By Chrissy Tatum Williamson
Sexuality, Gender, and Faith is a seven-month series, crafted with the people of Greystone Baptist Church in mind. In broad strokes, it is a series of large group, lecture-style education forums and small group conversations. With three sessions in the fall and four in the winter/spring, we will journey together toward deeper understanding of the intersections of sexuality, gender, and faith.
We say the series was crafted with the people of Greystone in mind because the education topics were chosen after three months of listening. Following a sermon in which I asked the question: Is God calling Greystone to invite, welcome, and affirm all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity? I met with every Sunday Morning Bible Study Class and a group of young adults who call Greystone their faith-home. Out of those conversations, the staff, lay leadership, and I worked together to cultivate the following list of topics for education and faith formation.
- Christian History
- What We Know About Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation: A Social Sciences Approach
- Reading the Bible, Especially the Hard Stuff
- Gender, Sexuality, Faith, and the Bible
- Theology & Doctrine
- Christian Ethics
- Understanding the Language of Sexuality and Gender Identity
Each session will be taught by pastors or professors with an expertise in these areas. Many of our facilitators teach at either Wake Forest University School of Divinity or Campbell Divinity School; which both have connections to Greystone’s staff and congregation. As the staff team and I have reached out to the facilitators, one thing we have noticed is that by bringing in some of the people who have helped us to shape our own thinking on these matters, we are sharing with you a bit of our divinity school or seminary experiences.
We are aware that for many, the content of these gatherings will be new. That’s good! What’s better: there isn’t a test at the end. The purpose of these education forums is not so that you can memorize information to regurgitate it later for some kind of final exam (like we had in divinity school). Rather, the purpose of the education is to present some of the best scholarship we know of in key areas that related to your questions about Greystone’s understanding of sexuality and gender. We are also aware that for others, this information will not be new; or maybe even for some, the information will describe and give context to a lived experience, either our own or that of someone we deeply love. So, in order to allow a safe space for everyone as we listen to the information presented, we’re not going to discuss or ask questions in the large group time. However, there will be opportunities for both (questions and discussion).
Questions can be written down at the end of every education forum and submitted to a member of the ministerial staff team on the night of the education events, as well as through a Google Form accessible through a QR code at the forums and small group gatherings. Once we’ve had a chance to review the questions, we will figure out the best way to respond. Some possibilities might be sending them in writing to our presenters to ask them for a response, inviting the presenters to join us for a podcast interview where your questions are the interview, or something different. We’ll know what is needed as your questions pour in.
Conversations will largely happen in your small groups. We’ve had 95 people sign up to be in a small group for this series and we’ve been hard at work organizing intergenerational groups where everyone can share what’s on their hearts and listen deeply to others. Great care and consideration was given to the establishment of each group. In addition to schedules, staff considered many, many factors to try to create groups that were different from pre-existing groups within the church (i.e. longstanding Sunday school classes), and where everyone could have an opportunity to learn from someone who is different from them. Small groups will have three leaders: a host, a facilitator, and a holy listener. A host is the person responsible for creating space for the small group to meet. The facilitator is responsible for nurturing the conversation. The holy listener is there to listen – recognizing that the Spirit of God is present and is at work in us and through us as we navigate this conversation. Many of our leaders are deacons (current or past).
Why this topic? Why now?
Truly, there are a million reasons why we are spending several months learning about this topic. I’ll name many of them in the words that follow but I want to start with the most important one: we’re going where God is leading. In the fall of 2022 the deacons were asked to pray for a month asking God, “What are you calling Greystone to focus on?” After that month of prayer, each deacon submitted three things that they felt God calling us toward. We shared those responses and were astonished at the number of times something related to our understanding and welcome of LGBTQ persons emerged from the group. For a few months the staff tossed around ideas about how we might have the conversation, seeking to honor the diversity of thoughts, convictions, and experiences held in our congregation. We are aware that even broaching this topic can divide a church, so we wanted to be careful as we began to take this leap of faith.
In January of 2023, we did a congregational study on a book called, Growing Young. This book challenged us to think about the younger generations – teenagers and young adults, specifically – and to invite them into every aspect of ministry in our church. Through this study we listened deeply to the youth and young adults in our midst and allowed them to shape not only our future church, but also our present church. One thing that our own young people challenged us toward at every single Growing Young gathering was to make our welcome of LGBTQ persons explicit and clear.
Long before these two specific experiences, Greystone members have had numerous opportunities to name the things they felt God was calling us toward. Through interactive prayer times in worship, invitations to submit questions or ideas for educational events, and post-it-note exercises related to listening circles, the people of Greystone have named this topic over and over again as an important piece of our life together. I can’t speak for the years before my arrival, but since 2019, the staff team has been aware of this much needed conversation and we’ve been waiting for the right time. The discernment of the deacons and after hearing our young people, we feel that the time is now.
To zoom out a bit and consider the broader landscape of Christian churches and communities, we quickly see that we are not alone in this. It is no secret that churches and denominations are all dealing with the question of inclusion and affirmation. What used to be a conversation in only the most liberal and progressive Christian circles 40-50 years ago, is now a mainstream topic of conversation. The truth is, we have learned so much about the science of sexual orientation and gender identity in these recent decades. This new and emerging information requires us to ask different theological questions and to seek the guidance of the Spirit as we stand within our tradition and attempt to discern the movement of God in today’s world.
Furthermore, we are aware of the increasing number of welcoming and affirming congregations within our denominational networks. If you are unaware of this phenomenon, please consider attending CBF General Assembly next summer, it’ll be in Greensboro, NC. There, you will see a growing cohort of clergy, lay leaders, and congregations who are exploring this topic with integrity, compassion, and devotion.
Given all of this context, the staff – supported by the diaconate – determined that the time had come for us to educate ourselves on this matter.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now: We do not yet know what kinds of next steps will emerge from this time of education. We simply know that we have a lot of questions that need information and exploration. So for the next several months, we covenant to grow, pray, and learn together with open minds and open hearts. That is our most faithful path as followers of Jesus who calls us to, above all else, “Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind,” Mt. 22:37.
This is our goal. This is our intent. And this is our path.
May God be with us – each and every one – all along the way.