The Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists was initiated at a gathering of pastors at the 1991 American Baptists’ Biennial meeting in Charleston, West Virginia, and was formally organized at the 1993 Biennial in San Jose, California. By 1995 the Association had grown to over 30 churches and organizations in Regions throughout the ABC/USA.
Coordinator Brenda Moulton said the mission of AWAB is to envision, create and support a community of churches committed to actively affirm the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons into the full life and mission of local congregations, regional and national offices of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
James Walke Jr., an American Baptist set to begin seminary next year, has conducted a survey of the Welcoming and Affirming congregations to see how being part of the organization has affected their churches. The vast majority of the churches said they have enjoyed positive results since joining AWAB.
Churches responding to the survey said they joined AWAB because they had already either been open and affirming of gays and lesbians for years, or they were finally pushed to join by the American Baptists’ decision to adopt a statement saying “homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teaching.”
None of the churches expressed regret at their decision to join AWAB. Comments received by Walke range from “Some of the finest spiritual witnesses in our church have been gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons…” to “learned about what it means to ask and answer the question, ‘What do we believe Jesus would do?'”
All the churches report they have experienced growth since becoming a member of AWAB. Some said membership is up “only slightly.” Others say they’ve seen a 30% jump in membership.
The influx of new gay and lesbian members has invigorated the churches. One pastor told Walke, “the excitement they bring and new insights into the faith and desire to reach out in outreach ministries has been an inspiration to all of us.”
The transitions have not come without some pain, however. Several churches lost long time members over the issue. Other churches complained their pastoral staff is not allowed to teach at seminary, and their pastoral candidates will probably have a hard time finding church homes.
That has not stopped the resolve of these courageous churches. One pastor commented, “being a welcoming and affirming church is no big deal to (us). Our beliefs and commitments are upsetting to many in our community and to other American Baptist churches, but that does not change who we are. We are comfortable with our attitudes and decisions.”
Another pastor sums it up. “Diversity in a ministry like this is not easy to pull off, but it’s much more exciting than any other kind of church we could imagine.”