Stages of Faith: Why the Church needs LGBTQ+ Leadership

There is a lot of conversation going on about the faith of LGBTQ+ individuals. People like Franklin Graham publicly calling into question the faith of Mayor Pete Buttigieg and others saying that its impossible for queer folks to be Christians or to have a deep faith. I think this is completely wrong. In fact, it’s so wrong it’s actually absurd. It’s like arguing that the earth is flat.

This argument is completely manufactured. The reality is this: many queer (LGBTQ+) Christians have an intensely deep faith and instead of trying to dismiss their faith we should actually be learning from and supporting their wisdom and experience. Here’s why I believe this:

I’ve had two faith crises in my life – the sort of crisis that forces you to reexamine what you believe and why you believe and have to painfully weigh going back to church. The first one came when I was 21 and I had the life-changing experience of spending 3 months serving orphan children in Russia in 1999. This experience threw me for such a loop and caused me to question what I had been told about God, my own “blessing,” and church. I witnessed suffering on such a level that I had not previously and the faith that I had built to that point just didn’t make much sense any more. What sort of God would allow this?

The second came in my 30’s after I had changed my position to now affirm the LGBTQ+ community. People who I thought were friends turned on me in ways that left some pretty gnarly marks. This also forced me to question my place in the church and if I wanted to continue being a part.

Now, I’m not a fan of the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” because well…it’s a catchy song but it’s not true. I don’t think adversity necessarily makes you stronger, because some adversity can cause deep and lasting pain. Pain in life in general but more specifically pain in the church. I’ve had adversity in life but my two faith crises were not necessarily “adversity”, though they did cause me to wrestle with God and become disillusioned with my former faith. Call it a faith identity crisis.

Hold that thought for a moment.

Did you know that there are ways to measure faith? Yep, it’s true. In 1981 James W. Fowler wrote a book called, “Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.” What he determined was that there were 6 Stages of faith. In 1987 a guy named M. Scott Peck simplified Fowler’s stages to 4 stages.

Please note: Each stage here has both beauty and areas of needed growth. People in each stage can serve and reflect the love of Christ and we have things to learn from those in each stage. These stages are not a competition or a hierarchy.

Here’s a summary of Pecks’ 4 Stages of faith:

Stage 1: Chaotic-Antisocial

People in this stage are usually understand God through their “self” – seeking what’s best for them in the moment. Their faith is a sort of transactional interaction with God. This is where we all begin.

Stage 2: Formal-Institutional

People in this stage rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They are supported by the forms of their religion and can get upset when these institutions/fundamental beliefs are called into question. But they are loyal to their beliefs and institutions. This is the most common stage of faith. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being in this stage.

Stage 3: Skeptical-Individual

People in this stage usually have experienced some sort of religious identity crisis and journeyed through disillusionment. People that arrive at this stage have journeyed through deep struggle and often times “a dark night of the soul.” It can be excruciating. Unfortunately, sometimes this crisis and adversity pushes people to leave the faith but those that can find a way through it experience a different view of God, themselves, and the world around them.

Stage 4: Mystical-Communal

This stage of faith is rare and those who reach it realize that there is truth to be found in the previous 3 stages of faith and that life can be paradoxical and full of mystery. Those in this stage seem to hold divergent views together and see God in all things. Emphasis here is placed more on community than on individual concerns and are more concerned with serving others than right vs. wrong.

So why did I just tell y’all that? You ready for this? You may want to hold onto something because here’s my point:

When people question the faith of LGBTQ+ Christians or claim that LGBTQ+ Christians do not have faith at all – I think they are missing significant information. Because here’s what I believe, based on some of my doctoral research around LGBTQ+ Christians and these Stages of Faith:

There is an inherent faith identity crisis that nearly every LGBTQ+ Christian has to navigate in our American Christian culture. The majority of the American church is so anti-LGBTQ+ that often, a complete reorientation of faith has to occur for queer Christians to reconcile the church and their sexuality. The church often tries to push them out, dismiss their presence, and calls into question their faith. And it is exactly this journey of crisis and reorientation that moves people to a deeper faith.

Here’s why I think this is important. In the current dynamics of the church, and especially in the UMC that I’m a part of, many people are asking: why do we need LGBTQ+ persons in places of leadership? Is it just because we need diversity? Or that they are a token?

No. Absolutely not.

First, we need them in places of leadership because they are God’s beloved, discipleship equals, and co-creators of God’s unfolding redemption of the world – just like every other Christian. The church is just as much theirs as it is anyone else’s. But further, we need them in leadership positions because their experience has often led them to a deep faith. Their experiences have often helped them to see God in a way that can hold differing theological viewpoints together to build bridges instead of burning bridges. The church needs these voices in leadership because their experiences have brought them to a deep level of faith and we all have so much to learn from those who have such a deep faith.

So our conversation should not be “should we include LGBTQ+ Christians in the church?” The conversation should be, “What barriers have we created that are preventing LGBTQ+ leadership in the church and how can we remove those barriers?”

Sure, we all want to think that we are in Stage 3 or Stage 4 of our faith. But in a study on our driving ability, 93% of Americans rated themselves as “above average” drivers. Ha. How is this even possible? Only 50% of drivers can be “above average.” This is called, illusory superiority. This is a condition of cognitive bias wherein a person overestimates their own qualities and abilities, in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other persons. It’s also called the “above average” effect.

But while we all may think we are above average drivers, most of us can probably agree that we aren’t as good a driver as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Right? But he would be an above average driver. Personally, I think of my LGBTQ+ Christian friends as the Dale Earnhardt, Jrs of the church. The above average.

But why is this? In my research I found four elements that were central to the faith development in LGBTQ+ Christians. They are:

  1. Faith Crisis (having the rug pulled out from under our firm faith footing).
  2. Identity Negotiation (questioning our place in the world & my place with God),
  3. Resilience (holding onto faith despite the pain inflicted by others), and
  4. Reorientation (coming to a place of reinterpreting the teachings we had heard growing up or they had to come to terms with a divergent view, a paradox of sorts).

Yes, anyone else can have stage 3 or 4 faith. I can. My evangelical or Pentecostal or Episcopal or Catholic or Methodist brothers and sisters can. Anyone can and we would go through the same process of crisis and reorientation. But it’s not as common as we’d like to think. What I’m suggesting is that the difficulty of being queer and Christian in the American church is a deeply difficult journey of integration that nearly every LGBTQ+ Christian must face.

In an interview I did for this research one person beautifully articulated this resilience and reorientation when I asked him to describe what it was like to be a queer Christian. He said,

“It’s kind of like being a penguin living in an aviary, where the birds are living. So…you are a bird, you lay eggs, you have a beak…you are all the same birds, you all hatch together at the same time and all these other birds are flying around and you are in the same building and you don’t know how good you are, because you can’t do anything here because penguins aren’t built to fly – and it’s not until you put some water in there and the penguin can do something none of the other birds could ever do – they can fly underwater. I’m no less a Christian than any other straight person, I just fly differently.”

I love this so much. This deepening of faith through crisis and identity negotiation is seen most vividly in this new understanding of himself and the world in his “penguins in an aviary” analogy. He has seemingly reworked his understanding of the world and formed a new structure of being by allowing the faith community to exist as it has in the forms of the birds but also placed himself as fundamentally present and the same but also different. This seems to point to a high level of reorienting faith development that has broken down old narratives and authority structures and built up new ones, where he does not tear down another person’s faith but rather allows his faith to survive and even thrive in and around faith structures that do not always support his.

This is Stage 3 Faith.

So, the next time you question the faith of an LGBTQ+ Christian (here’s lookin’ at you Franklin Graham) you may want to check yourself. Are there ways that you may need to grow? Are there things you are missing? Can you come to believe that you may actually have things to learn from LGBTQ+ Christians? And further – to the leadership of the UMC and every other church – this is why we need queer folks in our pulpits, on our boards, leading our churches and our denominations because they have an experience, wisdom, and faith in God that can greatly benefit the church, our lives, and and our institutions.

This is why I so deeply believe that God is working through the LGBTQ+ community to save the church. I just wish the church could see this more fully.

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