Dear Pastor Conflicted about LGBTQ+ Inclusion

The following essay is written by the co-pastors of City Church of Long Beach and originally appeared on their blog. City Church of Long Beach launched in 2014 and the leadership formed a Study Team in early 2016 in order to look at issues surrounding participation of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. After spending 18 months working through a syllabus of material that covered a range of topics from different Christian perspectives, they share here a pastoral letter to other pastors who might be starting (or thinking about starting) a similar journey.

Dear Pastor Conflicted about LGBTQ+ Inclusion,

We have been in your shoes. You’ve started to wonder whether the church–YOUR church–needs to become more inclusive, especially of LGBTQ+ people, and you feel conflicted. Your heart is torn, your mind is spinning.

On one hand, you’ve heard a lot of stories about how LGBTQ+ people have been hurt by Christians. Perhaps even some LGBTQ+ people you know and deeply love. On the other, you’ve also heard a lot about “the gay agenda”–are you just getting sucked in? Is your compassion leading you astray?

On one hand, you’ve already rethought a few other beliefs you once held firmly, and the process actually strengthened and deepened your faith. So why not be willing to at least listen to the conversation around LGBTQ+ inclusion? On the other, the Bible has always seemed pretty clear to you on this one.

On one hand, you see Jesus gravitating toward the people that “good religious folks” shun. You see Jesus being radically welcoming, over and over again. On the other, LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church is such a hot button issue that just bringing it up as a question worth exploring together could cost you members–or even your job.

We get it.

Everyone’s journey is different. Certainly we (Brenna and Bill) have each traveled different paths. But we’ve seen over and over again that, for many, it’s a frightening journey. So whatever you’re feeling, you’re not alone.

I (Bill) grew up a true conservative evangelical…

I came to faith through Young Life, served in missions with the Assemblies of God, worked with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and pastored at a modest megachurch. None of those settings were welcoming to LGBTQ+ people, most of them believed in reparative therapy and ‘pray-the-gay-away,’ and lots of queer friends have since reported experiencing intense harm from each of those settings where I was a leader.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I began to rethink the church’s approach to LGBTQ+ inclusion. There was lots of wrestling–and tears–on that journey. Asking those questions and trying to follow Jesus in this area has cost me plenty of friends and opportunities along the way. So the fear of loss is real.

I (Brenna) was also raised in the conservative evangelical church, but…

My relationship with it was complicated. I loved Jesus and, like Bill, went straight into ministry after college, first with Campus Crusade for Christ, then with a mid-sized church. But there was always a tightrope for me to walk–not only as a woman preaching, leading, and pursuing the pastorate, but also as someone with doubts about how well the church was following Jesus in the ways of justice. And the questions I had about LGBTQ+ inclusion? Not only were they clearly taboo, but I also had no idea where to start exploring answers.

In the end, getting pushed out of the church I was serving and off the tightrope I was walking created the initial freedom I needed to dive into my real questions. My job ending in 2015 was a painful but real mercy, one that I’ve experienced again and again in smaller ways since then, re-calibrating relationships to make room for who I actually am and what I actually believe. Along the way I’ve found new spiritual companions, just as passionate about Jesus, just as curious about whether there is a different way to read Scripture and love people than we’ve been taught.

Church journeys are also highly individual.

When we began as a congregation to examine this issue, we lost over half our church. This was despite planning very intentionally for a healthy, honoring, Scripture-centered process. (An oft quoted line by those departing was, “You don’t need to study this issue–it’s clear.”) The risks you anticipate personally and for your community may give you pause. You may be wondering, Is it really worth it to open up the conversation about how we love and include our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors?

Is it worth it?

In a word, yes. Following Jesus is always worth it. But if that answer sounds a little pat (and it should), here are just a few of the incredible benefits we’ve experienced ourselves and heard echoed by our church members:

1) We’ve re-gained a sense of spiritual integrity and wholeness.

Perhaps this is a selfish one, but it’s real. Despite the ongoing pressure from more traditional congregants and family and friends, we just can’t unsee how radically welcoming Jesus is. And we can no longer believe that the Spirit is done bringing in the marginalized. So committing to radical welcome and inclusivity ourselves has meant living undivided; our hearts and day-to-day work finally align. For our church members, one interesting way we’ve seen this sense of spiritual wholeness reflected is in how often and readily, without any pressure from us, they are inviting people to church. It’s the kind of thing our former churches pushed and longed for, yet almost never saw. What our people have told us is, “I’m just so glad to finally be at a church I’m not embarrassed to invite my gay co-workers and neighbors to. I’m so glad to be part of a church that aligns with my values and connects with my day-to-day experiences.”

2) Opening that one door allows in a whole rainbow of light.

Working through what is currently one of the most divisive issues in the church together, learning how to have vigorous, loving, and honest conversations in the midst of disagreement–it changes your church culture for the better. We can talk about everything now. We can ask what following Jesus looks like at our local brewery and at the voting polls. We can teach and wonder through the hard subjects of Scripture like centering the poor and confronting racism. We can rethink how power works in the church, for worse and for better.

3) We’ve seen such remarkable healing and redemption.

The best part by far has been seeing Jesus bring healing to so many people who’ve been harmed by the church, who’ve felt hated by God, whose families have kicked them out, and who’ve felt trapped in shame. And let’s be clear–it isn’t just our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors being healed on this journey. It’s repairing the souls of us straight-cisgender folks, too. We’re rediscovering a God who is so much bigger and kinder than the rigid moralism we’ve been steeped in tries to tell us. We’re learning to love the Bible more deeply as we approach it with fresh eyes and honest hearts. We’re undoing years of training that faith looks like stifling our questions and our compassion and beginning to embrace their wisdom instead. And all of this is changing how we love people. It’s shifting us away from a posture of control, toward one of care, curiosity, and respect. We owe our LGBTQ+ friends so much–not just apologies for how we’ve treated them in the past, not just respect for how they have persevered despite our harmful and exclusionary practices, but also deep gratitude for how their friendship and participation in our community is helping us become better humans and followers of Jesus.

Practical suggestions:

If any of this speaks to your soul, here are a few practical suggestions to help you take another step or two on the journey toward LGBTQ+ inclusion:

1) Start learning–especially by listening to stories.

Notice in Acts, Galatians, and Philemon how the 1st-century church spent so much time listening to stories when it came to their big debates about inclusion. We should do the same. Who are the LGBTQ+ voices in the church you are listening to? We recommend Oriented to Love, QCF, Revoice, and The Reformation Project as places to start.

2) Consider your finances.

We recently worked with an associate pastor who asked us to change which email we used for her because if anyone on staff found out she’d been corresponding about her questions on these issues she would be fired. That’s a real consideration for some of you. Sometimes wisdom requires you to hold your tongue while you prepare for a difficult transition. It can be wise to get your finances in order, switch health insurance to your spouse, etc., depending on the type of employment situation you are in.

3) Get coaching.

Often pastors’ training up to this point has not equipped them well to lead their people through these conversations. Coaching allows you to learn from the mistakes others have already made, to bring better tools with you for the journey ahead, and to connect with other leaders on a similar path. You can find coaching through a number of places, including Small Church Big Table, LOVEboldly, Estuary Space, and Kaleidoscope.

Dear Pastor Conflicted about LGBTQ+ Inclusion (and truly, truly, you are dear), your explorations won’t necessarily lead you where ours have. We do hope along the way you’ll hear the call of Jesus to someway, somehow do better at loving our LGBTQ+ siblings.

Bill White lives in Long Beach, CA. His wife, Katy, is a doctor serving those without insurance in LA County. They have two kids, one working in political communications in Wisconsin and one in grad school in Chicago. Bill worked for 25 years in the evangelical world as missionary, parachurch staff, and pastor. He shifted more post-evangelical around the time his kids identified as gay.



Brenna Rubio was a military brat who moved constantly growing up, and a feminist since birth, which always created tension with the evangelical churches she was raised in. Her husband, Israel, enjoys calling himself “the pastor’s wife,” but high school administration is his day job. Their four awesome kids, ranging from elementary through high school, get most of their parents’ down time. But there are magical moments when Brenna gets to just curl up with coffee and a good book.

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