What’s Next? How Do We Turn Welcome Into Inclusion?

Even in the most progressive congregations, including Welcoming Congregations, there are opportunities to do more to fully include LGBT people in the life of the community. How do others do it?

What is the difference between welcome and inclusion? Think of it this way: You may welcome many guests into your home, but how many are made to feel like part of the family?

That is the goal of full inclusion – to make LGBT people and their families full members of the faith community, with full opportunities to participate and equal responsibilities to serve. Such a community “looks like the African notion of the ‘extended family,'” writes Rev. Dr. Kenneth Samuel of the Victory Church in Stone Mountain, GA. “Every individual is related to every other individual by a kindred spirit of solidarity and sacred purpose.”Guide to Welcoming Congregations in the African American Tradition (Washington: National Black Justice Coalition), 4.

The Welcome-Inclusion Gap

Too often, though, there is a gap between welcome and inclusion. A national survey of mainline Protestant clergy by Public Religion Research found that nearly all (94%) believed that lesbian and gay people are welcome in their churches. At the same time, though, less than two‐thirds (63%) of mainline clergy said that the gospel requires the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons, and only 13% reported that their congregations had completed a formal welcoming process.Jones, Robert P., Ph.D. and Daniel Cox. Mainline Protestant Clergy Views on Theology and Gayand Lesbian Issues: Findings from the 2008 Clergy Voices Survey (Washington, DC: Public Religion Research, May 2009), 16.

The Religious Institute’s national survey of self-identified progressive clergy (Jewish, Mainline Protestant and Unitarian Universalist) found solid support for full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the congregation. But the survey also found that support for inclusion does not always translate into policies, programs or social action on behalf of LGBT congregants. Among the clergy and congregations surveyed:

  • Four in 10 had not preached on sexual orientation in at least two years, and seven in 10 had not addressed gender identity from the pulpit.
  • Four in 10 did not offer any kind of LGBT program or ministry.
  • Nearly half were not active in their denomination’s work on LGBT concerns.
  • Two-thirds had never conducted study groups on LGBT issues or made their congregational facilities available to LGBT community groups.
  • Eighty percent had no programs for LGBT youth or support groups for LGBT families.Haffner, Rev. Debra and Timothy Palmer. Survey of Religious Progressives: A Report on Progressive Clergy Action and Advocacy for Sexual Justice (Westport, CT: Religious Institute, 2009), 11-12.

‘Everyone Knows We’re Welcoming’

These statistics point to a tendency toward complacency among many congregations once the rainbow banner is unfurled. In other words, many clergy and congregants consider LGBT inclusion a “non-issue” because “everyone knows we’re welcoming.” After a welcoming process is completed or a statement of affirmation adopted, some congregations consider their work is done.

LGBT congregants don’t necessarily see it that way. A study of synagogues in Colorado by Jewish Mosaic found that “this perception of openness contrasts significantly with the interviews we conducted with LGBT individuals, who talked about feeling invisible, alienated by homophobia, or ignored in subtle and overt ways.”Aviv, Caryn, Gregg Drinkwater and David Shneer. We Are You: An Exploration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Colorado’s Jewish Community (Denver: Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, March 1, 2006), 28. “To be inclusive,” the study concluded, “an institution needs the regular participation of openly LGBT individuals.” Ibid., 2.

Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder, the presiding bishop of The Fellowship, argues that recognition, accountability and responsibility must blend in an inclusive community. For faith communities, that means not only welcoming LGBT people, but also recognizing their relationships, holding them accountable to the same moral standards as other congregants, and setting the same expectations for service to the congregation.

“When visible SGL [same-gender-loving] people are not held accountable for faithfulness in personal relationships or held to a ‘standard’ of moral requirements for leadership, they are not considered strong candidates for certain roles within the church,” Bishop Flunder writes. When that happens, a congregation creates a “subculture” of LGBT persons “who are not necessarily condemned for being [same-gender-loving], but who are also not given equal status with heterosexual persons in a heteronormative environment.”Flunder, Yvette. Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005), 16.

Full inclusion means that clergy and congregations will perform same-sex unions or marriages (as their faith traditions allow), provide marriage enrichment counseling to both heterosexual and same-sex couples, enroll children of same-sex couples in religious education programs, and create safe space in youth ministries for LGBT or questioning teens. In short, an inclusive congregation will ensure that all programs and ministries offered to heterosexual persons and families are provided to LGBT persons and families as well.

The opportunities are numerous. This section provides an extensive checklist to help you determine the steps your congregation could take toward becoming fully inclusive. It also offers words of advice from clergy who are working to create (and sustain) communities of inclusion.