When leaders approached the congregation with the idea of voting on an 'Open and Affirming' designation, meaning the church welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, Joanne Hartung said they heard a common response.
"I thought we already were?"
The church previously had a welcoming stance to gays and lesbians. For instance, after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, the congregation voted to allow same-sex marriages in the church.
That vote, Hartung said, may have led congregants to think that the church already adopted the Open and Affirming designation, created by the United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination for their congregations to publicly state that they welcome into the "full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions," according to the UCC website.
So if the church already welcomed the LGBT community, what changed after the congregation's vote at its annual meeting on Sunday, May 20 to become an Open and Affirming church?
"One thing we tried to communicate the most during this process—we in our community know this or feel this, but yet how do we project that?" Hartung said. "How do we let other people know?"
Rev. Beth Horne, church pastor, brought up a "subtle change" at this first Sunday service since the vote. One of the soloists sang "Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr.," a ballad written by Tom Brown about the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
"I think he felt comfortable singing it because we had made this vote," Horne said. "I was able to weave that theme into my sermon about this song ... recognizing that the church had strongly affirmed our position on being welcoming to that community. I'm not saying it wouldn't have happened before the vote, but it's time for us to be very public about who we are."
A Public Statement of Values
That public statement is the focus of the vote, according to Horne, Hartung and Teri Vienot, who served as an Open and Affirming team leader along with Hartung during the process.
Vienot said online directories exist where people can search for churches that have accepted the designation, and that for young people looking for a church, it could be key factor.
"When my husband and I first moved to Melrose, we shopped around for churches," she said. "If you're gay or lesbian, you probably want to be a little more selective or careful in where you’re looking."
"They’ll go to those directories first and may not even come," Hartung added, saying that people would privately ask Horne if the church was an Open and Affirming congregation.
According to the UCC, Melrose Highlands Congregational Church is now that 1,021st church in the country to adopt the Open and Affirming designation and the 115th on the registry in Massachusetts.
"The way I look at it," Horne said, "it just makes our wide welcome a little wider, because it makes clear what our values are."
Involving All Congregants
Because Melrose Highlands is a congregational church, all members must be involved in the process. As Horne explained, the church has a flat—not hierarchical—structure, with authority granted to her by the congregation, but decisions about the church made by the congregation itself.
"Instead of the priest or pope being the heads of the church, it’s Jesus Christ," she said. "We’re always looking for the guiding spirit."
Becoming an Open and Affirming church started with informational sessions for congregants, Hartung said, that detailed what Open and Affirming is, how the process would go and, most importantly, soliciting questions from the congregants.
"As a member, each of us have a part in what our congregation is and what we do—equally, across the board," Hartung said. "Anyone has the right to say something or vote or be a part of something."
The process involves coming to an agreement, voting on it and then drafting an Open and Affirming statement, presented to the congregation two Sundays ago at its annual meeting, where Vienot said typically the church budget for the next year is presented along with any by-law changes.
A First Step
That statement is "just the first step" of how the church will communicate to the community that it's Open and Affirming, Hartung said.
"Then we will change some of our signage and symbols, things over time, to make sure that in the future—whether or not we’re stating it loud and clear—people will know that we’re Open and Affirming," she said.
Aside from signage and symbols, the life of the church will change as the congregation looks to expand the programming and activities it offers its members, Hartung said, with more that draws in and welcomes the LGBT community.
Horne added that gay and lesbian congregants have already been participants in church life.
"We have had gay high school students in our youth group, gay and lesbian staff members," Horne said. "I think people have felt welcome. It’s for those people on the outside that may not know, and it’s not the case in every church that welcome is there."
Vienot said that some people in the church community privately expressed they weren't sure if they felt comfortable stating who they were.
"Hopefully this will help people to come forward and sharing who they truly are," she said.
"That’s what a lot of people don’t understand," Hartung added. "It’s the sharing that we want. Them to come in here and feel comfortable talking about their children, their partners—just like everyone else has."