Despite the United Methodist Church’s restrictive policies regarding homosexuality, many gays and lesbians remain in the denomination because they feel accepted at their local churches.
That’s a key finding of a study conducted by Jamie Bigham Stroud of Philadelphia, a marriage and family therapist licensed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The longtime United Methodist conducted her research as part of a doctoral dissertation for the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco.
“Many have said it’s the local church that keeps them connected, not the denomination as a whole,” Stroud told United Methodist News Service in a Nov. 4 interview. “People say it’s their heritage or identity.”
One respondent simply stated, “It’s my church, too.”
As a child growing up in the denomination, Stroud said she was taught that everyone was welcome in a Methodist church. When she grew older, she realized that some people weren’t as welcome as others.
Three years ago, Stroud, married and the mother of three adult daughters, joined the board of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for the full inclusion of people of “all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the church. She now serves as the national coordinator of that group’s Parents Reconciling Network.
Through that work, friendships with gays active in the church, and a situation where her youngest daughter felt frustrated over not being able to have a union ceremony performed by a United Methodist pastor or in a United Methodist church, Stroud became curious about why gays and lesbians remained with the denomination.
She based her dissertation on the responses of 358 people who primarily identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, although she is continuing to accept questionnaires and will incorporate new responses before publishing the information in a book.
Responders represented 42 U.S. states and China, Mexico and the Philippines. Of that number, 243 were active in local United Methodist churches; 237 were financially supportive; 84 were inactive members or attended other churches; 13 attended but didn’t contribute; and one contributed but didn’t attend.
She said she had anticipated more responses would come from the West Coast and was surprised that the denomination’s Southeast Jurisdiction had the most responses at 26 percent, followed by the Northeast, 22 percent; Western, 19 percent; North Central, 18 percent; and South Central, 14 percent.
Laity constituted 264 of the respondents, while five gave no information. Looking at the clergy respondents, 72 ordained and 17 in the ordination process, Stroud was surprised by the number who indicated they were “out” or open about their sexual orientation to some degree. Her research showed that 23 people were “out” to family and friends and 19 had been open with their church members.
In terms of relationships, 154 reported they were in same-gender relationships, 44 were in other-gender relationships, 62 reported a history of divorce or separation and 102 said they were dating.
Whatever their category, many respondents shared an active involvement in the local church, bolstering the finding that the congregation was key to keeping them in the denomination. They take part in or lead groups such as the administrative council or finance committee, participate in United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men units, and serve as Sunday school teachers, annual and general conference delegates, and lay leaders.
“It is the church of my childhood. I love it,” a respondent wrote. “When I was in seminary, I searched for another denomination that `fit’ – I went to every mainline Protestant denomination I could find. When I returned to the UMC, I felt at home and alive.”
Other factors that help retain the connection are the denomination’s Wesleyan theology, historic focus on social justice, availability of welcoming or reconciling congregations and just plain stubbornness, according to Stroud. People who said they were stubborn “also indicated they weren’t just sitting back and letting it be. They were speaking up in many instances, where they could, to work for change.”
Not surprisingly, respondents expressed negative feelings about denominational policies that declare the practice of homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” and prohibits the ordination of gay people and union ceremonies for same-sex couples. The major difference in response between clergy and laity, Stroud said, is that people who were not clergy didn’t experience as much limitation as to what they could do in the local church.
Once her book is published, she hopes church members will read it to gain another perspective about people who are affected by what the denomination does.
“I wish General Conference would realize that Christ came for all people,” a respondent wrote. “I was created by God as I am and, as many of my friends and co-workers would attest, being gay is only one part of my personality. To be treated differently simply for that one part, either positively or negatively, bothers me.”