First, it’s going to happen. Good for you to prepare now. As gays and lesbians are finding a bit more acceptance in both the outside world and the inside church, the chances that someone will come out to you increases. Statistically speaking, the GLBT community makes up anywhere from 3-10% depending on the reliability of self-reporting. That means if it hasn’t already happened, it will. It could be someone related to you, or it could be someone beloved by the church. There will be a lot of conflicting emotion if your church has strong beliefs and labels homosexuality a “sin.” But a church can get through this, and you can too. And you can decide later where you stand on the issue–right now you have to figure out where you stand on this person who’s come out. If you loved them before, you need to keep that in mind. Hold onto that relationship.
Second, whether someone comes out to you privately or comes out publicly to the whole church, it is an act of love, not defiance. Understand the incredible courage it took for them to do this, and understand, too, how safe and secure in your company they must have felt to tell you. Especially if this person has never been out before. They face a society that is not quite ready to deal with gay and lesbian people, most likely, and, on the other hand, may have some friends outside the church who wonder why they would tell you in the first place. They do this so they can keep who they are and the church they love. They thought they would have to sacrifice one of them.
1. Don’t panic. You do not have to make any judgments at this point. You don’t have to draw any lines in the sand. The most important thing at that moment is for that person to know you love them.
2. Tell them you love them. They are afraid. They’ve already imagined being rejected so many times that they need reassurance that they did the right thing. They have played out scenarios where your friendship is broken with them, and they have imagined you telling them it’s okay. If you don’t know the words to say, try these, “It’s okay, _______. That was incredibly brave of you. I just want you to know that no matter who you are or what you do, I love you and that won’t change.” A statement like that will bring relief to them, and they might even cry. This is okay. They’re just nervous.
3. Listen to them. Gays and lesbians and others in the GLBT community might have held this secret for awhile, and they did so because they were afraid. They are probably going to tell you their story. Listen to their story. Even if you have a problem with their theology, or homosexuality in general, try responding about their pain. If you don’t know what to say, try saying, “That must have been so hard for you. I’m so sorry.” Don’t worry, nothing you say at this point will encourage them to “become more gay”–this is a time for just seeing who they are at this moment.
4. Treat them as if nothing has changed. If you went to the movies with them before, go to the movies with them again. If you hugged them before, hug them again. In the best of scenarios, you might alter the way you talk about their dating life to include the proper pronouns now, but that might be a bit much for you at this moment. Gays and lesbians are no different than any other person; they like to talk about who they are dating. In fact, many gays and lesbians come out so that they can date freely, without surprising or hurting anyone.
5. When you are alone, look up resources. You want to give your loved one the most support you can, even if you don’t agree. You may never come to accept homosexuality, but you now have to make a choice between your loved one and your faith (if you practice a faith that rejects same-sex relationships). You want to make sure what the Bible says, and follow God–I know that is first in your mind. And secondly, you want to support this loved one as far as you can. Read, read, read. Pray, pray, pray. And understand that God allows us all to choose paths, and loves us all the while. He does not reject anyone. Especially not someone who is trying to do good and to love God. They have not rejected God or the church. This is a good sign. However, the onus is on you at this moment: you must be willing to see and hear their side, open even to changing your mind if the truth turns out to be different than you first thought. We owe everyone a fair hearing and we are Christians and we seek the truth.
6. Reparative therapy, or “ex-gay” ministries should not be an option for someone who doesn’t want it. The success rate for ex-gay ministries is so, so low, and their definition of success so murky, that the consequences of going through it are pretty awful. If only 1% live a heterosexual lifestyle afterwards, and all of them keep their homosexual desires, that means 99% have gone through mental torture and spiritual guilt to attempt to change, and failed. Even ex-gay leaders are apologizing to those they tried to “help.” Read good books and resources on ex-gay ministries before you try them or ask anyone else to try them.
As a church:
If this person has come out publicly, then they are asking for a public response. If you are a member of a governing board of the church, ask the person to come visit you.
1. Listen to them. They want to tell their story, and they want to stay in your church. Else they would have left. If they have things they want you to read or look at, be generous of spirit and accept all that they have. More than anything, they want to know that you will look at this issue differently, or anew, because it has been given to you by them. While some may see this as purely an emotional response–a dangerous softening–it is actually what happens with any hard and fast belief. It meets reality, it gets a face, a relationship. Then, you must decide if the truth as you understand it still holds. We do this with every belief we have. We test them. And this makes them stronger. A weak belief is one that is never tested, or one that you avoid testing.
2. Make a public announcement–since theirs was a public decision–that a) the church will be studying the issue over the next few weeks. In the light of new evidence, and of the importance of the church member’s presence in your church, you want to make sure that the church is taking the right stand. b) ask the church body, in a Sunday service, to stand in support of the individual who has come out–not because you believe being gay is right, or a choice, or sin, or whatever, but that you are acknowledging that they need support through a difficult time, and that your love has not changed. This is your church practicing love. This show of support will be invaluable for the situation–the trust, the love, the encouragement. Even if you ultimately decide that you cannot agree with an “open gay lifestyle”—you have, with this moment, shown that you take care of your members. And if there is ever controversy about this subject in the weeks ahead, you could save yourself from a split, and from people leaving the church because you showed love at the first moment.
3. If the person has given you things to read or watch, read and watch them all. If they have not, and you need resources from a positive gay christian side, go get some resources (you’ll find some of them here–and let me offer Jack Rogers’ book again). Make sure that you have a representative sampling of resources from both sides–(and please let each side argue their own side–nothing worse, or more biased, than someone arguing the other side’s side–though we do it). Keep a record of what you looked at. It might be good to also keep notes on what you thought about each thing. You’ve told the church that you will study the matter. Have people on the committee, if you can, that represent both a liberal and conservative viewpoint. Let everyone talk, give their arguments. My only caveat is not to let discussion end because someone is afraid that “looking” at material will corrupt them. You must go into this with an open mind, searching for the truth for that person and your church. Nothing is more important than finding the truth. If we are strong, we can look at anything, and with prayer and supplication, we can discern what is of God and what is not. We are, at least, those kinds of Christians. And Christianity is, at least, that strong.
4. Invite your gay church member to come speak to your group again and ask them questions. This will serve two purposes: a) they will again feel as if you are listening, and b) you need to talk to real gay christians and hear their testimonies. When the church was just beginning the issue of Gentile inclusion was very much like this—and they listened to testimonies, and they searched for whether God was working in the lives of Gentiles. Asking your gay church member questions allows you to talk to a primary source–not a commentary on a few verses, right or wrong. You get to visit the backbone of that person’s Christianity–the part of the Great Commission we often forget: go and tell and preach. Jesus arms them with their testimonies of what they have seen and heard. It is what gets Paul through most of Acts. Hear their testimony.
5. Make a decision you feel strong about, both spiritually and emotionally. Yep, there’s going to be emotions in here. But you’re the governing board because you can read and understand scripture well–and you take the time to study it. I cannot tell you which decision to make, but I hope that you side with inclusion. If you decide that gays and lesbians are supposed to live celibate lives, or that they are supposed to change and become heterosexual, this is your decision. The good thing is that you showed them that you loved them, that you support them, and that you listened to them. A decision that isn’t in their favor, that doesn’t include full acceptance and affirmation will be hard, but it will be easier coming from someone who played fair with them, and someone who took the time to weigh the issues.
If you make a decision towards inclusion, you will then need to discuss how to bring this to the church, and what your options are. Some churches are thrown out of their denomination because they affirmed and accepted even one gay person. Some churches split over this issue. You need a gameplan. There are several resources, which I will have under Helpful Resources, that can help your church make the transition smoothly–or bumpily.
6. The first thing is, though, you have to be honest with your church about your decision. They looked to you to make it, so they will give it weight. Whatever your decision make sure that you delineate between your love for the individual and your acceptance of the issue at hand. If you can show incredible love and support for the person, even while you say that your understanding of scripture is such that you can’t see this as acceptable behavior, you will go a long way to keeping that person in your church’s life.
7. The decision is both the church’s and the individual’s decision. Understand that if the church cannot affirm the individual–based on their own beliefs and study– that this individual may still leave your church, not being able to accept being welcomed but not affirmed. This is not surprising. Many heterosexual couples would not stay in a church where their relationship was not affirmed, or where they were told their “behavior” was unacceptable. “We accept you, but not your partner” would hold only hypocrisy for a straight couple. And I remember the days of divorced and remarried couples having to deal with church discipline–though hopefully we don’t have those feelings anymore. However, no matter how “loving” or “welcoming” a church may be, the discrimination between those who have full acceptance and those who are tolerated will be apparent. The gay or lesbian in your midst may appreciate all the time that’s gone into your decision, and the way you have supported them, but they will need to affirm your church again in light of that decision, and decide whether they will stay with you, or find a church where they can serve completely and openly.
Ultimately, yes, I would love for every church to go through the process and come out totally accepting, and I still believe that when you read the evidence and see people for yourself, you will be hard-pressed to believe anything else but that gays are as acceptable as anyone else in the eyes of God.
However, I am realistic. My own experience speaks to the contrary. All the evidence in the world, all the books, all the testimonies, cannot penetrate a heart that is not open to seeking the truth, or a mind that will not consider other possibilities. People reject for a lot of reasons.
Usually it is out of fear: that this “new” understanding threatens our traditions, or our families, or our children.
Sometimes it is a dogma and a doctrinal belief that we are trying to defend–and the truth may make that less defensible. But we are people of Christ first, not our denomination. And we have changed our mind on lesser and greater things before to match the truth we found in the Bible (think slavery, think the treatment of women, think divorce).
Sometimes it goes far deeper–that these traditions represent the way I see the past, and my relationship with the church, and to accept the new beliefs means erasing my old relationship with the church and with God. Or that these new beliefs threaten the historical traditions of thousands of years of Christianity. Sometimes there is a fear of mocking God. Or of playing God. But we know that God desires we seek out the truth and test the spirits.
Sometimes, there are even deeper reasons, reasons that are personal, and sometimes, even deeper, are closeted same-sex feelings. I’m not saying everyone against gays is a closet gay. I’m only saying that sometimes, when all rational explanations have been eliminated, there are people who still fight harder and harder against acceptance for gays and lesbians, and they don’t know why. If our cultural experience is a teacher, it is often the people who are preaching the loudest against gays and lesbians who are doing this to overcome their own same-sex feelings. Witness the pastors and politicians who find themselves in the news with male lovers, rent boys, church youth—and they are often the ones who designed policy on sexuality, or railed against gays and lesbians in the “secular culture.”
I will say this: LGBT people are good for your church. LGBT people are often musically gifted, or are great animated speakers; they are often great with kids and youth, and they have a lot of positive things to add to your church. They are often the preachers. They feel passionate about God’s word, and they throw their spirit into everything they do. Even if they are 3% of the population, that means they are not an anomaly. It is a substantial number. For comparison sake, Jews in America make up 2.2% (2008 statistics). Who can imagine American culture without American Jews? Their small percentage did not determine their influence or importance in their culture. Gays and lesbians add to our culture, too. And they certainly add to our Christian culture, our churches. They are already here–please value their contributions openly, even when they come out.
I was in a group of gay christian men who met in Texas for board game night. We had two organists, and three music leaders of churches that didn’t know they had gay people, or didn’t ask these men. They were well loved and they spoke highly of their relationships with the church members….as long as they never came out. None of them had partners.