Journeying With Messy Middles

What do you do when you’re a Queer Rev and most of the churches in your region are not fully affirming? Most people want to divide churches into neat and orderly categories of “non-affirming” and “affirming” but I live in a world of very messy middles. I live in a world where churches are not usually overtly hostile to LGBTQ people, but the vast majority of the churches that I engage also do not meet my personal definition of an affirming church.

Here is how I personally define an affirming church.

  1. The Church clearly states that is LGBTQ affirming on its website.
  2. The Church has formally engaged a denominational discernment process and has intentionally decided to call itself an LGBTQ affirming congregation
  3. The Church has an active interest in ministering to LGBTQ people and they have a dedicated ministry to and for LGBTQ people.
  4.  LGBTQ people are allowed to engage at every level of life and leadership in the church with no restrictions.
  5. LGBTQ people have the ability to get married on church grounds and with full approval of the church session.
  6. The church advocates for LGBTQ justice issues at the local, state, and national level
  7. The church shows up at LGBTQ events, fosters dialogue with the LGBTQ community and goes out of its way to make itself visible as an LGBTQ affirming church to the surrounding community.

As I surveyed my region, the vast majority of churches in my region do not meet my requirement for LGBTQ affirming churches. Indeed, only a handful of churches in my region actually DO meet my requirement for an LGBTQ affirming church.

As a queer Rev, this was a major defining issue for me. What should I do? Should I uproot my whole life and move somewhere else for new opportunities and new churches that might meet my definition of LGBTQ affirming? These churches exist. They exist all over the country. Financially, that just wasn’t feasible for me. I have a full time job working for the military and I only minister part time. I can’t hang my financial fate on something so unstable.

As another alternative, knowing that the churches around me do not meet my personal definition of “safe churches” or “affirming churches” should I sit on the sidelines, or just throw in the towel on my ministerial vocation? Should I quit preaching altogether? I couldn’t bear the thought of this either. I had worked too hard and worked for too long for my ministry credentials. I had studied. I had trained.  I had felt this calling so clearly in my life, and I decided I’m not willing to sacrifice it because I happen to be queer and most of the churches around me happen not to be LGBTQ affirming churches. So I’ve had to learn how to navigate my world in new ways.

Most people read the headlines and see churches become LGBTQ affirming with very little thought about the journey a church actually takes or the journey the people in the church actually take to arrive at this place of affirmation. Sometimes there is a spirit of welcome that starts with a few congregants and spreads quickly throughout the whole church, and churches change stances seemingly over night. Sometimes people come out and it spontaneously changes the course of the church. Sometimes this is a painstaking and long suffering process that takes years or decades as people are influenced by meeting queer people, one person at a time, one relationship at a time.  Ultimately, most churches exist on a spectrum somewhere between an instant “aha” moment and “decades.”

It’s here that I live. In this incredible tension. In this world of “messy middles.”  Most of the churches I engage would say that LGBT people are welcome to attend (and they are.) But somewhere between “welcome to sit invisibly in the pews” and fully valued, fully cherished, fully equal is where they fall short. They stop somewhere short of affirming the full humanity and spiritual worth of LGBTQ people. And I won’t lie. I pay a hefty emotional price to live and function and minister in this world. The price I pay is the price of steep vulnerability. I carry a tender and vulnerable edge into most faith spaces. The price I pay is that a lot of people don’t quite understand or don’t quite know how to navigate the world that I live in with its complexity, with it’s fluidity, with its motion. The price I pay is often a price of deep emotional exhaustion.

What on earth do you do when you walk into a sanctuary and wonder if people knew this facet of your identity, would they still want you here? And what on earth do you do when you suspect that their answer might be no?

The answer I decided upon was show up anyway. Let go of that which I can’t control and keep offering the gifts I have.

These are questions that I have journeyed with for the past few years. Every queer ministry leader, every queer congregant, every queer person might have a different answer to these questions, but here is how I unpacked some of these questions for myself.

1. I would draw a distinction between a “personal closet” and a “systemic barrier.” A personal closet is a fear based internal response that a queer person has to some person, group, or institution. A “systemic barrier” is an outside force that seeks to oppress or silence or ignore LGBTQIA identities or specific identities (in the case of bi erasure in LGBT spaces).

2. I can walk with, journey with, and engage my own feelings of fear, my own personal experiences of shame, my own personal closets and the people/places & things that trigger them.  But I am absolutely powerless to control/manipulate/change/topple and demand that “systemic barriers” come down.  Acknowledging this truth–“I am powerless” was the first key to my regaining and restoring any semblance of my health and sanity. A good leader knows that you cannot demand respect, authority, leadership.  People offer these things freely to you or they don’t. They think highly of you or they don’t. They respect your leadership or they don’t. You don’t get to own other people’s responses. A good leader knows that you cannot lead people/groups/organizations to a place that they absolutely do not want to go.

I am powerless in all things except one. I can offer genuine friendship and relationship to people, and when I’m invited to do so I can share my experiences, and I can share my story. And I can be stubborn enough in my resolve to keep showing up. But always I’m at the mercy of those doing the inviting.
3. The one area where I am not powerless is related to setting boundaries. I can set good boundaries. I can set boundaries that seek to keep me safe, and that seek to keep me healthy.

here are a couple of my boundaries:

-I will not take a dedicated staff position at a church that isn’t fully LGBTQ affirming. And that means I may not be taking another staff role for a very long time. There’s an arm’s length relationship that necessarily needs to exist between me and any church that would hire me in some manner but that would not treat me as fully equal in dignity/worth/value as their heterosexual congregants.

-Even in non-affirming church spaces, I share my bisexual identity with every Pastor and every church staff that invites me to preach. It doesn’t matter whether the church identifies as evangelical or progressive, non-affirming, LGBTQ affirming, or somewhere in between hostility/affirmation spectrum. I do not pastor any of these churches, so I am ultimately not the one who has the power to set the theology for these churches or drive their mission/vision.  But transparency is important to me. I want the people hiring me to know who I am.

-Related to the above, I will not allow myself to become entangled in a system in a manner that this system has financial, emotional, or spiritual power to silence or oppress me. I may choose to preach as a guest preacher and my topic of the day may not be LGBTQ related, and the church may not be LGBTQ affirming, but I have made a calculated and thoughtful decision and I have asserted my own agency to accept these invitations, and I do this on a case-by-case basis.

-I will not allow my engagement in one non-affirming space to dictate what I can or cannot do related to LGBTQ advocacy in my surrounding community, at national events, or to dictate how visible I want to be as a leader for causes that move my heart and mind and spirit.

-likewise, when it comes to LGBTQ advocacy, I will not engage LGBT spaces that don’t want to honor or make visible the gifts I have as a visible bisexual leader, as a distinctively bisexual voice.

-When I am not preaching, I have a very high standard for what “LGBTQ affirming” means and I will not personally worship in churches that do not meet my standard for safety and LGBTQ affirmation.

-I look for opportunities to nudge all spaces a step or two forward when I can. Everywhere I preach, I ask the question as to whether I am invited to bring my partner so we can worship as a family. And that by itself is a revolutionary question revealing to me and to the inviting church where they stand on LGBT ppl. I get a range of responses from “no” to “would you mind saying that she is your friend?”—to which I respond emphatically, “No. Because she is not just my friend. She is my partner and to say otherwise dishonors her role in my life.”  And then I have pastors of churches that are in a middle space, and they are scared, and they are tentative, but they invite me to bring my partner along. Often the greatest acts of revolution are the smallest ones. In the case of my partner and I the greatest act of revolution is just showing up together as a family. When we are met by a tentative or uncertain yes by a church, we deal with our vulnerability, join hands, and we step into a world of unknowns where anything could happen to us, where we cannot predict the response to us.

-For my peers in ministry, I also have resources at my disposal: Bible Studies, Books, Podcasts, Talks, Speakers, My Own Speaking Event—all of these things sit at my fingertips readily available when peers request them.

-Everywhere I preach I try to bring the essence of who I really am into that space while meeting that congregation where they happen to be. I try to bring a message that is uniquely for that particular context, to grow that context forward, and to challenge that congregation to take a baby step toward courage. The sermon I preach in an LGBTQ affirming progressive mainline protestant congregation might be very different than a sermon I preach in a Presbyterian church with evangelical sensibilities, but both of them will authentically represent me.

As I’m fond of saying, the best step forward is any step forward, because people are often so paralyzed by a fear of change, that they choose to die instead of taking even that first crucial small step.

So what does all this look like “in practice.”  As a guest preacher, I don’t have the ability to shape long range goals/plans/theology for a church.  There’s a lot of fluidity in the churches that I engage. There’s a lot of motion. My goal is to woo them, and invite them to take a baby step in a new direction.

In churches that have their first female pastor, it might mean that I lift up examples of women in leadership in my sermons. In churches that aren’t quite sure where they stand or haven’t “picked a side” in hostile church debates over LGBTQ issues or politics–it might mean that I give them tools and cast vision for engaging the world in a different way. It might mean that I haven’t been given the permission of church staff to come out in the pulpit, but that in individual relationships in that church or in small groups, I can speak freely with congregants and share my life and plant and sow seeds of LGBT affirmation that they are invited to harvest.

Here’s an example of me preaching to a “middle place” church.

So this is my appeal. We need middle space people, and we need people who have a calling to encourage, affirm, and support middle space people.

Middles can be stuck spaces, but they can also be the spaces where different voices finally come together for the first time and things really start to get moving.

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