Essay

Process, Patience, Exasperation, and Change

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I was looking for writers, people willing to share their thoughts about Christianity, the church, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. I was hoping for some new voices, some younger thinkers, not the “usual suspects,” the old war horses whose views we’ve heard too many times.

Finding writers was harder than I suspected. Several pastors said, “My congregation hasn’t really processed this yet, and I don’t want to get out ahead of them, catch them off guard.” Being a pastor myself, I could understand.

A few others declined saying, “I’m just not ready to ‘go public’ with my thoughts—too many variables and consequences to consider. No thanks.” Seemed a bit cowardly, but again I had some sympathy.

Then a few who would have taken a more “traditional” perspective, replied, “I don’t feel safe sharing my views. I think I’d be blackballed and derided by ‘the other side.’” Here my sympathy gave way to exasperation.

Really? You, who could walk into any Reformed or Christian Reformed congregation on a Sunday morning assured that you would be warmly welcomed? You, who could probably receive a call to serve as pastor to about any congregation you wanted? You, whose path through education and career hasn’t quite been paved with palm branches and garments of adulation, but almost? You are the victim here? You, not LGBTQ Christians, are the one who lives in fear? It is a maneuver I see so often recently, the powerful and privileged do a quick flip to suddenly depict themselves as the the browbeaten and silenced.

Let’s pause here, take a couple breaths to cool off, and then move ahead gently and patiently.

Increasingly, I am becoming aware that the discussion around welcoming LGBTQ people in the church will be as important as the outcome. How we move forward is as much a part of this delicate process as achieving the goal toward which we move.

Perhaps my comments above violate my own previous aspirations here on The Twelve. Inspired by James Alison, I wrote back in 2013, “how will Christians who support the inclusion of LGBTQ persons invite and welcome their fellow Christians who do not yet share their viewpoint?…Those who support full inclusion, whose victory is inevitable, need to begin talking and thinking about in what manner they will ‘win.’” https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2013/09/23/breda/

breda 8Alison used Diego Velasquez’s painting, The Surrender of Breda, as a picture of victory with reconciliation rather than rancor. Are my exasperated comments about those who declined to write, who chose not to share their views on the matter, a counter-example of healthy processes and helpful ways forward?

Let me sound a more conciliatory note. As a pastor, I am a leader and a preacher. Trying to shepherd a collective body you quickly become aware of the diversity and fault-lines within every group. To boldly declare “Here I stand, I can do no other” might feel really good, but usually isn’t the best way to pastor. To all pastors who are perplexed about how to have a truly good process and discussion on LGBTQ inclusion in the church, I sympathize. In my experience, members say “this is something we really need to study and talk about,” but few are actually eager to jump in. They fear conflict, shouting, shaming, and splitting. Even when I hear snarky comments of critics, “Well, they’re just afraid of their moneyed constituents,” I have some sympathy for the leader who has to look for consensus, to hold community together, and not be totally oblivious to dollars. (My twenty-two year old self can’t believe I just said that.)

As a preacher, I honor the pulpit as a sacred place, not my soapbox. I don’t believe that my thoughts on LGBTQ inclusion in the church are “just my opinion,” but I also don’t want to be open to the accusation that this is what my sermons are. Everyone, or almost everyone, in my congregation knows what I believe. They know that they will hear, from time to time, oblique comments and glancing allusions about LGBTQ people and faith. But I hope they also trust that they will not be harangued and scolded. I’m not certain that on such a tender topic, a one-way monolog is the best way to proceed. I think it was Karl Barth who once said something like, “If preaching alone could change the church, and change people, their hearts and minds, the Protestant church would look quite different by now.” This isn’t to belittle preaching, but respect it by recognizing its limits and role.

Process and patience, this delicate dialog, graceful engagement. To you, the readers, my colleagues, my compatriots in Christ, who disagree with me: over the next decade most of you will change. I don’t say that to condescend to you or frighten you, not even to rush you. (“The Spirit blows where it chooses.”) I say it to invite you and assure you of a warm reception. All of us have changed. And all of us can remember moments and steps, uncertainties and fears, conversations, readings, experiences, even sermons, which were part of our change.

I point you toward your coming change (of course, there will be a few holdouts who proudly play the “faithful remnant card”) so that even now you can begin to look ahead and wonder what will it take, what will be the decisive nudge? And then, how will you own and explain your change? How will you live it and share it when it comes? Graciously, change is coming for us all.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

13 Comments

  • PaulVK says:

    Hmm, that’s a pretty bold conclusion. It’s a bit world out there.

    I do agree that we need to talk and I do agree that pastors have been turtling up. I hope that pastors will emerge from their shells. https://paulvanderklay.wordpress.com/2015/03/21/teaching-turtles-to-talk-participating-in-the-same-sex-marriage-debate-with-city-church-san-francisco/

    The dynamics of “feeling vulnerable” has a lot to do with varied contexts. In one context, living in California, working in a very blue state community, holding to the traditional church perspective can feel threatening. News travels fast and when Brendan Eich is forced out of his position because of a political campaign contribution he gave in 2008 traditionalists watch. All of the talk of “history is on our side” only tends to heighten the anxiety.

    It is not unreasonable in this moment to have both sides reach for the “victim” card and find stories and anecdotes to justify their feelings.

    I don’t think the difficulty will be to find conversational partners but rather to try to steward the conversation in a safe and productive manner. Feeling safe is of course a very subjective thing and very dependent upon the range of “worlds” that any given individual faces, most of which are not subject to public examination.

  • PaulVK says:

    Sorry, “it’s a BIG world out there”, “bit” too but mostly in cyberspace.

  • Meg says:

    To be heterosexual and holding the majority position within our denomination are both positions of power. I agree with your confusion and dismay at the number of people who are so oblivious to their own privilege that they come off like this: posturinghttp://i.imgur.com/k4deh3v.webm

  • Michael Bentley says:

    I didn’t know you were taking submissions, even from us ‘privileged’ and ‘powerful’ folk. I’d be more than happy to submit an essay.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Michael, as one powerful and privileged person to another, I think we can probably arrange things. Use the “submissions@ reformedjournal.com” link below and we can communicate there. Thanks.

  • Douglas says:

    Instead of the pulpit as your soapbox, you use the 12?

  • Tom Folkert says:

    Thanks, Steve. You are being a prophetic witness in the RCA

  • drrobdwilliams says:

    I wonder if Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address might be helpful food for thought in this regard.

  • Dwayne H says:

    With all due respect- where is your Biblical stance on LGBT Christians? We know the nature of the Lord and Jesus through the Holy Scriptures. I try ( with the help of Holy Spirit and the grace of God) to base my theological beliefs not based on popularity or outside “pressure.” It seems to me-this topic really didn’t catch fire (with the church) until the President(and some judges and govenors) had his evolutionary moment on the approval of gay marriage.
    My belief with this issue – as with all others is for the our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to decide with “His” perfect righteousness and love and not “our” collective feelings. Church history is contrary to where the Body of Christ seems to be heading(more opinionated and feelings than doctrine).
    Lord have mercy on us all.

    I leave you with a scripture:
    Corinthians 4:4-5

    4 For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.

    Peace and grace to you,
    Dwayne

  • Steve MVW says:

    Dwayne, my “biblical stance” on LGBTQ Christians is like that of many other faithful and orthodox believers. You might look to the writings of James Alison, Jim Brownson, or Ken Wilson
    (blog.reformedjournal.com/2014/08/25/a-pretty-good-book). I think you’re rather overstating the role of the President, judges, and governors. Some would say they’re late to the show. I’d give more credit to the Holy Spirit, along some courageous Christians.

    • Valerie says:

      Amen, Steve. I’m so tired of hearing, “This has never been an issue until lately.” Oh, really? Maybe those folks should check in with those 10, 20, 30 or more year ago who have been dealing with it. The Holy Spirit is blowing the doors off the church. May we keep in step with it.

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