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You’re welcome

A Missouri congregation explores “How Welcoming are We?” with Covenant Network of Presbyterians leader

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Brian Ellison is executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE ­— Most churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) proclaim welcome to anyone attending worship for the first time, whether worship is occurring in person or online. Why welcome matters and how much impact welcome can have were among the topics explored Saturday by Trinity Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, which welcomed the Rev. Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians, to both speak to and listen to a welcoming congregation. Watch the 75-minute event here.

“It’s OK to name the discomfort,” Ellison told those gathered early on. “The important thing is you are engaging. That in itself is a step forward.”

What matters most is to be authentically welcoming. “We need to really mean we welcome all,” Ellison said, “and really live it.”

He traced the PC(USA)’s long path toward allowing presbyteries to ordain LGBTQIA+ pastors and congregations to ordain LGBTQIA+ people as ruling elders and deacons. Yet even today, “many churches have not had significant conversations about their own policies of inclusion,” said Ellison. “If affirming people don’t feel they can communicate their welcoming intentions, how welcoming are we, really?”

For churches, establishing welcome is about ensuring access to the community, according to Ellison.

“Jesus Christ is supremely and uniquely present at the Lord’s Table,” both in church together and during online worship,” he said. “Excluding someone from church is to exclude them from community, and community is how we encounter God. It’s a scandal to the gospel and a betrayal to everything the church is about to send anyone away and say, ‘You don’t belong here.’”

Opening up the discussion periodically to those in attendance, Ellison said one challenge to offering authentic welcome “is knowing there are those who believe that what I am proclaiming about inclusion is contrary to Scripture … Are we comfortable enough to answer that?”

Historically, there’s “a wide range of what we used to be uncomfortable about,” he said, including women leading churches and racial equality. “Sex still has a special stigma,” he said, “but maybe the answer is to get more comfortable, to recognize that sexuality is part of humanity. If churches are going to matter, they are going to have to talk about things that matter to people, in appropriate and biblical ways. We aren’t really talking about sex. We are talking about people’s lives. Sex is just a part of it.”

But what happens, one participant asked, if we lose part of our congregation?

“If we do what we think is the right thing, some people may dislike it so much they will leave,” Ellison said. Eventually, the church Ellison grew up in — where his grandmother was the oldest member, his father was a ruling elder, his aunt was the clerk of session and his brother-in-law was the youth director — left the PC(USA) “because it ordains people like me. I am sad that happened,” Ellison said. “There are kids growing up in that church now and some of them are probably gay.”

How welcome happens

Resources abound for helping congregations to not only express welcome but to be places of welcome. Ellison said whatever course a congregation pursues, these elements should be present:

  • Churches and individuals must prepare and educate themselves. “We have got to get ourselves up to speed on what the Bible actually says,” Ellison said. “The context for sexual activity 2,000 years ago is very different than today … The Holy Spirit is still alive and working through Scripture to bring ever-deepening understanding to our minds and hearts. We can’t connect with everyone, but if we are going to be more welcoming, we have to start with getting ourselves ready.”
  • Another step is engaging in discernment and then making the decision to be affirming and welcoming. Some churches fall into the trap of thinking “with more young people, these things will just take care of themselves,” he said.
  • The third step is to take action, which can include displaying a welcome banner or a welcoming message in the worship bulletin, inviting people to church and thinking about the language that’s used in worship to make it more inclusive. Even a term like “brothers and sisters,” which many people view as inclusive, is exclusive to people who don’t identify as male or female. “What is hospitality? It’s about putting the other person before yourself, making their comfort and peace more important than our own,” Ellison said. “If someone asks you to call them ‘they’ and ‘them’ and that makes you cringe … let your discomfort be compared to their discomfort as a non-binary person and then put your own discomfort in perspective.”
  • Visibility is another key. A sign on a bathroom door at church can state it’s available for all genders. “That sends a message that without ever speaking to a person, someone has been intentional about [the church’s] welcome,” Ellison said. Where a church spends its advertising dollars “sends a message about who you are welcoming,” he said. A PC(USA) church in Boise displayed this banner: “Jesus loves you and we think you are fabulous,” which Ellison said was about “publicly visibly being affirming.”
  • Join with others. “No one person or one church can really offer a sustained welcome without some partnership,” Ellison said. “It’s hard, and you’ll get pushback.” Especially in smaller communities, it can be helpful to reach out to ecumenical partners. Sustainability, he said, “is critical to giving welcoming authenticity.”

One participant said it’s been helpful for greeters and ushers to wear nametags that include the pronouns they use. That approach, Ellison said, “creates an environment where visitors can share their pronouns.”

“The pathway to transformation is increasingly well-lit,” Ellison said. “There are signs of hope and indications of change.”

Two such signs occurred during the 223rd General Assembly in 2018, Ellison said, where commissioners affirmed and celebrated the full dignity and humanity of people of all gender identifications and celebrated the gifts of people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the church. “That same level of work has to keep happening in our congregations,” Ellison said, “for us to really live into it.”

During the weekend preceding Ellison’s talk, the Rev. Chris Miller, the pastor and head of staff at Trinity Presbyterian Church, attended a wedding officiated by an individual who’s in transition. “I said, ‘I serve a church where we are having a conversation next weekend. We are trying,’” Miller said. This person’s reply to Miller: “That gives me so much hope! I have been hurt so much by the church. I’m glad there are people who have seen it and are trying to do better.”

“It’s hard,” Miller said, “to see the pain of someone hurt so deeply and yet say, ‘There are those of us trying to do better.’ That gives me hope.”

“It’s what I celebrate the most — how many amazing people I have met in the course of my work who are now serving openly or are members of congregations,” Ellison said. “It’s important we prepare the church to be authentic, because that’s what welcome is about.”

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