Decoding Discrimination (or: How to Discover What Your Church Really Believes)

I’ve spent my life in church.

I’m a bit of a church nerd, actually. I love business meetings and conferences; ecclesiastical conversations are my FAVORITE conversations; and, well, I use words like “ecclesiastical” on a regular basis (ecclesiastical = churchy stuff). 

I care deeply about church — and I care deeply about churches being honest. Which is why the very-public nature of the Chris Pratt/ Ellen Page/ Hillsong Church conversation lately has deeply disturbed me, though not at all surprised me.

arco + KEVINSee, I often read websites of churches and other Christian organizations, and am keyed in to the coded language that clouds reality. Some churches are very upfront about what they believe – and I really appreciate that, even when I disagree with their conclusions.

But I have a huge problem with churches who hide their theology in the fine print, apparently so those who disagree still fill their pews — and their offering plates. 

If people would leave your church if they read the fine print, then you probably need to rethink your theology, your congregation, or both. 

I’ve heard people say that they think their church doesn’t discriminate because “all are welcome!” — but there is a huge difference between not turning people away at the door, and inviting people into all aspects of church life (from membership to ordination, and everything in between) regardless of their gender, orientation, or identity.  

A friend of mine once served a church that welcomed a lesbian couple with open arms – and because they were so welcoming, that couple invited their friends. Within a few months, there were several queer couples attending worship there, and the congregation was kind and loving to them, never mean or judgmental. Some of the visitors had been hurt at previous churches and were so glad to find a place where they could worship, without being shamed every time they entered the doors. 

Until, of course, that first couple wanted to join the church and teach Sunday School, at which point they were notified by the pastor that the church actually believed they were living in sin because of their unrepentant same-sex relationship, and they were not welcome into membership. All of these queer people then realized that the church that had been “welcoming” to them saw their identity as a sin to overcome, not a part of their wholly, perfectly, created selves. Their straight friends who attended with them never had any idea that the church wasn’t affirming, because, well, they never needed to ask and just assumed, because again, they were all really nice. 

And this reveals the privilege of people who are cisgender and heterosexual. There’s never a *need* to find out, to seek clarity. When the system works for us, we have no need to question it.

I’ve known so many people who are personally affirming — they advocate equal rights and equal protections for everyone… and yet, they go to churches that are not. But what’s sad to me — and what the Hillsong conversation reveals — is that often, churches who hold that leadership is reserved for men, and deny equality to people who are LGBTQ+ — do so with a veneer of acceptance, without really being honest. 

Thankfully, Church Clarity is helpful in discerning where churches stand, but according to their own website, they are backlogged right now – and even then, not every church in the country is on their list. 

So, if you attend a church and you aren’t sure what they really think, let my years of church nerdiness and ability to speak coded church language help. 

First, a caveat. I am not saying that what follows is a test that a church “passes” or “does not pass.” There are reasons why faithful pastors and congregations do not have written policies on inclusion — but since discrimination often masquerades as silence, we cannot let silence be interpreted as affirmation. And, really, that’s the whole point of this list: Because so few churches say explicitly what they believe and practice, we must be more diligent to seek out answers. Maybe you’ll discover that, while your church has never made a statement of inclusion, they are working toward it and actively seeking justice; maybe you’ll discover that while your church seems like they treat everyone equally, no woman has ever stood behind a pulpit. Maybe you’ll discover you’re exactly where you need to be; maybe you won’t. 

Also, I have never known of any church that welcomes gay men into leadership, but not straight women. If you know of one, I’d love to hear about it. And often trendy churches are just as avoidant of their discrimination against women as they are their discrimination against people who are LGBTQ+, so I’m including women into this discernment list. 

Go to your church’s website. Don’t rely on what you think you know about the church, because as we’ve seen time and time again, often the people in the pews have no idea how discriminatory actual policies and theology are. If you can’t find the information on the website, ask the pastor for clarification; don’t assume that because you have a gay couple in the pews, or the pastor just seems really cool, that they treat LGBTQ+ people – and women – equal to straight cis men. 

~ Who are the pastors? Are there any women? Any LGBTQ+ people? Have there been in the past? 

~ Who makes decisions? In many churches, these are elders, deacons, trustees, board members, session members, or something similar. Are there any women? Any LGBTQ+ people? If no, why not? 

~ Do they use heavy masculine language for God? (He/Him/His, Father, etc) I hesitated including this question; there are a lot of reasons faithful Christians use masculine language. However, in my experience, often churches that rely exclusively on masculine language about God and humanity tend to be less inclusive in other ways as well. 

~ Look at the statement of faith/ “What We Believe” (often found in the “About Us” section of a website), policy papers, and the church’s constitution. Does it include anything about gender, orientation, gender identity, or marriage? (Look for words like “biology,” “God-given gender,” “natural,” and “biblical marriage.”)

~ Where the constitution speaks to leadership (pastoral or lay), does it specify that those positions are reserved for men? 

~ Will the church ordain women and/or people who are openly LGBTQ+ (without requiring celibacy)? 

~ Will the church marry people who are LGBTQ+? 

~ Will the church preclude people who are women and/or LGBTQ+ from any ministry role? 

~ Will this church celebrate the identity of people of all genders and gender identities? Some churches are open to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, but not people who are trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer.

These questions aren’t exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start, and should, at the very least, invite some honest conversation about why your church believes and practices what it does.

Now for church leaders who want to be fully affirming:

~ Would people who are seeking a safe place to worship (without being viewed as sinners due to their identity) be able to find confirmation of that on your website? 

~ If you see yourself as egalitarian but don’t have any women in decision-making leadership, what is one next step you can take toward inclusion of women?

~ If you see yourself as affirming people who are LGBTQ+, but the congregation has not done the work to make that explicit, what is one next step you can take toward inclusion of all orientations and gender identities? 

I’m not saying you should immediately leave churches that aren’t fully affirming. Each of us has different things we’re comfortable with, different things that are dealbreakers, different experiences and convictions. But what I am saying is that, if equality is important to you personally, don’t give your church a pass just because they say “all are welcome.” 

Because until “all” really does mean all, it’s up to us to press toward the goal.



Coming Out on Bi Visibility Day

36302998_10215405338142936_4239855199075696640_oI am a Christian, a pastor, happily married to a man, a mother of three… and bisexual. None of those things are changing. 

If you don’t read the rest of this (it is rather long), that is what matters. 

Maybe you’ve known this about my identity as long as you’ve known me. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve heard me say it, but you’re not surprised. Maybe it’s a shock.

For a long time, it has not been a secret, but also not something I really talked much about – there are people very close to me who I never told, because, well, I didn’t need to. I have struggled with this tension on many levels, and I always asked the question, “Why would they need to know?”

But I’ve been asking the wrong question. When so many people have been hurt by the church and condemned by pastors because of their identity, the question I realized I needed to ask is, “Why wouldn’t they need to know?” I came to a different conclusion, which is that my silence – while making things more comfortable for me, to be sure – was unhelpful to the realm of God.

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Today is Bi Visibility Day, which is a day on which people all over the world recognize the reality and diversity of people who are bi+, as this identity is often hidden or erased. So today, I am making myself… visible.

As a Christian, as a pastor, as a wife, as a mother, I want to say, loudly, to those who might doubt because of what the church has said: You are loved by God. No matter who you are or who you love, even if you think it’s impossible. You are loved, wholly and fully, just as you are. As you were created to be. 

I also know that for many of you reading this, you might be in some shock. You probably have all sorts of questions. So, for fun, I have a little Q&A here, so we don’t have to have the awkward conversation of you, you know, actually saying these things out loud:

~~ What exactly does this mean?~~ 

Bisexual people are attracted to people of their own gender as well as people of another gender. Some people mean that they are attracted to both men and women; some people include those who don’t neatly fit into those parameters. Sometimes the language used is “bi+” to include those nuances. It is really really important to note that this is an identity, not a description of behavior. 

Bi visibility is important, because many people tend to not really understand what this means, so just sort of… pretend it isn’t real. And, again, this is about identity, not behavior. (Yes, I’m going to keep repeating this.)

~~ Are you going to stay married? ~~ 

Yes, happily, I might add. Nothing about my marriage is changing. 

~~ When did this start? ~~ 

It’s been true my whole life, and I always knew it. I have been using the language of bi (or queer, which is a more encompassing word that I resonate with) for several years.

(A side note here on queer. I use it several times throughout this, knowing that it carries different connotations for different people. I use it to identify people who are not cisgender heterosexual. Read more here.) 

~~ Why didn’t you tell me before now? ~~ 

For a long time, this hasn’t been a secret, and I don’t talk about it often. For a lot of bi+ people — especially those partnered with the opposite gender like I am — it doesn’t necessarily come up a lot. This is one of the reasons Bi Visibility Day is so important… because I guarantee you, I’m not the only bi person you know. My coming out process has been a slow and intentional one, and for the most part, if I didn’t need to share it, I didn’t. If this is the first you’ve heard, it had far more to do with me than with you. 

~~ So then… why do you need to tell us this now? ~~

Well, for two reasons. The first is that I’m realizing more and more how important it is to be completely authentic, and for me, that means being honest about who I am. I feel more whole when I don’t have to hide a part of myself, or live in fear that someone will out me to a particular person or group. Though it has not been a secret for a long time, there have been times when I felt like I was hiding something. That’s no way to live. 

The other reason, which is frankly much more important to me, is precisely because I don’t have to. I am a cisgender, white, educated woman, with a fully supportive husband. Neither my marriage nor my job is on the line. But the more I have invited people into this part of myself, the more I have been amazed by the number of people who glance around then quietly say, “Well, so am I…” But there is always so much risk. There’s risk for me in you reading these words today, and I will not minimize that. But a lot of people carry a lot more risk, and that’s why I’m sharing. 

It isn’t enough for me to “pass” as straight anymore. Bi+ people often stay in the closet in part precisely because this identity is so misunderstood – by medical professionals, by friends, by clergy, by everyone. My hope is that my story might help normalize it, as a voice that loudly says “Here I am!” so others don’t feel quite so alone when they respond, “So am I…” As I said earlier, there are LGBTQ+ people in your life – particularly bi people – even if you don’t realize it. 

There are three groups of people that I want am particularly hoping to normalize this for.

The first is those who are also not cis/straight – however they identify – but feel alone. I’m here to say, you aren’t alone. You are loved. You are enough. You are good. 

The next is pastors and Christians and churches who theologically are affirming of all identities and orientations… but who stay silent, because polite people don’t talk about this, and we never say we think it is a sin, so everyone must know we don’t think that. I am finding it harder and harder to lend voice to these conversations without revealing this part of myself, and given the choice between being silent and being honest, I’m going to choose the latter. The more time passes, the more I wish churches would do the same. I’m not talking about churches whose theology does not affirm inclusion (that’s another conversation for another day) – but I am more and more saddened by churches who think that their silence means they are safe for everyone. That is not true. At all. If we mean “all means all” – we must say it, explicitly. (And also, if we say it, we must mean it fully – including weddings and ordinations and membership and teaching and everything else.)

The last group of people I want to normalize this for are the Christians reading this who are shocked I can still call myself a Christian. Maybe you think you don’t know anyone who is LGBTQ+. If you are a pastor, there are queer people in your pews. If you are a teacher, there are queer students in your classroom. Recently I heard someone ask, “Who was the first openly gay Christian you knew?” – and I realized that my answer to that was someone at seminary. Now, you can say you know someone… so that when that church member or Soldier or student or your own child comes out to you, it won’t be the first time you’ve heard the words.

That’s why visibility matters.

~~ Are you going to make me talk about this with you? ~~

Oh, goodness no. In fact, I really prefer to avoid awkward conversations altogether, so if you are in my life and want to never bring this up in conversation, I am completely on board. Let’s keep talking about my kids and the Texas heat and the latest BBC show and whatever else we usually discuss. I really love talking about all those things (have you heard it’s hot here??). 

~~ Can we still be friends if I disagree with you? ~~

Absolutely. In fact, I hope we can. Because I know that there are a lot of people I care about and love who aren’t excited about this, and again, if we haven’t had to talk about it before now, we still don’t have to. My only caveat to this is that this isn’t a “difference of opinion” that we can “agree to disagree” on. For you, it’s your belief. For me, it’s my identity. This isn’t something that we both think differently about – this is what you *think* vs who I *am.* These two things are not the same. We can be friends, but if you insist on trying to convince me of this false equivalency, that might change. (But, again, see above. I am happy to not talk about it at all.) 

~~ I want to learn more because I’m genuinely interested. What should I do? ~~

Google searches are tricky, because some resources are made to look helpful, but are actually not affirming of people. Here’s a list of some good places to start: (particularly this:
In honor of Bi Visibility Day: 

~~ …So am I. But I’m not ready to be public. Can I talk to you about it? ~~

ABSOLUTELY. Always. If you don’t know me personally, you can leave a comment here; I approve every comment before it gets published, so if you don’t want it public, let me know that in the comment and no one will see it but me. Or, you can email me at revsaranavefisher at gmail dot com


With all that said, I also want to thank all the people who have been so supportive over the years. I am carried by professors; by colleagues in various areas and seasons of ministry; by friends, far and near; and most of all, by my husband Jonathan, who has never wavered in his love or support of me. Thank you all. 

All Means All: Remembering our Trans* Service Members

You know those nice commercials with the service members? You know the ones, with instrumental music in the background, maybe an American flag? Then the camera cuts to the service member surprising her kid at school, or walking on the football field when his son doesn’t expect it, or stepping into an airport to thunderous applause? Those commercials that make you think, “I am proud to be an American! I am proud of our troops!” Those commercials?

Those commercials only tell half the story.

(Read the whole article at Red Letter Christians…)