Queering the Church: Being Safe People

Yesterday, my friend Sarah N Moon published a piece about the “real Third Way,” using Walter Wink's ideas about fight or flight responses to church environments. She particularly placed it in the context of queer Christians who are in situations where they cannot fly and fighting would put them at significant risk. I especially appreciate Sarah’s approach to pastors who wish to be allies of the LGBT Christians in their congregation:

But sometimes an “ally” pastor can best serve their LGBTQ congregation members by staying—which means “flight” is not an option, and “fight” is a risky one.
Every church situation is different.
Ally pastors, listen to your LGBTQ members. Ask them what they need from you. Do they need you to take a strong stance, even if it means risking discipline from the “higher ups?” Do they need you do leave, start your own fully affirming congregation? Maybe. (emphasis original)

This is an important aspect of queering the church and queering theology – how do straight, cisgender people who wish to be of help to their queer parishioners go about doing so? What does it mean to be an ally when you’re the pastor in a denomination that is not affirming?

I’ll say this: I do wish every person who wants to be an ally would be willing to put their jobs at risk to stand up for us. It would take so much of the burden off of us when it comes to just being who we are – we hear, often, in private, that you’re affirming but then watch you go silent when your congregant who tithes a lot to the church goes off on a homophobic rant. We get that you’re in between a rock and a hard place, but we do wish for more.

But we also understand the risk – it’s hard to speak to those congregants when they leave your church. It’s hard to be seen as a spiritual authority when you’ve been excommunicated from the pastorate. For those of us who will never be allowed to be in your position – I have the double whammy of being a woman and queer and therefore cannot get a pastorate job in most denominations – it is important that we have allies working in small, subtle ways to change minds and to change the church from the inside. We appreciate the risks you take when you can neither leave nor fight openly – though none of those risks outweigh what we experience by being out and being ourselves.

I do think there is a place that affirming, ally pastors and queer congregants can reach that will allow us both to support each other and to feel human. I know pastors, especially here in America, are under a lot of pressure to be the anything and everything to their congregants, and it’s a lot of work, a lot of grace, and a lot of frustration. But if you want to be considered as an ally to queer Christians, you need to be willing to take up our yoke with us – bear the burden alongside us.

So how can you help us in that? Here are three ways.

Create safe spaces for discussion with us. Don’t open up a forum to “discuss the issue of homosexuality” and then allow it to become a fest of queer-bashing (I’ve watched this happen at local churches and watched the faces of queer people in the room slowly grow downcast). Even if your denomination isn’t affirming, you don’t need to add to that hurt by actively encouraging or passively allowing “debate” on the issue of our humanity.

Watch your language from the pulpit. There is almost nothing more frustrating than sitting through a sermon on a Sunday morning that continually references “husband and wife” and seems to be under the assumption that marriage is a straight thing. Pay attention to how you talk about relationships in your congregation – even a subtle language change can be a sign of empathy to your queer congregants.

Ask us what we need. If you know who your queer congregants are, ask them what they need from you – how can you help make their experience in this church more life-giving? And then listen. Don’t argue, don’t justify, don’t minimize. Listen, accept it, and then find ways to change things. Let them know you empathize with their position in the church and that you want to help in any way you can. And then… do it.

Part of the frustration of being a queer Christian in the church is that we often feel alone, and we feel like we’re managing other people’s problems as well as our own. We often become the token queer, the one who is brought into discussions we don’t necessarily want to be involved in and invoked to defend something we don’t really want to know about. So, ally pastors, don’t do that – don’t be that “I have a queer friend” guy, don’t out us to other, and don’t co-opt us into your agendas. Just because we’re at your church doesn’t mean we share your opinions and want to be called into an argument. In the question of queer identity and queer issues, you take your cues from us.

It is possible to be our ally. But it requires listening with grace, quietness, and love.