CHHSM Begins Open and Affirming Designation Process

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people will find greater acceptance in faith-based organizations if CHHSM’s board of directors adopts an Open and Affirming covenant this summer.

Open and Affirming (ONA) ministries invite people of all sexual orientations into the church. The program, established by the United Church of Christ General Synod in 1985, now includes about 1,300 congregations, or 22 percent of the UCC’s total membership.

Certification as an ONA ministry requires adoption of an official covenant affirming persons of any “sexual orientations and gender identity or expression,” or equivalent language. Covenants are reviewed and certified by the Open and Affirming Coalition – a nonprofit affiliated with the United Church of Christ. CHHSM’s decision will not commit its individual members to any policy.

The ONA process is a way for CHHSM to create conversation about how to become more inclusive, says The Rev. Loey Powell, the UCC’s executive associate for special projects and a CHHSM board member.

“We want to be careful and intentional about this process,” says Powell, who led conversation circles during CHHSM’s March annual meeting to help members understand the ONA designation.

CHHSM’s executive committee introduced the process to its full board in February and will continue to hold conversations with members until the board votes in June. Currently, Marion, Ohio-based United Church Homes is the only ONA-designated CHHSM ministry.

Bethany Children’s Home of Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania, like a number of CHHSM ministries, welcomes LGBT people. The residential placement campus for homeless youth, which hopes to certify as ONA soon, already uses inclusive language on its website.

“We’ve helped youth who were kicked out of their homes after coming out,” says Rose Shepley, communications specialist. “We’re open to assisting people that other agencies might not be comfortable with. It’s a big part of our culture already.”

About 48 percent of all congregations in the United States recognized LGBT members in 2012, up from 37 percent in 2006, according to researchers from Duke University and the University of Chicago. Still, many LGBT people feel uncomfortable in faith-based organizations, which is why UCC ministries should formally adopt a covenant to certify as ONA, says Andy Lang, the coalition’s executive director.

“Even for CHHSM ministries that already are implicitly welcoming and safe for LGBT people, the process of developing an ONA covenant can be a valuable experience,” says Lang. “And formal certification as ONA puts that ministry literally ‘on the map’ for LGBT persons searching for health care and social services. It’s a powerful way to make a ministry’s commitment to inclusion visible in the community.”

Lang hopes that other CHHSM members will be inspired to explore sexual orientation and gender identity in the church. “If CHHSM affirms its welcome of LGBT people with a formal covenant, that sends a powerful message to other ministries,” he says.

The designation is a chance for CHHSM to “lead the way in welcoming members of all backgrounds,” Powell says.

“The designation tells people something about CHHSM’s culture — that we’re a welcoming organization that changes lives,” she says.

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