For four years, I worked in a mostly-conservative church. “All are welcome” was written on the front page of their website, but it was clear that my progressive views—and my closeted queerness—were not. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, biting my tongue when people assumed I voted the same way they did, and carefully tiptoeing around the linguistic minefield that could give me away. It wasn’t until after I left that I realized how much it had weighed on me.
I loved that community. Truly. It was exhausting at times, yes, but the truth is that God doesn’t make exceptions for who bears God’s image. I have fond memories of serving there, even with those who said harmful things about me after I had been driven out for being bisexual.
Church is complicated, isn’t it?
If you’re a progressive working in a conservative church, I’m going to walk you through some thoughts that I held onto whenever I just wanted to pack up my Nadia Bolz-Weber books and find a deep hole to disappear into.
First thing to remember:
You’re somebody’s sigh of relief.
Somewhere in your congregation is a queer kid who’s afraid to come out to their family. Or a person who’s thinking “If I hear a pastor tack male genitalia on God one more time I’m gonna puke.” Or a person who’s realizing conservative talking points about poverty aren’t lining up with Jesus’ talking points and are starting to deconstruct everything.
You may be only person at that church who doesn’t give them anxiety.
The work you do to make church a more inclusive place, no matter how subtle, is noticed and appreciated by someone. If you use gender-neutral terms for God, shame-free prayers, and talk about the radically welcoming message of Jesus, someone is thankful every time you speak.
I know this is true, because there were beacons of hope for me in those places, and turns out I was that for others as well. I remember a few times when someone came up to me and whispered, “I really appreciate the way you’ve changed song lyrics to be more inclusive. I’m not sure how much longer I can stay here, but you make it tolerable.”
You have a stronger voice than other progressives in your church. Use it.
I cannot stress this enough, especially for my white, straight, male, able-bodied friends: being an ally means means leveraging the power you have to advocate for people with less power. In all situations, in and out of church, your privilege will tempt you to stay quiet when you see racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or classism playing out. If you don’t stand up for what’s right, even if you’re standing alone, the burden will be passed once again to people who are hurt by these sentiments. (Gives a whole new meaning to “lead us not into temptation”, doesn’t it?)
It takes time to find a good balance between being a progressive and accommodating the conservative majority. A few times I got in trouble for being a little too bold, which brings me to my next point…
Don’t get fired.
Your work is important. Putting food on the table is important too. As frustrating as it may be sometimes, your job is to serve your community. Your commitment to Christ and your ministry must take priority, especially over any satisfyingly explosive comeback threatening to burst out of your mouth.
Be patient, pick your battles, take deep breaths, confide in friends, find time outside of your church to worship God—whatever gives you the grounding you need to continue. And when you do speak up, doing so in a measured, compassionate, resourced way will be most helpful to your cause. You can do this.
…Unless you have to get fired.
I can’t tell you what this means in your situation, but I can tell you what it meant in mine.
I knew it was time to come out. I was getting more serious with my boyfriend, I had learned everything I could about how my denomination treated queer people (not great), and confided in a few close friends how I felt God was setting me up to come out to the church. And then, seemingly out of the blue, I was offered another worship leading job at a church that is LGBTQ+ affirming. I had an opportunity to leave and have a place to land—an unexpected paved path, and a privilege I do not take lightly.
Due to my fondness for the people at my church, I had no interest in blowing things up. At the same time, my queerness is part of me, and it was time to give them the chance to live out their “all are welcome” homepage and accept me as part of their community. I came out to the lead pastor and board chair. It quickly became clear that the denomination (and, to a lesser extent, the community) would not accept a queer person on staff. Through some negotiating, I got to tell my worship band, write a few paragraphs to the congregation, lead one more service, and then I was gone.
Some things changed in that place after I left. A lot didn’t. I’m happier than ever in my new, affirming church. (It’s better. Really. In every way.) A handful of people left the old place to join my new band, which is rare, but beautiful. The old church got another worship leader and is doing fine, just like countless other queer-excluding churches. I hope they continue to teach people to know Jesus—and learn they’ll never fully know the love of Christ until they embrace those they’re excluding.
It would be foolish to give a one-size-fits-all plan for being a progressive in a conservative church. I can just tell you to do as much good and as much ministry as you can, exactly where you are. And so, it goes without saying…
Continue your work.
Never forget that as a Christian you are a steward of the Gospel, and the Gospel forever holds a mirror up to us, confronting our privilege.
It’s easy to become consumed with feeling marginalized as the only progressive in a conservative community, but we must always check our perspective. It’s difficult to be a progressive in a conservative church, but it’s impossible to be a Black trans person in a conservative church.
That’s why we must continue our work. Seek to find new ways to show how inclusion, equality, and antiracism are necessary in a Jesus-centered life. Dare to read beyond the white liberal Christian blogger (like myself). Your comfort zone may be the work of Rachel Held Evans, but her brilliance was informed by the powerful diverse perspectives she references, like Austin Channing Brown.
Add Ibram X Kendi’s book How To Be An Antiracist to your morning devotions.
At some point, you’re going to find yourself joyfully—if only temporarily—outside of the conservative bubble. It will be freeing and beautiful, and there you’ll find that your work has just begun. Because turns out racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism exist outside of conservatism, just in different ways.
Our work is never done because Jesus is always ahead of us, beckoning us forward. Which, I suppose, is what it means to be a progressive Christian.