A growing number of congregations across the U.S. have been engaging in conversation about conducting same-sex marriages since the 2015 Supreme Court decision.
Yesterday, I summarized the process that four Protestant churches went through in deciding whether their clergy could conduct same-gender ceremonies, whether their congregations would become welcoming and affirming or both.
Although each local church is unique, some guidelines emerged from my research, which may help facilitate a healthy community-building identification process.
- Prayer should be a part of every step of the process to help the church develop their identity with a biblical foundation.
The focus should be kept internal. It is not about “them out there,” it is about “us.” “Who are we?” is the central question.
One church decided they were not able to be “welcoming and affirming.” However, they identified themselves as “welcoming and inclusive” in their attempt to communicate their doors were open to all.
- The process continues with the clergy and the lay leaders reaching a consensus on taking the issue to the decision-making body of the church.
If church leaders do not have good conflict-management/transformation and communication skills, then that training needs to happen before any further steps.
If much polarity is evident among church members, then it can be helpful to actually survey the membership on their preferences prior to beginning more open discussion. It is best to clarify that it is not voting on changes; it is simply an opinion poll.
In congregational surveys, be sure to ask open-ended questions and have them explain their positions in writing. This reveals how much conflict to anticipate in the process.
- Keep the process going.
At whatever point there appears to be clear evidence that church members are ready for constructive discussions, it can be meaningful for church leaders to make themselves available to facilitate discussion of the topic and to discuss the biblical basis for certain beliefs.
This should be in all of the adult Sunday school classes, separate or combined, and other groups. One church remarked that it was particularly useful to have the youth involved in the process to include their views and experiences.
- Having a “committee” working on the identity clarification is often a helpful part of the process.
This should include clergy, lay leaders and a cross-section of the congregation, reporting to the church council on their progress and recommendations. If the council approves, then well-planned, community-building, open meetings can begin with the intent of hearing from all sides.
Outside resources can be very useful at this point. The goal is to end with general agreement within the congregation.
- Strict communication guidelines should be fully enforced during all meetings to keep it a constructive process.
Here are some constructive guidelines to consider adopting:
- We gather to support each other’s learning. We want to live in relationships to work together with compassion.
- We fully value other persons and their beliefs, even when they differ from our own. Thus, we will hear every person’s voice.
- We listen to learn, without interrupting. This is not an argument or a debate. We speak in a way that respects others. We respond to others with honest, open questions instead of counsel or corrections.
- We speak only for ourselves with “I-statements” and stay focused on the question at hand. We meet people where they are, not where we want them to be.
- We observe deep confidentiality; whatever is said at the table stays at the table. This process does require power sharing.
Constructive dialogue will take churches one to two years to work through, even with the best plans. It cannot be rushed, and it needs a clear outcome to build the community of Christ in your neighborhood.
This includes working on understanding self in relationship to God and to our fellow humans. Ultimately, it is all about communication, conflict transformation and communion with God.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one 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.