groups. He took sides.
My actions showed that I had chosen. And I had chosen wrong. And I knew it.
So, I wish I could say I led with great courage after that. But I didn’t. It would be over a year and a half before a pivotal moment came. My most trusted friends called me out for my hesitation and called me scared. They didn’t share the same burden of leadership and responsibility that I did, and so I tried to convince myself they just didn’t get it – that even though I agreed with them, the timing wasn’t right. But they were right. I was terrified. We had reached a tipping point and there was no way I could continue to hold everyone together. Factions were beginning to form and an already stressful season was compounded by close friends turning their backs on each other for arriving at supposedly forbidden conclusions about people we said we loved. My body gave out because of the stress. Panic attacks and anxiety overwhelmed me. I went to therapy. I was advised to take several weeks time off.
I finally went away, allowing a close circle of people to step up to keep the church afloat and give me a chance to retreat, to see if I could imagine a future leading there.
I knew there was more pain ahead, and a big part of me doubted I’d ever want to come back. I wanted an escape. I didn’t look for another job, but if one had been offered to me that paid enough, I very well may have taken it. But no magic parachute came my way.
During this season, my therapist repeatedly asked, “What do you want to do, Jonathan?” And I had no answer for that. I grew up in an evangelical culture where that seemed like such a selfish question to ask. I thought the only question I should ever ask was “God, what do you want me do?” But I wasn’t hearing God answer that, and so I felt lost.
One day, in the midst of all the wrestling, my wife said to me, “The only way I see you able to go back is if you resolve to lead a church that aligns with what you actually believe and what God has convicted you of. And whatever happens, even if we lose it all, I’ll still be here with you.”
That was the push – the reassurance – I needed.
So, I went back in.
The pain I feared that was waiting for me when I got back was worse than I imagined. And from there, it only escalated. Board members left. Staff members left. Long standing relationships ended. Pastors from other churches called our church financial lender and tried to get our building loan called.
Yet, in the midst of what felt like an active implosion, a handful of families looked each other in the eye and said, “If we all go down, then let’s go down fighting for what we believe to be true.”
So, in an effort to help the church survive, we had to lay off wonderful people who’d shouldered the ministry for years. The remaining staff took huge pay cuts, some pursuing second jobs, in order to navigate the financial obstacles of hundreds of people walking away in the midst of rumors and uncertainty.
When it came to the issue of gender and sexual orientation, we finally pulled the topic to the front burner. We had the necessary conversations about Jesus and the Scriptures. We collectively listened to where Christ was leading our church community. We listened to the wisdom of LGBTQIA+ Christians who had already blazed these trails we’d so long ignored. And together, as leaders, we came to the decision that we were publicly going to fully affirm and include our LGBTQIA+ siblings. One’s gender identity or sexual orientation would not hinder anyone from serving, leading, or teaching in any role in our church, nor would it hinder their ability to be fully affirmed and celebrated in their marriages.
Predictably, in response to this stated clarity, more fall out followed. More than half our church left, most without ever having a conversation or bothering to send an email. Some called us names. Labeled us heretics. Other pastors in town called me dangerous to the gospel. People that had trusted me as their pastor for 15 years, that I had sat and cried with in their most painful moments, celebrated with at their greatest joys, and raved to me about how I had helped them see Scripture and Jesus in beautiful ways through the years, just left.
Some would say, “Don’t take it personally.” But how could I not? What they were communicating was not just a rejection of our church, but a rejection of me, my family, the leaders I stood with. Of course, it was personal. I had to remind myself that they weren’t bad or mean people. But I was under the assumption that we actually were in community together; the assumption that the church and our relationship wasn’t simply a commodity that you silently sever yourself from because you disagree on an interpretation
So, that whole “don’t take it personally,” thing, I’ve never really been able to get there.
Still, now the truth was out there. And as gut wrenching as the relational fallout was on everyone, it was also incredibly freeing. For the first time in years, it felt honest.
Now obviously, the story wasn’t easy from there. There were plenty of difficult days ahead. To create a viable future, we sold the church building. We sold the land the church owned. We ripped the band-aid off and got publicly honest about some other doctrinal ideas that may have been assumed in our context, but that we found to be against the character of God and our study of Scripture. Ideas like eternal, conscious torment in a place called Hell, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement being the only way one can understand the cross. We began tackling White Supremacy and Christian Nationalism.
But some Board members stayed. Some Staff stayed. Some of the congregation stayed – all choosing to believe in who we were together in the world. They sacrificed. They gave. They encouraged. They found the vision for our kind of community worth fighting for. And the more clear we got about who we were, the more other like-minded people found us.
These days, we don’t have the same weekend attendance that we had before. But it’s a solid group of people. We have members of the LGBTQIA+ community included in every area of our leadership and their full participation makes us a better, more beautiful and healthy community. Together as a church, we still don’t know exactly what the next year or the next five years will look like, but we have clarity about who we are and the story we’re living out together. And it’s good.
Everyone has their own, unique journey in their personal transition from “non-affirming” to “affirming.” And the same is true for every church community.
We didn’t have any sort of map. No guide posts. No mentors. No practical advice on things to try or things to avoid. And it wasn’t because we were the first to make this journey. We weren’t. But the sense of isolation and fear made it seem like there was no one to reach out to and ask for help. So we just made it up as we went.
There were definitely things I wish I could get a do-over on, and there are others that I think we stumbled into that turned out to be helpful.
In that spirit, I want to offer a few questions that may be helpful if you’re feeling convicted about full inclusion and affirmation of the LGBTQIA+ community and are trying to figure out how, or if, to help lead your church there as well.
1. Is there a sincere openness to study, discuss, and wrestle through the issue among the key leadership in your church?
One of the things I share with people in pastoral counseling type sessions all the time is, “You have to start with ‘Do I want to?’ because I can’t create the want to. If you want to work on it, if you want to explore or learn, I’m happy to be as helpful as I can. But I can’t make you want to.”
The same is true here. I’m more than willing to walk through a process of discernment with leaders if they say something like, “I’m not there YET, but I’m open to learning more and discovering I could be wrong on this issue.” That’s humble and honest. And if that’s the posture of core, influential leaders in your church, then I think it may very well be worth your energy to walk through that process of discernment with them for a defined period.
Now, the reality is, I would like every church to become affirming immediately. I’m fully convicted that position produces the fruit of Christ’s Spirit and aligns with Jesus’ gospel. However, I also recognize it took me a while to get there. I wish it hadn’t. But I had a lot to unlearn and learn. So, as much as I want things to change immediately, I have to be willing to embrace a tension of both having compassion on others’ journeys while also not tolerating abuse in the name of comfortable pacing.
However, if there isn’t a sincere willingness to wrestle through this issue among key leadership, then frankly it may be best for you to move on. If the prevailing attitude is, “No. This is a closed matter. We don’t have to discuss it and we won’t. The Bible is clear on the issue,” then you may have to simply shake the dust off your feet and leave. Again, you can’t make someone want to.
But what you can say is, “This issue has become critically important to me. So, would you be willing to take the next 6-12 months to study, discuss, and prayerfully discern together how we’re going to move forward as a church community on this?” You’ll discover a lot of what you need to know by their response. And if you don’t discover it right away, you’ll have much more clarity on how to move forward personally at the end of that kind of process.
2. Is my main concern in directly confronting this issue making sure I still have a paycheck that can meet my basic needs and if applicable, those of my family?
If it is, there’s no shame from me. I get it. It’s very real. I think we just have to be willing to be gut-level honest with ourselves about it. If we refuse to pull that into the light, a lot of us will continue to find other reasons for pushing it off, remaining vague about it, or refusing to dive into it to discover truth for ourselves.
Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult for a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
I’m convinced this is one of the biggest obstacles for pastors here in the 21st century. Therefore, each of us would do well by being honest with ourselves and naming what is actually most true inside of us.
3. Where do I start if I want to try to help people mature in this area?
In my experience of having this conversation hundreds of times with people, the way that best helps someone move from “non-affirming” to “affirming” isn’t through shaming them or convincing them they’re not loving, it isn’t through scientific facts, it’s not by pointing out that Jesus doesn’t address it, or pointing out bad/questionable English translations of Hebrew and Greek words in the “clobber passages” used against the LGBTQIA+ community.
Now outside of ‘the shaming them that they’re not loving,’ the others can definitely have their place somewhere in the conversation.
However, I continually find that the best and most helpful place to start is with, “How do we view the Bible in an honest, healthy way? What’s the intent of the Bible, what role does it serve, and how does it work as a sacred collection of literature?” Repeatedly, this is what I find to be the main issue.
Because, if someone is locked into the evangelical, bumper-sticker framework of “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” it’s tough to get anywhere. It just becomes a war, a fruitless, Scripture kung-fu battle.
Rather, when you can help people see how people’s theology significantly changed throughout the pages of the Bible, that it was evolving and changing as they learned more – especially in how they treated others; when they can see how verses in the Bible contradict one another and how that’s not a bad thing – but instead it helps us better understand how and what they were learning in their particular contexts as they’re journeying with God – that’s what starts to free us to see things differently.
So, depending on where your congregation is on this, perhaps start there. Start with teaching how the Bible actually works. That sets the foundation for so many other critically, important conversations.
4. How can I listen to and expose my church to different voices that are affirming and members of the LGBTQIA+ community?
Enter a season of listening and inviting others, committed to the process, to listen. Then, listen a lot. Ask members of the LGBTQIA+ community if they’d be willing to share their stories with you. Assure them you’re not looking for them to prove anything to you. You’re not wanting to argue, all you want to do is listen. If that’s not possible, you can find plenty of stories online. However you do it, listen to their stories. Listen to their experiences with God. Listen to how they’ve been wounded by Christians and churches. Listen. Then listen some more.
Additionally, when you select curriculum, or videos, or recommend books for your church to read, make sure to include voices that are affirming. Include authors and pastors that are members of the LGBTQIA+ community as well as those who are publicly affirming of the LGBTQIA+ community. The thing is, that particular sermon, article, or book may have nothing specifically to say about sexual orientation or inclusion. However, it allows the church to be exposed to different voices that they can learn from, be inspired by, and begin to trust. Then, when you decide to publicly address the issue, you’ll have a collection of allied voices to point to that your church is used to hearing from that isn’t just your own voice.
5. Who do I need to apologize to?
If you’ve been non-affirming or have had to support a non-affirming position in the past, it’s very likely you’ve hurt people along the way. I know I did. And so part of that process was talking face to face with people I knew I had hurt where it went something like, “I need to let you know how incredibly sorry I am. I can try to tell you all the different reasons of why it took me so long to get there, and why I thought those were valid reasons, but I don’t think that’s helpful because the bottom line is I was wrong. I didn’t have the courage to do what was right sooner. And I know I hurt you in the process. I’m so very sorry. You’re under no obligation to, but I hope someday you may be able to forgive me. But regardless, I want you to know I’m no longer going to sit on the fence on this issue.”
I made those apologies privately to individuals and also shared my deep regret to our entire church publicly. Frankly, I don’t think this is some part of a formula to follow to move people from A to Z, but I simply think it’s healthy — even if just for your own heart.
I’ll leave you with this last thing for now: Sometimes when leaders or churches make this step to become fully affirming of the LGBTQIA+ community, and we endure whatever costs that come with that, there can be this feeling of arrogance that starts to creep in. That we did something bold. That we stood up against oppressive voices and paid a steep cost to do so like we’re some type of martyr. That we should be handed our flowers or given a congratulatory pat on the back.
Listen, here’s what any of us on this journey have to remind ourselves of — that’s bullshit. What we’re doing in actuality is catching up to the absolute bare minimum of how every human being should be treated. There’s no pride or arrogance in that. We’ve contributed to systems and theologies that have degraded, shamed, and marginalized actual human beings and done so in the name of their Creator.
Our attitude is best marked by a humble spirit of repentance.
So, may all of us who walk this journey do so with deep humility, an awareness of the grief and pain we may have contributed to, and a resolve and confidence that none of us are going to look back and ever regret doing what we know in our core is the right, loving, thing to do. The thing Jesus did, and does – love your neighbor as yourself. And best we can, may we make sure no one else on this journey walks it alone.
Jonathan Bow has served as the Lead Pastor of Crosspointe Church in Cary, NC since 2005. In his 26 years of pastoral leadership, he’s served in small, rural church settings as well as large, city/suburban settings. He has led Crosspointe through several significant transitions in terms of theology, strategy, and human equality and justice issues. He also coaches other ministry leaders through Pastors For Normal People. Jonathan loves any sport with a ball and spending time with his wife, Adrianne, and two college-aged sons.