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Affirming Ministry Workgroup

Introduction 

When Grace United Church of Burlington was formed in 2019 through the amalgamation of the former Nelson, St. Stephen and Tansley churches, our newly amalgamated church engaged in a process of establishing a set of Core Values to define the Grace church family. These Core Values are captured on our website at https://graceunitedchurchburlington.com/core-values/.

One of these core values is inclusivity, and through the work of the Transition Team and the findings of a number of surveys connected to the transition process, the Board concluded that it should explore the possibility of Grace becoming an Affirming Ministry. The recognition that our marriage policies and practices did not reflect our new core values and were in need of updating, offered another opportunity to consider how Grace might begin to better align our identity, policies and practices with our stated Core Value of inclusivity.

While the legacy congregations may have considered the idea of becoming an Affirming Ministry from time to time, now – with a newly formed congregation, the need to begin the search for a new permanent minister, and a commitment to live our newly identified core values – has become the ideal time to seriously consider embarking on the process to become an Affirming Ministry.

Currently, there are close to 250 Affirming Ministries and another 100 ministries journeying through the Affirming Ministry process.  Port Nelson UC is the only Affirming Ministry in Burlington, and only one of two Affirming Ministries in Halton.

 

WHAT IS AN AFFIRMING MINISTRY?

According to Open Hearts – Resources for Affirming Ministries in The United Church of Canada, (Revised Apri19, page 1) (“Open Hearts”), Affirming Ministries are “communities of faith, regional councils, educational institutions, outdoor ministries, chaplaincies, and other ministries within the United Church and among its partners that publicly declare their commitment to inclusion and justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.  Although Affirming Ministries make an explicit statement about issues of sexuality and gender, their commitment to justice is far broader.  They continually grow and change as they seek to live more fully into God’s way of welcome, love, and justice for all creation.  Just as God rejoices in the goodness and diversity of creation, so too Affirming Ministries honour and celebrate diversity”.

Affirm United/S’affirmer Ensemble (“Affirm United”), established in 1982 as Affirm[1], is the organization that initiated the Affirming Ministry program in 1992.  Its mandate is to work “for the inclusion of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations (not just heterosexuals) within the United Church of Canada and society”.[2]  The current and most commonly used acronym to describe non-heterosexuals is 2S and LGBTQIA+[3]; however, this term is not meant to be exhaustive.  The United Church of Canada (“UCC”) officially endorses this program and encourages its ministries to participate.

The purpose of the Affirm Ministry program is for congregations like ours (amongst other church bodies) “to study what it means to be publicly welcoming and inclusive”.[4]   While the educational resources from Affirm United are focused on sexual orientation and gender identity, congregations are encouraged to broaden their study scope to include other UCC resources that “promote inclusion and justice for other groups that have been historically excluded or marginalized (such as those excluded by ageism, racism, sexism, accessibility, and socio-economic differences)”.[5]  Journeying through this process, we, as individuals and as a congregation as a whole, will hopefully come to understand what it is like to be marginalized and/or excluded – to be on the other side of “welcome” – and appreciate more what it means to be inclusive.  We will also learn what it means to have privilege and why some people have more or less advantages than others.

However, the official Affirming Ministry process is not completed with the receipt of the Certificate from Affirm United.  It is actually the beginning for Grace United Church to live out its faith journey, acting upon its core value of inclusivity, and its commitment to justice for all.  It is a public affirmation of acceptance and ongoing support for all through education and action that “God loves and celebrates all people.  And they call upon the rest of the church and society to do the same”.[6]

 

WHY BECOME AN AFFIRMING MINISTRY?

This is probably the most often-asked question by members of a congregation of an Affirming Ministry Committee.  Congregations believe that they are already “welcoming” – so why do they have to make a public declaration of it after completing a study process?

According to Open Hearts “Being an Affirming Ministry is not merely about welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.  Words like welcoming or inclusion suggest those on the inside have the power to choose to accept those on the outside.  This makes it sound like an act of charity to welcome those who are different or marginalized.  However, it is not our place to welcome anyone because church is not a private club and we are not the gatekeepers.  As soon as one new person comes through the doors, the community becomes a new community”.[7]

In carrying out the educational, discernment, and decision process to becoming an Affirming Ministry, a congregation is openly stating that all are a part of the community – not in spite of who they are – but for who they are and what they bring to that community of faith.  Where actions speak louder than words, you are showing the world that God’s love is for everyone – regardless of who you are.  Affirm United calls this P.I.E. – public – intentional – explicit.[8]   To become an Affirming Ministry is to be nurturing and supportive to all of its flock – to be a safe place.

Methodology

Once it was determined that there was sufficient interest in exploring the possibility of Grace becoming an

Affirming Ministry, the Board asked for volunteers willing to undertake an initial phase of research and assessment, and produce a report for the Board. The following members of the congregation volunteered to form a working group to carry out this task:  Janet Saunders, Kathryn Munn, Janice Martin and Jane Jenner.

The working group members read the material[9] provided by Board Co-Chair Heather McGavin and met several times via Zoom.  Zoom conferences were scheduled with two local Affirming Ministries:  Port Nelson UC in Burlington and St. Paul’s UC in Oakville.  An attempt was also made to consult the Chair of the Horseshoe Falls Affirming Network; however, as this person had recently stepped down, our contact at St. Paul’s, Rev. Deborah Laforet, will act as our liaison with the regional Network for the whole Affirming Ministry process.  Deborah felt that the information we already had in hand from Port Nelson and St. Paul’s was likely sufficient to determine our next steps.  A series of questions was sent to the two resource churches in advance of the meetings (please refer to Appendix A), and the findings presented below represent a summary of the answers and information provided, along with key information from the reading material.

In addition to researching other Affirming Ministries, the working group engaged in a brief SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) Analysis to evaluate Grace’s potential readiness for undertaking the process of becoming an Affirming Ministry.  The SWOT Analysis is included as Appendix B.

While the various opportunities for education and reflection will be important elements of the Affirming Ministry process, as with all the work Grace does, prayer will be a key component in this journey.  We may want to ask ourselves, both individually and as a church body, now and throughout the process – What is God calling Grace to do?  Is the Holy Spirit guiding Grace in this direction?

Findings

Scope/Context:

  1. You need the right people to spearhead the process:
    • At St. Paul’s, initial conversations petered out but in 2015 had a young person who felt passionate about it and offered to chair a committee in partnership with a co-chair.
    • At Port Nelson, inclusion identified as a core value; had a champion who promoted taking steps to becoming affirming.
  1. Although Affirming Ministry congregations are inclusive of anyone who walks through their doors, the formal affirming process allows the community of faith to initially decide what specific groups to focus on, while still being inclusive of all groups in the process. The focus will vary by church:
    • At St. Paul’s the initial focus was primarily on LGBTQIA2S+ in response to the negative position taken by faith organizations historically. They felt it was important to focus there to make people have that conversation but that the scope would eventually be enlarged. Also focused learning initiatives more on gender identity than sexual orientation, as this is where they felt the most learning was needed. Ultimately, St. Paul’s Affirming Vision Statement covers a broader scope: “We are seeking to be a safe and inclusive faith community for people of all gender identities, sexual orientations, marital status, family configuration, abilities, ages, races, ethnicities, faiths, and socio-economic circumstances, who will be encouraged to participate fully in all aspects of the life and work of our ministry, thereby enriching us all.”
    • At Port Nelson, on the other hand, although there was a long history of dealing with LGBTQIA2S+ issues (ordination of gay ministers; same sex marriages), in keeping with their core value of inclusion (which was subsequently changed to “affirming”) and a fear of becoming a “one issue church” a decision was made to broaden the scope beyond the LGBTQIA2S+ focus. This is reflected in Port Nelson’s Affirming Vision Statement: “We affirm, include, and celebrate people of every age, race, belief, culture, ability, income level, family configuration, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation in the life and ministry of Port Nelson United Church. As followers of Jesus, we believe that we are part of the body of Christ. The apostle Paul said that “the body does not consist of one member but of many” and all are indispensable. (1 Cor. 12:14, 22-26)”
    • If Grace decides to move forward, it will be important to achieve consensus on the initial focus during the affirming process, although the scope of our affirming vision statement could be much broader and more inclusive.

Resources Required:

Human Resources 

  1. External human resources included (contact coordinates were provided or are readily available):
    • The Horseshoe Falls Affirming Network and Affirm United;
    • Other local Affirming Ministries (Port Nelson, St. Paul’s, Applewood in Mississauga);
    • Positive Space Networks: (“Safer space for 2SLGBTQ+ youth”): had guest speaker, did workshop;
    • PFLAG (national organization offering peer-to-peer support for all Canadians with issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression): Halton chapter;
    • Several potential speakers were suggested, with contact information provided; and
    • There may be other resources within our own congregation or community that may come forward.

It was noted, however, that there are few resources in Halton, overall.

  1. The work typically relies heavily on volunteers from the congregation who are passionate about and/or interested in the concept of becoming an Affirming Ministry. A small core team of about 7-9 volunteers plus the Minister is typical, although the Minister is not always involved. Becoming Affirming should be a lay-led initiative. Port Nelson and St. Paul’s both formed committees from those who were interested vs recruiting from specific committees.  There was no minister involvement at Port Nelson.
  1. Support will be needed from the Grace Board and committees throughout the process. For example, support from the Church Administrator and Communication Team will be required to facilitate spreading the word about the Affirming Ministry process and events via blast congregational emails and the Grace website.  Property may be asked to help set up for after-church events.  Collaboration with Worship may be needed as affirming messaging may need to be integrated during services from time to time.

 

Other Resources 

  1. Some budget may be required to support:
    • Affirming Ministries typically make an annual contribution of $100 to $500 per year to be institutional member of Affirm United, with fees varying depending on the net revenue of the community of faith[10];
    • Updated library resources (books, videos) to expand collection of materials related to LGBTQIA2S+, BIPOC, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups;
    • Honoraria/gifts for guest speakers;
    • Perhaps funding for some refreshments at Lunch & Learns and other educational/learning events; and
    • Signage, posters, banners etc.

2. The Open Hearts resource contains numerous ideas, additional resources and content to draw upon.

3. Setting up a dedicated email to facilitate confidential 1:1 dialogue was a useful strategy at St. Paul’s.

4. Videos of special services and speakers from Affirming Ministries.

Process/Time Frame:

  1. While the process itself of becoming an Affirming Ministry is not rigidly defined by Affirm United, and each congregation will need to determine its own approach, Affirm United strongly recommends a thorough process of education and discernment[11]. The process may not be articulated at the start; however, it can evolve organically as more information is gathered and various tactics are tried. Typically, the first step is to seek approval from the church Council or Board to begin.
  1. Next, contact should be made with the Affirming Ministry coordinators at https://affirmunited.ause.ca/affirming-ministry-cordinators/.

      3. The three required commitments stipulated by Affirm United are:

    • A Vision Statement concerning the inclusion of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations in the life and work of the ministry;
    • A continuing Plan of Action for the Ministry once it is Affirming; and
    • An Equal Marriage Policy.
  1. Time requirement will vary, and Affirm United has no set requirements; however, each Ministry is encouraged to take the time it needs to work through the process. In the case of St. Paul’s, this took about two years (2018-20). At Port Nelson, it took about a year and a half but there were some initial steps beforehand.
  2. It is of critical importance to clarify the difference between being affirming and being welcoming, as outlined in the previous section, “What is an Affirming Ministry”, in order for members of the congregation to understand this crucial distinction. Having inclusivity as a core value provides a rationale for undertaking the Affirming journey, but being clear about why affirming is not the same as welcoming puts the process on a more secure footing with a greater chance of participation.
  3. Some resistance to all or part of the Affirming requirements to be Public, Intentional and Explicit (PIE) may be encountered from individuals who may not be comfortable with a more overt stance.
  4. Education/learning is a big part of the process and successful strategies included:
    • Prominently displaying posters, banners and reading materials in the sanctuary and other areas of the church;
    • Distributing a “Fact Sheet” with FAQs and a definition of what is meant by “affirming” to the congregation;
    • Lunch & Learn Sessions after services with follow-up break out groups;
    • Guest speakers/Speakers’ Series including members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community (easy to hate an idea, hard to hate a person with a story/face);
    • Video screenings;
    • Affirming team attendance at various church committees and events for discussion/questions etc.;
    • Holding a PIE Day[12] event;
    • Talking about becoming Affirming during worship; and
    • It was recommended to use the Open Hearts document as a guide. Port Nelson recommends making sure to have plenty of events for the whole congregation (more likely to get more people on board with less ‘push-back’ when the time comes to vote).
  5. Once there has been ample opportunity for learning and discussion through a variety of events, communications and conversations, the next step is to ask the congregation to vote on whether or not to become an Affirming Ministry. Affirm United strongly recommends a minimum of 75% in favour to carry the decision.
    • Despite being held during the pandemic, St. Paul’s was successful in having 90 people attend the (virtual) voting session, and the congregation supported the decision with a 98% vote in favour of becoming an Affirming Ministry.
    • Port Nelson’s vote was less decisive: at 77% it was just sufficient to pass. A number of people remained “on the fence” and one individual vocally opposed the motion, which may have contributed to the result. This is why Port Nelson encourages a high emphasis on congregation-wide learning and conversation prior to the vote.
  6. If the congregation votes in favour of becoming an Affirming Ministry, Affirm United expects the church to hold a public service of celebration for the ministry, the wider United Church and the community, at which a certificate from Affirm United will be presented.
  7. Post affirming, educational events should continue with the congregation to explore other ways that Grace can become more knowledgeable and inclusive around social justice issues.
  8. Ongoing commitments include the aforementioned annual institutional membership and submission of an Annual Affirming Ministry Report, identification of lead contacts with Affirm United and attendance at Affirm United’s annual conference. The church is also expected to uphold and act upon the PIE commitments through regular communications with the community, outreach, special events etc. (e.g., annual PIE Day event).

Impacts and Outcomes:

  1. St.Paul’s found that there were a number of people in the community who connected to the church based on their Affirming signage. Port Nelson had a similar experience, with offers of help and donations. Becoming Affirming may offer opportunities to attract new members to the congregation.
  2. There was some risk of losing members of the congregation who were opposed to becoming an Affirming Ministry.
  3. Some pushback against the process may be experienced – the “we are comfortable as we are” mindset; at the same time the learning and engagement process can bring richness and diversity to the congregation.
  4. Church policies and practices may need to be updated to reflect the Affirming Ministry values, e.g., designating a non-gender-specific washroom facility.

Conclusions

  1. Before undertaking the process of becoming an Affirming Ministry, it is important to gauge the readiness of the congregation. Based on the identification of inclusion as a core Grace value, the working group’s estimation is that the Grace community would be receptive.
  2. It is important to allow sufficient time to create a robust plan that provides multiple learning opportunities for the congregation to learn and understand what being Affirming means and entails, prior to asking members to vote on whether to become an Affirming Ministry.
  3. There are a number of external resources available to support the process, but a strong commitment, leadership and coordination from a core group of dedicated volunteers within the congregation is necessary both to move the process forward and enhance the likelihood of its success. Members of this working group are willing to continue the work going forward.

 

Recommendation

Grace needs to have the approval of the Grace Board to proceed.  Based on our research, we would recommend that Grace move forward and start the process towards becoming an Affirming Ministry.

MOTION

That Grace United Church begin the process of becoming an Affirming Ministry, with the first step being the establishment of an Affirming Ministry Committee or Team.

 

APPENDIX A: CONTEXT AND QUESTIONS PROVIDED TO RESOURCE CHURCHES

GRACE UNITED CHURCH AFFIRMING MINISTRY – RESEARCH

Our Context:

As part of the transition to bring together three separate United Church congregations (the former Nelson, St. Stephen and Tansley Churches) to form a new entity, Grace United Church of Burlington, our newly amalgamated church, embarked upon the process of establishing a set of Core Values to define the Grace church family. These Core Values are captured on our website at https://graceunitedchurchburlington.com/core-values/.

One of these core values is inclusivity, and through the work of the Transition Team and the findings of a number of surveys connected to the transition process, the Board concluded that it should explore the possibility of Grace becoming an Affirming Ministry. The recognition that our marriage policies and practices did not reflect our new core values and were in need of updating, offered another opportunity to consider how Grace might begin to better align our identity, policies and practices with our stated Core Value of inclusivity. While the idea of becoming an Affirming Ministry had been previously considered from time to time, now – with a newly formed congregation, the need to begin the search for a new permanent minister, and a commitment to live our newly identified core values – has become the ideal time to seriously consider embarking on the process to become an Affirming Ministry.

A small working group was struck in May of this year to do preliminary research and put together a process to move forward with the work of becoming an Affirming Ministry, to be presented to the Grace UC Board for consideration. This group, consisting of Janice Martin, Janet Saunders, Kathryn Munn and Jane Jenner, have met and identified that a good first step would be to arrange discussions with other local churches that have become Affirming ministries.

We look forward to this discussion with you, and invite you to consider these initial questions that we hope your experience will help us to answer:

Scope:

  1. Our context – outlined above – has triggered this research journey for Grace to determine the process for becoming an Affirming Ministry congregation. Can you share the context in which your congregation made the decision to embark on your journey?
  2. Was your focus exclusively on affirming gender identity and sexual orientation – or was there a broader focus (e.g., Indigenous peoples, visual minorities, socio-economic status)?

Resourcing – Human:

  1. How were your Affirming committee members chosen? Did individuals volunteer?  Or were they selected based on certain talents/interests/church committee membership?
  1. Were professional (paid) facilitators used to run the workshops – or were they all done “in-house”? If they were external, where did you find them?  Could you share your contacts along with what they specifically did?  Did you establish any kind of budget for materials, facilitators, etc.?  What was the total budget for the overall process?
  1. How were various church committees engaged or brought into the process? Which committees were more pivotal in moving the agenda forward?
  1. What involvement, if any, did the minister have in the study process?

Process: 

  1. In addition to taking a recommendation to the church board to start the study process, did you also take the recommendation to the congregation? If so, how did you provide context/information on process etc. to the congregation prior to them voting?
  1. The Open Hearts resource (page 15) suggests that contact be made with Affirm United early on in the process (Step No.2) – even before the church Board adopts a recommendation to start the reflection and study process. While our study group is a precursor to starting a formal process, when did your committee make contact with Affirm United and what were the key pieces of information received?
  1. Was the complete plan laid out in advance of how your church would navigate the process or was it done in a more step-wise/iterative/milestone type of way?
  1. At what point did you conclude that you had done enough workshops, activities, etc. and move on to final steps? What did those final steps look like – before the actual Affirming Ministry “ceremony”?
  1. In the vein of “SWOT”: 1) Was there any resistance to the process and outcome?  If so, in general, by whom and in what way?  2) Were there any surprises (positive or negative) during the process that you had not anticipated?  3)  What issues, if any, did you face? 

Resources – Research etc.: 

  1. How long did your process take? Were different teams or committees formed along the way or was the same group largely intact throughout the whole process?  Was there one individual who drove the process with support of a committee(s)?
  1. What were the main resources used? For example, the Open Hearts resource has specific workshop ideas – did you use any of these?  If so, which ones would you recommend using?  Are there any you suggest that we avoid?  What other written/video resources would you recommend?

Impacts: 

  1. What has been the overall impact to your congregation of becoming an Affirming Ministry? How has it changed your church?
  1. Did you lose congregational members? Gain members?  Any particular reactions – positive or negative – from the surrounding community?
  1. From your knowledge or connections with other churches, why would a congregation choose not to pursue the Affirming Process?
  1. Any additional suggestions or learning notes you could share with us? Key learnings?
  1. Are there any important questions we have missed?

 

 

APPENDIX B: SWOT ANALYSIS

STRENGTHS WEAKNESSES (potential)[13]
●        Inclusivity identified as a core value

●        Core group of people interested in moving forward

●        Positive relationship between congregation and current intentional interim minister who is a member of the LGBTQIA2S+ community

●        Strong congregational committee engagement and participation in socially-focused groups (e.g., Book Club, Men’s Breakfast Group, UCW)

●        Existing Outreach programs related to broader Affirming audiences: Indigenous (e.g., Fort Albany, Six Nations, Whale Cove Food Collection); vulnerable/ marginalized Populations including single parent led families, youth, seniors, new Canadians (e.g., Food for Life).

●        Excellent resources through Affirm United/S’affirmer Ensemble materials and contacts at local churches that are affirming

●        Strong and diverse skills among congregation members, including advanced levels of education, career experience and professional credentials

●        Congregation demographic is predominantly adult/older adult; not many youth

●        Congregation has limited racial diversity

●        Level of interest of congregation in becoming an Affirming Ministry is somewhat unclear/unknown at the present time

OPPORTUNITIES THREATS (potential)
●        To strengthen our commitment to our core value of inclusivity by becoming Affirming, through being public, intentional and explicit (PIE)

●        To reach out beyond our existing community, especially to organizations representing LGBTQIA2S+ and other groups that may be marginalized (e.g., BIPOC, people with disabilities)

●        To grow our congregation through our Affirming status

●        To use the re-start of in-person services as a springboard to providing engaging and interactive educational sessions at a time when members will be especially glad to spend time together

●        To recruit our new minister in alignment with the values espoused by becoming an Affirming Ministry; per Port Nelson: most ministers looking for positions want to come to an Affirming Ministry; may help us attract more applications

●        Possible apathy: why do we need to go through this process when we’re already welcoming?  “We’re nice people!”

●        Possible active resistance by some members and potential risk that some may leave the congregation if not comfortable with becoming Affirming

●        Misinterpretation of Bible verses out of context

[1] “In 1982 a new group arose both to challenge the United Church of Canada and to support it in its advocacy for gay and lesbian people.  During the General Council in Montreal that year, 18 gay and lesbian people gathered in the upper room of the Newman Centre.  They were all United Church members and involved in local gatherings that supported gay and lesbian equality”.   Friends of Affirm was established in 1984 to support Affirm, and the two organizations later amalgamated in 1994 to become Affirm United.  It is noted that dissenting organizations, such as Community of Concern, were also established to challenge the views of Affirm.  (Moving Toward Full Inclusion, 2014)

[2] Open Hearts:  Resources for Affirming Ministries in The United Church of Canada, (page 1)

[3] 2S and LGBTQIA+:  Two Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning or Queer, Intersex, and Asexual people.

[4] Open Hearts, page 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Open Hearts, page 12.

[8] P.I.E.:  Public – Be out and proud!  Use symbols, sigs and words which are echoed inside and outside the church building, in all facets of church life; Intentional – An affirming ministry is deliberate in their process of study, education and dialogue with members of their faith community.  They ensure that the history of oppression and discrimination by the church is both understood and acknowledged, and that continued growth, education, and celebration are part of its ministry; and Explicit – An Affirming ministry is very clear about who it welcomes.  It names queer, trans, and Two-Spirit people and the gifts they bring. (Open Hearts, page 7)

[9] Moving Toward Full Inclusion, 2nd Edition – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in The United Church of Canada; and, Open Hearts, revised April 2020 – Resources for Affirming Ministries in The United Church of Canada (Huntly, Alyson, in conjunction with the Affirming Ministries Program Coordinators)

[10] Open Hearts, page 28.  Note:  The money supports the work of the Affirming Ministry program, pays for six newsletters per year and other communication, helps initiate other Affirming Ministries across the church, and supports Affirm United’s National Council expenses as well as annual conference and annual general meeting.

[11] Open Hearts; p. 7

[12] PIE Day is an event co-founded by Affirm United/S’affirmer Ensemble and Affirming Connections,  and while rooted in the United Church of Canada tradition, people of all faiths and backgrounds, as well as individuals and non-faith based organizations are welcome to celebrate this Day. The next PIE Day will be held on March 14, 2022.

[13] We use the term “potential” to recognize that these factors may not have a negative impact or may not actually occur, but should be anticipated in order to enhance our preparedness.