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‘That’s who most needs to be here’

‘Sunspots’ conversation focuses on upcoming Covenant Conversation at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — The three presbyteries in Oklahoma — Indian Nations, Cimarron and Eastern Oklahoma — are partnering with Covenant Network of Presbyterians to hold a Covenant Conversation on Aug. 27 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City. That event, set for 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. Central Time, will be held both in person and online and features a plenary by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Rigby, the W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Register here.

Last week, Kristy Rodgers, commissioned pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bartlesville and Moderator of the Synod of the Sun, hosted an episode of the podcast “Sunspots” with the Rev. Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians, as her guest. Hear their conversation here.

Covenant Network of Presbyterians, founded in 1997 with the goal of seeking to strengthen the church by promoting the role of LGBTQIA+ people in the church’s life and leadership, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. “Always the mission was to make sure that the church was more inclusive as well as unified,” Ellison told Rodgers. “It wouldn’t have done any good to build a church that broke into pieces but it also wouldn’t have done any good to call ourselves ‘unified’ without being fully inclusive of all God’s people.”

Ever since 2015, when a majority of presbyteries had voted to affirm same-sex marriage, “our goal has been to work with congregations and presbyteries to help them to live into the church’s new day,” Ellison said. “The reality is even though policies have changed, that doesn’t mean that hearts and minds have always changed.”

When the policy was changed by the 221st General Assembly (2014), “I think a lot of us were under the impression that the floodgates would open and everyone would feel welcome. All of our churches would support and affirm everybody. Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” Ellison said. In fact, that’s not what the policy requires. “The policy allows every church individually to make decisions about who they ordain as deacons and elders, and presbyteries to make decisions about who gets ordained as a minister,” Ellison said. “The reality of that is we don’t have one policy now as a church. We have 168 presbytery policies and we have 9,000 congregation policies. And so, if you are an LGBTQ person in the church who is considering a role of leadership in the church, you don’t really know for certain what that path looks like for you.”

The Rev. Brian Ellison


That, of course, speaks only to ordination. “For the experience of queer folks in the church, it can also be very challenging,” Ellison said. “When you walk up to a church, the fact that the sign says ‘Presbyterian’ on it does not really tell you what the experience you have inside might be like — whether folks will celebrate your presence, whether you’ll be offered opportunities to share in worship and ministry, or whether you might be looked askance at or even told that your life is sinful.”

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks “have already at some point in the past been hurt by the church — maybe through words of exclusion, maybe unintentionally, not being seen or understood for who they are,” Ellison said. “If the person is carrying around a hurt that came at the hands of a place that is supposed to be a place of healing and comfort and peace, it takes an extra amount of courage and engagement and a willingness to take a risk to walk back to a church and say, ‘I’m going to give this another shot.’”

“A lot of our churches aren’t really good at or don’t know how to allow the person that confidence to actually take that risk, or how to assure them that the church is a place for them,” he said.

Kristy Rodgers

“That is a very real experience,” Rodgers said, sharing the story of her own son, a gay man who was raised in the church — and yet Rodgers could not perform his wedding ceremony because of the policy of the church she was serving at the time.

“Which is tragic,” Ellison said. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Kristy. You’re not alone. A lot of pastors and a lot of parents of LGBTQ people who have committed their lives to the church, who are people of faith, have found themselves disappointed by the state of the church. That’s not ancient history. That’s even now.”

“I think that’s a big reason why [Covenant Conversations] are so important,” Rodgers said. “Everybody feels like they are friendly and welcoming. That’s how we want to see ourselves. But when you’re faced with somebody who embodies a different understanding of being, a different way of life than your understanding of it, then it puts it to the test in a very real way.”

One of the topics slated for conversation during the Aug. 27 event is “the ways congregations can ensure that their welcome is authentic,” Ellison said, including “ways they can move from saying words of welcome to really living that welcome out in their congregations and to help people understand and believe that their welcome is real and that in fact they’re living into it.”

In answer to Rodgers’ question about stumbling blocks that remain in the path of offering welcome, Ellison named a few: complacency, fatigue and conflict.

“In the church, many of us are averse to anything we think might cause someone to walk away or be anxious,” he said. “Our willingness to risk relationships with existing people in order to welcome new people — a lot of times that’s a threshold too high that we’re not willing to cross. Here’s the problem: Time and again through the history of the church, we’ve allowed those concerns to guide us — comfort, peace, calm, and relationships with people who are already there. We make those choices at the expense of the outsider, the oppressed, the person who has not had their needs met.”

It is the parables of Jesus that ought to remove our hesitancy to welcome others. “Who did Jesus invite to the banqueting table? Who was Jesus willing to say would be cast down from their thrones so the lowly could be lifted up?” Ellison asked. “It’s hard to put ourselves in the place of the Pharisees in some of the dialogues with Jesus. But time and again, the witness of the Scriptures is that people of God are called to welcome the people the world sees as sinners and outcasts — whoever it is the church has typically said, ‘You don’t belong here.’ That’s who most needs to be here.”

That said, “What I want to be honest about is a lot of queer people in the church are no longer outsiders,” said Ellison, who’s been in ministry for 23 years and as “served the General Assembly in a variety of ways as an openly gay person for the last decade,” he said.

“It’s not just being convicted about the biblical call to hospitality and inclusion, but the reality of knowing the lesbian elder in their church or meeting the transgender child of the church who shares their story and is active in the community,” Ellison said. “These are the stories and the realities of people’s lives that are having the greatest impact in continuing the transformation in our churches.”

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