“All are welcome” is a common sentiment expressed by congregations. Some display rainbow flags or signage as a sign of welcome to members of the LGBTQ community; or, the Reconciling in Christ cross may communicate welcome to Lutherans familiar with the symbol and the congregational process it represents. Asked to reflect on how we welcome transgender people in our congregations, we recognize that, as cisgender pastors, we are not experts, but we are people who have been gifted by the presence and participation of transgender persons in our congregations. We see the welcoming of people into our congregations to live, learn, and serve the gospel as a pastoral and congregational responsibility.
We believe it isn’t the responsibility of transgender people to accomplish or facilitate their own welcoming. We serve with the conviction that the church is where the gospel is preached and the sacraments rightly administered (AC Article IV), where Jesus has come that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10), and where we have been freed in Christ to love God and neighbor (ELCA Social Statement).
Here are a several simple reflections on what we’ve experienced in living and serving alongside transgender and non-binary confirming people participating and living out their faith as children of God in a congregational setting.
- Transgender people are everywhere. They may already be worshipping and serving in your congregation, without publicly self-identifying. Many others may have family members who identify as transgender. Other will have walked with friends and coworkers who are transgender, non-binary confirming, or are in a coming-out process.
- Language holds power. Language that primarily defines humanity in terms of gender identity or expression is inessential to the communication of the gospel, and can indeed obscure the Good News in community (Galations 3:28). Encourage members to avoid conversations that engage in gossip around anyone’s gender identity or expression. Always call people by the names they use for themselves, and listen for how people use pronouns to describe themselves, using the same in response.
- Respond to changes graciously and attentively. In the experience of some, coming out as transgender in a church community can be a great source of anxiety. If a member of the community begins to express gender in new way, or begins to use a different name or pronouns, model respect by responding in like manner. If the person self-identifies as transgender, or in a transition experience, rites for honoring a new name are available, reflecting the continuing baptismal covenant.
- Be thoughtful about groups within the church that identify in a gender-binary way. Consider practices that avoid tasks in congregational life in which the invitation to serve is gender-specific (recruiting “ladies” to help in the kitchen or “guys” to work on a renovation project. This is not so say that there will not be groups which gather men and women to share experiences and reflect on spiritual practices. Such groups and events should be encouraged to reflect, however, on how transgender or gender non-binary confirming people may feel included or excluded by their invitations and activities.
- Facilities should be clearly marked. Restrooms available to all people should be present, even if it simply means adjusting signage on existing restrooms. Describe simply what is inside: Single-occupant restroom, all-gender, multiple stall restroom, etc. This is helpful not only to gender non-binary confirming and transgender people, but for anyone who has children or has a caregiver. Providing a variety of options can be the best way to serve a diverse community.
- When talking with children, the adults are listening, too. Consider avoiding language and practices with children that communicate that their gender is the most explicitly noticeable or important thing about them. This is important in Sunday School, Children’s sermons and messages, and in the nursery. Adults will often hear these interactions and be affected by them, as well, as gender binaries are reinforced. Complimenting children primarily for being a “girl with a pretty dress” or a “boy who is athletic” are some simple examples. These messages communicate what we value most about the adults present, as well.
- Review the questions asked on baptism, marriage, membership, and other forms. Provide opportunities for people to self-identify with regard to gender. And perhaps even more importantly: Review why or if such information is even relevant. Our publications and forms are some of the first experiences people have with our congregations. Be sure they are communicating values clearly.