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Greater NW Pride: Growing Churches Welcome LGBTQ+ People


Growing Churches Welcome LGBTQ+ People

Part of the joy of my position is every day I read about what is going on in other denominations concerning LGBTQ+ issues and their respective churches. Along with More Light Presbyterians and Covenant Network in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I’m always interested in what is going on in the United Church of Christ (UCC). When I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I attended United Church of Chapel Hill, NC, a UCC church, and my partner is a member of University Congregational UCC Church in Seattle, WA. In the UCC, the LGBTQ+ network is called Open and Affirming, or ONA. 
Reconciling UMC churches, More Light Presbyterian churches, and ONA UCC churches seem to have similar stories. For example, there is a common story of churches that are, at first, hesitant to start being affiliated with these progressive LGBTQ+ groups out of fear that the individual churches will lose members and, therefore, money, and die. When there is enough critical pressure from those who are LGBTQ+ in a church, or the kith and kin of church members who are LGBTQ+ pressure their kith and kin in the church to become affiliated with the denomination’s LGBTQ+ group, a discussion starts. Speakers and workshops start. Books and pamphlets are read. Then the churches start to explore being a Reconciling, More Light, or ONA church, writing vision statements. Finally, the individual churches welcome and integrate LGBTQ+ people into the life of a church, even with a possible pastor, priest, or minister who is LGBTQ+.
I was intrigued about a note in the SW Conference of the UCC newsletter that cited that, “on average ONA congregations have more members and healthier finances than non-ONA churches. “One of the obstacles to congregations hesitating to begin their ONA journey is fear: the fear of losing members and income if the church votes to adopt an ONA covenant," says Andy Lang, the ONA Coalition’s executive director. “But this latest research shows the opposite is happening: ONA congregations are attracting more members and reporting higher budgets than the UCC average.” 
“The report was released (the week of Nov. 16, 2019), by the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) and by the Coalition (from) the statistics (for) 2018.”
“On average, ONA churches have 24% more members.” (my emphasis)
“ONA churches report a 33% higher average for worship attendance (per service.)”
“In 2018, ONA churches attracted 50% more new members.” 
“ONA churches report higher budgets, therefore higher income. These numbers show churches from the lowest percentile (the ten percent of churches with the smallest budgets) to the highest (the ten percent with the largest budgets). In each group, ONA congregations report significantly large budgets than non-ONA.”
“So, it’s not surprising that the closure/merger rate for ONA congregations is lower: 1.8% of ONA churches (22) closed in the past five years (2014-2018) compared to 3.2% of non-ONA churches (110). In fact, the relative health of ONA congregations lowered he UCC’s five-year average of closing churches (2.4%).
However, just welcoming and integrating LGBTQ+ people of faith does not magically grow a church or guarantee congregational financial health or attraction of new members. “It all depends on how well a church integrates its ONA commitment into is vision, identity, communications, and priorities. We’ve learned that ONA churches that are visible and active in their communities have the potential to grow—in numbers and in spirit. Churches that are invisible and inactive may continue to stagnate.” Of course, there are non-ONA churches that are healthy, and it is not the only reason a church grows, but it is a remarkable variable to focus upon in trying to figure out how to grow Christ’s body.
So, in my work with the OR-ID UMC Conference in 2020, I will continue to share this story of the ONA churches in the UCC, and continue to see in what ways we, in this Conference, can continue the upward trajectory of having more congregations that are Reconciling, or at least “open and affirming” in their language as UMC churches. I will also look at the statistics of what churches closed in the last ten years in this Conference, and see how many of them were Reconciling, as well as check in with the Reconciling and open and affirming congregations and see how they are doing in terms of membership numbers and financial health.
Who knows: the answer to the declining number of UMC churches in the OR-ID UMC Conference may be in becoming welcoming and integrating LGBTQ+ members, right where we are!
Stay tuned!

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!