Q: Our minister has announced his retirement. During his long ministry, we have avoided most of the conflict about homosexuality raging in our national church. How can we look for a minister without dividing our congregation?

A: Right now, several North American religious groups are sharply split about how and whether to accept gay clergy. If your denomination is divided, you understandably want to protect your congregation from following suit.

Over the years, your church may have welcomed some openly gay people warmly, even though some members consider their behavior unbiblical or wrong. As long as your minister stayed put, you could live with the inconsistency.

Your minister’s announcement creates a new situation, especially since, in your tradition, congregations play an active role in choosing their own ministers. Your search process will either be open to gay applicants or not. Your search committee will know virtually every potential candidate’s opinions on this important subject and will need to decide which viewpoints, if any, count for or against a “match.” Your gay congregants will take an interest in their church’s choices as a sign of the seriousness of your welcome to them. Your members who are more conservative will pay attention too.

Many congregations in your situation pass the buck to the search committee. (“We’ll see who they come up with, and then deal with it.”) Postponing the issue in this way leaves the search committee to guess at the true nature of its charge. Even if your denomination forbids the ordination of openly and actively gay people, your committee has a right to know the congregation’s attitude.

Failing to discuss the question of gay candidates ahead of time puts your next minister in a difficult position. A gay minister, obviously, could expect opposition from those in the congregation who disapprove of homosexuality. A straight candidate might face opposition also—from congregants frustrated by a process they may feel unfairly excludes gay candidates. It would be unfair to avoid talking about this and then dump it onto your next pastor’s desk.

You are wise to plan ahead to address these issues in a healthy way. Here are some ideas that have helped other congregations:

  • Instead of asking people to argue for their opinions, create opportunities for them to relate how they came to their present perspective. Storytelling builds more trust and understanding than debate. 
  • Remind each other often that people of faith differ on this important issue and that your congregation seeks to be a place where differences are honored and explored. Use scripture, prayer, and ritual to affirm common values, not to marshal evidence for one side or the other.
  • Resist the temptation to blame your denomination for putting this issue onto your agenda. Denominational bodies do sometimes ask congregations to take sides on controversial questions before they are ready, but this issue is on your agenda simply because you are searching for a minister at a time in history when people’s views about it are in flux. It is more helpful to own this as your congregation’s issue rather than imagining that outside forces brought it on.
  • Accept that when your congregation chooses a course of action, some members may choose to leave. This is sad, but remembering that it is not preventable may steady you to move forward with frank conversation.

Outside resources that may be helpful include denominational staff, consultants and facilitators, and books like Congregations Talking about Homosexuality: Dialogue on a Difficult Issue, edited for the Alban Institute by Beth Ann Gaede. It can be helpful to invite guest preachers representing a variety of viewpoints and lifestyles during your transition time. Many people who are frightened by abstract ideas like “homosexuality” and “traditional family values” can engage in civil conversation when the idea is represented by a person.

Even if you do everything perfectly, people may become angry and behave badly. That is nothing new in congregations. What matters is how the group as a whole responds when conflict heats up. One congregation ignites like a tinderbox while another smothers every spark before it starts. The wisest congregations take a middle course: like fireplaces, they contain the flame and draw away the toxic gases. As a result they can spread warmth and light into the world around them. ?

Dan Hotchkiss, a Unitarian Universalist minister, is an Alban Institute senior consultant who speaks, writes, and consults widely on strategic and financial planning, congregational governance, clergy leadership, and social justice ministries. The author of Ministry and Money: A Guide for Clergy and Their Friends (Alban Institute, 2002), he is currently working on a book on congregational governance. Dan will be teaching Ministry Together, a workshop on governance, from June 17 to 19 in Techny, Illinois.