What If Gay Kids Had a Church That Loved Them?

bulliedBy Derek Penwell

In anticipation of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and GA-1327—Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All —here's a reprint of a Huffington Post article I wrote.

When I got to the office yesterday, I had a voicemail from a young man I’ve never met before. The message began, “My name is Benjamin. You don’t know me, but one of your colleagues referred you to me.”

He went on to say that he’d done some research on the church where I work, and the ministry we’re involved in advocating for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. He wanted me to know how much he appreciated our efforts, and how encouraging it is to hear about a church that actually cares for folks who’ve traditionally experienced only heartache at the hands of the religious establishment.

Felt good. Nice to have your work affirmed by a stranger … unsolicited. Put a smile on my face.

He proceeded to relate a bit of his story. He came out to his parents when he was twelve. Being religiously conservative, they did what they believed best—they put him in “reparative therapy”—”pray away the gay.” The whole thing damaged him so badly that he’s assiduously avoided church ever since. I could hear the bitterness in his voice.

Over a very short period of time, I went from feeling, perhaps, a little too self-satisfied at the initial compliment to feeling awful for this young man’s trauma.

Then he said something that struck me as both profoundly sad and strangely hopeful: “I can only wonder how my life would have been different if there’d been a church around that had loved me for who God created me to be, instead of trying to change me from what it feared I represent.”


Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Are There Limits on Diversity?

Open ArmsDiversity. Good word. I’m a progressive, so I use the word a lot. But I’m wondering about the limits of diversity. We progressives prefer not to think about the fact that—as much as we like to think so in theory—in practice there’s no way to include everybody.

Ok. There. I said it. You can’t include everybody.


Somebody will almost certainly exclaim gleefully at this point: “See, I knew it! Liberals want to include everyone except those who are exclusivists!”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Church Buildings and Plastic Couch Covers



Growing up I had a friend whose family had a formal living room. I’m not sure why they had a formal living room, since they got just about as much use out of it as the crawl space under the stairs, which always seemed prone to flooding. But having a formal living room was a big deal … I guess in case the President or K.C. and the Sunshine Band stopped by to visit.

And while the President and Mr. Sunshine Band would have been welcome to sit on the plastic couch cover, ordinary human beings were not. It was a place set aside for some ultra special event that everybody believed might one day occur, and for which no one wanted to be unprepared. And so it languished in all its Teak-paneled and shag-carpeted glory, its uncomfortable looking orange couch and lacquered end tables gathering dust.

Not that it looked like a great place, either to play or relax, but I always harbored a secret desire to sneak into that living room and start moving the macraméed owl wall hangings and the vases filled with big glass balls around. I knew such hijinks in the forbidden room would be stroke-inducing to the people in charge, but dang, it felt like it needed to be done.

 Continue reading on [D]mergent . . .

What If We Stopped Worrying about Church Growth and Started Worrying about Living Like Jesus?

talk to old people  

Church decline has taken hold in earnest. It used to be that only “liberal” mainline churches experienced the soul sucking drip-drip of attrition. But now, even conservative denominations have begun to feel the bite.

As I’ve noted before the fastest rising religious self designation among those 18-29 is “none”—which is to say, no religious affiliation at all. In other words, a staggering number of young people (32%), if they ever had any religious affiliation, no longer do. An alarming number of them have moved on.

And it’s not that they don’t necessarily care anything about the spiritual plane of existence. Many of the “nones” still claim to have a belief in God, still pray, still think of themselves as spiritual. What they almost all share in common, however, is a decided sense of estrangement from organized religion.

What does this mean for the church? Young people came; they saw; they went to Starbucks.

Continue reading on [D]mergent . . .

Why the Church Needs Some Masculine Feminists

Women we can do it (rev)  

A friend of mine had a baby. After the shock of finding herself the proud new owner of a six pound bundle of joy, pandemonium, and excretion, she went to the mailbox and discovered a bill from the insurance company—the presence of which bill shocked no one, since babies (if they ever did) don’t come for free anymore.

However, after she returned to the newly baby-besieged confines of her home, she opened the bill, only to find that the insurance magnates had refused to pay for her epidural (you know, the hope of chemical relief to which many women cling when the pain becomes unbearable). Sagely, the compassionate folks in underwriting had determined that an “epidural is an elective procedure for a vaginal birth.” Consequently, the insurance company refused to pay that portion of the costs.

My friend was furious. And I, though I lack the requisite equipment to give first person testimony on behalf of the advantages of an epidural for a vaginal birth, was pretty certain an outrage had been committed. I have witnessed labor up close; and I feel safe in admitting my uncertainty about whether I would have the pain tolerance to face it without a great deal of chemical handholding.

I told my wife, a Postpartum nurse and mother of three herself, about the insurance company’s dodge. She got a dangerous look in her eye (the same one she got, perhaps not coincidentally, when I tried to convince her of the propriety of taking my last name when we got married) and said, “Some damn man made that decision!”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Fighting the Last War: Churches with Bad Habits

“We’re looking for a minister who can preach and teach. We’d like the successful candidate to be able to keep people from falling asleep during the sermon. We feel like we need good preaching because we want our people to grow; so, being able to challenge us intellectually and spiritually is a must.”.

“We’re looking for a pastor who will pay attention to us, who’ll spend time in the hospitals and nursing homes. The successful candidate will be a nurturing presence committed to loving all of our people during the difficult times, as well as the good times.”


“We’re looking for a someone who knows how to manage a large staff, who knows how to lead and offer vision. The successful candidate will be creative, but more importantly will know how to follow through, get things done.”

If you want to know what a congregation thought its previous minister lacked, sit in a pastoral search committee meeting. Like generals, churches always seem to be preparing to fight the last war.

Continue reading at [D]mergent

Staying Busy or Changing the World?

Handwriting (b&w)

I remember that point in my first ministry when I came to the office, sat down behind my desk prepared to write a sermon and realized I had already said everything I knew to say. I kept going over possible angles for the sermon, and kept running headlong into a brick wall: "Said it. Nope, said it. Said that. Said that too."

I figured my career had reached its conclusion. I was sure that the next sermon would be my valedictory.

Where do ministers go after they've exhausted their knowledge, or perhaps better, when they've lost ways to communicate what they care about? After all, I hadn't really said everything I knew. I just couldn't see the bridges that would take me back to all the knowledge I had accumulated.

Sometimes I still feel that way when I preach or when I write—like whatever good I've had to say has already been said. Not much in front of me from here on out. I start feeling sorry for myself, wondering why inspiration isn't a constant companion.

Some of it is boredom, some of it laziness. You do your thing for a while and you start thinking, "What's next? Surely, there's got to be something that will motivate me."

And do you want to know what usually happens when these thoughts come flitting back through my mind? I eventually think: "I need to get busy doing something . . . something important."

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Doing the Reassurance Dance

Dancing b&w  

Debbie, who comes into the church where I work at least three or four times a week, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Most of the time she’s as docile and kind as she can be. Sometimes, though she gets afraid. And when she experiences fear, she lashes out. (Who doesn’t, right?)

Debbie talks freely about her life–what kinds of things are happening at her apartment complex, who’s hassling her, what kind of health problems she has. From Debbie’s perspective, there seems to be a great deal wrong with the world … wrong in ways that threaten Debbie’s world. I’m not sure what her world looks like to her, but from my vantage point, the world Debbie inhabits looks pretty scary.

I understand Debbie’s fear, given the reality she inhabits. Because that fear seems so proximate and real, whenever she goes to leave, Debbie will come to me and ask: “Father Penwell [although I’m not a priest–at least of any recognized order, except, perhaps, the parental one]: Is everything all right? Does Debbie have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I call this the Reassurance Dance. The reassurance dance exists as a desperate need to have someone tell us everything’s going to be all right.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

So What? The Nightmare Christians Should Be Having

Munch ScreamI used to have a recurring nightmare about presenting a paper at a conference. In the dream I would conclude my presentation in front of my colleagues, and then I would do the requisite "Question and Answer." Invariably, a bespectacled man in a camel hair sport coat and blue jeans would stand up and ask, "So what?"

Panicked, I would stammer, "What do you mean, 'So what?'"

"Well, I guess what you say is sort of interesting, but what turns on it? Why should I think your work is important? In other words, I hear what you're saying, but the first thing I think is, 'So what?'"

The fastest growing religious designation in America over the past five years, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is "None." While atheism and agnosticism have risen slightly over that time, the biggest increase is among those who, when asked about institutional religion, respond, "Meh."

Continue reading . . .

So What Is the General Assembly Resolution All About?

The GLAD Alliance has released a response to the recent hand wringing among those in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) over the prospect of a General Assembly resolution calling on the church to recognize itself as a place of welcome and grace for all—regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Here are some FAQs about why the resolution is necessary and what it is intended to do.

Appealing to the Provisional Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I've tried to offer an additional brief attempt to frame the need for a resolution:

As Disciples, we claim in the Design that “every person who is or shall become a member of a recognized congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) thereby holds membership” in the regional and general church. In other words, the Design asserts that one enters into a covenantal relationship with the CCDoC first at the congregational level. Notably lacking in this definition of membership is any qualifying or disqualifying characteristic. Consequently, if a local congregation receives a person into membership, that membership grants full access to fellowship and service within the whole church. Moreover, the Design provides for no mechanism whereby that membership can be qualified by regional or general expressions of the church.

Therefore, if membership in a local congregation extends unqualified membership to the regional or general church, we must make every effort to recognize and welcome all members. This resolution seeks to say a positive word of grace and welcome to those members who have, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, too often gone unrecognized and unwelcomed.

The world is changing rapidly, especially when it comes to our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender sisters and brothers.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) needs to speak with clarity about our understanding of justice in the new reign God is unleashing.

How Did We Learn to Love Gay People So Quickly?

How Did We Learn to Love Gay People So Quickly?


"But there are some of us who’ve seen the new paradigm, a gestalt in which our view of the equality of our LGBT sisters and brothers isn’t an attempt to 'ignore the Bible,' but is itself a reordering of our relationship to the Bible in ways that seem more faithful to its true message about the wide embrace of God.

"We learned to love our LGBT sisters and brothers not because they needed to change, but because we did."

DOMA and the Supreme Court: Its Time for the Church to Get Its Story Straight — [D]mergent

On Tuesday and Wednesday, March 26 and 27, the Supreme Court is going to hear three hours of arguments on two cases concerning the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act DOMA. Both have to do with the legality of denying marriage to same gendered couples. That the way this issue is argued, and ultimately decided, bears watching should go without saying. I along with a number of other people will be paying close attention.

Since legal analysis isn’t my area of expertise, I will leave that to the professional legal pundits. What I’m interested in taking a look at is the extent to which our attitudes about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have changed so profoundly that it is now possible to think that full equality, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is within reach. So, without resorting overmuch to triumphalism, here’s what I think:

No matter what happens in the Supreme Court this week, the war against the exclusion of LGBT folks has been won; we are merely fighting rearguard actions.

Continue reading at DOMA and the Supreme Court: Its Time for the Church to Get Its Story Straight — [D]mergent.

Tell Yourself: Why Congregations Need to Stop Looking for External Affirmation — [D]mergent

We walked to the YMCA yesterday, my four year-old son and I. The snow fell on us as we made our way to the entrance.

“That’s called a snowflake,” the boy said.

“That’s good,” I observed. “You’re pretty amazing. Has anyone ever told you that?”

He stuck out his hand to catch a snowflake, and said, “I tell myself that.”

If true, at four he’s further down the road to maturity than a lot of people I know—myself included sometimes.

Indeed, he’s further down the road than most congregations I know, which seem constantly to pursue the kind of affirmation that comes from some external source.

“We’ve got xxxx people. We have a bazillion dollar budget. Our new parking lot features a helipad. We’ve got dedicated space for Christian Aerobics, a Starbucks in the vestibule, and an anointed unicorn that cries magic jelly bean tears that have little Jesus fish embossed on them. Please tell us we’re amazing.”

It’s hard. Human beings—even perhaps, especially? suitably zealous Christian ones—look for a sign to reassure them that they’re moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the signs they’re busy reading often have as their goal a destination the gospel finds unintelligible.

via Tell Yourself: Why Congregations Need to Stop Looking for External Affirmation — [D]mergent.

Broken Promises: How We Betrayed the Next Generation — [D]mergent

Last week, on the day of the President’s State of the Union address, Alexandria Petri wrote a piece for the Washington Post on the “State of the Millennial Union.” You know, Millennials—that age demographic that includes those born between 1980 and 2000?Ms. Petri suggested that the state of the Millennial union is anything but strong. Twenty and Thirty-somethings are stressed, anxious. They’re unemployed at a rate of 13.1% … which fails to take into account the 1.7 million young adults from that generation that have given up looking for work.

They are, according to Ms. Petri, feeling a bit left behind by the administration whose presidential campaign relied so heavily on them to win reelection. “Yes,” they say, “we’re concerned about social issues. Yes, we tend to be more liberal than our parents on the soft stuff. But we are concerned about economics—especially the economics that have to do with our own pocketbooks … since those are remarkably empty right about now. We were there for you; we need you to be there for us.

”Why the stress? Why the lingering fear that they’ve been betrayed?

Broken promises.

via Broken Promises: How We Betrayed the Next Generation — [D]mergent.

Bullies, Drones, and Jesus: An Open Letter to the President — [D]mergent

Dear Mr. President,I’ve had you on my mind lately, what with the kerfuffle over drones. I thought I’d write you a little note.In sixth grade I punched Russell Burgess in the mouth. He never saw it coming. Well, I mean, he saw it coming in the sense that he saw my fist coming toward his face. But he didn’t know I was going to do it.Russell was an easy kid to dislike. He wasn’t necessarily mean; he was just always there, underfoot, at the wrong time, desperately seeking affirmation from prepubescent suburbanites who were socially and biologically engineered to sniff out neediness for the purposes of withholding approval. We had power we were unafraid of wielding, usually without regard to the consequences experienced by our victims.The reason I punched him, I suppose, had to do with my own need for approval. Standing in a crowd, I told him to take a hike. He laughed at my presumption. So, I punched him in the mouth.My outburst caused no small amount of consternation.

via Bullies, Drones, and Jesus: An Open Letter to the President — [D]mergent.

Lee Harvey Oswald and the Neediness of Dying Congregations — [D]mergent

The irony is that congregations that need people the most tend to repel those same people because their need is the thing they project to the world, and not their willingness to give themselves away. The thought life of a dying congregation is focused so much on itself that it can lose perspective on the ministry of selflessness it’s supposed to be committed to. It’s a near world class gymnastic contortion to go from “We have to do something or we’re going to die” to “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Continue reading at Lee Harvey Oswald and the Neediness of Dying Congregations — [D]mergent.