24 June 2006

Welcoming Congregation Failure -- Looking Back After One Year

I've been thinking about the Welcoming Congregation failure we experienced in Spring 2005 at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.

I'm also curious about when or if we are going to re-examine the Welcoming Congregation program at All Souls.

The following text is copied from the June 2005 Advisory Commission Report on Welcoming Congregation conflicts (text pasted in as a graphic):

[Note: The entire report can be read online here. This file requires Adobe Acrobat Reader or other compatible PDF reader software.]

It's been over a year since report was released to the congregation and our settled minister has been at All Souls for nearly a year. I suspect that she has a good idea about who we are and what our congregational life is like.

I would suggest that we need to start talking about Welcoming Congregation again at All Souls.

As a congregation, we stumbled very badly in our internal reflection and study of homophobia, heterosexism, and oppression at All Souls.

I know that our retreat from this social justice issue has led to a loss of some members and the perception by some in the non-Unitarian Universalist Shreveport bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender communities that we're not living up to our ideals as a congregation that affirms the worth and dignity of every person along with justice, equality, and compassion in our relationships.

It's also hurt me personally as well and has caused me to question if I really fit in here as a member of this congregation.

I suspect that our failure is affecting our congregational growth in Shreveport ... especially when we compare ourselves to our nearest UU neighbors in Longview TX (who are growing at 10-15% a year and had to purchase a new worship space in order to comply with building fire code occupancy requirements on Sunday mornings).

In a larger sense, we may want to ask ourselves why we are not experiencing the sort of growth one sees in the Longview congregation. Perhaps we should send some of our folks to visit them on Sunday and see what they have done that is different from All Souls?

There is plenty of evidence that we still have work to do internally with our congregation's attitudes towards homophobia and heterosexism.

Here's a few additional quotes from All Souls members in the June 2005 report that provide us evidence of this homophobia and heterosexism (text from June 2005 report pasted in as graphics):

Folks, it's pretty disingenuous to say that we're not homophobic and we don't have a problem with gays, but we don't want to be known as the "gay church" in Shreveport.

To examine why this "gay church" concern may suggest that we still have some work to do, it's worth using a resource developed by psychologist Dorothy Riddle:
Riddle Homophobia Scale: Attitudes Toward Differences
In a clinical sense, homophobia is defined as an intense, irrational fear of same sex relationships that becomes overwhelming to the person. In common usage, homophobia is the fear of intimate relationships with persons of the same sex. Below are listed four negative homophobic levels, and four positive levels of attitudes towards lesbian and gay relationships / people. They were developed by Dr. Dorothy Riddle, a psychologist from Tucson, Arizona.

Homophobic Levels of Attitude
Repulsion: Homosexuality is seen as a "crime against nature." Gays/lesbians are sick, crazy, immoral, sinful, wicked, etc. Anything is justified to change them: prison, hospitalization, behavior therapy, electroshock therapy, etc.

Pity: Heterosexual chauvinism. Heterosexuality is more mature and certainly to be preferred. Any possibility of "becoming straight" should be reinforced, and those who seem to be born "that way" should be pitied, "the poor dears."

Tolerance: Homosexuality is just a phase of adolescent development that many people go through and most people "grow out of." Thus, lesbians/gays are less mature than "straights" and should be treated with the protectiveness and indulgence one uses with a child. Lesbians/gays should not be given positions of authority because they are still working through their adolescent behavior.

Acceptance: Still implies there is something to accept. Characterized by such statements as "You're not lesbian to me, you're a person!" or "What you do in bed is your own business." or "That's fine with me as long as you don't flaunt it!"

Positive Levels of Attitudes
Support: The basic ACLU position. Work to safeguard the rights of lesbians and gays. People at this level may be uncomfortable themselves, but they are aware of the homophobic climate and the irrational unfairness.

Admiration: Acknowledges that being lesbian/gay in our society takes strength. People at this level are willing to truly examine their homophobic attitudes, values, and behaviors.

Appreciation: Value the diversity of people and see lesbians/gays as a valid part of that diversity. These people are willing to combat homophobia in themselves and others.

Nurturance: Assumes that gay/lesbian people are indispensable in our society. They view lesbians/gays with genuine affection and delight, and are willing to be allies and advocates.
Source - http://www.d.umn.edu/~hrallis/professional/presentations/ally_training/riddle_scale.htm
My experience with the Welcoming Congregation process suggests that our congregation is stuck at the "tolerance" and "acceptance" positions on the Riddle Scale.

As a congregation, we are a long way from "support" ... especially if we are unwilling to be personally "uncomfortable" (e.g. not willing to be known as the "gay church).

We still have some unresolved work to do on congregational homophobia and heterosexism at All Souls.


Bill Baar said...

I lived in a community with the largest gay population in the state of Illinois during the 1980s. We had three UU Churches then. One, third UU was just accross the street in Chicago.

I think there were more gays in conservative protestant and catholic churches then UUs in total.

There is a good deal more to being welcoming then this analysis of homophobia... I had way to many gay friends in Churches with a doctrine UUs would say was unfriendly to Gays and yet those churches is were they wanted to call their homes.

If you feel a need to market your church to them, you really need to examine what you offer. A more traditional lituregal offering and good choir were big pluses...

...also, this was in the 80's at a time when AIDs was really cutting throught the community. Somehow, I think a message of doubt was not all that comforting to a community facing existential reality unknow to non gays, and quite a surprize to them given the 70s we were coming out of.... it was very somber time and litergual traditions offered a lot of comfort I think.

One of the UU Chruches at the time was a so called "Gay Church" too, and while I think ours probably had just as many Gays, they were differences largely because some Gays wanted a strictly Gay Church... they later merged with Unity for Financial reasons I think... but there is nothing wrong with a strictly Gay Church either... it serves a purpose.

Steve Caldwell said...

Bill ... you are correct there is more to being a welcoming congregation than internal reflection and analysis of homophobia and heterosexism.

However, a refusal to do this work because it makes folks "uncomfortable" is a good way to drive off membership too. We have lost members during our retreat from the Welcoming Congregation program.

Our nearest UU neighbors (Longview Texas -- a "Bible-Belt" community like Shreveport) have experienced 10-15% growth during the time that we've shrunk. Some differences between the Longview and Shreveport congregations:

(1) Longview offered the Our Whole Lives for Adults sexuality education program. When they offered this program, they advertised in the local paper. A church that speaks honestly about sex is a rare thing in the Bible Belt and it's one way to attract members. Shreveport offers OWL for middle schoolers only but doesn't advertise it outside the church in the media.

(2) Longview advertised the Welcoming Congregation program heavily before they completed it. Again, a church that speaks honestly on bi, gay, lesbian, and transgender issues is very unique in the Bible Belt. The Shreveport church received some press coverage about the Welcoming Congregation program in the local paper. This press coverage led some members to complain about "negative publicity." I find it funny that press coverage than nearly any other UU congregation would love to have was viewed as "negative" by members of our congregation.

(3) I suspect that the 3rd difference between our two congregations comes down to differences in overall hospitality.

(4) The fourth and final difference isn't traditional liturgy and a choir. The Longview UU congregation is a lay-led fellowship that is strongly Humanist. They encourage intellectual inquiry by having "talk-back" after each service (even though most UU ministers and growth experts say this hurts growth). The lack of clergy and the encouragement of every person to follow a personal spiritual path again makes them different from the surrounding churches. Having taught the Adult OWL program in their congregation, I suspect that liturgy would hurt their growth.

Paul Wilczynski said...


You said "Folks, it's pretty disingenuous to say that we're not homophobic and we don't have a problem with gays, but we don't want to be known as the "gay church" in Shreveport."

I don't think it's disingenuous at all. Would you like your church to be known as the straight church? The white church? The black church? The wealthy church? The poor church?

People legitimately don't want their church to be labeled as "belonging" to one specific group.

Steve Caldwell said...

Paul ... I just know one Bible-Belt UU congregation embraced the radical hospitality behind the Welcoming Congregation just 70 miles from my home. They're growing 10-15% a year.

The congregation in my community dropped the Welcoming Congregation, the radical hospitality inherent in it, and we've been either shrinking or staying at the same size over the past few years.

To me, this suggests a workable strategy for growth in Bible-Belt towns. Offer something distinctively different (lifespan sexuality education, being BGLT-welcoming), advertise it aggressively, and provide hospitality when the folks you attract decide to visit.

My congregation (in my opinion) is staying with a "Mainline Protestant Lite" approach of "don't look too different from other Shreveport churches." It's no surprise to me that our growth is stagnant in Shreveport.

Paul Wilczynski said...

Assuming your argument is a valid one, it's unfortunate that we're unable to attract new members by means other than appealing to specific minorities. If we don't have any intrinsic appeal, we're in a sorry state.

Should each of our churches choose a certain group to which we're particularly accepting? Perhaps those who eat Post Toasties?

Bill Baar said...

Beacon UU in Oak Park wanted to be the Gay Church. That's ok. Unity Temple didn't call itself the straight church, nor did Third Unitiarian in Chicago, but both had defined and different kinds of memberships and histories.

Get to know the UU Churches in metro Chicago and each of them is very different. I think Rockford just split into two different Churches for one reason or another.

That's ok as long as people are willing to tow the financial burdens.

I do think most UU congregations prefer being small. You really need to fit their profiles to join and sexual orientation is usually a small part of the overall profile you need to fit to find yourself comfortable at the particular Church.

Bill Baar said...


re: the post toasties.

I visit our mega church and they do exactly that kind of market segmentation within the church. There are a host of special groups targated to phases of life or particular problems e.g. singles, couples, men, woman, widows/widowers, addicted, etc... it's mind boggling to see it all.

Steve Caldwell said...

Bill and Paul ... I suspect the problem with my congregation when compared to our nearest "Bible-Belt" neighbors is that our Longview UU neighbors do a better job at "radical hospitality."

Welcoming Congregation isn't the "holy grail" of radical hospitality, but I do think the differences between the two congregations in their reaction to the Welcoming Congregation program is instructive.

I think the contrast between these two congregations shows that one congregation understand hospitality better than the other.

Finally ... if we truly understand radical hospitality, we're not doing it for "marketing" reasons. The only reason I mentioned marketing aspects is that many of the objections over Welcoming Congregation in my congregation were "marketing" objections (e.g. we will have a harder time with growth if we scare off 80% of the community who isn't gay-friendly). The 80% percent number came from the voting results on our state's same-sex marriage constitutional amendment.

The importance of this hospitality cannot be underestimated. The Sunday worship service at the 2006 GA talks about it:

"We Who Believe In Freedom Cannot Rest" by Rev. Gail R. Geisenhainer