Skip to main content

On a Saturday afternoon late last spring, the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus presented a concert in our church. For most of their performance, unstoppable tears slipped out of the corners of my eyes. I was just relieved I didn’t dissolve into full-fledged sobbing.

I cried because the music was beautiful. I cried because it felt like the culmination of a long, painful, and wondrous story, although in actuality it is only the close of chapter one. I cried for and with so many of the men in the Chorus who could sense the magnitude of the occasion for our congregation. I imagine for more than a few of them, it was like coming home. They had grown up in small Iowa towns like ours, in conservative church culture. Perhaps the invitation to perform in our church was a sign of hope and change; a small crack in that wall that is still so thick and strong. Perhaps they dreamt of a day they would sing in their own childhood church.

How far back to go in this story?

To the 1990s, when I ran a drop-in center for people with HIV-AIDS, even with my then-ambivalent beliefs? (To be clear, most of the gay clients had already died by the time I worked there. At that point our clientele were mostly intravenous drug users and formerly imprisoned people.) Or to my old files, where I can find an early powerpoint presentation on the “clobber passages” for an adult discussion group from 15 years ago, when I was still doing my own sorting out?

Or back to that moment when I said to myself, “I have changed. My views, my heart have changed,” while reading an essay I consider the tipping point for me personally?

Or to the time when we prudently withdrew a request to allow “Room for All” (the LGBTQ+ advocacy group in the Reformed Church) to hold an event in our building, after unease and resistance was voiced?

Or when we regretfully declined the invitation of a dear gay couple to preside at their wedding, fearing that our congregation, let alone our classis, wasn’t ready for this? Any of these, and a few more, could be an essay in itself. 

We might go back even further—to this congregation’s founding in 1863 as the first “English-speaking” Reformed congregation in a town of then primarily Dutch speakers. “Openness” is in our congregational DNA. Seventy-five years ago, when there were basically only varieties of Reformed churches in town, we were the place where the odd Methodist or Lutheran newcomers to town would come to church. We were a refuge for divorcees in the 1950s and 60s. The first church in our town to stop having evening worship services. The first to ordain women as deacons, then elders, and finally pastors. Our predecessor got in trouble for refusing to adorn the church building with yellow ribbons during Gulf War I. Given that context, the fact that we were going to have a conversation about welcoming LGBTQ+ persons really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

The Process

But let’s go back about five years ago, when our elders decided to form a “Discernment Group” of five to seven people. The group was charged with studying, talking, praying, and reading from a variety of perspectives and returning to the elders with their insights and possible recommendations in about one year.

How naive I was. While I knew this was risky territory, I somehow still believed that if we did this patiently, wisely, and well, our congregation was loving and cohesive enough that we would find common ground. Of course, for some people merely talking about LGBTQ+ people and the church made them anxious, and they gradually, quietly slipped away.

I can honestly say that of the six people named to the Discernment Group, I knew the views of only one of them. The other five were simply people who were trusted and respected, known to be readers, known to be able to handle and hold process. I and my colleague-co-pastor-wife, Sophie, were intentionally not part of the group. It turned out that all six people were somehow involved in education. To some degree, that’s simply a function of the demographics of our congregation. But it probably also points toward those who know how to be collaborative, who’ve been part of study groups and long-term proceedings. Still, the skeptics noted this “bias.” We originally invited a couple of people with known traditional views, who were likewise respected and capable people. They declined.

I understand the cynical perspective that says once you’ve formed a group like this, the outcome is already settled. I certainly did not expect the group to return affirming a solid traditional view. But I could imagine that they might have said something like, “For now, we think it best not to say or do anything. Let’s err on the side of caution.”

The group quietly did what they were charged with doing. They talked to church leaders with varying perspectives from outside our congregation. They read and researched. They gathered material for people from the congregation to read and study. They offered occasional brief updates to the congregation. Those were pretty innocuous, intended to remind people of their ongoing work without raising too much anxiety or tipping their hand.

We specifically pushed the group away from voting, holding straw polls, and the like. It wasn’t for fear of the outcome. Rather, we asked them to be discerners, not nose-counters, to listen more to the Spirit than the results of some vote. It was also a recognition of our Reformed way of being together. Elders, not popular elections, are responsible and hold the power—although to be sure, any wise group of elders does not completely ignore the views of the congregation. Actually, a couple of years earlier, we had to “talk down” our elders who seemed on the verge of unanimously approving the use of our sanctuary for a same-gender marriage. While as pastors, we were sympathetic, we warned them that this seemed hasty and would catch many people off-guard.

Three all-church “listening post” events were held, about four months apart. Sadly, they may have been the weakest link in our process. I’ll own some of that, as I suggested a facilitator: a well-known, well-liked, centrist person from the community who simply proved to be in over their head. Instead of learning how to have difficult conversations or finding guidelines for Christian dialog, it seemed like these events were the closest we came to a straw-poll, to rallying “our side” for a good turnout. Trying to make for a more candid, open discussion, Sophie and I did not attend the second event, only to have some people tell us “you need to be there to hear what people are saying.”

COVID

Then came the pandemic. Everything ground to a halt. The Discernment Group didn’t meet. Frankly, we had more pressing matters to attend to. Moreover, some of those who were critical of the conversation were also those who were critical of our response to COVID. We were “overly-cautious.” We stayed closed for too long. We mandated masks and distancing when we opened. It became painfully obvious that everything was tied to partisanship and polarization.

By now, a process that had been slated for about a year had been going on for over three. Late in spring of 2021, we asked the group to wind it up, to offer some guidance and recommendations.

It felt more like a whimper than a bang. The group had not met in person for about a year. They seemed weary and maybe a bit unstrung, less cohesive. They sent a very brief statement to the consistory, urging them to move forward with a Welcome Statement.

It might have looked like we were limping across the finish line, but now the Consistory picked up the baton. They received the simple statement of the Discernment Group unanimously. They set up a new, smaller group of different people — respected, wordsmiths, team players, current consistory members—who were charged with the actual writing of a Welcome Statement. They had the summer to work and were asked to present something to the consistory in September of 2021.

This writing group was encouraged to write theologically and compassionately and enthusiastically. We didn’t want our Welcome Statement to sound like some tedious policy from a corporate HR handbook, something regrettable but necessary. What they presented was received enthusiastically by the consistory. There were a few small tweaks and edits, as well as a month or two simply to ponder and pray about “What next?” Then, unanimous approval!

Epiphany

Epiphany Sunday 2022 was chosen as the day we shared this “epiphany” with the congregation. Then worship was canceled due to a winter storm. But on Sunday, January 9, right before the closing hymn, a newer elder — a woman, a member of the Discernment Group — came forward, read a little intro and then shared the Welcome Statement. (You may watch it here, from about 56:25 to 1:00:15 ) It was a dramatic, high-tension moment. She did a great job. Several people clapped. Many more wept for joy. Most of the loudest critics were not there that day. They’d been scarce since we reconvened after our Covid stoppages.

Copies of the Welcome Statement were distributed by the elders as people left the sanctuary. In addition, times were posted when the elders would be available to listen to reactions from people. Not too many availed themselves. Perhaps it seemed after-the-fact. Probably as many people showed up to express their gratitude and admiration, as those who were uncomfortable.

Dark Days

You’ll be relieved to know that virtually none of the critics who choose to leave our church are anti-gay. They told us so, themselves. Is it some sort of “progress” when most people know better than to own their homophobic sentiments? Like talking about racism when no one is racist, it is difficult to have honest conversations when people deny the problem. I also surmise that most of those who had sharper, more “biblical” views had departed before we ever reached this point.

I heard things like, “Our Statement isn’t really necessary. . .It was ill-timed. . .It went too far and was divisive. . .Welcoming LGBTQ+ people was an open secret at our church. That was good enough. . .Our longtime practice of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was working fine. . .Why did we focus only on LGBTQ+ people? We didn’t make a statement about the violence and bigotry that Asian Americans had recently endured.” One of the oddest criticisms was basically a form of “What will the neighbors think?” Let’s keep our views quiet and in-house so as not to be labeled, ostracized, ridiculed, or have our kids teased at school.

In the weeks that followed, while much of the congregation was giddy, I was burdened, fearful, and uncertain. And although I’m not proud of it, there was a season where I resented those who were celebrating without realizing the cost to the church or to me personally. Would those who were so pleased with the Statement find replacements to fill the empty pews and cover the responsibilities of those who were leaving? Would they step up their financial giving to make up for the losses we were feeling? Most of the people who announced they were leaving were not surprises. But a few were. There was anguish and disappointment. An ominous feeling hung in the air, like at any moment another shoe might drop.

During that time, I said at a congregational meeting that the people I most admired and were most grateful for were those who weren’t entirely supportive of the Statement, yet remained with us. They, it seemed to me, were modeling health and maturity. They didn’t agree but they didn’t need to depart. They understood that our Statement wasn’t “mandatory” for all members. There is room for difference along with respect, even love.

Still, those felt like dark and draining days, filled with anxiety and second-guessing. All the pastors reached out to different ones who were leaving, offering to listen. A few agreed to meet. Those times were cordial, but it was apparent that no one came ready to have a conversation. Mostly it felt like we were there to absorb their critiques and complaints without an opportunity to reply.

Not long after this, Kate Kooyman blogged here at the Reformed Journal that “people are more likely to accept a decision they hate if they feel they have been seen, considered, and treated with dignity during the process.” It stung. It still does. It haunts me. I don’t doubt the critics and the leavers would say that they did not feel seen, considered, or treated with dignity. Mea culpa. And in case it isn’t obvious, I don’t blame Kate for sharing painfully accurate observations.

Looking back, I don’t know what we could or should have done differently. Not that our process was perfect by any means, but I think it was as good as we could have done. If we did it over, we’d do some things better, but inevitably we’d do other things worse.

Sometimes I wonder if a yank-the-tape-off-in-one-fell-swoop approach might have been preferable. Intense but brief. What if, five years ago, our consistory had simply adopted a somewhat similar Welcome Statement? Without process. Without input. Without warning. I half-think the results would have been about the same. Instead of a thousand paper cuts, one big slash? Shoulda. Coulda. Woulda.

Daylight, Hope, and Future

Just as we’d been told that inevitably we’d lose people—but didn’t entirely accept it—so we’d also been told that inevitably there would be a bright side, a happy afterwards. We didn’t entirely believe this either. After all, it isn’t like there is a huge LGBTQ+ community to now reach in our conservative Iowa town.

Fortunately, we were wrong again. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is joy after the rain. In a totally unscientific analysis, we may have already gained as many people since our Welcome Statement as we lost. Of course, it’s still early—while these people are a joy and a gift, they’re new friends. Things are still tentative, a little unsure yet. Not like the deep, decades-long, old friends who are no longer with us. In five to ten years will these new faces be pillars here, teaching, leading, on the Consistory? We hope.

These new people didn’t appear solely because of the Welcome Statement. Or at least, most did not. But it signals something to them, something appealing. It says we’re a different kind of church. And that’s what they’re looking for. Many of them aren’t quite sure they can really “do” church anymore. They say they’re detoxifying or deconstructing. But if they can do church, it will be in a church with a Welcome Statement.

Many of the newcomers are the highly-desirable and ever-sought “young family with children.” As the North American church perpetually flounders with how to gain young people (and usually decides that middle-age, parental figures crooning impassioned songs from the 1990s is the answer!), we may have inadvertently stumbled upon an answer. Perhaps churches should become open and affirming, not for biblical and theological reasons, but simply as a pragmatic strategy to attract young people.

And there are those deeply rewarding vignettes, holy moments. Memories of them can still put a lump in my throat and are salve to my soul. For example, a woman who brought her gay sister and partner to Easter worship because now it seems okay, safe. It’s not like you would have ever heard gay-bashing preaching at our church before the Statement. And our congregation already included numerous parents of gay children. Still, it took the Statement for these people to begin to trust us, to dare see if we were really genuine.  

And now?

Throughout the whole discussion and process, I said that I didn’t see a Welcome Statement as our central identity as a church, the place where we hang our hat. It is a facet, an important aspect of who we are. But it isn’t everything or even the main thing.

I’d often say that I didn’t see hanging a Pride flag in our sanctuary or our outdoor street sign as the goal. I still feel that way. That’s no judgment on those churches who do this. And there are some here who wish we would. But given our context, I’m simply not sure that is how “we lead.” I’m concerned it becomes a hollow gesture, another misplaced “Mission Accomplished” banner.

That said, I do not want to hide or seem embarrassed by our Statement. We’re proud of it. We own it. We put it out there. We celebrate it. And we know we’re not done yet. It will probably be new pastors, new consistory members, who live more fully into it—who may preside at the first same-gender wedding or the first baptism of a child of an openly LGBTQ+ couple. And probably even another generation before sexual orientation or gender identity are as unremarkable as divorcees are now.

That’s where the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus comes in. We were looking for a way to celebrate our Statement. Yet we didn’t want to appear blustery or abrasive. A Saturday afternoon concert by a known and established group seemed to fit the bill. And the DMGMC was incredibly cooperative and generous to work with.

We publicized the event, but maybe not as broadly as we do other “public” events. That a handful of self-righteous hecklers might show up to decry and disrupt didn’t seem like a complete impossibility. Not those who had left us, but possibly some of the many raving fundamentalists who are our neighbors. None did.

We had a great turnout, including many, many people not from our congregation. Among the touching moments of grace were the relatives–siblings, parents, children—of chorus members who came from surrounding towns. It seemed that for quite a few this was the first time they’d been to a performance. A wonderful gift for both the members of the chorus and their family members. An affirmation. A reunion, of sorts. To make space for this is gospel work. And afterwards, there was a warm and rousing reception with traditional Dutch letters almond pastry. It was a healing, joyful, soul-filling day.

That’s my story, complete with blind spots and biases to be sure. Wonderfully, more and more congregations have their own somewhat similar stories. And none of them are finished. They’re still being written. I wonder, for example, what the church can do to stand up to the transphobic targeting by right wing political propaganda?

My hope is that you will begin to pray and ponder patiently what you and your congregation’s story might be like. And may it possibly even include a glorious day when the Chorus comes to sing.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is one of the pastors  of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa.  He writes regularly here on the Reformed Journal's daily blog.  

12 Comments

  • What a journey. Thank you for this patient work.

    Blessings,

    Mark

  • Tony Vis says:

    Thanks, Steve AND Sophie. I have no profound words to share. No surprise, right? 😊 But I do want you both to know how incredibly grateful I am for your friendship and presence in my life. You have been of immeasurable help in my own journey to “welcome.” You’ve been gentle. You’ve been vulnerable. You’ve been persuasive, without it knowing much of the time I suspect.

    So I’ll just say “thanks” once more and leave it at that … until we’re sitting across a table together.

    With love and respect,

    Tony

  • Ginny Kuilema says:

    Thank you.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thank you for sharing this journey with us. As a member and former pastor of Neland Ave. CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and as a graduate of Pella Christian High School, I have been especially curious about your church’s journey. Neland never adopted a statement; it simply elected a same sex married person to the office of deacon. Nevertheless there are many similarities between our respective congregational journeys — including being blessed with many visitors and new members, many of whose reason for “trying out Neland” is simply, “We have a gay child and we’re tired of getting beat up in our church.”

  • Gloria McCana says:

    Thanks for shining the light on all the nuances of a congregation and community, for shepherding with compassion, and trusting, even with fear and trembling, the Persistent Spirit to guide.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thank you for this inspiring story. Your congregation sounds deeply loving, thoughtful, and welcoming. Having the choir there would have brought tears to my eyes as well.

    There’s a wonderful short story by Alice Walker called “The Welcome Table,” in which a very old, very poor black women resolves to go to a white church one Sunday morning. Everyone in the pews is uncomfortable. The pastor comes to her before the service and says, “Auntie, you know this is not your church?” to which she reflects to herself, “As if one could choose the wrong one.” I can’t imagine a worse indictment of a church.

    She, too, of course, wanted to be “seen, considered, and treated with dignity,” as does every LGBTQ+ person who doesn’t feel safe in most of our churches. Too often, it seems to me, the loudest voices of opposition to such a welcome use words like “I didn’t feel heard,” when in truth they were: they just didn’t like the outcome.

    Alice Walker’s saint would have felt seen, considered, and treated with dignity at your congregation’s church, praise God. My prayer is that no one will ever come to my or any church and not feel fully welcomed to the table.

  • Marcia Carter says:

    Steve- Thank you for taking me back through this journey at Second Reformed! May our experience and leadership guide other congregations as they explore becoming more welcoming. Your reflection on the three listening post events makes me cringe! The committee worked so hard to plan these events – to make them welcoming. For the most part they were anything but comfortable. I wish I had known of your discomfort after the statement was made public. I was in the giddy camp!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you so very very much. It was also good to hear that divorcees are welcomed. Forty years ago I was told by the pastor that I would not be permitted to be a member.

    It’s been my experience that most of those who complain that they weren’t being heard had been heard and heard and heard their entire lives.

  • Carol Vruwink says:

    Steve–Thank you for this story. Second Pella remains near to our hearts after our many years of worshiping there. We’re thankful to have found First Presbyterian, Asheville NC, as our church home and it is a church where all are welcomed.

  • David Hoekema says:

    What an inspiring chronology of faithful listening, to the congregation and to the Spirit! Many thanks for inviting us all to reflect on our own faith communities practices and prospects. A touch of genius to welcome all with boterleter! (An L and a G and a B, and so on, no doubt.)

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Amen to all you wrote and slogged through, to Alison’s essay (and Apostle Paul), to the faithfulness and courage of your congregation, to the comments thus far. Hallelujah.

  • Kate Bolt says:

    Thank you 💙

Leave a Reply