As Presbyterians, we are facing changing understandings of how we minister to and with one another. We want our churches to be faithful to Christ and loving of all God’s children. Every congregation has within its family those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), and yet, many congregations experience a wide variety of opinions about the role of LGBT people in their church.
With differing opinions, often comes conflict. Trying to avoid these issues is no longer a possibility for pastors or members. For many people involved, these issues are very personal. A child of the congregation declares his/her sexual orientation. A same sex couple wants to be married or have their children baptized in their church home. A couple divorces due to an emerging understanding of their sexual orientations.
What can we, as spiritually alive people, do?
The first commandment of Christ is to “love one another as I have loved you.” Whatever we do, it begins, proceeds, and ends with the quality of love that Christ has for us. In that light, I commend these five spiritual steps for churches struggling to find peace on these issues.
Prepare and get to know LGBT people, their families, and their experiences in the church.
Whether you are the pastor or member of the congregation, approach the issue in a non-anxious manner that models spiritual maturity for the congregation. Don’t wait until some incident arises. Get ahead of the possibilities. Pursue a church setting in which differences of opinion and understanding are accepted as normal. There is not just one right way and one truth about many things in this life. Offer some discussions or study a good book or take on the issue through something like the recent movie, The Imitation Game.
Pray for understanding and compassion for all.
Add prayers for all people in your personal and public life. Do not just pray for LGBT folks or those who strongly disapprove as though it were their problem and they should fix it. Many parents have felt that they are the source of an LGBT child and have done something terribly wrong. They fear that their church will reject their children. They need your prayers.
Pray for those who are struggling with their sexual identity and those who are troubled by those with such struggles. When we pray for others, we often side against them hoping that God will “make them better.” When we pray with others, we join them before the Lord. Walk hand in hand to the Lord with each person or persons in your prayers, even those you may not love right now.
Study and consider the stories of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus takes a compassionate approach to those who have been socially and religiously ostracized. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, is given the honor of hosting Jesus at his home rather than the mayor or other social elites. The Syro-Phoenician woman, who is not a Jew, is given high praise for her faith. The Samaritan woman at the well is the very person Jesus chooses to bring the living water to and makes her his evangelist in Shechem.
The poor and unemployed, sinners by definition of the day, are the ones to whom Jesus brings food and the good news. Jesus does not discriminate against any of the groups that the religious and social leadership of his time called “sinners.” When we are faced with difficult faith questions, we will always do well to follow the example of Jesus.
Meditate and give God space to speak to your heart and your life.
Spend time reflecting on what you know about LGBT people, about the life and practices of Jesus, and about the people in your congregation and community.
Visualize them in terms of their hopes and struggles. Stop and listen for the voice of God in the lives of all these people. Stop the automatic responses that have been inculcated by the culture.
Mediate and listen with compassion, understanding, and empathy to people of all persuasions so that they know they are loved even when we disagree.
Allowing people to feel their own feelings is important. Rarely do people simply change their minds and hearts in the middle of a discussion or argument. We all take some time to reflect alone. It is then important for people to learn to hear others in the same manner in which they have been heard.
Underlying almost all of our prejudices is fear. We fear that we have done something wrong, or that our way of life will be diminished, or that we will be judged for not defending our traditions.
Mediation is not coming to a resolution that some are right and some are wrong. Mediation, when it is practiced with spiritual love, brings persons to see with the eyes of the other. Spiritual life is about seeking to see others with the eyes of God and to see ourselves in the love of God.
Bill Sadler is an honorably retired Presbyterian pastor who served 25 congregations, most of them as interim pastor. Utilizing his Ph.D. in organizational communications and conflict resolution from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has served as a conflict mediator to churches, businesses and groups for the past forty years.