The 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-gender marriages presented a challenge to Christian churches; they now must choose whether they are conducted in local church buildings and by their clergy.
Adaptive leadership is necessary as the emotional system of the church will be strained by such discussions.
I studied the processes that four medium-sized, Protestant churches went through in making their decisions for my doctor of ministry dissertation.
My research goal was not to persuade, but rather to help the process of decision-making be a constructive one in which “community” is built up by sharing the approach of four congregations.
The four churches studied all had “congregational” (interdependent) polity, with memberships between 100 and 400.
Only one of the churches had regular participants who identified as LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex or ally).
Church leaders may think they have closed this question because they already decided they would not allow same-gender weddings.
Actually, one of the churches in my study had done that. When a staff member came out to the pastor, they (plural pronouns will be used to maintain anonymity) were “LGBTQ,” it forced the question.
The church shifted the discussion initially to the human relations committee, which decided the church should take steps to learn more about those issues.
Their council voted to establish an “LGBTQ committee,” which did not include a pastor or the lay leader, to develop study sessions for the whole congregation.
There was much conflict expressed, sometimes vehemently, during their discussions. At the end of the sessions, a survey was used to assess what regular participants in the church would accept.
Although a strong majority indicated they would accept “LGBTQ” staff members in lower-level positions, the vote was 50-50 on allowing “LGBTQ weddings” in the church. That resulted in an exodus of half of the church members, with each side accusing the other of not believing the Bible.
Biblical interpretation is a core issue, with the dichotomy being labeled “traditionalist” and “progressive.”
The three other churches had their process initiated by the pastor.
One pastor established a voluntary study group to examine the issue for six sessions. Around 10% of the adults participated.
A member later brought up the question with their church council of deciding whether they would have same-gender weddings. They decided to continue to let the pastors decide whom they would marry.
No further action has been taken in that church as the pastor expressed fear of losing members. However, they were the only one with active LGBTQ persons in their congregation, and they have had one same-gender wedding (not in the sanctuary).
Another pastor called an open meeting for congregation-wide discussion. Subsequently, an adult Sunday school class petitioned the council to have the whole church involved so it would be a joint decision.
The council developed a committee of all lay volunteers. After three years of intermittent work, the committee presented seven study sessions plus one for the final vote on what they had determined were the five options:
- No change; leave it to the pastors.
- Refuse to allow any same-gender weddings.
- Refuse to allow any weddings of persons who were in violation of any biblical commandments/sins (divorce and so on).
- Allow same-gender weddings and continue work on being intentionally inclusive.
- Allow same-gender weddings and become an advocate for LGBTQ rights; join an advocacy organization.
Option four received a strong majority of the votes. However, more than 10% of the congregation chose in response to leave.
The fourth church’s pastor began by discussing the dilemma with a lay leader. They then took the matter to the church council, which voted to establish a committee led by the pastor and which represented a cross-section of the congregation.
A year later, they facilitated open meetings after worship service and had a meal catered for all participants with childcare provided. The pastor led every meeting, which was “structured for community building” with the oft-stated mandate, “We want to hear everyone’s voice.”
There were small-group discussions, each with a “note-taker.” The outcome of each group was shared with the pastor who read them (anonymously) to the larger group. This included concerns from an anonymous drop box.
The pastor also reported that some members chose to voice their opinions privately in the office. They also had representatives from two churches who had completed their decision-making processes come and talk at their congregational meetings.
This church also voted to change its bylaws to state that a pastor’s employment could not be terminated solely based on whose wedding they chose to officiate.
After two years of continual work, the final vote asked not only for individual conclusions but also for an explanation of why they believed it. They had less than 1% leave the congregation after the vote.
People get to decide individually, and churches get to decide corporately, where they stand on same-gender marriage. Making a choice in this matter is a defining moment for a church.
Every church wants to be an active, vital and growing community. Thus, the process can be one of community building, which is the opposite of dictation. Community building requires collaboration at all levels; every person has a voice and it is to be heard.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. The article is adapted from Bonner’s doctor of ministry dissertation completed at Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.
Tim retired after 30+ years as a psychotherapist. He is the co-author of From Distrust to Trust: Controversies and Conversations in Faith Communities (Judson, 2023) and a blogger at timothybonner9.medium.com.