Open and Affirming Churches, and How to Find One

Until just a few years ago, I had never heard the phrase open and affirming. My Catholic background taught me that LGBTQ+ people were welcome at church, so long as they weren’t in a relationship that violated church laws.

So basically, they had to be alone and celibate.

Who would agree to those terms to attend church? You would be astounded by the answer. It breaks my heart to think about it.

After Leo came out, the church I work for began to explore becoming open and affirming (ONA). This meant they would go through a process of learning what it means to be accepting of LGBTQ+ people in all areas of the church: leadership, ministry, employment, membership, etc. At the end of that process, the church body would take a vote to declare that mission publically and live out its values. According to the United Church of Christ (UCC), “It bespeaks a spirit of hospitality and a willingness to live out that welcome in meaningful ways.”

Becoming an ONA Congregation is not something a church decides overnight. It is a long process with a lot of parts, and each step is essential. Sometimes, a congregation might think, “But we already welcome everyone, so why can’t we just make a statement and be done with it?” Well, it’s not that easy. That makes you a welcoming church (which isn’t necessarily bad either). *In some denominations, a Welcoming Congregation is the same thing as an ONA Congregation, so it helps to do your research.

There might be people in the congregation who don’t fully understand what it means to be open and accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. Or there could be people who believe that the Bible is against same-gender relationships or that God considers transgender people a mistake.

All of these unearth during the ONA process. Important conversations happen. Learning takes place. Values are explored. Biases are uncovered. If at the end of it all, if the church votes yes, they still need to discuss what it looks like to actually welcome LGBTQ+ people into the body of the church.

It’s not enough to make a statement and hang a flag off the side of the building.

Having been hurt by leaders in the Catholic Church after Leo came out, which you can read more about here, I observed this entire process carefully. Of course, I wanted them to become an ONA congregation. But was that what they wanted? Would a group of mostly older church-goers vote to accept my children, and my family, into their membership? (I can’t join the church as an employee, but that was the measuring stick I used).

Because I am not a member, I wasn’t part of the process. However, as an employee who has two sons in the LGBTQ+ community, I did share resources to help as they worked through their steps. I prayed for the pastor and the congregation. For those who would vote yes, and for those who would vote no. I prayed the most for those who weren’t sure how they would vote. Who still didn’t understand what they were being asked. Who thought it was enough to hang the flag and extend the welcome.

When my kids have a desire to go to church and look to see what congregations closest to them will welcome them in, I want them to be fully received. I don’t want there to be people who give them the side-eye because they think they don’t belong. Or who believe those verses in the Bible that say they are less than or unworthy. I want arms stretched open and wide smiles that say,

“We are so glad to have you with us. We want you here.”

If you or someone you know wishes to attend a service at an open and affirming church, there are several ways you can find one closest to you.

  • keeps a directory of welcoming and affirming churches across the globe.
  • The UCC keeps a directory of their welcoming and ONA churches on their website. Even though not all churches on the list have gone through their ONA designation process, many still may welcome LGBTQ+ people. The ONA churches have a designation on the list.
  • Queer Theology has a great article about how to vet a church that you are considering to find out if it’s safe and appropriate for you. You can read that here.

The most important thing you can do is ask questions about any church you are considering. Who do they allow into leadership positions? (Do you see women represented well, or at all?) What is their policy on marriage? What about baptism and/or membership in the church? Do those policies include or exclude LGBTQ+ people? Do LGBTQ+ get to be ordained pastors at this church? Can they be married? Out and proud? These questions might sound ridiculous and unnecessary. However, the answers tell you everything you need to know about the policies of the church and over-arching attitudes of the congregation.

And remember, you can always leave. If it turns out the church you pick doesn’t feel like a good fit or says they are welcoming but isn’t, find a new one. My friend calls it church shopping, and it’s precisely that. You wouldn’t keep a pair of shoes that didn’t fit well and made your feet hurt. Don’t stay in a church that doesn’t want you there and makes your soul hurt.

Do you attend an ONA church or a Welcoming Congregation? Do you have any questions about welcoming (in the sense of we just accept everyone here) vs. open and affirming or a Welcoming Congregation? Or how to find a church that might better suit your needs? Feel free to drop them in the comments. Or you can email me. My contact information is in the About tab.

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