Trans Welcome Here

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Every once in a while, it becomes imperative to say what ought to be obvious. Sometimes you have to state the basics, read the fine print out loud, articulate the absolutes.

This week is one of those times. Let me say it boldly then::

Trans people are not burdens; they are not a drain on the body politic. Trans people contribute to the good of this country, whether in public or private service.

Trans people are not suffering from “gender confusion,” oppressed by a “liberal agenda.” Trans people know who they are, and may be liberal or conservative.

Trans people are not political footballs to be punted around for a few votes here or there. Trans people are real human beings. Everyone should get to know a few.

Trans people are not possessed by demons who cunningly deceive them. Trans people are often people of faith with an abiding sense of the divine.

Trans people are not trying to prey on young children by sneaking into the wrong bathroom. Trans people merely want to use the bathroom.

Trans people are beloved children of God.

Trans people are deserving of dignity and respect.

Trans people need companions on the faith journey, too.

Trans people seek forgiveness, acceptance, salvation, and sanctification.

Trans people want to be welcomed in church, not criticized, judged, or berated.

Kessler Park UMC is a place where trans people are warmly welcomed. We are an inclusive and diverse congregation, open to all people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and sexual identity.

That’s what we believe. Seems pretty simple to us. 

If your church tries to tell you differently, then maybe you ought to find a different church.

Church DNA, Part One

I found myself in a conversation with colleagues recently in which the topic of discussion was whether or not a church can change its DNA. In other words, can a congregation buck years of unhealthy tradition and become healthy, or is this an impossible task?

The person who raised the question is someone who finds herself in a small church which struggles to pay the bills and attract new members. She’s afraid that her church has too much history of negative patterns and conflict to overcome.

This exchange caused me to reflect on the idea of a church’s DNA. I have read lots of books about church leadership and attended a fair number of conferences on the matter, and I recognize that the analogy of DNA is an accurate one for groups and organizations.

DNA is the genetic code of every living organism; it includes everything one would need to know about a human being’s biology. It is passed along to us by our parents, and then we pass it along to our children.

The same kind of phenomenon occurs in organizations. Just as healthy genes and unhealthy viruses can be transferred by DNA from generation to generation, both functional and dysfunctional systems and patterns can be passed on in larger groups, like churches. It's especially important to recognize that those who start an organization put their fingerprints all over that group for a very long time; the way that a church is founded carries serious implications for its success or failure in the long run.

So yes, every church has a DNA that reflects its particularities, both in positive and helpful ways, as well as negative and harmful ones. Kessler Park UMC has a DNA that is unique to this particular church, which has made us what we are today.

I don’t know all the details of that DNA; I don’t know the full history of KPUMC. None of us know it all. But each of us have made our own contributions to this heritage, especially those of you who have been members for long years. Each pastor has also contributed to the DNA of KPUMC. His or her sermons, care, teachings, administrative style, and lifestyle choices have all shaped who we are.

I am particularly thankful for the rich blessings of this history, and I can see many positive results of the traditions and customs that have been passed down over the 90+ years of this congregation’s past.

Likewise, I can see that not everything that this church has passed down has been helpful or positive. That’s to be expected! It’s likely that there are genes that your own family have passed on to you that you wish you could have missed. This is nothing to be ashamed about; it’s merely the truth about who we are. All legacies are mixed — none are completely righteous and good.

I told my colleague that I certainly believe that a church can change. And I believe that part of the responsibility lies on the pastor to identify those features of church culture which need to change. Clergy can be important change agents, alongside of key lay leaders and staff persons.

The first step in changing a church culture is open acknowledgement of those things which ought to change. We all need to learn to answer the following questions from time to time: What part of our organization appears “stuck in a rut”? What unhealthy patterns continue despite our best efforts? What are the worst stories about our past?

When a church is able to openly identify and discuss its shortcomings and failures, then it puts itself into a position to receive transformation through the Holy Spirit. It’s the first step in changing the DNA.

Let me conclude this first column on KPUMC by asking you this question: “What part of our DNA needs some revision?” I’ll give you some of my own thoughts next week.

Signs of Hope in the Catskills

There’s an old church tradition that, when you go on vacation and miss Sunday services at your home church, you must bring a bulletin from the church you attended while out of town, back to your pastor. Ken and Colleen Kelley have been especially diligent about doing this while I’ve been at KPUMC, but I’ve received bulletins from others, too.

And so, in case you’re wondering, I have in my possession the July 16th worship bulletin from Roxbury United Methodist Church in Roxbury, New York.

While Leah and I were on vacation last week in the Catskill Mountains, we stayed at the summer home of Otto Wagenbach. He and Pat were gracious hosts, and we had a marvelous time of rest and relaxation.

But we went to church on my Sunday off! For one, Otto and Pat wanted us to meet their summer pastor, Donna LeRoy, who turns out to be a dynamite preacher and warm personality. Donna works hard on Sundays, because she is responsible for three different churches; in Methodist terms, she has what’s called a three-point charge. She preaches at Roxbury only on the first and third Sundays at 9 am; then she’s off to Margaretville UMC to preach at 10:30 am.

I was extremely glad that we went to church on that Sunday; the four of us practically doubled the congregation! There were ten of us in attendance that morning, not counting Donna and the organist.

I suppose one could be disappointed or distraught at the decline of Methodism in upstate New York; after all, this is historically one of the strongest bastions of Methodism in America. One could conclude that Christianity is slowly dying in the northeast, which is a narrative that is certainly being spread by some pundits.

The truth is that these small towns and villages are themselves in decline. Dairy farming was the primary industry in Roxbury and Margaretville at one time. Times have changed; big factories now do dairy work on a large scale. Jobs have shrunk, and most kids who grow up in these small towns move off to raise families elsewhere. Otto told me that, unfortunately, drug use has become a problem as opportunity has passed these places up.

Thus, the shrinking church is merely a symptom of what is happening in the larger community. There are fewer people around, so of course there will be smaller congregations.

But numbers are never the true sign of a vital church. The sign of a healthy church is the kind of mission it embraces, and the fruit it bears.

Fortunately, it appears that Roxbury UMC is a healthy church, and not just because Otto and Pat are there! That little historic church knows that they don’t exist merely for themselves, but for the good of the whole community. Earlier in the month, Roxbury UMC participated in the Celebrate Roxbury Festival; later in the summer they plan to have a joint service with a neighboring Reformed church. During announcement time, Pastor Donna shared that the churches in the parish were planning a joint Vacation Bible School for the children in the area.

In the sermon, which centered on Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, Pastor Donna emphasized the fact that the church was responsible for sowing the seed of the Gospel. She challenged all ten of us to be diligent in sharing God’s good news with other. She even dared to remind the church that its mission was to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The church of Jesus Christ only prospers when it recognizes that it is part of God’s mighty work in the world, and wants to participate. We are part of a movement, the unveiling of God’s kingdom on earth, and we have a deeply important role to play in that movement.

It was incredibly encouraging to see signs of life at Roxbury UMC, but I confess that I am even more excited about getting back to church at Kessler Park UMC, because the same thing is happening here.

Let’s get back to work!