What schism? Sexuality issues rarely create serious conflict in congregations

The top legislative body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes to allow ministers to preside at same-sex marriages and recommends changing the church’s definition of marriage to that of a “unique commitment between two people.”

In the United Methodist Church, a pastor defrocked for performing a same-sex marriage for his son is reinstated by a regional appeals committee.

As usual in the decades-long denominational debates over sexuality, each of these recent developments revived talks of schism and of the potential of a mass exodus of congregations.

Yet for all the furor whipped up in denominational politics and cultural debates over issues such as same-sex marriage, little evidence exists that they make a critical difference in the vast majority of local congregations.

Several studies indicate that disputes over gay rights are not a major source of conflict in congregations. And evolving public attitudes make it even less likely the issue will split large numbers of local churches, according to some researchers.

What matters in the neighborhood church are issues of pastoral care and spiritual growth built on a foundation of deep social networks cultivated over time. Those worshipers for whom issues of sexuality are a major concern tend to gravitate toward churches that embrace their views, researchers note.

“What happens in a local congregation is a completely different animal than talking about conflict at the denominational level,” said Cynthia Woolever, who for many years directed the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. “It just doesn’t make sense that this is going to be a conflict at the local level because people sort themselves out.”

Local options

Gay marriage is considered an important ethical issue by many in the nation.

More than half of Americans say their position on same-sex marriage is from “moderately” to “very much” a reflection of their core moral beliefs and convictions, according to the 2012 Measuring Morality Study.

In most local neighborhoods and pews, however, the issue does not rise to the top of the agenda.

In ranking 12 issues from the economy to illegal immigration to the environment, respondents to the morality study said same-sex marriage was far and away the least important challenge facing the nation today.

In an online survey conducted by The United Methodist Church this spring, members said the most important issues facing the denomination are creating disciples for Christ, getting more youth involved, helping people grow spiritually and addressing membership losses. Issues of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage ranked eighth.

Sexuality issues also are way down the list when it comes to generating conflict in local congregations, research indicates.

Pastoral leadership issues, finances and worship changes were the leading sources of conflict reported by congregational leaders in the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey. Concerns over buildings and changes in music style were among several other sources ranking higher than conflict over homosexuality.

In a separate study, about a quarter of congregations reported having a conflict serious enough to call a special meeting in the last two years. The dispute was about homosexuality in some 3 percent of the cases, according to the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study.

Woolever said the congregations most likely to split over the issues are those with strong, theologically driven leaders who convince their flocks that the larger church no longer represents their faith.

For many congregations, however, “it just seems irrelevant,” said Woolever, co-author with Deborah Bruce of “A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations.”

Sociologist Dawne Moon of Marquette University said gays and lesbians in particular are likely to avoid congregations that are hostile to their sexual orientation.

“People are more likely to look for congregations they are comfortable in already,” she said. “People don’t really care as much about the particular denomination as what happens in a congregation.”

Changing times

Rapid changes in public attitudes toward gay rights issues also appear to be paving the way for change in many denominations. In Pew polling, 54 percent of Americans in 2014 supported same-sex marriage; in 2001, just 35 percent said gays and lesbians should be allowed to legally marry.

Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, helping set the Protestant Reformation in motion. In the mid-19th century, the Methodists and Presbyterians split into Northern and Southern bodies even before the start of the Civil War.

Those were real schisms.

If there ever was a likelihood that issues of gay rights would provoke a major split in U.S. Christianity, it appears that time may have passed.

8 Responses to “What schism? Sexuality issues rarely create serious conflict in congregations”

  1. Jude Urso says:

    I am not sure of other areas of the country but I know here in W. Pa that the ELCA lost over 30 congregations and the Presbyterian Church has lost at least five congregations, and there have been many Anglican Churches forming out of Episcopal Churches over this issue. To me it does seem to lead to splits within denominations.

  2. Rev. Jerry Miller says:

    I respectfully disagree with your conclusion. My personal experience is that sexuality issues do in fact cause congregations to split. The ELCA Lutheran churches in the previous two communities that I served did split over the issue of allowing gay & lesbian pastors to serve churches and of allowing same sex marriages. Your research is not in touch with the reality of the struggles in local congregations where I have served.

  3. Caleb says:

    As a Christian in the PC(USA) I would like to point out that your comments on the GA’s actions regarding marriage doesn’t really give justice to the issue. I am a Christian, and I am also gay. I am very supportive of this definition change but am also aware that many of my bothers and sisters in Christ disagree for one reason or another. The new text outlines now only the true nature of marriage, being of God rather than the state, and that this most holy union normally takes place between one man and one woman. This affirms the historic Christian principles on marriage and leaves room also for the extraordinary occasion that God calls two people of the same sex to be together. I think that posting the entire recommended change would e more appropriate here.

    The change, if ratified, shall read:

    Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally between a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.”

    Just a thought. Thanks. God Bless.

  4. rEvelyn Wells says:

    I do mot believe the so-called man of God is trying to change the very Word of God. Performing a union because it is not a marriage is WRONG. How could he be re-instated? Shame on our Bishops to allow is to happen. I am ashamed to be known as a United Methodist. Our numbers are falling. Keep checking membership numbers.

  5. David Voris says:

    “What matters in the neighborhood church are issues of pastoral care and spiritual growth built on a foundation of deep social networks cultivated over time. Those worshipers for whom issues of sexuality are a major concern tend to gravitate toward churches that embrace their views, researchers note.”

    That’s right – because the congregations that won’t tolerate same-sex-everything simply won’t tolerate it, and vice-versa. You fail to mention, however, that whatever direction a local congregation follows is a reflection not only on that congregation but on the denomination, thus ample reason for each viewpoint to stand firmly on its beliefs.

    We can’t wish this away by declaring it a non-issue.

  6. Walt says:

    Pastoral care should not be confused with obedience to God.
    We should not condone anything God is against. That does not keep us from caring and loving others, who may be in sin. The problem lies in appearing to condone sin.
    The church should never compromise on that.
    What is the next immoral act the church will have to compromise on? The Church appears weak when it gives in to cultural changes, by men, by government. The Church can never condone living in sin.

  7. RA says:

    This article really makes me feel ill. Although I have come on board with equal rights for marriage and the benefits of….I still do not believe it belongs in my local church. People won’t fight because they don’t want to get into a theological argument with someone much better versed in quoting scripture. Why is everyone who is against a gay/lesbian wedding in their church OBVIOUSLY some kind of hater? Can’t I love the sinner but hate the sin….The pew poll questions were obviously worded to take advantage of the answers…”In Pew polling, 54 percent of Americans in 2014 supported same-sex marriage; in 2001, just 35 percent said gays and lesbians should be allowed to legally marry.” Missing is the addition of…in your local church…..I think that would have changed the answer.

  8. KSObserver says:

    I am a gay, faithful member of a local United Methodist congregation where I am accepted fully and contribute generously to our life together. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” has been used as a bludgeon against LGBT people, many of whom have fled churches altogether. Is that a good example of “pastoral care”?

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