Study: Welcoming Congregations More Active on Issues of Social Justice

Congregations that have undertaken formalized efforts to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members are more active in social justice, more comfortable addressing sexuality issues and less concerned that LGBT advocacy will reduce membership, according to two national surveys released today.

The surveys – Survey of Religious Progressives, published by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, and To Do Justice: A Study of Welcoming Congregations, published by the Institute for Welcoming Resources, a program of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force – suggest that an official process of welcoming LGBT people correlates with greater activism on a range of social justice issues. At the same time, the surveys reveal gaps in programs and policies serving LGBT youth, their families and transgender people.

The two surveys gauge the extent to which progressive religious views on LGBT civil rights translate into public advocacy and congregational programming. They also represent the broadest exploration ever of “welcoming congregations,” those that have undergone a specific, denominational process to distinguish themselves as welcoming and inclusive of LGBT people. “One of the most exciting findings from this study is the direct connection between being a welcoming congregation and involvement in other social justice issues,” says the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, Institute for Welcoming Resources and faith work director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Our surveys demonstrate that the welcoming process makes a meaningful difference. Welcoming congregations are on the front lines in economic justice, homelessness, racial justice, immigration and other important areas of religious witness.”

“Progressive clergy strongly support LGBT inclusion, and clergy in welcoming congregations are particularly outspoken and active around LGBT issues,” says the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, director of the Religious Institute. “However, there is a persistent need, even among progressive congregations, to translate attitudes into action on sexuality education, reproductive rights and related areas of sexual justice.”

In conjunction with the surveys, the Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources has published a new resource, Building an Inclusive Church: A Welcoming Toolkit, to help congregations welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The toolkit provides instructions on how to develop and undertake a congregational welcoming process and includes a self-assessment to determine particular areas of need. In June, the Religious Institute will publish an online guide for clergy to promote greater LGBT inclusion in their congregations. Survey findings show the difference welcoming makes The Survey of Religious Progressives is the report of a national survey of 438 progressive clergy in Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist traditions. Just over half (53 percent) of the clergy represented congregations that have completed an official welcoming process in their denominations.

A comparison of responses from clergy in welcoming congregations and those in other progressive congregations revealed that:

  • Clergy in welcoming congregations are more outspoken on LGBT issues than their counterparts in other congregations. By margins of nine to 14 points, they are more likely to have worked within their denominations on LGBT issues, preached on sexual orientation and addressed LGBT concerns in the public square.
  • The number of LGBT-focused ministries and programs is generally two times higher among welcoming congregations than other congregations. More than three-quarters of welcoming congregations offer some type of LGBT ministry, compared with just 36 percent of other congregations.

Welcoming congregations are more likely than other congregations to address other sexuality issues, though both pay far more attention to LGBT concerns. For example, just half of welcoming congregations offer youth sexuality education programs, compared with 21 percent of other congregations. Just one in three clergy in welcoming congregations have preached on reproductive justice, gender identity or sex education, compared with one quarter or fewer in other congregations.

The study also revealed the influence of denominational policy. LGBT advocacy and programming are generally stronger among clergy and congregations in denominations whose policies explicitly support LGBT inclusion. Eighty-three percent of clergy in these denominations affirmed that their denomination’s position on LGBT issues has had a positive effect on their congregations. Just 29 percent of clergy in other denominations said the same. Survey refutes concerns about divisions, membership loss To Do Justice: A Study of Welcoming Congregations, published by the Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources, is based on responses from 325 clergy in Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations that have undertaken a welcoming process in their denominations.

The survey suggested that concerns that welcoming LGBT people into congregations will cause divisions or reduce membership are largely unfounded:

  • Just 7 percent of the respondents indicated that their congregants have difficultly talking openly about LGBT issues.
  • Nearly three-quarters of the respondents disagreed with the statements “Our congregation risks losing members by talking too much about homosexuality” (73 percent) and “Becoming more welcoming to LGBT people could hinder our congregation’s ability to reach racial/ethnic minorities” (72 percent).
  • Less than a third (29 percent) reported any significant conflict within the congregation in the last two years. Among these, the most common sources of conflict were pastoral leadership, finances and worship, not homosexuality or gender identity.

More than half of clergy in welcoming congregations reported that the welcoming process helped their congregation to witness and act on other social justice issues. In describing this effect, one welcoming pastor said the church is more active in “the plight of the oppressed and marginalized” because of the church’s welcoming process. Findings indicate transgender, youth issues under-addressed

Majorities of clergy in both surveys agreed that their congregations should be doing more to help members address LGBT issues. The survey findings pointed to two groups in particular whose needs may be underserved – transgender people and LGBT youth:

  • Virtually all of the welcoming congregations in the Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources survey, and 93 percent of progressive congregations in the Religious Institute survey, reported the presence of gay and lesbian adults. However, fewer than half of the welcoming congregations (48 percent) and just 35 percent of progressive clergy overall reported the presence of transgender congregants.
  • Similarly, half of the respondents in both surveys said there were young people in their congregations struggling with sexual orientation issues. One third of welcoming congregations, and 39 percent of progressive clergy overall, were unsure.

These disparities are often reflected in congregational policies and programs. According to the Religious Institute survey:

  • While 72 percent of progressive congregations have policies on full inclusion of gay and lesbian people, just 50 percent have full inclusion policies for transgender people.
  • Less than a quarter of progressive clergy have preached on gender identity issues in the past two years.
  • Just 37 percent of progressive congregations offer youth sexuality education programs, just 20 percent have programs or policies to support LGBT adolescents, and only 18 percent offer support groups for families with LGBT members.

According to the Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources survey, just 26 percent of clergy report that there are teens struggling with gender identity issues in their congregations, and 48 percent are unsure. While 84 percent of clergy in welcoming congregations have counseled individuals on sexual orientation issues, fewer (62 percent) have counseled on gender identity issues.

Download To Do Justice: A Study of Welcoming Congregations

Download Survey of Religious Progressives.

Download Building an Inclusive Church: A Welcoming Toolkit.

The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, based in Westport, Conn., is a nonprofit, multi-faith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society. More than 4,400 clergy, seminary presidents and deans, religious scholars and other religious leaders representing more than 50 faith traditions are part of the Religious Institute’s national network.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources works to support the unconditional welcome of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities and their families in the church home of their choice and empower them to work for justice in church and society.