By John Pribble
The first time I heard the term “Open And Affirming” was when the concept was raised by a Deacon at a Council meeting I was attending as chair of the Board of Trustees (now Administrators). Now, eleven years later, I can’t recall all of the details, so I will relate my feelings and impressions of the process that followed.
My initial thoughts were somewhat questioning: isn’t North Church already accepting of gays and lesbians? We have several members who are openly gay and many of them serve the church on boards or in other important ways. What is the big deal about being “officially” Open And Affirming?
Soon the Council approved the formation of a task force to study the issue and to provide information and education to the membership. This was called the “discernment process” and the objective was to bring the question to a congregational meeting and either adopt or defeat the issue. A separate committee was appointed to draft the official Declaration of Inclusiveness.
Seminars and discussion forums were held and were mostly well attended. A well-known minister and author visited our congregation to do a daylong lecture and group discussion about what the Bible had to say (and didn’t say) about homosexuality. At another forum a minister and his family were very open about their feelings and experiences when one of the children revealed their same sex preference.
My wife, Jane, and I participated in most of the educational events and learned a lot about a subject that a few months earlier we didn’t even know we were interested in. We noticed that many of the members who had expressed reservations about Open And Affirming didn’t avail themselves of the opportunity to learn and grow. A few of these members left the congregation. Some of these folks were long-term church leaders. One of them was our Moderator.
I first learned that our Moderator and his family had decided to leave our congregation in an evening meeting with Pastor Tim Ahrens. He asked me if I would consider taking over the Moderator position for the rest of the term. I was flattered and a little stunned by this development. After talking to Jane, praying for direction, and “sleeping on it,” I accepted the challenge.
The following ten weeks are a blur in my memory. After talking to a lot of the members, I felt that an overwhelming majority of the congregation had made up their minds and were in favor of declaring North Church an Open And Affirming Congregation. I believed that we should move for acceptance as quickly as possible.
The Congregational Meeting on June 2, 1996 was indeed a lively, mostly positive experience. There were some sincere questions and a couple of amendments were proposed, but at the conclusion the vote was 110-4 in favor. North Church was officially and proudly the first Open And Affirming congregation in the Central Southeast Association of the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ.
So, North Church was changed forever. For Jane and me, it has definitely changed for the better. Though I still miss some of the people who left our church, I appreciate very much the old and new members I have come to know more completely. I have grown immeasurably through the experience of talking, working, singing and praying with people who are completely comfortable with their sexuality. When people are comfortable with each other and no one is hiding and no one is frightened and distrusting, strong, loving relationships develop. I very much value these relationships.
I think the folks who left North Church because of Open And Affirming have missed out on a truly rich and rewarding experience. Those members who stayed or have joined with us since have been very fortunate to enjoy the benefits of membership in a church that is accepting, welcoming, encouraging, affirming and loving of each member of our very diverse congregation.