Guidelines for being an ally to LGBTQ United Methodists as they head into General Conference.
The special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to discuss matters of “human sexuality” (read: “LGBTQ dignity and worth”) will take place February 23–27, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri. This guide for allies is designed for folks whose lives and livelihood are not up for debate at General Conference but who wish to be helpful, not harmful allies to LGBTQ United Methodists. Many parts of this guide are geared specifically toward folks outside of the United Methodist Church, but much of it also applies to United Methodists. It but offers broad principles to help guide allyship during and after General Conference.
Don’t try to fix it.
When we see people hurting and in pain, often our initial instinct is to offer a solution: to find some way to fix it. This may be rooted in compassion and concern, but it is usually not a helpful response. For one, it privileges the practical over the emotional and the systemic over the personal. This kind of response also assumes that smart people haven’t already (or sufficiently) attempted to find practical solutions — be they legislative, denominational, or congregational. In this way, responding in this manner is another way of centering yourself. Responding this ways says: “I have the answer.” Instead, try acknowledging the pain without trying to fix it. For many LGBTQ United Methodists, this pain is not new, and there is no quick solution to getting rid of it. You cannot fix it, but you can do your best to open and hold space for that pain to be felt, expressed, and acknowledged in community.
Don’t invite LGBTQ United Methodists to join your denomination.
This is probably the most common harmful response LGBTQ United Methodists receive from non-UMC allies. You’re part of a welcoming and affirming religious community. Your congregation strives to celebrate the gifts of LGBTQ people. Maybe your community even sees itself as “on the frontlines” of advocating for LGBTQ liberation. You want your LGBTQ United Methodist friends to be welcomed, affirmed, and celebrated. You want them to be able to use their gifts in ministry. Well-intentioned or not, comments like “my church welcomes you,” “you could always join this denomination,” or “that faith community is welcoming and affirming” are not helpful or compassionate. LGBTQ United Methodists are aware that other denominations have more progressive teachings and policies on matters of LGBTQ justice and liberation. Inviting LGBTQ United Methodists to join your denomination is another attempt to offer a quick fix. It ignores the fact that the person is United Methodist for a reason, and that they are deeply committed to their own tradition. Their reasons for being United Methodist and their belief in the beauty and good of the United Methodist Church have everything to do with why this moment is difficult.
Don’t expect LGBTQ United Methodists to explain General Conference to you.
General Conference is complicated: plans, petitions, legislation, amendments, floor speeches, protests, prayerful presences, and no shortage of twists and turns. It is not always easy to understand — even for United Methodists. Additionally, it is painful for LGBTQ United Methodists to have their dignity and worth up for debate. Imagine experiencing that whirlwind, attempting to digest what is happening, and beginning to figure out what it will mean for you AND ALSO being asked to explain the whole complicated process to a non-UMC person. This is a stress-inducing request.
A lot will be happening over the next few days. Some of it may be confusing, highly technical, or tied to the specifics of United Methodist polity. If you’re interested, pay attention to news coverage, watch statements coming from LGBTQ United Methodists groups (e.g. UM-Forward, United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries Network, etc.), peruse social media to see what your United Methodist friends are saying, or even watch the live stream of General Conference. Some LGBTQ United Methodists may offer an explanation, which is fine. Offer your appreciation, since teaching is both intellectual and emotional labor. But if you want to follow this General Conference and its implications, please find ways do your own work. The Religious Institute will also try to share helpful resources and information, and you’re welcome to reach out to us if you need clarification.
Speak up but not over LGBTQ people.
This General Conference is deeply personal for LGBTQ United Methodists. For far too long, their voices have been silenced or ignored in these conversations, which means it’s all the more important to lift up their voices at this time. Centering the voices of LGBTQ United Methodists also means thinking deeply about when to listen and when to use your own voice. As an ally, your voice is most helpful among other allies, potential allies, and actively hostile individuals. Those are the best spaces to share your experience, impart your wisdom, or shut down unhelpful dynamics. In these contexts, you will have greater impact without overshadowing those experiencing the greatest harm. When LGBTQ United Methodists are present and want to speak, the best thing you can do is “pass the mic” to them as they are more directly affected. Remember that LGBTQ United Methodists are not voiceless. They can and are speaking for themselves.
Actions speak louder than words.
It’s important to remember that being an ally is not only about what you say. In fact, it is much more about what you do, how you show up, and answering calls to action. Words without action ring hollow. The best place to learn what kinds of actions LGBTQ United Methodists are asking for is to hear from them directly—whether as individuals or through the range of LGBTQ United Methodist organizations (see list above). Right now, they’re asking for a few things: prayer, financial support, public statements of support, and help raising consciousness about the impact and stakes of General Conference. As General Conference plays out, these asks will surely develop as well, so continue to check in with those groups and LGBTQ United Methodists individuals in your life.
There is a time and a place to care of yourself.
LGBTQ folks in the United Methodist Church need time to experience and express their own emotions. If you are not an LGBTQ United Methodist, process your own emotions away from LGBTQ United Methodists—with other allies, or with family or friends. You don’t want to put others — including the person with whom you’re hoping to empathize — in the position of comforting and caring for you. And, it’s possible and even legitimate that the experiences of LGBTQ United Methodists will have an emotional impact on you. Maybe you’re coming to realize how you’ve participated in the oppression of LGBTQ people. Or, maybe you’re LGBTQ and not United Methodist, and you resonate with much of what LGBTQ United Methodists are experiencing. Your emotions are valid, and it’s important to work through them. Please find ways to care for yourself as you ally yourself with LGBTQ United Methodists over the next few days.
Relationships are complicated, and inevitably we will fall short. Being an ally is no exception. There is no such thing as a perfect ally, so it’s important to be prepared for when you mess up, say the wrong thing, or really step in it. Lead with love and root yourself in relationships built on deep listening and open lines of communication. Learn how to be held accountable and receive critical feedback. Apologize when you make mistakes. Prioritize impact over intent, and be willing to change course if needed.