If you celebrate Christmas on Three Kings’ Day, you’ve got a big present coming. In addition to the crazy relatives, you’ll have a thousand Mennonite pastors at your table talking about gay Christians in the church. Yes! It’s another installment of Church Politics and Sexuality. On January 6, Mennonite Church USA is releasing the results of this summer’s survey of church leaders, which focused mostly on pastors’ views of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered role in three areas: church membership, church leadership, and marriage.
I open Christmas presents early. As one of the 1,323 church leaders who took the survey, I got an early peak at the results. And yes, it was one of the highlights of my Christmas. I’m not going to give away any numbers, but, just to get you excited, I have a few hints. This year’s survey builds on a 2006 survey of lay Mennonites and pastors from across the country. So, drawing on the 2006 survey, here’s a few things to watch out for in next week’s data.
Fact: In 2006, the average of age of Mennonites was 54. This is similar to other Protestant denominations, who are older than the general population and shrinking by the year.
Hint: The age breakdown of pastors is one of the most interesting parts of the survey. This is a survey of denominational leaders, so they’re on the old side of average. Look at the number of pastors in the categories “18-35” and “66+.” (The second category is more than double the first.) This is moderately interesting for discussions on LGBT issues, and absolutely essential for any other conversation about the church’s viability. It’s also worthwhile to check out the gender differences–pastoring is still largely a man’s game, and that’s a statistic I couldn’t find in the 2006 survey.
Fact: Where you lived affected how your opinion. In 2006, there were regional differences in Mennonites’ church attendance, background, and beliefs about women’s ordination. Only 52% of Mennonites in the East supported the ordination of women, but 82% supported women’s ordination in the West. There’s a similar difference in the acceptance of “practicing homosexuals” (this is the original wording). Among Eastern Mennonites, 21% accepted “practicing homosexuals” as members; 41% of Western Mennonites were accepting.
Hint: There’s still a regional difference.
Fact: In 2006, 79% of Mennonites believed “homosexual relations between consenting adults” was wrong. This is slightly less than the percent who think porn is wrong; and slightly more than those opposed to X-rated movies.
Hint: Look for a noticeable decline. We should expect some decline, since there’s been a decline in the Mennonite Church between 1972 and 2006 (as well as a decline in our secular culture). This is “the magic number” of the survey in some ways–this is what we all really want to know so we can decide what to do next. But. Don’t be deceived by the magic number–look not just for the number of pastors who affirm GLBT members, but the numbers who think GLBT marriage is okay and the number who want GLBTs in leadership. There’s some variation here. Resist the temptation to draw easy conclusions.
Fact: The conclusion in 2006 wasn’t great. Sociologist Conrad Kanagy, who compiled the survey, wrote, “the North American church is most like Laodicea–wealthy, healthy, and well dressed, but in Jesus’ own words ‘wretched, pitiful, poor, blinked, and naked’ (Rev. 3:17).” I disagree with Kanagy’s conviction that Mennonites are well dressed, but otherwise, I agree: in 2006, we saw a dying church without the motivation to change in the ways required in order to grow again (whether that’s a willingness to evangelize, the white church’s awareness of racism, or a greater acceptance of the marginalized).
Hint: Look for the amount of ambivalence about what comes next. High ambivalence is probably the best-case scenario–if pastors are not sure what comes next, perhaps we will be slower to make a decision. Perhaps it will be harder to identify which of us is wrong. Perhaps we will look for the nuance. Perhaps we’ll be more honest about how complex our own sexuality is. Perhaps we’ll listen a little more before we hate each other. I don’t want to be too starry-eyed here, but when you look at the numbers–when you look across the holiday table at Uncle Bill and his whack theory about how humans never landed on the moon–try to at least hear him out. At least listen.
None of us get to be right all the time. So let’s suspend our need to be right for as long as it takes to read the 5-page survey summary. This is exciting, y’all. But in your excitement, don’t forget to shut your mouth and listen.