The Mainline Protestant churches of the United States have been a battle ground for the LGBTQAI+ community in recent weeks. Between the decision of the global delegation of the United Methodist Church to actively eject queer rostered leaders and queer affirming churches and the stumbling efforts of the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to create a sexual ethics document for its own rostered leaders (previous iterations of which were written specifically to marginalize queer Lutherans seeking rostered ministry positions in the church) – millions of queer Christians are genuinely asking themselves “Where can I go?” As her contribution for Women’s History Month Rev. Emmy Kegler, a pastor in Minneapolis, has some profoundly useful suggestions for anyone – pastors, lay leaders, even sympathetic friends – who want make their sanctuaries and their lives a refuge during this trying time for the LGBTQ community in the Protestant church in the US. So please read, comment, and share – our queer family is hurting and we need to help them.
Francisco Herrera, M.Div – LSTC PhD student and Interim Blog Editor
In this article, I use the word “we” to encompass the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. I do this to describe the reality for the community as a whole, not for each individual within it. I do not, for example, belong to the circle of LGBTQ+ people with religious trauma, but I believe it is my responsibility to carry their stories for and with them.
In ten years pursuing ordained ministry in the ELCA as an openly queer woman, I’ve had many fellow pastors and church leaders ask: How do I make LGBT people feel welcome in my church?
I am tempted to answer: Are you sure you want to?
I don’t doubt your sincerity – I promise. I only doubt your readiness for how complex our spiritual needs can be.
Some of us need to be welcomed as we are.
We want to be welcomed – simple as that. We want our relationships celebrated and our children welcomed. We want to join the women’s ministry and chaperone the youth lock-ins. “All are welcome,” your website states, not realizing how many places we’ve been where “welcome” is meaningless. We’ve known too many places, churches or otherwise, with “welcome” eliding into “welcomeexcept…”
At the majority of churches in America — including over ninety percent of ELCA churches, where there is no official statement of welcome — we live in fear of being welcomeexcept. We will need you to tell us what your “welcome” means, so that we may know if we are or not. Become a Reconciling in Christ church. Get a score on Church Clarity. Drop your pin on GayChurch.org.
Many welcoming and affirming churches end here. But our spiritual needs do not.
Some of us need to go beyond the L and G of LGBT.
The ELCA’s sexuality studies have focused on the few clobber verses about same-gender sexual activity. There are no official resources on bisexuality and pansexuality (though there are more bi and pan people than gay and lesbian), or on transgender and non-binary people (though religious arguments against them are entirely different as are the social implications).
We need to go beyond whether you’ll celebrate our marriage. We need to know if you will hear “pansexual” and make jokes about kitchenware. We need to know if someone will tell us to “just pick one already” or mutter “so are you straight now?”.
We need you to not assume that bisexuality means we’re having threesomes or cheating on our spouses.
We need you not to worry if we never fall in love or get married.
We will write our name on our nametag, and we need you to not ask what our “real” name is. We need you to state your pronouns too. We need you to not argue with us about the semantics of “they”. We need you to just say “sorry” when you misgender us, and not go into a three-minute monologue on how hard you’re trying.
We need a gender-neutral bathroom. With a changing table.
Some of us need to change the church.
We come bearing gifts. We’re going to need you to make room.
We raise an eyebrow when you invite “all sisters and brothers,” because we’ve seen that language exclude intersex, trans, and gender-non-conforming people. We will suggest “siblings in Christ” or “family of God” and when you point out that “beloveds” just doesn’t rhyme with “water” as well as “daughters” does, we are going to rewrite all the verses. We’ve learned a lot about gender and we’re going to ask some questions. Is God male? What about biblical metaphors where God is female, or both, or neither?
We are in amazing, life-changing, heart-transforming, spiritually-nourishing relationships and we expect to see that reflected. We need a church who can join us in our expanding minds and hearts, who will walk with us in experiencing the beauty of a diverse creation.
Some of us need to heal.
We come with scars – a lot of them. We’re coming out of fundamentalism and biblical literalism, where the poetry of scripture was turned into a weapon against our very selves. We’re going to be irritable or hypervigilant or isolated. We’re living with religious trauma.
We wince when you easily toss out words like “purity” and “righteousness.” We aren’t consoled by the proclamation that of the entire forgiveness of all our sins. We’re not trying to make your job harder; we’re just used to the grace you think you’re bearing turned quickly into a cudgel.
We need a tender hand and a lot of room to flail (spiritually or otherwise). We need more than prayer to deliver us from anxiety and sleeplessness; we need you to know what therapists in your area have specialized in LGBT identity and religious trauma and work on a sliding scale. (And if there aren’t any, we need you to know about The Christian Closet.)
Some of us need to act.
Our minority status as LGBTQ+ people has connected us to others in ways we may not have been otherwise. We white suburban girls are suddenly faced with the fact that we get policed very differently than lesbians who happen to be women of color. We who know what it’s like to answer awkward questions about partners and sex with our health care provider are absorbing the testimony of disabled or chronically ill people. We’re dealing with sexual assault and systemic poverty and the school-to-prison pipeline because in connecting with others who are LGBTQ+, we’re witnessing stories unlike our own, but happening to people too much like us to ignore.
We need to get out of the pews and into the streets. We’re going to need you to come with.
Most of us have no idea this is going on.
We don’t show up on the first Sunday we cross your threshold with a sign saying “I’m going to question how you address God” or “I just want to baptize my kid.” When we seek out a welcoming and affirming congregation, we don’t know what we’re actually looking for. We might belong to one or some or all of the above groups, or none, or one that I haven’t included. And while members of LGBTQ+ community can dwell in some or all of these groups at once, there can also be conflict between them. Do we keep the Men’s Bible Study and make sure trans men are invited (meeting the need for welcome), or do we do away with gender-based groups completely?
We’re a mess.
And we need you to know it. We’ve been hurt and we’ve hurt others, and we’ll get hurt again (probably when we least expect it) and we’ll hurt others (maybe, hopefully unintentionally, you), and we’ll change our minds about one thing and grow into something else, and we’ll be beautiful and broken children of God like everyone else but we have come in your door with a lot of needs you may never have seen before.
And we desperately need God. Not because we need to be turned away from our Lifestyles of SinTM but because we are dying of hunger for the sweetness of divine welcome, of being acknowledged as we are when we don’t fit in boxes, to follow the Spirit to the edges of the church and further out, to have our broken hearts bound up and our captive minds released from self-hate, to find in our discipleship the strength to work in a hurting and needy world.
Are you ready?
Emmy Kegler is the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Northeast Minneapolis and the founder and editor of Queer Grace. She is also a co-leader of the Queer Grace Community, an outreach ministry by and to LGBTQ+ Christians in the Twin Cities. She lives in Saint Paul with her wife Michelle and their two dogs and cat. Her first book, One Coin Found: How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins will be published this April.