Thousands of congregations in a range of denominations and communities have undergone a process to become recognized as official “Welcoming Congregations.” Does it make a difference?
In a word, yes: The welcoming process can make a meaningful impact on the vitality of your congregation. But before considering all the benefits of becoming an official Welcoming Congregation, let’s start from the beginning.
What is the Welcoming Movement?
The Welcoming Movement refers to the organized effort among congregations and denominations to embrace lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in communities of faith.
A welcoming church movement within Christianity and Unitarian Universalism has existed since the early 1980s. No official program exists within Judaism, although pro-LGBT Jewish leaders are currently creating one. To date, more than 3,300 congregations in the United States have taken steps to be recognized as Welcoming Congregations. This number represents well over 5 million people, the vast majority of them heterosexual allies.
Since 2003, the number of Welcoming Congregations has nearly tripled. There are official Welcoming Congregations in every U.S. state except Mississippi. Most of these congregations are affiliated with welcoming programs in their denominations. These programs, in turn, are connected through growing ecumenical and multifaith networks.
What Does it Mean to Become a Welcoming Congregation?
Welcoming Congregations have undergone a specific, denominational process to distinguish themselves as welcoming and inclusive of LGBT people. Many LGBT advocacy organizations have created denominational models, handbooks and other resources your congregation may use to develop a process to suit its own requirements.
A typical process involves:
Creating a team of clergy and lay persons (including both LGBT and non-LGBT persons) to begin the conversation and devise a plan for engaging the congregation.
A self-assessment, such as a congregational survey or series of focus groups, to determine the congregation’s needs.
A time of sustained study, prayer and conversation, which may include youth and adult education, congregation-wide forums, study groups, sermon series, invited speakers and other activities.
Developing a congregational statement of welcoming.
A congregational vote.
Such a process may last anywhere from a period of months to two years or more.
The Institute for Welcoming Resources (IWR), a program of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, works across denominations to advance the Welcoming Movement. The IWR offers the following guidelines to congregations planning to develop a welcoming process:
"A Welcoming Process needs to be:
Well thought-out, planned and should draw upon wisdom from other congregations that have done a process of their own
Grounded in the culture and “personality” of the congregation
Based in relationship-building with the pastor, the formal lay leadership (councils, boards, sessions, etc.), the informal lay leadership (“pillars of the church,” “matriarchs,” “patriarchs,” etc.) and the rest of the congregation. This is known as “relational organizing,” and one of its key components is listening deeply to what God is saying and doing — in the individual and in the congregation. Relational organizing is very different from debate, which should be avoided."
Institute for Welcoming Resources, Building an Inclusive Church: A Welcoming Toolkit (Minneapolis: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources, 2009), 3.