Dear St. Paul’s Friends,
In any community of our church’s size, there are bound to be times when we don’t all agree, times when rumors and gossip spread, and times when people are upset. Even though I tend to be a people-pleaser and a consensus-builder, in my 10+ years of ministry, I’ve come to terms with the fact that you can never make everyone happy.
Over the last couple months, there have been disagreements in the church specifically around flying the Pride Flag during the month of June. Based on the responses I have heard, I can say with reasonable certainty that the majority of people in the congregation either supported the use of the flag, or they were indifferent. I know there were also some that never even noticed it. However, there was a small group within the church that was upset that we would fly the Pride Flag during Pride month.
Concerns that were raised related to whether it’s appropriate to fly the Pride Flag at church, if we were in violation of the US flag code, why we felt the need to fly the Pride Flag and not other flags, if the congregation should have been included in the decision, and more.
I, along with members of the council and congregation, have worked to address some of these concerns when approached. I usually begin by noting two things:
1. The reason we fly the Pride Flag is because LGBTQIA+ individuals have nearly across the board been made unwelcome in churches throughout history and still today. If we seek to be truly welcoming, we need to make a statement that we are unlike other churches that exclude our LGBTQIA+ siblings, deny their existence, or threaten their lives.
2. The Congregation Council has the authority to make the decision to fly the Pride Flag. If we remove that level of decision-making authority from the Council, it disempowers them. What decisions can the Council make? The members of the Congregation Council are elected and trusted leaders of our congregation. We entrust them with the responsibility to make faithful decisions. If you would like to give input on these decisions, perhaps you would make a good Council member. As we enter the fall and winter, the Nominating Committee will be searching for nominees. Additionally, the Council meetings are public meetings, and you are welcome to attend as a visitor.
Beyond these responses, I turn to the New Jersey Synod’s Guiding Principles for Ministry with and among LGBTQ+ Youth from 2019, which indicates that we need to be specific and active in our welcome of the LGBTQIA+ community:
Our welcome of LGBTQ+ young people needs to be specific, regularly articulated, and lived out.
a. The default understanding in our society is that the church is not welcoming or accepting of LGBTQ+ people. It is easy for marginalized people to hear “all are welcome” as “all are welcome but me.” Therefore simply saying “All are Welcome” is not enough.
b. If we aren’t actively, intentionally articulating and living out this welcome, then we are (unintentionally or not) unwelcoming to LGBTQ+ people.
When the Council discussed the concerns about the Pride Flag at our July 2023 meeting, we also noted that by simply flying the flag, it may have a life-saving impact. Unfortunately, depression and suicide rates are significantly higher among LGBTQIA+ individuals than among the general population. In fact, LGBTQIA+ teens consider suicide and make suicide attempts at more than twice the national rate for all adolescents. The simple act of seeing the Pride Flag flying at a church may be enough to affect an individual’s mental health, even if they never even walk through our doors. It was also recognized that the Progress Pride Flag may have a deeper impact. Finally, in regards to the flag code, we will be diligent in our reading, and make any necessary adjustments.
It is worth noting that the ELCA has passed repeated resolutions to welcome people who identify as LGBTQIA+, beginning in 1991. In other words, just three years after the ELCA was constituted, and over 30 years ago, our church body found that it was necessary to make explicit our welcome of the LGBTQIA+ community. It is usually said that the church tends to lag about ten years behind society in cultural changes and work for justice. Ten years is disappointing in itself, but here we are, 30 years after the ELCA made their statement of welcome, arguing about how welcoming we really should be.
One individual suggested to me that it’s okay to be welcoming, but we don’t need to put it in their face by flying a flag. I argue that is not a position of true welcome. If people who identify as LGBTQIA+ cannot come to church and be their genuine selves and feel affirmed in their identity, then we are not welcoming. In a world where the “normal” opinion is that churches are not welcoming, we need to make it abundantly clear that St. Paul’s is a place where the LGBTQIA+ community is welcome, accepted, and loved, just as they are.
In my interviews at St. Paul’s, both with the call committee and with the congregation as a whole, it was made abundantly clear that St. Paul’s intends to be a welcoming congregation, specifically for the LGBTQIA+ community. I have seen this lived out in the last year and a half. And so, I am baffled by the outcry that we’ve experienced by flying the Pride Flag, and I pray that we can move forward faithfully, in open conversation, and in loving acceptance of one another.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Jessica Hahn
New Jersey Synod Guiding Principles, Policies and Practices relating to ministry with LGBTQ+ Youth. Adopted by the New Jersey Synod Council on 4/6/19. Available online: https://www.njsynod.org/_files/ugd/58841f_ec6e1abfb57842faa703cc9eccc49886.pdf
The Trevor Project: 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People. Available online: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2023/#suicide-by-age