How long should it take for our congregation to become welcoming?

People frequently express the concern that their congregation has been in dialogue about being welcoming for over a year, but they’re worried about moving to a decision. They’re afraid it could divide the church. I hear this concern a lot… and the notion that the process of becoming welcoming requires a LONG TIME.

They tell me,

  • We have to go very slowly.
  • We have a lot of people who are very uncomfortable.
  • It wouldn’t be good to rush anything, you know, probably two or three years would be right.

In such instances, I find myself raising the question, Just how comfortable do you have to be before you can declare yourself as welcoming? Being uncomfortable could simply be a sign that something’s unfamiliar, something’s changing.

One example of moving forward

My own congregation, Dumbarton United Methodist Church, wrestled with these conversations for nine months (not counting the five months that we had spent planning the process). At that time, we had no “out” members, and for many of the hetero-identified people, it was the first time to talk openly about this subject.

At the end of our process—which involved guest preachers, adult education classes, facilitated committee meetings, and an all-day retreat with the parents of small children—we voted unanimously to become a welcoming congregation.

Did that mean that everyone was completely comfortable?

Not by a long shot. A lot of the people who voted that day were still very uncomfortable, but they had come to the conclusion that being welcoming was the right thing for us to do. So when they raised their hand, they did so in spite of their fears. Raising their hand was an affirmation that they intended to be open, even though they had little idea what that would mean or what changes might be required.

That was 1987, and for the first few years, when I invited friends to visit Dumbarton, I mentioned that the congregation had an intention to be welcoming, but we weren’t “there” yet, it was still a little rocky. Many people were willing to come anyway, and they joined us in the process of becoming the truly welcoming congregation that we are today.

Trust yourself to know when it’s time!

I hope it’s clear that I’m not advocating that you rush the process. Congregations do need to spend some time in dialogue. But rather than put a long timetable on the process, what if you could simply express this confidence: We can trust ourselves to know when to say, “It’s time.” We’ll know soon enough what is the right thing to do.

Contributed by Ann Thompson Cook

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