An Inexorable March Toward the Greater Good

To no one’s surprise, one of the world’s largest Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church, voted 53 to 47 percent to begin strictly enforcing an existing ban on LGBTQ clergy.  The alternate proposal was for each church to decide for itself what position it would take on LGBTQ issues.  But the conservatives prevailed in not allowing any level of generosity to exist within the denomination.  And if you listened to the testimony, I mean not any level of generosity.

This will be a mess for Methodists.  It will probably split the denomination in two.  I feel so badly for all of my brothers and sisters who have remained loyal to the Methodist Church.  Leaving the denomination will not be easy.  And I’m not just talking about the emotional turmoil of leaving.  The legal turmoil will be equally unsettling.

Most Protestant denominations own the buildings in which their churches meet.  They control the seminaries, the ordination processes, and the pensions of their clergy.  Untangling from a denomination is no easy feat.  This will be a long and nasty divorce.

The next few years will be difficult for progressive Methodists, and the rest of us in more liberal Christendom will do everything we can to help.

It is important, however, to put this decision into its larger context.  The United Methodist Church is just one mainline Protestant denomination among many.  And none of them exert the influence on American culture they once did.  Their influence has been replaced by the evangelical churches, and most particularly, evangelical megachurches.

The vast majority of megachurches are not a part of any denomination.  They are independent.  Their buildings are not owned by a denomination, and each local congregation makes its own decisions on matters of faith and doctrine. Therefore, when these churches finally decide to become open and affirming, it will happen quickly.  There will be no long legal fights or denominational schisms.  They will just decide.

A few churches of influence will make the decision, and the rest will fall in line. The leaders of these churches know that when it comes to LGBTQ issues, the culture has already moved on.  Gen Xers and Millennials yawn at the conservative anti-gay agenda.  Gen Z is so over it.  It’s the Builders (those born before 1946) and Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) who keep stoking the flames of conservative ire.  And their days in leadership are numbered.

What happened in St. Louis is the last attempt of a conservative generation to maintain its power.  The vitriol in their rhetoric shows their fear.  Change is coming, and they are terrified of it.

There has never been a more important time to be vocal, particularly in dealing with America’s most influential churches.  America’s megachurches want to avoid the kind of debacle that played out in St. Louis. They will do almost anything to avoid publicly stating their position on LGBTQ issues.  That is a sign of their acute knowledge about just how untenable their position is.  Their pastors want to close their eyes and pretend the problem does not exist.  We are the voices that will force the issue. We may not be able to affect the vote of the Methodist delegates, but we can be the voice demanding honesty in all those evangelical churches of influence.

The typical evangelical pastor spends 90 percent of his time with other evangelicals.  He doesn’t have many LGBTQ friends, because they are not in leadership at his church.  He thinks he can keep ignoring the issue.  But he can’t.  His parishioners know plenty of LGBTQ people, and they know we are all as normal as morning sunshine.  Everybody knows it but the pastor.

I know these pastors.  Their people come hear me speak at corporate training events, TED talks, and women’s conferences.  Their people like me.  They can’t understand why I can’t preach at their church.  The day is coming, just around the bend, when these guys will have to answer their own emboldened members.  The days of sticking their heads in the sand are over.

In answer to the question of why I can’t preach at their church, these guys will have to say, “Because I am behind the times, and she makes me uncomfortable.” That’s not going to go over with Millennials and Gen Z.  It’s why they are already leaving the church, questioning its relevance.  If these guys weren’t pulling from the smaller evangelical churches in town, they’d already be in trouble.

The good news is that when these church leaders finally decide to do the right thing, they will not have to battle a denominational headquarters or church hierarchy, like our Methodist friends.  They will take their cues from the other independent megachurches, and when one of those churches moves on LGBTQ issues, the dominos will fall.  It may take five years, or it may take 10. Down south it’ll take longer.  But the die has been cast.

If you are a Methodist, and/or an LGBTQ person or ally, this week’s decision by the United Methodist Church is a disappointment.  But in the greater scheme of things, it is just one setback in what is an inexorable march toward the greater good of full inclusion of LGBTQ people into Christ’s church.

I, for one, am glad to be on the front lines.  And for all the disappointment they experienced in St. Louis, I imagine the 47 percent of those Methodists who voted for local church autonomy on LGBTQ issues are feeling the same.  They will not be silenced.  They will proudly preach the inclusive message of Jesus.  This was a setback, but we are all moving inexorably in the direction of the Gospel, the good news that God loves all people, just as they are, no change demanded, no love withheld.

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Afflicting The Comfortable

I really like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and buttered biscuits with jam.  I used to watch Grandma Stone drop a big spoonful of lard into a pan before frying a chicken, with the skin still on.  Grandma’s biscuits with homemade blackberry jam and home-churned butter were heavenly.  I loved all the food Grandma Stone made, but I don’t eat much of it anymore.  Those foods will cause your arteries to stand on end!  They taste good, but they could kill ya.

 

But what if I was impervious to the negative effects of the foods Grandma made?  What if I was immune to high cholesterol and coronary artery disease?  Would I indulge in those foods while others looked on with envy?  Yep, I imagine I would.

 

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that almost no megachurches in the United States are open and affirming to the LGBTQ population.  Of the 100 largest churches in the US, not one will allow an LGBTQ person into leadership.  We can attend, but we cannot lead.  An article in Tuesday’s Washington Post quotes churchclarity.org in acknowledging that disturbing truth.

 

The maddening reality is that these churches go to great lengths to avoid telling you the truth. Brian Houston, the senior pastor of the Australia based global megachurch, Hillsong, has publicly refused to say if their pastors will perform same sex weddings or ordain or hire LGBTQ people.  In response to Church Clarity’s attempt to get answers to these three simple questions, Brian Houston blocked Church Clarity on his Twitter account.  I’m good with letting Church Clarity carry the banner for fighting for equality and equity on the national and international stage.  I am more concerned about Boulder County, Colorado, where I serve as one of three pastors at Left Hand Church.  None of the three megachurches in Boulder County are LGBTQ affirming.

 

I have friends who continue to attend all three of these megachurches.  Most are white males who suffer no personal ill effects from their participation in non-affirming churches.  They can eat the fried chicken and biscuits without any personal consequences.  Their privilege allows them that freedom.  I, on the other hand, cannot.

 

For the first time in my life, I have some small understanding of how women and minorities have felt in patriarchal society.  For centuries they have been on the outside looking in, while most straight white males have moved about with little concern for those whose gender, color, gender identity, sexual identity or ethnicity prohibits them from full participation in society.

 

When I was a straight white male, I was guilty of enjoying the spoils of the patriarchy. Yes, my views on LGBTQ issues were not in line with evangelicalism, but I was taking my time becoming public about it. Before I came out, I wrote one 400-word column for the magazine at which I was a weekly columnist and editor-at-large, asking for sensitivity for the transgender population.  The editor was approached by a former president of our denomination’s convention suggesting I should be relieved of my duties. To his credit, the editor kept me. After that, I decided to lie low with my public beliefs.  It was the wrong decision.  I know that now.  As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.”

 

I was comfortable, and I did not want to be made uncomfortable.  I did not want to be confronted with my prvilege.  I thought in time I would be able to make headway within my faith community to bring about LGBTQ acceptance, and that was enough. Except it was not.  I was maintaining my personal comfort at the expense of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

 

When I was called to transition, I had no choice but to make my views known.  Straight allies choose to make the decision to be affirming of LGBTQ people.  They pay a price.  They are my heroes.  Mark Tidd was defrocked by his denomination for supporting the family of a transgender child.  Jen Jepsen listened to her conscience and left her megachurch.  Jen and Mark and the leaders at Denver Community Church and my own son and his wife, and a whole host of others are the ones who have chosen to pay the price for supporting the LGBTQ community.

 

I know some are uncomfortable reading this post.  Some are pastors who truly struggle with discerning the right time to lead your congregation toward inclusion.  Some are believers trying to get by, and need your non-affirming megachurch to keep you afloat.  I understand that.  Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to listen to a prophet and take up a sword. Some are doing important work in the bowels of those churches, advocating for change.  I respect their decision to actively work for change from within.  (Of course, please note that I do use the word “actively.”)

 

I like to comfort the afflicted, but occasionally I feel called to afflict the comfortable. Of course, a lot of you who are reading my blog are already willing to be made uncomfortable, so I’m not sure what I accomplish by increasing your discomfort.  I suppose I am writing mostly to the “me” of ten years ago, someone who knew where he stood on LGBTQ issues, but did not feel called to lead the charge.  I’m not sure when I will be ready to forgive myself for that mistake.  As often as I write about this subject, it’s obvious I’m not ready yet.  I should have led the charge.  I know that now.  When you know better, you do better.

Not Gonna Be Stopped

A few months ago I was informed the student led program committee of the Youth Celebrate Diersity Conference had decided to invite me to be the keynote speaker for their 2019 conference.  It would be the 26th year of the conference, and over 1000 students would be attending from over 100 Colorado high schools.

I knew I could not say no to a group of thoughtful, motivated teens.  Teens do not ask a transgender woman old enough to be their grandparent to speak for their conference unless they really believe in her ability to speak to their concerns.  It was quite an honor to be asked, and I quickly said yes.

I am always encouraged when I see how supportive Millennials and Gen Z are of their LGBTQ peers. These young people are fierce protectors of the journey of authenticity, and they will not be stopped.  Today’s youth have grown up grasping the truth that all people deserve dignity, civil rights, equity and opportunity.

The young people were extremely warm and enthusiastically responsive.  I mean, if you can’t fire up a crowd of motivated teens who worked hard just to be selected to attend the conference, you shouldn’t be a public speaker.  I told those gathered that everyone is called onto the hero’s journey, but few accept the call.  I also said that given the hard work they had done to be at the conference, and the hard work they were going to do, I had no doubt these young people had already answered that call.

YCD has a three-pronged mission, focusing on education, empowerment and equity.  In addition to attending the keynote address, students participated in two workshops, discussion groups, and meetings with their peers to plan a course of action once they returned home.  The conference is one of three similar conferences in different regions of the state.

In 2018, Youth Celebrate Diversity won the Colorado Governor’s Service Award for Outstanding Nonprofit Agency.  Caleb Munro, the executive director, is a graduate of Georgetown University, and holds a master’s degree from Columbia University.  Caleb has a humble spirit and boundless reserves of energy.  He doesn’t talk about the prestigious universities he attended.  He talks about the teens with whom he works.  Caleb has a heart for the celebration of diversity and he dreams big.  He sees a national organization helping schools throughout the United States continue the good work that only young people will find the courage to do.

Teah Selkin and Zoe Siegal co-chaired this year’s conference.  I so enjoyed my conversation with them and the dozens of other students who spoke with me afterwards.  Several young women thanked me for my TEDx talk on gender equity. They have already figured out how much harder it is for women, and they are prepared to fight for gender equity.  Several transgender students shared with me their deep concerns and hopes.  It was an honor to listen to them.

I am often embarrassed to be a Baby Boomer.  We have become such a self-serving, conservative generation.  I am glad our influence is waning.  Last Saturday I had hope.  Gen Z has arrived, and when it comes to celebrating diversity, they will not be stopped.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of wonderful speaking engagements over the past three years, but none has meant more to me than the 26th Youth Celebrate Diversity Conference.  Thank you, Caleb and student leadership team, for the invitation.  It was an honor to spend the day with you..

At Least Tell The Truth

I was in Palm Springs to present a keynote and workshop to psychotherapists who work with the LGBTQ population.  My keynote was warmly received, as was my workshop about the evangelical church and its rejection of LGBTQ people.

One delightful couple talked with me after the workshop.  They are from a city in the west where they work as psychotherapists.  In my talk I mentioned that 100 percent of the 100 largest churches in the nation are non-affirming of LGBTQ people.

As we spoke, the couple mentioned that they were a part of a megachurch.  I asked the name of the church, and when they told me, I said I used to have a friendship with their senior pastor.  Not only that, but a little over a decade ago one of my family members served on their staff.   The couple said they would say hello to the senior pastor for me.  I told them I would love that, and I would be curious to hear about his response.  Because this man has not spoken to me since I transitioned.  They were surprised.

There are over 1,600 megachurches in the United States and only a handful (about one percent) are LGBTQ affirming.  (Most of the affirming megachurches are affiliated with the liberal wing of the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, or one of the other mainline Protestant denominations.)

If you attend a church that has an average weekend attendance of 2,000 or more, it is safe to say there is a 99 percent chance your church is non-LGBTQ affirming.  But here is another problem.  Almost none of them will tell you that.

These churches will tell you they accept everyone.  If you are LGBTQ, they will indeed allow you to attend services, but they will not allow you into leadership, nor will they allow you to lead on any public platform.  On the issue of LGBTQ acceptance, almost all of America’s megachurches are deceptive and disingenuous.

Church Clarity is a wonderful non-profit that scores churches on LGBTQ affirmation and women in leadership.  If you visit their website, http://churchclarity.org, you will discover that most megachurches will not publicly state what their policy is on LGBTQ issues.  The reason is simple.  They do not want you to know.

These churches know evangelicals are increasingly supportive of marriage equality. According to the latest Pew Research Study, 51 percent of Millennial evangelicals are LGBTQ affirming.  Gen Z is even more affirming.  The people who lead these churches know the direction American culture is going, and they know that if the majority of their people are not already LGBTQ affirming, it won’t be long before they are.  But their current leadership is non-affirming.  And they are the people who hold the power.

There are three megachurches in Boulder County, Colorado, the county in which I live and serve as a pastor with Left Hand Church.  All three megachurches are non-LGBTQ affirming.  I know scores of people who attend these churches and have absolutely no idea their church is non-affirming.

One of the senior pastors preached a sermon against me.  Another, an acquaintance of mine from years ago, pastors the largest church in the county (and the state.)  The third remains a friend, though his church has occasionally stated its non-affirming position.  When I tell members of these churches that their congregation is non-affirming, and that two of the three have spoken negatively about my transition, they are shocked.

In my opinion, if your church is non-LGBTQ affirming, you should leave. Why?  Consider just one small subset of the LGBTQ community, transgender children.

Transgender children whose parents are non-affirming evangelicals have a suicide rate 13 times higher than their peers.  According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, transgender children who are called by their preferred name are 65 percent less likely to commit suicide, 35 percent less likely to experience suicidal ideation, and have 71 percent fewer indications of severe depression than transgender children who are not called by their preferred name.

If your megachurch is aware your child is transgender, they will not call your child by his or her name.  They will not encourage you or other parents to call their transgender children by their preferred names. They will not allow your children to use the restroom appropriate to their gender.  These churches will put your transgender child’s life in danger.

Of course, the likelihood is your child is not transgender.  Only .7 percent of children are transgender.  Therefore, in all likelihood your child will not have any problems at your megachurch. “And besides, their music is amazing,” you say.  “And the preaching is wonderful.”  Okay.  But by attending that church, you are implicitly supporting a church that endangers the lives of children.

You are probably getting the idea I feel passionately about this subject. Yep!  Every month I talk with parents of transgender children, parents who were rudely informed that their megachurch would not support their child’s transition. I see the tears in their eyes and feel the pain in their hearts.  If they had known this would be the response of their church, they never would have gone in the first place.  Yet their friends continue to go.

If you are an LGBTQ affirming Christian, beware of your megachurch.  With their confident opposition to one of the most vulnerable populations on earth, they are hurting your friends and neighbors every single day.

And so it sadly goes.