This Year's Reconcile and Reform Conference
and Where TRP is Headed

November 19, 2019

Matthew Vines

We are so grateful for everyone who joined us in Seattle for our Reconcile and Reform conference! With 500 attendees, it was our largest conference to date, and it powerfully illustrated our vision for the future of The Reformation Project.

We kicked off the conference with two new programs that we are incredibly excited to see grow in the years to come: Parents in Process and Pastors in Process. Our Parents in Process program helped reach Christian parents of LGBTQ children who are wrestling with the news of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, providing them with the guidance and resources they need to be able to show the love and support their children deserve.

We also welcomed 20 pastors of non-affirming churches who are seeking to guide their congregations to become more inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ people to our inaugural Pastors in Process program. With pastors representing more than 40,000 Christians in non-affirming churches across the country in attendance, it was an extraordinary opportunity for TRP to build relationships that will benefit both LGBTQ Christians and the church at large. We are greatly looking forward to deepening our relationships with the pastors who attended this year and to expanding our resources for pastors in process in the years ahead.

Nicole Garcia brought a powerful keynote message on the opening night of Reconcile and Reform, sharing her testimony as a transgender Latina woman and calling on attendees to root ourselves in a foundation in Scripture. Justin Lee gave our second keynote address, speaking to the importance of showing grace to those with whom we disagree, even in a deeply polarized society. Pastor Candace Hardnett then closed the conference with a rousing keynote speech charging each of us to return home and be the light and salt that our local congregations and communities need.

Throughout the rest of the weekend, we heard from Laura Beth Buchleiter and Mark Wingfield about what it means to be transgender and Christian and about the role their friendship played in the journey of Dallas’s Wilshire Baptist Church in becoming LGBTQ-affirming. Dr. Jim Brownson spoke on what it means to be an affirming church, and Dr. Cheryl Anderson offered critical insights into the connection points between the #MeToo movement and the church’s devaluation of LGBTQ people and people of color. We also learned from an excellent lineup of workshop presenters, and on Friday evening, Kathy Baldock interviewed Reverend David about how his 1959 letter to the RSV translation committee challenged their use of the word “homosexual” and how the discovery of that letter has reshaped our understanding of the misuse of Scripture against LGBTQ people.

Overall, every aspect of the weekend was rooted in The Reformation Project’s three core values—love for God, love for the Bible, and love for the church—and the conference embodied our vision for TRP moving forward. Our vision is of a global church that is fully affirming of LGBTQ people, and we are committed to realizing that vision through informing Christians about the biblical case for LGBTQ inclusion, engaging non-affirming Christians through outreach and advocacy, and guiding and supporting churches to reform their teachings and policies to fully affirm LGBTQ Christians.

The past six months have been a season of clarification for TRP, so in addition to sharing our vision for moving forward, we’d like to update you on some of the lessons we’ve learned and how they will inform our future work.

Some context for these lessons: TRP’s primary constituency is LGBTQ-affirming Christians who love God, the Bible, and the church, but our larger audience—the people our constituents are seeking to reach—is the non-affirming church itself. In order for us to realize our vision of a global church that is fully LGBTQ-affirming, we have to be able to reach non-affirming Christians in ways that move them toward affirmation. That’s why we’ve been intentional about ensuring that we speak to non-affirming Christians in ways that maximize our ability to be heard. As one illustration of this, TRP has consistently framed the problem of LGBTQ exclusion around biblical concepts like bad fruit as well as the flaws in non-affirming interpretations of Scripture rather than leading with rhetoric about bigotry and hatred.

The lessons we have learned relate to three main areas: the role of direct action organizing in our work, TRP’s value of monogamy and covenant, and how we address the critical realities of intersectionality in our work.

1. The role of direct action organizing in our work: Since the early years of TRP, we have considered and debated various approaches to helping move Christians and churches from a non-affirming position to an affirming position on LGBTQ inclusion. One of those approaches has been direct action organizing, a form of organizing that focuses on building power in order to compel a person in a position of authority to accept a demand.

Direct action organizing can be a highly effective tool for creating change in the right contexts—as with ACT UP in the fight against HIV/AIDS—but it is less effective and sometimes even counterproductive to creating change in other contexts. That dynamic is especially the case when the target of an action is someone with whom you have a relationship that you would like to maintain, like your pastor or church leaders. Given the reality that many Christians see themselves as being in opposition to the world, approaches on this topic that non-affirming Christians perceive as an attack are likely to intensify their resistance to LGBTQ inclusion rather than foster greater receptivity.

Within the context of TRP, while we have never implemented direct action organizing campaigns on an organizational level, we have offered training on direct action organizing at previous cohort summits and to two of our chapters. As we have evaluated various strategies for our work over the past six months, however, it has become clear that direct action organizing is not the most effective approach for us as an organization to advance inclusion in the church. Our focus instead will remain on engaging, guiding, and supporting Christians and churches to shift from non-affirming to affirming on LGBTQ inclusion while remaining clear in our convictions about the harm of non-affirming theology.

This approach doesn’t preclude times of confrontation and discomfort; some of those dynamics are inevitable, no matter the approach we take. Nor does this approach mean that direct action organizing is wrong or un-Christian. It simply means that direct action organizing is not the most effective tool for us to advance our mission as an organization.

2. TRP’s value of monogamy and covenant: Since the founding of TRP, we have been clear about what we are asking churches to affirm: monogamous, covenantal relationships. We honor the link that Scripture and the Christian tradition make between sex and lifelong commitment, and therefore, we embrace the principle that we should seek to say with our bodies what we are able and willing to say with the rest of our lives.

In recent years, there have been important conversations about the harm of shame-based teachings about sexual ethics in the church. We have been listening attentively to these conversations and believe it is critical for churches to do so as well. Any teaching that communicates that a person’s value or worthiness as a future spouse is tied to their virginity or their sexual history is harmful and shame-inducing. Such teachings have caused significant harm to both LGBTQ and straight people, and as we note on our values page, it’s important that churches reassess those teachings as part of their broader shift on LGBTQ inclusion.

There are different views about what that reassessment of shame-based teachings should lead to, and as some people’s views about sexual ethics more broadly have shifted over the years, there’s been a desire among some for TRP’s position to shift as well. Regardless of people’s beliefs, it is critical that we treat everyone with respect, sensitivity, and grace. A part of respecting people is being transparent about what will and will not change, and as our new website explains, we will continue to hold monogamy and covenant as part of our values while also calling on churches to move away from shame-based teachings about sexual ethics.

3. How we address the critical realities of intersectionality in our work: From the founding of TRP in 2013, one of my top priorities has been to use my significant privileges based on the color of my skin, my gender, and my gender identity—among other things—to help broaden the circle of inclusion for those who have been marginalized in more ways than I have. That value—at its root, loving your neighbor as yourself—is why we’ve placed an emphasis on conversations around intersectionality, especially at our conferences and in our leadership development cohort. Intersectionality matters because people who carry multiple marginalized identities face unique and additional barriers to full inclusion in the church, and as a Christian organization, we must care about and be intentional in addressing that reality.

Moreover, it’s critical for us to recognize the ways that LGBTQ exclusion mirrors other forms of exclusion and marginalization in the church. If all churches became affirming but didn’t make similar changes when it came to racism and sexism, then their change on LGBTQ inclusion would be a hollow one for the majority of LGBTQ Christians. That is why, even though TRP has maintained a central focus on LGBTQ inclusion in our work, it’s important that we give our audience a framework for seeing their shift on LGBTQ inclusion as a beginning point for their commitment to advocating for other groups that have also been marginalized.

As we have grown as an organization and reflected on the most effective ways for us to advance that value, we have discerned the need to make two main refinements to our approach: leading with language that is more broadly accessible, like diversity and inclusion, and tying conversations on these topics more consistently and explicitly to our Christian faith.

Moving forward, we will be intentional about clearly and directly connecting the imperative for Christians to care about those on the margins to the teachings of Scripture. The Bible contains an abundance of passages to that effect; by consistently framing conversations on these topics with biblical parables, verses, and teachings, we can help Christians who are becoming affirming see how a broader concern for those who have been marginalized flows directly out of and is a requirement of our faith. We have done this in various ways before, but our hope is that increasing the emphasis on our grounding in faith as a motivation for caring about and advocating for other marginalized groups will help more Christians deepen their vision of inclusion.

Practically speaking, we recognize that it is all too easy for predominantly white organizations to remain or become homogeneous. It takes significant and sustained effort to change that dynamic; putting in that effort has been and remains essential for TRP. One part of what that concrete commitment to diversity and inclusion looks like for TRP is in who we invite to speak and what we invite them to speak on at our events. Some other important aspects of that commitment are intentional outreach to multiethnic churches and churches of color and the inclusion of diverse voices and thinkers in our leadership development cohort curriculum. As we grow as an organization, ensuring that we have diverse leadership on our Board of Directors and staff—leadership that is empowered to speak to the fullness of their lived experience—remains of critical importance as well.

Our Reconcile and Reform conference demonstrated how we can put our love for God, the Bible, and the church at the center of everything we do while continuing to prioritize and uplift the imperative of diversity and inclusion, and it is a model for how we will advance that value moving forward.

The LGBTQ Christian community critically needs an organization that engages non-affirming Christians the way that TRP strives to do, and we are excited and energized by the clarity of our focus and vision moving forward. At the same time, we recognize that the work TRP does is not the work everyone is called to do and that organizations with a focus on communicating with non-affirming Christians cannot serve everyone.

We are hopeful that this period of clarification will enable TRP to make the maximal impact toward our mission. While we value all of the ways that TRP fosters community for many LGBTQ Christians and allies, it’s important for us to be clear about what we have the capacity to accomplish and what our founding purpose has always been: we are an advocacy organization that engages and seeks to reform the non-affirming church, and as such, clarity on the above matters is critical.

We are LGBTQ-affirming Christians who love God, love the Bible, and love the church and who do this work through visibility and advocacy, education, and community support. We are convinced that this clarity of purpose, direction, and vision will allow us to significantly expand our reach and impact, and we are deeply grateful to everyone who has been a part of our work thus far—staff, volunteers, donors, cohort members, and organizational partners—and to everyone who will be a part of it going forward. The need to advance LGBTQ inclusion in the church remains great, and The Reformation Project remains tirelessly dedicated to doing that work.

Matthew Vines
Executive Director
The Reformation Project