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The Captain of a Ship That's Going Under

Today is January 19, 2018. Last week, our church’s Youth Pastor sent out an email to parents of highschool-age youth informing them that one of their leaders would be sharing a story that would include his “coming out.”

How do you think that went over?

My hope is that this writing I’m doing will provide an honest account, not only of the things that we’ve done well along this journey, but also of the things we’ve done poorly. And believe me when I say that the past week has been an example of something done poorly. For the most part, I believe we’ve mitigated much of the initial shock and have prevented any long-term damage, but only time will tell.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

It was two weeks ago that our Youth Pastor, Graham, sent me a draft email that he was hoping to send out to parents that night. From time to time, one of our Youth leaders would sit on “the hot seat” and provide the youth with an opportunity to pelt them with questions, and now it was Eric’s turn. Regardless of what other leaders might have included in their stories, we knew this one was on a different level, which is why Graham wanted to give parents the head’s up.

His email arrived a couple of hours before Youth started and I asked Melissa to read it over my shoulder before I replied. When she asked me when we were planning on sending it out and I responded, “Right now,” well, let’s just say she made it quite clear she did not think that was a good idea!

At risk of undermining our Youth Pastor—which seemed a lesser risk than ignoring my wife’s advice—I asked him to hit ‘pause’ on the discussion and wait until the following week when we could give parents more notice. He did, and so it was Wednesday of the following week, two days before the next Youth night, when the following email was sent out:

Hello Elevation Sr. Youth Parents. 

Just wanted you to be aware of something happening this Friday at Sr. Youth.

One of our youth leaders, Eric, will be having an intentional time to share his story with the Youth. This sharing will be done in the context of our wider church theme that Brandon preached on this Sunday of 'Listening’. 

Eric's time to share is so that Youth could be aware that this fall Eric has come out as openly gay. While his sharing will not take a hard stance on this issue either way—it is certainly one met with different opinions within a Christian community as diverse as ours, and hence the felt need to honor you and make you aware of this so you can have good discussion with your teens going forward if you so choose.

As Brandon mentioned on Sunday morning, our church will be having a broader conversation about sexuality in February, which will include opportunities to ask questions and learn more about this important and complex topic together. I ask that you begin to pray for our church through this season—that it may be helpful, respectful, and honoring to our faith and one another. 

In the meantime, I invite you to direct any questions, comments, or concerns to Brandon or myself. I am very open to connecting with you to talk about this (or anything really) if you ever want! 

The experience of sending this email out has taught me a lot about what not to do.

The email was sent out in the evening and I went to bed satisfied that we had done well by letting parents know about the conversation in advance. I figured that, while there were bound to be some questions, everyone would respect the difficult situation we were in and would appreciate the steps we had taken to bring them into the loop and make them aware of the story that would be shared with their teens. Perhaps the real question is, How, after nineteen years of pastoral leadership, have I failed to learn even the most basic truths about church life?

I spent three hours the following morning responding to emails, texts, and phone calls from parents who were deeply concerned about what they had read in the email.

I’ve often half-joked about how I feel like the captain of a ship that’s going under, flagging nearby ships to warn them of the danger so they don’t make the same mistakes. In some ways I don’t mind the role. After all, why wouldn’t I admit my mistakes if I can help someone out in the process?

Oh, our intentions were good, but the reaction was much stronger than I expected. I’ve pulled just a couple of quotes from those early emails to illustrate how our failure to communicate clearly put a number of parents in an awkward situation:

“Hearing about this near the end of the day on Wednesday does not give enough time for serious engagement of parents with you and then subsequently with our youth before Friday.”

“Because Eric has been on staff so recently, it elevates the conversation from listening to one person share their personal story to one of ‘What does Elevation believe or affirm?’ and so requires much deeper engagement.”

“Although we're not hard conservatives, we do lean to the right on this...Is there still going to be a place for someone who thinks like us at Elevation, or with this, is Elevation wholeheartedly embracing homosexuality as a valid choice for Christians?”

There were other responses, too, some more tactful than others. By the end of the morning, I sent out a second email to the parent group to try and do some damage control:

Parents of Youth,

I want to take a moment to respond personally to the email that Graham sent out yesterday afternoon. While Graham shared the email with me before it was sent, I believe that the number of conversations we have had about this as a Staff team created a blind spot for us in the form of assumptions about how what was said would be interpreted. 

I have received numerous responses from parents since last night, which has revealed a lack of clarity in our communication, resulting in confusion over what will be happening tomorrow night and what this means for our church as a whole. I would like to take some time to respond and hopefully create some more clarity. Engaging this situation in a healthy way is certainly a top priority for Elevation's leadership at this time, so I will try to provide some perspective and would certainly invite some in-person dialogue moving forward.

Our Staff and Steering Committee have been in conversation about this over the past month or so, seeking to chart a course forward that allows us to both love Eric as a member of our community and also acknowledge the complexity of the issues surrounding his story, which will require thoughtful engagement on a deeper level as a congregation. When Eric shared his story with a small group of trusted people a month ago, he was ready to be open and public about his same-gender attraction, but has respectfully waited to do so in order to give us some time to think through how we can best navigate this as a church.

As part of my sermon on "Listening" on Sunday morning, I indicated that we would be engaging in meaningful conversations about same-gender attraction starting at the beginning of February. With this in mind, we felt it was fair to invite Eric to share the basics of his story with the Youth without getting into the depths of opinions on various sides of the issues. He and I have had a number of conversations in recent weeks and he is very much aware of the sensitivity of this for our church and is committed to walking this out in a way that honours a community that he loves, even if it's at a slower pace than he might like. Friday night will not be focused on discussing this issue as a whole or presenting Eric's theological views in detail, but will provide him an opportunity to respect his relationship with the Youth by being honest with them in person, as opposed to having them find out that he is gay through the grapevine.

There will be plenty of intentional time set aside for deeper conversation in February and beyond, both for the Youth and for the church as a whole. [The timing of this conversation with the Youth] allows Eric the freedom to share what he has wanted to share publicly for several weeks already, but in the greater context of a soon-to-come, church-wide learning conversation... 

Eric will also be sharing some of his story on a Sunday morning in early February and, in both that context and in the dialogues that will follow, we will be acknowledging that there are different perspectives on this issue, even within our own community. We want to recognize that this is a complex issue and that there are members of our congregation with opinions all over the spectrum on this. It's our desire that we learn how to talk well with one another, recognizing that our differences of opinion are not likely to go away any time soon.

Please try not to interpret any of this as a decision that has been made behind closed doors - that's not at all what is happening. Nothing even close to that. We are merely trying to allow Eric the freedom he ought to have to be honest about his same-gender attraction while also carefully crafting a process for our congregation to ask important questions about what that means and to learn together about the various perspectives that believers have on this issue. I think it's also important to say that my plans for a series on sexuality in February with follow-up conversations about this theme were in place several weeks before Eric sat down and told me his story, so this is not a reaction to his situation, even though it may appear that way.

Trust me when I say that we are keenly aware of the sensitivity of what we are about to engage in and we are doing everything possible to create an environment where we can increase our collective understanding about this complex issue as we explore what it means to acknowledge and respect our differences and live in community at the same time. As your pastor, I am praying fervently that there will continue to be a place for everyone who is part of our Elevation community. 

I sincerely apologize for any grief that our inadequate communication has caused. We really were trying to do this right, but clearly fell short. For those of you who have known me for some time, I trust that you know my heart and the deep love that I have for Elevation and for each of your families specifically. Having teenagers of our own, Melissa and I know just how complex these conversations can be. I regret any confusion or undue frustration that this has caused and ask for your grace and support in prayer as I continue to try and lead us well into tricky, but important waters.

If it would be helpful to sit down and talk this through, I am more than happy to do so, and I'm sure Graham would be open to the same. If you would prefer to correspond via email, I am certainly open to that as well.

Peace,
Brandon

Graham sent a follow-up email of his own, explaining that it was our intention to honour them as parents by letting them know what was going on as soon as possible. He also extended an invitation to join the two of us for some dialogue at the church that night, which was the day before Eric would be sharing his story with the Youth.

Throughout the day, I kept thinking about who was going to show up and what direction the conversation would take.

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