When I was the Executive Pastor at EastLake Community Church in Seattle, I learned a lot about the difference between aspiring to be “inclusive” and clearly articulating policies that reflected that aspiration. Long story short: our multi-site megachurch became publicly ‘open & affirming’ in January of 2015. If you’re interested in a masterclass on how to communicate such a move to your congregation, might I recommend you watching this delivery by Ryan Meeks, now approaching its 5 year anniversary.
Several months prior to this statement, as a staff team, we had been engaging with as many available resources for a more inclusive theology that we could get our hands on. We read books like Matthew Vines’ “God & The Gay Christian” and attended the Gay Christian Network’s (now QCF) annual conference, to name a couple examples. Internally, our team appeared to be arriving at a place of theological affirmation. But in reality, until it was made official on January 25th, 2015, none of our previous signs of progress fully delivered comfort and peace of mind to those in our congregation who identified as LGBTQ. Even our own staff was confused.
I had become close friends with one of our worship leaders, mostly because she spent a lot of time at our house while (secretly) dating my kids’ nanny. When she came out to me and my wife in late 2014, she was bawling because of the weight of uncertainty. Incredibly, she went into the conversation assuming that my response would be to fire her on the spot. Think about that. Good friends, real relationship, hanging out with my kids - assuming that professing love for each other would result in termination. None of the personal assurances, private conversations during staff meetings, book assignments and signals of moving towards being an ‘inclusive church’ were effective in communicating “belonging” or “welcome”. Instead, our good intentions created a confusing and insecure environment for people we loved.
This specific lesson was a major source of inspiration for Church Clarity. I often describe my motivations as simple repentance. I was once part of a system that was ambiguous about policies and it wasn’t until delivering clarity that I was set free. My desire is to help other churches avoid this pitfall while not feeling pressure to conform to the same theological conclusions I came to in my own journey.
This is why I find it especially unimpressive when self-proclaimed “progressive” churches are unwilling to codify their purported hospitality in the form of a clearly communicated policy. Practically speaking, it's super easy to update your website and state actively enforced policies online, so why not just make the effort to do it? At Church Clarity, we’re trying to make it even easier by offering churches the option to complete our Verified Clear survey and receive our highest & best score (regardless of how they answer the question, btw). This designation would certainly alleviate the concerns of many folks beyond attempts to comfort them with assertions like “we’re an inclusive church” or displaying a rainbow flag that is ultimately patronizing when not backed by policy.
Any framework of communication that acts oblivious to the prevailing realities of ambiguous church behavior is nearly as suspect to me as Undisclosed churches, our lowest and worst score.
If you are a church that desires to court people who describe themselves as “progressive Christians” while failing to be clear about your policies, you are contributing to the same Celebrity Church wolf-in-sheep-clothing problem we frequently criticize, just in a more culturally palatable way. You’re essentially taking the position of being “colorblind” when it comes to LGBTQ identities. This selective ignorance leaves people in the dark when it comes to your policies. It might be one of your closest friends on the worship team or someone who has yet to find your church, but no matter how nice or loving or inclusive or friendly or welcoming or diverse you think you are, if you’re unwilling to articulate the policy behind those fancy descriptors, then perhaps you’re not as “affirming” as you think? Either way, you’re certainly not clear, which is in fact the bigger problem. So instead of focusing on the words that you use to describe your community or emphasizing how diverse or inclusive you are, perhaps first ensure that your actively enforced policies are abundantly clear.