« Family Values »

Let me start by saying it is an honor to be included in this Circle, and I look forward to both sharing the story of the church I lead, Sammamish Presbyterian Church (SPC), as well as being in discussion with Julie and Jessica. I can’t wait to hear their stories and learn from them as well.

The charge given for this part of the conversation is to provide a case study regarding how the topic of homosexuality has worked its way through the local church or institution we lead. My plan in this post is to first provide a little context of the church I pastor, explain where we landed as a congregation in relation to the decisions regarding same-sex ordination and marriage, and share a few things we learned along the way.

Context

SPC is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, a growing suburb of Seattle. The church itself has been in existence for close to 30 years and is filled with both founding members and newcomers (including many young families) across the faith experience spectrum. It’s ethos and roots are squarely evangelical, with Jesus Christ (hopefully) at the center of everything we say and do, and with a high value on the study of Scripture and the proclamation of the Gospel through word and deed. Sammamish is located in the shadow of both Microsoft and Amazon, and both the city and our church are filled with some of the brightest, fastest moving, decisive people I’ve ever met. It is a creative, inquisitive, and fun place to do ministry.

As a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), however, we ran into a challenge a few years ago as the polity of the church changed. In 2011, the General Assembly of the PC(USA) opened up the option for governing bodies to ordain non-celibate homosexual persons to the role of Pastor, Elder and Deacon (the 3 ordained offices in our church). Fast forward a few years—in 2014, the General Assembly voted to make it possible for pastors and governing bodies in states where gay marriage was legal to perform and host gay weddings within their churches. While these decisions were open-ended--pastors, churches and governing bodies could choose to adopt these standards or not--it suddenly made a decades-long discussion in the national church a very local and immediate one—What are we, SPC, going to choose to do?

For some churches, this conversation was a slam dunk. As a pastor, I saw colleagues in my Presbytery and around the nation make speedy and somewhat easy decisions regarding these matters, as they led congregations that were mostly unanimous in their understanding and belief regarding these issues. Congregations came out as either “for” or “against”, many with very gracious postures towards the other perspective; others, not so much.

What I didn’t see, however, was what I hoped for—a position somewhere in the middle. Because while I myself landed on the more traditional side of this conversation, I had both colleagues as well as parishioners who I considered faithful to Jesus Christ, lovers and students of the Scriptures, Christian friends I would trust with my life and considered my family; and yet, saw things differently than me. As the pastor of this particular flock, I wanted us to be faithful to Jesus Christ and faithful to God’s Word, of course. But part of that faithfulness had to be being faithful to each other in the midst of it. And in a world filled with quick divorces and unfaithful relationships, I couldn’t believe that schism and splitting up from each other or even our denomination (which as a pastor I made ordination vows to and as a church we were birthed into life and supported by to this very day) was a good witness to a fractured world.

So what do we do? How do we make the biggest decision our church family would make in a generation (which in my opinion, it is) and be both faithful to God and faithful to each other?

 

Well, here is what we did.

The Decision

In early 2012, I asked the Session of SPC (what we call our Elder Board) to appoint a Denominational Study Group, to enter a season of study and conversation on the topic of homosexuality and the church, in the hopes of both keeping the Session abreast of the changing landscape of the PC(USA) and if necessary, make recommendations as to what we should do. This Study Group of 7 people (myself included) was put together by me (the Senior Pastor) and was made up of seasoned, faithful members, both women and men, of various ages and stages in life.

There were 3 criteria for being in this group, 1) They had to have done their own Scriptural study of this issue and could faithfully articulate their viewpoints. The group was purposely diverse—made up of 3 members I knew fell on the traditional side and 3 members on the more progressive side of this discussion (with me mostly in the middle); 2)They had to be pro-SPC. In other words, I wanted people in this group that weren’t just interested in the debate of theological ideas, but were interested in the health of this church family as well. They needed to have a vested interest in this body of believers and want the best for it; 3)They could play well with others. I wanted people I knew were team players, who, while they had strong convictions, had a proven track record of listening and caring for others, even in the midst of disagreement. With that in mind, the Session approved this ragtag bunch, and we started meeting in July of 2012. I thought (we all thought) we would meet for about year.

We were wrong.

For almost 3 years, this group met at least once a month, eating dinner together, getting to know each other, praying for each other, reading Scripture together, digesting articles, books, and YouTube talks from all sides of the issue together. And while we most certainly became the resident experts on the subject of homosexuality and the church, what we realized through this process was that what we REALLY became was not just experts, but family. In fact, family became an important metaphor for our group (which next to the “body of Christ” is the second most used metaphor in the Scriptures regarding the church--we aren’t called “brothers and sisters” for nothing!). And while our study and conversation was eye opening, what we came to see most of all was a new set of family values--that just as we would never think of throwing someone out of our nuclear family for a difference of opinion, we would never turn away from each other as a church family as well, just because we saw things differently on these issues. And so we met and fell more and more in love with each other as we studied and prayed on this difficult issue.

For the record, not one person in the study group had a change of conviction on homosexuality and the church. But together we did have a change of heart—we went from trying to win each other around an issue of faith and practice, to being committed to each other and loving each other like the family God believes that we are. With that in mind, we worked hard on a process to bring our congregation on board with what these family values looked like.

How did we do it?

We started by drafting a statement of Core Beliefs that were ultimately approved by the Session. These Core Beliefs began with 15 "WE BELIEVE" statements that we could agree upon and hold fast to as followers of Jesus Christ and members of the same church family.  It was a powerful reminder to us of how much we hold in common. These were then followed up by 4 "SOME OF US BELIEVE" Statements, articulating the differences we share regarding homosexuality, ordination and marriage. Compared to what we had in common, these differences seemed paltry and unimportant. At the end we included a final set of "WE BELIEVE" Statements that I will share with you here...

BUT TOGETHER WE BELIEVE in a God who is bigger than our differences and is not threatened by this conversation. WE BELIEVE in a God who knits us together as a CHRIST-CENTERED MISSION MINDED FAMILY. WE BELIEVE God has a story to tell through us in this season, through the way we love each other, the way we pursue truth mixed with grace together, and the way we bear witness to Jesus Christ.

Through all of this, as our study group educated our congregation on the various Christian perspectives regarding homosexuality, as we had open dialogues (we called them “Family Meetings”) where people could express their thoughts and convictions, as we non-anxiously modelled healthy dialogue and conversation, we saw people catch the vision that whatever the decision was to be made by the Session and the Pastors, what holds us together is bigger and more important than what tears us apart. While the issue of homosexuality and the church is an important one, it need not be a defining one; a discipleship issue at it's core, not a salvation one.

The long and the short of it is that in April of 2015, our Session voted by an 11-6 margin to allow the possibility of both same-sex marriage within our church walls as well as a married gay person to be eligible for ordained ministry at SPC. They also passed a unanimous vote of approval for our pastors to follow their own consciences in considering whether or not to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. None of our elder board felt the need to step down after these decisions, but in fact were convicted by the unity of Spirit we felt in our common life and mission together.

 

In a letter to our congregation, after laying out the process and decision, I said this…

Finally, if you disagree with these decisions, it doesn't mean there isn't a place for you at SPC. I know that for a fact, because there is a place for me.

 I'd love to tell you my story. As your pastor, I have spent more time these past 3 years studying this issue than anything else. I have prayed, scoured the Scriptures, talked to those who see things from a different perspective (as well as talking with those who don't!), read books, thought long and hard, and prayed again. Fortunately for me, SPC is filled with faithful people who worship together, serve together, and act like a family—and yet hold different Scriptural perspectives on this issue. Because of that, SPC has been a wonderful seedbed for my own spiritual growth and discovery. I have grown immensely in my faith from having this conversation with you, and I have God and you to thank for that.

 For myself, I have decided (at this point) that I still cannot in good conscience perform same-sex marriages. While I can see the Fruit of the Spirit that is often born out of these relationships, and understand (and even agree) with many of the Scriptural understandings that can lead to blessing these relationships (I have outlined these in detail in our all-church family conversations), I am still not at a place where I can personally perform these marriages in an official manner. This has to do with my own ongoing wrestling with the different levels of Scriptural teaching and the relative newness of this discussion in my own life and in the church universal. Because of these factors and until I have resolved it for myself, I cannot in good conscience preside. Maybe someday, but not now.

 However, that is not true among all of my colleagues. While Pastor Kay holds a perspective similar to my own, Pastor Austin is in a place where he can officially bless and perform these marriages, out of his own attempt to faithfully read Scripture.

 I support his ability to preside at same-sex marriages, and support SPC's ability to host them. Why? Because in the end, I believe that as followers of Jesus Christ, we can disagree on a good many things and still be the body of Christ and the family of faith, and that goes for this issue as well. I take Paul's counsel in Romans 14 to heart…

 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

 In this discussion of personal piety and freedom, Paul gives us a great rule, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity" (to quote St. Augustine). And while some will say that these issues at hand regarding homosexuality are essential to faith and life, as I have prayed, discussed, read Scripture and pondered, I don't think this is an essential, core belief that must be adhered to for faith in the life of the church, and our Session through their vote has agreed.

 Consequently, I am comfortable being the Senior Pastor of a church that allows same sex marriage ceremonies to occur even if I personally will not perform them. How can I do that? Because at SPC, I believe we agree on the central tenets of the Gospel, and can disagree on the non-essentials, and this is a non-essential in my book.

 

Since the day we made that decision, of course we have seen some families leave (around 10% is our best guess estimate), which is to be expected with any big decision. But what has been so encouraging to me is that even those who have gone have made it a point to express their thanks for SPC and for the process itself, and didn’t burn the house down when they left. :) Since then, others have come to join our church, too, specifically because of the way they saw we handled and processed this conversation as a church. Some SPC’ers have privately expressed their gratitude to me regarding the outcome, but have kindly not celebrated too loudly, being sensitive to their brothers and sisters who are struggling. Other SPC’ers have told me that while they may not agree with the decision, the process and the commitment to the family as a whole was far more important to them and they felt there is still a place for them to stand at SPC. I have never been more proud of our church—Family values at its very best.

 Lessons

 A few quick ”lessons learned” to close this entry…

  1. Engaging in LGBT issues as a church requires a long, slow road. Don’t rush it! While some in the family are wanting to fling open the doors, there are others who are afraid of what that will look like. It takes time, conversation, patience, love, more patience, and time (did I say that already? :) ).
  2. When engaging in LGBT issues as a church, it is imperative to find common ground. How easy is it to let things divide us when, in reality, there is so much that unites us! We should take the lessons from Ecumenism 101 and apply them to this issue in the local church. What do we stand on together? What is our rock?
  3. When engaging in LGBT issues in the church, you must trust your conversation partners. To have these conversations requires vulnerability and trust. Neither of those things happen overnight, but if I can get to the place where I know the other loves me, hears me, disagrees with me, and loves me anyway, I am a lot closer to being a family that listens to the Spirit and works together for resolution.
  4. When engaging in LGBT issues in the church, humility is a must. In my opinion, we all need to just admit that we are at least 10% heretical. One day when we stand before a loving God, I’m convinced that none of us will have it all right—we will certainly learn a few things we got wrong! Because of that, we need to hold our interpretations somewhat loosely, be willing to listen, learn and respect the insights of others.
  5. When engaging in LGBT issues in the church, we must see “Agreeing to disagree agreeably” as an expression of living out the Gospel and as a witness to the world. We live in a world that unfortunately sees the church as fractured and unable to get along. What a witness we present when we can give ground to each other and work things out rather than rush to divorce court!
  6. Finally when engaging in LGBT issues in the church, pastors need to lead by example. Too often (and I felt this pressure, too), pastors are expected to make their theological convictions the expectation for the entire church. “Strong leadership” is equated to a puffed-up chest and a “not on my watch” sort of posture. Instead, it seems to me that the pastor’s job is to shepherd their flock to listen together to God’s Spirit through God’s Word and his people, to encourage the community to lean in towards each other in love and trust, rather than fear. This posture starts with the pastor, and we are called to model that spirit of generosity, grace, and enthusiasm with joy.

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Reader Comments (1)

I realize that this comment is being made long after this post was published, but I just want to say how much I respect Jeff Lincicome and his approach to this important conversation in his congregation. I pray that there will be more pastors who are willing to enter into conversations like this (and in this way) with their congregations. Grace and peace...

May 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Moss

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