Figuring out a church’s policies can be tricky. If you can’t find the church’s policies on their website or on Church Clarity database, you may have to ask the church’s leaders directly. And chances are, you might get a flowery or generic response, like, “We want this to be a safe space for everyone.”
We know this, because we regularly send surveys to churches inviting them to disclose their actively enforced policies in order to become Verified Clear. Our team has had to think through how to ask these questions in a way that can’t be danced around or responded to with “Let’s grab coffee next week to discuss!”
So, based on our experience, here are some helpful questions to ask (and not ask):
Pastors love when they get asked this question because most churches welcome everyone. Even if they aren’t waving a rainbow flag, few churches are going to stop someone from attending church for being queer. Most well-meaning churches will say that they want everyone to feel at home in their church, that they want everyone to connect with God, and so on. But having a welcoming culture is different from enforcing affirming policies.
Don’t be afraid to get specific. Start with the lowest level of participation, maybe a hospitality team member, door holder, cafe worker, etc. Continue towards roles with more responsibility, and ask if all LGBTQ+ folks can teach Sunday School to children, preach in services or serve as pastor. If there is a “women’s retreat,” specifically ask if trans women can attend or if it’s only for cis women. Clarify if the policies differ for gay, celibate folks as opposed to non-celibate, gay folks. Even if the church has a rainbow flag in the sanctuary, double-check if they officiate same-sex weddings, because they may not be able to due to their denomination’s policies. Asking yes-or-no, policy questions will get you the clearest answer possible.
Another softball question for the Unclear pastor. What may be considered “equality” in one church is different in another church. One church might describe gender roles as equal by arguing that men and women are “equal in worth” but “complementary” in roles. For another, equality simply means women are permitted to lead at every level with no restrictions, just as men can. Some churches have policies that suggest supporting women in leadership means supporting them in certain areas such as Family Ministry, Hospitality or Prophetic Ministry. Others have policies that suggest equality means supporting women in all areas of church-life. “Equality” and “leadership” are too subjective descriptors; instead, ask about a church’s policy!
There is no room for ambiguity when faced with questions like these. If the pastor responds with verbose, vague language (e.g. “we support women’s leadership”) and doesn’t give you a clear answer, be polite but insistent. Redirect them back to your original question, and (if needed) ask for a simple yes or no. And if they do answer “yes,” ask them about the gender demographics within the leadership team and how often women preach.
This question is unhelpful because definitions on what “affirming” means can vary wildly depending on who you are talking to. It is also very possible that individual staff member might hold opinions that differ from their church’s position or policy, so even a “yes” isn’t an indicator of church policies. Not to mention, there may be some queer folks on staff who aren’t able to be open with their identities for the same reasons.
Policy. Policy. Policy. The more specific you can be, the more direct the answer should be. Asking about hiring and ordination policies is one of the quickest shortcuts to getting a satisfactory response. Clarify if the policies differ for gay, celibate folks as opposed to non-celibate, gay folks.
This, too, can have a multiplicity of definitions, and beyond definitions, there is the manner of how a church might practice egalitarianism. They may not preach that there are specific gender roles and that women are equal, but their still might be little to no women on staff. Not to mention that this could still exclude non-binary individuals.
When all else fails, ask for the numbers. This question asks for a clear, measurable answer, free from ambiguity or flowery language. For the purposes of our metrics, we ask if 50% or more of a churches staff and leadership is made up of women and/or non-binary people. This gives us a clearer understanding of how a church may practice their egalitarianism.
TL;DR: When asking questions to church leadership, the rule of thumb is to avoid subjective terms about “belief” or “stance” which can mean different things to different churches. Additionally, remember that “feeling” or “thinking” questions are unhelpful. Don’t ask how a church feels about a particular group. Don’t ask about what a church thinks about something.
These direct questions can help you gain clarity around the actively enforced policies a church may have. To learn more about the questions we’re asking when we score, check out our Verified Clear churches and our score definitions.
Either way, make sure you submit the church to our crowdsourced database and help increase the collective standard for clarity across all churches. And if you do have this conversation with a pastor, let us know how it us on Twitter!