by Jessica Davis

It is no secret that the church has been the most active and pernicious force throughout history in oppressing LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/Aromatic) people. (The + sign is often used to indicate those who fall partially or fully under these “umbrellas,” like non-binary and agender people, pansexual people, and two spirit people.) In light of that, it can be tempting to declare that, because our congregation may not be actively seeking to harm LGBTQIA+ people, we are, therefore, fully welcoming. But this doesn’t line up with what LGBTQIA+ often experience.

  1. Get clear on your theology around the lives of LGBTQIA+ people

One of the most devastating experiences LGBTQIA+ people report having in “progressive” churches is noting signs of welcome (rainbow flags in marketing materials, etc.), then arriving and receiving signals that they aren’t quite as welcomed as they hoped. This can look like portions of the community being welcoming while others are stand-offish or downright unkind. It can look like expectations for LGBTQIA+ people to not bring their partners to events or not display physical affection if they do. It can even look like outright acceptance, but accompanied by prohibitions (spoken and unspoken) against crucial aspects of LGBTQIA+ culture(s) like clothing, hairstyles, music, etc.

It can also look like omission — if we truly believe that LGBTQIA+ are created and celebrated by God and welcomed fully into the life of the church (not just tolerated), we will be telling the stories of LGBTQIA+ in scripture, we will be celebrating LGBTQIA+ saints, lifting up LGBTQIA+ theologians and composers, there will be out LGBTQIA+ people in positions of leadership, and they will be intentionally included in every aspect of the church’s life. If this is not where your church is at present, it is crucial to be honest with yourselves, your wider community, and in outreach and marketing materials where you are in your journey and what the community believes. LGBTQIA+ in your congregation and who are considering joining your congregation deserve to know the truth in how they can expect to be treated. They may choose to be trailblazers who want to actively fight against oppression and help the congregation do better. They may also wish to find a church community that already knows how to treat them with welcome and kindness.

  1. Appoint LGBTQIA+ people to positions of leadership

If you do not already have out LGBTQIA+ in leadership roles in your congregation, that needs to change. LGBTQIA+ make up at least 2-4% of the adult population (and 3-6% of teens, according to recent research). If we believe that they are fully welcome in the life of the church, that must include in positions of power (that includes young people — do LGBTQIA+ children and teens have a voice in planning programming? Do they have out LGBTQIA+ Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, etc. to look up to?

If you do not have out LGBTQIA+ members at all, or their numbers are significantly smaller than the general population, please spend more time in step #1 before forming your team. There are reasons why LGBTQIA+ people do not feel comfortable attending your church or being out while they are there, and it’s crucial you identify and correct them before doing anything else.

Once you have LGBTQIA+ people in leadership positions, trust them to know what they need, not be a monolith (e.g. in conversations about language around “queerness,”), and to positively influence the life and theology of the community.

  1. Identify needs in your congregation and wider community

Start by talking with the out LGBTQIA+ members of your congregation, offering to pay them for their time. Do they feel fully welcomed into the church’s life? If not, what are the places/situations in which they wish they could feel more at home? Then reach out to the wider LGBTQIA+ community: Would they feel welcome attending your church … why or why not? Next, connect with LGBTQIA+ religious organizations like Reconciling Works, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries , and Church Clarity.

Finally, do a full inventory of the life of the church and examine all the ways in which you may be communicating that LGBTQIA+ aren’t fully welcome (and strongly consider using a paid and experienced LGBTQIA+ consultant to help you do so). Look at Sunday school: Do the children hear the stories of LGBTQIA+ Bible characters? Are they allowed to engage in creative play not dictated by rigid gender binaries? Look at worship: Do your prayers invoke “brothers and sisters” yet leave out non-binary people? If someone needed to use the restroom during worship, would they have access to a single-stall, all-gender space? Look at the areas in which people serve and fellowship together. Is there a tacit expectation that property committee service is for men only, or that women always will be the ones to take notes in meetings? Do you celebrate mothers and fathers but not non-binary parents? Are chosen families recognized and celebrated?

  1. Develop policies to address current and anticipated needs

The single most significant way we can show vulnerable people we care about them is by developing policies that make it unacceptable to treat them poorly. This way, they needn’t depend upon the honor system or fear that they will suddenly become unsafe every time there are new leaders. As always when working with vulnerable communities, the people directly affected should be the ones guiding the discussions and decisions about how they will be treated. It is also important to consider the needs of vulnerable people who aren’t there yet. Perhaps you don’t have any intersex members of your congregation today (or any who are comfortable being out in that space). How will you create a space of welcome for them now?

  1. Engage in public advocacy and works of service, following the wishes of the local LGBTQIA+ community

Once you have an LGBTQIA+ Support Team in place, it can be tempting to want to shout from the rooftops that LGBTQIA+ people are welcome and should come to your church. But that may not be what your community most needs. Make a commitment to using your voice and power in the ways that are most helpful. Approach your work with a servant’s heart. Maybe the local LGBTQIA+ community wants to be eagerly welcomed to worship or maybe they just need a building to host affinity meet-ups and support groups. Maybe there’s a need to provide trans people with accomplishment and assistance in name-change procedures or participate in protests and lobbying actions with local lawmakers. Maybe there’s a need for you to show up loudly at Pride events advertising support and free hugs or maybe the need is for you to quietly serve at booths and direct traffic so that the LGBTQIA+ there can relax. Whatever the needs are, be honest about whether you can meet them, put aside your own agendas, and keep your commitments.

Jessica Davis, MA is a church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Her ministry passions include: youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, she can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with her work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.