Mormon LGBT Outreach: Part I (Efforts by One Stake to Include LGBT Members)

By Aaron Brown (originally published at By Common Consent blog)

In November of 2013, my stake president, Thomas Fairbanks, asked me to spearhead “gay and lesbian outreach” in the Seattle North Stake.  Seattle is the new San Francisco – our city has a large gay population, both inside and outside the Church.  But very few openly gay or lesbian church members attend services in our wards.  In President Fairbanks’ mind, this wasn’t an ideal state of affairs.  If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what it claims to be, if it contains a religious message and provides a spiritual environment that everyone can benefit from – regardless of their individual life paths and circumstances – then we should be a community that welcomes everyone into the communal life of the church.  “Everyone” includes our LGBT brothers and sisters.

LGBT outreach was a good fit with our stake theme, Ezekiel 34:16, which reads:

 “I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up       that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick…”

If you look up this scripture, you’ll see it doesn’t end there:  “… but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgment.”  However, our stake theme DID end there – at the word “sick”.  And in applying the theme to LGBT Saints, we weren’t intending to portray them as “sick” or “broken”, but as “lost” to the Church (by virtue of their absence), and/or “driven away” by the unfriendly – even hostile – environments many had endured as part of their earlier church experiences.

Our approach

My role was to strategize an approach, to implement activities that operationalized LGBT outreach in the stake. Our efforts were not without precedent – I spoke with one former Bishop who had fellowshipped gay members locally two decades earlier, and I knew a stake leadership training on the topic of homosexuality had occurred here in more recent years. I got wind of the recent Beaverton, Oregon firesides and I was an online acquaintance of Mitch Mayne, who I figured would be a source of good ideas (given his highly-publicized role in LGBT outreach as the executive secretary in his ward in San Francisco). So I solicited advice from various sources.

Upon reflection, it became clear to me a two-pronged approach to “outreach” was necessary, that two different initiatives were needed that would ideally complement each other:

  • Actual outreach to LGBT Saints who are no longer connected to the LDS Church, but who might benefit from a rekindling of the relationship; and
  • Internal education of the general LDS membership, many of whom suffer from misconceptions about homosexuality generally and some of the LDS Church’s current positions with respect to it specifically.

However, in practice, my stake focused almost entirely on the outreach component (#1), given the sheer size of the local LGBT community.

In addition, I made a decision early on to heavily promote our activities on social media.  While I knew  our stake president or bishops would want to focus primarily on the needs of church members within their respective jurisdictions – and rightly so – I believed it was important to broadcast our efforts much more widely, so that LGBT Saints outside our stake would hear about them, and LDS leaders outside our stake would hear about (and possibly emulate) them.  In my view, broad publication was a crucial element of what we were doing.

Finally, I knew the terminology we used to refer to the targets of our outreach would be important.  Many LDS members and leaders have historically been reluctant to use terms like “gay” and “lesbian”, preferring instead the more cumbersome “same-sex attracted.”  Meanwhile, gays, lesbians and others are put-off by euphemistic terminology, very sensitive to the nomenclature employed to describe them.  Therefore, from the very beginning I elected to use the “LGBT” acronym in our published outreach efforts (though I admit I often slipped back into saying “gay and lesbian,” as if the terms were synonymous).  In my mind, its advantages were several:  (1) it was a term that LGBT Mormons would likely be comfortable with; (2) it was a term that some Mormons might be less resistant to; and (3) it technically broadened the scope of our outreach beyond gays and lesbians, made it more inclusive of other marginalized Mormons (i.e., transgender, etc.).

What we did

What were the products of our efforts?  During 2014, four different LGBT-themed events took place in the Seattle North Stake:

  1. an LGBT ward social – One of our units, the Washington Park ward, encompasses the neighborhood with the highest concentration of LGBT people in Seattle. So the ward leadership decided to hold an LGBT “social” to reach out specifically to less active members within its boundaries.  I advertized the event on social media –  with a particular focus on Seattle-area gay Mormon networks – and others promoted it through word-of-mouth in the ward and stake.  The Bishopric decided to hold the social at a private home, believing some attendees might not be comfortable entering an LDS church building.  The meeting had no religious agenda, just an effort to befriend LGBT members within the ward who had never been on its radar before.  In the end, 25-30 people attended – in addition to the Bishopric, two Relief Society Presidents and myself.  Various gay ward members attended, as well as other gay Saints from adjacent wards and stakes.  One LDS lesbian couple attended with their children.  Most attendees seemed grateful for the outreach, though a few voiced suspicions about our motivations.  But all in all, the evening seemed to be a resounding success, insofar as it was well-attended, appreciated, and accomplished exactly what the ward leadership set out to do:  To issue heartfelt, one-on-one expressions of love and welcome to estranged LGBT Saints, no matter their individual circumstances.
  2.  an LGBT private stake fireside with Mitch Mayne – Later in the year, a local Relief Society President hosted a larger stake fireside at her home, specifically for LGBT church members. (We opted not to use the stake center, as before, in favor of the intimacy and privacy of a private residence).  Mitch Mayne came up from San Francisco to speak at the event, and to screen the award-winning film short, “Families are Forever” – about an LDS family in California whose gay teenage son came out, and who experienced negative fallout in their local LDS congregation as a result.  Mitch then spoke about his own experience growing up LDS and gay, about the epidemic of suicides among gay youth, and about the importance of love and acceptance for LGBT young people.  More than 50 people attended the fireside – a good mix of gay and straight members, as well as stake insiders and outsiders.  A stake presidency counselor and a local LDS Public Affairs representative were in attendance.  The entire evening was very well-received, and was followed by a robust Q&A around the general subject of Mormonism and homosexuality.
  3.  a stake leadership training around LGBT issues – What was initially conceived as an LGBT-focused discussion with a small handful of stake leaders eventually morphed into something much larger. Mitch Mayne and his former Bishop, Don Fletcher, gave a lengthy sensitivity training around LGBT issues.  Mitch plugged the Family Acceptance Project and its brochure designed to help parents of gay youth appreciate how treatment of their children is closely tied to crucial health outcomes.  In addition, Mitch shared instructional materials for holding an outreach sacrament meeting that targets less active LGBT members, just as he and Bishop Fletcher did in their ward in San Francisco.  As the date approached for the event, I figured we’d see a turnout of 25-50 people – if we were lucky.  The actual attendance was pushing 90 (including a few local leaders from outside the stake).  The training’s presentations – including the comments by our stake president – were uniformly excellent, and the engaged, caring energy in the chapel was palpable.
  4.  an LGBT-themed Sacrament Meeting. After listening to Mitch Mayne describe how outreach had been done in San Francisco and how other wards might follow suit, the Bishopric of the Washington Park ward decided to do exactly that.  Closely following the California model, they drafted a letter to all their less active members, inviting them to return to the ward for a special sacrament meeting.  The letter was addressed to less actives and their concerns quite broadly, but a special focus was placed on LGBT issues, given the demographics of the ward.  Meanwhile, I aggressively circulated an excerpt of the invitation on social media, and someone else posted a copy of the entire letter online.  Mitch himself was scheduled to speak at the event, but at the last minute he became ill and cancelled.  The sacrament meeting nevertheless proceeded as planned, with a 3-speaker line up – Bishop Michael Hatch, Relief Society President Molly Bennion and Celeste Carolin, an active, out lesbian church member from an adjacent ward.  It was followed by your typical LDS linger-longer, so that ward leadership could get to know any visitors.

I’ve attended a lot of sacrament meetings over the years, and I’ve experienced many kinds of services – from the dreadfully dull to the incredibly inspirational, and everything in between.  I can honestly say this was one of the most spiritually powerful and uplifting meetings I’ve ever attended – simply a phenomenal experience from start to finish.  And everyone else I talked with agreed.  (A handful of ward members were apparently uncomfortable, but their privately-expressed comments were measured and respectful).  All three talks were pitch-perfect, but the comments by Sister Carolin were without question the highlight of the meeting.

Typically, the Washington Park ward sees 100 to 150 attendees on any given Sunday.  This time attendance was pushing 300.  Both the Bishopric letter and the social media promotion clearly helped generate the turnout (though it’s hard to say in what proportions).  Numerous individuals drove long distances to attend, including some from out-of-state.  Probably the highlight of the day was the attendance of a gay African American couple whose LDS member hadn’t entered an LDS church building in 46 years.  He had received the Bishopric’s letter, and decided to give the   ward a try.

Ward attendance has dropped back down since the special sacrament meeting, of course.  But I’m told some new attendees – some gay, some straight – were attending consistently in the subsequent weeks.  At least one of these members travels about an hour each Sunday from a far-flung stake.  Bishopric counselor Cory Funk recently described to me the aftermath of the event:

 “I can’t even count the number of conversations I’ve had with ward members about our outreach… I do feel like our sacrament service caused an enormous amount of reflection on the issue and helped to create a positive experience that has been educational for them.  Many of our ward members went into that meeting with a lot of trepidation, not knowing what to expect.  Many of them came away also saying it was one of the most spiritual sacrament meetings they ever attended. People who came anticipating to be offended were not. The spirit of that meeting has reverberated in our conversations with each other in diverse and unexpected ways. Those conversations continue and feel like they have progressed significantly.”

III.  What’s next?

The Seattle North Stake’s formal program of LGBT outreach was a one-year initiative, and 2014 has come to an end. But our attempts to reach out to our LGBT brothers and sisters have not. We think of outreach as a perpetual feature of our stake activities going forward. Our hope is that the climate of love and acceptance we tried to generate will infuse and inform our congregations more broadly, and permanently. We will surely be less than perfect in this regard, but we have to start somewhere. At present, I anticipate putting on at least one – possibly two – LGBT-related stake firesides over the next year or so. Despite four successful events last year, not one of them was technically open to the ENTIRE stake, which in retrospect I find regrettable. The “educational” piece of our efforts is important (even if less so than the “outreach” piece in this stake). I envision a fireside composed of local LGBT members talking about the gay Mormon experience and local LDS leaders talking about their pastoral interactions with LGBT Saints. I also anticipate a fireside devoted to the LDS Church’s website, an incredibly useful but underutilized and relatively unknown resource. Given the recent announcement that the site will be revamped and better promoted in the Fall, a fireside devoted to its contents couldn’t be more timely.

So there you go.  I hope this overview has been useful.  And I hope other wards and stakes will notice our efforts and try to implement outreach programs of their own.  Every stake is different; not all should balance external outreach and internal education in the very lopsided way ours did.  Not all will make the exact same decisions we did.  But I’m confident virtually every LDS stake has work to do in reaching out to its marginalized LGBT membership.  The time to start that outreach is now.

This is the first of two posts on this subject.  In Part 2, I will discuss concerns raised about our efforts from both the “left” and the “right,” and talk about lessons learned.

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